things I felt like writing

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November 12, 2023

Götterdämmerung. This German word is usually translated as "Twilight of the Gods," but my copy of The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, by Barbara G. Walker, says it should be rendered "Going-into-the-Shadow-of-the-Gods." It means the death of all the old Teutonic gods and their reabsorption by the Great Goddess Skadi, the Shadow, who was analogous to the Indian goddess Kali in that she devoured worlds and then gave them new birth. Like the Hindus, the ancient Germans believed that the universe was cyclical. Götterdämmerung was Doomsday.
      I've always been terrified of Doomsday. As a Catholic child, I learned in my catechism class that the world would end someday, and then God would line us up and judge us one by one. What scared me wasn't so much the idea of good people going to heaven and bad people going to hell; I was relatively confident that I was good enough to end up in heaven. But I was afraid--horribly, sweatily, heart-palpitatingly afraid--of the logistics of Doomsday, the actual last day itself, the physical cessation of all that I knew. I didn't want to be there to see it transpire. The way my teachers intoned "You can't run. You can't hide. God will find you," made God seem like the bogeyman. It sounded appalling whether I was going to heaven or not. The End of Everything was coming. I thought about it constantly. When I went through my astronomy phase, I learned that God wasn't the only one who had it in for us. The sun would eventually expand and engulf the earth, and that too would be The End of Everything.
      "You don't need to worry about it," my mother said. "It's not going to happen for millions of years."
      I didn't care if it wasn't going to happen for millions of years, it was still going to happen. That's what made me lose sleep at night.
      The Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death is all my Doomsday fears incarnated. It's apocalypse. On a barren landscape, under a sky darkened by the smoke of burning cities, the implacable dead herd the living into a tunnel or van that's going to cart them off to hell. People try to fight and hide and run away, but there's no escape, just like my catechism teachers said. It's a scene of absolute chaos and insanity. This painting has a very clear message: Too late! Don't bother pleading or trying to reason or negotiate with Doomsday. Don't try to think your way out. Give up. It's the end.
      The last couple of days have been frightening because things are changing so fast. Osama bin Laden claims to have nuclear weapons, and the Northern Alliance has taken Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul with an almost ominous ease. More coalition troops are heading for Afghanistan. More anthrax has been found in the Senate. This morning, another airliner crashed in New York. As I sit here listening to the fighter jets patrolling overhead, I can't help thinking about Doomsday. The reports of the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif said that about a thousand Taliban soldiers--Arabs, Pakistanis, and Chechens--refused to surrender, vowing to fight to the death. Very Doomsdayish. And In the November 10 edition of the Los Angeles Times, there was an article about the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef. When asked if he was a moderate, he scoffed and said that there was no such thing as a moderate member of the Taliban. Only "imbeciles" thought that.
      "If the [Afghan] men are finished," he said, "the women should take up the fight. If they are killed, the children should fight against America until we all die."
      The last time I wondered if Doomsday were near was April 25, 1980. It also involved the Middle East. I was in the library at my high school in Stavanger, Norway, when a girl named Mary Sneed ran in and yelled "The U. S. has invaded Iran! The Russians said they're going to take action!" It was the failed American attempt to rescue the hostages being held by the Iranians, but we didn't know that until a day or so later. At the time, all we knew was that a military operation was underway in Iran, and the Russians were upset about it. For the rest of the day, our teachers suspended regular classes and vented their own fears. I remember my history teacher saying, "I expect to see mushroom clouds popping up on the horizon at any second." That didn't help my jittery nerves much. For the next week, I dreamed of nuclear holocaust every night.
      Adolf Hitler was a big fan of Götterdämmerung, as he proved with his theatrical suicide in his bunker a week before Nazi Germany surrendered. Osama bin Ladin is allegedly in a bunkerlike cave, which is appropriate considering the parallels between Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism of the type practiced by bin Laden and his followers. Both appeal to a sense of having been wronged by the world; both hearken back to a glorious, romanticized past; both are virulently anti-Semitic; both are rabidly nationalist; both are aggressively militaristic; both rely on charismatic leaders with a gift for oratory; both are misogynistic; both claim that their rightful place on the world stage is being denied them by a conspiracy of malign forces; both radically reinterpret and distort ancient religious texts or tenets; both believe in slavery; both force the individual to sublimate his or her needs to those of the state; both are preoccupied with the purity of bloodlines; both have the stated aim of conquering the world; both are antidemocratic; both see themselves as coming from a warrior tradition; both see themselves as morally superior to their weak and corrupt enemies; both believe in early and strict indoctrination; both call for state control of all aspects of life; both celebrate peasantry as the ideal human condition; both have a willingness to fight wars of annihilation; both are racist; both hate art; both hate education; and both are obsessed with spectacular martyrdom that will inspire future generations to take up the cause.
      But Hitler didn't have nuclear weapons. I hope bin Laden doesn't either. I became aware of the word Götterdämmerung when I was seven years old. I saw it in a comic book, of all places. This one was about the German zeppelin attacks on London during the First World War. The architect of the zeppelin raids was Captain Peter Strasser, who was portrayed in this comic with an arrogant Van Dyke beard. On the night of August 5, 1918, he flew over to bomb London with the L70, a black-painted zeppelin almost seven hundred feet long and eighty feet in diameter. It looked like a gargantuan, evil whale cruising in the moonlight. The focus of the comic then shifted to a party, where these two dashingly handsome Englishmen were drinking champagne with slender blond women in satin evening gowns. When the air raid sirens went off, the two Englishmen ran out and got into their Model A or whatever it was and rattled through the darkened streets to the airfield. They put on heavy fur-lined flying coats over their black tails-and-tie evening wear and took off in a biplane to meet the zeppelin.
      I found out later that while this comic book had a pretty accurate take on the night's events, it made the two Brits a lot more handsome than they actually were. The real men, Major Egbert Cadbury and Captain Robert Leckie, were rather ordinary-looking. Plus, they were at their air base at the time of the raid, not a party. That was just more dramatic license. For some reason, I find it very moving that the real Major Cadbury was from the chocolate-making Cadbury family. I had my first Cadbury's chocolate soon after I read this comic. My family lived in Venezuela, but we went to Miami in the summer for medical and dental check-ups and to experience life outside an oil camp. Miami was a magical abode of exotic foods such as the Cadbury's chocolate-covered biscuit my father bought me one day just because. It was delicious.
      Back to the comic book.
      Cadbury and Leckie climbed above the clouds and intercepted the L70. As they flew in close, Leckie fired his machine gun from the plane's rear cockpit. The narration explained that the Germans used highly flammable hydrogen gas in their zeppelins to provide the lift; to exploit this vulnerability, the British developed incendiary ammunition for their guns. Leckie's bullets set the L70's hydrogen cells on fire.
      "Captain! We're burning aft!" a German crewman in the command gondola shouted.
      The next panel was filled with Peter Strasser's face, drawn in lurid red, yellow, and orange as if he were being lit from below. His pointy moustache and beard made him look like the devil. He was grinning horribly as he said, "Then that means... "GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG!"
      I didn't know the word, but I figured it out when the L70 crashed in a huge ball of flames, killing Strasser and his entire crew.
      The last frame of the comic showed Cadbury and Leckie trudging away from their plane after they'd landed back at the base. Their heavy flying coats were unbuttoned to reveal their elegant evening wear, and they had cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths. Their faces were black from gunpowder smoke except for around their eyes where their goggles had been. In this final image, they looked terribly sad and resigned yet full of that stiff-upper-lip British resolve. They'd done an awful thing, but they'd done it to protect people who were otherwise defenseless. They'd had no choice. Above all, they'd taken no pleasure in it.
      I guess it's funny that a comic book provided me with one of the most powerful depictions of the horrors of war I've ever seen. Funny or not, I've never forgotten what I'm sure the artist was trying to say: War is ugly and ghastly and a total failure of human potential, but sometimes you have to fight anyway, even if you'd rather be doing something like drinking champagne with beautiful women.
      In the current period of seeming Götterdämmerung, I try to remind myself that if the universe is indeed cyclical, maybe we're on our way to a rebirth. Maybe we're on our way to a better world.

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