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Odin’s Pep-talk

You may have got the sense recently that I disapprove of mixing of mythology and politics, especially eschatology and politics. Mythological ideas about the end of the world have not always made great contribution to political thought but that doesn’t mean they can never make positive contribution. So, for today’s, blog entry let me give you the pep-talk that, like me, is coming out of retirement. I used to give this talk back in the 90s when my friends and I were fighting against ozone depletion, climate change, mainstream politics, big corporations and the arrayed forces of capitalism. I like to think of this talk as something like Odin’s pep-talk.

Odin, for those of you who aren’t familiar with his work, was the All-Father, chief of the Norse gods, who presided in the halls of Valhalla amongst gods like Tyr, Thor, Loki, etc. Odin was a pretty worried guy because he was responsible for the other gods and for the world they protected. He and his comrades protected this world from the ice giants, fire giants and the other monsters, monsters who were always on the march.

Odin is sometimes depicted as a huge, authoritative, worried man seated at a banquet table not touching his food. He is worried because, according to the Norse, it was prophesied at the beginning of time that the world would end in the battle of Ragnarök, between the gods and the beasts. According to the prophecy, the gods will lose the final battle: Loki, the traitor to the gods and leader of the giants, father of some of the monsters, will lead the giants to the Bifröst Bridge. There, he will slay Heimdallr, guardian of the bridge, charged since the beginning with preventing the giants from crossing it and entering Asgard, land of the gods.

Asgard needed to be guarded, not just to protect the gods and their hall, Valhalla but to protect a chain created to restrain Loki’s most monstrous offspring, Fenris the Wolf. But according to the prophecy, not only would Heimdall’s death allow the giants to storm across the bridge and plunder Valhalla; it would allow Loki to untether the wolf, who would swallow the sun and bring all creation to an end. While Christian eschatology guarantees ultimate victory for the forces of life, light and goodness, the eschatology of the Norse guaranteed that one day, the sun would be swallowed, the gods would be vanquished and the world with them.

Because of Odin’ knowledge of the prophecy, he is shown as a valiant yet worried man with a raven on each shoulder, and his constantly vigilant single eye, the other sacrificed to obtain wisdom. This wisdom, I would like to suggest, did not imbue Odin with fatalism but instead with a sense of vigilance and urgency. Odin leaves his food uneaten and mead un-drunk, not because he is paralyzed by his knowledge but because it forces him to constantly plot his next move. The certainty of Ragnarök placed one clear moral imperative before him: if the world was going to end inevitably, his job was not to save it but to keep it ending for as long as possible.

Every day the world does not end and people can drink, dance and have children, Odin wins; the gods win; creation wins. And this, I believe, is the mission of those fighting for social and environmental justice today: to keep the world ending as long as we can, to fight back every day, to buy the world another day, another hour, another second. When the ravens fly into Valhalla and tell us where the giants are today, that is where we have to go. Because every battle we pitch between them and the Bifröst Bridge buys the world and its people more time.

I find something exhilarating and empowering about that. Maybe we will buy very little time in the next battle but I am convinced that that the act of struggling against the forces of capitalism always makes a difference, always adds another unexpected or unwanted delay on Loki’s march to the bridge and gives dozens, hundreds or even billions of people a little extra time. If you really believe that life is sacred, that life is the most precious thing, you know what a few more seconds of life are worth. Maybe you will get hurt fighting the giants every chance you get; sometimes we will be too tired to fight; and that is okay. My point is simply that this struggle and the continuity of life are one in the same. The sun rises because Fenris has not swallowed it; and that is because we keep fighting the giants.

Unfortunately, thanks to the legacy Plato, Descartes and other philosophers who emphasize ideas of perfection and eternity, we have got this crazy idea that unless a victory is final and total, it is not a victory. In other words, any actual victory that takes place in the real world doesn’t count. And so we are cast into despair by the inevitably imperfect nature of our next victory. This is a way of thinking a way of living that disempowers us. There is no final, total victory. The earth is running out of steam; the sun is running out of steam; we are only going to be around for so long, anyway. But every second that we extend life on this planet matters.

Now is not the time to lose heart. Now that the northern polar ice cap has vanished, the giants can pretty much see the bridge from where they are. So let’s sharpen our swords and ride out from Valhalla over the bridge to meet the giants once again. At least, that’s how I like to think about, to quote Ken Kesey, getting back in the hassle.

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