Thom Nickels: Affliction, Morality, and Liberation
Author: Edward Truth
December 28, 2012
“Like it or not, we live in Apocalyptic times. Most people today—if you ask them over coffee or a glass of wine—will agree that something ‘big’ is going to happen to the world soon.”
How many of you are there? The answer used to be easy. Pre-web logic told us we had one identity, one life, and that all our actions had consequences that shaped the here, the now, and the destiny of that one identity. But life in the digital hinterland offers up brand new views of sequence, morality and mortality.
Take identity proliferation and sex. Managing web presence is a balancing act of expression and suppression—our personal and professional hats are on constant rotation. Hyperconnectivity allows us to explore desire like never before, and the ephemeral quality of online interaction lends itself to greater risk-taking and deep-rooted self-examination. We enact the sex to represent a particular identity, while at the same time the sex act constructs an identity for us. But all eyes are watching and sometimes the darker self becomes an aberration, as experienced by Dennis, the main character of SPORE (StarBooks Press), a novel by Thom Nickels [Nickels is also the spirituality editor of the Lambda Literary Review].
Intent on inhabiting all sexual worlds, Dennis unwittingly embarks on a journey through deep psychosis, forsaking his loved ones and leaving him vulnerable to the scourge that waits. The world of SPORE reflects a dystopian reality where violence and disease wage war against humanity. An insidious parasite is set loose, taking the form of a growth that disfigures the host. Those who suppress their latent sexuality are the prey. If you can afford to have it removed you live, but if you can’t you’re destined to lose your humanity forever—the ultimate punishment for skirting the status quo.
Implicit anxiety around sexuality, sacrifice, religion and reciprocity suggests an unresolved territorial dispute between the physical body and what lies within—an analysis perhaps best left for Foucault or Bataille, but one that begs the question: What makes us human and when are we more than human? Just as the spore is capable of giving rise to a new individual, the judgments, superstition and insecurities of the primitive mind invariably shape our destiny.
Thom Nickels is currently working on a book called Legendary Philadelphians and his double feature, Walking on Water & After All This, will be available in paperback early 2013. Recently Nickels and I took a short walk through the magic realism of SPORE, the apocalypse, and the changing identity of religion.
Introduce us to the main character of SPORE.
In my twenties, I used to waste a lot of time cruising the streets of Philly in the pre-dawn hours. One night I [came across] this guy. With such persistence he asked me, “What are you—a missionary for homosexuality?” His question hit a chord. We agreed to meet later for a kind of date, but when the time came he showed up with a Bible so that he could preach to me. As it turned out, he was part of an ex-gay ministry. Dennis, the main character of SPORE, assumes an evangelical manner, only he’s a real missionary for homosexuality. He becomes an “ordained” 700 Club-style street corner preacher and warns of dire consequences if those with repressed gay tendencies don’t learn to embrace same-sex experiences. The consequences of self denial and repression in this case are growths of a broccoli-like tumor, which can appear all over the body—even as protrusions from the buttocks. In a worst case scenario, victims can turn into trees. Dennis discovers his “powers” on the island of Oahu near the (Buddhist) Valley of the Temples. Since prophets are rarely listened to, Dennis’ life becomes a comedy of errors in Philadelphia, where his street mission begins.
What inspired the “magic realism” of SPORE?
The magic realism of SPORE was inspired by my early childhood love of miracle stories, the lives of the saints, mystics, hermits, Carlos Castaneda, the novels of Roland Firbank, and the non-fiction works of Jane Roberts (Seth Speaks). I like to call my novels Epics; it’s a carry-over from high school when I used to entertain classmates with monthly Epics or encyclicals that told stories about my friends and people in school, only in fantastical type situations. In addition, I’m fascinated with books written by religious figures that go on to change the world, where the text or story goes beyond epic into the scriptural. Had Joseph Smith of Mormon fame written a novel instead of a faux New Testament epic [The Book of Mormon] about early American civilizations, that novel would have been forgotten long ago.
Let’s talk spirit. We’re digging deeper than ever into the space between visible objects, grasping at faith and philosophy to answer questions about the life before and the hereafter, as well as the life right here in front of us that we can’t see. What does anything matter if we keep disconnected from the metaphysical?
Like it or not, we live in Apocalyptic times. Most people today—if you ask them over coffee or a glass of wine—will agree that something “big” is going to happen to the world soon. We don’t know what this something is, but it is coming. George Orwell was certainly a prophet; we see much of the reality he predicted coming true today, especially in the United States with the slow erosion of civil liberties. Whether it’s the new passport regulations (a friend of mine was turned away by two TSA agents when he was about to board a plane to Spain because his passport had two water stains on it, just another example of the emerging and all-encompassing National Security State), or the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the military can arrest or detain any US citizen it deems a terrorist threat, America is slowing slipping into fascism. This is apocalyptic.
In my novella, After All This (from Two Novellas: Walking on Water & After All This) the post-Apocalyptic world comes alive and survivors have to reconstruct a new civilization. How do they do this? They invent a new religious text, a new Joseph Campbell-style myth, to give body and vision to their struggle.
Regarding metaphysics, on some level I think all of us have a sense at times that we are much more than our bodies. There are different degrees of realization here, of course. For some this interest in “spirituality” manifests itself in safe areas like generic meditation centers (where one meditates for relaxation and to “center”), yoga or other techniques that point to a mind body connection—things that, by the way, orthodox empirical science might question. Many people inhabit this first sphere of spirituality but go no further, because to go further reaches into more narrowly defined spaces where the spirituality becomes defined and thus open to criticism from those who tell us that to narrow definitions this way is to limit intelligence. (Narrowing = a possible descent or ascent into the world of religious dogma, etc.) Whether it’s tarot, rune stones, amitara yoga, a belief in crystals, all of these things suggest that we are more than what we “are” on the outside; that we have a consciousness or soul and are far from human bodies randomly created and thrown into existence for no particular reason. The old existentialist belief that life has no reason or meaning, and that we come and go and then disappear only to make room for new generations of futile sufferers can, in the worst instances, lead to madness (Nietzsche).
Of course, this isn’t to say that “believers” don’t go mad—because they do—but generally being tied into the other reality helps. We may opt to only believe in ourselves or in some noble ideals concerning the perfection of humanity, but in the end strict beliefs like this almost always disappoint.
Most of my fiction has contained something of the metaphysical, although that has not always been the case. My short stories in The Gay Alternative, a national literary magazine published in the 1970s, were each autobiographical. I am currently writing a book about my experiences in Harvard Square during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, so I’m leaving the metaphysical behind on this one, although who knows how this story may develop.
What have we done wrong with organized religion? What’s your solution?
Very complex question—it almost depends on which religion you are talking about.
The ‘we’ I take to mean the whole of humanity. The problem is in interpretation. Most religions begin with a prophet or seer who comes with a message. That message gets recorded, translated, passed down. Inferences get lost, passages get added to. What something meant 2,000 years ago very often has a different context today. Islam is a younger religion than Christianity so you could almost say that it is going through what Christianity went through during the Inquisition. Islam then might be said to be in its spiritual adolescence.
Religion stands to lose its influence when it becomes bogged down in too many sub-rules. The Ten Commandments are straightforward and general; ditto for the Sermon on the Mount. Dietary restrictions, laws around circumcision, sexual practices—this is lawful but this is foul—tend to trivialize religion in the mind of intelligent folk, so the tendency is to walk away from the larger truth of it, dismissing that larger truth because of the bylaws. You see this all the time with Catholic-born LGBT people. They wind up throwing everything out—their belief in the divinity of Jesus, the sacraments—because of the negativity surrounding these bylaws. Saying that you left a religion and became an atheist because the religion is homophobic has nothing to do questions like “Does God exist?” That is a deeper question and cannot be answered via the social/cultural “issues” route.
It is healthy to question organized religion. It is good to think, “Am I believing these things just because my parents put them in my head as a child?” It can be a good thing to walk out and believe nothing for a while, gather experience, read, and then re-examine the issue later. I happen to believe in Christianity, and am a member—a convert—to the Orthodox Church, because of certain problems I had with Catholicism, especially the Conciliar Church after Vatican II. I saw the Catholic Church destroying its beautiful liturgy and replacing it with an abbreviated Reader’s Digest version. But that’s another story. The point is, if, as a Christian, I believe that Jesus was who he said he was, then to a certain extent I am going to put that first—ahead of anything secular or political. When I draw my last breath, I am not going to call out to the LGBT community, but to the God who was there before and who will be there after I am gone.
But organized religion loses people and creates bad press when it attempts to change or nullify advances made in the secular realm—what Jesus would call Caesar’s domain. The legalization of same sex marriage in California or New York should not be an issue for any Church or religious organization. Let the secular world do what it wants to do. That should not affect any Church, but unfortunately it does. To a large extent, the religions and Churches that thunder the loudest when it comes to these issues are often acting out frustration at their own emptiness and ineptitude. They’re mad because their pews are empty so they are going “shake” the society they think helped drain those pews, by attacking gay marriage.
We see this with the Catholic Church, especially as the clergy sex abuse crises widened. The attacks by the Vatican on almost anything gay have increased tenfold. This sort of deflection just makes the Church look mean and ideological, much like a political party rather an organization that is supposed to attend to human souls. By the same token, the Catholic Church is under no obligation to adopt the social/cultural advances made in that “other world.” You know, just because feminism has gone mainstream does not mean that the Pope has to allow women’s ordination.
Just as the Church has no business in Caesar’s domain, Caesar’s domain has no business telling the Church what it must do. But these things are overlapping, and it is causing a lot of hate and confusion.