Q&A: Are the gods immortal? (Are we?)

Ben asks a question inspired by the science fiction writer Douglas Adams and his too often under-appreciated novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul:

What do you think about the gods being immortal?

As I see it, the old ones like Ra and Zeus and the river dragons of China all are immortal beings that are still a part of this world, but roam it like middle management, never getting any acknowledgement for the work they still do. We call them to help us and then they go back to their work, kinda like a waiter. In a “we call them and they come” mentality. Or somewhat slaves to our whims.

I know that this is a dim view of the mental state of the immortals and their working with us. What do you think? Am I overthinking things by imposing our mental, moral, and equality views on them?

It is a dim view, Ben, though understandable considering the bleakness of Adams’ humor in this novel. It’s not called The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul for nothing! In fact, like so much of Adams’ humor, the jokes come on so fast and are so densely layered with cultural references, they can be hard to tease apart. In the title alone, not only do we have a reference to the religious experience of lost faith and the obscurity or absence of the divine, but also to the peculiar cultural implications of “tea-time,” that quintessentially British custom built on a history of colonialism, imperialism obscured in the guise of unassuming domesticity. The title tells you everything you need to know about the themes pervasive in this book: it’s all about marginalization, exploitation, and the lingering (potentially redemptive) guilt it provokes.

Adaptation of "Tea Cup," by Dory Kornfeld (CC)

What’s curious is that, of all the gods Adams could have chosen for his book, he chose the Norse gods — gods who actually aren’t immortal, whose mythology includes a story about the death of the gods. According to some interpretations, Ragnarok (unlike many eschatological myths) concerns events that have already happened — and are always happening, and will happen again. In a sense, the Norse gods are already dead. Adams even makes passing reference to this in a scene when Thor explains himself to his mortal companion Kate while, off-stage, her downstairs neighbor plays Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”).

So let’s set aside polytheist theology for a second and assume that when Adams writes about immortality, he’s not actually talking about the gods themselves. Then what’s he talking about?

Back in grad school, I wrote a poem (this is related, I swear) that began with the lines:

This is your god: at the peak of the mountain, nothing but worms.

And ended with the line:

The horrifying fact that life continues.

There is a way in which we revel in our mortality, our finitude. We imagine that death — even if it does not offer us a literal heaven — can at least offer us an end, an ultimate escape.

I think that Adams’ book is about the “horrifying fact that life continues,” even beyond our ability to grapple effectively and meaningfully with the consequences of our choices. (Actually, I have a feeling most of his books are about this in one way or another.) One of the major themes of the book is how we marginalize and ignore those who don’t contribute “productively” to society in ways we deem acceptable — people with mental or physical disabilities, people who are old or infirm, people who are homeless, people who do not have the proper paperwork to obtain a passport or a credit card or an airplane ticket, people who are constrained in their ability to express themselves or communicate with others, even people who clearly possess extraordinary psychic abilities but that aren’t easy to exploit or control. What is most moving to me about the scene in which Thor laments the immortality of the gods is when he points out how people avoid making eye-contact with him on the streets. Kate asks, “Is this when you’re wearing the helmet?” (that is, the huge viking helmet with horns), and Thor replies, “Especially when I’m wearing the helmet!”

In another scene, the “holistic detective” Dirk Gently is stuck in a city traffic jam and gets out of his car to wander up and down the busy-but-unmoving lanes of traffic looking for the clue that his subconscious is smugly refusing to point out to him — when he is suddenly struck by the thought of the gods being like whales. He reflects how sounds carry so very far underwater that today there is nowhere in the entire ocean where you can escape the pervasive noise of motor boats and human activity. The whales can no longer hear each other singing. In other words, it is not the gods who are immortal and all-powerful: it is us. We underestimate our power, our ability to shape our world and the far-reaching consequences of our actions. And as a result, we drown out the song of the gods, without even realizing what we’re missing.

The bleakness of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul is its critique of our willingness to treat each other (and the gods) like vending machines, here to serve our needs. The person (or god) who can’t serve us is as useless and incomprehensible to us as a Coke machine with an “Out of Order” sign taped to it. It’s no coincidence that Adams portrays the gods as vagabonds who have to sleep in an abandoned train station, while the villains of the book are comfortably middle-class characters who use money to buy the luxury of ignoring “all the mess.” Luckily, I don’t think most modern Pagans actually treat the gods this way! In my experience, modern Pagans care deeply about equality and social justice, honoring the gods and other human beings with respect and generosity.

Whether our gods are immortal or not, whether they’re supernatural powers or manifestations of natural forces, I agree with Adams that the only real “solution” to the problem of marginalization is to stubbornly insist on paying attention — to pay attention even when what we see makes us uncomfortable, implicates us as guilty, or leaves us grief-stricken in despair. To pay attention to the unexpected and the impossible, to be open to the intimacy of the other and the strangeness of the familiar. If the gods are a part of our world, we owe it to them (and to ourselves, and to each other) to pay attention to this world and take it seriously. To honor even the worms on the peak of the mountain as essential participants in creating a world worth living in.

Have you ever experienced a “long, dark tea-time of the soul”? How did you cope with it? (And if you’ve read the book — what do you think of Adams’ portrayal of the gods?)


Have another question for the Q&A series? Leave it in the comments below, ask me on Tumblr, or email me.


Photo Credit:
• Adaptation of “Tea Cup,” by Dory Kornfeld (CC) [original]

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

7 Comments

  1. Danni
    Apr 9, 2015

    Gosh that was just incredibly well written. I’ve never read this particular novel of Douglas Adams, but I am familiar with his writing and humor. I love that the solution to marginalization is to “pay attention.” So perfect!

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Apr 9, 2015

      Thank you! I definitely recommend getting your hands on the book. :) It used to be difficult, since it was out of print and not as popular as some of his other novels, but I guess with ebooks and the internet’s “long tail” effect, it’s now pretty easy to find it online! I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but if you do read it, let me know your thoughts! What I take away from the book continues to change, and I don’t think Adams really offers any conclusive moral to the story, so what you get out of it might be really different. :)

  2. Ben
    Apr 9, 2015

    Alison, i have to admit that you pulled a layer of this onion that i hadn’t seen with completely open eyes. When I was looking in the other world you looked at this one. Also i believe that the original purpose my have been to point out the “holistic” quantum nature of our world.

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Apr 9, 2015

      the ‘holistic’ quantum nature of our world“… Oh yes, definitely! :) That’s what’s so wonderful about truly great books — you can return to them again and again and always find new and shifting meanings in them.

  3. El
    Apr 18, 2015

    We teach that there are three types of gods: the archetypes, the “old ones,” and us.

    The archetypes are those that we made up out of thin air, though they may be 1,000s of years old. They are our examples of love and heroism.

    The old ones are those who have once lived among us and are now gone.

    And lastly, there is us. You and I and your neighbor and the person reading this are collectively, God. ““‘Thou art God.’ It’s not a message of cheer and hope, it’s a defiance–and an unafraid unabashed assumption of personal responsibility.”

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Apr 18, 2015

      Thanks for this really cool perspective, El. Is that approach your personal one and/or specific to the Reformed Druids of Gaia? :)

      • El
        Apr 18, 2015

        Well, both actually. ;)

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