Tag Archives: catastrophe

Magical Thinking: The Hermit in quarantine

I’ve been discussing tarot interpretations with a friend who had decided to pull a card a day and then re-create it with items in her house during quarantine. The very first card she pulled was The Hermit.

“Just pulled a tarot card that hit a bit close to home,” she messaged me.

Indeed, pulling the Hermit as a card during forced isolation can feel a bit like the universe is laughing at you. Even those of us generally disinclined to go out and and live it up are chafing under the strict imposition of social distancing. It’s important, but not going outside was a lot more fun when it was a choice.

Yet, even enforced hermitage can learn something from IX of the Major Arcana. After all, the most pressing question the Hermit poses to us when we draw it is “Why are you pulling away from the world?” or “What do you hope to achieve with your isolation?”

The Hermit is a very spiritual card, not in the same way as the High Priestess or the Moon, but because it is a card which represents the work of spiritual practice. A traditional hermitage, the kind pursued by monks, saints, and other holy persons is a drawing away from the bustle of daily affairs and the material world in an attempt to access a higher, inner plane of being. Whether you are persuing mediation, prayer, or even the simple act of drawing a card once a day and carrying its meaning with you; the goal is to pull away from the riptide of quotidian tribulation to really assess oneself and ones place in the grand scheme of life.

Often, if the card appears reversed or negatively aspected within a spread, the Hermit can serve as a warning. We often tell ourselves when we pull away from those around us and the questions and concerns of the every day that we are doing it to achieve something elevated, but that is not always the case. Instead, it can be out of fear — that we will be hurt or overwhelmed — or laziness — a “spiritual” isolation is inviolable by sciences and philosophy with which we might disagree — or confusion — we don’t know when or how to make a decision so we decide to do or be nothing. These are not worthy reasons to pull away from the mass and hubub of life.

So, in one way, the Hermit can be a warning about examining carefully and honestly why we have pulled away from those around us. Are we genuinely pursuing something greater, or are we attempt to slip our duties to those around us.

In mandated isolation (and we are all isolated right now, whether we are required to go into work or not, the form and shape of life has been drastically and significantly altered for all of us), the Hermit is also a reminder of what we hope to gain when we choose isolation and contemplation instead of action. The work of self-knowledge, spiritual awakening, or intellectual elevation is not something we can achieve if we go into it with purely selfish intentions. The law of spiritual feeling is one of universal love, an expansion of the ego until it is ultimately destroyed and we are able to recognize a universal totality of which we are but a tiny, insignificant, shining piece.

Why should this particular aspect of the Hermit matter when we are all as close to locked away as we can get? Because it is the reminder that we are not doing this for ourselves or to be alone. We are doing it because we belong to a wider, greater whole. And while we are unable to be close to one another, unable to hold one another or sit together, we are not retreating from the world. We must find new ways of sharing of ourselves with one another, new ways of being and of supporting one another. We can still elevate ourselves and each other, without physically lifting one another (so to speak).

We have an opportunity for quiet, for contemplation, for self-examination, and self-improvement (and I don’t mean, necessarily, learning a new instrument or finishing your novel, or even getting through your back log of reading to catch up to where you have always imagined wanting to be; the barriers which have inhibited those actions are likely still present, be they work, time, or anxiety). So now it is up to us to recognize that this a moment where we can reckon with ourselves about what we cherish and what we need to feel our best selves.

When I left for Athens, I decided (for once in my life) to pack less than I expected to need. So my hermitage has become not only a test of moderate social isolation, but also one of asceticism. The question has very much become, can I stand living with two pairs of pants, six black t-shirts, and a week’s worth of underwear? How many pens and pads do really need? How many pairs of shoes do I need?

I’ve realized that I wish I had brought more of my make up with me, I miss having a second pair of shoes, and that not being near my personal library is utterly disorienting. Also I can apparently play Animal Crossing on the Nintendo Switch for about six hours every day, making it my primary activity (both leisure and otherwise). My natural circadian rhythm is 10 AM to 3 AM, and I really don’t like eating first thing when I wake up.

Some of these things I already knew, like the breakfast thing, but others have been surprising, like the make up. And the fact that I wish I had slightly more variety in the types of socks I had brought with me.

I haven’t been able to do too much reading, because the things which have been holding me back, most notably a particular intellectual restlessness, continue unabated (perhaps even exacerbated) in quaratine. But I have been able to write more, as this very blog post evidences, because I’ve managed to maintain my most productive social relationships (and even expanded them to include people I have been unable to see as much or as often as I might like) without having to submit to those interpersonal exchanges I find the most draining and least helpful.

In short, the Hermit is a reminder that we can learn much about ourselves and where we position ourselves in the world by cutting back or cutting away at those things which are a given in the normal course of life. We may not have chosen the social and physical distancing which we are now experiencing, but that does not mean we cannot find ways to make use of it, seek within and beyond ourselves that which will make the here and the now bearable.

Zelda, Calamity, and Living Beyond The End

I have a much longer, much more theory oriented post which I imagine no one will read in the works, but instead I want to take some time today to talk to you about playing video games under quarantine.

While Animal Crossing: New Horizons dropped four days ago and I’ve already sunk almost 19 hours into the game (sorry, Mama), the game I bought to keep me company on the plane and fill some of the downtime while I am here is Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I played it on the plane and in the airport and during my unexpected seven hour layover in Munich (I also took a nap), and I’ve played it while trying not to completely lose my mind cooped up in a house by myself except for my several hundred tiny wingèd roommates whose demise I plot with increasing vigor with every passing day.

AC:NH has been a pleasant way to remain connected to the idea of Outside –– it has bugs and sunshine and weather and fishing and running around and changing outfits (with the exception of the first one I have almost none of those things) –– but BotW has been the most philosophically and narratively poignant choice.

A rough outline of the game’s plot/setting for those who might be unfamiliar:

In BotW you play a newly awakened swordsman, Link, who has been in some kind of mago-technical suspended animation for the last 100 years. He was mortally wounded in battle against a malignant magical entity named Calamity Ganon while defending the princess Zelda of Hyrule as she attempted to banish Calamity Ganon with magic. You take your unclothed self out of the stasis chamber, acquire some pants and another mago-technical device (which, somehow, reminds one of a Nintendo Switch) and go out into the world to discover your fate. (Spoiler alert: Your fate seems to be saving the world from the increasingly powerful, though still contained, Calamity Ganon.)

More importantly, for this moment in time, you step out into a world in ruins. Literally, the first thing you encounter is the Temple of Time, which is in shambles. It’s falling down and falling apart, and you pick through its crumbling bones for arrows and small arms. As you come down off the plateau where the temple sits, you are met with ever more evidence of a civilization, and empire, which did not survive that which befell it.

There are big open fields of grass, dotted with trees, and moss covered, tumble down walls. Wooden structures poke out of the hills like they’ve forgotten they aren’t overgrown stalks of grass. Tattered cloths with faded heralds hang dirtied and limp amongst the ruins.

At the same time, the world teems with life. The plains of Hyrule are largely devoid of humanoid habitation, given over to monsters and history, but wild horses cavort, and everywhere you walk you are serenaded by a million tiny insect orchestras. The natural resources are bountiful and you learn to cook what you can find to restore Link to the picture of health and to aid him on his journeys. Once you get beyond the area given over to a state of nature, overshadowed, as it is, by the swirling malignancy of Calamity Ganon where he-it teems around Hyrule Castle, you quickly realize that you are far from alone.

Beyond that immediate desolation and its ghosts, the rest of the world is populated with entrepreneurial spirits, adventurers, travelers, inventors, villagers, and fanatics. They tell you how their communities and their peoples suffered as a result of the Calamity, 100 years ago (a little less than the average lifespan of the people of this world), but how things have returned to a slightly uneasy peace since then. Every village has children, it has young and old people and they all have stories to tell and little problems for you to solve.

In short, though they live in proximity to ruins, they nevertheless live.

A part of me quickly pulled up the simplistic explanation; I’m sure you’ll think of it – it’s an easy one for American liberal guilt and uncritical, cookie cutter analyses of Japanese culture. All of Japanese popular media can be condensed into the atomic bomb if only the West tries hard enough. And maybe the generational gap between the young adults and the elders who remember the calamity can be paralleled by the generational gap between those who remember the war and those, like me, who make up the main part of gaming’s target market.

But it seems unfair, not only to the Japanese who have surmounted any number of calamitous events both before and since the U.S. dropped its bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but to the rich world which has so carefully and painstakingly been built and rolled out in the game. Given that BotW is also another installment in an already extensive (though famously convoluted) narrative universe, and the names repeat (Zelda, Link, and Ganon are staples of every game in the series), one gets the impression that by this point the lessons and metaphors can be allowed to function within their own, self-made space.

There is, from a player perspective, a Sisyphean quality to Link’s existence. He has been carried through time on multiple occasions for the purpose of saving Hyrule from Ganon and yet every time a new game comes out, Ganon returns in some new and horrible form. In BotW in particular the veneer of humanity has been eradicated from Calamity Ganon, transmuting him into a magical infection which poisons the land, bubbling up in places where his control is strongest, creating glowing, pulsating growths that injure you when you touch them. He’s no longer the dark wizard who might be familiar from Super Smash Bros. but instead he is a disease, a pollutant, something which has embedded itself into and become a part of the environment rendering the natural world hostile.

Perhaps it whispers of the reactor meltdown in Fukushima. But again, the one-to-one analogy is bitter and unfulfilling after this sumptuous feast of a game.

To put it another way, this is a game where if you sneak up closely enough, you can ride a deer. The detail and care put into it, the number of hours of coding and sound mixing and rendering and writing and translating and acting, makes it impossible to simplify into historical analogy. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take something from it. (And I don’t just mean the soothing lullaby of the sound design.) I think what we should do our best as we face our own calamitous times to remember the villagers and the travelers. Far from being populated exclusively by those who would see Calamity Ganon freed and bring an annihilating waste to what’s left of life in the territories surrounding Hyrule (though there are always some), there are people who did more than survive. They built towns and families and lives. They planted trees and loved each other and their children and recognized that for all the chaos and uncertainty of calamity, it’s not really that much more uncertain than life itself.

So, be cautious, for now. Wash your hands well and often, avoid touching your face, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze and try to keep a healthy physical distance from others. But don’t forget to love one another, don’t forget to plan for the future, don’t forget to lean out your window and breath in the fresh air, listen to the night sounds, and remember that uncertainty is just another facet of living. It is no different from trying new foods, telling someone you love them for the first time, or unexpectedly hearing a beautiful song.