A tiny song sparrow lights on the feeder. It peeps as it eats. Casts its little bead-black eyes up and around incessantly, scanning for hawks, falcons, danger.
The chickens in the yard lumber around, pecking at grass, scratching in dirt and unraked decaying leaves. They huddle together; one always keeps an eye upward as the others feed. They seem to know they are food. They are as nervous as their flighty neighbor on the feeder. I watch over them as they graze, lord of their world.
These nervous creatures are the living descendants of some of the most powerful and dramatic creatures Earth has ever known. Dinosaurs would not recognize their kin now—cowering little chickens. They might even shudder, if dinosaurs were to shudder at all.
Dragons announce themselves in Skyrim. They roar, circle, and land, and the ground vibrates—I mean, the controller in your hands vibrates. They are well-made, appropriately terrifying. But equipped with the early tools given to new players, such as the special dragon-slaying sword Dragonbane and the shout Dragonrend, the dragons in Skyrim are not terribly difficult to defeat. Many considered this an error in the game. It could have been instead an acknowledgement of their place in our imaginations.
Dragons exist to be slain. In the medieval European imagination, dragons were creatures of immense evil, as opposed to the Asian version of dragons, who are fortuitous and generous. These European dragons guard hoards of treasure—gold, maidens, power—which no one can use, not even themselves (what use is a scrap of metal to a dragon? What use is a maiden?). They build their hoards and simply wait. The hero comes along to remove the dragon-obstacle and activate this wealth, to free it from uselessness and return it to circulation, feeding mouths, building homes, becoming lives.
Paolo Uccello painted two versions of St. George and the Dragon.
The earlier version is starkly flat, static—all the actors lined up in neat profile, the blocks of fields in the background oppressing the upper half of the scene, the absurd tent of the dragon’s cave rising out of nothing. The perfectly tidy horse poses before the little worm of the dragon already defeated, his symmetrical corkscrew tail and grass green lion paws are almost cute. It’s a dull and strange painting; even its own actors, shallow as stickers, seem uninterested in existing in it.
Uccello tried again a few years later in 1470, this time armed with a better grasp of linear perspective and foreshortening, as eagerly evidenced by the faceoff between the horse and dragon again, now both bent down as if mid-charge, bodies not flatly displayed for maximum legibility but contorted for maximum angst. Here the background correctly recedes into unpeopled silence, but for the eye of a whirlwind either issuing forth or beckoning back St. George, I can’t tell which. The dragon even bleeds in this one. The tidy loops of his corkscrew tail have gone undone; his more functional wings are painted like a fighter plane.
The treasure, the woman, now gestures to the dragon, not to the hero. This change is inscrutable.
My favorite thing about this painting might be the ground. I follow along the strange choices Uccello made to paint ugly olive plant matter in uneven blocks surrounded by loose grey brushstrokes of uncertain representation and I think about his mind. The sensible grid of the world is gone, replaced by aggressive unevenness and void. Is everything that is not our particular battle just a meaningless stage, a receding background? Notice the cave this time: built better into the landscape, not an aberration. The world in the first painting was ours, all judiciously carved up by human affairs. The world in the later painting belongs to the dragon. The woman and the man are its aberrations.
I didn’t know this painting was in London’s National Gallery when I visited there a couple years ago.
I turned a corner and it felt very much like a punch. My breath left me, and I stopped. I didn’t know it was here. I didn’t know. I’d come to this room to see his giant Battle of San Romano, with its clacking verticality, all horse legs and people legs and tall lances and banners and fringe: a monument, unlike the little dragon painting, which felt specifically unmonumental when I saw it, more of a postcard sent from some grumpy moralizer.
It’s not uncommon for people to say, upon seeing a painting they love in person for the first time, it’s much smaller than I imagined. Feelings just work that way in relation to size.
It was tucked into a corner. No one stood in front of it. I was delighted; it was all mine. I approached it slowly, grinning and nervous like I’d just run into a celebrity no one recognized but me.
There is just something about breathing in the presence of the real surface of a painting you love. That surface, that arrangement of pigment, becomes a bridge to the past, along which one hurries, hurries along toward the image of this artist’s real hand, his body connected to his thoughts, to the living past, to find that the past is a mirage.
I’d never thought much about Uccello’s insistence that St. George pierce the dragon, his foe, in the mouth, the open mouth, a symbol of its rapaciousness.
After an uncountable period of time spent staring at the painting, nothing is left but the painting. A surface, emptied of its history.
In the moment, you are looking for the past, you don’t imagine the painting to be a bridge to the future. Not that the future is there, anymore than the past is there.
“Uccello” means little bird. It wasn’t his real name. He earned the nickname for his fondness for painting birds.
The dragon was a message. Our mistake in reading the message was imagining it was a key to the past—a fossil, a seemingly-obvious incarnation of some deep memory of dinosaurs passed down from our animal ancestors, the overwhelming mystery between their power and their disappearance. To read the symbol of the dragon as a key to the past was to read a story of defeat. The dragons are gone, remember? For many millions of years they owned this world. Look at them now. Pathetic little chickens.
It’s a warning to us about hubris, clear as any Greek tragedy. Someday our living ancestors will be weak, fearful prey, humanoid worms, burrowing in the earth, scanning the space above for whoever has become king.
It’s not that this story is wrong. It’s just, as with so many stories, there’s another one hidden behind it.
The dragon is not a dinosaur, but a bird, and birds are almost always omens. A warning of things to come. It’s easy to see now how we missed the sign.
And I don’t know that we could have done better at reading this symbol in our own imaginations. Dragons were unreadable. They foretold of new systems, and it’s plain to see how small our imaginations are when it comes to envisioning new systems.
Uccello is in the midst of figuring out the new system of linear perspective burning like fire through the proto-Renaissance world of Florentine artists, a system that came from the East, like dragons did. The Medieval system of organizing picture planes in artificial jumbles of delineated objects ranked by importance indicated by size was not instantly overturned, but slowly overturned. In the Lives of the Artists, Vasari said Uccello liked to “vex his own soul” with this new problem of perspective. A new system makes no sense until it makes sense.
Dragons breathe fire. They tell the story of machines to come: engines, and our enslavement to them. Internal combustion engines and how they have come to ruin the landscape, little digital word/image engines we carry around in our pockets and how they have come to ruin our minds. Fire-breathers. How could anyone have understood this omen?
Most importantly, in their reckless hoarding, dragons warn us of the powerful to come, the billionaires, who lock away human wealth on a scale unimaginable to our ancestors. These billionaires, created by money itself, which was created by humans to the extent that one could now imagine the mass of humanity itself as one single, relentless metal-extracting organism.
When you ‘beat’ the game, the dragons in Skyrim don’t go away—in fact, they seem more numerous than ever. It’s one of my favorite details, which many considered an error in the game. They may be somewhat easy to defeat, but they never stop coming. They exist in a system that remains unchanged, no matter that Alduin, their evil leader, is ejected by you, the Dragonborn.
You, the Dragonborn, are a human with the soul of a dragon. Like most of our contemporary hero myths, this one implicates the hero herself into the forces of evil she attempts to vanquish. We are in a Dark and Complex Hero period, but I digress.
You are part of the problem. This is another detail I loved about the game. Little failed billionaires, ganging up to kill the billionaire.
Except that we don’t. The world belongs to the dragons now, as Uccello correctly predicted.
In the Chinese story of the Dragon’s Pearl, a poor boy and his mother find a miraculous pearl that multiplies anything that it touches—grass to harvest, rice to eat. In the scene in which the boy attempts to hide the pearl from the inevitable evildoers out to steal the pearl, he accidentally swallows it.
Following the established logic of the pearl’s magic, one would expect the pearl to multiply the boy—make more boys, or one new enormous boy. But it doesn’t. It turns him into a dragon.
The dragon slinks away into the river, forever guarding the magic pearl, whose magic is now locked away, lost to everyone but him. Billionaires do not become more human with more money, they become monsters.
In The Elder Edda of Scandinavia, the hero Sigur(th) is asked to slay Fafnir, who has become a dragon after sitting on a pile of gold he killed his father for. The dragons carved into Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian jewelry are at once a ward against the evil encroachment of avarice and a lure towards it. That shimmery brooch on that man’s heart might make you dragonish with envy. Regard it with care.
Emblems of our dragons, our billionaires, have the same power to warn away and beckon. There’s no way to reconcile this contradiction. It simply is. Lottery winners embody this power perfectly: they are cursed, we all say, satisfied we didn’t win the curse. But we buy another ticket. Well, my life wouldn’t be ruined by money, we all say. I’d do it right.
The video game becomes a satisfying place to accomplish tasks that could not otherwise be done in this plane of existence.
(I don’t say the “real world” vs. the “virtual world” because the distinction has become meaningless, as Baudrillard correctly predicted.)
There are 585 billionaires in America, the most of any country, with China edging close up behind us. The millionaires—the political class, the propagandists, the managers—let the billionaires sit on their hoards. They hope they too can become billionaires if they do. We, the enormous underclass, let the millionaires sit on their hoards. We hope we too can become millionaires if we do.
The vortex cloud behind St. George is both issuing him forth and beckoning him back. There’s no way to reconcile this contradiction.
“Indeed, one could judge how egalitarian a society really was by exactly this: whether those ostensibly in positions of authority are merely conduits for redistribution, or able to use their positions to accumulate riches,” writes David Graeber in his exemplary study of money Debt: the First 5,00 Years. No American would hesitate to identify our system as robustly not egalitarian, to put it mildly.
What can be done? The dragonslayers might come forward, but all fail. There are simply too many dragons. The rich are all dragons now. The upper middle class especially, the mini-millionaires, the ones who remain unthreatened by medical debt and unburdened by college debt, who bully their way into the best schools then slam the doors behind them, who pride themselves on their cosmetic application of philanthropy and redirect angry attention from the poor onto browner and poorer scapegoats, then ask with an easy shrug why we simply can’t Behave our way into similar circumstances. We, the poor, drowning in debt and fear, tussle among ourselves, the only targets we can reach. We never make it to the dragon’s cave. We don’t even have the lances nor the perfect white horses we’d need to pierce the dragon even if we did get there. And being poor is quite exhausting, after all. It’s designed to be that way.
In the story of St. George and the Dragon, the dragon does not hoard gold, but demands human sacrifice, which is just the same. The princess has been given up by the community to the dragon, as it is her turn, and that’s fair after all, but the king and his court and brave knights simply cannot abide this particular human sacrifice. This is called class solidarity.
Anyway, I mention this to point out another tiny detail in Uccello’s later painting I love: the leash. In Jacobus de Voragine‘s foundational version of the legend, St. George asks for the maiden’s belt, which he lassoes around the dragon’s neck. The dragon instantly fell into submission and followed the maiden now like a “meek beast.” The slaughter, then was no difficult task for St. George.
That thin line that hangs slack between the princess’s lily-white hand and the dragon’s knotty head, that is a human bond. Because when we talk about the connection between billionaires and their hoard, their money, we are really talking about people.
The human sacrifices. That thin string tying the treasure to the dragon seems so tenuous, too impossibly frail to overcome a dragon. Remember, it is a bond.
Money, as Graeber defines it, was mostly used in the past to balance human relationships. It was just a way of recording debts, a physical symbol of intangible relations between people, tokens of feelings.
My favorite chicken was the all-black silkie named Anne Carson. She chattered constantly; I can tell all of my chickens apart by their vocalizations. I like to think she picked up the soft chatter from the hours I spent hand raising her from a day-old chick, tucking her into my breast pocket sometimes and walking around the house just talking to her.
Anne Carson went broody all the time. You see, when a hen goes broody, she’s switched into incubation mode, and will faithfully sit on her eggs no matter how hungry or tired she gets. Silkies are known for their broodiness, and so they make great mothers to other breeds of chickens. They will indiscriminately raise any eggs you place under them.
Of course, our Anne Carson could never be a mother because we don’t have a rooster. The eggs our chickens lay, then, are unfertilized, and could never hatch a live chick. They are all duds.
I’d pluck her out of the nesting box while she scowled and fluffed up, place her in the yard to get some exercise and food. She’d run right back to the nesting box, to her fake babies. She couldn’t help it.
Anne Carson was killed by a predator recently. Something dexterous, maybe a racoon, opened a latch we imagined couldn’t be opened by an animal. The other birds lived. Anne Carson’s torn body was found in the yard. I was inconsolable for weeks.
Such a tiny, delicate dinosaur having come all this way into the future, surely as omens, surely omens of the next unimaginable world.