The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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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, July 29, 2019

Eve Laughed At Their Decision

Yes, the Christian symbols in Neon Genesis Evangelion mean something. Rei Ayanami is the key... but does the word of her creating god give us enough room to find our own meaning?

Content warning for discussions of rape, abuse, medical abuse, and heresy.

Neon Genesis Evangelion can be a confusing anime to get into. Featuring abstract plots, experimental film techniques, and layers of obscure Christian symbolism, it can be hard for a viewer to interpret the series and its multiple spin off films. Luckily, you don't have to, because geek culture has discovered a powerful technique for resolving interpretive problems: relying upon "Word of God", any interpretation handed down from the author.

Take the Christian symbolism in Eva, for example. What does it mean that the giant biomechanical suits piloted by the teenage protagonists of the series are called "Evangelions"? These Evas fight strange alien monsters called "Angels", so add that to the list of questions. They fight to protect the giant god-entity "Adam", which is nailed to a cross in the basement of the gigantic underground fortress that is the show's setting. Also there's a bunch of cross-shaped explosions everywhere. It's not what you'd call a typical mecha series. How do we make sense of this symbolism?

Well it turns out, we don't have to! Because Word of God says it doesn't matter!

Can you explain the symbolism of the cross in Evangelion?
KT: There are a lot of giant robot shows in Japan, and we did want our story to have a religious theme to help distinguish us. Because Christianity is an uncommon religion in Japan we thought it would be mysterious. None of the staff who worked on Eva are Christians. There is no actual Christian meaning to the show, we just thought the visual symbols of Christianity look cool. If we had known the show would get distributed in the US and Europe we might have rethought that choice.

Well that's a relief! And Hideakki Anno, the director of Evangelion himself, has said that he named the giant robots Evangelions "because it sounds complicated". Cool! Now, Anno was explaining that to literal children, but I think we can all take his answer completely seriously and learn a lot from it. We can learn a lot from Tsurumaki, too. In the same interview he says, of his other show FLCL in which robots burst out of the protagonist's head, that "I use a giant robot being created from the brain to represent FLCL coming from my brain. The robot ravages the town around him, and the more intensely I worked on FLCL the more I destroyed the peaceful atmosphere of Gainax." Well that sounds like a completely serious answer that requires no further elaboration! 

Word of God can really provide some brilliant insights. Let's keep going! Here's Hideakki Anno again:

"Evangelion is like a puzzle, you know. Any person can see it and give his/her own answer. In other words, we're offering viewers to think by themselves, so that each person can imagine his/her own world. We will never offer the answers, even in the theatrical version. As for many Evangelion viewers, they may expect us to provide the 'all-about Eva' manuals, but there is no such thing. Don't expect to get answers by someone. Don't expect to be catered to all the time. We all have to find our own answers."

Oh no, what? What have you done, Anno Sensei? We have to abide by Word of God, but God's telling us to figure things out for ourselves!

Well, I guess we'd better get started, huh?

And what better place to start than with the giant angel Adam and his counterpart in Evangelion, the angel Lilith. No, not Eve, but Lilith, a character from the extra-canonical bible lore. Lilith specifically shows up as Adam's first wife in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, where she gets into a fight with her new husband about whether or not she should have to submit to him sexually. She is, she points out, made from the same earth as Adam, and his equal. When he refuses to accept this, she curses out him and God and flies off to have a bunch of demon babies, the Lilin.

Those demon babies are, in the lore of Evangelion, none other than humans, the final Angel.

Let's back up a bit and try to explain the context that makes that last sentence less uh... outrageous gibberish I guess?

The show initially presents a fairly simple scenario. In a world brought to the brink of collapse by the catastrophic "Second Impact", teens piloting biomechanical Evangelions fight the alien Angels to protect the fortress "geofront" underneath Tokyo III, and the big god thing they've got in their basement. Ok, I guess that's not THAT simple, but boiled down you've got a layer of obfuscating bullshit over a standard monster of the week battle show. An Angel will show up and blow up some buildings trying to get to their target, the army will be helpless, the big robots will get launched, a fight will happen, a victory will be achieved (but at what cost?!).

Gradually this scenario gets rewritten, though. The Angels stop focusing on the straightforward goal of "get to Adam" and start trying to make contact with the pilots (with traumatic results). The Evangelions turn out to have minds of their own, and are more human than machine. Adam, the giant in the basement and progenitor of the Angels, turns out, very late in the game, to not be Adam at all but his counterpart Lilith, the progenitor of Humanity. Humans are the final Angel, the last survivor in a cosmic family squabble; Lilith's the one in the basement, and Adam was actually reduced to a pitiful embryo during the secretly human-caused Second Impact. Oh, and NERV, the organization protecting humanity, actually exists to nullify the threat of the Angels and then, that accomplished, immediately melt all of humanity into orange goo in order to return everyone to a primal state of unified consciousness. By the end of the series just about everything you thought you knew has been overturned, usually in sinister and bizarre ways, just in time for the whole series to collapse into an abstract experimental exploration of the psychology of depression and alienation.

Let's leave that psychological stuff aside for the moment and focus on every nerd's favorite subject: The Lore. Adam and Lilith are, as in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, equal counterparts. Adam is, if anything, a step below Lilith, given he ends up as a weird embryo stuck in the hand of the protagonist Shinji Ikari's shitty dad, whereas Lilith gets to be a weird crucified giant with a cool seven-eyed mask. This seems like a positive sign. Sure, Lilith in this doesn't seem to have such a directly contentious relationship with Adam--they don't exactly have much personality being a crucified giant and an embryo--but their status as equal antagonists whose children are locked in war seems to line up. It's just that in this the children of Adam are not humans but Angels, and humans are in the role of demons, Lilith's brood.

You could use that fact to write off the association as nonsense, but it seems pretty fertile to me. Don't humans behave a lot like devils in this series? There's all manner of abuse, codependency, skullduggery, murder, exploitation, and self destruction. Ultimately the Japanese Self Defense Force is manipulated into attacking NERV in an effort to prevent the orange goo apocalypse, an attack in which they refer to the Evangelions as demonic and willingly slaughter both NERV civilian workers and the teenage Eva pilots. All that seems reasonably devilish, and the demonic Eva's themselves have been, by that point, revealed as artificial, soulless humans. Lilin indeed.

We're kind of on a roll here and finding some productive parallels when we follow Mr Anno's Word of God advice, so let's keep going.

One character stands out as particularly associated with Lilith: Rei Ayanami, the first Evangelion pilot. Rei's not the protagonist of the show, and according to Word of God Anno wasn't really sure what to do with her, so I guess we're on our own interpreting her as well. That's fine, because once again we're given some pretty interesting stuff to work with.

Rei is introduced as the main counterpart to protagonist Shinji. She's in fact the damsel in distress that he must rescue. Get in the robot, Shinji's father Gendo Ikari commands in the first episode, or the horribly injured Rei will have to pilot the Eva instead. (Shinji gets in the robot.) Rei gradually becomes a friend and possible love interest for Shinji, as he works to convince her that she doesn't need to sacrifice herself for him.

Then, in one of the warped reversals the show is so fond of, it turns out that Rei is actually a clone of Shinji's dead mother Yui Ikari, an artificial human and, like the 17th Angel Kaworu, something between Angel and Lilin. In the movie End of Evangelion, she takes over the role of Lilith, entering the giant god entity and apparently usurping it, growing to a world-spanning spectral form to usher in the merger of all humanity.

The Lilith story provides a name for such a supplanting entity, taking over for Lilith: she is Eve.

Really, there's a lot of Eve in Rei. She is, like Eve, a passive creature more amenable to her creator than the defiant Lilith... or that's how it seems, at least. She was certainly created to serve as an Eva pilot, and to fill an emotional void left by Yui Ikari's death. She's also created in part to serve as the "Dummy System", an AI for the Evangelions that can overpower the pilots' will. There's a whole bunch of clones of her in a tank running the Dummy System, it's not great.

Rei thus starts out as the Eve of the Lilith story, and then gradually her role is deconstructed and the horror in Eve's creation as a mere extension of and servant to her creator surfaces. Once again, the distance between Eva and the mythological touchstone doesn't undermine the case but make Eva into a kind of commentary. The distance between the two is productive distance.

Evangelion isn't the first critique along those lines. Arguably it's possible to read the Alphabet of Ben Sira as satirically lampooning God and Adam with the Lilith episode. I'm not primarily thinking of that, though, but a scriptural tradition that turns much of the creation story on its head: the range of Gnostic interpretations of creation. Heretical texts, the various contradictory Gnostic gospels often share radically inverted assumptions about the universe. In texts like On The Origin of the World and The Apocryphon of John, God is a cruel tyrant who lies to Adam and Eve about Eve's subservient status, and casts the couple out of Eden in fear once they gain knowledge of evil--the evil of his false world.

Now THAT sounds more like Evangelion.

Core to many Gnostic sects is a radically different creation myth than the one traditional to Christianity and Judaism. In this cosmology--and stop me if you've heard this one before--all of reality emanates from a primordial source of godly stuff. From that source comes a series of creative Aeons, the most important of which, for our purposes, is Pistis Sophia. Now, Sophia makes a mistake and creates an entity called Yaltabaoth, a kind of cursed half-entity that declares himself the one true God and creates the material world. Realizing that she's messed up, Sophia descends into this flawed creation to undo Yaltabaoth's works and free the humans he creates to serve him. Her primary means of doing this, according to On The Origin of the World, is by sending her daughter Zoe or Eve to lead the human Adam into enlightenment by eating the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Core to this narrative is the idea of humanity as a series of vessels created by Yaltabaoth and his Archons, which Sophia ultimately fills with the light of the soul. Huh, that's actually a term we hear in Evangelion: Kaworu, a vessel for the power of Adam and the Angels, created artificially by humans, refers to the forcefield surrounding himself and the other Angels as "the light of my soul." Human Instrumentality, the collapse of all individuals into orange goo so that all consciousness can be one, involves collapsing that "absolute territory" or "absolute terror" field dividing us from one another.

What does that make humans? Well... puppets, I suppose. Or dolls.

Rei is frequently compared to a doll throughout the series. She is treated by Gendo in a strange, abusive, codependent way in which she has little agency. He might show her great affection, or might leave her alone in a squalid industrial apartment. He might at one turn rescue her from her berserk Evangelion, and at the next turn order her to pilot the Eva even though she's sustained horrible injuries. Rei is treated like a plaything, like something that exists purely to serve her maker's whim.

This is a fact noted by her fellow Evangelion pilot Asuka, who has her own grim history with dolls. It is revealed late in the series that Asuka has significant trauma from witnessing her mother commit suicide. Deep in a psychotic episode, her mother also hangs what she thinks is her daughter--a doll resembling Asuka. Asuka responds to her trauma (and the neglect from her father and her ostensible support system that perpetrated the tragedy) by pushing in the opposite direction from Rei. Rather than sublimating her own needs, she is willful, belligerent, defiant, and arrogant: a Lilith figure.

Asuka despises the doll Rei.

But Rei gradually undergoes significant growth of her own, realizing that she is not a doll for Gendo Ikari to use, no matter how much she might resemble the creep's dead wife. Not that it's a straightforward journey for Rei with no backsliding, mind. Her bond with Shinji also becomes toxic, and when the angel Armisael attempts to merge with them both, her fear of her own desires and her codependent need to sublimate her needs to Shinji's compel her to sacrifice herself, self destructing her Eva, herself, and Armisael.

And... then she's back. Miraculously, she's fine!

That's the public story anyway. Turns out NERV just decanted another clone, shuttling Rei's soul to another body, and covered up the previous Rei's death.

This unsettling chain of events highlights Rei's central struggle of identity alongside her struggle for agency. An artificial entity created to serve a series of abusive masters, split between a soul and body that seem only tenuously connected, Rei is crushingly alone and struggles to form a sense of herself that can withstand the violence inflicted upon her. The violence is substantial. Gendo and his second in command Fuyutsuki treat her as simultaneously an object that they can use to achieve their ends, and as a kind of facsimile of Yui, who they both loved, leaving her in a perversely exploitative relationship with them. Her relationship with women is not better. Asuka despises her, projecting her own trauma onto Rei and desperately trying to distance herself in the eyes of male characters from such passive victimhood. Head scientist Ritsuko Akage treats her as a monstrosity, an abomination that nevertheless supplants her in the eyes of Gendo (who uses then discards Ritsuko).

Rei's narrative, like the narrative of all the major female characters, is deeply tied to exploitation and sexual violence. Both Rei's encounter with the angel Armisael and Asuka's encounter with the angel Arael, which forces its way into her mind by way of a beam of scouring light, are portrayed relatively explicitly as sexual assaults. More insidious, however, is the way that the adults of NERV treat Rei's body as a mere utilitarian tool. The first hint that something is dramatically wrong with Rei comes early on when Shinji barges in on Rei naked in her apartment. That description makes the scene seem like a typical ecchi fanservice bit, but the scene drags on in silence for just a bit too long, accompanied by unsettling industrial machine noise in the background, and Rei does not react with comical modesty but with cold indifference. I'm tempted to say that like the humans in Eden, she has no modesty, but it's probably more likely that she has had modesty trained out of her by industrial, scientific, and professional systems of domination. She has been trained by the advanced biopolitics of NERV to treat her body as an object, because that is how everyone else treats it.

That's the beginning of our Eve's story, though, not the end, and while sexual assault is a deep part of Eve's story, so is transcendence beyond it.

Different texts and, in particular, different translations of those texts address Eve's story in varying levels of explicitness. Many have the bad habit of using descriptions like "defiled", but Stevan Davies's extremely helpful translation of the Apocryphon of John is explicit: Yaltabaoth rapes Eve. Specifically Yaltabaoth, or in Origin his various Archons, rapes her because he/they fear and hate her power, her ability to defy them and their system, and her capacity to lead others into enlightenment. This is rough stuff, and I'm sorry to have to go to such a dark place, but I also think it's important and insightful: the root of the violence against Eve, and against Rei Ayanami, is a need to assert power.

Moreover, it is ultimately unsuccessful. Both John and Origin are premised on the idea that Eve wins: humanity eats of the Fruit of Knowledge, and eventually her willingness to descend into a physical form, one in which she can be abused, allows her to completely undermine the schemes of the authorities. Origin goes even beyond this, giving a more detailed account of Eve's works, which begins with this line:

"Then Eve, being a force, laughed at their decision." 

I love this line so much it's been my pinned tweet on Twitter for a couple years now. Eve, a being of light that exists beyond the mere body her captors made for her, just sort of... exits the physical form and takes up residence for a while in the Tree of Knowledge. The body that is abused and exploited is just a body, just a kind of doll, not Eve herself.

And Rei, too, is more than the body created by Gendo Ikari, as she makes clear when he finally tries to use her to launch Instrumentality and be reunited with Yui. At the climax of the film End of Evangelion, Gendo and a naked Rei stand in front of the crucified Lilith. Reaching his weird Adam fetus hand out to touch her chest and then sink fluidly into it, Gendo seeks (I think) to merge with Rei and command the way Instrumentality will go.

Rei promptly snaps his hand off, absorbing it and Adam, and declares:

"I am not your doll."

When Gendo, handless, stammers out, "Why?!", she simply replies, "Because I am not you." She then ascends into the air and, noting that Shinji high above in his Evangelion is calling for her, greets Lilith. "I'm home," she says, and Lilith, in a silent text interstitial, greets her with "Welcome home," and absorbs Rei into herself, allowing herself to be supplanted by this new Eve.

She never outright laughs at Gendo--Rei's too understated a character for that--but it runs strikingly in parallel to the Gnostic Eve's story, and has a similar subtext. Rei and Eve are both more than their bodies, more than the dolls or tools that their creators made them, and have their own identity and autonomy. That revelation is what leads Rei!Lilith to ultimately allow Shinji and all of humanity to make a choice: to either stay merged in Instrumentality where nothing hurts but no individuation exists to give meaning to consciousness, or to return to a world of pain where humans can, nevertheless, form their own individual identities.

Rei's story is one of the most breathtaking arcs in Evangelion, a transformation from an exploited tool to an independent and powerful being capable of asserting her own autonomy and right not to be felt up by creeps or used to bring about the apocalypse or whatever. It is also one that clearly has profound parallels with Gnostic scripture, making the connections between Eva and this religious tradition more than mere aesthetic, but an actual site of meaning and profound insight.

At least that's what I think. Let's see what God has to say about our Eve:

Well, Rei is probably [the character] closest to my deep psyche. I don’t really understand her. … The truth is, I have no emotional attachment to her at all.
Even in the midst of making Eva, I suddenly realized I had forgotten her. Her very existence. In episode seven, I remembered, and added a single shot with Rei. I had no emotional attachment to her at all. I think that was fine, because she didn’t appear in episode eight, not even for a single shot.
Wow, Anno, that... that doesn't feel great dude. Jeeze. You know, I'm honestly starting to feel like... maybe Word of God isn't all its cracked up to be? I mean, if the reality that I can find in Rei's narrative goes against this Word of God where she comes across as a bit of an afterthought, why should God supersede my individual enlightenment?

I mean, it's not like the notion of flagrantly adapting stories to your own mythology is new. The Gnostics sure weren't shy about it, reframing the whole biblical creation myth to suit their inverted cosmology and distrust of God and an obviously cruel and flawed universe. It's something of a tradition for all sorts of Christians, in fact. The Byzantines loved doing this sort of thing: Jonah, spending time in the belly of a whale before emerging, might become a type of Christ, a presagement of the death and resurrection. Hercules might be appropriated as a type of Samson. This typology, where characters reflect each other thereby enabling the discussion of particular themes, virtues, philosophical concepts, and narratives, is a long established tool of readers and writers. I'm not sure why we would abandon it now, just because we get our stories through Netflix rather than through papyrus scrolls. (I'm on the verge of denouncing the Netflix dub of Evangelion as apostasy, anyway, considering it disguises how gay Shinji and Kaworu are.)

That's all art historical rationale, though. I wrote this not for Art History but for myself, because when EoE came out on Netflix I rewatched the scene where Rei tells Gendo she's not a doll like five times in a row. I wrote this because On The Origin of the World helped me find the strength to define for myself experiences previously defined by abusers. I can't rely on Hideakki Anno or the Gnostic Christians to define, by Word of God, what these texts mean for me.

I don't mean that the Gnostics or Anno are BAD, and honestly I think while the writing of women in Eva stumbles at times, the series as a whole has plenty of meaningful, deliberate explorations of female characters and their experiences. I wouldn't be able to draw so much out of the text in this way if it was pure aesthetic gibberish!

No, it's just that I don't want to cede my own ability to define my reading, to define my reality, for myself. Word of any particular God is not all its cracked up to be, not compared to making up your own mind about things, finding your own analytical path to truth. That's not to say you can learn nothing from such pronouncements, just, they're not the only truth out there. If Rei's story and Eve's story can help me heal and find strength and inspiration, hell if the other weird Christian nonsense thrown in can end up resonating with the other stories I know, whether or not Hideakki Anno has an emotional attachment to Rei and her story, or whether they "meant" for it to be Christian, just seems somewhat irrelevant--particularly when Rei's story is all about finding agency despite your creator's intentions!

I'm sure, of course, that not everyone will agree, and honestly there's not a lot I can do about that. I don't necessarily want my interpretation to be treated as gospel, either, after all, and there's other ways of reading Rei.

Whatever I do, I'm sure fans raised on the tradition of hyperfocus on lore, creator interviews, and series bibles will continue informing people, "Oh, don't worry about the cross explosions, they don't really mean anything. The creators said so. It's Word of God."

What can I do in response but laugh?

This Has Been

Eve Laughed At Their Decision

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Hill House Meltdown Theater Part 1

The Haunting of Hill House has this amazing quality curve where it goes from Shitty Prestige TV Bullshit to Actually Effective Horror to Hallmark Original Movie over the course of ten episodes. I had some Emotions about that, and recorded this podcast.

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