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The Split Subject

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Originally posted by crowleyj

OK, first of all, this is not my gif, it’s @crowleyj’s gif, can we all just sit back and enjoy this for a bit.


I’ve been seeing all these posts about how people are suddenly realizing how starved they are for happy endings as they try to understand why Good Omens took over their brains and hearts so fast and so utterly. It’s true; Good Omens takes the fucking Apocalypse and turns it into a story that genuinely makes you feel good about the world and people and love, which is some trick, and definitely something that should be recognized and applauded.

I would like to briefly suggest something else that I’m pretty sure is going on here for me, and may partly explain the emotional impact of this storyline for some other people: that the whole Azirapahle & Crowley plot (put a / there if you want! For me they are both!) is a reworking, on a scale simultaneously cosmic and intimate, of a story that fascinates all of us who have been subjected to binary divisions: the reintegration of the split subject.

[Before we move on: I was not aware, when I wrote this, that Neil Gaiman has apparently said that originally GO was intended to have a single protagonist but then they decided to have two. I am now, though.]

So here is an anecdote about my early writing life. I mean, VERY early, before I knew anything about what I was doing. I was around 13, as I recall, and at that age I spent a lot of time starting novels and getting about 10 pages into them. My mother, who was getting a very leisurely masters degree in humanities from a local Catholic college, took a course on literary representations of hell that introduced me in a second-hand way to Dante’s Inferno, No Exit, Paradise Lost, and other masterpieces. I must have been very taken by the Paradise Lost scenario, because I started a novel based on that concept (without, probably, having actually read any of it). It was about two angels named Adelaide and Beatrice, names which I had chosen by looking up the meanings of names in the appendix to the old gilt-edged dictionary I had in my room. Adelaide means, the Google confirms, “noble natured.” Beatrice derives from the Latin Beatrix meaning “she who makes happy/blessed,” which is why Dante chose it for his alter ego’s fictional love interest. Anyway, Adelaide and Beatrice had been created together–in this novel, angels were created two by two, in same sex pairs–and were sisters/best friends/look I was 13 and very innocent. During the War in Heaven, Beatrice chose the Dark Side, and got sent to the lake of fire. The separation was the motivating event of the plot. I have no idea what I had planned for the rest of it. I just remember imagining that moment of loss, where Adelaide’s co-created self gets cast into the pit, and for the rest of her life, which will also be the rest of Biblical history, she’ll be trying to get Beatrice back.

It’s clear to me now looking back that this was me just beginning to cope with the Catholic injunction against female sexuality in general and same-sex love in particular. Beatrice was not evil. She chose the other side out of principle–a possibility that Milton definitely leaves open, though Milton also keeps trying to convince us that everyone who made that choice was wrong and deserves to be punished. It is a choice that Adelaide, who would have been the point of view character had my understanding of point of view been more sophisticated at that time, was sure was wrong and would never have allowed herself to make. And yet, the way I set up that universe, Adelaide literally could not have been made without Beatrice. Adelaide’s price for staying true to God is the loss of half of who she was meant to be. Beatrice’s price for rebelling against God is the same, plus separation from God and all that implies in Catholic theology.

So I had–thinking, of course, that I was doing something original–created AB as a split subject. This is a very common fictional device and you see it a lot in Victorian literature, where social conventions forced a split between the public (”good”) and the private (”bad”) self. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the most concrete manifestation; this trope is also all over The Picture of Dorian Gray. But it’s often not that literal.) But you also see it pop up in other places, like Star Trek: TOS’s “The Enemy Within.” The question is: do you resolve the split–which is intolerable–by obliterating the “bad” self, or by reuniting with it?

For queer people who grow up in the shadow of a vengeful, antifeminist, sex-negative Christian God, this question is very concrete, and has the potential to become all-consuming. Today’s generation of queer people–I hope–will not have to go through this agony in the same way that many people of my generation did. Nor, I hope, will they be working this question out for themselves in the fear that healing the split and reintegrating the ‘bad self’ will cast them out of the realms of the good and the light forever. 

What’s compelling to me about Good Omens is not just that it’s a happy ending, but that it turns the apocalyptic ending with which so many of us were menaced–embrace your desiring, loving, erotic self, and the world will end/you will go to hell–into a happy ending. If Aziraphale and Crowley are two halves of a split subject, then what happens at the end of the novel is that they reintegrate. They have been flirting with this outcome (if you will) since the Creation; but it’s not until the End Times that Aziraphale realizes that the Earth–the place where he can be in more or less constant touch with his other self, even if they can only occasionally and fleetingly be together–matters more to him that Heaven does.

 In the novel, the implications of this are not fully developed. After the Great Failure, we are meant to imagine that both sides are so embarrassed that they’re not going to acknowledge this problem long enough to deal with punishing Aziraphale or Crowley. The adaptation, however, is another @#$! story. First, the final battle is changed to give us the image of Aziraphale and Crowley becoming one continuous being through their shared support of Adam:


Originally posted by jimothycrowley

Equally important, the adaptation makes it clear that there WILL be consequences–anguishing, annihilating consequences–for this. The price of integrating the self, we are told by the flash-forward at the beginning of the final episode, will be the loss of at least one of the split selves; closer to the end, we discover that the good self is also scheduled for execution. BUT–and this is my point–Aziraphale and Crowley beat the rap. They escape both divine and diabolical punishment; and they escape it BY becoming even more intimate, even more integrated, than they ever have before, during the body-swap.

To call it a body-swap is actually misleading. In a body-swap, at least as I understand it, two beings exchange insides, so that each is possessing the other’s body. We know from the bar scene that this is out of the question; Aziraphale is pretty sure that if an angel tried to possess a demon they would both "probably explode," and Crowley doesn't argue with him. But Agnes’s last prophecy tells them to choose their *faces* carefully. What each is really doing is simply reconfiguring his celestial/diabolical matter so that it presents the outward appearance of the other. This may seem more superficial; but consider the fact that this can only fool their erstwhile colleagues because they are *already* closer together in substance than ever before. Both in Heaven and in Hell, the failure of the execution ‘makes sense’ because the executioners have on some level recognized the fact that what they were dealing with was neither all angel nor all demon. Also, while they are presenting as each other, each of them is both Aziraphale and Crowley. This is visualized for the viewer during the “switch back,” where through the magic of CGI each character looks for a few seconds like Michael Sheen and David Tennant’s love child. 

So–yes–happy ending. But specifically, this happy ending is a reversal, really an evisceration, of the tragic ending with which the self has always been threatened by the forces that split it in the first place. Joining forces, coming together, turns out to be the right thing to do, both morally AND practically. And once the self is whole again, neither heaven nor hell can harm it.

So. That is a LOT. It is a LOT on every level. It is a lot theologically, it is a lot psychologically, and it is a lot from a pop culture point of view (I would point out that the way Gaiman et al. handled the ‘twist’ is in itself healing for people who have been through the meaningless, trust-violating, happiness-destroying TWISTS of Moffat and Gatiss, who refuse to give their actors the opportunity to do what Tennant and Sheen did so brilliantly in that sequence, and who love snatching AUGH! from the jaws of awww). If it blew you away, do not be surprised or alarmed. The adaptation gives us–generously–something we hardly ever get: the feeling that not only can we become whole, but we can remain whole, in spite of anyone who comes for us.