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How 'The Western Book of the Dead' and 'True Detective' are related

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Lacey Terrell/HBO

True Detective is so laden with literary references that the burden of explaining them is probably better suited to a college thesis. But that won’t stop us from attempting to do so. While season 1’s foggy bayou took inspiration from supernatural gothic horror, season 2 takes a more mystical, spiritual route—not to mention a distinctly pessimistic one. 

Season 2’s first epiosde takes its title from an actual book, The Western Book of the Dead. One version was written by a man named Alfred Schmielewski, who went by the name “Yogi A.S. Narayana.” Narayana was a mid-20th century mystic and alleged psychic, who predicted his own immortality—and was reportedly killed in a mysterious and fortuitous murder that remains unsolved. (Confirmed information on Narayana is difficult to come by, but we’re working under the assumption that writer Nic Pizzolatto might take even a fictional story as inspiration.)

Here, you’ll find more explanation than you need to unpack “The Western Book of the Dead,” True Detective‘s first episode of season 2, and how the book by the same name may give us hints about the rest of the season. (Note: This post was written having watched episodes 1-3, but we’ve steered clear of major spoilers.)

Lacey Terrell/HBO

On reincarnation and immortality: “Aging may emerge as a preventable disease”

The Western Book of the Dead proclaims itself to be “not a Book of the Dead, but a Book of Immortality.” It alleges that a Yogi, or enlightened person, can “leave his physical frame when and where he pleases.” Here are a few salient quotes to help understand the meat of this book:

  • “Where the common people suffer the agony of dying, the Yogi leaves his body before it starts to die. This is why the Yogi never dies. “
  • “The common people die because they are still inside the body, or connected with the body, when the body goes through the process of its dissolution.”
  • “The physical body does not die in the first place. Its various elements simply disintegrate. They do not ever disappear, or become nothing. Sometime after dissolution, the forces of Ix nature reassemble the elements, and they become something else.”
  • “Science today speculates that the human body could be an immortal biological unit, given that efficient waste elimination was possible…. In centuries to come, aging may emerge as a preventable disease, which can be controlled or even eliminated by science and yoga.”

In True Detective, Antigone’s (Rachel McAdams) father owns some sort of yoga/ spiritual center, the Panticapaeum Institute, creating a clear line between her character and the book’s themes. Keep these ideas in mind when listening to him teach.

Lacey Terrell/HBO

On man’s potential: “Born mentally dead”

From here, The Western Book of the Dead becomes even more nihilistic and elitist in a vaguely Nazi-ish way (Narayan was born in Austria in 1928, but according to this not-totally-credible bio, one of the few available, he wasn’t necessarily associated with the Nazi party). Some snippets from the text:

  • “As much as fifty percent of human beings are born without any significant potential. They are virtually born mentally dead. Although they can be programmed to function in society, they will never be able to generate intelligence, consciousness, creativity, and culture.”
  • “Only in very recent evolutionary history did the ape lose its fur and became a naked ape. Few amongst the naked apes created themselves true men. For many are the naked apes and few are the human beings among them.”
  • He cites the Italian Renaissance as an example of “the progress of humanity, of human culture, of mental and spiritual life, of the arts and the sciences… brought about by elites in very small numbers, but great in creativity.”

These quotes are absolutely ripe for a crime show like True Detective: Imagine a killer so disgusted by the “programmed” masses that exist without potential, doing nothing to contribute to the advancement of humanity. The text gets darker:

  • “We must face the reality that the man of the masses can hardly ever be educated, or be taught creativity, or the sublime art of thinking. Most people above thirty cannot think, they just function as programed.”
  • He cites Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as proof of “the depressing fact that the masses of humanity have always lived in a state of a mental coma.”
  • Narayana also quotes Persian Sufi Mystic Abu Yazid, “an Afghan sage” who writes, “Humanity is deep asleep. Few have awakened.”
Lacey Terrell/HBO

The other Western Book of the Dead

Another Western Book of the Dead exists online in PDF form—it’s unclear how exactly the two texts are related, but we’d be willing to bet Pizzolatto has read this one, too, based on the quotes below. This Western Book, which is written out in verse form like a piece of scripture, details man’s realization that humanity is not significant:

  • “He was, on the contrary, of no importance at all—simply a complex product of cause and effect. A meaningless piece of MATTER on a large but equally meaningless piece of MATTER called EARTH. He had emerged from primordial slime and was really neither more or less than that.”
  • As meaning slips from the world, “LOVE” turns into “SEX,” and “families began to die as families and children were left to the whim of the courts.”

We know that sex plays a huge part in this season’s True Detective: Steve (Riley Smith) apologizes to Antigone after they leave her bedroom because something she did—or wanted—took him by surprise. Her sister works as a cam girl in some sort of legal brothel. Paul (Taylor Kitsch) has to take medication to maintain an erection (I have my theories on this, but they contain spoilers). Ray (Colin Farrell) is fighting for the boy who may or may not be his biological son—this aligns with “families begin to die,” and families and children being “left to the whim of the courts.” It’s going to be a rough season.

We’ll continue to analyze the rest of the literary references in True Detective as season 2 unfolds. Stay tuned.

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