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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


62. [Plate 52]
Worshiping the Scarecrow

Armageddon was coming, and the nightmares weren't prepared. They didn't have an Antichrist. Somehow they'd forgotten to budget for one, and then there had been cost overruns, and... well, they simply couldn't afford the prices that the heavy hitters of Hell could command. When they came begging, hat in hand, Beelzebub laughed scornfully. Lucifuge Rofocale slammed the door in their faces. Asmodeus, Rhotomagus, Beliel... Nobody was willing to work pro bono.

Still, the End Times required an Antichrist and so, having no better options, the nightmares built a scarecrow. They lashed some poles together and wrapped cloth about them. They fashioned a face from a blob of wax. They put it up and hoped for the best.


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As a scarecrow, it wasn't half bad. As the universal enemy of mankind, last ruler of Earth, and scourge of Christianity, it was a joke. "Oh, come on!" snorted the Pope when he saw it. "Cut me some slack, why don't you?" Even the tabloids wouldn't take it seriously.

So the nightmares hired a consultant.

"It's simple semiotics," he told them. "You have an areferential null-content signifier."


"It doesn't mean anything. Which means that it means nothing. And that's the message you've got to push!"

So the whispering campaign began. "It's worse than vacuous," the word went out, "it's kitsch. It has neither interior nor exterior significance... it's self-spoofing irony turned upon itself... nihilism gone mad."

The very next day, a woman walking by the scarecrow fell to her knees and vomited up worms. Whether they were real worms in real vomit is irrelevant. It was a shocking thing to do, when the Antichrist wasn't even trying to convince you it wasn't a sham. To be possessed by demons is bad enough. To be possessed by a value-free self-referential icon of postmodern theoretics is just perverse.

People gathered before the scarecrow, muttering and wondering. Inevitably somebody fell to her knees and began to worship it. Inevitably, she was joined by others. Within a week, all the world was in the grips of an antireligious mania.

Everyone knew that nobody believed, and nobody believed that anybody was sincere about it. But that was exactly the point.

Neat, huh?


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This is the 62nd of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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