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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Evil Be Thou My Good, or Why Dirk Strider Is Literally Satan

Homestuck was a Gnostic story. The Homestuck Epilogues are a satanic one. Dirk Strider is the devil. To understand, we'll have to consult a poet who's of the devil's part: John Milton.
I love a good villain song. Or rather, a bad villain song, I guess. A really great villain song is charismatic, captivating, even seductive. You hear it and know you should hate the singer, but you're kind of impressed by all the drama and pyrotechnics.

There's just a certain delicious quality to Scar, for example, accompanied by demonic hyena stormtroopers marching and the ground erupting in volcanic excitement, announcing that the listener had better "Be Prepared." There's something invigorating and maybe even kinda hot about Robert in Kamelot's Silverthorn scornfully announcing that "you will kneel before me, and you will confess that I'm God!" The dark power of Pink's transformation into a fascist dictator in The Wall comes partly from the mocking rhetoric of his song when he appears before his audience in a new guise: "So you thought you might like to go to the show... well, I've got some bad news for you, sunshine... we're gonna find out where you fans REALLY stand!"

And, of course there's that song which so perfectly captures the villain song aesthetic in just the title alone:

"Sympathy for the Devil."

Part of these songs' appeal is their glimpse into the plans and psychology of the villains. They act often as monologues in which we get crucial information about what the villain hopes to achieve in their scheming, and what motivations drive them to the evil deeds they do.

Sometimes the villain song gives away more than intended, though. Even "Sympathy for the Devil" suggests that good old Lucifer might be more insecure than he'd like to think. Bragging so much about his wealth and taste, threatening to lay your soul to waste if you don't flatter him sufficiently? Yeah man, nothing fragile about that. Sometimes we even get a solid view of the warped logic that drives these characters. Pontius Pilate in Kamelot's "Up Through The Ashes" prevaricates and ultimately finds ways to free himself of responsibility for ordering Christ's death, and through this portrayal the song suggests his ultimately self-serving nature: "Before I let you die, you must forgive me." Frollo in Disney's version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (RIP) betrays hypocrisy and a deep cognitive dissonance between his lust and his sanctimony, dissonance that can only be resolved through the destruction of his obsessive object.

And, of course, there's the absolute master of warped logic: Satan himself, in John Milton's Paradise Lost. What is Satan's monologue at the beginning of Book 4, as he talks himself into perpetrating the Fall of Humankind, if not a villain song just begging for a bitching symphonic metal accompaniment? It's certainly got everything we could want in a villain song. Satan announces himself as damned, but plays to our sympathy. Was it so wrong to desire more, to desire a greater role in Creation? Now, he's cast out, in a Hell of his own making, one that goes with him always. He bemoans this fate and his position within the narrative, but then turns around and begins rationalizing: could he have done any different? Isn't it in his nature to become a villain? He was made too powerful by the attainment of his Ultimate Self through the mastery of his aspect of Heart and now has no choice but to embrace his drive to be the villain, no matter where it leads him.

Oh, wait, sorry I'm looking at my notes and realizing that this isn't actually the summary of Satan's monologue in chapter 4 of Paradise Lost but Dirk Strider's monologue in chapter 41 of the Homestuck Epilogues: Meat.

Can you really blame me, though, for the mistake? The two monologues are easy to mix up. A fair bit of my summary up there could just as easily describe Satan's monologue. The only thing that doesn't really fit is that Satan's mythological role is Prince of Hope not Prince of Heart!

Otherwise, there's a lot of parallels. The two monologues function quite similarly within the narratives of their respective stories. Both feature their satanic figures sitting down, after being confronted with their villainy, and really having a deep think about their actions. Both reveal themselves to be tortured and miserable, but both ultimately rationalize that misery into a reason to keep digging the hole deeper. By the end, they embrace their villainy with enthusiasm and determination.

That's part of the tragedy of these two characters. They both have an opportunity--when Satan sees the sun rising over the newly formed earth and is stunned by the beauty he plans to destroy, and when Dirk is confronted by the rage of his friends--to take a different path. They instead refuse to admit that they've perhaps fucked up, so they must keep going for the sake of their masculine pride. Yeah, I'm saying Milton's Satan has a toxic masculinity problem. Satan, you're cancelled!

There's some wider parallels worth considering as well. I've established previously that Homestuck is a deeply Gnostic story, about escaping from a corrupt reality ruled by a deranged god to the freedom of "post-canon." The Epilogues support this reading, being explicitly beyond canon and part of a continuum of alternate possibilities no longer ruled by the tyranny of Lord English and his Alpha Timeline. In contrast, the structure of the Epilogues is Miltonian. The kids have attained Eden, but there's a serpent or two lurking. One of them is even a literal giant snake monster, so, that's not even subtext really. This is the story of a paradise that turns to shit, and influencing those events are new narrators who work somewhat differently than the old Demiurges. These narrators, Red Calliope and Ultimate Dirk, influence through the invisible force of the authorial voice, whispering suggestions in the ears of the characters, tempting them one way or another. Dirk is overtly manipulative; Red Calliope is more subtle and self-deluding about her manipulations. Both serve as serpents in the garden.

There might be something we can learn about Dirk, then, by juxtaposing his own villain song with Satan's.

The two monologues open with a rhetorical play for sympathy. Dirk and Satan are both going for pathos here, though it's important to remember that both are playing to an audience primarily of themselves. Satan's opening lines are a beautiful exhortation speaking to the sun of this new pristine earth:

O thou that with surpassing Glory crownd,
Look'st from thy sole Dominion like the God
Of this new World; at whose sight all the Starrs
Hide thir diminisht heads; to thee I call,

But the monologue quickly swerves from this seeming praise, and Satan curses the sun for reminding him of the station that he has lost in his rebellion:

But with no friendly voice, and add thy name
O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;

Try not to get too caught up on the punctuation and spelling of Paradise Lost, by the way. Both are buck wild and I sometimes struggle to make sense of what he's saying, too. Think of it like Milton's troll quirk, if that helps.

This is kind of interesting to me as an opening because it's a structure we see another serpent employ in the Epilogues:

Red Calliope here is making a point about narration and rhetoric. Just like Satan, she opens with a seemingly positive ode to a thing, only to abruptly change perspective and throw the reader off balance. Aradia, Red Calliope's pupil, summarizes the move:

It is kind of like a mean prank. But it's also a great way of destabilizing the reader, a way of calling assumptions into question.

Dirk does this too. He opens his monologue by asserting that the declaration by Jade at the end of the last chapter--"DIRK STRIDER HAS TO BE STOPPED!!!!!!!"--is right. He DOES have to be stopped. It's as obvious and true as the light of the sun.

But it's not because he's bad, he says. There's a double reversal taking place here, just as with Satan's monologue: an unexpected agreement with the "good" side of the narrative, and then a swerve back to the satanic perspective. That perspective is self-absorbed and self-pitying. Satan and Dirk both see themselves as tragic heroes, cast out of heaven for the sake of their ideals. Dirk explicitly describes himself as such, naming himself a hero and claiming that it would be impossible to make everyone happy while also questing after his ideals of... well of what exactly? It's a little unclear what his ultimate plans are, but they seem to involve taking control of the narrative to make everything run properly, make the trains run on time from a literary perspective.

There's a lot of back and forth just in this opening, and the reversals and contradictions will continue in both monologues. They don't follow a path of formal logic, but that's ok, because neither Dirk nor Satan are interested in some abstract mathematical correctness. They are interested in destabilizing their audience enough to be persuasive, to make the rhetorical case for their villainy. And remember, they speak primarily to an audience of themselves.

From here the monologues don't follow the exact same structure, because they don't have the exact same narrative context. Satan spends a number of lines bemoaning his "Pride and worse Ambition" which "threw him down"--and note the passive voice there, as though pride and ambition acted independently and made him rebel! There's also a bunch of stuff about debt that is pretty interesting, but not very relevant to Homestuck. Sorry, Milton, but I'm going to basically be skipping over that bit.

The parallel part for Dirk covers the sad inevitability of his conflict, which is a point Satan's going to make as well. Free Will is a central question here. For Dirk, free will is both the factor that necessitates his intervention, and the force that makes his villainy inevitable. "If reality and those within it were already so intrinsically pliable, so amenable to deviating from their own nature," Dirk expounds, "the sins of men and faults of God would have no rigidity or resilience. There’d be no challenge in forcing their correction." I mean, that's a pretty fucked up way to talk about screwing around in the brains of your friends, but Dirk's pretty far gone at this point.

What's interesting here, though, is the way both Dirk and Satan place great emphasis on free will, while also being a little bit ambivalent about it. "Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand?" Satan asks of his fellow high-ranked angels. If they did, why did he fall? What in his nature led him down this path? Satan dithers a lot on this, and Dirk does as well. These are points where we get those glimpses of unintended clarity that I love so much in a good villain song.

Take Satan's speculation, for example (I've broken up the lines a bit for the sake of clarifying Milton's buck wild punctuation):

O had his powerful Destiny ordaind
Me some inferiour Angel, I had stood
Then happie; no unbounded hope had rais'd
                Yet why not? som other Power
As great might have aspir'd, and me though mean
Drawn to his part; 
                            but other Powers as great
Fell not, but stand unshak'n, from within
Or from without, to all temptations arm'd.
Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand?
Thou hadst: 
                    whom hast thou then or what to accuse,
But Heav'ns free Love dealt equally to all?

Be then his Love accurst, since love or hate,
To me alike, it deals eternal woe.

Nay curs'd be thou; since against his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.

Our boy is all over the place here. Maybe he wouldn't have fallen if he hadn't been so powerful! But probably then he just would've followed some higher angel who would've taken his place. It's inevitable! Except, all the OTHER high rankers used their free will to stay loyal, so what's wrong with him? Well, we're back to it being God's fault again: the love that led God to create Satan made him evil, so fuck God and his love anyway! And fuck me.

Our boys here are struggling with the fact that they know they fucked up, but they don't necessarily want to admit that they fucked up. For all that they're freely announcing their villainy, they're both pretty cagey about admitting responsibility. Satan is created by God's love to be a certain way, and Dirk was predestined to be a villain "from the day I was spawned from a puddle of slime." Can they really be held responsible? Can they bear to be?

There's an extent here to which they're playing for sympathy, that old sympathy for the devil. And you know what? It kind of works! Anyone who's felt completely and utterly shitty about themselves can probably empathize with Satan here:

Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?
Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;

And we all know that Dirk has struggled to escape himself all his life.

Myself am hell indeed.

Dirk is deeply mentally ill and he has combined his constant rolling mental health crisis with godlike powers and with a breakdown of his own individuation as the memories of his alternate possibilities flow into his own brain. His monologue, like Satan's, is a way of creating a rhetorical logic to rationalize fundamentally irrational, self-destructive actions driven by self loathing.

Is there no way out?

Well, Satan lets one suggestion come to mind. He could just... repent. He could call off his mission to fuck up the new paradise, and just say he's sorry.

It's not a bad idea. I mean, it worked for Gamzee Makara.

Gamzee, in the Candy epilogue, is brought back from his literal fridging, and immediately announces that he has been redeemed. He's having, in fact, an entire Redemption Arc. That arc never actually happens, per se, he just announces that he's having an Arc and everyone seems to sort of leave it at that. Gamzee, of course, is still the manipulative, abusive, murderous clown he was since the moment he had his first divine revelation and became his own mirthful messiah; he just now coats everything in, well, candy. And milk. So much milk.

Gamzee has hit on the Belial method of solving your cast-out-of-heaven problems. Belial shows up in the second book of Paradise Lost, proposing a pretty similar strategy to his fellow fallen angels at their democratic council in Hell. The second book is probably my favorite in the whole poem, what with it featuring a bunch of different demonic personalities, all with their own uniquely shitty perspective on the world. Mammon can't see a difference between gold plated streets in heaven and gold plated streets in hell, Moloc just wants to self-annihilate in the most destructive way possible, and Belial... well, he's not enthused about hell, and really doesn't want to start another war, and maybe, just maybe, he's got a scheme for getting back into heaven:

                                                This is now
Our doom; which if we can sustain and bear,
Our Supream Foe in time may much remit
His anger, and perhaps thus farr remov'd
Not mind us not offending, satisfi'd
With what is punish't; whence these raging fires
Will slack'n, if his breath stir not thir flames.

Belial, like Gamzee, doesn't give two fucks about actual redemption, but he hopes that he can play the part well enough that it won't matter. After all, he points out, there's always a chance that hell, like Homestuck, could always get worse.

Can hell get better though? As with Homestuck, if it hasn't already, it probably won't, and neither the other devils, nor Satan, nor Dirk Strider are putting much faith in the possibility. Not that it matters what the other devils think, mind: Satan has already decided what their plans will be, so the whole council is a sham, Satan letting his followers play at democracy. That should also be familiar to Homestuck readers, what with the numerous games and interactives that don't really meaningfully alter the story, and with the total dominance of the epilogues by satanic narrators. One thing that seems to be consistently true about satanic figures is they can't abide to live in another narrator's story.

Even if he could repent and return to heaven, Satan declares, he would look like a fool in front of all his demon bros. Satan is admitting a certain level of cowardice here, and Dirk struggles with the same cowardice, though Dirk specifically berates himself for being too cowardly to commit suicide. You've got to be pretty deep in a hell of your own making for that line of thought to make sense, but there it is.

What it comes down to, in the end, is their nature. 

But say I could repent and could obtaine
By Act of Grace my former state; how soon
Would higth recall high thoughts, how soon unsay
What feign'd submission swore: ease would recant
Vows made in pain, as violent and void.
For never can true reconcilement grow
Where wounds of deadly hate have peirc'd so deep:
Which would but lead me to a worse relapse 
And heavier fall: so should I purchase deare
Short intermission bought with double smart.

We've come all this fucking way to wind up back at the start. Dirk and Satan take a long hard look at themselves, decide they really don't like what they see, and then decide they can't possibly be any different than what they are, so they'd better just double down as hard as they possibly can. "I'm owned, I'm owned!" they shriek as they continue to do the things that will curse them to crawl on their bellies.

What's more, they do so in a pretty self-aggrandizing way. Once again Dirk asserts that the only reason he's like this is because he's just so important and powerful. Of course, I think we have ample reason to distrust Dirk's assessment of himself. His declaration that he is some Ultimate version of himself doesn't line up with prior discussion in the comic of what an ultimate persona might be. Davepeta does not declare themself the "Ultimate Davepeta," instead stating that the breakdown between the barriers of the mind that separates one consciousness from all the other timelines a person might exist in has led them to UNDERSTAND their ultimate self. This timeless and bodyless persona is not something you become but something you always already are, an entity that an individual version of oneself might come to philosophically reconcile with:

Dirk seems to think that just means bumping up another anime power level. His embarrassingly transphobic response to things like Roxy's exploration of gender, though, suggests he remains deeply insecure about alternate possibilities for his own persona:

So Dirk, like Satan, has made some major philosophical missteps. What I'm suggesting the juxtaposition of these two monologues reveals, though, is that those missteps might be motivated by a need to turn away from the full reality of their personal failings. If Dirk is confronted with countless versions of himself and his memories, while also clinically depressed, it makes sense that he would accentuate the worst parts of himself and, in response, whip up this whole convoluted logic to justify not grappling with the overwhelming flaws he perceives in his own character.

We can see this in the liberatory conclusion of Satan's own monologue:

So farewel Hope, and with Hope farewel Fear,
Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good; by thee at least
Divided Empire with Heav'ns King I hold
By thee, and more then half perhaps will reigne;
As Man ere long, and this new World shall know.

So how much sympathy should we have for these devils? It seems pretty clear that their logic is contorted and warped, and deliberately so. They are rhetorically giving us the run-around, reversing course so many times and throwing in enough sidenotes that it's easy for their audience (us as readers, or the characters themselves listening to themselves drone on) to lose sight of the way they've already settled on the conclusion they're striving to reach, begging the question furiously.

That doesn't make them unsympathetic, however. These stories are ultimately tragedies, stories of fatal flaws that lead to fatal errors in judgment. It wouldn't be a tragedy if there was nothing to admire in Satan and Dirk. It's already been said that Milton is of the Devil's part; the same is probably true of Andrew Hussie to an extent. And both do a better job of explaining the ways of the Devil to man than of God.

Where this explanation and sympathy comes through, though, is not primarily in the text of these monologues but the subtext, the emotional reality of the characters, the way they latch onto some topics while avoiding others, the way Satan uses passive voice to describe his fall, or the way Dirk abruptly mentions Dave as someone who could have done a better job with this narrator's power, then just as abruptly swerves away from the subject. These are monologues haunted by the possibility of having been different, and Milton, bless his heart, doesn't really do a great job of resolving why, exactly, things WEREN'T different for Satan. That gets into the Problem of Evil and deeper questions about whether you can have free will at all with an all-knowing God, which are more fundamental fissures in Christian dogma which Milton can't resolve. Dirk, though, is rebelling against the more abstract notion of the story not being written right, with people acting ways he doesn't think they should--a view he shares with both Calliope and John. 

pip d describes Dirk's fall into this solipsistic denial of his friends' agency as a community failure, a failure of the characters in Homestuck to challenge each other to be better. Part of that might mean taking seriously the pain that lurks subtextually within Dirk's monologue. To think through the problems the monologue presents means cutting through the bullshit reasoning in order to truly find a way to have sympathy for the devil.

This Has Been

Evil Be Thou My Good

1 comment:

  1. It is also interesting to note that Satan's excuse for continuing being evil is Dirk's main conflict of Heart - "i am who i am and i can't escape myself, so i am doomed to do all the things i do because i am myself", or, to simplify, "i am a shitty person and there is no way to change it, so i will not even try".


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