vincentcopyAs we approach the holiday season, in which I look forward to Paradox Interactive’s Europa Universalis IV and a new sweater for the frigid mid-Atlantic, I was recently reminded of the floater, a (non-) fictional man on the ceiling lovingly created by Paul F.M. Zahl, an out-of-body person watching the doctors operate on his body. What could each religion mean to him, when he needs it most? Specifically, things – a new historic simulation video game or a Tauntaun sleeping bag?

Zahl, in his newest book, PZ’s Panopticon, examines the religion of Things in a remarkably fresh way, using his ‘panopticon’ (‘all-seeing’) of a person nearly-dead to examine what each religion has to offer to the ‘man on the ceiling’. Unflaggingly honest, unflinchingly personal and unapologetically strange, Zahl’s ‘panopticon’ is the best new pair of glasses we’ve tried on in years:

I used to think on Sunday mornings that if I just got up there and said the words, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal…”, everybody would nod their heads and say “Yes!”. Then the people would act on it. A few did…

You always want something more.

I am a bush-league hoarder like everybody else. Can I ever own enough Edgar Allen Poe movies directed by Roger Corman?

Well, there are the old VHS versions (Pan and Scan), the newer DVDs (Letterbox); and the new BluRay versions are coming out, in HD. Can I withstand the temptation to buy another copy of Tomb of Ligeia? The short answer is no. Absolutely not! I cannot resist the temptation of owning a slightly better copy of Tomb of Ligeia. (It never looked that good in the theater, by the way, the eight times I saw it.)…

Wanting things gets obsessional. Whether it’s shoes at DSW or men (“It’s Raining Men” – The Weather Girls), new formats of I Married a Monster from Outer Space or another cat in the house – there is no end to it. “Shop till you drop.” Drop dead.

When it comes to the man on the ceiling, material possessions have lost their specialness. He can’t hold onto them, for one thing. Even his Montblanc pen won’t stay in his breast pocket, not to mention his comb and chapstick. And if he’s his wife, his purse is floating all over the place, and there’s gum and little tabs of chocolate and credit cards and kleenex. Things have lost out completely, as a lasting good, so far as our floater is concerned.

We don’t need to worry about disillusioning him about possessions. His near-death accomplished that in seconds.


For those interested, “Things” is just one of several “religions that are not called religions” which Dr. Zahl explores, and “religions that are not called religions” is one category amongst world religions, dead religions, and a wonderful meditation on the possibilities of sense which inhere in “the occult” (hint: many of the best occult writers were children of clergymen!). But, for all our edification, perhaps it’s important to know, provisionally, how satisfying/effective each non-religious religion is for the man on the ceiling (read: everyman, you!). A ranking follows, quoting and paraphrasing:

1. Power – “It has the longest shelf-life”,

2. Sex – can be enjoyed “almost until death”,

3. Ideology – can be used to categorize “until you almost can’t think anymore”,

4. Family and Children – “Attending love is nice at the end”,

5. Fame – “the older you get, the more you forget how famous you once were”,

6. Things, which “get old the moment you get them”.


And there it is. Picking up the Panopticon, what do you see? One-way love? A need to dis-attach from the ego? ‘Radical’ monotheism? An Aztec priest in a bird costume, the reliability of a Roman Catholic priest, or the desirability of a “Burial of the Dead” BCP funeral service? As a final teaser, perhaps the dying man needs something addressing “the heart of the matter.” In the here and now, though, I for one can likely make do with a Panopticon for the holiday work break and a Blu-Ray Ligeia under the tree.