In Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), the mystical, all powerful “sandworm” of Dune’s desert planet is understood to go though a life-cycle transformation from a fish-like “Little Maker,” which creates the Water of Life — something I have always read as quasi-religious — into a masterful, climate-changing and in many ways even politically and economically-important giant worm. The life-cycle also produces a hallucinogenic product, spice; sacred to some, profitable to others. The relationship to the worm by the two major peoples of the planet — the native Fremen, who practice a sort of shamanistic co-existence with the worm, its Water, and spice, and the colonizing non-natives who sell spice for profit and fear the worm as a shepherd fears the wolf — is a not-so-subtle analogy to the various colonizing commercial enterprises of the world’s history. Spice could be tea in India, rubber in the Belgian Congo, poppies in Burma, tobacco in Virginia, molasses in the West Indies, cotton in Mississippi, buffalo on the Great Plains, Ivory from the Coast, diamonds from Sierra Leone, coffee in Kenya, spermaceti, ambergris, and blubber from whales in the Pacific, gold from El Dorado. Since it is both fictional and allegorical, I have always taken a few liberties with the “pure science” on which the later Dune novels expound. In using the metaphor “between fish and worm,” I have never worried about Herbert’s actual (sometimes downright terrifying) explanation of the metamorphic process of the giant sandworm (any more than I focus on the “Try-Works” or “blubber” chapters of Moby-Dick). I have instead seen that part of humanity has always been focused on the fish (interestingly enough the common early Christian symbol) aspect of nature; its sacred, transcendent and life-giving character; and another part of the human population has always been focused on the worm — the product of man’s ingenuity to wrest power from nature, like oil from the deep waters or coal from the mountains or energy from the wrenching of the atom into parts. Unfortunately, I read Dune when I was twelve or thirteen years old. I missed most of the important parts. But I continue to describe myself as “between fish and worm.”
If a New Atheist of the Hitchens/Dawkins/Harris school had heard me discuss the Documentary Hypothesis in Comp. Religion class yesterday, they would have cheered me on. Tell it, sister. Explain to these twenty-somethings that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 tell two different creation stories with two different timelines. Expose The Flaws and bury the superstition. And I would have turned on them with a vicious growl. I love That Book. And for a moment the People of Tennessee would have cheered me; would have been proud that I was defending my “religious liberty” to assert Christian values in this increasingly secular, hostile-to-Christian, progressive America (which Needs To Be Made Great Again). And I would have turned on them with a vicious growl. I am not asserting Christian values; I am explaining a biblical hermeneutics based in a faith that pre-dates Christianity, in a language I can’t read and have to trust to several thousand years’ of translations into languages that didn’t exist when the stuff was written down.
And so everybody would be mad at me. I would have growled at ninety-six percent of America.
Some people reassure me that I am not as much of a minority as that fake statistic might suggest. That there are plenty of people — perhaps not as vocal as Bill Nye (worm) and Ken Ham (fish) — who sit with me in the difficult and subtle place between extreme views on everything from science, religion, philosophy, immigration, capitalism, the euro, security, refugees, compassion, free trade, civil rights, eschatology, and the Art of the Deal. Only a few ever tell me this, though, and when I press them — breathless, excited that I have found a fellow pre-worm…metamorphic, potential — they invariably slip into one established political place or another, usually preceded by a confidential, “I mean, of course I…[don’t want to pay ridiculous taxes/understand the need for security/don’t trust the NSA/am pro-choice] …” and even though the conversation has begun with two of us swimming in the pre-spice pool where fish becomes worm, they have emerged, either God of Fish or Emperor of Worms.
That’s probably not entirely true. It may just be that they lack a language appropriate to expressing the subtle pre-spice mass. After all, I have had to resort to a freakish SF novel for the expressive tools; what are most people going to do? The media, God bless their little hearts, have only given us so many ways of saying What We Believe. Are you a Socialist (a Bernie)? Are you a Real American? Do you support Family Values? do #BlackLivesMatter? Pick a bumper-sticker, people, we haven’t got all day.
Some of the phrases appall me. In the recent controversy over Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Bill I heard the phrase “natural marriage.” (That’s a lot like an artificial sweetener being touted as “all natural.” I’m looking at you Truvia. Botulism is all-natural too. So is tetanus.) By definition, marriage is an anthropological, cultural invention. Look. I am, as Bart Giamatti famously said, too old to be a deconstructionist. I don’t use the phrase “cultural construct” as an insult. It is a phenomenon. Humankind invented marriage. Just like they vulcanized rubber and threw sheep’s stomach into milk to make delicious creamy protein-rich tasty cheese. And harnessed fire. And invented the wheel, and calculated pi. It’s all good. But none of it is “natural.”
Of course nobody thinks about it like that. Four or so years ago I sat through an otherwise delightful production of Winter’s Tale at the Shakespeare Theatre in residence at Drew University. And Act IV went by at an alarmingly speedy pace, and by the time Act V began I realized that they had skipped the Great Creating Nature dialogue. At the talkback with actors and director after the performance, I waited until after people asked the actors how they had learned all those lines and what did the bear mean, and raised my hand and said, “You skipped Great Creating Nature.” The director — who was younger than many of my socks — said, “You noticed that?”
Hell yes I noticed it.
He turned to the audience. “For those of you who probably don’t know what she’s referring to,” he said, “there is a long dialogue in Act IV about gardening. I suppose it’s interesting if you are a horticulturalist.”
Shunte Lofton as Perdita and Philip Lehl as the King in The Winter’s Tale, Stark Naked Theatre, Houston, TX, 2014. Photo by Gabriella Nissen.
He left in the dirty although recondite Elizabethan jokes about Tawdry Lace but cut Great Creating Nature because it’s about HORTICULTURE?
For those of you who probably STILL don’t know what I’m talking about, the King of Bohemia (disguised) and the orphan Perdita (doesn’t know she’s a princess) have a conversation about what she will and won’t grow in her garden. She tells him she won’t have hybrids. He says, but they are beautiful. She says, but they are the work of Man, not God; Art, not Great Creating Nature. And he says but, my dear, you yourself are a work of God and Great Creating Nature and therefore anything you create is by extension natural. And, he adds, beauty is increased by diversity; by mixing the pure stock with the grafted hybrid. (Of course he won’t feel this way when he finds out his Princeling son wants to marry this grafted hybrid slip of a girl, but he’ll be OK when he finds out she’s pure root stock.)
They never settle the dispute. It isn’t resolvable. It is one of the great questions of the humanities — Art and Nature; where is Beauty? Do we make Sistine ceilings dedicated to the glory of God’s Creation or do we smash stained glass and whitewash frescoes in the name of iconoclasm; smashing false idols, golden calves, graven images? English Protestants in Stratford-upon-Avon, led by a reluctant alderman John Shakespeare, whitewashed churches; called the Bell, Book and Candle of the Papist Mass “hocus pocus” (hocus est in corporo et…) and shunned the gravings of men. As Perdita wanted to. Is something lesser because it was created by Man, if Man is in fact a product of Great Creating Nature? And where do we draw the line? Is a hybrid OK when it gives us better, heartier wheat but monstrous when it gives us Monsanto corn? (You all realize I start the unit on Frankenstein this afternoon?) Are social constructs OK when they make marriages and contracts and tax shelters, Wills and Testaments and Estate Planning, but not OK when they make blended families, adoptions by gay parents, gender reassignment surgeries?
Everybody still with me?
Another example. A few weeks ago a California public school was sued over the use of Yoga practices. The Fish argument went like this: If we can’t even say the Pledge of Allegiance, if we can’t pray to the actual God in public schools, then by gum we cannot pray to mystical weird Hindu gods and say “Namaste.” Then the Worms went crazy. Oh. My. Non-Denominational-Being, they said. (OMNDB?) It’s flipping Yoga. It’s meditation. It’s cultural diversity. Get your Christian heads out of your Christian asses.
I hate them both.
They’re both right.
Yoga IS a religious practice, and “Namaste” does have spiritual meaning, and it does refer to a deity that is demonstrably different from the one most ethical monotheists (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) worship. Therefore, the crazy fish parents are correct. It does not belong in a public school. Frankly, it doesn’t belong anywhere where people are using it merely to “center themselves.” I compare that to a bunch of vegans marching into my Roman Catholic church and asking if they can have some of our little wafers because they look like they’re probably gluten-free. Back off, bitch. It’s the Body of Christ.
Humor break: If Gandhi did Yoga (best line, “Bitch, you do realize this is my actual religion, right?”)
But the Worms are correct too, because the fish parents really didn’t give a crap about they fact that people are passing Yoga off as some kind of neat carb-burning activity. They actually are afraid of their little darlings being corrupted by exposure to the weird mystical Hindu gods. (BY THE WAY, THAT’S NOT WHAT “MYSTICAL” MEANS.) And that’s just plain xenophobic, but it doesn’t make them wrong about it not belonging in public schools.
Oh, so you are a fish, standing up for traditional Christianity in public schools.
So you are a worm, defending free expression and cultural diversity and opposing xenophobia and hate and fear of the Other.
I am swimming alone in the pre-spice mass, neither fish nor worm. I have no power. I do not possess the sacred Water of Life nor the awesome Shield Wall of Science. I have no friend here. I may be consumed by my own planet, alone with the dead souls who wrote dialogues about Great Creating Nature and the Created Man. I too, like the Creature, have no mate. Spice, it is said, is a narcotic; it can cast a pale-blue haze over your eyes and you forget the world.