It isn’t nothing, it’s everything! (Rarity Takes Manehattan)

I am about 80% sure this bit was added in just to explain
Pinkie Pie talking about hot dogs back in Season 1.

If the qlippoth are the anti-sephiroth, then the absence of sephiroth, the “hole” which can be filled with any fruit of the Tree, is Da’at, Knowledge. In Jewish tradition it is identified with the awakening of self-awareness and with adolescence, and divided into the “upper gate” that mediates between wisdom and understanding, and the “lower gate” that mediates between pure intellect and emotion. It is thus the heart of the creative process and the path to Enlightenment–and yet it itself is empty, just a container into which any of the ten true Vessels may be place.

In some variants of the European occult tradition, most notably Aleister Crowley’s, it is a gateway to the Abyss, beyond which lies the inverted tree of the qlippoth, and which must be crossed to attain true Enlightenment. There is battled the formless demon Choronzon, the shifting one who becomes your own shadow; there one is forced to either abandon the quest or abandon the Self.

Back in the Jewish tradition, the Zohar calls it “the key that opens six.” Just so we’re clear on what we’re talking about.

It’s January 4, 2014. The top song is still Eminem and Rihanna with “Monster.” The top movie is once again and quite deservedly Frozen. In the news, a pair of terrorist bombings in Volgograd, Russia; ISIS takes control of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi; and attempted arson at a gay nightclub in Seattle results in only a small fire and no injuries.

In ponies we have Dave Polsky penning “Rarity Takes Manehattan,” and something more or less new for the series: a season-long, preplanned arc.

That this arc is season-long and preplanned is not controversial; that this is something new for the series and in this episode might be, so let us consider. First, there are some intimations of arcs in the first and third seasons. However, the creators of the show have made clear that the Grand Galloping Gala was not a preplanned arc in the first season, but a throwaway reference that they decided to run with; meanwhile, the Princesses’ testing of Twilight ended up, thanks to the reduced length of Season 3, compressed into the premiere and the finale, so not so much an arc as a single story and its sequel.

The second objection is that the arc was introduced with the appearance of the crystal box at the end of the season premiere, so how can it said to be introduced in this episode? And the answer is that no event can be the “First Annual…” anything; it’s not annual until the second year. Likewise, an arc can be intended, but it doesn’t become an arc at the beginning; only when a second episode continues it can it be clearly seen as an arc. Of course, in hindsight “Castle Mane-ia” and arguably even “It’s About Time” are part of the arc as well, but watching the series in order, that is not yet apparent as of “Rarity Takes Manehattan,” while it is fairly straightforward to recognize that the ending implies that the rainbow thread will return–and since we know the ponies are keeping their eyes open for six unknown keys, parsimony suggests the rainbow thread as a candidate for one, making this episode a sequel to the premiere and implying five more like it, presumably one for each of the Mane Six. (Which is, of course, what occurs.)

So what, actually, is happening in this episode? There are three layers at work here, all important.

The first is the running theme we’ve been seeing all season of exterior intrusion. In this case, it’s again an ideological alien, namely our villain of the week, Suri Polomare, notably voiced by Tabitha St. Germaine, the same actress as Rarity. We have, in other words, a pony with the same voice and profession as Rarity, but devoid of her essence. Chokhmah is literally Wisdom, but in the process of creation it represents the underlying creativity, and is also known as the power or palate of selflessness, a fitting choice for the pony of Generosity. Its qlippothic counterpart in Crowley’s system is Ghagiel, the force that hinders the creative process, surrounds itself with pride and ego, and dwells in a world of illusion and lies.

Thus we find Suri Polomare, the embodiment of the capitalist ideal of the economically rational actor. She is motivated purely by her own self-interest and pursues only her own advancement, exploiting those too weak to stand against her, such as Coco, sucking up to those with the power to give her what she wants or stand in her way, such as when she tricks Rarity into giving her the fabric, and then betraying her benefactors when they are no longer useful or powerful enough to endanger her, as when she tricks Rarity into staying away from the judge. She is without scruple, perfectly willing to be dishonest, violate the trust of others, or steal, as long as she profits from it–even in the face of defeat, she will use trickery and underhanded tactics to get the victory, as long as it’s in a way that she thinks she won’t get caught.

By contrast, Rarity’s song “Generosity” presents the more typical pony way of life, which is basically a socialist utopia. She describes Manehattan as a gift economy in which ponies, motivated purely by the desire to help others and confident that it will eventually come back around, do favors for other ponies. She demonstrates by giving a hotel bellhop an enormous tip and, along with the others, helping a taxi driver fix his wheel. After the song, the episode demonstrates the power of this concept by having the taxi driver, out of gratitude at the Mane Six’s earlier help, volunteering to take Rarity to the fashion competition when she needs to get there in a hurry, and then the bellhop helps the rest of the Mane Six get Rarity’s dresses there in time. But note that Rarity helped several other ponies during the song, none of whom do anything to help her in the rest of the episode. Such is the nature of generosity; while the rational actor is entirely about personal profit and thus works to guarantee it, the generous actor doesn’t care about their own personal gain, and accepts that it might work out in the end or it might not. The point of generosity is not to accumulate gratitude as a sort of currency, but to be generous; personal gain is irrelevant.

This means that it is quite possible for a rational actor to exploit a generous one, as Suri does to Rarity. In the short term, Suri comes very close to destroying Rarity, making her act extremely ungenerously as she pushes her friends hard to make a second round of clothes for the contest (the image of young women in a small room, working themselves to exhaustion on sewing machines, is almost certainly a reference to sweatshops). But here we get the second layer of what’s going on in this episode: Rarity is being tested. She is pushed to the limits of her generosity by Suri’s greed and manipulation, and very nearly falls into the trap letting herself be guided by personal gain, denying the ideals she expressed at the beginning of the episode. This is the illusion Suri/Ghagiel weaves, because the rational actor wins in the short term, making it often look as if economic rationality–or, to call it what it is, callous, manipulative selfishness– is the winning approach, that the bastards will always win in the end.

But Rarity passes. She abandons the contest to find her friends. Winning, acquiring, gaining, is less important than making and maintaining social bonds–and it’s true. An excessively rational person cannot be trusted, because they will eventually betray you once that is in their best interest; loyalty is irrational, and therefore only a somewhat irrational person can be trusted. The illusion in which Suri traps Coco is, as Coco notes, in getting her to believe that everyone is as cruelly rational as Suri, and that Coco must therefore go along with Suri’s desires in the hopes of one day being able to advance her own goals. But this is false; people are far more generous than is logical, as Coco realizes from observing the generosity of Rarity and the Mane Six.

This is the third layer: by passing her test, abandoning gain in order to reconnect with and do something nice for her friends, Rarity teaches Coco about generosity. Rarity is evolving beyond being merely an icon of generosity; she is a source of it, spreading it to others. And because Coco learns generosity, she gives Rarity a gift as well, allowing Rarity to win out over Suri in the fashion contest and netting Coco a new job as a costume designer with the theater company. As the simulations in the article I linked demonstrate, the selfish bastard wins in almost any isolated contest, but over time and a sequence of contests, the altruistic and generous–the followers of strategies the researchers dubbed “nice”–triumph because they are able to trust one another and cooperate, while the rational actor becomes isolated.

The illusions and selfishness of Gaghiel are defeated. The first key is found, and moreso we have found the formula for acquiring the rest: each pony shall be tested, and in passing their test, shall teach another–fitting for the fruit of Knowledge.

For now we are done, but we shall be returning to the Abyss soon enough.

Next week: But there are more shadows here than just the qlippoth. This episode had perhaps the highest density yet of references for the older viewers, from the Fifth Doctor to the cast of Mad Men to Grumpy Cat. The bronies are invading the show more and more–what darkness follows them? The dread specter of adulthood is here…

4 thoughts on “It isn’t nothing, it’s everything! (Rarity Takes Manehattan)

  1. Older viewers, huh? I got none of those references. Recognized that grumpycat was some kind of reference just because it was jarring, but had never heard of it before seeing it. Let's just say I missed out on so-called “popular” culture – just reading this series is teaching me about movies and music I've never heard of before.

    Same thing with kabbalah, for that matter. I grew up observant Jewish and never heard a word about any of this da'at and qlippoth you're discussing until I was in college. Then or since I never got the impression that it was anything other than generic mysticism.

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  2. Well, “older viewers” here means “older than the target audience,” so would include basically anyone with more digit in their age. Of that group, I suspect that yes, the majority would catch at least some of these references.

    Kabbalah… well, as I have been trying to make sure to note in these essays, there are at least two distinct traditions of Kabbalah. The older tradition is the Jewish tradition, starting with the Jews of Alexandria in about the first century CE. Generally speaking, this tradition more heavily emphasizes gematriya (Jewish numerology) and the true Sephiroth, while relatively de-emphasizing Da'at and the qlippoth (though they do originate with this tradition). This tradition has been passed down by the more mystically inclined Jews ever since, and is still practiced by many of the Hassidim and the Chabadniks.

    However, first-century Alexandria is also where Western alchemy began, and there were a few Jews prominently involved in it, as a result of which there is more than a little Kabbalah in the DNA of alchemy. This was generally de-emphasized during the Golden Age of Islam, but when those Arabic translations of the Alexandrian texts were translated into Latin and became available in medieval Europe, it sparked an interest in Kabbalah among Christian mystics and alchemists, resulting in a separate tradition of Kabbalah. This version ultimately came to focus almost exclusively on the Sephiroth, and in particular developed its own versions of Da'at and qlippoth. Those in turn were emphasized heavily by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later Aleister Crowley, who in turn massively influenced modern Anglophone occultists. That latter is probably why they seem like “generic mysticism” to you.

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  3. Ah, OK. Thanks for the history lesson, it makes more sense now. I was Conservative, fading to liberal after I got to college, and know little about Chassidim other than that they're an Orthodox sect.

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