This is the fourth part of a series of articles on The Tyrant Baru Cormorant—part review, part meta, part commentary. For intro and links to the others, go here!
This time, we start to look at Baru’s personal arc—and how it connects to the philosophy of ‘trim’.
- Baru’s periapsis
- Let’s talk about tulpas!
- What is a wound?
- Bare life? (or, let’s try to do Theory)
- Closing a wound
I’ve talked a bunch about the nature of the Cancrioth, but most of this is revealed in the first few chapters of the book. What does this all mean for Baru herself?
Of course, as with the previous, the book traces Baru’s development as she tries to stay true to her project of destroying Falcrest, while slowly going ever further to pieces. Where we left her at the end of Monster, she was in an awful state indeed: on the run, with few friends who don’t despise her, narrowly avoiding being lobotomised, in a deeply fucked up relationship with Shao Lune, drinking heavily, missing her fingers, increasingly losing to depression (here known as the ‘Oriati emotional disease’ because Falcrest, racist, you know). She’s been persuaded by everyone around her that her every action secretly advances the cause of Cairdine Farrier, no matter how she tries to escape his shadow.
At the beginning of this book, Baru decides on a desperate plan to make it all worth it, to ‘write Tain Hu’s name in the ruin of them’ as she once silently promised the dead Duchess. Her old plan was to provoke open ‘hot’ war between Falcrest and the Mbo, along with various other parties; a war that would be catastrophic for most of the world, but would absolutely annihilate Falcrest.
After meeting the Cancrioth, she seizes on a more direct idea: if she can bargain with the Brain, she can get a sample of the Kettling (not at all radiation poisoning, that was my misreading, the symptoms and transmission make it clearly ebola), and release it close enough to Falcrest that the plague will wipe out the city. And, of course, with its long incubation time, the pandemic would soon spread to everything else that is connected to Falcrest by the trade lines… but Baru at this point has set herself on destroying Falcrest, whatever the cost.
On Eternal, she wakes up to (rather inept) torture, and has a brief meeting with Tau. Tau, who, distraught over the ritual the Cancrioth performed to sever them from the web of Oriati social relations—a ritual they fervently believe in, pretty much alone among the cast, Oriati and otherwise—tells Baru that the events at the embassy demonstrate that all her fears about herself are true:
“Dare what? Talk about the woman whose death you use to justify your atrocities? She gave you permission to do a terrible thing. Now she is dead, so she cannot withdraw her permission. But you know her permit only reaches so far: it does not extend to Iraji, or to me. So you’re waiting for me to give you permission to sell Iraji and Abdumasi to the Cancrioth. You want me to say, at least we’ll be together again, damned together in chaos, Abdu and Tau. Really, you’ll be doing what’s best for both of us. Is that right? I think it is.”
A smile sweet like sugar rot. “You need me to be your little amphora, your bottle of reserve goodness, to shatter and use up. You’ve been dying a slow death since you killed Hu. You need to take another soul to finish your work. Only it’ll never be done. You’ll always need more. And no matter what you do here, Baru, I expect that by some strange coincidence it will end up being what Mister Cairdine Farrier wants. Don’t you think so, too?”
Which hits Baru’s anxieties like a shaped charge.
With all that on her mind, she ends up taking an offer of stolen cocaine (here known as ‘mason dust’) from Tain Shir as a way to spur herself into action. On that high, she confronts the Brain, and tries to negotiate for the Kettling. The Brain’s price is simple: Baru must infect herself with a deadly, malign transmissible tumour, guaranteeing that she has no interest in defecting to Falcrest to survive, and committing her to the end of Falcrest’s world.
When Baru can’t go through with it, her entire world loses its last vestige of structure. Her promise to herself was that all her sacrifices were for the ultimate good of Taranoke, and for Tain Hu specifically. Tain Hu sacrificed herself for Baru’s mission, and in Baru’s warped logic, she ought to be willing take the same sacrifice—and if she won’t give herself cancer, well, she must just be Farrier’s creature after all!
(The right side of Baru’s brain does not agree that Tain Hu would want her to die of cancer, funnily enough.)
By the time she is forced out of Eternal by Xate Yawa performing a ploy with Iraji’s life, she’s more or less outright suicidal. Tain Shir shows up with yet another ‘lesson’, and Baru, exhausted of the things she’s done, tells Shir to take her, not Ulyu Xe.
This is the bottom of Baru’s arc, and the beginning of her roundabout path to being something like a functional human being. But the impetus comes from a rather unexpected source—Xate Yawa.
Xate Yawa, we may recall, had a plan to deal with the humiliated Necessary King of the Stakhieczi: she would send him a lobotomised Baru as dowry for a marriage to her puppet governor Heingyl Ri, to demonstrate his revenge and secure his own power over his people. She’s seen Baru as nothing but a thorn in her side this entire time, and—after the rogue Clarified, Iscend Comprine, intervenes to stop Tain Shir executing Baru on the spot—she finally has Baru on her operating table. But at the last minute, curiosity gets the better of her, and she performs some experiments on Baru’s split brain, using the suggestion of a lobotomy to manipulate Baru into telling the truth. (As so often in these books, the suggestion of a thing is more important than the thing itself…)
So Xate Yawa is the first to figure out that Baru has a tulpa of Tain Hu running the right side of her brain.
Let’s talk about tulpas!
If you’re very online, like me, you might well have encountered the notion of tulpas in certain fandom subcultures (related to other fandom-occultism such as transformation hypnosis tapes—for some reason these things were quite popular in the My Little Pony fandom subculture). A tulpa is an independent sapient mind inside one’s own head. Unlike typical ways of being a multiple system (‘DID’), it is something deliberately cultivated. The term is actually one from Tibetan buddhism, but reinterpreted by Western occultists in a way that has relatively little to do with its original context. Practioners claim that, with the appropriate ritual practice, they can cultivate a tulpa in their mind, and communicate with it.
As we discerned in the last book, Baru is suffering from something close to ‘split brain’ or ‘callosal syndrome’. The two hemispheres of her brain have stopped being synchronised, except in particular moments of seizure induced by (for example) drugs. Baru’s left brain considers itself continuous in identity with her original self; Baru’s right brain considers itself to be Tain Hu. In effect, Baru has accidentally created a tulpa of her dead girlfriend. Occasionally, Tulpa!Hu will intervene in the narration through right-aligned text.
The word is used directly, when Yawa figures out what’s going on with Baru, along with an alternative, ilykari word, eryre. The fact that ‘tulpa’ is specifically identified as [a translation of] an Alphalone word suggests it’s not necessarily the notion of ‘tulpa’ we’re familiar with. Yawa offers a slightly more mystical interpretation: Barhu has cultivated Tain Hu’s soul inside herself, like the Virtues worshipped by the ilykari:
“Don’t look that way,” Yawa said, “you asked. To us a soul is not a great ineffable mystery. People are, after all, not very mysterious. A soul is simply the text of a person’s inner law, and a mind is the act of reading that law into the world. Through study and meditation you can read another soul’s law and copy it into yourself until it comes alive, so that you now have two books of law, two selves, two souls. Himu, Devena, and Wydd all studied and practiced their virtues so completely that they became those virtues. That’s why we emulate them.”
“But I haven’t studied the ykari. I haven’t meditated on a virtue … I just swear by them, very often, I take their names in vain.…”
“No, child. Your obsession was with a woman. Through study and obsession you have built inside yourself the soul of Tain Hu.”
Upon learning this, Baru realises that the second character of her name is the same as that of Tain Hu’s surname (at least in the Alphalone syllabary), and from then on, the narration calls her Barhu.
It’s easy to see (and, probably somewhere explicitly pointed out) parallels between what Barhu’s got going on, and the Cancrioth’s own belief in the transmissibility of souls.
Barhu’s near-lobotomy experience does not link the two halves of her brain and give her integration. But it is enough to do two things: to give her reason to start trusting herself again, rather than seeing Farrier behind every action she might take; and to win Xate Yawa around, as Yawa recognises her at last as someone pursuing the same cause by similarly awful means.
This is one of the first true friendships Baru has had since the death of Tain Hu—one where she is no longer keeping secret her fundamental goal.
What is there to say about this, if this is truly to be a commentary, and not a plot summary? Of course, this is a necessary step: if Barhu is ever to achieve something resembling recovery, she has to reconcile herself to tulpa!Tain Hu. This was well set up by the previous book—Yawa’s explanation is really nothing new—but it is a relief to see Baru finally reach the bottom of her downwards spiral, and understand herself a little better.
I mean, she also gets meningitis from it, but in terms of character arc, she’s past the worst, and on to the long hard project of building meaningful relationships not built on trauma, lies, and blackmail. Which is, overall, the theme of this book: Barhu slowly builds up genuine personal connections with the people she’s wronged, and starts thinking of a way to ‘butcher’ Falcrest that is not apocalyptic.
And as for the nature of the ‘tulpa’ itself? Yawa describes Tain Hu as a ‘law’—a person, here, is described by a way of thinking and behaving. This will align with the book’s notion of culture, which we’ll come to in a little while.
What is a wound?
This takes us up to chapter 9. Having broken the back of Farrier’s despair-conditioning, having at last adopted a little of Tau-Indi’s philosophy and put the immediate good of those around her over her long-term schemes, Barhu still has to figure out what she and her comrades are going to do about Falcrest. But first, she has a few atrocities to witness. She needs to understand the nature of genocide, and such-like things. We will consider Barhu’s plan, and whether it really represents a positive future, shortly. But in terms of Barhu’s personal development, what is now at stake?
To Tau-Indi Bosoka, Baru was a ‘wound in trim’, the network of personal connections that unites the Mbo and everyone else in humanity. To a ‘fundamentalist’ like Tau, who believes in the Mbo’s stories about how they absorbed their would-be conquerers and drew them into mutually supportive relationships, the answer to Baru’s trauma and the harm she’s doing is a kind of restorative justice: they must connect her to others in a genuine way. Tau’s own strength, they believe, comes from the network of personal connections they have as a Prince of the Mbo. And when the Cancrioth declare them severed from trim, making them a wound just as much as Baru, they fall into despair. Later, they start to recover from it, deciding that, even severed as they are, they can still act ethically.
About halfway through the book, Tau, on hearing about Baru attempt to sacrifice herself to save Ulyu Xe, comes up with a theory:
An awful brittleness in Tau’s voice: like ice on the verge of melting, warming but losing strength. “I think it is possible that the Womb’s spell of excision had, ah”—their voice cracked—“had effects she could never anticipate. Baru Cormorant was a wound in trim, an upwelling of grief, a hole. All those who knew her would find only abandonment and regret.
“But when one bond is cut, Iraji, the loose thread may fasten on another. I was cut loose. There were many, many threads seeking a place to fasten.…”
We probably don’t accept Tau’s interpretation, but Baru is increasingly internalising Tau’s philosophy: after she survives Yawa’s lobotomy table, she starts referring to trim to guide her actions, only devising after-the-fact justifications in terms of concrete gain. She tries to go ashore in Kyprananoke, before a certain event renders that futile, and help negotiate for release of water and advise people on containing the Kettling. She reconciles herself with the Tain Hu in her head when circumstances and drugs let her reconnect.
So this book is Baru stitching herself back into trim—in the metaphor she devises to Tau, like a spider reeling itself back into the social web. She is at last reunited with Aminata, and tells her some of the truth, though Aminata has her own arc of disillusionment with Falcrest to follow before she can come over to Baru’s little faction. She gets to know Iscend Comprine, even almost has sex with her at some point, though she’s still unable to believe the Clarified can defy their conditioning to act for Falcrest, still convinced that Iscend’s gradual process of escape is just a fantasy she’s playing out for Baru. She reconciles with Tau, in part on the basis of the above theory, and finally meets Abdumasi Abd, and treats him as a person, and in so doing manages to form a crucial alliance for her new grand plot. Even Tain Shir takes a different view of her.
And she finally meets her parents again—but we’ll get to that later!
A ‘wound’ in trim is thus the behaviour of someone who cannot be vulnerable, someone who can’t exist in a dynamic, stable relation to other people, and interacts through treating people instrumentally, through acting out trauma. To close the ‘wound’ is to create relationships with someone who does not have any, which give them space to find a new way of existing. I think there is something powerful in this, something reflected in the philosophies of restorative and transformative justice—but this is not enough in itself.
The danger is already apparent in the book: trim can declare exceptions, render certain people enenen, non-persons who are not subject to trim. In the Story of Ash chapters, a group of grieving Oriati people attempt to make such a declaration of Farrier and Torrinde, calling for their death; Tau and Kindalana (who I’m getting to!) intervene ritualistically, dressing up in the regalia of Oriati Princes and reminding the crowd of their philosophical/religious commitments—to hospitality, and to deescalation. (Ironically, this is a case where it might have saved everyone a lot of trouble to kill those guys.)
But the Cancrioth remain enenen. We see them participate in relationships, like any other human—yet they remain hidden behind the spectre of ancient slavers. This is a philosophical barrier that Tau must overcome:
A quick sly smile at Aminata, and then they gathered the room’s attention with open arms. “I must ask all of you for your help. I cannot be ambassador for the Mbo any longer, but perhaps there is a reason for that. Perhaps fate took everything I loved because those bonds held me back from who I need to be. I was ambassador to Falcrest, a place without trim. I must believe that people without trim are still capable of good. I must believe the Cancrioth can make human choices. Will you help me help them?”
We constantly see people whose camaraderie has categorical exceptions, from soldiers bonding in a war to a rich person who can have deep, fulfilling relationships with other rich people, and still treat a homeless person, or a worker they’re employing, like dirt.
Personal connections as celebrated in trim are necessary, but not sufficient. The great achievement of the Mbo is not merely mobilising a philosophy that emphasises social connection, but making sure it does not punch exceptions.
Bare life? (or, let’s try to do Theory)
The notion of who is afforded humanity and who is not seems to have become very important to the ‘opaque theory I don’t really understand’ side of left academia lately. I’ve tried to read Mbembe’s Necropolitics but bounced off the bit about Bataille more than once. So… this bit is going to be a bit less thought out than someone who is really plugged-in could write.
Falcrest, it’s widely acknowledged, instrumentalises all the people it comes across—it treats nobody as ‘human’ in the terms of the Mbo. Of course, we’ve seen that Falcrest is not without social relationships, from the camaraderie of sailors so valued by Aminata, to the fucked-up blackmail world of the cryptarchs. And at a certain point, a tense argument hinges, in part, on who should be seen as human:
Tau ignored her. “I allowed myself to believe you weren’t human. My home, my beloved mbo, made the same mistake. We wrote a footnote to our code of dignity. We said, everyone but these ones, they are human; everyone is real, but the Cancrioth are not. We embraced our other enemies. But not you. We hated you. I hated you.”
Not everyone accepts this framing, but one does:
“When the shark smells blood, do you go limp and wait for teeth?” Scheme-Colonel Masako cried back. “You don’t understand Falcrest. They’re cowards! They exploit weakness! They bargain only when they fear our strength! Tau wants to make speeches about who’s human and who is not, but Falcrest doesn’t think any of us are human!”
Elsewhere, we see what becomes of those who are not considered ‘people’ by a group, such as in the democide on Kyprananoke:
The Pranist, they said, was a purifier, sent to make sure liberated islets were made canaathe, which meant, in the new thinking, fit for people. He would kill anyone who’d had surgeries or inoculations. He would kill anyone educated in a Falcresti school. He would kill foreigners who refused to return to their ships and send back their water.
Excluding someone from the web of social relationships comes up in another context also, this time with the Taranoki. Baru’s parents (we’ll talk more about them later) prevailed on her people not to subject her to ‘the carpets’, a ritual of exclusion reserved for ‘traitors, spies, spouse-beaters and child molesters’. Once subjected to the carpets, it is forbidden to provide aid or even the barest acknowledgement.
Someone ripped the cloth from her. Rough hands lifted her and pushed her toward the road out of the village. She caught her right foot on a vine and stumbled. No one helped her: no one could. The word would go out everywhere that Taranoki people lived, even among the plainsiders, that Baru Namestruck had been trampled under her own parents’ feet.
This no doubt has many parallels, but one is a ritual of exile in ancient Roman law, where someone could be declared Homo sacer, which is sort-of translated as ‘sacred’ (in the sense of ‘set apart’). Someone in this condition could be killed by anyone, but was not fit for use in ritual sacrifice. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben made a very big deal out of this, as a theory of what states do in general and what ‘sovereignty’ is. Wikipedia tells me he said this:
Agamben opines that laws have always assumed the authority to define “bare life” – zoe, as opposed to bios, that is ‘qualified life’ – by making this exclusive operation, while at the same time gaining power over it by making it the subject of political control. The power of law to actively separate “political” beings (citizens) from “bare life” (bodies) has carried on from Antiquity to Modernity – from, literally, Aristotle to Auschwitz. Aristotle, as Agamben notes, constitutes political life via a simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of “bare life”: as Aristotle says, man is an animal born to life (Gk. ζῆν, zen), but existing with regard to the good life (εὖ ζῆν, eu zen) which can be achieved through politics. Bare life, in this ancient conception of politics, is that which must be transformed, via the State, into the “good life”; that is, bare life is that which is supposedly excluded from the higher aims of the state, yet is included precisely so that it may be transformed into this “good life”.
I have no idea if that’s an accurate summary, but it seems like a useful concept.
So if the function of state power is all about drawing this distinction between “bare life”, pre-/extra-State existence which must be contained and controlled, and “the good life”, the proper subjectivity which can be achieved through participating in its structures, what of the philosophy of trim? I have no idea if Seth read Agamben (seems unlikely? in a recent reddit AMA, they mentioned an intent to criticise Guns, Germs and Steel, while praising C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which seem an entirely different realm of academia than “Theory”).
So both Falcrest and the Mbo seek to draw people into their version of the ‘good life’. For Falcrest, this is to be achieved by naked force and direct control, taking people into prisons to condition them into good citizens, and breeding the perfect citizen. For the Mbo, it is to be achieved by creating individual, personal connections and friendships; diversity is to be encouraged, as long as one is part of the network (contra Aminata’s vision of her homeland).
What with Tau being in the highest echelons of Mbo society, outside of the mob which comes for Farrier and Torrinde, it’s not clear how the Mbo handles ‘crime’ or deliberate breaks with the broader community—even in a small way, like breaking the day’s taboos. (Tau themself is far too faithful to ever think of doing such a thing, or accuse someone of it.) We should note that the different people of the Mbo can carry out piracy, fight for personal reasons, and even make defensive war against invaders, without declaring their enemy enenen.
According to the hinted long backstory—at least, as it’s understood by the characters—these two visions lead to two approaches to the world. The Mbo claims a stable, thousand year history; Falcrest, a short life of aggressive expansion. Is that how it would be? Of course, it’s not that simple…
Falcrest and the Mbo’s notions of the ‘good life’ are clearly contradictory, as we see in the quotes above. To go along with Falcresti eugenics is to disobey the strictures of trim; to live as the Oriati do is ‘unhygienic’ as the Falcresti remind anyone who will listen. For Baru to get drawn into the Oriati web, she has to let go of her Falcresti habits: less blackmail, more giving a shit about her friends.
(On anarchistic grounds, I can’t help but wonder, is there a way to do away with the sense of ‘good life’ vs. ‘bare life’ altogether? I don’t think I fully understand the question I’m trying to ask, what that would entail.)
I feel like this theoretical connection could be explored in considerably more depth, but it would take research and resources that are beyond me right now, so I will have to put a pin in this here and perhaps think more on it later.
Closing a wound
So, for Baru to be stitched back into the web of trim, she has to rebuild meaningful personal connections. But—at risk of questioning something deeply intuitive and obvious—what is a meaningful personal connection? And how does it influence our behaviour?
This is, I suppose, something which takes at least a full book to illustrate. But it definitely has something to do with masks. As a deep-cover agent, Baru is constantly code-switching and attempting to play the character that will get her what she wants. Yet she has never been exactly without connections she values—she’s never relating to people purely according to the cold logic of gain, as much as she tries.
And in this book, she finds the people she’d broken from—Aminata, her parents—and starts the work of reconciliation.
So I guess I’ve divined some notion of sincerity is necessary, along with reciprocity, and willingness to pay attention and learn the peculiarities of a person.
Actually, this might be a good time to talk about Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice/The Shape of Voice)—a manga by Yoshitoki Ōima, adapted into a beautiful film directed by Naoko Yamada and animated by Kyoto Animation.
Like Tyrant, Koe no Katachi is concerned with the systemic nature of bullying, and with, as an individual, coming to terms with having done unforgivably cruel acts. The story follows a boy called Shoya Ishida, who—alongside his classmates—viciously bullied a deaf girl, Shoko Nishimiya. However, when Shoko eventually transfers out again, the bullying turns on Shoya instead, scapegoating him for the whole episode to protect the classmates.
A couple of years later, Shoya has resolved to kill himself—but in his effort to close accounts, pay off debts, and so forth, he tries to return a notebook he took from Shoko when she was young, in the process showing that he’s learned sign language. Unexpectedly, this leads to him running into her again—especially when his mother interrupts his suicide plans. Shoya slowly builds a new friendship with Shoko, and even reconnects with other people in his former class—which leads to drama because most of them have not put nearly as much effort into changing as he has, with reactions ranging from total unrepentance to self-excusing delusion.
It’s a great movie and you should watch it if you haven’t, but the relevance here is that, for Shoya as much as for Baru, recovery and change as a person requires a change of how he functions, dynamically, in his friendships and relationships. The circumstances are different: to Shoya, everyone around him is considered closed-off and hostile, signified by an ‘X’ over their face; to Baru, each person is considered a tool to manage, a coin to spend.
Even before Shoya was suddenly thrust out of his own ‘web of trim’, his social relationships were relatively superficial; he’s popular, but we see him pay relatively little attention to his classmates. He’s acting out a role, and suddenly, that role is taken away. To escape this, he at first attempts to play various other roles, including that of a redeemed almost-saviour; it is only quite late in the film where he genuinely apologises to Shoko, after her own suicide attempt.
I’m not trying to say, I think, that Baru needs to learn to act out some sort of ‘true self’—I don’t think there is such a thing as a self that isn’t constituted through relationships. Baru worries a lot about the difference between genuinely obeying someone, and pretending to obey them as a gambit to ultimately oppose them. And in part this is because her actions in ‘service’ of Falcrest do a lot to shape her—to habituate her to certain ways of interacting with people. I think many of us can think of how we fall into old patterns when we visit old friends or family, behaviours which do not occur in other circumstances.
What does this suggest for someone who is unfortunate to meet someone like Baru? It’s a tricky one, to be sure. But something like prison—cutting off all their existing relations and thrusting them into an environment where they must adapt to extreme power relations and coercion—seems blatantly counterproductive, in this view. Not that it is the responsibility of anyone around an abusive person to ‘save’ them, or forgive them. For both Baru and Shoya, both develop an internal impetus to change before they actually become the kinds of person they think they should become, and dear fucking Himu is it painful for both of them.