nthposition online magazine

Dobeliou and Caliban

by Joe Palmer

[ opinion - july 04 ]

Who is the Potter, and who the Pot?
- Edward Fitzgerald, The Rubáiyát

 

The French press are calling GW Bush "W," as in English, and spelling the name Dobeliou, as in Dominique Dhombres' article "Errare Humanum, Persevervare Diabolicum" in Le Monde, 25 May, 2004. To err is human, but to keep on making mistakes is devilish, he wrote.

Listening to the President speaking, I heard a similarity between Dobeliou's extemporaneous speech and Caliban's diction in Robert Browning's dramatic monologue "Caliban Upon Setebos" (1864), in which Caliban describes and rationalizes his world as he imagines it to have been created and is now ruled by his god Setebos, a Jehovah-like figure. In this way Browning ridicules the doctrine of creationism, which recently had been refuted by the work of Darwin and Huxley. Evolution is not a theory.

Caliban speaks about himself and his little world, a miserable monster mired in mud. At two removes, in the third person, at a distance as if he were a scientist examining his surroundings, he describes a distorted view that too-close inspection brings, not seeing the forest for the trees. Dobeliou speaks at two removes from his subject also, but like a poor student, unsure of his lesson, ill prepared, at pains to recall what he is supposed to say.

In Shakespeare's play The Tempest, Caliban is a feral, sullen, deformed human somewhat like a bearded fish, an untamed, vicious denizen of the natural world, son of the witch Sycorax, and servant of the noble wizard Prospero. He lusts after Miranda, the nubile daughter of Prospero, the magician who taught him to speak, who says of him that Caliban is "a devil, a born devil on whose nature/ Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains/ Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost..."

This observation about Caliban reminds me of Dobeliou, whose years at Yale seem to have been wasted. One would think that he should at least have learned to read newspapers in college. Dobeliou doesn't act stupid. It's not an act. He acts intelligent, like Caliban. He does not remind me of the gadfly Ralph Nader and of Alfred E Newman, the star of Mad Magazine, who famously ask "Why do we choose our president from just two people, but Miss America from fifty?"

Prospero commands the lesser creatures of his little island, as is his duty as wizard. He is a dove of peace, a Cristoforo Colombo, even though the Christian message is not explicitly stated in the play. Prospero conjures only for the furtherance of love and justice. He tries to bring other creatures up to his level of compassion and understanding. Caliban, in contrast, wants only to kill or dominate.

Caliban sees his creator as an extension of himself; his notion of God does not include the ineffable. Setebos, Caliban's god, is a demiurge, a god of the palpable world only, a god of Caliban's mind, who in his ignorance does not know any greater god. He sees only his god in what he touches.

Religion is not the issue here. I do not wish to impugn any man's religion, especially not Caliban's; no one in his right mind would interfere with another's peace of mind and bliss, as Joseph Campbell called the inexpressible joy that a believer knows, except in self defense.

Americans never used to inquire about a person's religious beliefs. It was a taboo subject, like sexual preference or annual income, rude to mention and nobody's business. We pretended on the face of it that such differences did not exist, a consequence of the pursuit of happiness, and of the principle of the separation of church and state, which was intended to put a lid on madness and manipulation by any clergy, to keep the humbug in its cage. The provision that there shall be no laws respecting religion means that "religious," enthusiastic groups have to keep to themselves, holding their delusions -- their collective madness, their tribal identities -- like rotten eggs apart from other people. But when they start telling people how to vote or whom to marry, they have to be ignored and neglected, or better yet be made a laughing stock, a focus of derision, as I am trying to do here.

Religion is nonsense. It is real and valid and worthwhile and necessary, but it is nonsense, collective delusion. We must treat it as such. And "that old-time religion" is a slaves' sham:

Work and pray.
Live on hay.
You'll get pie in the sky
When you die.

To use religion as a political tool is reprehensible. A right-wing cabal uses religion as an excuse. Dobeliou goes to see the Pope. Then bishops threaten to withhold communion to those who do not obey them, a form of blackmail. Their refusing to administer sacraments warps time: we are back in an age before the Reformation. Savonarola and Torquemada should be living at this hour. [Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) a fortune-teller and puritan, preached that sinners deserve to be killed. Tomás de Torquemada (1420-98) invented "thought police."]

If priests are told to meddle in politics, and if the pastors of the multitude of Protestant sects tell their congregations to vote for G. Dobeliou Pinocchio, the "American Religion" will overpower humanism, and Jefferson's democracy will be found only in history books, remaining merely a nice idea.

The motto of "Caliban Upon Setebos" is a line from Psalm 50: "Thou thoughtest that I was such a one as thyself," in which Jehovah tells mankind that he is wrong to ascribe human qualities to Him. In the psalm (composed by the musician Asaph, not by King David, by the way), God says to the wicked: "You consort with thieves and adulterers, and you speak deceitfully against your brother. You sinned, and you thought I was like you, but I kept silent. Now I'll show you how wrong you were. If you forget Me again, I'll tear you to pieces! But I will show the salvation of God to him who watches what he says and thereby shows his humility." That is Jehovah, the God of gods, speaking.

Caliban's religion is a religion of sacrifice and penance. It is 9/11 on the island when disaster strikes, when a storm interrupts Caliban's prattling, "the wind/ Shoulders the pillared dust, death's house on the move, / And fast invading fires begin! White blaze.../ His thunder follows!" And consequently Caliban fasts for a month, lies low and tries to love Setebos, so that he may escape His wrath. He admits no guilt.

Caliban's puny science supports his puny religion, a human-scale religion, an absurd weakening and shrinking of the Deity, God as a tribal god, the kind that makes the thoughtful become agnostics and atheists. Given a big-daddy God who is an extension of mankind, thoughtful people stop trying to infer His existence from His handiwork, the natural world, because that task is impossible of achievement. Nature doesn't give a damn. Creationism, the notion that matter, life, and the world were created out of nothing, makes no more sense today than it did in Victoria's day. Here is logic for you: concerning the phrase "under God" in the "Pledge of Allegiance," atheists should not object to that which does not exist; they do not object to "liberty and justice for all,'' which do not exist either.

The subtitle of the monologue is "Natural Theology in the Island," giving the listener the key word natural, that is, reason unaided by any special personal knowledge or revelation. The Naturalism that Browning decries is Caliban's realistic description of his little world and his projection of that extremely limited world onto his conception of God.

Browning presents for ridicule the limitations of the popular "scientific" rationalizing of nature, miracles and religion, as is found in The Higher Criticism. The Higher Criticism, as compared to textual criticism, calls into account the larger meaning and cultural significance of texts. German Biblical scholars in the "Bibel-Babel controversies" applied Hegelian principles to Biblical history, and so provided generations of divinity students with words to study. The Tübingen School, Schleiermacher, Renan, and Eichhorn are links to this topic.

Thomas Hardy, a contemporary, wrote in "The Respectable Burgher On 'The Higher Criticism:'"

Since Reverend Doctors now declare
That clerks and people must prepare
To doubt if Adam ever were;
To hold the flood a local scare...
And (but for shame I must forbear)
That -- -- [Jesus] did not reappear!...
All churchgoing will I forswear,
And sit on Sundays in my chair,
And read that moderate man Voltaire.

If scientific laws are adequate to account for all phenomena, then God is merely a superman. Of course, demythologizing explainers of the Biblical events are still among us, looking for the Garden of Eden, and trying "prove" the existence of God, confusing mankind and the natural world with [G-d] This Quiet, The Uncreated, which is beyond and antecedent to all, even Setebos, who "Looks up, first, and perceives he cannot soar/ To what is quiet and hath happy life."

This essay is not about the cabalistic John Birch Society, that Opus Dei of the Right that would replace humanistic law with Biblical law, the New Dominionists, or the "Bushitic Fascisti" as they are known in Canada, or their coup d'état in +2000 (CE), nor about their business ethics and so-called Christian morality, their compassionate conservatism, crony capitalism, evangelical code words, right-wing federal judgeships, their funding of "faith-based" groups, nor their withholding money for family planning and scientific research. Nor is it about the fact that the secular state is under siege, with even the military laying siege to itself: a General Boykin telling a congregation "...our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christians (sic)... and the enemy is a guy named Satan," and a Captain Ouimette explaining that our problems stem from the fact that "old cultures are threatened by the deicide [!] our way of life presents. That is why they have branded us the Great Satan. We don't understand theocracy and extremist societies. We have separation of church and state."

No, this essay is about uncovering a politician's intentions in spite of his lies. Dobeliou, for example, is a smooth customer who does not have to act to seem sincere, unlettered, and trustworthy. He is the perfect choice for a front man to sell the product. He doesn't even know he is lying. His incompetence seems to be proof of his sincerity. By practicing carefully in front of his teachers he has learned to parrot their basic beliefs, and to treat those beliefs as facts, and he can now repeat syntactically whole the utterances written for him, almost. President Bush, like a preacher, only asserts what he is supposed to say, part of the grift.