L2 Commentary: Asceticism

In L2. The Interview with Virgil Blue Jay sits alone with the mysterious Virgil. Virgil Blue’s engrossing silver mask resembles the moon, and like the moon, Virgil Blue represents the ultimate truth, silent but solid. Blue refuses to speak to Jay, even after Jay asks a question three times, until Jay writes “”. This seems to provoke the Virgil, who tells Jay to drop the pen. When Jay promises not to speak or listen, Virgil Blue tells him the story of Nemo, the first man in the religion of Sheridan.

Nemo, the first man, received the title Virgil Blue directly from the Biggest Bird who created the world. Granted immortality, Nemo gradually grew crazed and began to demand harsh asceticism from his students, even eating their frostbitten fingers and toes. Nemo realizes he’s not in proper mental condition to teach anymore, and agrees to retire. He declares the next Virgil Blue and walks above the Sheridanian clouds, never to return.

Asceticism is severe self-discipline often applied in a religious context. Practitioners avoid pleasure to seek spirituality, whether that spirituality is flavored as Christian, Judaic, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, or something else.

The term ‘austerity’ can refer to strenuous tasks an ascetic might impose on themselves. The word might conjure the image of a guru lying on a bed of nails, or a monk self-flagellating, but the prevalence of some of these practices has probably been overblown and sensationalized by popular culture. Nevertheless, the mere fact that these ideas have influenced popular culture shows their power to command a viewer’s attention. Self-destructive religious fervor strikes a strange chord.

Nemo eats his students’ fingers. There are a few religions (mostly cults) where amputations are included in rituals. For obvious reasons, these cults don’t exactly have new applicants knocking down the door. (Compare this with religions popular in the West with the somewhat imposing hurdle of circumcision.) Nemo realizes that his immortal mind has drifted so far from normality that his very presence threatens his religious institution. He retires above the permanent cloud-cover on the Main Island of Sheridan.

Religions change over time. If Nemo had demanded total control of his congregation, he would soon have no congregation. The Sheridanian religion outlives its immortal patriarch’s reign. But Nemo still remains: every generation he returns to the dreams of the Blue Virgil, and he eats their dream-bodies to force them into retirement. Even if Nemo spares the junior pupils severe austerities, he demands that Virgil Blue maintain this strict protocol.

When religions remove difficult aspects of worship in order to expand their congregation, those difficult aspects can remain. Religions have splintered between groups who accept lax interpretations of scriptures, and groups who demand stringent orthodoxy and authenticity. When Nemo’s doctrines grew too beastly to follow, those doctrines were not totally abandoned. He merely carried them above the clouds, where ordinary folks would not be subjected to them. His practice remains in the cultural subconscious and the literal subconscious of Virgil Blue, the only mortal at any time capable of withstanding the brutal rituals.

At the same time, Dan chews his fingers when he’s anxious. This mundane action relates to Nemo’s ritualistic amputation. The highest religious practices are extensions of the most human habits.

Maybe we’ll see what’s beyond the clouds. Not for a while, though.

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