Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

‘The Sixth Sense’: more than a twist ending

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9CF7B57C-9DCC-483B-A35E-3B59A7852032The Sixth Sense was for me a memorable film from the late 90s, largely for its spooky ghost scenes and its notorious twist ending. I had occasion to rewatch it again last night for the first time in 20 years and I have to admit it is far more complex than I remembered it.

Far from being a clever movie about a kid who sees “dead people”, it is really a meditation on loss, social isolation, love and trust. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist, tries to help troubled 12-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), while simultaneously dealing with loss and lack of connection with his own wife. It becomes clear (from the trailer at first) that Cole is scared and disturbed as he can see the often horribly disfigured ghosts of dead people all around him, who “don’t know they’re dead”. Through their sporadic therapy sessions, Malcolm and Cole learn to garner the trust to talk about and, finally, the courage to confront their intimate troubles. Each discovers what they are denying out of profound hopelessness and fears of rejection.

This is my kind of film mainly because this extremely serious and emotionally potent core is expressed through what is, on the face of it, a completely ludicrous story – I mean the kid sees dead people. Furthermore, I have friends who are child therapists and, while some of the practice in the film is credible enough, a lot of Crowe’s processes are a little simplistic with a few dubious lines. However, a movie centred on the therapeutic process undergone by a realistically troubled child would not, I think, interest me unduly. It is the combination of the whole ghost-seeing fantasy with the realistic emotional reactions which make this story such a gem. Indeed, the blending of genres here is so unique that, as the director (on the DVD special features) remarks, the film was a hit with teenage boys *and* elderly women – usually two completely separate demographics.

What would a realistic “traumatised child” movie centre upon? Inevitably, abuse of some kind: violent, sexual or psychological. None of which would be much fun to watch, in my view. Yet I would argue that many of the vulnerabilities and complexities involved in this kind of story are expressed so powerfully through this ‘spooky story’. In this way the film approaches myth or fairy tale, with the fantasy elements serving as the instruments for the communication of some deeper wisdom. The religious themes involving life after death also contribute here.

913E3D9A-C4CF-4DDE-8DC8-073E3C9F615CI also admire the film’s craft – the aspect that I think most engages an audience: using the elements of cinema in specifically dramatic ways. The filmmakers do this throughout often in subtle ways from the complex scenes of multiple realities occurring simultaneously (e.g. Malcolm’s anniversary restaurant scene with his wife both seemingly reacting to his presence and yet there on her own as well) to the extended handheld shot following Cole’s mother around the apartment concealing the simple effect of all the cupboard doors suddenly being open. As is often the case, it is manipulation of point of view which is so powerful on film. I was particularly impressed with an early scene in which Malcolm attempts to gain Cole’s trust. He says that he will predict what Cole is thinking and, if he is right, Cole can step towards him, and, if he is wrong, Cole can step away from him. Use of Cole’s point of view at various points throughout this scene represent their relative closeness and distance through tracking forward and backward in line with Cole’s footsteps. This is a highly dramatic and emotive use of cinema in what could have been a less involving stagey dialogue scene. And of course, the cinema contributes most powerfully to the impression of Cole’s horrific world as we become more immersed in it later in the film. The effects are so powerful while being so simple. Even the confusion between the horizontal of Malcolm’s bed at the beginning and the vertical of his leaning against the wall at the ending reflects the disorientation he feels visually, especially as we cross-cut between them. This is unusually excellent craft, in the dream-like idiom which cinema does best.

Written by tomtomrant

9 May 2018 at 9:30 pm

Posted in cinema, myth, the arts

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The Internet: democracy reset ?

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I open my iPad and click on an app. An unfamiliar screen opens advising me that my privacy is safe due to some new policy or other. I am reassured, apparently, and click to make it go away.

Many have been outraged recently regarding revelations about Cambridge Analytica meddling in the political process of various nations around the world and concerns about the personal profiling undertaken by advertisers on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet. I’m not so much outraged as perplexed.

B14684EC-87D3-44BC-8CF8-BE1DE59A8EB9The objection to personal data harvesting doesn’t seem much of a problem on the individual level, at least in term of commerce. The general idea of surrendering some morsel of personal detail so that advertisers can more readily entice me with products I might actually want to buy isn’t to me objectionable. I have almost never purchased anything anyway, but it’s nice to think that maybe it might display something less loathsome than an ad for a gas-guzzling CRV or endless gambling. Similarly, I’m not too concerned about other people buying too much bullshit on the Internet as a result of being taken in by expert marketing. It would presumably be a problem if whole swathes of the population followed up every ‘penis enlargement’ scam with hard cash, but the prospect of this seems unlikely.

Of course it is in a political context in which data harvesting is most worrying. It does feel extremely wrong when large swathes of the population vote differently in an election on the basis of, apparently, expertly targeted lies. I’m assured by what remains of responsible journalism that the problem is ‘echo-chambers’ inciting ‘political polarisation’, enclaves of the Internet where trolls and fake news paddlers feed off each other, and the likes of xenophobia and anti-vaxxing is rife.

However, as far as I understand it, I’m not sure that much of this has to do with privacy. Those fake news articles are shared on newsfeeds of course, but I was under the impression that users did this voluntarily.

Going further, I can’t help feeling it’s not the targeting that is the problem but the complicity and stupidity of the people who believe the obvious lies. The horror of all this is in human gullibility. Previously, before the advent of the Internet, when news reached us only via newspapers, radio and a handful of free-to-air TV stations, it was easy to believe that crackpot opinion, unsubstantiated claims and racist drivel did not constitute a risk to democracy because the mainstream media acted largely as gatekeepers keeping such material on the margins (with the occasional public scandal being the exception which proves the rule of course). I can only speak for myself, and maybe I was naïve, but this gatekeeping allowed me to believe that if such warped views were somehow broadcast, the populace would see them for what they are, dismissing or repudiating such dangerous, hysterical opinions, so democracy was reasonably secure.

I’m not sure on what basis I assumed the public would be so critical, of course. Good schooling? I doubt it. Our teachers try their best but beyond high school few people have any compulsory need to undertake refresher courses in critical thinking. I think I just assumed a kind of natural human reason would prevail. The recent concern about online security has exposed the naivety of our democratic process, or at least, my understanding of it.

The democratic process (or ‘myth’ if you like) involves a belief that society works best when the excesses of power are tempered by elections conducted every few years in which preferential voting allows a majority of the public to choose their representatives in parliament. This process is said to work most effectively because the public has some kind of say in who their leaders are. Bad leaders, here defined as those which the public don’t like, can be thrown out of office. The crucial belief seems to be that the public are selecting their leaders according to some reasonable understanding of how their leaders will behave in office and, finally, that when their own interests and wellbeing is being served or harmed by such representatives the public – can somehow recognise that…

So the prospect of voting for someone because they spout xenophobic bile or perform as a largely fictional character in an inane reality TV programme shouldn’t be on the cards, or at least, no majority, surely, would select a representative whose credentials were obviously so, to put it mildly, poor. Yet this happened and whether some dodgy analytics continue targeting us or not, apparently we are easily duped, even corrupted.

The shock for me is that I think all this does is reveal how democracy doesn’t work so well after all. I mean if democracy worked well enough without the intensive communication channels of the Internet couldn’t it be said that democracy works best when certain ideas – xenophobia, anti-vaxxing, etc. – are censored? I mean, that is largely what the old pre-Internet media used to do wasn’t it? Which leads to the question: If censorship is necessary, who should have the right to do so? Surely censorship of certain ideas should be antithetical to democracy. The question of who could have the moral authority to censor ideas is moot anyway since the more pertinent question today is: how would you do it?

Censoring the Internet is no easy task. Perhaps the Internet is the monster here. Maybe it’s not so much that the Internet provides “intensive communication channels” as I wrote in the previous paragraph but that it really provides “poor distorting improper communication channels”. The Internet is not a place of deep interpersonal connection – its anonymity is infamous. It is also not a place of complex discussion of ideas – how often have you read *this* far in an article on the Internet? I suggest the communication is distorting because a discussion between two speakers who are forced to use a limited number of words and means would indeed be restricted and therefore distorting. Such communication could be considered improper in that it seems unlikely that such large numbers of humans beings are properly equipped to be in distorted contact with each other and still be coherent. Maybe we are all wasting our time online, hypnotised by the distorting glimpses of coherency – no one can honestly say it doesn’t often feel like it. It is also improper communication insofar as it is unmonitored. Free-to-air TV back in the pre-Internet days couldn’t support “Info Wars” because space was limited so many eyes were always on anything produced. Today, thousands of people can view content made by someone in his own bedroom (or, more likely, concrete bunker) yet it is also true that almost no one knows about it, let alone any kind of authority, malicious or benign. So any old bile can percolate. (Maybe we’re in “Lord of the Flies” territory?)

2BDF2B31-04BE-44CB-B2C4-9DD9DA6B3BE1This sounds like a bad idea for democracy – not to mention justice, truth, honesty, etc., etc. It’s kind of like everyone is involved in highly addictive covert conversations under the bedclothes whispered incoherently in Morse code to a network of several thousand anonymous secret operatives spread out like one of several hundred million clandestine organisations across the globe. This sounds both horrifying (the description also seems to align with terrorism) and too cool to expect anyone to voluntarily stop doing (our “virtual reality” really).

In which case, maybe the Internet isn’t the monster – maybe democracy is just a political system that simply isn’t very well suited to its functioning nearby. Democracy without the semblance of reason certainly is beginning to look more like, if not fascist populism, at least demarchy: government by random allotment. The system certainly seems to have a virus with no obvious cure. However, destablised democracy “infiltrated” by the Internet is all we have at present and is slated to be the next ‘worst system except for all the others’. Instability, insanity, paranoia are, finally, all relative terms. “In my day,” we’ll carp to our great-grand-kids, “we used to just read good honest newspapers, have good honest conversations with humans present in the room in which we actually were physically present also, and all the newfangled time we didn’t elect none of them celebrity fascists – for if you read no Internet, you’ll be told no lies. Now wash your hands, there’s a good girl, dinner’s nearly hydrated.”

Written by tomtomrant

28 April 2018 at 9:51 am

Love, Simon: not a great love story

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Reflection on the movie “Love, Simon”. Spoilers but honestly I think the joys of this movie aren’t in its plot anyway.

img_0552“Love, Simon” is a super-typical teen romance flick – with a twist: the generically white middle-class male protagonist is secretly gay. I know – what a bombshell, in this day and age. He is cute though, played by the generically “hot” but utterly loathsomely characterless older boy in the recent “Jurassic Park” remake. (Almost unrecognisable here since his “Jurassic World” role involved little more then constantly ogling at teenage girls and telling his younger brother not to cry (even when pursued by velociraptors) because only girls cry. Simon is a character pretty much the opposite of that.)

Me and the 17 teenage girls in the cinema enjoyed “Love, Simon” well enough, although I had my misgivings from the overly cute trailer portraying the typical American high school with its corridors of lockers, stereotypical social cliques, the suggestion of the usual bullying scenarios and the casting of overly pretty young actors whose faces resemble airbrushed plastic (give me the repulsive, smelly, zit-covered teenage reality of a film like “Gregory’s Girl” any day). The film does reflect these features from the trailer, however they are all toned down a little: Simon is pretty but portrayed moderately realistically; his peers are cliquey but not to any extreme; his school is typical in appearance but his middle class environs have tempered the extremes of bullying scenarios (one of his friends even comments that a schoolyard argument at her previous school would have led to violence – but not here). The teachers in particular are not ignorant forces of power and injustice but charming, poignant and carefully compassionate human beings, tending their flock of students with caution and care. Which may be a tad idealistic, but at least it’s not the cliche.

Into this world of privileged, picket-fence, white ordinariness, Simon agonises over his gayness, sharing his secret anonymously via email exchange with another closeted gay boy from his school. The fear is emphasised; Simon feels he is not ready to come out to his loving and supportive family and friends and his correspondent feels similarly. Most of the film is comprised of Simon trying to figure out who his anonymous gay contact is. This of course provides lots of desire, intrigue and suspicion, as Simon tests out eligible men in his social circle for signs of telltale email correspondence details or simply gay tendencies, amusingly represented by visual sequences in which Simon imagines the various characters in ‘gay teen’ typical scenarios. The plot gets more complicated when Simon is blackmailed by a dorky straight guy through an ‘Oops I forgot to log out of my email on the library computer’ scenario. He therefore spends much of act 2 trying to hook up one of his female friends with this dork under threats of exposure. I didn’t mind this so much as I love a good ‘moral choice’ scenario, with our protagonist amicably making wrong decisions and digging himself deeper into webs of lies and manipulations to escape the revelation of his own awkward hopelessness. Eventually, of course, his secret is exposed, his lies uncovered, and his friends, betrayed, leave him just at the moment he most needs their support in coming out to his family. All of this is a trifle melodramatic but entertaining enough.

My issue with the film is really the happy ending, in which friendships magically seem to repair themselves, and his frightened gay email correspondent is revealed to be his hot black Jewish friend and they kiss and stuff. I don’t know whether my own experience of gay romance is just unusually bleak, but in my experience, I think it is highly unlikely that his network of heteronormative straight friends would ever make up with him. This isn’t because his betrayals (lying to them about who likes whom, etc.) aren’t forgivable. It certainly isn’t because one of his girlfriends had a straight crush on him either. It is simply because he is now exposed as different from them in a way significant enough to place a permanent uncomfortable distance between them. Leaving aside the fact that many teenage friendships stand on shaky ground anyway – based on superficial liking for certain sports, brands or TV shows or just “being cool in my clique” – this exposure of Simon’s sexuality instigates a reassessment of prior intimate conversations and connections and casts a shadow of suspicion or at least uncertainty over all. (Well, this is my view; I’m open to the possibility that Australians may also be unusually heteronormative or have flimsier friendships as well.) I don’t think remaking the friendships is impossible, just that I can’t see how that distance of difference would not engender a certain coldness and the film does not seem to acknowledge this. Add to that in the context of the movie there are barely two weeks left of high school after which no one needs to see each other again anyway so why make the effort?

As for the final denouement of the romantic subplot, this is total popcorn fantasy. Consider Simon’s crush, the seriously closeted gay teen boy who is so scared to expose himself that he must create fake email accounts to correspond anonymously. This boy sees Simon outed at school in front of friends and relatives, is shocked and appalled, and cuts off contact out of fear. He then sees a public post from Simon on an online forum saying that Simon will be on the Ferris wheel at such-and-such a time and he hopes to meet him at last. Then on the night in question, Simon rides the Ferris wheel alone around and around while a huge number of his friends and classmates stand around nearby expectantly waiting, essentially, for this guy’s very public outing. Why the heck would this frightened closet-case appear?

Here, I feel the film fails to reflect another aspect of real homosexual social relations in my own perhaps overly depressing experience. Gay men are pretty hopeless – not that I blame them exactly. Our minority position amongst normative majority leads to isolation and distance even amongst our own kind as not just prejudice and normative expectations but simply the indifference of the majority has socialised many of us away from even the most basic communications of who we are let alone communicating intimately in a healthy way. Simon should have been riding that Ferris wheel alone all night until the place closed down. Even without a humiliating audience in attendance the spineless closet-case probably would not have appeared, even if he had indeed still fancied Simon after knowing who he was (also unlikely given the improbability that any two randomly connected people share anything significant in common). The film should have exposed the isolation of being different – even just a little bit different, which is what is so sad really.

And yes I know this is exactly why a teen romance flick like this cannot possibly be allowed to end this way. My misgivings are really that the film isn’t a teen romance film – it is a teen coming out film. The movie spends more of its running time on Simon’s identity crisis and outing than it does on navigating the social interactions and character compatibilities of finding a gay man to date. As a result, the actual romance portion is tacked on at the end of act 3 as an overly simple happy ending – we’re both gay so we must be compatible hey? (Just in the way you straight readers naturally pair up compatibly with the first heterosexual you meet.) You could make the ending more realistic by having the closeted gay boy improbably turn up at the Ferris wheel but then turn out to be someone whom Simon considers insufferably incompatible – another downer of an ending.

mgid_ao_image_logotvAs a coming out film though, the movie isn’t bad in itself. I was grateful to see such an ordinary protagonist rather than portraying all gay men as feminine or somehow stereotypically liking fashion or something (not that there aren’t plenty of real gay men like that out there who are lovely people). I particularly liked the scene where Simon and the more public and ‘fem’ gay boy Ethan from his school meet in the principal’s office and their lack of connection with each other is obvious. Yes, they’re both gay men but this does not mean their personalities are aligned. Simon, the freshly outed ‘straight-acting’ gay dude is awkward in the presence of, apparently, one of ‘his kind’ and Ethan mocks him for his obsession with hoodies. This rings truer than the film’s romantic subplot.

Ironically, I feel the only genuine (non-familial) intimacy revealed in the movie is when Simon comes out privately to one of his friendship group earlier in the film. She accepts and supports him saying, “I love you, Simon,” and she means it in the sense of loving your friends, the people you hang out with everyday and laugh and talk rubbish to, not the high-falutin, bonded-forever, holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes business. This is more valuable as it is more difficult to find especially among romantic prospects, and even among friends, who often achieve this type of relationship but rarely acknowledge or appreciate it, particularly among men, let alone gay men. Most of us are too busy trying to find “the one” or the next fuck. This movie has some good stuff in there, and it’s reasonably entertaining, but it reveals little about romantic connection. It is a generic teenage coming out movie probably at least 20 years after its time.

Written by tomtomrant

25 April 2018 at 12:56 pm

Learning and mystery

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Just a journal entry excerpt.

Learning is a great mystery.

My story: I’ve always been alone.

Through childhood’s adventures: Thomas the Tank Engine, Mary Poppins, Narnia (NOT friendship), magic numbers, Read All About It, Koyaanisqatsi, troubled teenage fantasies, short films, film club, Mr. Slook, wrangling people – bend them to my vision, aspirations unmet, myth from Campbell, theatre, uni essays of pointlessness – domestic relationships are an aberration or perhaps he was a crossing over between the fantasy and reality (which is not what he wanted of course).

The movie makes me think of teaching and the mystery that is not just learning and the dubiousness of research but the mystery of what is happening in a classroom – not time travel but so many perspectives they are infinite to perception. Like a whole planet of interpretation. The joy on the confused faces, keeping their social disputes at bay – then the tangled web of the contrast between the back of the book and the front. Recaps are what we really know – who we truly are. The front is just that, our fronts – and high-stakes test results are a kind of dealing of cards, a mystery, a major “world” event, reading tea-leaves: alien interpretation.

Yet their lovely faces, messy spirit brings me joy in contrast with my singular home life.

It is all mystery.

But maybe my communication is not so hopeless. If that sort was not my objective, not my way.

My story: I’ve always been reading mythologies of perspective.

All this coming off the bat of watching “Arrival” again.

Written by tomtomrant

11 March 2018 at 10:03 am

Posted in myth, philosophy, teaching, the arts

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Grimacing at love

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It doesn’t cry, it doesn’t bleat
No longer does it stamp its feet
My love is ordinary, grey, and tired
It’s shut up shop, its agents fired
Our words are flat, our habits pall
No longer does it work at all.
You’re miserable, quite lost and broken
Your judgement harsh, your friendship token
Yet nothing’s changed: the world’s grown older
The embers do not die but smoulder
You mull at time and tide and affection
You beat out mothballs, utter perfection
And in these ordinary times I love you
Still – it can’t be helped
Your desertion unfelt,
Not mad, not bad, not dull, not wicked,
And still I love this knotted man, this dickhead.

Written by tomtomrant

28 September 2016 at 10:49 pm

Posted in poetry

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The Myth of Romantic Love (and what to do about it)

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Forgive this rant in the true sense of the word – this could all do with much more of a polish but alas time is short. My point here is paramount – take a sword and slash through the thicket of thoughts as they occurred to me and I hope you make it out the other side…

It begins with an Auspicious First Meeting – the first day of class in a busy lecture hall, the new work colleague with the sense of humour, the eyes that meet across a crowded room, the friend-of-a-friend you strangely get along with, that electronic message that pops up all of a sudden. Then comes the hanging out, the spending time, the getting-to-know, the ‘having fun’ that passes for the modern ‘Courting’. Then the Declaration one way or anything, the confession, the question-popping, the quiet even tacit agreement – and exhilaration of Consummation. These are the hallmarks of western romantic love. Indeed, ‘hallmarks’ is not strong enough. These are the dramas, the mysteries, the adventures, the bliss of those fraught but passionate experiences that, for many of us, are the most meaningful undertakings, even the bedrock of our lives.

This idea or narrative is so pervasive and socially conditioned in westerners, more or less explicitly encouraged as the norm through popular culture, religion, art, social structure and, less obviously, law, economics and history. We forget that it is constructed. It is not only an unrealistic fantasy but an incomplete one, a passageway or path leading through a fabricated wonderland which promises transcendence and release but quickly falls apart, abruptly abandoning the gallant traveller in the lurch. Why do we keep perpetuating this myth in our culture and how can we escape it? How might we live happy lives without this inflated fantasy? Where did it all begin?

The European middle ages seems responsible for a great deal although we cannot say so with precision. The argument, put forward by C.S. Lewis and Morton Hunt for instance, that romantic love was ‘invented’ in the middle ages tends to be met with opposition. However, this is because the concept of romantic love is not being properly discriminated. If you equate love with marriage or family or child-rearing, obviously the concept is far older if not fundamental to human life itself. However, nowhere in ancient literature – in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or Native American myths – do we conclusively find proof of the unique, individual, mutual, uneconomic sense of western romantic love. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).” Romantic love was a new socio-cultural construction, a “fusion of sensual and spiritual.”

tristan

Tristan and Isolde

Mythologist Joseph Campbell proffers the story of Tristan and Isolde, particularly the versions by Gottfried and Thomas of Britain as the foundation myth of romantic love. In the story, a prince and knight, Tristan, is sent from his uncle’s kingdom in Cornwall to court the princess Isolde of Ireland. Tristan woos her for the king, but Isolde and Tristan fall in love with each other on the journey home. Isolde is married to King Mark who, the tale suggests, hardly knows her personally and has no such passionate connection. The remainder of the tale involves intrigues as Tristan and Isolde make love in various ways as the king tries to and eventually does catch them at it. It becomes clear that the lovers cannot continue this way – their passion remains but the king is getting madder and madder and society has shut them out. Tristan takes a wife to try to get over Isolde. This other wife is simpler and more ordinary, but is devoted to him. She is known as Isolde of the White Hands. However, Tristan ultimately rejects her to return to his idealised beloved and eventually dies in her arms.

Campbell interprets the story as a celebration of personal and passionate individual love against the backdrop of shallow obligation-based and prudish conventions of medieval times. However, Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson reads the same story as a cautionary tale against the thoughtlessness and self-destruction of modern romantic love. To find a more mature exploration, Campbell turns to another medieval High German myth, the Parzival of Wolfram von Escenbach. However, this tale achieves its playful, mutual love theme through a kind of romantic distance. The lovers in the Parzival myth uphold civil and graceful courtship conventions largely determined through medieval courtly conventions. They meet auspiciously but little is said about their personal connection. You sense the lovers are deeply mutually affectionate and respectful of each other. Their bedroom consummation is loving and mature but hardly passionate. The majority of the tale concerns Parzival’s maturity rather than romantic love. In the end, one gets the impression that the romantic values this tale advocates are merely the conventions which the Tristan tale rejected as shallow and pragmatic. However, in the world of Parzival these conventions have been renewed, relived, rejuvenated so that they can remain the same but with greater awareness of their purpose and limitations. These conventions therefore become facilitators of love and social connection rather than hollow conventions.

wolfram_von_eschenbach

Parzival

The conclusion reached by both Campbell (through Parzival) and Johnson (through critique of Tristan) is that true romantic love, in maturity, involves an acknowledgement of balance, compassion, convention as convention, of lovers as imperfect human beings. The focus of romantic love should not be upon passion or rejection of society, or upon beauty for beauty’s sake, or on perfect achievement of every wish and desire. Instead, the benefits of romantic love are the simple genuine connection between two unique individuals who know neither is perfect but love each other all the same. I can understand and believe this sentiment. However, there are huge problems with this more mature, more positive conception of romantic love as well. These problems concern the mismatch this conception of love has with the popular conception, and its extreme difficulty of achievement.

First, the mismatch – rereading this ‘mature’ formulation, the lovers that come to mind are not the passionate heroes of romance but two elderly people in rocking chairs, dressed simply, living perhaps even in poverty, living the simple life, even perhaps with 2-4 adult children, a cat and regular Sunday church attendance. In other words, this conception simply does not match the passionate lovers of the ‘Tristan’ variety. Trying again, we could say that the more youthful conception of these lovers would be the playful school lovers, innocent and rather naïve perhaps, who take the unimaginative path of holding hands in the school ground, getting conventional jobs at the bank upon graduation, marrying at 19, taking out a mortgage, working full time while popping out kids as an excuse to buy a CRV. This is not a popular conception even if it is a popular reality. That popular reality is blatantly undermined by the romantic conception, however, as we also associate these lovers with unhappiness, frustration, even underdevelopment (having skipped the period of globe-trotting and sexual experimentation celebrated as the proper modern maturation practice of the 20-something). Indeed, this sounds like Parzival without his Grail quest. Perhaps they do go on their globe-trotting – just staidly or only briefly before returning to their matrimonial domesticity. My point is that the image is not one most romantics aspire to.

Second, the difficulty of achieving mature romantic love is immense. The acknowledgement of the imperfection of the lover is the key point here. This realisation is fundamental to mature romantic love yet it is a big ask for most people. We are taught to expect our romantic partners to be at least decently goodlooking, interesting, conversant, employed, happy, healthy, respectful, considerate, social, enterprising, and great in bed. This is naturally unrealistic. All of these things are of course highly possible, but no one can be all of these things all of the time. However, if you thought being this perfect for your partner is impossible, noticing the imperfection of your partner and not being at least somewhat disappointed by it is an even more impossible task. In fact, this even slight disappointment pops the bubble of the romantic myth for most people, dispelling much of the magic of the honeymoon period in the process. This is why most western romance myths end with the point of consummation – “and they all lived happily ever after”, an unbelievably optimistic generalisation masking the complex and very unromantic truth. That love, at least in the romantic passion sense of the myth, never lasts, even if the relationship does. Few of us really aspire to the level of intimate relations between, in the best sense, parent and child, or between your immediate and your extended family. Yet this is the closest match to what a life-long imperfect human love actually is. “Darling, let’s make out – because you would make a great Uncle Jim or Aunt Clarice to have around at Christmas.” This is what we should really be thinking and expecting when engaging in mature romantic love.

There are nicer ways of conceiving of this mature romantic love of course. We’ve reviewed the “conventional loving old couple”, “the boring school-met young couple” and the “Aunty Clarice who lives with me” scenarios. Couldn’t we think of a more positive spin? How about the “open relationship couple” or the “arty alternative couple”? Or even the original conception of beautifully balanced compassionate graceful pairing between Parzival and Condwiramirs in the original myth? These are all distinct and far more positive conceptions of mature romantic love, I agree. However, they are all damn near impossible to achieve. The myth is just that, a fairyland world of magic stones, gracious rulers, and playful tournaments. It does not and never did actually exist. The “arty alternative couple” living a more creative perhaps ‘off-the-grid’ existence often are plagued by exactly the same romantic expectations as everyone else, despite their alternative facades. Another factor is that the pressures of being creative often take their toll in the form of endless anxiety or lesser abilities to function on the everyday maintenance level of existence. The best that can be hoped for is simply a more refreshing less cliché version of the elderly couple – friends or relations that essentially live together (with all the unromantic distance and slight background irritation involved). The “open relationship” variety hardly needs my critique – most people are willing to dismiss this as simply a romantic relationship in decline already or a dangerous breeding ground for jealousy and STIs. This too could work though, except that again it seems to be separating the passion, novelty and forbidden nature of the romantic love myth from the mature personal connection and the “happily ever after” ending. Indeed, the “don’t ask don’t tell” conception of this relationship divides the two versions of the romantic love myth pretty explicitly.

The real difficulty of the mature romantic love myth, I think, resides in the difficulty of being truly happy with the imperfection, not just of your partner, but with existence in general. It may be all very well to love your flawed partner in his/her idiosyncrasies and annoying habits, but another thing to put up with these same flaws when you have just been unfairly fired from a job, or priced out of the housing market, or diagnosed with something unpleasant. And this isn’t all – you also need your partner, since this is what makes a relationship a relationship of course, to feel the same way. So not only must you remain compassionate toward the imperfections of your partner, the popped bubble of romantic love, and the ‘whips and scorns of time’, but also somehow have happened to have partnered up with someone else who can and does do this as well. This, I believe, is highly highly improbable. In fact, this, I suspect, doesn’t ever happen. Instead, what occurs is a constant painful rollercoaster of tacitly, somewhat unsatisfied ‘putting up with’ imperfection interspersed with downright loathing and brief instances of passionate romantic delusions which might still pervade you at certain moments when the sun sets prettily. If you’re lucky, you might also happen to get into the zen-like world-acceptance of mature romantic love – but then your partner probably won’t do so at the same moment, or at all. Your partner may even just up and leave you in the lurch as their anxieties about not having lived up to the love myth, or about life’s imperfections, become too much for them.  I’m not sure those brief moments of transcendence are worth it frankly and it would be much easier to achieve this kind of happiness outside of the obligations and expectations of a romantic relationship.b_n-garnett-and-mandelker

So there we have it – our society is enthralled by the unrealistic and deluded Tristan-like romantic myth, while the Parzival option remains obscure, mostly uninviting and devilishly difficult to achieve. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is, if you think about it, a retelling of these myths in its two main subplots of Anna (Tristan) and Levin (Parzival), with Oblonsky as the confused and adulterous unhappy unenlightened ‘ordinary’ couple. Not surprisingly, Levin’s tale seems to us rather old-fashioned, preachy and unexciting, and is usually edited out of most adaptations of the story. Our passionate romantic expectations remain the most publicised and well-known. So what are we to do about it?

This is where I get personal as I’m sure the myth is so powerful that most of you won’t agree with much of what I’ve just written. Also, everyone will have their own ideas of what needs to be done about it. My own inclinations are to accept part of the mature romantic ideal. The passionate romantic ideal is clearly a recipe for disaster in that the message is powerful but unrealistic, as both Tristan and Tolstoy clearly show us. However, the mature romantic ideal seems to be realistic but all too disappointing. As we’ve seen, the prospect of being tethered to Aunt Clarice or Uncle Jim for eternity, however genial they may be, doesn’t sound inviting at all. However, people need people (loneliness isn’t a good), and these are some aspects of mature romance we can use. The simple appreciation of others as imperfect human beings is one. The mutual respect and bonds formed of personality is another.

It seems to me that what we need to do is to remove the obligations and expectations of romantic love from mature romantic love and keep the central good – the human connection. This is finally the connection of an intimate friend rather than of what we conceive, over-romantically, as a “lover”. We should also keep the longevity and stability of our romantic expectations without the exclusivity. It is the pressure, instigated by passionate romanticism, of “the One”, the exclusive partner, that sours many relationships. However, no one objects to having more than one intimate friend. Indeed, most of us have intimate friends already. I suggest that the reason why we are less satisfied to just leave it at intimate friends is that, in this modern world of urban anonymity, singular living, family disconnection, and transport congestion, we don’t see them often enough. I’m not suggesting we should overstay our welcome with our intimate friends but we need to reconceive of our living situations. The ideal I think is the school playground or the medieval village lifestyle. Both involved seeing your best friend every day but not for more than an hour or so at a time. It was easy to find and get to where your friends lived or hung out and you could call in or depart at leisure, as well as mix with others. We have our own space and our own lives but we have also our friends, our people, our “lovers”. This conception is rather like a sharehouse or dorm with distinctly separate and private but also communal spaces, with respectful rules and conventions for effective

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The unlikely inspiration of sit-com “families”.

communication rather like Parzival’s rules of graceful courtly conduct. The setup ideally produces the familiar setup of most sit-coms and TV shows – a group of personalities, all different but much loved, who turn up every day for half an hour or so and express themselves and joke around and get into adventures then venture home again.

And what of sex you ask (as if love fundamentally is about this)? Every other question you ask about conventional married life – sex, finance, law, Ikea shopping, etc. – is answered similarly. Do it under the model of friendship. Playful, intimate, trusting, safe, and conducted under the rules of mutual agreement. Ridiculous you may say? Idealistic? Perhaps. But romantic love with its violent passion and tired marriage with its persistent disappointment is better, is it?

Written by tomtomrant

24 September 2016 at 1:05 pm

“The Course of Love” by Alain de Botton

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the-course-of-love

Well I finished this a few weeks ago. It’s not a novel at all but an easy-to-read run-through (as in, with a sword) of the magic and misgivings of modern relationships, revealing, after the honeymoon phase, the unrealistic and rather trite insecurities of the myth of romantic love. I highly recommend it as a quick, easy and mightily demoralising read. You’re really only ready for a relationship when you have given up on perfection and being fully understood, when you know you’re crazy, that a relationship itself is inherently frustrating, that loving trumps being loved, that sex won’t really go with love, that no one is properly compatible and you’re ready to teach and to learn constantly. It is actually an excellent modern addendum to Robert A. Johnson’s mythic “We” – see my earlier post.

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 9:01 pm

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe

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I strongly recommend this slim little book – the author reveals overlooked passages from the first European settlers all around Australia, who, despite strong negative bias, can’t help remarking on sophisticated and subtle aboriginal agriculture, housing, villages, food storage practices, land management, and complex social customs even as they then dismiss them as the work of “ignorant savages” and seize their mysteriously well-maintained pastures for destruction under the harsh trampling hooves of introduced sheep and cow species. The revelation for me is that Aboriginal history is really an urgent study of sustainable Australian agrarian economics today. (Reading level is just one step down from easy due to some overuse of passive forms and nominalisations (and lack of humour) – but this is splitting hairs really.)

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 8:33 pm

The Mysterious and the Ridiculous: early ‘Doctor Who’

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‘Doctor Who’ 2014

Imagine if you decided to go way back and check out the first series of some long-running popular TV series and discovered that, say, Seinfeld was originally a soap opera, or that the first episode of The Simpsons was an educational children’s program about spelling. In other words, imagine if you decided to go back to the first episode of some long-running popular TV series and discovered it was pretty much totally unlike its later incarnation. This happens all the time of course when you discover the slow, awkward, primitive-looking early episodes of a series such as Blackadder or Star Trek, or, conversely, the fresher, more inventive, and better written version of a rather tired formulaic show. In both instances, the earlier incarnation can seem almost like an entirely different show.

In the case of Doctor Who, appearances can be deceptive. The show appears to have pretty clear-cut fundamentals – the Doctor is a Time Lord from a planet called Gallifrey. He has two hearts, dresses strangely, and can regenerate his body. He travels through time and space in a police-box-shaped time machine called a TARDIS, continually defeating alien menaces such as the Daleks and the Cybermen, generally ‘doing good’, with the aid of a human companion or two and a handy gadget known as a Sonic Screwdriver. All of this, at least to the uninitiated, is pretty standard B-grade sci-fi. I don’t mean ‘B-grade’ in a negative sense here – I mean that the style of the show is pretty tongue-in-cheek. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. The scenarios are mostly familiar goodies-versus-baddies plotting with, at times, a variety of intellectual, pseudo-scientific, politically savvy, or totally fantastic thematic ideas interwoven.

You would assume that checking out the series’ beginnings in 1963 would reveal a faded, black-and-white, clunky version of the same scenario. This at first appears to be exactly what we do find. BBC TV in the 1960s was indeed clunky and black-and-white. The prohibitive expense of early TV meant that all the Doctor’s early time-travelling had to take place almost entirely inside BBC TV studios on rather theatrical sets. The cost of post-production editing was so high that the show was performed more or less entirely live, like a stage show, complete with Daleks colliding with the set furniture, and line fluffs, most of them perpetrated by the first actor to play the Doctor, William Hartnell. However, this technical primitiveness can disguise the startlingly different underlying concept of the original Who. If you were looking for the faded version of the familiar scenario, you would probably have to turn to “The War Machines”, one of William Hartnell’s very last stories, produced almost 3 years after the beginning of the series. In it, the Doctor, arriving with a companion in his TARDIS, acts as a futuristic alien technical advisor for military authorities in London fighting the onslaught of an evil computer bent on taking over the world, etc.

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The Doctor meets Kublai Khan in “Mighty Kublai Khan” (“Marco Polo” episode 6).

There were over 100 episodes of the show produced before this point and how unique, exciting and unusual they are. Unlike what the series became, this earlier incarnation is arguably not sci-fi. It was, firstly, designed as a programme to teach children about history and science – the journeys backwards in time concerning history, while travels into the future allowing for exploration of scientific ideas. That the show managed to avoid becoming unconvincingly kiddy or patronisingly instructional can be explained by the manner in which it both succeeds and fails at its educational charter. Firstly, it is educational – in the best possible way. That is, facts about history and science are not the focus but the backdrop against and through which a gripping plot, with, of course, lots of good cliff-hangers, unfolds. This is the basic educational method of attaching naturally interesting things to the subject matter being communicated rather than trying to force an interest through clumsy and uninteresting exposition (the curse of many a programme produced for children). Secondly, the show isn’t only (or even primarily) educational. You can’t help thinking it escapes becoming too preachy through the pure inspirational force of its ideas, sometimes against the wishes of the show’s producers and probably without the production team being consciously aware. Within a few episodes, the scientific ideas give way to the show’s first, most successful alien ‘bug-eyed monster’ with the barely sanctioned but phenomenally successful appearance of the Daleks. This story is then followed by a short serial which cannot be defined as a journey backwards or forwards in time – it is really a move sideways.[1] It seems that the show’s production team has become delightfully carried away by the infinite promise of the scenario.

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No one’s ‘space boyfriend’: William Hartnell

So what is this scenario? It may appear somehow related to the later familiar outline of the show, but I argue it is in fact a totally different idea. Our heroes are certainly travelling through time and space in a far more varied and unpredictable manner but, significantly, these heroes are accompanied by an occasionally unfriendly and decidedly grumpy old man. Examining the first story, two remarkable features reveal themselves at once. The Doctor is incompetent, unpredictable, and a troublemaker. He also is clearly not the protagonist. The hero of this series seems to be either the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan (fitting the demographic of the young viewer) or her meddling but generally quite sensible schoolteachers, Ian and Barbara. The Doctor is clearly in the ‘character’ role as both ‘the Instigator of the Adventure’ – the Gatekeeper to Mysterious Realms, the Old-Man Prompter to Adventure, the Virgil-like Mystagogue – and ‘the Trickster’ – the Maker of Mischief, the Challenger of Beliefs and Ideals, the Cheat, the Liar, and the Clown, he who makes more mischief than he finds. There is something utterly fantastic and mythic about this idea. As a result, this Doctor is a far cry for the rational ‘scientific advisor’ (or quirky ‘space boyfriend’) of later years. This man – for he is a man, the Time Lord ‘back-story’ not cracking a mention for nearly 6 years of the show – is a truly mysterious character. In fact, Mystery is who the mystagogue is. It defines him. No one asks who he is or where he comes from. This is built into the very title of the show. Doctor Who signifies Mystery. ‘Who’ is not his name of course. He is simply referred to as ‘The Doctor’ because he has no name. It matters not who he is but where he leads us, and the show’s first production team certainly seems to have realised, despite their ‘educational’ brief, that where he leads us could truly be anywhere.

A huge spaceship, magical but flawed and imperfect, mysteriously materialises as a then-common everyday object, a police box (for those not in the know, a kind of pay-phone used by London police as a precursor to the walkie-talkie). This small blue phone-box can be installed anywhere interior or exterior, studio or location, out of which blunder our heroes into, well, any situation. Unlike later producers of the show, the first production team clearly noticed the infinite variety of this scenario so that even when they stumbled upon the phenomenal success of the B-grade sci-fi option (with the Daleks), this was clearly viewed as only one of many more and varied possibilities.

To this end, the basic mechanics of the show were geared, refreshingly and startlingly, toward variety, possibility and unpredictability – a very exciting prospect. Hence, not only do stories jump unpredictably between future, past and sideways arrangements, but genres change just as quickly. We can be watching a deadly serious power-play among the Aztecs, then find ourselves in the midst of a silly farce set in ancient Rome. (Sometimes the genre changes throughout different episodes of the same story.)[2] It is not only that the narrative involves a space-and-time travelling machine which could depart at any moment (and, importantly, isn’t properly under control), but each stop on its journey can have any duration, as each story can have four, six, seven, three, two, even one or twelve episodes. The size and relative meaning of each step of the narrative cannot be confidently gauged. As a viewer, you can even lose your way within a given story because, until “The War Machines”[3], each episode is given its own individual title without indication of the episode number, e.g., episode 4 of “Marco Polo” is actually only referred to as “The Wall of Lies” onscreen. The viewer is liable to forget how many episodes she has been watching already. As if this wasn’t already an excitingly unpredictable viewing experience, the writers deliberately introduce ‘fake endings’ to a number of these early stories, signalling a thrilling escape or final dénouement culminating in a sharp reversal at the last minute.[4]

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Barbara takes charge (“The Aztecs”)

Then there is the element of character. The Doctor seldom appears as the lead. Ian takes over much of the action at times, while Barbara and Susan often have adventures of their own, or take on the lead role for a story. Often our characters split off into groups and barely meet again for a story, sometimes they travel together, disappear altogether, or, on at least one startling occasion, trudge on alone.[5] Conflict is caused not only by villains, but through misunderstandings, bad luck, complex situations, even mere technical faults. The possibilities are vast and this enormous variety is actively pursued and presented.

It can come as a surprise, considering all of this, that these early years of Doctor Who, those made under the series’ first producer, the young and inventive Verity Lambert, are not more well-known or highly regarded. This cannot be entirely due to our modern prejudice against anything old, clunky, and black and white. The fact is that it is really only fans of the later, quite different Doctor Who which are aware of these early episodes, and such an audience tends to be critical of the many deviations from the later scenario.[6] Of course, the series isn’t, by today’s standards, realistic, properly ‘character-driven’, and is frequently mistaken for the children’s series it can at times appear to be (although it is worth emphasising that Doctor Who was made by the BBC’s drama not children’s television department).

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The original TARDIS interior

I suspect a major problem concerns the DVD releases, the most common means of viewing these episodes today. Despite the lovingly detailed even pedantic efforts of the restoration team, the DVD releases, ironically, destroy much of the original mystery of the show. Not only are the menus presented in the style of later Who, but instead of being released as a series box-set (series 1, series 2, series 3, etc.), the DVDs are presented as separate self-contained stories, which, owing to the lack of overarching story titles and the greater continuity in these earlier episodes, they technically aren’t. This form of release reveals the number of episodes in each story beforehand. (All this is leaving aside the issue of gaps in story continuity due to episodes missing from the archive.)

In the end, it is probably the incredible variety which, paradoxically, causes the most viewer dissatisfaction, as we humans are creatures of habit and sameness. Certain sections of the audience always prefer sci-fi stories to historical period dramas, or vice versa, and are liable to become bored when bemired in a story of a personally unfavourable genre.

Yet I think we shouldn’t quibble with a series which, considering its technical limitations, is, despite appearances, so technically and artistically proficient. Verity Lambert Doctor Who is the way the series was designed to look. The interior of the TARDIS never looks more mysterious, exciting, magical (but still very real) as it does in the opening episode (and particularly in the early story, “The Edge of Destruction”). The time machine being a significant part of the new show, a sufficient budget had been set aside to make this set new and effective, a far cry from the faded and battered skeleton of the original design used up until the late ‘80s (saying nothing of the CGI-enhanced, overblown new series’ ‘gaudy-egg’/’phallic ball-sack’ design).

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Pale imitation: the Pertwee-era TARDIS

A big problem, particularly when shooting on a budget, is colour. The black and white of the ‘60s creates an unreal, fantastic quality exactly right for this early period of the show. The BBC’s vast costume department (still existing at that time) made many of the historical stories look amazing in their degree of detail. It is also easy to forget that there is a sophistication and drama created by the movement of an old-fashioned camera crane, today used only in more cinematic dramas. If you watch a William Hartnell Who with care, you are liable to notice the most complex high angles, low angles, and carefully choreographed craning shots, which put today’s static shot/reverse-shot television shooting style to shame – and the camera work is all the more impressive considering the show was filmed virtually live without post-production editing in very cramped old-fashioned TV studios.

I must say a word about the often overlooked sound design. The newly formed BBC Radiophonic Workshop produced some radical experimental sound design effects, most famously, the Doctor Who opening theme. The Radiophonic work in these early years is possibly the most astounding use of sound in a television show, providing not only incidental sound effects but what we would call today soundscapes, ambient sound environments which give the impression of a place and time. The superlative first Dalek story is perhaps the best example of this but even in historical stories, the sounds of distant horses, a bustling village square or a traumatic desert sand-storm are created largely by the soundscapes alone, played in live as the action unfolds. The detail of the work is easily overlooked. Not only were enough different incidental Dalek spaceship doors or blaster rays played in on cue, but the differing atmospheric sounds of various locations were flicked on and off in time with intercutting between scenes which were filmed live, inside, and often merely at different ends of the same BBC TV studio. In line with the series’ wild variability, it will come as no surprise that each serial also had an entirely different composer to write the incidental music, creating markedly different musical impressions as well. The sound designers also do not shy away from that great squirmy horror for modern viewers – silence.

Of course, the technical shortcomings of all of these elements are obvious to modern viewers. Yes, those complex crane shots often result in a collision with the set. Off-camera equipment noise can interfere with the aural soundscape. The fight scenes will always appear rather pathetic without the benefit of post-production editing – although, I must admit that my own private misgivings about how badly such a sequence could conceivably look onscreen has led me to watch them with some (granted, unintentional) degree of suspense so similar to the dramatically appropriate emotion as to blur into a reasonably feasible dramatic effect. (Similarly, I feel that Hartnell’s line fluffs beautifully compliment the tetchy incompetence of the Hartnell-Doctor who spends his time floating about in space and time clearly in denial that he really has no idea where he is going. It seems appropriate that he also doesn’t appear sure exactly what he is saying either.) I find these shortcomings merely add to the wildness of it all.

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Someone needs a bath…

I do not want to go into plot detail, for fear of spoiling the mystery here, but I also want to draw attention to the extraordinary nature of even the most minor plot elements in these early pre-“War Machines” years. Rarely do we see prehistoric people presented dramatically in film let alone TV, and only seldom is historical drama presented as farce. No TV producer would have the gall to even attempt to present a world entirely comprised of giant insects or produce a story where each episode contained multiple time machines and a different setting each week. You would be hard pressed to find a TV show where characters are shrunk or aged to death or suddenly shot, nor do they, momentarily and unexpectedly break the fourth wall, confuse themselves by walking about in circles or reappear unexpectedly from an entirely different serial. Such story elements are remarkable compared not only with most other television series past and present, but also with later Doctor Who itself. In later Who we never see the TARDIS treated like a kind of tent into which you can duck for a nap throughout an epic journey, nor as a setting for an entire serial. Characters do not tend to remember events, even passing references, from stories past. Until relatively recently, the Doctor never suddenly fell in love with a passing minor character, nor would he have fierce arguments with his companions. Perhaps less dramatically but nonetheless remarkable, Hartnell-Who even features characters sweating, becoming dirty, changing their outfits, and having the occasional meal, everyday activities noticeably absent from later Who. There is even one instance of a cliffhanger which tantalises with a question about the past instead of the future – rather than “what will happen next?”, the viewer asks, in the most joyfully ridiculous manner, “what the heck just happened then?”[7]

In sum, William Hartnell Doctor Who is more unusual and extraordinary than its clunky black-and-white appearance suggests. It is fantastic but (mostly) makes sense. It takes itself seriously but with hallucinatory logic and a sense of the absurd. It is childish but serious and, at times, dark and mysterious. Most impressively, it refuses to find all but the most vague formula. It is this non-formulaic wild indefinable quality which renders it both dramatic and ridiculous in equal measure. We should, I suggest, appreciate this wild televisual anomaly for its clunky unconventional explorations into both the unknown and the ridiculous, instead of treating it as faded, poorly produced, primitive children’s TV show or as an awkward, slightly embarrassing early incarnation of a decidedly different later TV series.

For more on Doctor Who see my Doctor Who Story Registry.

 

[1] The 12th and 13th episodes (“The Edge of Destruction” (aka. “Inside the Spaceship”)).

[2] Witness (as best you can – the story has been wiped) the comedy of episodes 1-3 of “The Myth Makers”, which concludes painfully and tragically with its gritty and deadly serious episode 4 (“Horse of Destruction”).

[3] Actually, the story before this, but since it has been wiped, we’ll just overlook this minor inaccuracy.

[4] Examples are “The Ambush” (“The Daleks” episode 4) and “Rider from Shang-Tu” (“Marco Polo” episode 5). “The Plague” (“The Ark” episode 2) even sends the travelers departing only to land back in the same place several centuries later.

[5] ‘The Sea Beggar” and “Priest of Death” (“The Massacre” episodes 2 & 3) technically feature only the Doctor’s companion Steven as a protagonist.

[6] Oh! The frustration when Ian says in “The Edge of Destruction” that the Doctor’s “heart seems all right”. Surely he means his hearts (plural) seem all right? Fan indignation seems to imply that the early series is not so much different as inaccurate – how dare they assume the doctor isn’t a time lord! etc.

[7] “The Death of Doctor Who” (“The Chase” episode 5).

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Tragedy: A Mythic Hermeneutic

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The last of my Arts Degree essays. This is not so much about Greek tragedy as about all of ancient Greek culture reflected in what it is not. It is a fitting conclusion to my myth theoretic work over the last few years.

What can the history of world mythology tell us about the meaning of death for the ancient Greeks as represented in tragedies featuring human sacrifice?

greek-tragedy-chorusWhile the ancient Greeks are not believed to have practiced human sacrifice,[1] it features in a number of their tragedies from   the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. This raises the question as to the meaning of human sacrifice for the ancient Greeks, its function in dramatic performance, and what it demonstrates about the ancient Greek view of death. While death is always considered a grave and serious issue, a distinct feature of the representation of human sacrifice in ancient Greek tragedy is its overall ambiguity: sacrifice is never wholeheartedly advocated nor fully condemned, is neither entirely good nor bad. I argue that this is like much else in Greek myth and tragedy, but that this level of ambiguity is relatively unique for a post-Neolithic civilisation at this time, which may reveal something about the ancient Greek ethos, particularly regarding religious experience.

There are a number of elements common to most of the extant tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles featuring human sacrifice. The call for human sacrifice usually comes from the gods, whether through an oracle, sage, prophecy or request from the dead.[2] The victim is always a young unmarried[3] person, usually a female virgin. The prospect of human sacrifice always evokes horror, pity, sadness and aggressive protest from the victim, his or her family, and/or the observing chorus. A more elderly relative often pleads to be substituted (Euripides, Hecuba 386-90; Euripides, Children of Heracles 453-67; Euripides, Phoenician Women 967-71),[4] to no avail. In most cases,[5] after much pathos, the victim courageously comes to accept his or her sacrifice[6] for the sake of the greater social good – to ensure a victory in war and/or to uphold the family name.[7] An easy way to escape is offered (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1426-30; Euripides, Children of Heracles 540-3; Euripides, Phoenician Women 970-4), which the victim always refuses, with an explicit (Euripides, Children of Heracles 588-9) or implied[8] exoneration of responsibility for the executioners. As is usual for ancient Greek tragedy,[9] the victim is killed offstage, usually with a messenger figure reporting the event.

It is undeniable that these are common elements in the plays. However, their meaning and interpretation among scholars has varied considerably, so much so that there is virtually no consensus as to what sacrificial death means for the ancient Greeks, as represented by the plays. Consider, for example, the most common interpretations and contrary opinions: Scodel argues that human sacrifice is presented as morally evil, cruel, and impious[10] – characters always protest against it; it is never presented comically – while Rabinowitz claims that the ancient playwrights romanticise victimisation and eroticise sacrifice[11] – victims are referred to as youthful beauties, executed in a public way, often for apparently noble causes. Sacrifice is chosen as subject apparently to reinforce the status quo,[12] to advocate the self-sacrifice of the hoplite soldier fighting in the Peloponnesian War,[13] and/or as an outlet for internalised violence.[14] These differing viewpoints are all effected by (a) the interpreter’s exclusive focus upon positive or negative aspects of sacrifice as presented in the plays (more on this later), and (b) the degree to which textual evidence is seen as reflecting (even promulgating) social, cultural, religious, broader historical, or human psychological norms (i.e. the degree to which the text is ‘read into’). Since my interest is in how the presentation of human sacrifice reflects the ancient Greek cultural perspective of death, we must first pause here to consider how the ancient Greeks might have reacted to and interpreted tragedy themselves.

masksThe plays are not obviously primarily political speeches (like those of Lycurgus), nor are they histories (like the work of Herodotus). The fact that the Greeks did not, as far as we know, perform human sacrifice alerts us to the fictional (or at least mythological) nature of tragedy – not only human sacrifice but long-dead, legendary/mythological persons, supernatural events, and gods were portrayed in the theatre by actors wearing stylised masks during a religious festival.[15] Hence we must consider the plays, particularly regarding human sacrifice, as myth. In this regard, as per Rudolf Otto, Joseph Campbell and others,[16] we can expect mythology to primarily promulgate a numinous emotionality, and as per Clifford Geertz,[17] reflect and support a cultural ethos related to and vitiated by the worldview presented in myth.

But while religion reflects the highest, most primary source of meaning, particularly in ancient societies, the peculiar language and dialectic of myth has its own hermeneutic difficulties. The interpretation of a non-mythological source, such as a legal document, is relatively straightforward; provided there are no concerns about sincerity or authenticity, words can be taken at face value, and compared with and/or generalised into contemporary cultural norms, customs and beliefs. Mythological material cannot be reliably extrapolated and generalised into historical data in the same way. Herein lies the value of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’.[18] The revelation in relation to Campbell’s exposition of the more-or-less universal ‘stages of myth’ – such as ‘the call to adventure’, ‘the road of trials’, ‘apotheosis with the father’, etc. – lies not in the fundamental sameness and therefore hermeneutic equivalence of all mythologies worldwide, but in their differences: the divergences, omissions, transformations, and unique realisations of the mythological stages in each particular cultural nexus.[19] In other words, Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ can be used as the yardstick, with the cultural ethos revealed in the manner in which a particular culture arranges and realises the stages, or how a particular element loses or gains value by its position within the schema.

Sadly, the history of human sacrifice as a motif in myth is sketchy but, according to Campbell and others, it seems to make its appearance in early sedentary agricultural village cultures, generally on a ‘complex hunter-gatherer’[20] or Neolithic level of human society, apparently extending into early prehistoric ‘Bronze Age’ societies.[21] The apparent religious attitude accompanying human sacrifice, as attested by our scant sources,[22] is not primarily aggressive, but ecstatic or ascetic; sacrifice appears as a voluntary act of the mythic hero, committed as a means of identification (‘becoming one’) with a god or transcendent principle.[23] Campbell has postulated that cultures to the east of modern-day Iran exhibit more features of this Neolithic sacrificial mythic worldview than those to the west.[24] The ideas of ascetic self-denial or ecstatic absorption in a ritual-religious role are fundamental religious principles of eastern myth.[25] For example, the Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist schools of India all encourage the individual to realise a state of ‘no-self’ or ‘annihilation’,[26] and the Confusion, Daoist, and Shinto religions of China and Japan advocate an absorption in a social-natural order.[27] As a result, myths of the east frequently present human sacrifice as an ascetic or ecstatic calling – death is fundamentally an escape from a sorrowful or deceitful world or a mere playful illusion (cf. reincarnation).[28]

In opposition to this, in mythologies to the west of Iran, the self is not denied; instead, “[it] is … treated as though it were a definable knowable entity with particular characteristics.”[29] One does not ‘deny ego’; one develops it.[30] Campbell has observed that this emphasis on individuality has separated god from man in western myth; connection to the deity is one of relationship, rather than identity, hence human sacrifice is frowned upon, and other forms of relationship to the deity are established.[31] Add to this a further division: in the Near East, god is generally more righteous than man; he is a mighty warrior god with moralistic concerns.[32] Relationship is established via a warrior code, a covenant, sacrament, or koran; Job submits to God with the words: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 46:6).[33] Whereas in ancient Greece, god and man are separate but more equally matched. Humans may coerce other humans, even other gods, to oppose the will of Zeus; “I care less than nothing for Zeus,” cries Prometheus. “Let him do what he likes” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 937).[34] These differing relationships with god may also reflect the respective political systems: autocratic rule, mandated by god (Yahweh, Allah, Marduk) in the Near East, and a huge variety of political systems, democracy among them, in ancient Greece.

Thus we return to Greek tragedy, itself a form of mythmaking that is essentially unique to Europe in its quality of acknowledging “the human sufferer.”[35] Suffering in eastern myth is either dismissed as an illusion (e.g. Hinduism) or presented as a weakness to be overcome in transcendence (e.g. Buddhism); in the Near East, it is essentially punishment for sin (cf. the Fall in the Garden). In Greek tragedy, suffering is apparently presented for its own sake, as an acknowledgement of the way the world is, but also as something to be surmounted – but in worldly, not other-worldly, action, such as war, vengeance, or even (unavoidable) human sacrifice, committed for one of these worldly ends. The unpredictability and diversity of Greek tragedy is a result of multifarious conflicts – between god and man, man and man, god and god, god and man and Fate. The ‘message’ of the myth is difficult to pin down because it is not, as per Near Eastern myth, moral/political ideology in disguise, nor is it transcendental psychology or ‘sympathetic magic’, as it is in the east, and in earlier hunter-gatherer and Neolithic myth.[36] In fact, a Greek tragedy may closely approximate what we mean today by a work of art, a creative work presented primarily for the story itself and the emotional effect it generates. It is as if the numinous emotional quality has managed to separate itself from the metaphysics, psychology, morality, or ideological strands of myth and religion proper – producing, on one hand, art (the theatre, etc.), and on the other, early science and democracy (philosophy, rhetoric, etc.).[37] Yet the fact that Greek tragedies were presented within a religious festival suggests that the break between religion and art had not fully occurred.

This almost ‘artistic’ expressive-ambiguity pervades tragedies involving human sacrifice particularly. As per above, ambiguity is acknowledged by many commentators.[38] It is difficult to conclude exactly why a virgin such a Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Auris must die. Why tell such a story? It makes no logical sense; there is no clear ‘moral’. However, it certainly is emotionally powerful. As per Wilkins, “The principle rhetorical force of the [sacrifice situation] … is the great desire of the victim to die, against the wishes of the … relatives and friends.”[39] The perverse emotional force of this scenario is actually not ambiguous – ‘ambiguous’ is too flat and unemotional a term. This comes back to tragedy’s proper status as myth. Again, Greek tragedies are not discourse treatises, presentations of arguments as might occur in a law court or philosophical treatise. We cannot arrive at Euripides’ opinion on human sacrifice by merely ‘adding up’ the number of ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments presented in his plays, as many commentators have done to much confusion.[40] Rhetoric in tragedy is primarily emotional, as is appropriate for a mythological (or artistic) presentation of an argument concerning an obviously fictional event. Tragedy is not ambiguous; it is numinous, beyond the bounds of logic and reason.

Epidauros.07The marvel of Greek tragedy is that it manages to be numinous, or, at least, emotionally powerful, without recourse to an explicit and corroborating political ideology, psychological literature, metaphysical revelation, or divine mandate. It is this desire to create a powerful, logically ambiguous, emotionally transcendent experience – an experience which these ancient people might designate ‘an experience of the gods’ – which explains many of the perverse events in tragedy. We see this messy emotional power in the contradictory arguments offered, the strange, seemingly unmotivated prophecies and omens, the ironic fusing of opposites[41] – death with marriage,[42] sacrifice as objectification,[43] as patriotic duty and familial obligation,[44] as horrendous waste.[45] The most courageous motivation for sacrifice is thoroughly complicated by the powerful protests against it.[46] Significantly, the acknowledgement of human uniqueness occurs simultaneously with that of human frailty. The result is a particularly capricious worldview full of powerful conflicts:[47]

… differing fortunes
Follow close upon one another.
Fate brings low those that were high;
The unhonoured Fate makes prosperous.

(Euripides, Children of Heracles 639-42).

To summarise, human sacrifice in Greek tragedy is, I argue, primarily not just ambiguous but perversely powerful and numinous, especially in the mythological context of a kaleidoscopically varied and complex order of gods, humans and fateful powers which forms the ancient Greek mythic worldview. Just as the issue of human sacrifice is grim and complex in Greek tragedy, so too is the ancient Greek view of death. It is clear that death is not spiritually welcomed like in many of the Neolithic and Asian mythic systems. The ancient Greeks’ greater emphasis on worldly, social, and individualistic values meant that death was viewed with more reality and finality. Its necessity for a greater social good was recognised, but not unambiguously advocated. When characters die willingly in Greek tragedy, their sacrifice is linked to worldly ends – dying for the particular institutions of family and city-state. In fact, it is probably the inability of Greek myth to allow the individual to spiritually stand completely separately from these institutions[48] that makes Greek tragedy still appear somewhat alien to modern readers, who, inheriting more recent ideas from the European Renaissance, have a greater, or at least different, sense of the value of human life, of the individual, and his or her relation to society.[49]

Bibliography

Primary Texts[50]
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound trans. H. W. Smyth (Cambridge, MA, 1926).
Aristotle Poetics trans. P. Murray and T. S. Dorsch (London, 1965).
Euripides Children of Heracles trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Hecuba trans. W. Arrowsmith (Chicago, 1958).
Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Phoenician Women trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
* Due to the layout of this translation, the line references for these titles are approximate only.

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Burkert, W. Homo Necans: the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth trans. P. Bing (Berkeley, CA, 1987).
Campbell, J. The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1949).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York, 1959).
Campbell, J. Myths to Live By (New York, 1971).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Csapo, E. ‘Theatrical Production, Greek’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1235 (accessed 18/04/14).
Donner, Susan E. ‘Self or No Self: Views from Self Psychology and Buddhism in a Postmodern Context,’ Smith College Studies in Social Work 80 (2010), 215-27.
Garrison, E. P. Groaning Tears: ethical and dramatic aspects of suicide in Greek tragedy (Leide; New York; Koln; Brill, 1995).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
Koller, J. M. Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2012).
Murnaghan, S. ‘Sophocles’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1181 (accessed 21/04/14).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pollard, E. A. ‘Sacrifice’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1110 (accessed 18/04/14).
Rabinowitz, N. S. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the traffic in women (Ithaca, NY, 1993).
Rehm, R. Marriage to Death: the conflation of wedding and funeral rituals in Greek tragedy (Princeton, 1994).
Scodel, R. ‘Virgin Sacrifice and Aesthetic Object’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 126 (1996), 111-28.
Seaford, R. ‘The Tragic Wedding,’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987), 106-30.
Wilkins, J. ‘The State and the Individual: Euripides’ plays of voluntary self-sacrifice’ in A. Powell (ed.) Euripides, Women, and Sexuality (London and New York, 1990), 177-94.

[1] At least, not as normal practice, see Pollard (2010); Wilkins (1990), 178.

[2] Wilkins (1990), 177.

[3] Or not betrothed (Euripides, Phoenician Women 943-4).

[4] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[5] It is probably best to exclude Sophocles’ Antigone from this study as her death resembles more of a murder/suicide than a sacrifice to the gods.

[6] Rabinowitz (1993), 35, 39, 42-43, 55; Wilkins (1990), 183.

[7] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179, 190; Roselli (2007), 111.

[8] Rabinowitz (1993), 38.

[9] Murnaghan (2010).

[10] Scodel (1996), 111, 119.

[11] Rabinowitz (1993), 39.

[12] Rabinowitz (1993), 37-8, 56; Roselli (2007), 110, 126.

[13] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179; Roselli (2007), 111.

[14] Girard, referenced in Rabinowitz (1993), 33; Burkert (1987), 62.

[15] Csapo (2010).

[16] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[17] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[18] See Campbell (1949).

[19] Note: in this respect, the key Campbell text is not The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), but The Masks of God (1959-68), a work five times as long.

[20] See Hayden (2003), 122-7.

[21] Campbell (1959), 171-3; Hayden (2003), 200-1.

[22] E.g. the myths of Polynesian head-hunters, the stories of the astonished Christian friars in pre-colonial Mexico, and particularly the accounts of more recent human sacrifices in 19th century C.E. India (the ritual of sati, for instance).

[23] Campbell (1959), 179-83; Campbell (1962), 64-9.

[24] Campbell (1962), 3-9; Campbell (1964), 3-5.

[25] Campbell (1959), 176-83; Campbell (1962), 23-30; Campbell (1971), 65-6, 71-3.

[26] For example, nirvana means literally ‘extinguished’; see Koller (2012), 47.

[27] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[28] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[29] Donner (2010), 217.

[30] Campbell (1962), 14-5, 21-3.

[31] Campbell (1962), 30-33; Campbell (1968), 346.

[32] Campbell (1971), 175-80.

[33] Campbell (1971), 81.

[34] Campbell (1971), 81.

[35] Joyce in Campbell (1968), 354; cf. “… since no suffering is involved, it is not tragic” (Aristotle, Poetics 14.5).

[36] See Campbell above.

[37] See Cassirer (1946), 97-8 for this idea.

[38] Scodel (1996), 111; Roselli (2007), 124; Rabinowitz (1993), 42.

[39] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[40] This is approach (a) above.

[41] Rehm (1994), 136-40.

[42] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 38, 55; Scodel (1996), 111; Seaford (1987), 108-9, 112.

[43] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 34, 39, 55; Scodel (1996), 111-2, 114, 115; Roselli (2007), 87-8, 130.

[44] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 36, 38, 56; Wilkins (1990), 185; Scodel (1996), 111.

[45] Rabinowitz (1993), 55; Scodel (1996), 118-20, 125.

[46] Garrison (1995), 129.

[47] One is reminded of the difficult, tumultuous and unrelenting business of maintaining a healthy democracy.

[48] As, for example, in the later mythic/artistic developments of individualistic romantic love, and political-personal ‘freedom’.

[49] See Campbell (1968), 304-8 for a revealing comparison of the Greek ‘Theseus/Phaedra’ story to the Celtic-Medieval ‘Tristan/Isolt’ story.

[50] The book of Job from the Bible was referenced in Campbell (1971), 81.

The ‘Music’ of Cinematic Silence

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It’s cinema studies time! as part of my Film Music subject. (I managed to slip a bit of Susanne Langer into this one. Indeed, you could extrapolate from this essay an entire theory about the holistic/relativistic (rather than atomistic/absolute) nature of art.)

How is silence or, more specifically, the contrast between music and absence of music used in cinema as reflected in the cinematic output of a specific composer/director?

It may seem curious to examine the use of silence, or, more specifically, scenes without music, in the study of film music. However, such an examination explores not only how music affects the drama in particular film scenes, but also how film and music can stand in for each other in their expressive effects. As film music properly serves the expressive purposes of the film, we shall explore how film too can be ‘musically structured’. To this end, I will examine the use of music versus ‘dramatic silence’ in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, particularly in Psycho (1960), and how this reflects on Hitchcock’s auteur theory of ‘pure film’. We will find that the aesthetic effect of music in dramatic film scenes is more complex than usually acknowledged.

Movies are rarely devoid of sound, of course. By examining silence in film, I do not mean ‘silence’ in a literal sense.[1] I mean, firstly, silence in the sense of the absence of diegetic music, but also, more broadly, silence as ‘dramatic silence’: a relative reduction or absence of sound on the film soundtrack which has a powerful effect upon the viewer. Walker and Daniel-Richard speak of certain moments or scenes in film in which this musicless silence may be “deafening”,[2] yet clearly such dramatic moments are not achieved by simply removing all music from the soundtrack at whim.

1960-PSYCHO-001

Caption unnecessary here, surely.

Music is generally considered an important even vital element in film expressivity. The power of the shower murder scene in Psycho, for example, is immeasurably enhanced by Bernard Herrmann’s music cue with its shrieking, stabbing string glissandi. This musical cue is so effective and iconic that the prospect that Hitchcock had envisaged the scene as not having music can seem surprising to many.[3] Without the music, the shower scene is still powerful, but one senses a greater objectivity or grim ‘realism’, an enhanced aesthetic distance.[4] With the music, it is decidedly more involving, more painful, more shocking; we feel a greater sense of identification with our murdered heroine. Similar effects can be observed in many other famous film scenes featuring iconic film scores – the shark attacks in Jaws, the space battles in The Empire Strikes Back, the journeys across the desert sands in Lawrence of Arabia.

However, there are also many powerful film scenes which are not accompanied by music – the battle scenes of Saving Private Ryan, the initial Tyrannosaurus attack in Jurassic Park, the famous crop-duster chase in North by Northwest. Hitchcock and Herrmann famously had a falling out over the non-inclusion of music in another dramatic murder scene in Torn Curtain; indeed, the musical cue in this context does seem somewhat overbearing.[5] Yet one might wonder why an added musical emotive or subjective intensity was not called for in this and other dramatically silent scenes. Hitchcock continuously presented such dynamic visual sequences without music in many of his earlier films.[6] Examples include the knife murders in Blackmail and Sabotage, and the statue of liberty scene in Saboteur.[7] Indeed, a number of his early British thrillers have very little non-diegetic music at all.[8]

These two contrasting effects of non-musical versus musical accompaniment – of distance, flat ‘realism’, and objectivity versus character-identity, interpretative force, emotive involvement and subjectivity – are commonly averred by viewers and film critics alike,[9] yet contradictions abound. Gary Rydstrom, sound designer of Saving Private Ryan, argued that putting music under the film’s battle sequences would “take away the subjective feeling of it”,[10] which is a total contradiction in light of the usual association between musical accompaniment and enhanced subjectivity. John Williams’ famous alternating-semitone motif orchestrates the shark attack sequences in the first half of Jaws, the music contributing to the suspense through its pulsating rhythm and primitivity. But Williams remains silent for a number of shark appearances in the second half (for example at 1:17:51), which could be said to be even more terrifying since the music does not foreshadow and essentially warn us that the shark is there.

jaws_shot6l

A non-musical shark appearance in Jaws

It seems that the presence or absence of music in a dramatic film scene does not totally guarantee any particular dramatic effect, or even whether such will be particularly effective. An equation such as ‘music equals subjectivity’ or ‘dramatic silence equals heightened intensity’ is too simplistic. Aesthetic philosopher Susanne K. Langer argued that the overall created completeness of a work of art is perceived as something other than the totality of the materials and effects that make it up, yet, counter-intuitively, is not separate from these elements.[11] This may explain our musical conundrum here because, according to Langer’s insight, in the context of cinema, the numerous elements that comprise a movie – the actors, their performance, the lighting, the music, etc. – are, in an effective work, not perceived by the viewer as separate elements, independent ‘indicators’ of content or feeling, which must be logically ‘added up’ to produce the experience of the film. Instead, in an effective film, these film ‘materials’ are perceived by the viewer as blended into something resembling a single experience – of the film’s ‘world’ or mise-en-scene. By abstracting one element, such as music or dramatic silence, and analysing its function on its own, we overlook the illusion of totality which the viewer experiences.

Another way of putting this is that the effect of music and dramatic silence is better revealed through the interaction of contrast and similarity, elemental transformation (rather than ‘indication’) in the overall mise-en-scene.[12] It is the building up of this aesthetic ‘context’ and form (the mise-en-scene) through variation and contrast among myriad elements which constructs and expresses dramatic effects throughout a work. In fact, it is only through variation and contrast that a dramatic silence can be perceived by the viewer at all. This is because, as stated above, it is only a relative silence. Dramatic silence relies upon the noticeable absence of sound or music, and such an ‘absence’ would only be perceived when the expectation of sound or music is thwarted or deferred – a perceived absence is, after all, the noticeable non-occurrence of a presence.[13] There is clearly a complementary but oppositional relationship between music and silence;[14] Alwyn even goes so far as to declare that, “Music depends for its maximum effect on the absence of music.”[15]

1362582369_1

Marion reflects on her life predicaments in Psycho.

Hitchcock clearly understood that effective use of music in film relies on this idea of contrast. He believed that every film should have a complete musical score: “Though by ‘complete’,” he added, “I do not mean continuous. That would be monotonous.”[16] In employing dramatic silence, Hitchcock understood that, “its effect is heightened by the proper handling of the music before and after.”[17] As an example, we note that this is particularly pertinent to Herrmann’s use of music in Psycho. Sullivan observes, for example, that, despite its reputation as a suspenseful film score, the music in Psycho appears, at times, to “relax rather than tighten dramatic suspense.”[18] I think what Sullivan means is that Herrmann often uses slow, quiet, even delicate phrases and motifs as underscoring to various scenes throughout the film. This is music that does not appear on its own to be particularly shocking or even suspenseful. In fact, Herrmann’s score is astoundingly delicate and sensitive throughout much of the movie, something that is totally overlooked by film analysis which focuses more or less exclusively on his shower scene cue – which is a pity as I suspect that it is Herrmann’s almost psychological sensitivity that is actually where the real depth and effectiveness of his score resides. Consider the quiet and slow underscoring throughout much of the film, characterized by the cue entitled “Marion” in the opening scene (at 04:27). The music is eerie certainly, but it also expresses Marion’s depression with her current life and her troubling predicament. A similar very moving identification is conveyed by Herrmann’s “Madhouse” cue which appears when Norman explains to Marion his own sadness and frustration with life.[19] This music does not “relax rather than tighten dramatic suspense,”[20] it tightens the dramatic suspense by relaxing the viewer, or at least, by producing more contrasting effects so that the murder music, when it occurs, is all the more devastating.

When it comes to dramatic silence, the use of music throughout Psycho also contrasts pointedly with the dramatic silence of the almost rhythmically-spaced musically unaccompanied scenes. This is best characterized by the dynamic “Prelude” music used beneath the Saul Bass title sequence. This music reappears almost mechanically whenever Marion is shown travelling on to the next destination in her misguided, ultimately tragic adventure, but it always emerges out of an ominous musical silence on the soundtrack – the dialogue scenes in between the travelling sequences are mostly starkly unaccompanied. The effect is almost musical in the alternation between travelling music and unaccompanied musical silence, almost as if the dialogue scenes are ‘verses’ to the travelling ‘chorus’ music.[21] This creates a feeling of inevitable drive,[22] culminating in the extremely ominous almost terrifying silence as the ‘Bate’s Motel’ sign appears through the rain and Marion’s windscreen wipers at 28:12. This contrasting silence is vital in the shower scene too, the horror of which is also enhanced by the music’s sudden emergence out of the musical silence (the quiet diegetic sound) that pre- and pro-cedes it: the sound of running water is almost as memorable as the musical cue itself.

hitchcock

Hitchcock expounds the virtues of remaining silent.

Such diegetic sound represents another factor influencing the power of non-musical silence: the capacity for other cinematic elements to ‘speak up’, as it were, and fill the musical void expressively.[23] As observed by Hemmeter, this is particularly relevant to Hitchcock and his theory of ‘pure film’.[24] Briefly stated, Hitchcock’s style evolved from silent cinema with its focus upon the visual rather than on spoken dialogue[25] with stylistic techniques influenced by the Russian Formalists and their theory of montage.[26] The result was a kind of cinema in which shot size and progression have dynamic effects. As Kulezic-Wilson observes, Hollywood had (still has) a fear of silence, expecting lack of music to guarantee an inert lifelessness onscreen which would hurt its box office takings.[27] Composers and directors often complain about their unsuccessful attempts to convince producers to reduce the amount of unnecessary musical cues in their films.[28] That Hitchcock could get away with dramatic silence in his climactic scenes not only speaks to the effectiveness of his technique but, I argue, to the virtually musical nature of his visuals. Hitchcock even describes his use of radically changing shot sizes as a kind of ‘orchestration’: “There is a bursting impact of images, like a change in orchestration.”[29] “The effect is best illustrated by a parallel from music, namely in the sudden transition from a simple melody played on the piano to a sudden burst of music by the brass section of the orchestra.”[30] “Indeed, orchestration is perhaps the best simile for film, even to the parallel of recurrent themes and rhythms. And the director is, as it were, the conductor.”[31] I argue that Hitchcock does not need music for these scenes, because the effect of music is amply provided by his cinema techniques; music would, in many instances, simply duplicate the effects, perhaps muddying the expression, maybe looking silly with an inappropriate mickey-mousing effect. However, this extremely visual focus of Hitchcock’s style also resulted in a noticeable ‘void’ on the soundtrack which needed to be filled – with music or a form of dramatic silence.

To conclude, we have seen how musical cues in film are enhanced and made effective through the holistic effect of contrast – not only musical contrast, but contrast with other similarly expressive elements within the film mise-en-scene. The element of dramatic silence in film is often unrecognised in film theory and criticism,[32] along with its important role as a structuring element within the context of both the film score and the overall mise-en-scene. An appreciation of dramatic silence and its aesthetic dynamics may help to enhance future films, and not only their musical scores, but their overall dramatic power. I want to finish with an anecdote. For his final film Family Plot, Hitchcock chose to work with John Williams, a composer best known today for his enormous score for Star Wars (1977), a film which seems, what with its distinct lack of musical silences, to work on the opposite principle to the musical minimalism of Hitchcock’s cinema. Revealingly, Hitchcock and Williams had something of a disagreement over a particular music cue in Family Plot at 50:32. The scene involves a meeting between Adamson and his henchman Maloney. Adamson leaves the room as the police call on him. When Adamson returns to the room, Hitchcock cuts to a shot of the open window to indicate that Maloney has done a runner. Williams says he orchestrated a quiet musical build-up to Adamson returning to the room, then a brooding baseline after the reveal on the window. Hitchcock suggested he should drop the music altogether on the shot of the window because “the silence will tell us it’s empty, he’s gone, more emphatically, more powerfully, than any musical phrase.”[33] This, I think, illustrates beautifully the effect of music and silence in film: not only ‘less is more’ but cinematic effects can ‘stand in for’ musical ones; the filmed image with silent soundtrack has itself become a musical player.

 

Bibliography

Brown, Royal S. “Herrmann, Hitchcock, and the Music of the Irrational.” Cinema Journal 2 (1982): 14-49.
Daniel-Richard, Debra. “The Dance of Suspense: Sound and Silence in North by Northwest.” Journal of Film and Video 62 (2010): 53-60.
Film Music Notes. “Comparing Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Score and Sinfonietta (1936).” Accessed 29 May 2014. http://www.filmmusicnotes.com/comparing-bernard-herrmanns-psycho-score-and-sinfonietta-1936.
Hemmeter, Thomas. “Hitchcock’s Melodramatic Silence.” Journal of Film and Video 48 (1996): 32-40.
Hitchcock, Alfred. “Film Production.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 210-26. London: Faber and Faber, 1995. Originally published in Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 15 (1965), 907-11.
Kulezic-Wilson, Danijela. “The Music of Film Silence.” Music and the Moving Image 2 (2009): 1-10.
Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.
Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy In A New Key. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1942.
Lissa, Zofia. “Aesthetic Functions of Silence and Rests in Music.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 22 (1964): 443-54.
Mamet, David. On Directing Film. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Margulis, Elizabeth H. “Moved by Nothing: Listening to Musical Silence.” Journal of Music Theory 51 (2007): 245-76.
Sullivan, Jack. Hitchcock’s Music. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.
Sullivan, Jack. “The Music of Terror.” Cinéaste 32 (2006): 20-28.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock/Truffaut. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Walker, Elsie. “Hearing the Silences (as well as the music) in Michael Haneke’s films.” Music and the Moving Image 3 (2010): 15-30.
Watts, Stephen. “On Music In Films.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 241-45. London: Faber and Faber, 1995. Originally published in Cinema Quarterly 2 (1933-1934): 80-83.
Winters, Ben. “The Non-Diegetic Fallacy: Film, Music, and Narrative Space.” Music & Letters 91 (2010): 224-44.

 

[1] See Elizabeth H. Margulis, “Moved by Nothing: Listening to Musical Silence,” Journal of Music Theory 51: 245; Danijela Kulezic-Wilson, “The Music of Film Silence,” Music and the Moving Image 2 (2009): 2; Thomas Hemmeter, “Hitchcock’s Melodramatic Silence,” Journal of Film and Video 48 (1996): 40 (footnote 1); Zofia Lissa, “Aesthetic Functions of Silence and Rests in Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 22 (1964): 443.

[2] Elsie Walker, “Hearing the Silences (as well as the music) in Michael Haneke’s films,” Music and the Moving Image 3 (2010): 17; Debra Daniel-Richard, “The Dance of Suspense: Sound and Silence in North by Northwest,” Journal of Film and Video 62 (2010): 59.

[3] Jack Sullivan, “The Music of Terror,” Cinéaste 32 (2006): 22, 23; Royal S. Brown, “Herrmann, Hitchcock, and the Music of the Irrational,” Cinema Journal 2 (1982): 15.

[4] Brown, “Music of the Irrational,” 15.

[5] Note that I am not necessarily suggesting that Herrmann’s music was rejected because it fails to be effective in this scene, or in the movie in general. It seems more likely that Hitchcock rejected the score because he was being pressured by the studio to adopt a lighter ‘popular style’ score which Herrmann was not able or willing to provide (Brown, “Music of the Irrational,” 44). I am not concerned with such historical, biographical or economic explanations for aesthetic decisions in this essay as I am primarily concerned with the function of the music as presented.

[6] Hemmeter, “Hitchcock’s Melodramatic Silence,” 32.

[7] Sullivan, “The Music of Terror,” 23.

[8] Sullivan discusses these in a chapter entitled “Musical Minimalism: British Hitchcock” (39-57) in Jack Sullivan, Hitchcock’s Music (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006).

[9] Walker, “Hearing the Silences,” 18-19; Kulezic-Wilson, “The Music of Film Silence,” 1; Brown, “Music of the Irrational,” 15; Claudia Gorbman, “Narrative Film Music,” Yale French Studies 60 (1980): 193.

[10] Rydstrom in Gianluca Sergi, The Dolby Era: Film Sound in Contemporary Hollywood (Manchester, 2004), 178, quoted in Ben Winters, “The Non-Diegetic Fallacy: Film, Music, and Narrative Space,” Music & Letters 91 (2010): 230.

[11] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 47-48.

[12] Langer’s aesthetics leans heavily upon traditional music theory and analysis as reflected in the title of her most famous work, Philosophy In A New Key (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1942).

[13] Walker, “Hearing the Silences,” 18.

[14] Margulis has shown how this is the case even in music outside of the cinema context: see Margulis, “Moved by Nothing,” 273, and Lissa, “Aesthetic Functions of Silence.”

[15] William Alwyn in Ian Johnson, William Alwyn: The Art of Film Music (London: Boydell Press, 2005), quoted in Kulezic-Wilson, “The Music of Film Silence,” 5.

[16] Hitchcock quoted in Stephen Watts, “On Music In Films,” in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 242.

[17] Watts, “On Music In Films,” 242 (my italics). Silence in non-film music also has this function, as noted by Lissa, “Aesthetic Functions of Silence,” 445: “[Silence] changes its mode of functioning depending on the sound structures surrounding it.”

[18] Sullivan, “The Music of Terror,” 25.

[19] See Psycho, 38:58. The extraordinary depth of this theme is, I suspect, the principle source of psychological depth in the film and possibly the greatest contributor to the effectiveness of Psycho. Herrmann virtually lifted the entire theme from his 1936 Sinfonietta for Strings, suggesting this music was both dear to him and probably not easy to whip up quickly for a film score. See also “Comparing Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Score and Sinfonietta (1936)”, Film Music Notes, accessed 29 May 2014, http://www.filmmusicnotes.com/comparing-bernard-herrmanns-psycho-score-and-sinfonietta-1936.

[20] Sullivan, “The Music of Terror,” 25.

[21] Or, if you like, a kind of rondo form is implied.

[22] Pun intended.

[23] Walker, “Hearing the Silences,” 18.

[24] Hemmeter, “Hitchcock’s Melodramatic Silence,” 32.

[25] Hitchcock denigrated early sound cinema arguing that films had degenerated into poorly expressive ‘pictures of people talking’ (David Mamet, On Directing Film (New York: Penguin, 1991), 22).

[26] See Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 214-16.

[27] Kulezic-Wilson, “The Music of Film Silence,” 1.

[28] Kulezic-Wilson, “The Music of Film Silence,” 3.

[29] Alfred Hitchcock, “Film Production,” in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 216.

[30] Hitchcock, “Film Production,” 215.

[31] Hitchcock, “Film Production,” 216.

[32] Gorbman, “Narrative Film Music,” 193.

[33] John Williams speaking in the documentary Plotting Family Plot, dir. Laurent Bouzereau, 2000: 40:50-41:53.

The ‘mystic psychology’ of Gnosticism

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This is something of a final piece for my Arts Degree. Also, a little more epic than usual. It not only concerns early Christianity and the late Roman world, but how we might go about understanding, interpreting and reconstructing religion.

Gnosticism is often called a more ‘psychological’ or ‘mystic’ religion by modern thinkers. Comparing Gnosticism to other religious systems, explore how this is or isn’t an appropriate designation.

Introduction

A collection of soteriological religious ideas which circulated throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries C.E. is generally known today as ‘Gnosticism’. It is often colloquially considered by modern thinkers as a more ‘mystic’ or ‘psychological’ religion in comparison to other religious and philosophical belief systems of its time. I shall in this essay explore why this might be, comparing the Gnostic religion to Neoplatonism and orthodox Christianity. My contention is that most religious systems could be considered as ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’, but that Gnosticism has been so characterized mainly as a result of modern misunderstandings of religious thinking.

A number of modern thinkers have linked Gnosticism with mysticism, or detected its “psychological implications.”[1] The extant texts are referred to by Needleman as “the subconscious teachings of Christianity;”[2] Leloup calls them the “unconscious gospels.”[3] Psychologists of last century with something of a mystic reputation are sometimes referred to as “modern Gnostics.”[4] Such associations might naturally centre around a religion preoccupied with knowledge of an elusive or secret kind – ‘Gnosticism’ is derived from the word for ‘knowledge’ in ancient Greek.[5] I will employ the word ‘psychological’ in this essay in a very casual sense: ‘apparently reflecting mental functions and behaviour, particularly with a therapeutic effect’. As I shall detail shortly, despite modern conceptions about religion, most religions could be considered highly ‘psychological’ as they could be said to have some therapeutic aspect, if only in that they recommend a perspective on existence and a way of living, and that they intrinsically involve highly complex interrelations of thought and feeling functions, most of which operate unconsciously or at least indistinctly. The casual conception of ‘mysticism’ reflects this ‘psychological’ underpinning of religion – the word is used to refer to a religious mindset that is contemplative or self-surrendering, with a rejection of doctrine, intellect or even moral values. While both terms could fairly apply to Gnosticism, I shall argue shortly that they could very well apply to virtually all truly religious experience.

Understanding Gnosticism

There are two principal problems we encounter in attempting to construct a meaningful understanding of the Gnostic religion: the general difficulty of properly comprehending how religion operates psychologically, and the problem of understanding the everyday culture and thinking styles of people living nearly 2000 years ago. Even just linguistically, for example, a bewildering array of modern concepts cannot have meant exactly what we mean by them today – concepts such as ‘rational knowledge’, ‘empirical evidence’, and ‘Christianity’. This stands to reason, as orthodox Christianity and western science, as we understand them today, developed mostly after the period of the Gnostics, taking centuries to thresh out their respective philosophical particulars. Similarly, the term ‘Gnosticism’ itself was never used by the ancients. It was coined in the 17th century C.E.[6] to refer to an apparent heretical movement among the early Christians and consequently has a pejorative ring to it.[7] Yet the word gnosis does play a role in the extant Gnostic texts to an extent unusual in its time.[8] Gnosis is generally translated as ‘knowledge’,[9] but in English ‘knowledge’ has many different meanings. The term ‘philosophy’ is associated with the ancient Greek word for ‘wisdom’ rather than ‘knowledge’. This suggests Gnostic gnosis is something quite different from what we now call ‘rationalistic knowledge’. Joseph Campbell associates gnosis with an ineffable knowledge “transcending that derived either empirically from the senses or rationally by way of the categories of thought”.[10] Kurt Rudolph calls it a “liberating and redeeming” knowledge.[11] All of this suggests that we will struggle to describe Gnosticism with precision because it is both ancient and, fundamentally, ineffable, like much that is emotional or religious.[12]

This last point is often overlooked by scholars, particularly when it comes to seeking ‘definitions’ for cultural-religious ideas. A perfect example of this is the scholarly muddle around ‘defining’ Gnosticism. The debate centres around how to classify a fundamentally ancient and ineffable religion using a variety of discrete, precise terminologies. Ismo Dunderberg, for example, denies that ‘Gnosticism’ is a particularly useful or meaningful designation,[13] mainly because he does not see ‘the Gnostics’ as forming a unified group. He proceeds to study the fragments of Valentinus pragmatically, as representing a particular individual’s mainly moral and philosophic teachings. But most mythologies do not form unified, clearly demarcated units[14] – these are myths, not social or political organizations with a discrete charter. I see no need for mythological ‘definitions’ at all; such would be purely casual, approximate, and impressionistic[15] in the area of cultural-religious ideas in general.[16] Such ‘definitions’ say more about viewpoints of modern scholarship than about the ancients’ beliefs.[17]

How might we understand religion?

I will, briefly, support my own mythic interpretative theory by utilizing the more appropriately impressionistic myth theories of Ernst Cassirer,[18] Clifford Geertz,[19] and others. Cassirer’s theory concerns the changes to mythic thinking over time. He proposes that the principle difference between modern and ancient thinking was not that the ancients did not have a basic understanding of what we call practical matters or rationality, for example, but that these understandings were expressed in a manner more fundamentally fused (today we would say confused) with areas of thought which we would call impractical, superstitious, or irrational.[20] For example, hunter-gatherer thinking would most likely have fused into one mindset the categories of thought we would today compartmentalize and distinguish as ethics, metaphysics, personal psychology, politics, aesthetics, opinion, superstition, philosophy, practical economics, etc.[21] Of course, the Romans would not have thought in as much of an extremely ‘fused’ manner as hunter-gatherer people; Cassirer suggests that with the development of what we call civilization (particularly early science and rationality) more of these categories of thought began to be consciously distinguished and conceptualized more discretely.

What this means is that we can and should, if only for convenience’ sake, use ‘discrete’ modern terms to refer to ancient thought, provided that we remain wary that the historical reality was more blurred, mixed, and ‘fused’, such that, for example, discrete but superficially similar thought processes can be equated and spoken of, even experienced, as one. In fact, Cassirer’s whole thesis is that this ancient, ‘fused’ way of thinking is actually the default mode of mythological thought and experience.[22] It is this less distinguished, ‘fused’ thinking which we are likely to see reflected in written records such as the Gnostic texts and which leads us to consider all religions, not just Gnosticism, as intrinsically ‘psychological’, even ‘mystic’.[23] This is one reason why religions cannot be explicated using ‘empirical’ or ‘systematic’ methods – both these thinking processes value discreteness and physicality to an extent, I argue, which the cultural-mythological subject matter does not warrant.[24]

Clifford Geertz[25] further explains the structure of myth in terms of a two-way interaction between a cultural ethos and a mythic worldview. Certain popular and meaningful cultural beliefs and ideas make up the components of a metaphysics or meta-narrative which in turn validates the component beliefs and ideas through ordering them into a meaningful structure. I argue, on the basis of Geertz’s theory, that it is the mythic worldview which crystallizes and guides the thinking process in relation to religious thought and experience. It is a kind of dynamic formula not of intellect, ethics, or theology, but of action.[26] The worldview motivates the ‘religious mission’.[27] However, we must remain aware that an individual deeply involved[28] in such a worldview is generally not consciously aware of its psychological functioning because he or she is dealing with a heavily ‘fused’ mode of thinking. The worldview and ethos are necessarily vague and approximate values, however their interrelation is of prime importance.[29] A slight alteration in ethos is unlikely to affect the worldview, but a large alteration can render the structuring device of the worldview ineffectual (i.e. less powerful, less inspiring) or even totally obsolete (in which case the religion becomes meaningless, ‘deceptive’ (i.e. uninspiring), or a curious folk story). The difficulty in terms of historical analysis of worldview and ethos is that neither of these is explicitly stated or directly represented in written texts or even verbal expression. These are only approximate values to begin with, that only appear in very impressionistic and generalised ways. Accordingly, a mythic worldview cannot be ‘defined’ but only impressionistically outlined and for the purposes of study.[30]

Finally, the numinous feeling that pervades myth[31] is, I argue, another component in the ‘fusing’ of mythic thought, not only in the sense that an emotional aspect is included along with the other indistinct mental elements, but the very process of ‘fused’ mythological thinking – particularly the sense of a mythic worldview crystallizing all the myriad parts of the cultural ethos and ordering these meaningfully – probably engenders a sense of culminating awe, of ‘transcendent-immanent horror-joy’.[32]

What is Gnosticism?

Since a mythic worldview is a complex metaphysics or meta-narrative, to explore the Gnostic worldview[33] I will turn primarily to Gnostic accounts of creation and cosmology as revealed in the texts usually titled, On the Origin of the World (OW) and The Secret Book of John (SBJ).[34] Here we read that, after the creation of the world of the highest gods by the ultimate god-principle known as ‘the One’ (OW 97-9; SBJ 2-9), an immortal known as Barbelo in SBJ, Pistis-Sophia (literally ‘Faith-Wisdom’) in OW, independently creates a being without the consent of the One from a superfluous substance referred to as shadow, chaos, darkness, envy, deficiency, abortion, and matter (OW 100; SBJ 9-10). This new being, said to be a “thing with no spirit … made into a likeness of the divine” (OW 100), is the first archon (‘ruler’), known as the Demiurge, identified with the creator god from the Torah or Old Testament. The Demiurge proceeds to shape matter into the world roughly as per Genesis chapter 1, creating lesser rulers, kings, and powers, including those of the planets of the ancient zodiac (OW 100-3; SBJ 10-3). The Demiurge then commits a great sin: he proclaims, “‘I am God, and there is no other but me’” (OM 103). In his arrogance, or ignorance, the Demiurge does not know of the One, the higher, more perfect god which came before him. Barbelo/Pistis and the One then reveal a glorious androgynous man made of light to expose the lie of the Demiurge, but this only encourages the Demiurge to create man, as it were, in the man of light’s image (OM 103, 107-8, 112-3; SBJ 14-5). The Demiurge and his powers (including the planets) are able to create bodily aspects of the first human but such is only able to come fully to life with the secret intervention of ‘the Mother’/Sophia, who essentially imprisons a spark of enlightened Insight (gnosis) within man (OM 114-5; SBJ 19-21). The end of the tale is similar to Genesis 2. The first man appears in the garden of Paradise, is divided: Adam becomes male and Eve female – Eve secretly embodies an earthly version of the goddess/Sophia – and, after eating from the tree of knowledge, they are expelled from the garden by a jealous Demiurge (OM 118-21; SBJ 21-3).

From this creation story, we discern the mythic worldview of the Gnostics. The world, including man, as in orthodox Christianity, is ‘fallen’ – evil, deluded, ignorant, imperfect – but it is not the Biblical God who is to bring about salvation. A redeemer figure – not always[35] but often Jesus Christ, son of the true, highest god, of the One – descends and re-ascends from on high to bring knowledge – insight, gnosis – of the true light, perfection, wholeness. This is the central worldview of Gnosticism.[36] The aim of the Gnostic was, through whatever means,[37] to become aware of the divine spark within, and thereby to gain some sort of spiritual freedom or release from the corrupt world of the Demiurge. To reiterate, this is not a precise, always-stated principle or ‘doctrine’ of Gnosticism, but an approximation of a common conceptualization (the worldview) which functioned as the motivator for the driving feeling and spirit of this ancient religion.

As Dunderberg observes,[38] many Gnostic texts do not even mention the Demiurge, the fallen world, even the One, but I argue that something like this basic conception of ‘salvation from corruption’ inspires the ethical teaching or abstract transcendental poetry of the Gnostic texts. Similarly, this general worldview can be expressed in texts which differ or contradict each other on the level of specific detail. My exposition of the Gnostic cosmology above has ironed out much of the differing detail in the two texts – not only regarding names used, but the order of events is different, and there are some seemingly radical differences of interpretation. For example, in OM, the serpent in the garden and the tree of knowledge itself are embodiments of or emissaries from the life-giving Pistis-Sophia; whereas, in SBJ, they represent the corrupting powers of the Demiurge – the fruit of the tree brings not gnosis but a poison which instills desire, empty pleasure, and sexuality (which is seen as perverse and corrupting). These differences have been largely disregarded for two reasons. Firstly, individual believers naturally do not express similar ideas in exactly the same way. This is especially the case in a non-doctrinal religion where there is no authoritative text to be consulted like a prescriptive law book. Hence the differences are not necessarily significant. Secondly, most importantly, the differing details do not affect the fundamental worldview. In OM, disobedience in the garden is a disobedience of the ignorant Demiurge only. In SBJ, the Demiurge urges them away from the evil tree to make it seem more attractive to them. Either way, the world creator is an evil menace, endeavouring to keep humanity away from gnosis and the light. This disparity and variety of expression suggests not imprecision (since, again, there is no real precision in ‘fused’ religious conception), but a mytho-poetic grasping for expression of an ineffable ‘psychological’ truth.

Gnosticism compared to Neoplatonism

Like Gnosticism, Neoplatonism also exhibits a propensity for diverse forms. Each philosopher in the tradition from Plotinus to Proclus knowingly articulates his ideas in differing ways.[39] However, once again, an encompassing mythic worldview suffuses all texts in the tradition, otherwise we probably would not recognize them as exemplifying ‘Neoplatonism’. In comparison to Gnosticism, the Neoplatonic religion expresses itself in what we might call transcendental philosophy rather than narrative myth-making. In this respect, its worldview is less of a meta-narrative and more of a metaphysics. The universe is pictured largely according to the Greco-Roman tradition[40] with Earth pictured at the centre of 7 or 8 rotating concentric spheres, each home to a ‘planet’[41] or the ‘fixed stars’. Neoplatonism conceives all of this originating and remaining within the perfect, uniting, infinite, self-sufficient, transcendent-yet-immanent power of the One, which is sometimes anthropomorphized but is, like the entirety of Neoplatonism, mostly conceived of in extremely abstract terms. From the One emanates the archetypes or ‘intelligible forms’ which function rather like blueprints for the shaping of inert matter into the material and living world. Naturally, all of this differs slightly in organization, degree, names and expression depending on which Neoplatonic philosopher you are reading (or, indeed, which section of the same philosopher).[42]

The principal difference between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism in terms of mythic worldview – which, of course, changes everything – is that the world is not considered necessarily evil, ‘fallen’, corrupt, deluded, or ignorant. Plotinus insists that the material world, while less ‘real’ than that of the immortal Soul or the One, is truly beautiful, perfect, and necessary to existence.[43] “[W]ill there be any so dull-witted and unresponsive,” he asks, “in seeing all the varied beauty in the world of sense, … that he will not stand in awe of it?” (Plotinus Enneads II 9.xvi). Without matter, he argues, “all would lie buried in [the One], without Form” (Plotinus, Enneads IV 8.vi). Evil is not a separate principle or power but simply a result of a world which is not adequately ‘in form’; that is, not properly reflecting the perfect archetypes which herald from the One. However, the similarities between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism are great, and not only in respect to diversity of expression and structural conception of the universe. Neoplatonism holds that humans are part-matter and part-incorporeal, immortal soul. This soul is said to descend and ascend through the spheres at birth and death respectively. The similarity here to the Gnostic ‘insight’ or ‘spark’ imprisoned in the corrupt flesh of body is striking.

Diversity of form, coupled with its expression in the form of philosophy rather than mythic narrative, leaves us with a sense that Neoplatonism is also ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’. The terminology used by Plotinus refers directly to metaphysical principles which are blatantly words indicating psychological states: the powers of ‘Intellect’, ‘Desire’, ‘Soul’, ‘Goodness’, for example. This is also the case in Gnosticism of course, but such forces are generally personified: Pistis-Sophia (‘Faith-Wisdom’) is more clearly conceived as a goddess-figure, for example. Plotinus is apparently describing a metaphysics, not a psychology, yet virtually all his proofs and arguments rely on comparisons to psychological experience in some way. For example, he argues using metaphors that only make sense when psychologically conceived: the development of matter is “like the unfolding of a seed” (Enneads IV 8.vi). These metaphors seem to be all the proof required – he does not need to argue why it should be like the unfolding of a seed; the metaphorical comparison itself seems to be evidence that satisfies intuitively, that is, ‘psychologically’.[44] Furthermore, “the sight of beauty … can bear a man up to the higher reality” (Enneads II 9.xvi) surely means that such a man is not literally borne to a physically higher or otherwise displaced location, but is metaphorically borne to a ‘higher’ psychological state of mind. Unfortunately, the metaphorical conception is probably only perceived as more correct from our modern standpoint. Plotinus almost certainly equates the two, i.e. that psychological state (experienced rather than conceptualized) is the soul momentarily becoming physically displaced to a higher reality. Properly considered, Gnosticism seems less ‘psychological’ in comparison to Neoplatonic philosophy, yet modern psychologists are not considered by some thinkers as ‘modern Neoplatonists’[45] – it is the Gnostics that are represented as ‘psychological’ and ‘mystic’. This still needs to be explained.

Gnosticism versus orthodox Christianity

In turning to orthodox Christianity, we must be careful to consider this in context. As far as we know there was no ‘orthodox’ Christianity before the 4th century C.E. when Theodosius I made it the Roman Empire’s sole authorized religion. I hope my earlier discussion of the typical forms of religious thought has shown that the idea of ‘authorizing’ a religion is a highly artificial almost incongruous thing to do.[46] It is worth bearing in mind that even after the declaration of the Nicene Creed in 325 C.E., the establishing of one dogmatic Christian creed took centuries to achieve, and it is arguable that such an undertaking had more to do with political repression than religious expression.[47]

We might express the fundamental orthodox Christian worldview as: The world including man is ‘fallen’; it is obedience to the moral law of the Biblical God, through the forgiving Grace and sacrament of his son Jesus Christ, that will lead the individual to ‘salvation’. This worldview sounds, on the face of it, very like the Gnostic in the sense that both can be reduced to a less specific and indiscrete emotional striving after ‘salvation from corruption’. We might explore the differences between the orthodox Christian and Gnostic religions through the critical words of those contemporaries of the Gnostics who later came to be known as the Church Fathers, but, upon reflection, there is very little criticism here pertaining to mythic worldview. This is because when two religious sects essentially hold the same or very similar worldviews, criticism can only occur on the level of ethos, that is, on the level of particular expression, social practice, ethical systemization or even political affiliation. These may be component elements which make up part of the ‘fused’ mythic worldview, but on their own they are perceived by the religious believer as either inessential, extrinsic or differently inflected. The Church Fathers’ fundamental criticisms are not specific to Christianity or Gnosticism but might be applied by an outsider to any religion he or she wishes to repudiate. These criticisms differ in detail of course but include accusations of corrupt origins, of inconsistency or incoherence, and of immoral practices.[48] All religions can be considered as dubious in this way due to the ‘fused’ nature of mythic conception.

The mode of religious expression can also be used to make a superficial distinction between traditions. We have already seen how Neoplatonism appears far more philosophical due to the abstract dialectical language in which its central inspiration is expressed. We see this component factor of expression over-enlarged into an apparently fundamental religious conflict when we consider the arguments concerning orthodox Christian ‘faith’ versus Gnostic ‘knowledge’.[49] On the psychological level, what, finally, is the difference between ‘faith’, a sense of ineffable religious righteousness or feeling, and ‘gnosis’, a non-rational, ineffable kind of ‘knowledge’? Such terms are ‘fused’ in normal religious thought. Their use merely depends upon whichever seems the more appropriate word to express the ineffable in the context of the religious discourse or vernacular. The word ‘faith’ rather than ‘knowledge’ is more likely to be used when the speaker does not seek to draw upon (or wishes to bypass) philosophic conception in describing this feeling.[50] This is primarily how the orthodox Christian hermeneutic operates. Its worldview finds expression and justification in literal, material, anti-philosophic, ethical-political doctrine rather than theoretical philosophical dialectic (Neoplatonism) or mytho-poetic narrative-philosophy (Gnosticism).

The primary religious difference between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism (i.e. significantly affecting worldview) is in the degree of world denial. In both traditions the world is ‘fallen’, man a creature of sin. Gnosticism includes the world rulers and creators as part of this corruption, whereas orthodox Christianity does not. This is the source of the orthodox Christian claim that Gnosticism is “nihilistic”,[51] yet ‘greater world denial’ does not necessarily equate to ‘rejection of all religious principles’. Accordingly, orthodox Christianity values collective social, ethical, and earlier-religious sources of meaning more than Gnosticism.[52] The effect of this upon orthodox Christianity is that, ironically, man is actually considered more flawed in relation to the deity. God, unlike The One, becomes the representative of earthly social, ethical, and traditionally authoritive meaning; hence he is more moralistic, righteous, and transcendent.[53] The Gnostic finds salvation not in the world, not in man, but not in moral, political[54] or traditional social authorities either, only in the One, which is abstract, transcendent, ineffable, but also, significantly, immanent, within the individual. Ironically, by rejecting all other forms of meaning, Gnosticism actually makes meaning accessible to any individual anywhere at any time, provided he is in possession of gnosis, or, in more ‘psychological’ terms, is in the right ‘enlightened’ state of mind.[55] Orthodox Christianity instead seeks to locate its numinous inspiration – its gnosis, as it were – exclusively in the institution of the Church, in the holy rite (religious ‘magic’) of the Eucharist, its efficacy explained by an un-philosophical ‘magic’ designated ‘faith’.[56] It is this ‘faith’ and the associated material-historical doctrine of the orthodox Christian which seeks to invalidate all claims that his or her religion has any necessary connection to emotional expression or ‘psychology’.[57] Hence orthodox Christianity as religion remains emotional-‘psychological’ but claims it is literal, historical ‘magic’ to a startling degree.[58]

Conclusion

The source of the modern designation of Gnosticism as a more ‘psychological’ religion is to be found in my earlier exposition concerning how religion is structured and operates. Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity can all be seen as ‘psychological’ because they are religions and, as we have seen, religions are psychologically complex human thinking constructs. However, the modern conception of Gnosticism’s especially ‘psychological’ or ‘mystic’ nature goes beyond this in, I argue, two different directions. These concern, respectively, modern ideas of, in the first instance, religion, and, in the second, scholastic enquiry. Today, religions are popularly understood to be prescriptive ethical systems, clearly defined in a doctrine, and based on an irrational supernatural ‘belief’ concerning existence. This conception is clearly based on the Abrahamic doctrinal religions, particularly orthodox Christianity, which are, as I have argued throughout this essay, quite exceptional in that they rather incongruously and somewhat superficially express their approximate, impressionistic, ‘fused’ mythological worldviews in deceptively discrete, specific, ethical-political-ontological-historical doctrines. As a result, religion in general is popularly considered much less ‘psychological’ today than it actually is, as per Cassirer, Geertz, Otto, Campbell, Boyer etc. Hence, when Gnosticism is considered, its non-doctrinal expression stands out in stark relief against its worldview, perceived as startlingly similar to the familiar Christian worldview, thus rending Gnosticism, superficially, as a more ‘psychological’ and ‘mystic’ religion.

The scholarly conception of Gnosticism functions in a similarly superficial manner. In simulating the rigorous standards of empirical science, modern scholarship breaks down ‘evidence’ of this ancient religion into discrete, consistent units, searching for the precision of historical truth and, again, ‘doctrine’. However, this ‘evidence’ is comprised of cultural-mythological phenomena, which are actually, as per Cassirer, Geertz, Otto, etc., intrinsically vague, approximate, impressionistic, and ‘fused’. Most scholarship thereby produces mainly hairsplitting analysis of individual differences of presentation, expression, or social-political affiliation, comprising cultural ethos, and only rarely and indistinctly the fundamental worldview. The result is categorization of religions according to their mode of expression or obvious surface characteristics. Hence, Neoplatonism is properly a kind of transcendental philosophy rather than a religion because it is expressed in philosophical texts. Similarly, orthodox Christianity is a religion since it has a church, expresses itself in doctrine and has authoritative-sounding texts. Gnosticism’s mixture of poetry and literary-style narrative text analysis seems too ‘wild’ to be sensible philosophy or a ‘serious’[59] religion. Again, its diverse, impressionistic texts defy (inappropriately) concise definition. Hence it remains, colloquially, a strange, complex curiosity, to be picked over for intellectual tidbits and branded as ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’.

Considered inappropriately through the prisms of doctrinal religion or rationalistic scholarship, the ‘mystic’, ‘psychological’ aspect of any and all religion is selected as Gnosticism’s unique possession. Both approaches make essentially the same mistake in considering religion to be defined by a discrete, specific, concise thinking-process rather than an impressionistic, general, ‘fused’ non-conscious interaction between a Geertzian worldview and cultural ethos, producing an orientating ineffable numinous motivation and inspiration for life. However, such a ‘psychological’ aspect is not so much absent from as not unique to Gnosticism. In fact, we could put this slightly more positively as: Gnosticism is unique in that the ‘psychological’ aspect of general religious conception is more obvious to modern thinkers in its mode of expression than other known religions. However, modern thinkers do not generally realize this, or at least, express it this way.

Bibliography

Primary Texts
Epiphanius Panarion trans. P. R. Armidon (New York and Oxford, 1990).
Irenaeus Against the Heresies trans. D. J. Unger (New York and Mahwah, N. J., 1992).
Plotinus Enneads trans. J. Gregory (London, 1991).
On the Origin of the World trans. M. Meyer (New York, 2007).
The Secret Book of John trans. M. Meyer (New York, 2007).
Tertullian On the Prescription of Heretics trans. T. H. Bindley (London, 1914).

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Beck, R. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (New York, 2006).
Boyer, P. Religion Explained (London, 2001).
Cahana, J. “None of Them Knew Me or My Brothers: Gnostic Antitraditionalism and Gnosticism as a Cultural Phenomenon,” The Journal of Religion 94 (2014): 49-73.
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Cassirer, E. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. II: Mythic Thought trans. R. Manheim (New Haven and London, 1955).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Dunderberg, I. Beyond Gnosticism (New York and Chichester, West Sussex, 2008).
Filoramo, G. A History of Gnosticism trans. A. Alcock (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1990).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Gregory, J. The Neoplatonists (London, 1991).
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
King, K. L. “The Politics of Syncretism and the Problem of Defining Gnosticism,” Historical Reflections 27 (2001): 461-79.
King, K. L. What is Gnosticism? (London, 2003).
Leloup, J. The Gospel of Philip trans. J. Rowe (Rochester, Vermont, 2003).
Meyer, M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The International Edition (New York, 2007).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pennachio, John. “Gnostic Inner Illumination and Carl Jung’s Individuation,” Journal of Religion and Health 31 (1992): 237-45.
Rasimus, T. “Ophite Gnosticism, Sethianism and the Nag Hammadi Library,” Vigiliae Christianae 59 (2005): 235-63.
Rudolph, K. Gnosis: the Nature and History of an Ancient Religion trans. R. M. Wilson (Leipzig, 1977).
Wallis, R. T. and Bregman, J., eds. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism (New York, 1992).

Footnotes

[1] Jonas expounded in King (2003), 114.

[2] Leloup (2003), x; Needleman’s italics.

[3] Leloup (2003), 2.

[4] Wallis and Bregman (1992), 4; Filoramo (1990), xiv; King (2003), 19. Cf. Pennachio (1992).

[5] Campbell (1968), 158.

[6] Dunderberg (2008), 16; or 18th century according to Rudolph (1977), 55.

[7] Rudolph (1977), 55.

[8] Rudolph (1977), 55. Aside from use by the Gnostics themselves, the Church Fathers refer to Gnosticism as the “gnosis falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6: 20 cited in Rudolph (1977), 55).

[9] Campbell (1968), 158. Rudolph (1977) prefers ‘insight’.

[10] Campbell (1968), 158. Campbell compares Gnosticism to Buddhism, which is based on the word for ‘knowledge’ in Sanskrit, and with its own variety of non-rationalistic ‘knowledge’.

[11] Rudolph (1977), 55.

[12] There is certainly no scholarship to the effect that gnosis represents ‘rationalistic’ knowledge.

[13] Dunderberg (2008), 16.

[14] Though they may appear to. See the discussion of ‘doctrine’ versus ‘worldview’ in footnote 28; more on this later.

[15] To clarify, ‘impressionistic’ in this essay suggests a subjective, emotional, unsystematic reaction or thinking style.

[16] The debate surrounding the ‘definition’ of Gnosticism seems unknowingly and bizarrely preoccupied with defining what exactly we mean by religion in general, merely approached through the example of Gnosticism. We do not generally spend most or all of an article on, say, Christianity or Judaism, trying to define the word we use for that religion before we have even began. The whole approach seems to be hairsplitting or, at least, based on certain unspoken (or unconscious) assumptions.

[17] Dunderberg (2008), 15. It can of course be useful to make such distinctions in terms of historical-political scholarship but we must remember that these are fundamentally artificial (even, merely linguistic) methodological conveniences which often have very little to do with actual religious experience. Furthermore, a particular cultural idea or trait is never a single, clearly-defined, identically structured or reproduced ethereal ‘substance’ or ‘quality’, but a mere approximate similarity in terms of a thinking process or element among a group of discrete individuals (see Boyer (2001), 40). The scholarly designation of ‘Sethian’ versus, say, ‘Orphite’ Gnosticism (see Rasimus (2005), for example) produces further muddles. Are we talking here about different religions, different sects, or different regional variation in the expression of ideas within Gnosticism? Surely Lutherans are not Muslims, but are Sufis not Muslims because they are not Sunnis? And what about the Japanese person who might be Zen Buddhist and Shinto? We must make clear exactly what we are interested in: the meaning of Gnosticism for its professors or for the outsiders or enemies of the Gnostics? The perspective here will make all the difference but it is surprising how often these different perspectives are not differentiated, declared, even blurred together in the scholarship. There often is a world of difference between the mental reality of religious thinking and the self-identification of religious categories according to believers, non-believers, and individual religious scholars. My own interest is in the mindset of those inspired by, most intimately involved in, the ‘practisers’ of, Gnosticism (we might call them Gnostic ‘believers’).

[18] Cassirer (1946).

[19] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[20] Cassirer (1955), 78.

[21] This is why today, when such relatively discrete compartments of thinking have been separated we are more likely to redefine the earlier mode not so much as ‘fused’ but as ‘confused’, even ‘irrational’, ‘silly’, ‘impressionistic’, ‘wrong’, etc.

[22] This accords with modern understandings of the plethora of simultaneous non-conscious inference systems constantly operating in the human mind as outlined in Boyer (2001), 109-12.

[23] Since ‘mysticism’ by definition assumes an overriding of intellectual thinking, all religions can be considered ‘mystic’ because ‘fused’ thought is necessarily more or other than intellectual. Similarly, we might consider all religions as ‘syncretistic’ despite dogmatic claims for exclusivity, see King (2001), 463 for discussion of the term ‘syncretistic’.

[24] What this essentially means is that you cannot ‘prove’ two individuals are not inspired by the same religion just because they consciously express different words or conceptions. There is, in religious matters, an essential disconnect between conscious expression and non-conscious thought such as Boyer can remark: “when we talk about religion we quite literally do not know what we are talking about” (Boyer (2001), 108).

[25] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[26] As per Ruth Millikan, mental conception functions much less like an encyclopedia, collating ‘definitions’, than as a process for acquiring practical mental skills of recognition and evaluation (Boyer (2001), 129).

[27] I might add that the mythic worldview is not just the ‘lowest common denominator’ of a particular collection of culture-values (i.e. the ethos). This is partly because religious worldviews tend toward the more not less meaningful conception (hence we could argue it is more like the ‘highest common denominator’), but there are actually a distinct number of psychological factors which make some ideas and not others good candidates for religious conception. See Boyer (2001), 19-20, 33-4.

[28] I would not say ‘indoctrinated’ here. A Geertzian worldview is totally different from a doctrine. A doctrine is specific, discrete and philosophically stated. It is usually associated with political or ethical rather than mythological thinking. It functions more like a constitution in relation to a set of laws and in this respect it says more or less precisely what it means. A religious doctrine is, as per Boyer, not a precondition of all religion, but peculiar only to some (Boyer (2001), 159). Such a doctrine often functions as a justification for equating, repressing or restructuring primary religious inspiration with or by ethical-ideological dogma (see Hayden (2003), 5-12).

[29] See King (2001), 469-71 for her explanation involving the metaphor of cookery.

[30] For application of the Geertzian ethos-worldview in more modern scholarship, see Beck (2006), particularly 67-71; also, King (2001), 469-70.

[31] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[32] Otto (1923), 5-71. See also Boyer (2001), 145: feelings are the natural outcomes of our complex non-conscious inference systems.

[33] As per Geertz (1957), the use of ‘worldview’ refers to a decidedly impressionistic, ‘fused’, general overarching conception by definition. My use of ‘worldview’ does not imply a specific, discrete, precisely proscribed concept, and certainly not a doctrine (see again footnote 28).

[34] See Meyer (2007), 199-222, 103-32.

[35] Rudolph (1977), 118.

[36] Such a rendition is relatively rare in scholarship, perhaps because making such generalized statements about a religion smacks of imprecision or simplification. However, I have already shown how systematic precision is misplaced when talking about ‘fused’ mytho-religious thought. And when such a statement is made in scholarship, it ends up sounding very like a doctrine (see again footnote 28).

[37]We do not actually know what these were in any detail.

[38] Dunderberg (2008), 15.

[39] Gregory (1991), 193-5.

[40]Which is no doubt the source of this conception in Gnosticism also; both religions share an ethos.

[41] The sun and moon were considered planets in ancient times.

[42] Gregory (1991), 193-5.

[43] Gregory (1991), 102.

[44] It is possible of course to see these as explanations rather than proofs, but, if this is the case, Plotinus does not seem to provide any proofs for his philosophy as very rarely is any other form of evidence offered.

[45] See again the designation of some modern psychologists as ‘modern Gnostics’ in my introduction section.

[46] Hayden (2003), 4-12.

[47] See Campbell (1964), 407-19.

[48] Rudolph (1977), 12, 14, 15, 19. For example, in reference to the perversion of scripture and the allegedly confused basis of Gnostic myth, Irenaeus claims “what is ambiguous [the Gnostics] cleverly and deceitfully adapt to their fabrication by an unusual explanation” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.35) and, “[s]uch is their system which neither the prophets preached, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles handed down,” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 8.1). Epiphanius argues that the Gnostics “fabricate books … basing themselves on pagan superstition … thereby weaving together truth and falsehood” (Epiphanius, Panarion 26.1.3). Tertullian also rails against false origins (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 21) and inconsistency (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 51). Epiphanius stretches credibility with his long diatribe detailing the apparent perversity of the Gnostics’ sexual practices which he claims include promiscuity (Epiphanius, Panarion 4.1), masturbation (Epiphanius, Panarion 11.1), homosexuality (Epiphanius, Panarion 11.8), and obscene rituals involving sexual orgies and abortions (Epiphanius, Panarion 4.5-5.2).

[49] Rudolph (1977), 15. For example, see Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 6.2.

[50] By philosophy here I mean both evidence-based ‘empirical’ philosophy, and the more general, ‘rational thinking’ variety. Indeed, the rejection of philosophy seems explicit in statements such as the following from Tertullian: “‘Thy faith,’ Christ said, ‘hath saved thee,’ not thy argumentative skill in the Scriptures” (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 14).

[51] Rudolph (1977), 16.

[52] See Cahana (2014) for a study of Gnosticism’s unusual rejection of virtually all tradition.

[53]This is what Tertullian unknowingly expresses when he argues that Gnosticism “blurs the fixed limits that separate the creature from the deity” (H. von Campenhausen qtd. in Rudolph (1977), 16).

[54] King (2001), 476-7 finds the Gnostic position more political, as in, the Gnostic opposition to celestial and earthly rulers can be seen as a political protest against Roman authority. I acknowledge this is possible although the extant Gnostic texts read as religious texts and not political tracts. I suspect the distinction ‘more political’ may again be a qualifier which heralds from measuring Gnostic implications in relation to perceived Christian orthodoxy (itself possibly more explicitly political in its day than today). My point is that most religions can be skewed into political discourses, but such do not afford a complete picture of the religious experience, which is, as King ends up acknowledging, “somewhat ambivalent” (King (2001), 477) when it comes to advocating a radical political cause.

[55]See Campbell (1964), 366; Campbell (1968), 157-8.

[56] I am not here precluding the possibility that Gnosticism may have had a ‘magic’ ritual aspect too, only that, if it did have this aspect, there was also a philosophical-emotional reading involved as well. The extant Gnostic texts tell us little about ritual practice but they certainly reveal that there was no fixed doctrinal expression or denial of a philosophical-emotional approach to gnosis.

[57] For example, Irenaeus criticizes the Gnostics for supposing “they can surpass the apostles … and trust their inner capacity to innovate and progress spiritually” (Cahana (2014), 54).

[58] Perhaps one reason it does this is to distinguish itself from Gnosticism in the first place – who can say.

[59] I.e. dogmatic.

Some Troublesome Art Terms

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langer

Susanne K. Langer

Here are some troublesome art words and clarifying explanations of them I learned from reading philosopher Susanne K. Langer (Philosophy In A New Key (1941), Feeling and Form (1953), Problems of Art (1957)). Langer argues that all art (from pictorial art, to sculpture, architecture, music, dance, poetry, literature, and theatre) functions in a way that is fundamentally not expressible using words.[1] This is generally the problem lying behind these troublesome art terms. Since verbal expression is difficult, there is a tendency to use words impressionistically or metaphorically but then become confused with any number of literal meanings.

 

“escapist”

– often used to mean ‘art that aims to superficially distract the viewer, or to avoid unpleasant realities’.

“Escapist” tends to be incorrectly applied merely to artworks which have no obvious verbal content or message.

This misuse has to do with the modern assumption that if a meaning cannot be expressed in words in must be “emotional”, “mystical,” “irrational,” “unscientific,” “sensational,” “fantastical” or “delusional”. Langer points out that the ‘fantasy’ or ‘faery world’ experienced in childhood is not an attempt by the child to escape the ‘real world’ (as in “escapism”) but is a non-verbal way of conceiving reality when other methods have not developed yet – it is a “thinking in shades of feeling.” Similarly, an artist may use non-verbal means to communicate certain expressive or emotional effects which cannot be properly articulated verbally.

 

“artistic truth”

– has nothing necessarily to do with truth in relation to reality (“the way things really are”, “the existence of things”) or historical fact (“what really happened”) or logical processes (“this conclusion follows from these premises”).

Yinka_Shonibare_MBE.77213521_stdLanger argues that “artistic truth” is the degree to which an artistic work reminds the viewer of the feeling patterns of organic life. Such patterns might be the approximate feeling-impression of organic growth (like a plant growing or a young person maturing), of natural processes (like the heart beating, water flowing or vines curling), or of natural emotional patterns (such as fear or desire or horror or passion). Langer emphasizes that this is only an impression of these feelings and consequently there is no necessity for the artwork itself, or the subject it seems to be portraying, to actually be organic or alive (or, in particular, to reflect factual or social-political reality – art is not a newspaper article or scientific paper). It is merely ‘an impression of organic life’. (This is also often inexpressible in words.) Thus, a work that “has no artistic truth” seems inorganic, flat, ho-hum.

 

“self-expression”

– Langer argues that “self-expression” has no necessary connection to art if you use “self-expression” to refer to:

  1. the feelings that the artist feels when creating the artwork
  2. the raw visceral emotions a viewer might feel when reacting to real-life events (such as vigorous exercise, or hearing that a close friend has died, or winning the lottery)

Langer argues that it is unnecessary to be in an emotional state to create an artwork that has an expressive effect.[2] In fact, being in a highly emotional state does not allow for much concentration. Also, in the case of the performing arts, an emotional state cannot easily be produced on the spur of the moment when it is time for a performance.

Similarly, when, as viewers, we feel ‘the anguish of the holocaust’ or ‘hunted by a monster’ on the cinema screen, we do not actually undergo the same or even similar emotions as we would if we believed these events were actually taking place. (Going to see a horror film would be traumatic and physically painful.)

berensonLanger argues that art does not produce or vent emotions, and the artist is not making us feel emotion.[3] Instead, the artist is arranging artistic materials so that they signify expressive effects to us – though we should take note that Langer is essentially using ‘signify’ here in an unconventional way; to mean indicate and sense, get an impression of, understand non-verbally. There isn’t actually an adequate word to describe something that is felt but isn’t a feeling. The best that Langer can do is to describe it as a feeling that is not a reaction but a form of comprehension – ‘you ‘know’ that feeling’.

The whole difficulty of “self-expression” in art resides in the fact that artworks seem to express something without telling us anything in the usual practical non-artistic way. A painting is not a person so it cannot “speak” to us. A poem does not deliver information in the same way that a newspaper article or instruction manual does. How is it “expressing itself” without bluntly “saying what it means”? The artwork appears to be “alive”, to be “telling” us something, “making us feel” something, but in some non-conventional way. This again is difficult to describe in words – a feeling of subjectivity (the expression) with apparent objectivity (the artwork is apparently just a ‘thing’, and ‘things’ aren’t alive in order to express things to us).

All of this is related to:

 

“aesthetic distance”

– this term is often used in relation to expressive effects which are muted: “it stands at some aesthetic distance”.

Langer points out that “aesthetic distance” is essential to art (otherwise you wouldn’t recognize it as art) and that the distance can be near as well as far.

The confusion surrounding this term has to do with non-verbal expression again. “Aesthetic distance” refers to the process of making something into (or, from the viewer’s perspective, considering something as) a work of art. The artistic materials must be sort of ‘set back’, or mentally ‘marked off’ from not just their surroundings but the ‘everyday’ ‘normal’ way of thinking that we employ for non-art objects. This may involve ignoring an object’s practical function or usual context. Importantly, this is not necessarily about impersonality or lack of expressive effect – in fact, the very act of considering something aesthetically tends to enhance its expressive effect. Once again, we have a tricky conception which does not lend itself to words – this is rendering something ‘distant’ or ‘formalised’ but not ‘typical’, ‘general’ or ‘unemotional’.escaping_criticism_by_caso

Something that is at too great an “aesthetic distance” (“too far away” as it were) seems to be a non-art thing (a practical object or incidental thing), which does not strike a viewer as being expressive at all – it is usually ignored or merely ‘used’ to some purpose. A sign in a supermarket would not usually be experienced as art for this reason.

Something that is at too little an “aesthetic distance” (“too close to us”) seems to be a non-art thing (a practical object or incidental thing) which is reacted to violently by the viewer or ‘shatters the illusion’ (the aesthetic situation). Suddenly talking to the audience during a naturalistic play can have this effect if not properly prepared. So can graphic sex or violence in a movie (we stop caring about the story and start marveling at how fake or real it looks, and whether that is really the actor’s private parts).

(Alfred Hitchcock mentions a “house of horror” amusement at a carnival in which the patrons sat down before a cinema screen, thinking a horror movie would start, but the real horror is caused by the roof seeming to suddenly collapse upon them. Hitchcock reports that the ride was really unpopular because the fear was too real to be enjoyable. This is another example of being at too close an “aesthetic” distance – the experience was certainly terrifying but it was not “aesthetic”.)

Langer suggests that this is why we should really talk of art as engendering a ‘disengagement with belief’ (belief being far “too close” a conception) rather than “make believe” (we are disengaging belief not engaging or ‘making’ it).[4]

 

“form versus content”

– People talk about an artistic work being ‘more formalistic’ or ‘more about the content’.

Langer points out that in an artistic work, form and content are always the same thing. This is because the formal qualities of a work are only perceived by the viewer through the positioning of the elements, which is the content. Hence if there were no elements or the artistic elements were different, the form perceived would be absent or different, hence form and content are always necessarily intertwined.

Often “form versus content” is raised when the speaker is actually talking about the use of conventional or clichéd structural devices (“it is too/very formal”) or clear verbal messages (“it is more about the content”). Neither of these elements necessarily harm the expressive effect of an art work.

A work which is mainly about conveying information – for example, a public service announcement – could have an impact on an audience, if, for example, the information itself is distressing or interesting. Since its impact is more a result of an emotional reaction to certain facts or ideas (= the artistic materials themselves rather than their status as artistic elements), we might refer to such a work as “non-” or “less aesthetic” and the other kind of work as more “formalistic”. However, such wording is misleading as the “more aesthetic”, “formalistic” variety is actually not “formalistic” but equal parts “content” and “form” (so much so that the difference between these things is indistinguishable). When discussing literature, Langer points out that even in an essay (in which information conveyed is of paramount importance), the structuring of the argument (along the lines of introduction, first point, counter proof, second point, examples, conclusion, etc.) is aesthetic. This is art being used in the service of ideas. We might more accurately say that ‘information’ art is “more content” while the other variety is “equal parts content and form” but we are still being terribly vague and simplistic.

 

“beauty” “value” “culture”iberens001p1

– do not have set descriptions; they have no definite units and cannot be combined in clear proportions. Langer points out that describing these as if they form part of a systematic quantitative order is either poetry or nonsense, but certainly not art criticism. We might as well describe medicine using the medieval theory of the four bodily “humors” – it is a form of poetic expression which is masquerading as a graded system.

 

“imitation of reality”

– art isn’t an imitation of reality (see “artistic truth” above). The concept of imitation doesn’t actually apply to whole areas of art: What is a building or a melody imitating? As we discussed above, the expressive power of an artwork does not come from its literally life-like imitation but from its “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

This is why we use the word “creation” for the making of an artwork but not for the making of a cake. We say “She has constructed an artistic creation”, “He is creative”; we do not say, “He has created a cake”, “My plumber has created a downpipe for my roofing”. What is “created” is the “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

Langer suggests that the reason we want to touch “realistic” sculptures is not because we are amazed that they are so precise an imitation, but because we are astounded that this mere thing can be so expressive (see again “self-expression”).[5]

The idea of imitation leads to the following 2 perverse questions:

–       “What is the artist trying to say?” and

–       “What is the artist trying to make us feel?”

That is, “how has the artwork imitated or indicated things or concepts extraneous to itself?” But, Langer argues, this is studying the associations generated by the artwork rather than studying the work itself. Artworks don’t imitate; they “expressively-indicate” or “present aesthetically” non-verbal organic “lived experience” to our comprehension/”feeling-understanding”.

Both of these questions are also based upon a theory of art founded on verbal language, which can either convey information or stimulate feelings. But, as we have seen, art fundamentally is not verbally expressive. It does not “tell” us things, nor does it “stimulate” feelings in the same way that real-life does.

The valid question, for Langer, is “What has the artist made, and how did the artist achieve this effect?” The poet has not created a mere arrangement of words, for words are only her materials, out of which she makes her poetic elements, which are deployed, balanced, spread out, or built up to create a recognizable “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

 

[1] Yes, poetry and literature use words as their artistic materials, but the way these materials function as art is not easily expressible in words.

[2] This is kind of like how it is not necessary to be happy to use the word “happy”, or to actually be in the presence of a cow to say the word “cow” and be understood.

[3] All of these could happen but they are not indicators of art itself, which can occur without these effects.

[4] It is more accurately, “make expressive-indication” or “make aesthetic”.

[5] It’s almost like an optical illusion.

Written by tomtomrant

18 June 2014 at 6:01 pm

The Parthenon: Context and Interpretation

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How does the historical context of the Parthenon influence the way in which we ‘read’ the building and its decorative program?
 Picture1.jpg

Our interpretation of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens is coloured by our understanding of the historical context in which it was built. The period in which Pericles was the leading statesman of Athens is characterized as a period of Athenian dominance and prosperity in which the city became practically the seat of an empire, as it led the Delian League of Greek city-states, set up to resist the encroaches of the Persian Empire. While possibly considered little more than a treasury and a home for the statue of Athena Parthenos by the ancient Greeks, we cannot help but interpret the site, probably incorrectly, as a ‘temple’. Undeniably though, it was a monument to Athenian hegemony, articulated through architecture and sculpture which drew upon a blend of mythology, history and politics in its imagery, expressing, among much else, the many successes the Greeks, particularly the Athenians, had over the much more numerous and powerful Persians in various armed conflicts, such as the battles of Marathon and Salamis.

The significance of the Persians wars for Athenians lies in the very large role that Athens played in these precarious victories, at least in the version of events that has come down to us in Herodotus. The victory at Marathon in 490 B.C.E. was largely an Athenian victory. Athens was mostly fending for itself in this battle which marked the first time that a Greek city-state had effectively resisted the Persians. The earlier Persian threat of 492 B.C.E. was met with little resistance from Thrace and Macedon, and in 490, before arriving at Marathon, the Persians burned Naxos and Eretria. Through all of this, Sparta, for example, made promises of assistance to the Athenians, but delivered in only a perfunctory manner. When Persian forces returned in 480 B.C.E., the battles at Thermopylae and Salamis involved the forces of a consortium of allied Greek city-states lead by Athens and Sparta. A similar consortium defeated the Persians again the following year in Plataea and Mycale.

Athenians were in the thick of these wars in a number of ways. Geographically, Athens was centrally located on the Greek mainland and in relation to the islands in the Aegean Sea. Sparta was well defended to the south and inland; Athens did not enjoy such a convenient geographical position and so could not afford the same isolationist attitude as the Spartans. As a result, Athens was involved in these conflicts to a greater degree, reaping the benefits of victory, and paying the price in defeat – Athens was sacked and burned twice during the Persian wars, during which the old temples on the Acropolis were effectively destroyed, along with an earlier Parthenon. The Athenians did not rebuild immediately, not until they had taken a more proactive approach to their defenses. The Persian Wars ultimately brought the disparate city-states of Greece together against the common enemy. Athens was at the head of the Delian League, a confederation of Greek city-states set up in 477 B.C.E. to defend Greece from any future Persian aggression. As the Persian threat receded, the Athenian statesman Cimon began to transform the contributions city-states paid to be part of the League into something resembling tributes paid by subject-states to a dominant empire-state. Cimon began to bully and lay siege to city-states who were not part of the League or wished to leave it. This caused frictions with Sparta, leading to the First Peloponnesian War.

By 446 B.C.E., Athens had formed peace agreements with Sparta and with the Persians yet was still quietly receiving tribute from many city-states. Under Pericles, the Athenians continued centralizing power and dominating both economically and culturally, taking on legal administration, standardizing currency, weights and measures, even making political decisions without directly consulting the city-states involved. This was a period of huge economic growth in Athens as wealth from the city-states flowed into the city. Athens became a cosmopolitan hub for the arts – sculpture, painting, theatre, and philosophy flourished. It was in this context that it was decided to begin rebuilding the monuments on the Acropolis including the new Parthenon in 449 B.C.E.

Importantly, the building we know as the Parthenon was apparently built primarily to house the statue of Athena Parthenos. The name Parthenon simply means ‘unmarried women’s apartments’ (presumably the goddess’s) and may have only referred to part of the building originally. The building receives surprisingly few mentions in the surviving literature, ancient writers instead seeing the statue of Zeus at Olympia as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Also, ancient writers do not refer to it as a ‘temple’; there is little evidence for ritual practice in the building. This is another reason why we tend to interpret the building as having a specifically Athenian ‘nationalistic’ rather than a general religious significance. The building was used as a treasury, a storehouse of much of the wealth of Athens – it became the treasury of the Delian League when this was moved from Delos in 454 B.C.E.

The design of the building resembles temple designs of the past, but is on a monumental scale and has many unique features. One of these is the combination of Doric and Ionic stylistic features. The inner frieze, originally forming an uninterrupted band around the inner building as one continuous figured sculptural work, is a Ionic feature. Given our understanding of the context and purpose of the building, we can interpret this as recognizing a unity if not a dominance over the Ionian Greek city-states which were officially part of the League and empire. The building is also distinctive for not being strictly straight in any of its dimensions – it is subtly curved, supposedly to counter optical illusions which make straight lines appear curved on this scale. We could also interpret this as exhibiting Athenian ingenuity, even crafty duplicity, or as simply another element lending the monument an impressive effect. The profound sense of graceful balance in its measured proportions may also be interpreted as reflecting robust Athenian democracy.

Of course, much of the sculptural decoration has been weathered, defaced or destroyed in the Parthenon’s long history, but ancient and modern historical sources contribute to supply us with a general idea of the scenes depicted on its pediments, metopes, and inner frieze. The west pediment is believed to depict Athena and Poseidon in a gift-giving contest for ownership of Athens. Given the context, we would interpret this as documenting a significant Athenian event; not exactly the founding of Athens but the event that led to its gaining Athena as its goddess. Athena gave the gift of an olive tree whereas Poseidon provided a natural spring which disconcertingly issued forth salt water (since Poseidon was a sea god). Presumably, Athena won the contest because the ancient Athenians were farmers and not seafarers. Poseidon was reportedly furious and so flooded Athens. However, in light of the fifth-century context, we know that Athens had since become a great naval power; its fleet was after all its most powerful force against the Persians and the basis of its continued power in the Delian League. We therefore tend to interpret this pediment as something more like a friendly contest rather than a war between Athena and Poseidon. The Athenians probably chose this myth to include and appease not exclude Poseidon.

The east pediment portrays the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, another scene significant for the goddess’s city. The metopes around the outer building depict scenes of war: we see Greeks versus Amazons, Trojans, and centaurs, and the Olympian gods fighting the giants. We may assume that not only do these scenes symbolize the cultured self-control of the Athenians over primitive, inferior forces, but, given the context, we may note the link with the Persian wars and even the Delian League in relation to the Trojan War, a famous mythological instance of another victorious Greek alliance. The inner Ionian frieze appears to depict the Panathenaic festival in which the Athenians took part in a procession to the Parthenon in order to present the statue of Athena Parthenos with the peplos, a special robe made by the women of Athens. Some scholars have questioned whether this scene actually is a Panathenaea as depictions of non-mythological scenes in friezes is extremely rare, instead suggesting it is a depiction of the sacrifice of Athenian King Erechtheus’s daughter. Either way, this event seems to draw together all the threads of our interpretations from the historical, cultural and political context: the event celebrated the power and glory of Athens. Athenian colonies sent gifts and sacrifices for such a ceremonial procession, reinforcing the nationalism of Athens. It brought together Athenian citizens and, through ritual, linked them to their goddess Athena.

In conclusion, our interpretations of the Parthenon and its decorative program are perhaps not overly specific, the sculptures and friezes do not reference the Persian Wars or the Athenian Empire directly, but what we know of this historical context indeed forces us to posit a general nationalistic program, especially considering the size and location of the Parthenon. We may also garner further interpretive insight by also considering what the Parthenon is not. It is not a monument to a particular king or leader, at least not outwardly. There is no giant statue of Pericles, for instance, even if the sources suggest that he was the main instigator of the building work. Instead we see a respect for the gods, and the impressive artistry of the masons and sculptors of antiquity. We cannot help but interpret this as exhibiting a respect for craft, for the gods, and, in the graceful ease and balance of the monumental architecture, for democracy.

Written by tomtomrant

20 March 2014 at 2:31 pm

Ancient Greek Pederasty: Love, Lust, Power & Pedagogy

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pederastic_sceneI wasn’t going to post this essay from my BA as it does not directly concern the arts or myth like most posts on this blog, but I reread it recently I think it is interesting for the interpretation of culture (which is related to arts and myth). I hope it is of interest to some. 😉

The ancient Greek discourse of pederasty challenges many of our modern conceptions of societal normalcy. An erotic relationship between a 12-17 year old boy and a mature man would be considered illegal not just in Australia but in most modern cultures today. As to whether this relationship was romantic, the primary sources are equivocal. It all depends on what one means by romance and what exactly would be convincing evidence of such. David Halperin and Michel Foucault have argued that the ancient Greek pederastic relationship had more to do with power than love, but I shall argue that this is by no means clear, or even particularly meaningful in itself.

That the social custom of ancient Greek pederasty existed is not at issue. We have Greek pottery painted with images depicting a young man (the eromenos or ‘beloved’)[1] being effectively courted by an older man (the erastes or ‘lover’),[2] in rare instances even going so far as to portray sex between them, in the form of intercrural intercourse.[3] We have the Symposium of Plato, exploring the nobility of ‘boy-love’. The works of the lyric poets, though fragmentary, clearly record the pederastic eroticism of ancient Greek writers. The institution seems to have arisen in the sixth century B.C.E., and was a much-lauded social custom for over a thousand years, disappearing only with the triumph of Christianity in the 5th century C.E.[4]

A difficulty with interpreting a social custom such as Greek pederasty is that a custom is not an event or a thing, but a collection of values, beliefs and experiences. These are, of course, not found expressed directly in archaeological evidence but have to be inferred from often disparate and fragmented discourse. Furthermore, a particular piece of evidence apparently concerning a social convention may only provide the opinion of an ancient individual or minority; it may not reflect the broader social conventions of the majority. We need to be highly cautious and skeptical when applying a meaning or explanation to human cultural institutions. Culture involves a large element of complex human experience that often defies explanation on the basis of logical thought or strictly practical necessity. For example, the practical purpose of clothing, and the available technologies for its construction, does not always or adequately explain a particular fashion or style. The reason why humans choose to do things of a cultural nature is not explained entirely by any one economic, social, political, personal, practical, or aesthetic reason, but by a combination of all of these, and even then, the custom, particularly if it is outside our modern experience, may still remain mysterious.

Ancient Greek pederasty was perhaps not totally like this photo downloaded from the internet...

Ancient Greek pederasty was perhaps not totally like this photo downloaded from the internet…

In order to investigate whether or not Greek pederasty entailed a romantic element, we need also to define what we mean by romantic. Immediately, we have a demonstration of the difficulties of interpreting human culture – it is not entirely clear what modern people mean by the social conventions surrounding romantic love. We can propose that romantic love involves the idea of a magical, individual, caring, consensual relationship between, usually, a man and a woman, necessarily involving some intimacy and sexuality, often leading to marriage. Yet this ‘definition’ itself sounds dubious for a number of reasons. For starters, these ideas are not often expressed so clearly – most of us ‘just know’ what we mean by romantic love. Furthermore, these conventions are clearly in flux especially with the relatively recent separation of marriage from strict religious principles and the rise in recognition of women’s rights; the paradigm is no longer that of the husband breadwinner, and his obedient housewife. Add to this the variation between different individual tastes and experiences of love and an account of romantic love becomes even more difficult to define.

Historically, we might also question what the ancient Greeks meant by love, aside from the issue of pederasty. C. S. Lewis and Morton Hunt, among others, have argued that romantic love, as we mean it today, is an ‘invention’ of Middle Ages Europe.[5] This idea initially sounds farfetched, but we are forgetting that romantic love is quite a specific concept, carefully ‘itemised’ in the poetry of the medieval troubadours, for instance. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).”[6] Indeed, we do not find conclusive proof of the unique, individual, mutual, anti-instrumental and uneconomic conception of love in any ancient source – not in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or hunter-gatherer myths, for example.

For the sake of the argument, I will nonetheless examine Greek pederasty from the point of view of modern romantic love, since this is usually what we mean by the term. Leaving aside the experiential quality of the relationship, we might first observe that the actual quantitative parameters of the relationship are distinctly different. The eromenos is always a 12-17 year old boy, who is on the cusp of puberty, “before the killjoy hairs begin to sprout” (Strato, Puerilities XXI).[7] The erastes, as far as we can tell, was always a mature man, often represented with a beard in pottery art.[8] Already, this does not coincide with our modern ideas of romantic love. Of course, a romantic homosexual relationship with partners of radically different ages is possible, but there is no ‘expiry date’ on the relationship like there is with pederasty. This is one of the characteristics that makes pederasty distinct from ancient Greek conceptions of homosexuality. (The ancient Greeks seemed to define adult homosexuals only as those who were the receptive partner in intercourse and who continued the custom beyond their youthful 17 years.)[9]

P0217In addition to age conventions, pederasty was distinct in that it was supposed to provide the eromenos with an older male mentor from which he could learn wisdom.[10] In this sense, ancient Greek pederasty resembles modern ideas of brotherly love or paternal mentorship. This idea is somehow familial, like a father-son bond, yet the erastes’ admiration of the eromenos’ physical beauty does not seem to fit the familial paradigm. Furthermore, Alcibiades, in Plato’s Symposium, exclaims, after a disappointingly chaste night with Socrates, “‘I had in no more particular sense slept a night with Socrates than if I had been with my father or my elder brother!’” (Plato, Symposium 219c). This suggests that the usual pederastic interactions did not resemble ancient familial relationships.

In terms of the distinct fundamental quality of love felt by those involved in a pederastic relationship, we must draw upon the literature, particularly the poetry, to investigate how this love was expressed. To begin with, there appears to be no extant poetry written in the eromenos’ voice – it is only the erastes speaking.[11] This itself may suggest something of the lopsided nature of the relationship. The mature man principally admires the eromenos for his physical qualities: his “girlish glance” (Anacreon, PMG 359), his “honey-coloured” skin (Strabo, Puerilities V), his “delicious bottom” (Rhianus, Puerilities XXXVIII). It seems that the eromenos was occasionally unwilling, flirtatious or downright manipulative towards his admirers, but also proud of his attractiveness and occasionally very willing: “‘That feels so good!’ you cry, ‘Do that again!’” (Asclepiades of Adramyttium, Puerilities XXXVI) – at least, according to the erastes-poet.

The erastes is also somewhat possessive and jealous of his boy – criticizing him for choosing bad or even just other lovers (Theognis, Erotic Elegies 2.1305-16), or “slutting around” (Theognis, Erotic Elegies 2.1271). This may be an element of shared wisdom – the eromenos learns to distinguish an honourable from a dishonourable man. Yet this seems to be a self-serving form of wisdom, if, for instance, the erastes is warding the eromenos away from other men simply to retain his own possessive bond. Plato’s Symposium is the principle repository of the higher nobility of pederastic love. Here it is conceived as a lofty, intellectual, heavenly type of love, in contradistinction to the earthly, physical, common type practiced in heterosexual relations (Plato, Symposium 180c-182a). However, one must question who exactly Plato is representing in this text as it seems to embody a variety of sometimes contradictory views on love, perhaps influenced by its setting at an aristocratic drinking party.[12]

From this, we gain the impression that a pederastic relationship was passionate, physical, probably quite superficial, but also rather one-sided. On the whole, this does not sound like romantic love, but a combination of paternal mentorship with fiery lust. (Perhaps one was ‘payment’ for the other.) The age disparity between partners has led David Halperin and Michel Foucault to propose that the relationship had probably more to do with power than love: an older mature man not exactly ‘taking advantage’, but enjoying his superiority over a younger male.[13] This theory holds some credence when one considers that it was the passive, receptive partner in intercourse that was considered disreputable in adult homosexuality.[14] We might also liken the relationship between man and boy with the relationship between man and wife, as girls were married from around 15 years in ancient Greece,[15] suggesting that the submissive role was assigned to all non-mature people, regardless of sex.

6821810_origPersonally, I find this theory highlights an important element of the relationship but does not explain what it was ‘all about’. It is clear that pederasty was quite distinct from modern ideas of homosexuality, pedophilia, marriage, mentorship, male camaraderie and romantic love. Ancient historians offer their own explanations of pederasty, claiming that the legendary lawgivers Lycurgus, in Sparta, and Solon, in Athens introduced it as a form of population control along with the seclusion of women, late marriages and nude athletics.[16] This suggests that the unique custom of exercising nude in the gymnasia was developed in order to encourage eroticism and pederasty.[17] However, while population control may be an ancient justification for the practice, revealing something about the expressed beliefs and ‘explanations’ of the time, the prospect that an ancient Greek adult male’s practical concern for population numbers was at all motivating him to notice the beauty of a 16-year-old boy’s “honeyed voice” (Synthinus, Puerilities XXII) or “accommodating orifice” (Synthinus, Puerilities XXII) does not sound credible. Almost as strange is the idea that he was salivating over boys in order to ‘express his power’.

When it comes to an alien tradition from an ancient time such as pederasty, the closest we can come to understanding this custom is by a kind of combined analogy. We have seen how the custom involved a homosocial interaction between an older and a younger man involving something approximating paternal wisdom and aesthetic admiration. Population control or power play can possibly explain aspects of this, but we must be wary. These practical and intellectual theories of justification either operate in an intellectual vacuum, divorced from the experienced reality of the ancient Greeks, or function as illustrations of a kind of subconscious experience of these customs. The former sheds next to no light on the social custom itself (only upon ancient or modern interpretations of it), while the latter explores the nature of human sexuality and social behaviour in general, as exemplified through ancient Greek customs rather than as an explanation of them. One might similarly interpret modern romantic love as a power play or as, say, an offshoot of the evolutionary drive to reproduce. This would not be incorrect as such but the experience of such love is hardly captured in such a view. Whatever its fundamentals, ancient Greek pederasty was certainly unique as a social custom.

Works Cited

Primary Sources
Anacreon PMG 359 trans. P. Bing and R. Cohen (London: Routledge, 1993).
Plato Symposium trans. H. N. Fowler (1925), accessed 17 Sept 2013 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0174%3Atext%3DSym.%3Asection%3D172a
Theognis Erotic Elegies 2 trans. P. Bing and R. Cohen (London: Routledge, 1993).
Various Puerilities from The Greek Anthology 12 trans. Daryl Hine (Princeton, 2009)

Secondary Sources
Averill, J. R. and E. P. Nunley. 1992. Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life. New York: The Free Press.
Bing, P. and R. Cohen, trans. 1993. Games of Venus: an anthology of Greek and Roman erotic verse from Sappho to Ovid. London: Routledge.
Campbell, J. Creative Mythology. 2001. Reprint. London: Souvenir Press, 1968.
Chong-Gossard, Dr. K. O. 2013. “Queering the Past: Pederasty in Ancient Greece.” Lecture. Parkville: Melbourne University, 3rd Sept.
Karras, R. M. 2000. “Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities.” The American Historical Review 105: 1250-65.
Lear, A. and E. Cantarella. 2008. Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty. Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge.
Morris, I. and B. B. Powell. 2010. The Greeks: History, Culture and Society. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Percy III, W. A. 1996. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Scanlon, T. F. 2005. “The Dispersion of Pederasty and the Athletic Revolution in Sixth-Century BC Greece.” Journal of Homosexuality 49: 63-85.


[1] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[2] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[3] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[4] Percy 1996, 192.

[5] Averill and Nunley 1992, 21.

[6] Averill and Nunley 1992, 21; Campbell 2001, 175-86.

[7] Note: all references from the Puerilities (Greek Anthology 12) are listed under ‘Various’ in the Primary Works Cited due to the many ancient authors in the anthology.

[8] Lear and Cantarella 2008, 192.

[9] Percy 1996, 172, 173, 186, 188; Karras 2000, 1256.

[10] Morris and Powell 2010, 36-7.

[11] Bing and Cohen 1993, 93.

[12] Lear and Cantarella 2008, 10.

[13] Chong-Gossard 2013.

[14] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[15] Morris and Powell 2010, 28.

[16] Percy 1996, 71; Lear and Cantarella 2008, 8.

[17] Percy 1996, 84, 98; Scanlon 2005, 66, 72.

Written by tomtomrant

6 March 2014 at 5:24 pm

‘Sir Gawain’ and the green girdle

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Giant_Green_Knight

This is another short essay from my medieval literature subject – if anything I really recommend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a very readable medieval English text. There’s a good version by J.R.R. Tolkien even.

The green girdle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, like the poem itself, evokes a wide range of symbolic connotations for both the reader and its characters. It can be considered a magic talisman, a symbol of shame, a token of courage and nobility, or an emblem of courtly brotherhood.[1] Something of the depth and complexity of the poem is revealed in that the green girdle is properly any and all of these things and much more besides. Interpretation of the girdle is important for reading the sense of Gawain’s physical and ontological quests, and for gauging the nature of his ‘fault’. I will explore the complex nexus of meaning surrounding the girdle and, in so doing, suggest that a deeper understanding of its significance is elicited from the secular and Christian religious traditions reflected, intentionally or otherwise, in the poem.

Interpretation of the green girdle, along with much else in Gawain, depends upon the discernment of a number of different layers of meaning. I wish to focus on the contrasting ideas of a religious test against that of a secular quest. A religious test, at least in the Christian tradition, involves the challenging of a person’s conduct specifically according to a moral framework, while a secular quest is not so ethically or morally focused. The secular quest concerns more humanistic preoccupations such as romantic love, overcoming physical obstacles, or even just raw survival.[2] There is some overlap between these paradigms – these are not rigid dividers but broad thematic models. Importantly they intersect in the concept of medieval chivalry, where the Christian sense of agape overlaps with that of the secular individualistic amor.[3] Furthermore, both concern an exploration of selfhood for the questing knight, namely, an ontological quest; the secular idea of natural self-development or maturity overlaps with the more ethically focused self-judgment of the religious paradigm.[4] These thematic strands are extremely tightly bound in Gawain but also play off of each other on countless occasions, tying both Sir Gawain and the reader into interpretative knots as to the best and most appropriate way of reading such moments. Arguably the most important of such difficult moments, also marking a turning point in the plot, involves the ‘temptation’ or ‘magic’ of the green girdle.

The Lady offers the green girdle to Sir Gawain ostensively claiming that any courtier wearing it “could not be slain through any strategy on earth” (1854).[5] In other words, she implies it is a magic talisman. The idea of magic here is certainly not a conventional Christian notion, hence the green girdle could be considered an idolatrous fetish, set to deceive the Christian knight and violate his moral code. But the Gawain poet never makes explicit mention of this interpretation. In his declaration of shame Sir Gawain calls the girdle “falssyng” (2378), roughly, a treachery, but there is no suggestion that it has caused him to sin in the religious sense. In Celtic myth, a magic talisman often has the effect of revealing or engendering powerful emotions in the mythic hero, inadvertently revealing unrealized aspects of his character.[6] The love potion consumed by Tristan and Isolde in the Tristan myth has just this effect,[7] and, mysteriously, so does the green girdle, which occasions the revelation of Gawain’s imperfect nature. Gawain’s taking of the girdle is the sole reason for the slight cut to the neck bestowed by the Green Knight later in the story. Perhaps engendering this revelation is the true ‘magic power’ of the Lady’s girdle as talisman.

Sir Gawain himself interprets the green girdle negatively, as “a sign of [his] shame [or, surfet, trangression]” (2433). However, exactly what he has to be ashamed of is multifaceted and open to interpretation. We have seen that his transgression is probably not religious sin exactly.[8] It is possible to read the acceptance of a gift from a married woman as symbolically committing adultery, but, once again, this does not seem well supported by the text.[9] Gawain’s transgression appears to be mostly on the secular level of the poem, the level of courteous social conduct. Indeed, the adventure of the entire middle section of the poem, in which Gawain is forced to distribute kisses to a strange lord while engaging in alluring bedroom scenes with his wife, has distinctly unchristian undertones. (It seems almost indecent for the poet to have placed Gawain in this situation in the first place.[10]) However, as titillating as some of these scenes are, the Gawain author seems only concerned with testing Gawain’s secular strength of character, in particular his resolve to act courteously to both the Lord and the Lady. Gawain must hand over all his ‘winnings’ to the Lord, and yet he must also treat the Lady courteously despite her many suggestive requests. By accepting the girdle, Gawain also must abide by the Lady’s request that he keep the girdle hidden from her husband (1862-3). This results in a contradiction for Gawain, who is now in a ‘Catch-22’ situation.[11] Whatever course of action he chooses, whether he hides or declares the girdle, he violates someone’s trust. By this thinking, he should not have accepted the girdle.

230px-Gawain_and_the_Green_KnightHowever, if we bring the Lady’s interpretation of the girdle as magic talisman back into our considerations here, we discover yet another possible justification for Gawain’s ‘shame’, a reason he explicitly mentions as “cowarddyse and couetyse [covetousness]” (2374). The implication is that Gawain took the girdle because he was afraid. Indeed, this seems to be the justification that appears in the text, when Gawain considers that, “It [the girdle] certainly would be splendid to forestall being slain” (1858). (This could also imply that on some level he actually believes in the protective quality of the girdle as magic talisman.) However, one senses that he should also be ashamed of breaking his pact in not declaring the girdle to the Lord even though such a declaration would have nothing to do with fear exactly – only with courteous impropriety. Perhaps it is both.[12]

For all Gawain’s myriad ‘faults’, Bercilak de Hautdesert declares the girdle a token of purity (2398). In this interpretation, Bercilak seems to appeal to Christian notions of sin and forgiveness, considering Gawain absolved of guilt because: “You have confessed so cleanly, proclaiming your faults, / And openly have the penance from the point of my weapon” (2391-2393). Yet he then gives Gawain the girdle to keep, ostensively as a proud symbol of his bravery in meeting the challenge at the Green Chapel (2399). But how has the girdle revealed Gawain’s bravery? If anything, it reveals his weakness, particularly if he took it out of fear and desire for its magical protection. The answer to this question resides again in the secular tradition and not the Christian. Conventionally, the Christian moral code does not celebrate flaws inherent in human nature. The concept of original sin is a negative reality to be condemned and overcome through the grace of God, not something to be celebrated with conspicuous tokens.[13] Yet, Bercilak is quite explicit about this, declaring that Gawain “lacked a little … / not from wild wickedness, nor wooing either, / But because you loved your life” (2366-68). One senses here the affirmation of natural order (as per the secular paradigm), recognized using the language of supernatural grace (as per the Christian).[14]

King Arthur’s court reinterprets the green girdle again, this time seeing it as an emblem of courtly brotherhood, adopted by all the knights in honour of Gawain (2515-2518). Exactly how to interpret this deference towards Gawain is also multifaceted. Some modern interpretations see Arthur’s court as naïve and childish, not without some textual justification.[15] In this view, the green girdles worn by the court represent a mockery, an inauthentic replication of Gawain’s distressing adventure. Yet other commentators consider the court as exhibiting a youthful innocence rather than a deluded naivety. In this reading, the laughter of the court is not a mockery but an affirmation of Gawain’s nobility and courage, and an acknowledgement of the small size of his fault.[16] In this view, the girdle as emblem of courtly brotherhood expresses a sentiment similar to Bercilak’s interpretation of the girdle as a token of natural purity. The wearing of girdles by the whole court would then symbolize the spreading of a humanistic (predominantly secular) courage and nobility among the knights.

This study thus reveals the greater significance of the secular rather than Christian paradigm for interpreting meaning in Gawain. The acceptance of the girdle by Sir Gawain seems to explicitly reveal his fear rather than his lust or his disloyalty to courteous social agreements. The interpretation of the girdle as protective talisman also satisfyingly links the ‘exchange of winnings’ agreement with the ‘beheading’ game – it is Gawain’s fear of the latter than leads to his violation of the former through acceptance of the girdle.[17] The Christian paradigm appears to have little significance until Gawain’s confession of shame. However, the Gawain author and Medieval readers probably would have distinguished no difference between these two aspects of the tale.[18] Gerald Morgan has convincingly argued that what modern critics often see as Gawain’s angry and traumatic self-castigations are more likely conventional medieval penitential practices, considered the more genuine through their dramatic expression.[19] On this interpretation, Gawain graciously admits the girdle as token of shame and ultimately comes to accept it as a token of purity, courage and brotherhood too[20] in the spirit of Christian atonement and in the spirit of secular chivalry (a spirit suggested aptly by the playful tone of the poem).[21] However, while this reading may more accurately reflect historical conventions and authorial intentions, it must be said that it is a comparatively bland and straightforward reading. The complexity and depth of Gawain to modern readers is likely to reside in its elusive, multifaceted interpretative possibilities,[22] even if these are partly the result of historical misunderstandings or unintentionally subversive readings.

Bibliography

Bowers, John M. An Introduction to the Gawain poet. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012.

Brewer, Elisabeth, ed. From Cuchulainn to Gawain. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1973.

Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. 1968. Reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001.

Cooper, Helen. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Keith Harrison, ix-xxxviii. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Morgan, Gerald. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of Righteousness. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1991.

Silverstein, Theodore. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1-34. 1974. Reprint, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited & translated by William Vantuono, revised ed. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Stanbury, Sarah. Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, translated by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1-15. 1975. Reprint, London: HarperCollins, 2006.

Zimmer, Heinrich. The King and the Corpse, edited by Joseph Campbell. 1948. Reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.


[1] Sarah Stanbury, Seeing the Gawain-Poet: Description and the Act of Perception (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 110.

[2] Note that what I am calling a secular quest may in fact pertain to non-Christian religious traditions such as, in Northern Europe, the vestigial Celtic or Germanic traditions, but I wish to make no historical conjectures here. I use terms like ‘Christian’ and ‘Celtic’ throughout this essay in a purely thematic sense, in reference to the moral test and secular quest paradigms only. These are aids to exploring meaning in the text from our modern standpoint and should not be construed as making judgments about historical precedence or authorial intention. See Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, ed. Joseph Campbell (1948; reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 34-51 for a complex discussion and interpretation of pagan mythic elements.

[3] For a discussion of agape versus amor, see Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (1968; reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001), 175-178.

[4] See John M. Bowers, An Introduction to the Gawain poet (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012), 40, for a discussion of the ways in which Sir Gawain’s identity is annihilated in the poem.

[5] Line numbers and quotations are from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. & trans. William Vantuono, revised ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).

[6] Compare the original ‘beheading game’ in Elisabeth Brewer, ed., From Cuchulainn to Gawain, (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1973), 9-13, which seems to exist to explicitly demonstrate the supreme courage of the Irish hero Cuchulainn.

[7] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 240-242.

[8] Helen Cooper, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Keith Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), xxx. Cooper describes Gawain’s fault as a venial sin. I suggest this equates with what I am calling a ‘secular’ fault, since venial sin means religiously slight or pardonable, not a mortal sin.

[9] J. R. R. Tolkien, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, trans. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien (1975; reprint, London: HarperCollins, 2006), 5. Tolkien suggests that if Gawain has any temptation to adultery, it is absolved through prayer. It is temptation’s blending with the customs of courtesy that trouble Gawain. See also Theodore Silverstein, introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1974; reprint, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 11.

[10] For a discussion of the unconventionality of these scenes, see Cooper, introduction, xxiii.

[11] Silverstein, introduction, 14.

[12] Gerald Morgan, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of Righteousness (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1991), 142-3.

[13] Cooper, introduction, xxxii.

[14] For a discussion of natural versus supernatural grace, see Campbell, Creative Mythology, 43, 476.

[15] Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 21-22, 49-51.

[16] Tolkien, introduction, 5; Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 52.

[17] Cooper, introduction, xxv, xxxvi.

[18] See also Zimmer’s argument that the Gawain author does not seem to understand the pagan symbology even as he utilizes it: Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, 80.

[19] Morgan, Gawain and the Idea of Righteousness, 155, 157-8.

[20] Note this could also be seen as part of the transforming ‘magic’ of the girdle as talisman, see Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, 79. Zimmer calls the girdle a ‘talisman of rebirth.’

[21] Bowers makes particular reference of the joyous bob-and-wheel in this respect: Bowers, Introduction to Gawain poet, 15.

[22] It is frequently called ‘ambiguous’ by modern critics: Stanbury, Seeing the Gawain-Poet, 111; Morgan, Gawain and the Idea of Righteousness, 129; Silverstein, introduction, 13.

Love: medieval and modern in ‘Tristan and Isolde’

with one comment

Yet another essay from my BA. I highly recommend getting and reading a copy of Gottfried’s Tristan. It is available in Hatto’s great English translation in the Penguin classics series. It is very easy to read, especially for a work written in the 13th century!

ImageI am well aware that there have been many who have told the tale of Tristan; yet there have not been many who have read his tale aright. – Gottfried, Tristan (43)[1]

Emerging into literary history from the obscure oral culture of medieval Europe, the story of ‘Tristan and Isolde’[2] exists in a variety of retellings, some complete, many in fragments, in diverse languages, infused with particular understandings of medieval love: courtly, romantic, divine and human. In this essay, I will examine the versions of the ‘Tristan and Isolde’ story by Béroul, Gottfried, and Malory. Examining the broad stylistic traits of each, I shall focus upon the differing conceptions of love in each text and briefly expand on their impact through to modern day as these ideas have significance both within and outside a medievalist context.

The three texts I will be examining are all, in one way or another, incomplete.[3] The full story can be surmised by comparison with more complete versions, or by piecing together fragments by different authors. The central situation around which the romance revolves concerns a love triangle. The valiant young knight Tristan woos and wins the beautiful young princess Isolde of Ireland on behalf of his uncle King Mark of Cornwall. On the return voyage, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drink a magic love potion. Back in Cornwall, Isolde is married to King Mark but Tristan and Isolde are so passionately in love that they cannot resist continuing their illicit lovemaking behind Mark’s back. The majority of the tale concerns Mark’s increasing and decreasing suspicions and the lovers’ more or less successful attempts at subterfuge as they carry on their lovemaking. Eventually their relationship is discovered; the lovers are exiled, separated, and die tragically.[4]

In essence, the ‘Tristan’ narrative inevitably brings the idea of love into conflict with medieval concepts of marriage, feudal statesmanship, and honour. Consequently, the author of a ‘Tristan’ romance must navigate carefully the areas of love, lust, marriage, and sex. It is worth bearing in mind that the medieval punishments for adultery were draconian, often involving death, mutilation, scouraging, or, as in Béroul, burning.[5] Women were married young primarily for social, political or economic reasons, often to much older men.[6] All of this was ratified by a moralistic clergy, so much more powerful than they are today, who preached the existence of a literal fiery Hell for all sinners in the afterlife.[7] The manner in which Béroul, Gottfried, and Malory deal with the essential adultery and scandal of the Tristan legend is best exemplified by their respective literary styles.

Béroul’s retelling is the earliest of the three; it is dated to the late twelfth century[8] and is written in an early French.[9] Béroul conveys his narrative in the style of early French fabliaux.[10] The tale is told in a casual voice – he frequently addresses the ‘seigneurs (lords)’ directly, as if addressing a live audience.[11] This suggests a closeness to oral storytelling. He does not dwell on psychological motivation or subtleties of individual feelings. His tale is concerned not so much with love, but with vengeance, as it is revenge which motivates his swiftly-moving plot.[12] Béroul’s Tristran is also more malicious and comic.[13] King Marc is jealous and vengeful in this tale, even attempting to burn the lovers at the stake.

Hence we find that love in Béroul is primarily a sensationalist plot device, not to be taken too seriously. He does not engage in eloquent love poetry; the lovers are principally celebrated for their deviousness and temerity. “Listen to the cunning woman!” declares Béroul, clearly impressed, “She [Iseut] was the perfect deceiver” (519-520).[14] Our heroes are scandalous adulterers – frequently caught “lying completely naked” (594) – who play cat and mouse with the treacherous cuckold king and his evil henchmen – “never have you seen such evil men!” (582). This means that the lovers essentially operate on the same depraved level as the king and his henchmen,[15] except of course the narrator always sides with the lovers; exactly why is sometimes difficult to fathom.[16] Consequently, Béroul’s Tristran is “neither heroic as a knight nor tragic as a lover.”[17] The poem is an occasion for ‘naughty’ entertainment, rather in the spirit of primitive trickster myths, delighting in the absurd violation of cultural taboos.

Gottfried’s retelling is written in Middle High German and is dated to the early 13th century.[18] Gottfried bases his narrative on what he calls “the authentic version” (43) by Thomas of Britain.[19] Thomas was writing in French but his name suggests he was from England;[20] it is possible that Gottfried’s version contains traces of French, English and Germanic understandings of the tale. Thomas is distinctive for his psychological depth[21] – one fragment opens with a 235-line internal monologue in which Tristran agonises over whether he should abandon his true love and marry Yseut of the White Hands (1-235).[22] The passage is strikingly modern; but for the rhyming verse, it could almost be a passage from a nineteenth-century novel.

Gottfried retains much of this psychological focus but combines it with a complex symbolic and lyrical acuity.[23] The characterisation is much more complex and multi-dimensional than Béroul. King Mark is no longer a jealous, vengeful villain, but a conflicted, indecisive “waverer” (274), torn between his sense of honour, and his love for both lovers – his wife and his nephew.[24] This is achieved through the intricacy of motivation. For example, in Gottfried, Mark does not force Tristan to woo Isolde of his own accord. Instead, Mark is coerced into accepting marriage by his jealous barons, and, startlingly, even Tristan encourages the marriage to spare Mark trouble at court (154). In this way Tristan is seen to actively instigate both his courageous successes and his ignominious defeats throughout the tale. This instils a sense of fateful inevitability.

For love, in Gottfried, is an immense semi-mystic force, driving the lovers to their bliss and, inevitably, to their deaths. From the beginning, Gottfried speaks of love in oxymorons as “bitter-sweet”, and “dear sorrow” (42).[25] Love’s joy is always accompanied by an intense suffering. “He that never had sorrow of love,” Gottfried proclaims, “never had joy of it either!” (42). He also emphasises the individual nature of this love and its mutuality:[26] “The two lovers perceived that they had one heart, one mind, and but a single will between them” (200). Gottfried expresses this in reflexive oppositions: “Her anguish was his pain: his pain her anguish” (195); “A man, a woman; a woman, a man: / Tristan, Isolde; Isolde, Tristan” (43). Gottfried also purposely plays upon poetic properties of language, using symbolism and metaphor. Consider, for example, his frequent use of the metaphor of the bird trapped in quicklime:

When she [Isolde] recognised the lime that bewitching Love had spread and saw that she was deep in it, she endeavoured to reach dry ground, she strove to be out and away. But the lime kept clinging to her and drew her back and down. The lovely woman fought back with might and main, but stuck fast at every step. She was succumbing against her will. She made desperate attempts on many sides, she twisted and turned with hands and feet and immersed them ever deeper in the blind sweetness of Love, and of the man. Her limed senses failed to discover any path, bridge, or track that would advance them half a step, half a foot, without Love being there too. Whatever Isolde thought, whatever came uppermost in her mind, there was nothing there, of one sort or another, but Love, and Tristan. (196)

The source of this complex symbolic conception of love is something of a mystery. Joseph Campbell has suggested the symbology seems to derive from a fusion of Classical, Celtic, Germanic, and mystic (Orphic/Gnostic) backgrounds.[27] For example, the Germanic sense of internalised fate (the Anglo-Saxon wyrd), the progression of initiatory stages through sex and death as exemplified in the Roman mystery religions, the Celtic names and background to the narrative, and the mystic equating of myriad symbolic forms are all significant for Gottfried’s retelling.[28]

Many ‘Tristan’ authors, including Béroul, use the love potion as an excuse for the lovers’ scandalous behaviour. It was “‘because of the potion we drank at sea’” explains Iseut in Béroul (2207).[29] Such excuses are unacceptable for Gottfried. Instead, he ensures that Tristan and Isolde are in love well before they drink the potion. The potion still has a profound effect, but that effect seems to consist of properly recognising their love for each other, rather than causing that love:[30] “Now that their shyness was over they gloried and revelled in their intimacy, and this was wise and sensible” (204). Furthermore, Tristan is continually performing courageous deeds which not only spare Isolde much grief, but suggest, along with their shared passion for poetry and music, that Tristan is her rightful ‘other half’. It is he who shares an intimate personal connection with Isolde rather than King Mark, who has never met her. Gottfried’s picture of Mark as encapsulating bureaucratic honour without love is driven home when Mark unknowingly sleeps with Isolde’s cousin Brangane on his wedding night – and does not notice. “To him one woman was as another,” Gottfried wryly remarks (208).

Malory’s ‘Tristram’ in Le Morte Darthur is much later than Béroul and Gottfried, heralding from the fifteenth century. It is purportedly based on earlier French and English sources but Malory’s method of adaptation is apparently very selective.[31] It is important to acknowledge that Malory is incorporating the Tristan tale into a larger work which endeavours, at least theoretically, to form a coherent whole. The sheer amount of material seems to have necessitated a kind of homogenisation, a flattening of detail. King Mark is again a straightforward villain. The story is fragmented and interspersed with less relevant sub-plots, even divergent narratives. Several key events, such as the substitution of Brangane in Mark’s bed, are entirely missing, yet, incoherently, many of their consequences are not, such as the Brangane murder attempt. Malory provides generic, often identical, justifications for such fitfully resurrected events, drawing upon the jealousies of random, often unnamed minor characters or King Mark’s endless evil streak. Malory also seems to ‘rationalise’ the more fantastic incidents, for example, turning Tristan’s fight with the dragon into yet another knightly duel. All of this may be explained as part of Malory’s efforts to form a legendary English ‘history’ rather than a fabulous adventure or a mystic romance. His more worldly focus on masculine military action may reflect the contemporary Wars of the Roses.

In comparison to Béroul, Malory does not wink at the love scandal; he almost edits it out. Love, for Malory, seems to fit the courtly ideal; the lady is, primarily, the noble, vaguely platonic inspiration for chivalrous deeds, namely duels and tournaments. Malory has no time for internal monologues or reflective asides on the psychology of love, as per Thomas and Gottfried, but he barely even provides a straightforward description of it either. He speaks of love in brief, one sentence, stereotyped phrases: “The joy that La Belle Isode made of Sir Tristram there might no tongue tell, for of all men earthly she loved him best” (VIII, 23).[32] Tristram loves Isode because she is “the fairest lady and maiden of the world” (VIII, 9). The scandal is diluted by firmly establishing their love from the start and barely even mentioning the love potion.[33] The most explicit Malory gets is to suggest that the lovers were, at one point, caught “naked abed” (VIII, 34), but nothing more is said of this. As Edwards remarks, “[Malory] has deleted a very great deal of the eroticism of his sources.”[34] Unfortunately, Malory’s attempts to make erotic scenes platonic (or, as Benson suggests, even just comradely)[35] often make a nonsense of the story he is narrating. The love aspect is not merely reduced quantitatively in summary, the quality of that love is also downgraded. For instance, Tristram and Isode have other admirers before and after their meeting, suggesting that there is nothing particularly special about their love aside from its unexplained longevity. Malory repeatedly sends Tristram out on irrelevant quests, returning to Isode, one feels, in a perfunctory manner, as if Malory is clumsily attempting to merely maintain the continuity of the standard ‘Tristan’ story even as he fails to make it very meaningful.

On the face of it, Malory does not offer a very detailed picture of love at all – not even courtly love, which in Malory is arguably more of an excuse for being sexually reticent. He hardly expresses the detailed poetic sentiments of the 12th century troubadours.[36] Whereas Béroul seems to equate romantic passion with scandalous lust,[37] the conception of love in Gottfried is something else entirely. Joseph Campbell argues that Gottfried seems to exemplify a startlingly early exploration of our modern idea of romantic love: a love that is individual, mutual, passionate, and above economic and political concerns.[38] There is something astoundingly refreshing about Gottfried’s discourses on surveillance and trust: “A virtuous woman does not need to be guarded; she will guard herself, as they say. But if a man nevertheless sets a watch on her, believe me, she will hate him” (276). The opposite of this view is exemplified by the bartering of women as a means to form homosocial bonds, exemplified throughout Malory – at least in his reticent tone if not in his focus on masculine action throughout his narrative. In this respect, Malory’s clumsy picture of medieval love resembles the ideas of misguided, indiscriminate King Mark in Gottfried’s poem. As a comparison, Malory, in his famous passage asserting that love then was not as it is nowadays (XVIII, 25),[39] suggests that love was more constant and stable in the past and less either ‘lecherous’ or cold and brittle. Gottfried expresses similar sentiments against inconstancy but also deplores prudery and love as a political commodity:

Nowadays no one finds such steadfast affection, so ill do we prepare the soil… Shorn of all honour and dignity she [love] sneaks begging from house to house, shamefully lugging a patchwork sack in which she keeps what she can grab or steal and, denying it to her own mouth, hawks it in the streets… Love, mistress of all hearts, the noble, the incomparable, is for sale in the open market… False lovers and love-cheats as we are, how vainly our days slip by, seeing that we so seldom bring our suffering to a joyful consummation! How we dissipate our lives without either profit or pleasure!… Lovers who hide their feelings, having once revealed them, who set a watch on their modesty and so turn strangers in love, are robbers of themselves… This pair of lovers did not play the prude: they were free and familiar with looks and speech. (203-204)

Our contemporary familiarity with Gottfried-style romantic love can obscure its unique quality. The argument, put forward by C.S. Lewis and Morton Hunt for instance, that romantic love was ‘invented’ in the middle ages tends to be met with opposition.[40] However, this is because the concept of romantic love is not being properly discriminated. Nowhere in ancient literature – in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or Native American myths – do we conclusively find proof of this unique, individual, mutual, uneconomic sense of love. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).”[41] Romantic love was a new socio-cultural construction, a “fusion of sensual and spiritual.”[42]

It is significant that Robert A. Johnson, a Jungian analyst, has used the ‘Tristan’ story to explore the psychology of Western romantic love, particularly in its dysfunctional aspects.[43] Johnson sees the story as a paradigmatic tale, a myth, a guidebook to romantic love’s modus operandi. In Johnson’s interpretation, the lovers are projecting a meaningful “god image” (their respective anima/animus archetypes) upon each other.[44] The essential tragedy is that the lovers are “in love, yet we wonder if it with each other.”[45] They are “in love with love.”[46] Tristan fails to moderate his passion to acknowledge the real human being. This real person is represented in the story by the deceptively simple and dull Iseut of the White Hands, whom Tristan marries but shuns in favour of his idealised, compulsive passion for Queen Iseut, who remains unattainable.[47] The essential tragedy, according to Johnson, is that Tristan fails to connect his passion with reality. This is the lesson which the tale encapsulates for modern lovers. Ironically, one could say, along with Gottfried, that Tristan is in love with death: as Brangane exclaims in reference to the love potion: “‘Ah, Tristan and Isolde, this draught will be your death!’” (195). (Wagner, in his 19th century ‘Tristan’ opera, seems aware of this when he has the lovers drink the love potion thinking it is poison rather than wine – their unrecognised love is so powerful that they want to die together, and instead have their passion awakened.)[48]

To conclude, we can see in the medieval ‘Tristan’ romances an emergence of the idea of romantic love from the generic, oral-inspired entertainments represented by Béroul, (where love, lust and scandal is part of the sensationalist milieu), through the courtly love superficially recollected in Malory, to the unique romantic variety brilliantly rendered in Gottfried. This brief survey also suggests something of the variety of styles in the romance oeuvre. Béroul reveals the comic, Gottfried the tragic, while Malory seems to encapsulate a medievalism already stereotyped, homogenised and sanitised as a sort of national ‘history’. Not only have we inherited these stories as cultural capital but they anticipate the modern myth of romantic love, which, as Gottfried reveals, both exhilarates and ensnares, such that reality can disappoint.[49] Johnson shows us that to resolve the ‘Tristan’ story and discover a way out of its tragic conclusion, we must discover another, fourth kind of love.[50] This is a human love with its acknowledgement of both reality and passion – an interpretation of reality as meaningful, poetic, even symbolic. As encapsulated in the ‘Tristan’ story, this problem of human versus romantic love is fundamentally a problem of hermeneutics, as expressed through medieval and medievalist literature.

Bibliography

Averill, James R. and Elma P. Nunley. Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

Benson, C. David. “The Ending of the Morte Darthur.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 221-240. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Béroul. The Romance of Tristran. Edited & translated by Norris J. Lacy. New York & London: Garland, 1989.

Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. 1968. Reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001.

Chinca, Mark. Gottfried von Strassburg Tristan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Cooper, Helen. “The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 183-202. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Edwards, Elizabeth. “The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 37-54. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Ferrante, Joan M. The Conflict of Love and Honor: The Medieval Tristan Legend in France, Germany and Italy. The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1973.

Gottfried. Tristan. Translated by A. T. Hatto. 1960. Reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Gregory, Stewart. Introduction to Tristran, by Thomas of Britain, ix-xxii. New York & London: Garland, 1991.

Hatto, A. T. Introduction to Tristan, by Gottfried, 7-36. 1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Johnson, Robert A. We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. New York: HarperCollins, 1983.

Lacy, Norris J. Introduction to The Romance of Tristran, by Béroul, ix-xix. New York & London: Garland, 1989.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Edited by Helen Cooper. 1998. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

McCarthy, Terence. “Malory and His Sources.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 75-96. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

McCarthy, Terence. Reading the Morte Darthur. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988.

Rocher, Daniel. “Between Epic and Lyric Poetry: The Originality of Gottfried’s Tristan.” In A Companion to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, edited by Will Hasty, 205-222. New York: Camden House, 2003.

Thomas of Britain. Tristran. Translated by Stewart Gregory. New York & London: Garland, 1991.

Thomas, Neil. Tristan in the Underworld: A Study of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan together with the Tristran of Thomas. Lewiston, Queenston & Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.


[1] Sadly, I was unable to locate a critical edition with line numbers for Gottfried. Consequently, I have referenced the page numbers from the highly acclaimed modern English translation by A. T. Hatto in the following edition: Gottfried, Tristan, trans. A. T. Hatto (1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004).

[2] Character names will be as they appear in the relevant text under discussion. When the discussion is general, as here, or collective, I will use the spellings as in Gottfried. Similarly, I use inverted commas to designate the title of the ‘Tristan’ story, but italics to designate the title of a particular text.

[3] As we shall see, Malory’s retelling, though complete in itself, only tells the story briefly, in the fashion of a cursory plot summary.

[4] Note that it is not clear that the story in Béroul ends this way, but it may have done so.

[5] Neil Thomas, Tristan in the Underworld: A Study of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan together with the Tristran of Thomas (Lewiston, Queenston & Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 76.

[6] Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (1968; reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001), 53.

[7] A. T. Hatto, introduction to Tristan, by Gottfried (1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004), 7; Campbell, Creative Mythology, 53.

[8] Norris J. Lacy, introduction to The Romance of Tristran, by Béroul (New York & London: Garland, 1989), ix.

[9] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, ix.

[10] Ibid., xiii.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Joan M. Ferrante, The Conflict of Love and Honor: The Medieval Tristan Legend in France, Germany and Italy (The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1973), 51.

[13] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xiv.

[14] Line numbers and quotations are from Béroul, The Romance of Tristran, ed. & trans., Norris J. Lacy (New York & London: Garland, 1989).

[15] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 62.

[16] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xv.

[17] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 18.

[18] Mark Chinca, Gottfried von Strassburg Tristan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 9.

[19] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 87.

[20] Stewart Gregory, introduction to Tristran, by Thomas of Britain (New York & London: Garland, 1991), xi.

[21] Thomas, Tristan in the Underworld, 84.

[22] Line numbers are from Thomas of Britain, Tristran, trans. Stewart Gregory (New York & London: Garland, 1991).

[23] Daniel Rocher, “Between Epic and Lyric Poetry: The Originality of Gottfried’s Tristan” in A Companion to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, ed. Will Hasty (New York: Camden House, 2003), 209.

[24] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 47.

[25] Ibid., 96.

[26] Ibid., 41.

[27] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 84-171.

[28] Ibid., 121, 152.

[29] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xv; Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 40.

[30] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 232: Campbell makes the point that this would probably not be considered ‘repressed’ love though, as per Wagner’s more modern interpretation in his ‘Tristan’ opera.

[31] Terence McCarthy, “Malory and His Sources”, in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 77-78; Helen Cooper, “The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones”, in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 186-187.

[32] Quotations are from Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript, ed. Helen Cooper (1998; reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). The references are in the form of book and chapter numbers (based on Caxton) throughout Cooper’s text.

[33] Terence McCarthy, Reading the Morte Darthur (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988), 54.

[34] Elizabeth Edwards, “The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur,” in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 51; McCarthy, “Malory and His Sources”, 77.

[35] C. David Benson, “The Ending of the Morte Darthur,” in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 228; Edwards, “Women in Morte Darthur,” 51.

[36] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 176-184.

[37] After the love potion abates, Iseut confesses to the hermit that Tristran is “entirely free of any carnal desire for me” (2329) suggesting that this wasn’t the case while the love potion was in operation.

[38] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 178.

[39] Edwards, “Women in Morte Darthur,” 51.

[40] James R. Averill and Elma P. Nunley, Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 21.

[41] Averill and Nunley, Voyages of the Heart, 21. Campbell, Creative Mythology, elaborates further on this: 175-186.

[42] Hatto, introduction to Tristan, 17.

[43] Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York: HarperCollins, 1983).

[44] Johnson, We, 62-63.

[45] Ibid., 51.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 135-137.

[48] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 79.

[49] Cf. the modern divorce rate.

[50] This is found in the work of Gottfried’s contemporary Wolfram von Eschenbach, who makes this ‘human love’ a theme of his mystic Parzival, concerning the knight who rode forth to ultimately heal the wound of the Grail King, caused, in Wolfram’s work, by the tragic collision of honour and love (Campbell, Creative Mythology, 405-570).

Written by tomtomrant

19 January 2014 at 12:03 pm

The Mysteries of Mithras: A Symbolist Theoretic

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Another essay from my seemingly endless Arts degree. This was my favourite – writing about the Mithras cult of the Roman Empire, in the process discovering a theory of cultural interpretation as per Beck and Geertz, leaving behind a misguided attempt to make cultural interpretation ‘scientific’ by simply not commenting on it at all…

The religion of the Mithras cult flourished in the Roman Empire from the first to the fourth centuries C.E., only disappearing with the triumph of Christianity. The primary source evidence for the cult, while not exactly scarce, is distinctly enigmatic, consisting of little more than iconographic images and some short, largely uninformative epigraphs. Thus the meaning of this mystery cult as a historical reality has remained, ironically, mysterious. In this essay, I will firstly review the primary source evidence, drawing upon the work of Manfred Clauss. I will then explore an interpretation put forward by Roger Beck based upon the symbolist theory of Clifford Geertz. I argue that Beck’s interpretation achieves a greater insight into the experience and meaning of the cult largely because he takes the trouble to interpret the data in an appropriately ‘religious’ fashion. As we shall see, studying the Mithras cult will not exactly ‘teach us a lesson’ but ‘open out the possibilities’ of religious experience. Since this presumably approximates the goal of the ancient cult-members, we shall see how interpretations based on strict scientific rationalism will be unilluminating and generally inappropriate.

The Primary Sources

The Mithras cult apparently emerged during the first century C.E. with the appearance of the first inscriptions and artefacts.[1] The area of spread is very large, with Mithraic sites discovered throughout the ancient empire from Egypt to England.[2] We only know about membership from short epigraphs, for example: “To the invincible god Mithras, Optimus, deputy of Vitalis, slave of Sabinius Veranus and supervisor of the customs-post, has fulfilled his vow.”[3] Early followers included soldiers, ordinary citizens, slaves and low-grade administration officials.[4] Scholars have long believed that the cult admitted no women,[5] but Griffith remarks that one textual reference is difficult to explain, from Porphyry of Tyre, the third century C.E. Neoplatonic philosopher, who wrote: “Thus initiates who take part in their rites [the Mithraic Mysteries] are called lions, and women hyenas, and servants ravens” (Porphyry, De Abstinentia ab esu animalium 4.16.3).[6]

A recreation of the interior of the Mithraeum.

A recreation of the interior of a Mithraeum.

Everything else we know about Mithraism comes from the physical artefacts and iconography usually discovered in the ruins of Mithraic temples. A mithraeum is a small, square-sided room, usually less than 10 metres along any wall.[7] A cave-like interior appears to have been important; mithraea tend to have vaulted ceilings – some were even carved out of rock.[8] The basic common structure is a central aisle, flanked by raised podia on each side, upon which cult-follows presumably sat or reclined.[9] The exact range of images, statues and small altars varies from site to site, but every mithraeum had a brightly painted cult-image of Mithras slaying the bull displayed at the end of the aisle either in bas-relief or, sometimes, as a free-standing sculpture.[10] Apparently, lighting effects were also important, with many lamps discovered in the ruins; some images had alcoves for candles, designed so that they could be made to glow in the darkness of the Mithraic ‘cave’.[11]

The iconography of Mithraism is remarkably varied in style and detail across the large geographical range of the cult, yet at the same time most of the scenes portrayed are roughly consistent. The most common images and the manner in which they are arranged can be interpreted as outlining the ‘sacred narrative’ of Mithras.[12] The sun-god is born from a rock; he is pictured emerging fully-formed as a child or youth, sometimes naked, wearing a Phrygian cap, wielding a torch and a dagger.[13] He is

A typical image of Mithras.

A typical image of Mithras.

shown firing an arrow at a rock, which magically brings forth water.[14] A series of images portray his hunting a great bull – he is shown prowling, chasing, riding, guiding, dragging and even carrying the bull on his shoulders.[15] This presumably leads to the scene that forms the central cult-image of the bull-slaying (tauroctony): Mithras is shown holding down the bull with his left knee and plunging a dagger into its neck with his right hand while fixing the viewer with an expression of “easy grace”[16] or “dolor and compassion.”[17] He is almost always accompanied in this act by a dog, a scorpion and a snake, and sometimes a lion, all of whom seem to be feeding upon the bull, whose thrashing tail or gushing blood is often represented as burgeoning grain-stalks.[18] These creatures frequently take part as observers of the earlier scenes too, appearing along with images of the sun and moon, a distinctive krater (mixing bowl), the Roman sun-god Sol, and the mythic torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates.[19]

The mosaic floor at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia.

The mosaic floor at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia.

Rarely are initiations portrayed and these are difficult to interpret.[20] Some written sources suggest the rituals were very harsh but these herald from Christian writers who obviously disapproved of the cult and almost certainly were exaggerating.[21] A lot of the theories concerning initiation have centred around the apparent 7-stage grade structure for cult-members. The lowest grade was called Raven, and progressed upward through Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun-runner, and Father.[22] These grades are attested by iconography at a few mithraeum sites, such as the mosaic floor at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia near Rome.[23] Some scholars consider the grades to be ubiquitous to the cult, while others suggest they only applied in certain areas, or only to priests.[24]

Interpretation

Clauss represents the scholarly consensus when he affirms that the Mithraic cult images are difficult to interpret, that we may never know exactly what they signify, but that the tauroctony, for instance, generally gives the impression of a positive, life-affirmation.[25] Mithras’ central act of killing the bull is a “transfiguration and transformation”[26] or rebirth, not merely a scene of senseless slaughter and destruction.[27] In terms of understanding ancient mystery religions generally, Clauss exhibits an awareness that ancient peoples did not feel bound by fixed credos, and that they could worship multiple gods without conflict or contradiction.[28] However, he still finds the Mithras cult rather disorganised or not properly unified, exemplified by the evident inconsistency of iconographic detail and style, lack of evidence of a definite doctrine, the confusing syncretism of gods and symbols, and its ultimate weakness in the face of attacks by Christians.[29]

Another Tauroctony.

Another Tauroctony.

Undeniably, the small, dark Mithraic temples and the paucity of written description has led to assessments of the Mithras cult as deeply esoteric.[30] This has led to all kinds of theories as to the type of esoteric meaning suggested by the iconography. Many scholars have drawn on perceived links between the Mithraic imagery and astrology, in particular, proposing that Mithraic ritual was somehow supposed to lead the participant on a journey through the stars to experience the soul’s salvation.[31] Clauss is very dismissive of such interpretations,[32] but others have provided complex arguments for Mithras’ identity with the sky or the cosmos itself (Weiss), for the tauroctony as a kind of astral clock (North), or as encoding the mathematics of equinoctial precession (Ulansey).[33]

Roger Beck argues that links to astrology do seem justified but many interpretations approach the subject wrongly; there is an ad hoc nature to many interpretations which is disconcerting, inviting inconclusive readings.[34] Essentially, Beck argues that we are not missing a definitive interpretation; we lack a sensible theoretic for understanding the multiplicity of existing interpretations.

A Symbolist Theoretic

The missing theoretic, Beck argues, concerns the appropriate interpretation of mythic symbols. Clifford Geertz suggests, for instance, that applying the principles of logic – discreteness, linearity, exclusivity – is not appropriate for the interpretation of symbolic subject matter.[35] All religious systems are characterised principally by an emotional element; the intellect only provides assent to a feeling-toned worldview.[36] Geertz argues that religion comprises a worldview and an ethos which interact, forming a ‘gestalt’ which establishes a fundamental sense of numinous meaning and experienced reality, only secondarily converted into an ethics or consistent metaphysics.[37]

Beck similarly argues that Mithraism, as a feeling-toned system, cannot have a definitive meaning, like a dictionary definition.[38] Emotional experience comprises an ineffable complexity, not a specific symbol-to-meaning correspondence.[39] A particular symbol usually means many different things depending on the level of interpretative experience.[40] Thus, interpretations which involve complex intellectual workings or instrumental answers have no place in the theoretic. Hence, the Mithraic symbology is unlikely to be a complex code, which, once decoded, reveals the mathematics of astral precession. This not only draws upon incongruous modern astronomy, but such thinking exemplifies a theory of religion which suggests that only the learned can understand religious symbols, which the vulgar misinterpret.[41] This idea is often propagated by ancient intellectuals, such as Porphyry, but it is nonetheless unrealistic, or at least, peripheral to our concerns. Beck suggests we must focus upon the experience of the Mithraic majority, who were unlikely to be attending a secret astronomy class.[42]

A Tauroctony within a circle suggesting the zodiac.

A Tauroctony within a circle suggesting the zodiac.

The Mithraic symbols are not trying to hide their meanings – Beck suggests that what you see is what you get.[43] Mithras, as a sun-god, probably represents the sun on the primary level of interpretation.[44] Granting that the cult-followers wanted to keep their religion mysterious, the iconography is already ‘hidden’ inside the mithraeum – there was no need for further opacity. Scholars seem to forget this context, which is ironic considering the usual importance of provenance for archaeological explication.[45] Beck argues that the tauroctony alone has no context – the symbols could be interpreted ad infinitum. We must start with what the mithraeum means, within which the tauroctony resides.[46] Furthermore, we must also extend our context into the common, generally understood cultural-social milieu of the Roman Empire in this period, for, as per Geertz’s theory, it is ethos and worldview which will inform contemporary symbolic understanding.[47]

All scholars have long declared the Mysteries to be embedded in the Roman social structure; the cult even seems to support existing social hierarchies.[48] A new cult, to successfully capture imaginations and acquire followers, must appeal to conservative tastes, only realising them in slightly new combinations, a fact acknowledged by Gordon.[49] Beck argues we must ask what the mithraeum meant to most Romans,[50] and suggests we have the answer in this brief passage from Porphyry:

Similarly, the Persians [followers of Mithras] call the place a cave where they introduce an initiate to the mysteries, reveal to him the path by which souls descend and go back again. … This cave bore … the image of the Cosmos which Mithras had created, and the things which the cave contained, by their proportionate arrangement, provided him with the symbols of the elements and climates of the Cosmos. (Porphyry, On the Cave of Nymphs 6)[51]

This passage is often dismissed by scholars as it is written by a Neoplatonist philosopher not a Mithraic cult-member, yet, as Beck argues, Porphyry’s essay is not about interpreting Mithraism – the cult merely earns an incidental mention.[52] Furthermore, as per the theoretic, the allusion does not need to be exactly correct; we are not looking for exact correspondences, only a general impression of ethos. This passage suggests not only that there was a popular understanding of the mithraeum as ‘cosmos’, but it also specifies the pertinent symbolist way of thinking.[53]

The cosmology of Aristotle

The cosmology of Aristotle

Thus, deferring again to the cultural milieu, Beck next asks how Roman society conceived of the cosmos. Clauss knows the answer as well as anyone:[54] he writes of the well-known cosmology of Aristotle, with the unmoving Earth at the centre of seven invisible spheres, one inside the other, each hosting a visible ‘planet’ – Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.[55] The human soul was believed to descend through these spheres to be born.[56] The question is whether something like this cosmological worldview is symbolised in the mithraeum and its iconography. Beck responds with a resounding ‘yes’: the mithraeum is a dark cave-like room, rather like the vault of the stars, in which strange lighting effects illuminate representations of sun, moon and stars, and a seven-grade system mirrors the seven celestial spheres. To explain the animals and other iconography, we need only expand on the popular Greco-Roman symbolic associations between the planets, the gods and their mythic narratives.[57] The tauroctony does not merely picture a man slaying a bull; it portrays a man slaying a bull, accompanied by a scorpion, a dog, a snake, and sometimes a lion and a bowl – all of which were ancient and well-known representations of constellations in the zodiac.[58]

celestial_zodiac

The Zodiac.

Beck elaborates on this picture, delving further into the cosmological correspondences.[59] I do not have the space to rehearse his arguments here. His interpretations become complex, yet arguably never delve beyond the contemporary Roman astrological worldview. Importantly, Beck is not suggesting that these astrological readings offer an ‘explanation’ of the cult;[60] they are only an index of primary readings,[61] the central structuring mythology, as it were. He suggests that a whole series of simultaneous symbolic correspondences overlay and interact with this astrological symbolism, the ethos interacting with the worldview.[62] A participant could experience meaning on the level of the sacred story of Mithras, of the cosmological worldview, of the earthly ethos, and that of the destiny of human souls.[63] With this interpretative picture, we gain a better sense of the depth and character of Mithraism. So much so that Beck argues that “there is no necessity for a lost ritual to be postulated.”[64] The tauroctony, for instance, seems to involve a sacrifice of the moon-bull by the sun-god. I am reminded here of an observation made by Joseph Campbell in relation to American Indian myth:

On a very special evening there is a moment when the rising moon, having just emerged on the horizon, is directly faced across the world, from the opposite horizon, by the setting sun. …[At such a moment,] if the witness is prepared, there ensues a transfer of self-identification from the temporal reflecting body [the moon], to the sunlike, eviternal source, and one then knows oneself as consubstantial with what is of no time or place but universal and beyond death…[65]

Some similar astral revelation may have furnished the Mithraic cult-followers, through ritual of some kind, with an experience of “the path by which souls descend and go back again” (Porphyry, On the Cave of Nymphs 6).[66]

Conclusion1. The sanctuary's bottom

The Mysteries of Mithras provide us with an interpretative challenge – what to make of an ancient religion about which we have very little textual evidence. Using logical deduction and the usual archaeological methods we can make interpretive guesses, but what emerges is a vague, ad hoc set of symbolic elaborations. The symbolist theoretic of Geertz and Beck does not enhance our viewpoint by disclosing new archaeological facts or even new symbolic interpretations, but provides an insight into the religious mindset that ordered and experienced such meanings. I believe this is what the Mithras cult can teach us today – its symbolic iconography exemplifies the manner in which mythic thought can be (usually is) structured. To comprehend this, we must acknowledge the importance of not just physical but cultural provenance when interpreting ancient myth and religion. From the symbolist theoretic, we can garner a greater understanding not just of the Mithras cult but of the typical human religious worldview, a perspective often buried, confused, or considered ‘esoteric’ in the usual positivist rational analysis of the twentieth-century scientist and archaeologist.

Works Cited[67]
Beck, R. 2000. “Ritual, Myth, Doctrine, and Initiation in the Mysteries of Mithras: New Evidence from a Cult Vessel.” The Journal of Roman Studies 90: 145-80.
Beck, R. 2006. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Campbell, J. 1991. Reprint. Occidental Mythology. New York: Arkana. Original edition, New York: Viking Penguin, 1964.
Campbell, J. 2002. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. Novato, California: New World Library.
Clauss, M. 2000. The Roman Cult of Mithras. Translated by Richard Gordon. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
David, J. 2000. “The Exclusion of Women in the Mithraic Mysteries: Ancient or Modern?” Numen 47: 121-41.
Geertz, C. 1957. “Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols.” The Antioch Review 17: 421-37.
Gordon, R. L. 1980. “Reality, Evocation and Boundary in the Mysteries of Mithras.” Journal of Mithraic Studies 3: 19-99.
Griffith, A. B. 2006. “Completing the Picture: Women and the Female Principle in the Mithraic Cult.” Numen 53: 48-77.


[1] Clauss 2000, 22, 28-32.

[2] Clauss 2000, 26-7.

[3] This translation from Clauss 2000, 38.

[4] Clauss 2000, 33.

[5] Clauss 2000, 33; David 2000, 129, 131, 138-9; Griffith 2006, 65.

[6] Translated by G. Clark, quoted in Griffith 2006, 51.

[7] Clauss 2000, 42-4.

[8] Clauss 2000, 42-4.

[9] Clauss 2000, 46.

[10] Clauss 2000, 52.

[11] Clauss 2000, 120, 125.

[12] Clauss 2000, 62.

[13] Clauss 2000, 64.

[14] Clauss 2000, 71-4.

[15] Clauss 2000, 74-7.

[16] Clauss 2000, 79.

[17] Campbell 1991, 258, after Cumont.

[18] Clauss 2000, 99.

[19] Clauss 2000, 95.

[20] Clauss 2000, 103-5.

[21] Clauss 2000, 102; Beck 2000, 146 n. 10.

[22] Clauss 2000, 131.

[23] Clauss 2000, 133.

[24] Clauss 2000, 131.

[25] Clauss 2000, 79.

[26] Clauss 2000, 79.

[27] Clauss 2000, 81.

[28] Clauss 2000, 9-10, 14, 148, 158.

[29] Clauss 2000, 16-17.

[30] Clauss 2000, 61.

[31] Clauss 2000, xx.

[32] Clauss 2000, xx.

[33] All these referenced in Beck 2006, 37-8.

[34] Beck 2006, 23.

[35] Geertz 1957, 436.

[36] Geertz 1957, 421.

[37] Geertz 1957, 421-22, 425.

[38] Beck 2006, 68-9.

[39] Beck 2006, 28.

[40] Beck 2006, 27.

[41] Beck 2006, 47.

[42] Beck 2006, 46.

[43] Beck 2006, 59.

[44] Beck 2006, 37.

[45] Beck 2006, 60.

[46] Beck 2006, 70.

[47] Beck 2006, 72.

[48] Beck 2006, 72; Clauss 2000, 25.

[49] Gordon 1980, 22-3; Beck 2006, 27.

[50] Beck 2006, 61.

[51] Quoted in Beck 2006, 102.

[52] Beck 2006, 85.

[53] Beck 2006, 102.

[54] Clauss 2000, 10.

[55] Clauss 2000, 10-11; Beck 2006, 77; Campbell 1991, 255.

[56] Beck 2006, 79-80; Campbell 1991, 255.

[57] Beck 2006, 31.

[58] Beck 2006, 31.

[59] Beck 2006, 102-256.

[60] Beck 2006, 41-2.

[61] Beck 2006, 31.

[62] Beck 2006, 73.

[63] Beck 2006, 11.

[64] Beck 2006, 129.

[65] Campbell 2002, 31-2.

[66] Quoted in Beck 2006, 102.

[67] Note: all primary sources were referenced from inside secondary sources so all works cited are secondary.

Written by tomtomrant

29 December 2013 at 6:40 pm

Against ‘Reason’

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Some weeks ago, a couple of my readers asked me to explain what I meant by this Facebook status update:Screen shot 2013-11-16 at 7.31.38 PM

So here goes.

What is wrong with philosophy?

First, my story: My background is film, theatre, and storytelling – these were my adolescent passions. These led me to mythology, which I explored to discover how the world’s myths could help improve my writing. In the process, I discovered essentially how the world’s myths could enrich my life – that is, in exploring the fundamental concerns of fulfillment, mortality, passion, love and life-meaning.

Now, you might notice an apparent overlap here with a popular understanding of philosophy’s aims (as expressed on Wikipedia):

“Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.”

My gripe with philosophy is really about the extremely important fundamentals this definition seems to have left out. Consider again: “reality, existence, knowledge, values, mind, and language” – where on Earth has emotion, culture, art, and, well, fun got to? Might these be just as if not more important for exploring the fundamentals of human existence?

I chose to pursue philosophy in my Bachelor of Arts because I had not noticed this oversight. The philosophers I had encountered in my studies of myth seemed wise and meaningful. I soon discovered that these philosophers were either sidelined or misconstrued by the university philosophy department. My problem with philosophy is that it is unclear about what it means by ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’, and when it is clear, it is next to useless.

The Consolations of PhilosophyTo illustrate I thought about dredging up some dense incomprehensible philosophical texts like anything by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl; just about any philosopher studied at university, but I thought this would be a little too hard to elucidate, and a little too easy to criticize. I have turned instead to a popular, easy to understand work – The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton. It’s available in the Popular Penguins series – those cheap books with the blank orange cover – so it is easy to obtain. In it, Alain De Botton briefly explores the ideas of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in easy prose (with pictures!).

I do not dispute the interesting, sometimes insightful findings of these philosophers nor the manner in which De Botton illuminates them – with one exception. I disagree with De Botton whenever he says something like this:

“The validity of an argument or action is determined … by whether it obeys the rules of logic.” (42)

“Anger results … from a basic … error of reasoning” (82)

“It is for reason to make the distinction.” (109)

What is reason? Most philosophers bandy the word around but do not go into detail as to what exactly they mean by it. De Botton outlines the Socratic method (24-25): one must take a statement purporting to be true, search for situations in which the statement would not be true, and use this to either modify the statement or declare it false. This sounds to most of us like good common sense. “Rationality … refers to the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action.” Basically, to be rational and reasonable, we must have reasons for doing or believing things. By implication, we must have reasons which have been examined under some more vigorous standard, which, in the case of philosophy, is, again, never specifically elucidated. Why is “because I want to” not a viable reason? This is never explained. The reason why philosophers are so vague in this area, I argue, is because there is no ‘rational’ or ‘reasoned’ standard for assessing philosophical veracity.

What about the principles of empiricism and logic? Might these form a foundation, a measure against which our rational reasoning can be measured? Unfortunately, both of these ideas are inappropriate for philosophical purposes. “Empiricism … states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience.” When we say something is empirically true, we mean it has been tested in the external physical world. Human knowledge, values, and mind let alone subjective feelings and life-meaning cannot be empirically examined in the external world – they are mostly internal to us and their external manifestations are open to multifarious interpretation. Hence philosophy cannot be employing empirical reasoning.[1] Logic is a rigorous system whereby lucid, consistent, precisely delineated statements are juxtaposed to determine and corroborate a conclusion. Once again, human knowledge, values, and mind cannot be delineated using lucid, consistent, precise statements – we are examining the idiosyncratic human mind not building a bridge. The words you use to express qualities of mind are all imprecise, they are metaphors for our internal experience of consciousness: words like ‘truth’, ‘right’, ‘just’, ‘anger’, ‘trust’, ‘joy’. Logic treats these concepts as if they were physical things or forces. Just try to find a precise definition for ‘happiness’ among any group of individuals and you will see what I mean.[2]

So ‘rational reasoning’ cannot, for the purposes of philosophy, be founded in empiricism or logic. By ‘rational reasoning’, I suggest that the philosophers mean at a basic level, ‘examined thought’ or ‘careful reflection’, at a more profound level they actually mean ‘creative thought,’ that is, thought that considers the broad and multifarious areas of human experience and understanding, and attempts to make startling connections to reveal insights into the human condition. The distressing thing is that the philosophers, and particularly university philosophy lecturers, do not appear to know this. That their philosophical conclusions are ‘more rational’ is simply an opinion or prejudice. It just means, ‘I find them more sensible’ or ‘I’ve thought about them lots.’ Their ideas may be more appealing than many popular or religious ideas, but they are more practical, meaningful, compassionate, idealistic, ‘realistic’, straightforward or exciting than these ideas, not more ‘rational’.

As an example of how pointless and inappropriate reasoning based on logic is for philosophical purposes, we only need examine the thinking of Socrates. Socrates questions everything – the nature of courage, the purpose of work, the reasons for marriage – but he entirely fails to come up with any answers. (He is, in this respect, as useless and ‘amoral’ as the post-modern deconstructionists discussed here.) Now, I agree that ‘questioning everything’ frees up the mind, enlivens our thinking, staves off blind obedience to conventional views, and has led to the development of empirical science, but Socrates insists he is doing none of these things – he is (most ambiguously) ‘seeking truth’. He seeks to do this by following the dictum: “A statement is true if it cannot be disproved” (24), that is, if all reasons provided for it cannot be contradicted. Socrates seems to have forgotten to question his own method here. It is true that a lack of satisfactory reasons behind a statement may indicate that it is not true, but has he not conceived of truths that may be extremely difficult or impossible to explain in words? We cannot completely explain in terse consistent ‘logical’ statements why we feel emotionally moved by a poem, or why we love our spouse, or why a sunset is beautiful. Does this mean such ideas are false or just inexplicable? Socrates seems to have overlooked the non-rational, emotional basis of the human mind which is a very great pity considering the human mind is what philosophy is supposed to be about!

Fortunately, many of the philosophers that followed Socrates took up his ‘rational’ ‘reasoned’ ‘logical’ terminology, but nicely failed to apply his methods. Epicurus expresses his reasons for valuing friendship – solidarity, intimacy, compassion, happiness – in purely emotional terms which he can call ‘rational’ only nominally. Seneca wisely suggests our frustrations are tempered by what we can ‘rationally’ understand, even though what he really means is what we have emotionally experienced. Montaigne says we should accept and celebrate our ‘irrational’ bodily functions – when he means ‘involuntary’. Fortunately, all the rubbish about ‘rationality’ here does not get in the way of these philosophers speaking their impassioned, meaningful, creative, intuitive ideas, which are either not rational or ‘rational’ in an unconventional rather meaningless sense of the word (roughly approximating ‘well thought about’). They do not limit their thinking to mere contradiction and ‘deconstruction’, as Socrates appears to do.

However, there are a number of highly unfortunate consequences of speaking about intuitive, emotionally-satisfying ideas as based on ‘reason’. To begin with, the ideas appear to be somehow literally factually true – like the conclusions of empirical science. The philosopher does not proffer his idea as a more fulfilling way of seeing the world but as somehow the ‘right’ or ‘more accurate’ way in which the world actually is. Notice how this ironically sounds just a little bit like the absolute certainty of some extremist religious positions? ‘Reason’ in this area has become an Enlightenment superstition. Compare: when a new idea or insight emerged, the ancient thinker was more than likely to attribute such a breakthrough to ‘the grace of God’. For the philosopher, ancient or modern, he is likely to attribute it to his ‘reason’ – it is a more ‘rational’ solution to an existential question. ‘Reason’ in the second example had as much to do with it as ‘God’ in the first.

The second problem is that of expression. Most philosophers, labouring under the mis-impression that they are being ‘logical’ and ‘reasonable’ and ‘factually accurate’, write their intuitive, emotional-meaningful, interesting, inspiring ideas in a formal, stiff, pompous, academic writing style, which is wholly inappropriate to the subject matter. The result is that their ideas are often incomprehensible. I like sometimes to compare this to its opposite, as if, say, someone wrote out their tax return in lines of abstract Romantic poetry. Doing this would not only be strange, but would not serve the purpose of writing. Describing one’s earnings this quarter as “vindictively corpulent” makes as much sense as describing human value as a “categorical imperative”.[3] Montaigne is on my side here: “An incomprehensible prose-style is likely to have resulted more from laziness than cleverness.” Not to mention the pretentious self-importance involved in writing in such a way.

The issue of expression is not a slight inconvenience in terms of effective philosophy. Socrates is particular about setting philosophy apart from rhetoric, which is the art of persuasive speaking. Put this way, it seems that Socrates’ goal was to be right rather than convincing. Socrates seems to be trying to emulate the physical sciences where, for example, if I have done the appropriate calculations, it does not matter how I express them, they will still be correct. However, there is a major problem with this when applied to philosophy’s concerns. The way you describe elements of the mind is intimately connected to what you are describing. Consider for example the equivalence of the following terms: “glass” = “tumbler”; “rain” = “shower”; “wind” = “breeze”. Since these refer to external things or properties, we can always refer outwardly to clarify a difference in terminology or a bad description of something. Since elements of mind are abstract ideas, if you describe them inaccurately, the reader is likely to grab hold of a completely different idea, mistaking, for example, ‘freedom’ for ‘licentiousness’, ‘love’ for ‘lust’, ‘beauty’ for ‘prettiness’ etc. There is no external reality to grab hold of to clarify. The ‘rational’ philosopher either ends up describing something other than what he intends to, or nothing at all comprehensible.

A much better more appropriate way of approaching matters of mind would be poetry, art or metaphor. These methods seek not only to describe but to express the sense, the feeling, of that which they indicate. Metaphor is, I argue, the clearest and most powerful method of expressing philosophy. One does not try to inappropriately describe values, feelings, and mind using ‘logical’ or ‘empirical’ language, one gives an example, an ‘as if’, suggesting situations in which the feeling arose or that the values imply, using ordinary everyday language to conjure up a clear impression of what one is talking about. Seneca understood this, which is one of the reasons why his philosophy is unusually clear. He suggests the metaphor of the goddess of Fortune; she represents our exposure to accident. The goddess of Fortune inflicts harm with the moral blindness of a hurricane (another metaphor). Frustratingly, when De Botton discusses this, he notes that the image of the goddess here is distinctly “unphilosophical” (92) and that Seneca introduces her only to aid the memory.

The views expressed in poetry, literature, art, and particularly myth (or, more precisely, philosophical exegeses of myth) are far clearer, more meaningful and insightful than most of those expressed by the philosophers, mostly because the philosophers are incomprehensible to most readers. Actually, the difference between philosophy and literature frequently appears extremely arbitrary, influenced by whether the author in question is using the inappropriate language of ‘rationality’ or not. I am not sure exactly how a T. S. Eliot or George Orwell or Walt Whitman or Thoreau is not in their own way a philosopher, at least, in comparison to the less ‘rationally’ obsessed ‘official’ philosophers such as Montaigne (who seems to be writing pure sociology) or Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, Sartre or Merleau-Ponty (who were also littérateurs).

The third and most troubling problem with the use of ‘reason’ in philosophy is that it makes all philosophies, properly considered, wrong or deeply wanting. It does not take much to apply real logical and empirical reasoning to their arguments and find them wanting in the pointless, deconstructive manner of Socrates. This is what university philosophy lecturers do. So not only is most philosophy expressed in an incomprehensible manner, but the intuitive, meaningful ideas hidden beneath the surface are generally extracted by philosophy lecturers in order to be demolished as not ‘rational’ enough. These philosophies are hopelessly tainted by the opinions of the author – and this a bad thing, a weakness. Yet these same philosophy lecturers can only contradict. They proffer no solutions. Why is this? Because empirical/logical reasoning will not yield any answers to the nature of mind because these are the wrong tools for the job. Instead, all such criticism produces is deconstruction, meaninglessness, and nihilism.

To conclude, I want to make it clear that I am not denying that the discoveries of reason have advanced the empirical sciences particularly affecting the areas of technology and health. My argument is that the great philosophers do not employ reason at all, but say they do. The universities, taking things very literally of course, predicate their entire philosophy program around the use of reason, and in the process:

  • misinterpret and ridicule the arguments of philosophers who have something meaningful to tell us about our lives and
  • endorse the useless arguments of philosophers who have next to nothing meaningful to say, but are actually rational.

Recent discoveries in neurology have emphasized the importance of emotion in ‘reasoning’. In particular, people who have brain damage affecting a particular type of emotional processing can still reason hypothetically, but not in a useful, practical manner. Thus we learn that feeling and reason are not opposites. The distinction that is made between what the philosophers call ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ is the distinction made, in their day, between emotionally meaningful ideas and those which are not. The idea of a reasonable ethics founded on maximizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number is similarly based upon an emotionally satisfying idea – all the more so for being more practically realizable for the first time in history – but it is not based upon a greater ‘reason’. To claim such is to state an untruth, to cloud the issue with an incomprehensible writing style, and, most destructively, to open your idea to logical contradiction. So enough of these ‘rationalisations’! Tell it like it is! Such an idea is more inspiring, humane, compassionate, dynamic, etc. not more ‘rational’.


[1] I leave out of this discussion the empirical observation of brain science (neurology) and the statistical basis of modern psychology as philosophy clearly attempts to separate itself from these methods.

[2] I have had people counter this argument of mine by, essentially, choosing one of these definitions and insisting on it, but this is never arrived at through any explicitly logical process.

[3] For those well-versed in Kantian terminology, I suggest that you understand this term because you have found a way of connecting this sterile language to an intuitive emotional sense of meaning within yourself. It is definitely is not the ‘mathematical principle’ that Kant’s inappropriate and obscure language makes it resemble.

Written by tomtomrant

16 November 2013 at 7:47 pm

Whither humanities? (Or perhaps ‘wither’…?)

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imagesWhat is the point of studying the humanities in a bottom-line, increasingly utilitarian society?

Utilitarian values are overemphasised in our society which is largely preoccupied with wealth, power, politics, and (dare I say it) science. It is not that these values are unworthy but that they are overemphasised to the exclusion of much else. The point of the humanities, I think, resides in the values of emotional intelligence, social ability, creative expression and psychological development – all these values are generally ignored by the general public, government, educational institutions, and the media. By ignored I mean that these ‘creative’ abilities are treated rather like language in an illiterate culture, that is, something which is *assumed* to be a matter of general knowledge and experience but which is often in a very basic, undeveloped state. When major social problems occur in relation to these neglected areas, we tend to be quick to find utilitarian ’causes’ and propose utilitarian ‘solutions’ (which mysteriously fail to work). For example, alcohol-fuelled violence has to do with the excessively late opening hours of bars or lack of proper police funding and nothing to do with a perceived lack of life meaning or emotional development. Even when advertisements are ‘blamed’ for major mental emotional conditions such as gambling or drug addiction, the ‘solution’ is a public awareness campaign – as if mere rational awareness could counter a strong emotional compulsion.

The humanities can help counter this misplaced focus by encouraging practice in and development of social abilities, emotional intelligence, creative skills etc. However, the utilitarian mindset has infiltrated the humanities as well rendering much of it largely ineffective and rather pointless. Critical writing skills are important but massively overemphasised in universities, where most students learn little else (I often joke that I am doing a ‘Bachelor of Essay-Writing’). Assessment is graded quantitatively and statistically as if arts subjects were in the science or maths faculty. Humanities desperately needs a more qualitative marking scheme and an injection of creative thinking – the very process I argue that it is supposed to be teaching. Essays are very good for encouraging student learning through research, but so would painting a picture (of an historical personage or scene perhaps), writing a poem, running a seminar or making a video. I have virtually never encountered a tutor or lecturer who actively advocated techniques of performance for class presentations, of social interaction when involved in class discussions, or even creative writing techniques in assessments – as usual these are all ‘assumed’ and pass as if invisible. I have never heard a tutor make critical remarks to a student regarding a well-researched but frankly boring and unengaging class presentation. The learning environment is generally sterile with human interaction facilitated largely by accident. Lectures need more open-ended questions and audience interaction; tutorials need a more creative active – even physical – interaction (sitting at desks is creative death no matter how scattered or round the tables are).

There are cultural and ideological problems in modern society which I believe arts education should be resisting or transforming rather than falling prey to. The biggest of these problems is the perceived lack of a sole ideological or religious truth upon which to base emotional values. This perceived lack of a single truth has led to the conviction that there IS no truth, therefore there is no ‘appropriate’ values, judgment, conviction or intuition to be ‘taught’ – hence the almost blanket refusal to discuss such fundamental values. But this is simply another example of utilitarian thinking – of undeveloped creative/emotional skills. The relativity of all values means not that there is a LACK of truth, but that there is a GLUT, a MULTIPLICITY, of truths, all waiting to be explored and developed for the individual, society, culture and the present situation.

We can resist this misplaced utilitarianism in the arts:
1. by focussing on this multiplicity of viewpoints, building up a repertoire of social, creative, individual and aesthetic skills in students which they have the flexibility to apply in varied situations (not just in classrooms or in academic journals or newspapers)
2. by researching and exploring the UNIVERSAL emotions, interactions, and life stages revealed to us by evolutionary psychology and other cultural traits common to all humanity (these are not and cannot be dead – only poorly developed)
3. by recognising and rewarding NOVELTY of expression, ideas, and interaction within a FUNCTIONAL human framework (as outlined by the functions of point 2) – novelty must occur within structure to avoid an ‘anything goes’ mentality
4. by focussing explicitly on the experiential basis of learning and content – avoiding the formulaic, the “rational”, “ideological” and the “moral” approaches to human creativity (these are as misguided as the “irrational”, “emotional”, and “mystic” approaches to science). Understanding that emotion is an ineffable and visceral experience is essential to developing compassion let alone all the other social emotions. It is more important than reason or academic essay-writing. Getting out there and making a presentation, organising a group, exploring an idea is more important, more ‘educational’, than writing yet another dry literary essay, no matter how many obscure footnotes. Many psychologists and neurologists now recognise that the development of moral capabilities in students is not likely to be helped by teaching them a set of precepts unless their emotional capacities are also well nurtured. (In this respect the teaching of the rationality-obsessed Enlightenment philosophers and their ideas is actively HARMFUL to a creative arts endeavour – except as an example of creatively misguided thinking, and I’m not sure that we need more examples of that!)

In sum, I argue that the humanities are generally poorly or ineffectually taught, but desperately needed. Significantly, if you treat the arts in an inappropriately utilitarian way, you find them more and more ineffective and pointless. It is rather like complaining that ballet dancers should be employing the utilitarian skills of walking and then complaining that the ballet is ineffective, rather pointless and uninspiring.

Written by tomtomrant

31 August 2013 at 10:08 pm