Perhaps hopelessness is (The Only Thing I Have Left to Guide Me)

Sorry this is so ridiculously late. I just COULD NOT WRITE last night, which meant I had to do this during lunch and bathroom breaks and such at work. Also, this one proved to be a struggle to write, because there is SO MUCH happening in these final episodes.

“Hail Hydra.”

We begin at the end, with the wheel of fate. It is everywhere in this episode. The great grinding gears of Walpirgisnacht are the cycles of hope and despair that transform the magical girls (back) into witches, and they are the endless cycles of reset time Homura creates. Both are the wheel of fate, as is the round clockwork buckler Homura uses to travel in time.

At the far end of the episode from them, Kyubey explains that Homura created Madoka. With every rebirth, Madoka carries the karmic burdens of the previous cycle into the next. In the Classic Buddhist explanation of rebirth, it is like lighting one candle with another; nothing of the candle is passed on, but the flame, the flame is the same. (That Homura’s name means “flame” is no accident.) In other words, though Madoka carries no concrete memories from time to time, only a few vague impressions no doubt arising from her deep connections to the one person who does remember previous timelines, and though she is physically recreated in each timeline, she still maintains the connections to the world of the previous timeline. And since these worlds are being created and destroyed for her, it is the weight of the entire world she carries. 
And it is a weight. In the end, these connections to a world hurtling headlong to destruction can lead only to suffering. The rising entropy of the world feeds into Madoka, transforming her in successive timelines from an inexperienced, but outgoing and confident, magical girl to an uncertain and unpowered sidekick whose associated heroines keep dying. 
And why does this happen? Because Homura tried to protect her. Homura is a Christian (or, at least, attended a Christian school). Like Kyoko, she has absorbed the belief that it is possible for one person to save another–that there is something to be saved from, and somewhere to be saved to. It is a fundamentally dualistic proposition–here is bad, but there is good. But as Kyubey has made clear, we are in a Buddhist world. What both Kyubey and Homura have failed to understand is that in a Buddhist universe, the decay of the material world is an illusion because all binaries are illusions. The past is the present is the future. Decay is life. Magical girls are witches. The material is immaterial, and the other is the self. Homura cannot save Madoka because there is no Madoka to save and nothing from which to save her. All things are One–and since this is a fictional story, that One is the narrative itself, and in turn the gestalt entity within which that narrative exists, the implied author.
We no longer have a Mami to contrast with Homura, but we do have the woman who kept being paralleled to Mami in the early episodes, Junko, who has two very important scenes in this episode. In the first, she discusses Sayaka’s disappearance and its effect on Madoka with Madoka’s English teacher. In this scene, she seems to parallel Sayaka more than Mami: she is gently chastened for her inability to stand by and do nothing, for insisting on doing rather than being, and a shot from the teacher’s point of view is bathed in blue light and framed to focus on her hair clip, with the result that she even looks like Sayaka.

Hovering above Junko throughout the conversation with Madoka’s teacher is a reproduction of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Notably, the position of the two characters aligns Junko with God and the teacher with Adam; at the same time, the red lighting on the teacher’s side and blue lighting on Junko’s causes God’s red mantle (which has been compared by scholars to both a uterus and a brain) to be barely visible; it is instead Adam who appears wrapped safely in red warmth. This image foreshadows Junko’s second scene in the episode, in the shelter, when she realizes that she has to stop protecting Madoka and start trusting her. It is a tragic scene, culminating in possibly the single densest shot in the series, a simple image of Junko’s mom-jeans-and-sweater-clad crotch, lower abdomen, and hand, Madoka’s mother reduced to a womb. The hand reaches out as if to grab Madoka, pull her inside–and then stops, and we cut back to Junko’s face. The woman will not be idealized (read: reduced and objectified) as a mother; she overrides her own mothering tendency and makes the active choice not to act, to allow Madoka to risk the life Madoka owns. Watching, we feel Junko’s pain as she lets go, but we also feel the profound respect and trust she is showing toward her daughter.

But Homura has been doing the opposite, pursuing a Christian ideal of salvation, in which the higher protects the lower, a permanent womb. She is trying to block Madoka from choosing the self-sacrifice she knows Madoka would make; if Junko is showing respect and trust toward Madoka, what is Homura showing towards her?

The answer, as of all people the supposedly unempathic and unemotional Kyubey notes (revealing once again that he has plenty of intellectual empathy, just no emotional empathy, a not entirely inaccurate first-order description of a sociopath), is that it has long ago ceased to be about Madoka. Homura herself described her journey to protect Madoka as a labyrinth, and the inside of her apartment resembles nothing so much as the surreal interior of a witch’s labyrinth. Extradiegetically, magical girls began as witches; diegetically, they all end as witches. Homura can transcend time. In Homura, all things are one, the past, present, and future become a single wheel. She is, in other words, both magical girl and witch, trapped in a labyrinth that is the narrative of the series itself. In that role as magical girl/witch, she brings both wishes and curses, at once protecting Madoka and ensuring her destruction.

But what transforms a magical girl into a witch is the transition from hope to despair, from the optimism that things will work out to the realization that death and decay are inevitable and inescapable, and Homura has never experienced that transition. Homura has never had hope. She was a weak and sickly child who became a magical girl out of desperation and a sense of duty, wishing to become not Madoka’s savior but her protector. Even in her wishes, she does not imagine that she will actually succeed, only that she will try. She is entirely and innately hopeless, and as such she is immune to despair–because like all other binaries, hope and despair are one. Thus it is not hopelessness that finally breaks Homura; rather, the realization that she is making things worse causes her to doubt her path for the very first time. For her, it is the transition from determination to doubt that threatens to bring about her transformation.

And there laughing at her is Walpurgisnacht, the witches’ Sabbath, the wheel of fate, the Harlequin. In the old commedia dell’arte, the Harlequin is a trickster figure, mocking all authority and order, and competing with the stern, sad Pierrot for possession of the beautiful Colombina. Like the Harlequin, Walpurgisnacht will dance forever with Homura, laughing at her and snatching away Madoka, her Colombina, defying rules or containment, a living symbol of the irreducible unpredictability and chaos of life. There is no higher and lower in the face of a trickster, only people. Rules are broken. Systems come crashing down.

And it is in this moment that Madoka arrives to make her wish.

26 thoughts on “Perhaps hopelessness is (The Only Thing I Have Left to Guide Me)

  1. Deep, as always.

    I gotta say, before Rebellion happened, I believed that in the sequel Junko would reject Madoka's wish after somehow regaining her memories of Madoka. This would then put her into conflict with Homura, who would fight for Madoka's sacrifice. And then Rebellion happened and blew my conception of Homura into the water…but I still can't help but think: If Junko knew her daughter wasn't going to come back, if she knew that it would be the last time she saw or remembered her daughter, would she have let Madoka go?

    Speaking of Rebellion, it's interesting that Walpurgisnacht is conspicuously absent. There are subtle and not-so-subtle references to Walpurgisnacht in the movie and in the paratext, but the witch herself does not appear. Yet Walpurgisnacht was arguably one of Homura's greatest enemies; it would have been thematically interesting for Walpurgisnacht to fight to bring Madoka and Homura together in Rebellion. There's a part of me that thinks Walpurgisnacht is being saved for the sequel.

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  2. “But Homura has been doing the opposite, pursuing a Christian ideal of salvation, in which the higher protects the lower, a permanent womb. She is trying to block Madoka from choosing the self-sacrifice she knows Madoka would make; if Junko is showing respect and trust toward Madoka, what is Homura showing towards her?”

    A very interesting question, especially in light of Rebellion. Although I find it hard to call this a fault of Homura. She's just very human, someone who wants to protect the person she loves no matter what it takes. Can we really fault her in Rebellion for wishing that things would have worked out differently, that Madoka could have lived and been by Homura's side?

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  3. Is your next project “The Near Apocalypse of 09” a Batman thing (hence the title) or a FMA Brotherhood thing (hence the 09)?

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  4. It's more ambitious than that, actually: The entire DCAU.

    And it's still a few months away, I'm afraid. The Very Soil still has at least a month or two left, and I'm probably going to take a break before I start NA09 in order to do a metric fuckton of reading.

    If I were to do something of this depth on FMA:B, it would be less semiotic and more of a craft thing, taking the series as a masterclass on constructing character and narrative. I'm not sure I have the skills to do that.

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  5. A fault, perhaps not. It's definitely a flaw though. And yes, her actions in Rebellion are understandable, but that's true of any action by any person if you take the time to try. She is a sympathetic character, but that doesn't mean her actions were correct–nor does doing the wrong thing mean that someone is automatically unsympathetic.

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  6. Something tells me you've seen this.

    It's interesting that Walpurgisnacht's main motif (besides gears) is the theatre stage, and her M.O. is to turn the world into a play, where it doesn't matter if it's a tragedy because it's all part of the script. Just as Homura is attempting to change the narrative course of Madoka's arc(s), so Walpurgisnacht represents the metafictional narrative railroading that Homura is trying to break free of and erase. Only Madoka is able to truly take down the narrative restraints and thus free Walpurgisnacht from her fury.

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  7. Thanks!

    I think it's inevitable that Walpurgisnacht was not in Rebellion, because she represents the Wheel of Fate, which has been subsumed by the Law of Cycles. Now that Homura has usurped the Law, it's possible Walpurgisnacht could return, but likely only as an aspect of Homura.

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  8. Quick nitpick: it's actually “Homura” not “Akemi” that can be taken to mean “flame.”

    Homura's name is written 暁美 ほむら (Akemi Homura) in the series. 暁美 (Akemi) is written in kanji; the first character means “daybreak” and the second means “beauty.” ほむら (Homura) is written in hiragana (which has no special meaning), but could be written in kanji as 炎 or 焔 meaning “flame.”

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  9. “What both Kyubey and Homura have failed to understand is that in a Buddhist universe, the decay of the material world is an illusion because all binaries are illusions. The past is the present is the future. Decay is life. Magical girls are witches. The material is immaterial, and the other is the self. Homura cannot save Madoka because there is no Madoka to save and nothing from which to save her.”

    I'm not very familiar with Buddhism, so it may be that I'm missing something important here, but taken at face value this seems to be saying that, well, “all binaries are illusions.” If that is so, why do any distinctions matter? How can one prefer a particular outcome to another, or if such a preference isn't justified, then why take any actions at all?

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  10. Keep in mind that I am far from an expert on Buddhism. I've done some reading, taken a couple of college courses, that's it.

    But basically, as far as I understand it, yes, all binaries are illusions. In fact, Buddhism goes further than that: all distinctions of any kind are illusory.

    As for preferences, one of the Four Noble Truths (the core beliefs which underlie the religion) is that desire is the cause of all suffering. A key part of attaining enlightenment is freedom from desire.

    This creates two paradoxes, both of which are acknowledged within Buddhism itself. The first is that if you have to shed all desire to become enlightened, then at some point you have to get rid of the desire to become enlightened and the desire to be free of suffering–so why don't people lose interest and give up just shy of enlightenment? That one tends to get answered differently by different schools or sects.

    The other paradox is that the Buddha was enlightened, but he did things. If he wasn't motivated by some kind of desire, why did he do them? That one actually has an answer, which is a common one among mystical schools–Qabbalah, Gnosticism, and transhumanism all include this idea, namely that the experience of enlightenment is so completely different from being unenlightened as to render the enlightened essentially incomprehensible to us.

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  11. To clarify, I knew people were taking pictures that looked like people whispering to each other and captioning them with “Hail Hydra,” but I hadn't actually seen any yet when I made this post.

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  12. True and I don't think Homura did something moral in Rebellion. Then again, I don't think she did something wrong either. Was there really a right answer to the dilemma she was faced with?

    I also find it interesting when you look at Madoka and Homura's relationship that neither on of them can stand being the weaker one, the one being protected. First Madoka protected Homura, then Homura wishes to be strong enough to protect her, then Madoka defied Homura's wishes and became a god, then Homura defied Madoka's wishes and forced happiness on Madoka by becoming the devil. I don't think any true resolution can be reached until they both sit down and are true to each other as equals. Then maybe we'll see a compromise that both parties can accept.

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  13. Well I mean champion in the sense that Madoka has a champion in Sayaka. Homura basically *is* Homulilly at this point.

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  14. @Alex: If Homura was acting to preserve her own life, then her actions would be justifiable as a sort of cosmic self-defense. Of course this is not the case, but Homura certainly seems to believe she is bringing Madoka back to life. I think if Homura was actually willing to explain herself there would be less of a problem.

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  15. @universalperson: I actually think Homura changing the universe to save her own life would be more selfish. In Rebellion, Homura's changed the universe not her her sake, but for the sake of Madoka's happiness. Homura can't be with Madoka in the new world and is obviously feeling extremely guilty over what she's done. She's sacrificed her own happiness for the sake of Madoka.

    Plus it seems that magical girls are saved from despair and all of the main characters are alive and happy. The Homuverse currently has no obvious downsides apart from the memory wiping thing.

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  16. Homura is the quintessential human. She suffers through the endless, and self inflicted, reincarnation due to her stubbornness and clinging onto the duality. The homuverse is but another reincarnation.

    To Buddha's eye, reincarnation itself is suffering, doesn't matter whether there is a good ending or a bad ending. In this sense, Homura deprives Madoka, Sayaka and others the chance to transcend the duality and to achieve enlightenment.

    This is not evil; this is human.

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  17. @Froborr
    I'm guessing one is not permitted to invoke “all distinctions of any kind are illusory” in one's own defense? That's probably considered cheating. But then again, the distinction between fair and unfair is also an illusion, right?

    War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

    Sorry, I couldn't resist.

    About the “freedom from desire” thing, yeah, that's kind of what I was getting at. Schopenhauer had much the same idea, that the will is the real source of all suffering, and the answer is asceticism and denial of the will. Given how strongly Nietzsche railed against that pessimism and asceticism, it's no surprise that eternal recurrence, the death of god, etc. show up in Rebellion.

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  18. @Alex: Yes, but she also altered Madoka's life without asking first, which brings to mind the whole consent issue Froborr brought up in previous entries. I would say that Homura had the right to reject Madoka's salvation to save her own life, but the fact that she's doing it for Madoka's life makes it more of a morally grey area since she is doing it without Madoka's consent.

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  19. Homura speaks of “wherever you [Sayaka] were before” as if that place is still unknown to her – as it apparently is, so Homura hasn't usurped the Law in the sense of fully incorporating it into herself. Instead, she has established her dominion over ordinary space as Madoka once held dominion over the other space, and taken Madoka, Sayaka, and Nagisa from that other space into ordinary space as the Law takes witches from ordinary space into the other space.

    Without Madoka, what is left in that other space? An accumulation of all witches that would have been born up to the present time, less Octavia and Charlotte. What was Walpurgisnacht? An accumulation of many witches.

    If there is anything post-Rebellion that can be said to be Walpurgisnacht, it is that which still dwells in the other space, and they are a perfected Walpurgisnacht.

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  20. It's an interesting idea, certainly, but I see two issues. First, the anime and paratext alike are deliberately coy on whether Walpurgisnacht is one which or many, while this would confirm that it's many. Second, yes, the witches are in Madoka's pure land, but so are the magical girls. Presumably, like Sayaka/Oktavia and Nagisa/Charlotte, they are now fully one. So that version of Walpurgisnacht would not rampage, it would be under the control of the magical girls just as the witches in Rebellion were.

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  21. @human anon
    gotta love you for that, I've been pushing the interpretation that homura represents humanity in the rebellion story myself for some time, gott is tot and all that, who killed god? not lucifer,

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