It’s the end of the world as we know it

The World's End

After talking about Rashomon in my last post I thought it would be appropriate to discuss another movie that’s been on my mind lately. So I was reading this post over at The Secret Sun, and usually I don’t read the comments but I happened to be skimming them. Someone mentioned they’d recently watched the third installment of the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, but said they didn’t get the ending. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out so I decided to re-watch it.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

It’s no secret the Cornetto Trilogy films are, among other things, about Englishness in all its folly and glory. They’re not subtle about it. But unusually for pop culture, there are more layers of symbolism than are evident upon first viewing, particularly in Hot Fuzz and TWE. A lot of people seem to hate on TWE but story-wise, it’s the most complex and most pointed of all the Trilogy.

The ending and the point of the movie seem pretty obvious to me, but in fairness I must admit with embarrassment that when TWE came out, I completely missed the Arthurian parody/homage even though they specifically mention it in the dialogue (obviously I didn’t read any of the reviews like this one, either). The movie came out in 2013 and it turns out to have been really prescient in light of Brexit–I mean, if you had watched this film right before the vote you would have been able to predict which way it would go. Indeed you might say that re-watching TWE was kind of a personal sync for me in light of, oh, everything that has happened on the global and European stages this year, and indeed Chris Knowles’ speculations in that very Secret Sun post that prompted the re-watch in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The basic plot of TWE is about a group of men who decide to re-attempt an epic pub crawl they failed to complete 20ish years ago. This project is at the behest of their dissolute but charismatic man-child/leader, Gary King. In the process they discover an alien colonization in the old hometown, which they defeat at the cost of all civilization on Earth.

The Matter of Britain

The Arthurian parody/homage is evident first in the characters’ surnames: (Gary) King, (Steve) Prince, (Oliver) Chamberlain, (Andy) Knightly, and (Peter) Page. They are on a quest to get in their cups, and what is the Holy Grail if not a cup? (Its usual depiction in Arthurian stories.) You can find lots of other little nods but I’ll stick to the main points.

The alien colonization, which has resulted in the imposition of a homogenized, globalized sameness–or “Starbucking,” as the characters call it–on the local culture, is akin to the Romanization of Britain. Sure, it’s clean and peaceful and superficially pleasant (but other than that, what have the Romans ever done for us?!), but there’s no depth or color or diversity. Just as Tacitus said of the Romans, these aliens “create a desert and call it peace.”

Gary doesn’t defeat the aliens so much as severely disappoint them. His drunken give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death bombast is the final straw that convinces them humans are just not worth the trouble, barbarians who can never really be civilized. So they withdraw, leaving behind a shambles and ushering in the Dark Ages.

Everyone settles down into a less-civilized, more chaotic, but indeed more free, form of their earlier lives. Steve and Sam finally get together; Andy and his wife repair their marriage and “[go] organic in a big way”; the original Peter and Oliver have been killed, but their Romanized alien android clones carry on in their places. Gary assembles a band of decommissioned Roman soldiers androids and goes around pacifying the unruly countryside.

So on this level, TWE is a loving poke at the mythic roots of Britishness itself. It’s interesting that whoever created this aspect of the story chose to portray a more historically-probable version of the Arthurian mythos, with Arthur as a Dark Ages warlord dealing with internal political and cultural divisions rather than a medieval monarch ruling over a chivalrous Camelot or a proto-Welsh chief defending Britain from Saxon invaders. It’s probably a pretty accurate view, albeit a lighthearted one, of post-Roman Britain. It was also a smart way to frame the narrative since it allowed its juxtaposition with the other story-within-the-story…

We want to be free to do want we want to do!

…which basically is “Britons will never be globalized.” I say “Britons” here because while Hot Fuzz is very much about the English, the Arthurian elements pull TWE out to a slightly wider scale. It’s still, in many ways, a very English view of Britishness, but it is a bit more inclusive.

At this level we have the aliens–an interplanetary “network” of right-thinking races joined together for the greater good–having decided that humans are finally worthy of joining. They have tried to make the integration as unobtrusive and seamless as possible by starting with a small English town; residents are given the option of conforming with the blah sameyness in return for safety and technological progress, or being killed, mulched, and replaced with android clones. In a particularly ironic twist, they even take people’s DNA from that most cherished icon of British life, a pint of ale down’t pub.

When Gary and his friends unwittingly uncover the aliens and fight them, the Network gives Gary, Steve, and Andy an audience. They explain the plan and all its “benefits” (“you are children and you require guidance”) but Gary demands that humans be free to do what we want any old time. The aliens give up on us and depart, destroying all our technology and ushering in the apocalypse as described above.

This part of the story portrays Britons as so passionate about their sovereignty and uniqueness that they will literally destroy themselves, and possibly everyone else, to defend them (“we’re more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could ever imagine”). Even if the majority of the UK were happy to belong to the European Union Network, even if it brought real benefits to many, even if the tipping point were some cack-brained numpty acting out of entirely stupid and self-serving reasons, ultimately the British will prove un-globalizable, un-Starbuckable. And so Britain might be the thin end of the wedge that spells the end of globalization (and maybe all civilization). See what I mean about Brexit?

out of order

It’s interesting that a number of people seem to find TWE sad. I think the ending is extremely optimistic. It holds out the hope that humans will reject the frictionless samey desert-called-peace and learn again to treasure that local ale with the surprisingly fruity note that lingers on the tongue; and that no matter how badly we fuck up, we keep on being stupidly, beautifully, chaotically creative. And kind of noble sometimes, for all our barbarity.

As Gordon White has been at pains to point out for some time, Starbucking is a very real phenomenon and we owe much of it to Silicon Valley’s vision of a “frictionless” “world without sin.” Inevitably there are financial and political elites encouraging this for their own reasons (ahem TPP/TTIP), but I would suggest that Google and Facebook algorithms designed to feed our old searches back to us, drawing the noose of parochialism and confirmation bias ever tighter–the Starbucking of our minds and hearts–is a more immediate threat. We can get strawberries in winter, mid-century quasi-industrial Scandinavian minimalism from Malaysia to Milan, and money from a plastic card. All wrapped up in a nice little package of scientistic materialism and faith in Progress. It’s just so dang comfortable–now “aesthetic homogeneity is a product that users are coming to demand” (source)–that it probably will take a self-destructive idiot of the Gary King variety blowing us all to kingdom come to reset us.

We haven’t left the Tricksters much else to work with, after all.

To arms, to arms

True story: For a while my parents considered naming me Boadicea.
Fun fact: For a while my parents considered naming me Boadicea.

Recently there have been a handful of calls to arms in the magical blogosphere, which have stuck in my memory because they resonate with an urgency I’ve been feeling. It’s time to get to work.

The first place I encountered the call (other than in my own mind and heart) was Josephine McCarthy’s blog. You may know that she has been developing an entire course in magic called Quareia. Back in February she wrote:

“…I was not planning originally to have [Quareia] apprentices working on anything but themselves and their immediate surroundings. But over this last year, powers that are out in the world have gathered to polarise heavily and this is playing out through the barbarity we see in the near east, the corruption of our own officials, and the general blights of poverty and cruelty that are marching across our planet with such power and speed.

“So maybe it is time while writing the last module, to put the apprentices to work magically. Through the module on destruction, the apprentice will learn first how to spot real destructive power (it is not as simple as it sounds) and then they will learn to take action. No one magician can stop what is happening, but collectively, small but powerful magical actions done in a focused and knowledgeable way can start to halt and then turn the tide.”

Hmm, interesting. Then in June, Rachel Izabella counter-cursed a transphobic preacher who declared his intention to basically psalm-magic Caitlyn Jenner to death (which, by extension, is a threat to other trans* people who, if they crossed this preacher’s radar, would likely get the same treatment). The counter-curse is an ongoing project. This preacher may just be one guy, but if he is calling his fellows to the fight, then maybe it’s time we started mustering our fellows against their ilk.

Clearly, that post has gotten others thinking about their own line in the sand, the crossing of which would prompt them to action. Just a couple days ago, Kalagni wondered why it is that more magical folk don’t seem to put their magic to work on the big issues?

“…I challenge all of you, to find some injustice in the world, something big, something beyond your life, your neighbourhood, your city, something so big you’d never think of trying to fix it. Then make a plan, find a specific element in this injustice, and make a magickal plan, figure out how to attack it, how to shift it, how to heal it. Piece by piece we nudge the world toward a better place, we make change more possible, we make it easier for those of us working on the mundane to succeed to improve these things.

“…this is raw, desperate, but targeted magick, trying to throw a wrench in the gears of a systemically corrupt status quo, and bring some good into the world.”

Now, I am all for rolling up my sleeves and getting to work, though at this point I don’t have much skill or knowledge to bring to bear. Still, it has often been commented that when one is planning a magical working, it often seems that the “effects” start manifesting before the “cause” has been enacted. So maybe even just bringing our minds to bear on magical action for a better world starts the wheels spinning. Or even more likely, the wheels are already spinning, and that works on our minds.

But there’s one thing that has often stopped me from applying magic in what is customarily called “practical” ways, and that is the fact of limited vision. We as embodied humans cannot see all the pieces in play in any situation. It’s not that I just trust “higher” powers to take care of me without me doing any work, but even just from my human perspective, I can look back on my life so far and see many episodes where my limited view caused me to make a really dumb decision or would have, had it been in my power to decide.

Mistakes are part of magic, like anything else. And you don’t get on this path because it’s easy, safe, or secure. But if one habitually acts from a relatively short-term and narrow point of view, one gets caught in an unending cycle of screwing up and then scrambling to clean up the mess, in the process only screwing it up even more. (This is pretty much the story of civilization, by the way, which is why I don’t believe in “progress.” But that’s a tale for another day.) If one is lucky, it only effects you and not the rest of the planet.  The potential of getting trapped in that cycle is always there. To break free of it and change things at a level where it really counts, it seems to me we need a bigger perspective. That, I presume, is why there has always been a mystical current in magic, and also why we practice divination. Otherwise magic would be like giving guns to a bunch of toddlers. So, you know, about like 21st century America.

I woke up early this morning, not by choice. It is a rare luxury for me to have time by myself to think, so there I was, thinking hard about this issue of well-directed magical action. Or at least, I thought I was awake and thinking. As it turns out, I wasn’t really fully awake. When I did wake up I realized I had been in a hypnogogic state all along…and as is so often the case in that state, some weird shit went down.

I found myself, uh, thinking? dreaming? about how nice it would be if the magical community could cut some evildoers–say, the Koch Brothers–off at the knees. As I was imagining? (dreaming?) what that might be like and what bad dudes those guys are, I heard in my mind’s ear a sort of combined roar-growl, something like the sound an angry big cat makes. At the same time in my mind’s eye, something flew at me. It only lasted a split second, but the message was clear: Do not go there. I have no idea who sent the message. Was it my guardian angel or an ancestor saying, do not even think about it, grasshopper? Maybe it was my own better judgment. Maybe I had slipped into pure dreaming for a moment. Hell, I wouldn’t put it past the Koch Brothers to have magical wards up to keep out even the wandering minds of half-asleep apprentice sorceresses. (They wouldn’t be the first corporate bad guys to do that, from what I hear.)

So make of that what you will, but it sent my mind off in a different direction. I then thought, what if the Koch Brothers and their ilk are part of a necessary balancing destructive force? (I strongly doubt this by the way, but I still think it’s a useful thought exercise.)

(Sidebar. This line of thinking would probably make more sense if I told you the background context, but it’s a long story so I think I’ll save it for the next post. So if you’re especially interested in my new acquaintance with universal destructive powers, or if this post sounds crazy, you might want to read the next one.)

In light of these questions about magical action for the general betterment, I thought the latest post at Circle Thrice was interesting. Ivy writes (my emphasis):

“I’ve heard it suggested that the reason there are copycat crimes is that the original criminal gives other’s [sic] ideas. But I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s that evil is contagious, just the same way that violence or panic is contagious in a mob. There are currents of violence and destruction just as there are currents of cooperation and love. When someone taps into a particular current, others find it easier to tap in as well.

Destruction always seems cruel when you’re on the pointy end of the stick. I don’t like seeing baby antelopes die, but I know lions gotta eat. How does one know when the destruction is part of establishing natural balance at a scale too big for a mortal to perceive or understand, or even just an inevitable cyclical eschaton, versus when it is out of place and time and, to put it in Kemetic terms, contrary to ma’at? (Or as I like to call it, wrong or bad.) And even when one is confident of the need to take action against evil, where does one best apply force?

These are questions I am not qualified to answer. I am still learning to walk in magical terms, and any effect I could have on the abundant nastiness in the world today would be pretty small. In a way I get a chuckle out of me asking these questions at all, because I swear I came into this world banging a gavel with one hand and pointing the finger of shame with the other.* When I was a little kid I had few friends because I was a narc. I was not only a tattle-tale, but a self-righteous one at that. If I couldn’t stop someone from wrongdoing, I took it straight up the chain of authority to someone who (I thought) could and would. I mean, I thought that’s what adults were for. Bullying particularly pissed (pisses) me off. When my mom suggested that maybe I might want to dial it back a little, I said in high dudgeon, “But how are they supposed to face the consequences of their actions?!” I was six. My name, in the more popular translation, means “Defender of Men” (as in humans; the Greek is gendered like the English). The less popular, but I’m told more accurate, translation means “She Who Wards Off Men.” Most of the stuff in my horoscope is in the 8th and 9th houses and my whole chart is ruled by Jupiter, the planet of Justice.

Point is, I’ve never been able to identify with the white-lighter crowd because my own experience tells me some people are born to walk right up to badness and slap it across the face with a glove. It doesn’t go away because you turn your back on it–we’ve tried that. But we have to work smart, not just hard–and it’s never too early to start the reconnaissance mission.

*Technically I came into this world asleep.