Friday, March 24, 2006

Chef d'oeuvre

There's got to be a morning after

The first time that Chef quit, it didn't take. That was back in 1999, when South Park's culinary sage decamped from the cafeteria to wed his girlfriend Veronica and take a job as a hatless drone in an office cubicle. Remember Veronica?

Ah, Veronica! The children were certain she was sucking the life out of Chef, although he refused to believe it. While Chef's head spun with thoughts of love and happily-ever-aftering, the kids became increasingly convinced that she was a succubus. As we know, the children were right and finally managed to exorcise her during the wedding ceremony by singing her signature tune backward. (It was There's got to be a morning after, the theme song from The Poseidon Adventure.)

Just what is a succubus? Here's a definition:

Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Medieval Latin, alteration of Latin succuba paramour, from succubare to lie under, from sub- + cubare to lie, recline. A demon assuming female form to have sexual intercourse with men in their sleep.
Hmmm. A demon? Where have we heard that before? Could it be ... Xenu?

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have cheerfully trashed religions before, in particular their scathing episodes on the Roman Catholic church (Red Hot Catholic Love and Bloody Mary). It was just a matter of time before Scientology—the “science fiction religion” in Christopher Evans's telling phrase—got its turn. The tenets of Scientology are doled out to its adherents based on the level of initiation to which they ascend. While supposedly secret, too many people have now gone in and out of the religion to permit all of the juicy details to remain confidential. The tale of evil Xenu, which played out like a parody in the crude animation of South Park was in fact a highly faithful treatment of Scientology's central dogma. The erupting volcano still featured on modern editions of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health is most likely an allusion to Xenu's genocidal population reduction scheme in which surplus beings were packed into volcanoes and blown up with H-bombs. Does your religion have any stories that good?

Lafayette Ronald Hubbard famously told some of his science fiction colleagues that “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.” Today the dearly departed L. Ron Hubbard is the icon of a vigorous cult that hopes to grow large enough to become considered a mainstream religion. (The main difference between a cult and a religion is numbers.) In a series of zig-zag moves, Hubbard cobbled together Dianetics, a secular system of supposed mental health treatment, and Scientology, a religious system that subsumed Dianetics into its creeds and rituals.

Hubbard had been making his living as a reasonably successful science fiction writer in the pulp era before World War II. However, his best days as an SF author were past when Dianetics and Scientology took over his life, and the lives of his followers. His work was big news and controversial from the very beginning. One of his early critics was Martin Gardner, who took aim at Dianetics in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, published in 1957. Gardner has been a perceptive critic of pseudoscience and charlatanry throughout his long life, but his own keen vision may occasionally be unclear when he tries his hand at prognostication:
At the time of writing, the dianetics craze seems to have burned itself out as quickly as it caught fire, and Hubbard himself has become embroiled in a welter of personal troubles.
That was accurate enough back in the 1950s, but Hubbard's mounting difficulties were the impetus behind his momentous decision to incorporate Scientology as a tax-exempt religious organization (although the tax-exempt status was not formally recognized by the Internal Revenue Service till the 1990s). A decision to lay snares in Hollywood in the form of a glitzy celebrity center worked to provide Scientology with the famous faces that we see today as the glamorous aspect of the religion, although zealots like Tom Cruise appear to occasionally overplay their hand. What is a nice (formerly) Catholic girl like Katie Holmes doing in a place like that?

After Martin Gardner's premature eulogy for Dianetics, its resurgence in the form of Scientology caused Christopher Evans to feature the new religion in his Cults of Unreason in 1973, a book now long out of print. Evans devoted Part I (The Science Fiction Religion) of his book, over 100 pages, to the development of Scientology from its dianetic origin to its religious transformation. However, as he wrapped up his account, Evans proved to be no better a seer than Gardner:
Readers of the book up to this point may be surprised to find that after highlighting the absurdities, inconsistencies and smoky background of Scientology, I conclude without giving it a wholehearted thumbs-down. The reasons for this are quite straightforward. The closer I have looked at Scientology the more I feel that it is changing for the better, and the more eager I believe its leader and its adherents are to forget its past.
The late Dr. Evans was more hopeful than correct, I fear. While Scientology may be in some respects eager to “forget its past,” perhaps we might be forgiven for doubting that today's Scientology is somehow more kindly and forgiving than the Scientology of the past. While the religion's notorious “fair game” doctrine was supposedly rescinded in 1968, Scientology's critics still find occasion to feel that they are still being treated according to that policy:
Fair Game: May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.
For their part, Parker and Stone appear unfazed by Scientology's reputation for playing rough. They were, however, uncharacteristically lacking in imagination when they released a statement saying, “[T]he million-year war for Earth has just begun!” A million years is small potatoes to Scientology, whose acolytes sign trillion-year contracts when they join the church.

“Luke, I am your father!”

The fuss over Chef's apparent departure from South Park is only the latest—and one of the tiniest—installments in a soap opera that undoubtedly has many chapters to go. Given Hubbard's tendency to conjure up holy writ off the top of his head, coupled with his seat-of-the-pants management style, Scientology developed in a haphazard way. The church accumulated truckloads of scattershot scripture and divine directives, much of which will never be reconciled into a coherent whole. That may not matter, though, as the current leadership continues to mine the Hubbardian trove for nuggets they can dole out to their most devoted adherents. It is necessary to keep feeding the appetites of those who are so expensively walking Hubbard's Bridge to Total Freedom. At each step across the Bridge, more arcane dogma is dispensed.

Tom Cruise has supposedly reached the high-level status of Operating Thetan VII. What secrets might he know? One widely rumored Scientology secret is the identity of mass murderer and arch-fiend Xenu. If you are steeped in the literature of science fiction, you might be able to venture a wild guess. Imagine that Xenu lifts his mask and you find yourself staring in horror at the face of ... R. Daneel Olivaw! Oops! I mean ... Annakin Skywalker himself! Oh, sorry. I meant to say ... L. Ron Hubbard! I'll bet you're surprised! Yes, it could be that L. Ron Hubbard was the human incarnation of the evil Xenu, working out his redemption in works of healing and charity among us mere mortals.

Gosh! Who could have seen that coming?

Other references

In addition to the Gardner and Evans books, there are at least two full-length biographies of L. Ron Hubbard, both unauthorized by the Church of Scientology, which examine the fables and myths that Hubbard spun concerning his own life and achievements. Russell Miller's Bare-Faced Messiah, originally published in 1987, is available as an on-line text. Bent Corydon's L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman? comes down firmly in favor of the second option. It is in print in a paperback edition and recounts the travails of a disaffected Scientologist as he and his wife are elbowed out of the organization; it's a patchwork quilt of a book and can be criticized as one long complaint by a disgruntled ex-Scientologist—which it is—but that's also where the insider's perspective comes from.

Finally, let me draw your attention to a curious novel by science fiction writer Norman Spinrad. The Mind Game is an obvious roman à clef in which Transformationalism is a thinly disguised version of Scientology and its megalomaniacal founder is none other than L. Ron. If you've read any of the Hubbard biographies, you can't help but wonder how many of the incidents described in The Mind Game are authentic and which are the products of Spinrad's imagination. The true story of L. Ron Hubbard doesn't need embellishment in order to be fantastic.

Update: Gary Farber noted in comments that Hubbard was less than a successful writer in the days preceding the launch of Dianetics and I've amended the article accordingly.


Gary Farber said...

"Hubbard had been making his living as a reasonably successful science fiction writer when Dianetics and Scientology took over his life, and the lives of his followers."

Um, this isn't true. Hubbard's mild success in the pulps came back in the Thirties; Dianetics wasn't published until 1949-50; Hubbard hadn't made a living as a science fiction writer in many years, and his style was such that he wasn't apt to be able to do so again, given how the field had changed. Fear and Typewriter In The Sky, circa 1951, were considered mildly entertaining, but relatively few writers were able to make a living from science fiction at the time. Hubbard wasn't one of them.

Zeno said...

Thanks, Gary. Your point is well taken because Hubbard had a serious slump between his pulp days and his creation of Dianetics. I should have more careful there. Between his days as an sf writer and a religious guru came his questionable naval career and the black magic period in Pasadena. His real profession during those years was trying to squeeze a bigger disaiblity pension from the Veterans Administration.

Solomon Grundy said...

You forgot to mention that the only way they finally achieved tax exempt status in the US was via a decades-long campaign of terror against the individual IRS bureaucrats making the decision.

I'm much, much more scared of Scientology terrorists than I am of Al Qaeda terrorists.