I have never met Jordan Rothacker. He has never met me. And yet we have asked each other questions that I’m not sure that we would have the courage to pose face-to-face. How often are you inclined to probe a friend about the mystery of faith? It is not a casual endeavor because it is not a casual subject. Fortunately for me, Rothacker’s work invites such inquiries. I came to his work through 1888Center, where we both published our short fiction. I picked up The Pit, and No Other Stories, an early novel of his, followed by And Wind Will Wash Away, and then Gristle: Weird Tales, and My Shadow Book. According to writer Matt Nell Hill, Rothacker’s latest novel, The Death of the Cyborg Oracle (Spaceboy Books), is “a holy lamb in wolf’s clothing…on the surface we have a futuristic detective yarn centered on a gruesomely violent murder, but at its heart it’s a treatise on the destructive power of unfettered capitalism and the redemptive magic of faith on both a personal and community level.”
There is a pattern in Rothacker’s work, in which the characters are content to pick up relics that give them faith, rather than make contact with an almighty god. This is important. This is where Rothacker does something daring with fiction, which is examining its cyclical nature and noting the ways in which we create our own mythologies and alter them to our needs. God, or the pantheon, does not appear but in glimpses, which gives Rothacker a lot to work with, reminding his readers that divinity is subject to human whims and appetites, to make us hope and to look, but not for long. I’ve said before that the stories in his earlier work, Gristle, were like episodes of The Twilight Zone if written by Krzysztof Kieslowski. I stand by that. Rothacker’s fiction leads you to a place that is not too unlike planet earth, where there are rules and logic, but there are signs meant for you alone, if you have the eyes for it.
Pam Jones I think we feel the same way about religion, in that, we tend to look at it as through a prism. In one facet, history. In another, philosophy. Also, mythology and ethics. I get the impression that we don’t try to ground it and make it into something that should be accepted and followed outright, as one would secular law. How do you respond to that?
Jordan Rothacker Well, I certainly see religion in those four ways. As an agnostic, I’m very comfortable with uncertainty and mystery, although sometimes I wish I had a cosmology that explained everything and brought all reality into a meaningful schema. Even the proud atheist Percy Shelley, at the end of “Mont Blanc,” describes a “secret Strength of things which governs thought” and also inhabits nature.
PJ The cults portrayed in The Death of the Cyborg Oracle seem outlandish, and one is tempted to think, This is too wild, no one could ever be so wacky in real life.” But then, we have Scientology, the followers of Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh, and the Greco-Roman pantheon.
Stranger things have happened. How do you think the imagination works in terms of faith?
JR There is only one kind of “cult” in the book since worshipping communally and monotheism are frowned upon. The nihilists get away with it through a semantic technicality. Otherwise, everyone worships their own god in this future. I don’t think that’s too different from current reality actually. If you start questioning any believer, they have their own unique understanding of the god they worship even if nominally they claim a “religion.” You mention a few here that seem out there to non-believers, but every religion is out there to someone not of that belief system. As far as imagination goes that’s the key. I see religion as the greatest expression of human imagination. That’s why I study religion (and used to teach about it) as an agnostic. I’m not a believer, but I deeply respect belief and believers. Religion might be the greatest form of “art” there is. And I don’t mean that in any disrespect.
PJI think we all have a “Thinkowitz” that we look to in times of spiritual uncertainty. Has there been anyone like that for you?
JR I look to Moses Maimonides who Thinkowitz is based on. His Guide for the Perplexed is wonderful. Throughout my life there have been texts, sacred texts and texts of literary art that have brought me consolation—philosophers, poets, musicians, and visual artists from the past or present. I’m fortunate enough to call William T. Vollmann a friend. He’s a great model for courage, compassion, and openness.
PJ Faith is a mystery, and I think that’s part of its charm. But at the same time, we are thrilled when answers grounded in facts link up with what we have come to believe. How would you navigate that idea?
JR The beauty of faith is that it transcends facts. My favorite thinker on faith is Søren Kierkegaard in this respect. Faith in a modern world is all about taking a leap. Believers must take a leap to place or find meaning in mystery. It doesn’t line up with facts in its truest form. It’s quixotic, like in Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. For Kierkegaard, the last stage before this paradox of faith is infinite resignation, and in Fear and Trembling he writes “only in the infinite resignation do I become clear to myself with respect to my eternal validity, and only then can there be any question of grasping existence by virtue of faith.” As someone without faith, I can rest in this infinite resignation.
PJ The Kapitol god reminds me of something that has been nagging at me heavily since the Trump administration: That the conservative end of the political spectrum has latched onto an ideology, Christianity, that does not compute with tax breaks, trickle-down economics, or prosperity gospel. Kapitol seems to be an embodiment of that, and the novel takes place in the aftermath of an event known as the Katastrophe.
JR There is a brief scene in the book where the protagonist, Edwina Casaubon, has a Sunday morning with her parents. Christianity is back in the shadows, in people’s private homes, treating the Christian version of Yahweh as a household god. This is like getting back to its roots as a mystery cult in Roman catacombs. This is my sweet nod to the simple potential Christianity once offered, and still does for some. But otherwise, the whole point of the book is about how the west, those under western “enlightenment” hegemony have made capital a god. For many that god has merged with their monotheism, their Christian monotheism into one new god.
I’m not a Christian and I’m certainly not someone who will tell anyone they are doing their religion “wrong” (religions are as organic as everything else we do), so to me it’s a different form of Christianity. Merged with capitalism, a religion of its own, some people have a greater excuse (a divine one) to be greedy, selfish, and not care about this planet or their fellow human. The fact that the god, Kapital, absorbs Yahweh, is the biggest win for capitalism, like the Roman Empire taking Christianity as its state religion was the biggest win for what was once a persecuted mystery cult.
And yes, as you point out, our worship of this god, Kapital, is our downfall. Its bloody lust for “new markets” and its built-in exploitation of human as labor and nature form resources will lead directly to a planet uninhabitable to humans. In my book, we save ourselves finally through cooperative action and live in a socialist domed world. It is a world of hope, but a somber hope.