The Worldly Gods Return
“Then the awful fight began.” From Norse Stories Retold from the Eddas, illustrated by George Wright, 1908
by Douglas Penick
Like most modern people in western developed nations, I have taken it for granted that all those gods once considered responsible for life’s small and somewhat larger challenges had been long ago chased off, first by Christianity and then by scientific rationalism. Now I have suddenly come to see that while the old gods may be gone, new ones are appearing.
My illumination came about innocently enough. Some months ago, I changed my Internet carrier from A-corporation to B-corporation which costs half as much, particularly if you’re old. A-corp. had been awful to deal with. Aloof, vague, opaque, profoundly indifferent, there was no access to customer service on their site. I’d had to visit their store a dozen times. There they specialized in expensive, time consuming, and incomprehensible advice; a visit to the zippy young guys at B-corp. got things fixed pronto, seemingly once and for all.
After a few months of blithe contentment, A-corp struck back. They spent me a bill for $160. Their website succeeded in stymying me: another trip to the store, and an unusually helpful guy. Turned out they’re still billing me for the iPad even though the screen shows that it’s being carried by B-corp.
“Weird,” said the guy. “Let me work this out with management.”
He disappeared into the back room. and emerged five minutes later.
“It’s all fixed.”
“Really. Let me walk you to the door.” He stepped outside with me. Looked right and left. No one nearby.
“Hang on, there’s something I’ve got to explain.”
“You don’t have to try and get in touch with them anymore.”
“Well, the thing is…well, the only way we could fix it permanently was to tell the system that actually… well. You’re deceased.”
“As in dead?”
“It was the only way.”
“I sort of wish you’d asked.”
He shrugged and held out his hand.
“You probably shouldn’t call them.”
I was bemused and a little stunned, I walked across the parking lot. Rain was coming in and the air was thick.
How could this be? What did it mean? Clearly, A-corp., one of the world’s largest Internet providers, was no longer capable of correcting its own errors or training its employees to do so. Unable to resolve its own internal contradictions, it could only ensure its continuity by eliminating the conflicting dataset; in this case, me. I had become a germ in the corporate body. It was necessary to eliminate it (me), before the infection spread. I found myself becoming strangely excited. The wind was blowing. A coffee shop, a national chain, beckoned.
Was it so outlandish, I wondered, to think of corporations as some kind of living super-organism? I knew that there had been a lot of recent discussion of something called “corporate personhood”. On NPR, I’d heard Nina Totenberg ask and answer:
Are corporations people? The U.S. Supreme Court says they are, at least for some purposes. And in the past four years, the high court has dramatically expanded corporate rights. It ruled that corporations have the right to spend money in candidate elections, and that some for-profit corporations may, on religious grounds, refuse to comply with a federal mandate to cover birth control in their employee health plans.
More recently, Mitt Romney has told us: “corporations are people, my friend,” (cited by Adam Winkler in the New York Review of Books) And then, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier comforted us, saying: “Companies do have souls” (New York Times). All at once, as if suddenly understanding a joke, I saw that there was a lot more going on than mere, if soulful, personhood. I was still standing in a parking lot watching a storm roll in, when I realized that for me, as for so many others, the storm had already come, gone and left behind a deeply altered landscape. Cheerful baristas greeted me. I found a table next to the window and nursed a generic cappuccino.
Parts of all this seemed suddenly obvious. Yes, the great corporations obviously now have the power over what was formerly considered the great divide. And we’re all used to it. OK, until recently, most of us assumed that being dead meant that you no longer had an active corporeal presence in the world of the living. Opinions might vary as to your actual location and mode of being, but it was an accepted fact that you had departed from this life. Perhaps you might be remembered, but you were well and truly gone. And it was hoped that you, after a life of labor or at least activity, had finally found rest. But now, throughout the developed world, many of the dead find no release from their previous social obligations and work lives. They are amongst us and on the go. No longer does a day go by without some dead person intruding into our waking life.
So many of the deceased are still so active. True, not all; some politicos, generals, religious leaders and CEOs, for instance, do not seem adroit at projecting themselves from the beyond. But any who have appeared regularly on television, in movies, or even on the radio are more than likely to experience a vigorous post-mortem vitality. Lawrence Welk still fills the airwaves with his strange version of comfort. The Car Talk guys merrily transcend sickness and death on the radio every Saturday. Lucy and Ricky, Fred and Ethel, Archie Bunker, among many many others are still cavorting around. The Brady Bunch are still beloved. The truly lamented Seymour Philip Hoffman still seems to be putting out new films. How can Alexander McQueen, not to mention Yves Saint Laurent, and the even more distant eminences Balenciaga and Christian Dior still produce couture? Why just today, wasn’t Allan Thicke selling something on TV, recent obituary notwithstanding. And Robert Ludlum is still churning out those double-sized thrillers. The truth of the matter is that corporate profitability will open the gates to personal immortality. We may last as long as our sponsors find us of use.
These days the great corporations transcend the boundaries of life and death; they produce all that we desire, see, share and know. They prod us to cultivate our skills and to labor to better ourselves. They cultivate us, use us, reward and punish us. We, mere temporary mortals, live at their pleasure, their whim. How can we not think of them not just as personages, but as divine personages.
The God of the middle-eastern monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have perhaps blinded up to the fact that at one time, people dealt with hundreds among thousands of gods and goddesses, each with her or his own sphere of control, her or his own powers. There were deities in charge of stars, sun and moon, weather, rivers, oceans, mountains, childbirth, health, prosperity, war, hunting, grain, boats, bridges, weaving, baking, love, death, and so forth.
These deities were not necessarily immortal. A mid-twentieth Century researcher into the gods of popular Taoism was shocked to find that there were storehouses filled with the dusty images of gods who no longer functioned. They were supplanted by new and more efficient deities. When I was in Hong Kong ten years ago, the papers were full of the appearance of a new goddess, a little baby actually, who was wonderfully effective in bringing difficult pregnancies to term.
My coffee turned cold. The music got louder, and the storm was passing. There was no doubt that so many of the responsibilities of these diverse worldly deities have now been assumed by corporations large and small. Companies manage justice, education, health, prosperity, weather, travel, war, sex, and so on. Clearly their legally acknowledged “personhood” is not that of a human. The shimmering form of our protean companies is far more like that of the many gods of yore. Now, disguised in the trappings of science and rationality, the worldly gods are back, demanding sacrifices, dispensing goods, services and punishments according to their whims. Isn’t this obvious? Was I shocked where this train of thought had led me? Yes. But, somehow I couldn’t find my way back. Later, my wife was not entirely persuaded, even if she could not deny that some aspect of my lifespan had been corporately if not corporeally, compromised.
One month later, I receive another bill from A-corp. I experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally acceptance: I go to the A-corp store. I shout that I have been ill-served, that aspiring customers and supplicants would be treated badly. The manager is swift to attend me. He looks. “Oh, he says, it’s a past bill from before you cancelled.”
“Will the estate have to take care of it?”
“Of course, you can take care of it too.”
“Of course.” I bow to this greater power.
About the Author:
Douglas Penick has written opera libretti (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), texts for video (NFB/Canada: Leonard Cohen, narrator) as well as novels on the 3rdMing Emperor (Journey of the North Star), and about spiritual searchers (Dreamers and Their Shadows). He also wrote three book-length episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic on a grant for the Witter Bynner Foundation. Shorter works have appeared in Agni, Chicago Quarterly, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal, Tricycle, and Utne Reader. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome.