Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

Follow your passion – so you can be properly disappointed

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As a high school teacher, I learned to question what I was encouraging my students to do. A common source of encouragement is to ‘follow your passion’, and ‘leave your options open’. Never mind that these 2 sayings are, to some degree, contradictory, but I’ve always followed the first of these sayings in my life (the second has largely been a gift of fortunate circumstances) and found the results to be disappointing but, admittedly, sobering.

At age 15, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker and devoted everything to this goal. I studied film in my spare time, led a school film club, made numerous short films on my weekends, and engaged a large team of students in my final year at high school to make a feature-length production. I kept my options open insofar as I still did well at my studies as well. With high-scoring graduate results, I could get into the bachelor’s degree I wanted, but I rejected this to follow my passion – I didn’t want to sit about writing essays about film; I wanted to practice the craft! I applied to the nearest prestigious film school, and, on my second attempt, scored an interview – in which, armed with my copious portfolio of studies and showreel of early works, the assessors literally ignored me. This was pretty devastating, I must admit, but I slipped into a cheap technical training college course instead and the disappointment grew: pretentious, self-centred film students, many of which did not understand cooperation or teamwork, endless funding shortfalls, unrealistic and imagined conceptions of ‘professionalism’, and no jobs. In fact, I began to realise that I did have a passion for film, but that passion largely resided in the end goals of watching the completed project, rather than in the process of production which was long-drawn-out, technically fastidious, expensive, precarious, and highly stressful. I came to the conclusion after some 5 years that filmmaking wasn’t for me. I switched to theatre for a while, which was cheaper, and funded a production a year while I worked in call centres, but, in the end, had to admit this was no career, and I couldn’t go on living like this. I don’t regret my ’10 years in the wilderness’ entirely – if I’d just gone straight to uni and some career, I would have always felt frustrated that I didn’t give writing and directing a go. Hence the moral of my story: “Always follow your passion, so you can find out how unrealistic it is.”

I did enjoy devising performance though, and I loved playing with ideas and the intellect and culture, and I suspected that perhaps becoming a teacher would be a suitable compromise which could actually earn me an okay income. So I re-enrolled in the uni course I’d deferred nearly a decade earlier (it being impossible to become a teacher without the piece of paper). My hard-earned high school scores meant nothing after 5 years, I was told, and I had to sit an entrance test, but this I passed with flying colours so I entered the amusingly languorous and intellectually irritating world of the BA, aka. the ‘Bachelor of Essay-writing’ (as “Arts” in this context is a scurrilous misnomer). Winning an award for my essays after my first year led me to ponder, “Do I really need to do this over again another 2 times?!” But eventually I made it through my degree, slapped on a post-graduate teaching degree and was snapped up by a local high school as an English and Humanities teacher. This worked out well to begin with – after the steep learning curve (and the realisation that little of what I had learned in university had any relevance to my job). Teaching did strike the right balance between intellectual interest (including elements of creative lesson-devising and performance) and earning an income. For the first time, I was motivated to get up in the morning – the days flew past – and I was earning twice the salary of my call centre and uni days. Every day included 3-5 little dramas, little engaging performances involving my students, and I whiled away the weekends devising more (and undertaking correction work). Thinking back on my 6 years in Education leads me to think of the passion: a constant rush of ideas, intellectual vigour, and a kind of constant energetic tightness across my chest – which may have been largely nervous anxiety too: to meet deadlines, to monitor hundreds of myriad interactions throughout a classroom, to finish correcting 100 essays in 3 weeks… Eventually, I had a lovely home and a partner, and we recently relocated to New Zealand due to Covid complications, and I was prepared to continue teaching in NZ, but the transition wasn’t smooth, and those 10 days in quarantine got me ruminating – and wondering why I dreaded the return. Truth was, I was burnt out, like so many teachers – by the wholly unrealistic workload. Teaching is like doing 2-3 jobs but when only given the time and pay for 1. (I used to say it was like being paid a decent wage as a newsreader on the evening news, but not realising that no one had been employed to write the stories – so you had to spend all your spare time in a state of continuous nervous energy researching the stories yourself so you don’t look foolish on the evening news.) It was exhausting, leading me to my second moral extrapolated from all this: “Follow your passion and discover that you care too much about it – at considerable cost to your health.” Which is another way of saying, “Don’t follow your passion – it’s unhealthy.” 

So the irony of all this is that I’ve ended up returning to the customer service and call centre work that used to irritate me in my twenties, when it was a necessary evil, getting in the way of my artistic pursuits. In the end, it is a sort of zen contentment, an awareness of small everyday ordinary interactions, of simple practical tasks, that need doing (and so feel useful and basically appreciated), that utilise a comfortable level of communication and mental effort, and which, when strategically negotiated (and this is a societal disgrace), still earns at least as much as that teacher with hypertension. Time passes a little more slowly, but my breaks and lunches constitute an actual adjournment, a halt, a rest – and some thoughtful reading or reflection time. I have time to exercise, and I feel relaxed and healthy. So all that passion business seems a nice occasional diversion and nothing more. Which perhaps is what all this was in aid of. “Follow your passion and, in your failure, appreciate the ordinary and the everyday.” 

Although I suspect, of course (and I should hope not), that this isn’t the end of my journey. In fact, this could be instead the ultimate dismantling of “Follow your passion” – the pathway isn’t a passionate undertaking, or some kind of boring wage-slavery, but actually a kind of transient stroll along a steadily more gentle series of undulations, passing occasionally between patches of darkness and light, and cooling shade… as befits a journey and not some costly (and largely illusory) destination.

Written by tomtomrant

29 March 2022 at 5:34 pm

The Arts and Humanities have only social utility – so theoretical study of them is not the way to a career

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I’ve been studying the Arts and Humanities for years and a recent struggle to get my skills and qualifications recognised in order to get a job has led me to realise that studying these fields is a waste of time, and has been for centuries. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Arts and Humanities are some of humankind’s most enjoyable preoccupations, and they have some social significance throughout the world, but the value of these disciplines is mostly just as a refined form of fun, equivalent to a Friday night out with friends – that also happens to be particularly expensive, time-consuming, dubious, and mentally taxing. There are much easier and more pleasurable ways to have a good time and this simply isn’t a sound basis on which to build a career. Prospective Arts students and university theorists need to realise that becoming a skilled artist has a little to do with practice, nothing to do with protracted study of theory, and much to do with being popular.   

Popularity is the be all and end all of art because art has no objective standards or goals beyond pleasing an audience. When, as an engineer or tradesperson or business owner, I manufacture a toaster, I have objective standards and a clear goal – the product is designed to toast bread; there are electrical, construction, and safety standards which determine its assembly, and the connection between these and consumer desires is largely straightforward and concrete. Extended studies in Maths, Science, Engineering, trades and the like produce substantial material results in the world; you can use them to build a house, construct a power plant, or run a business – and get paid to do so. Conversely, the goal of art is usually touted as something abstract and high-minded – ‘to illuminate the human condition’ – but even if we see the goal of art as more modest, such as ‘to entertain and delight’, we run into problems. No one can exactly define what ‘illuminating the human condition’ might entail exactly, but even if art appears ‘to communicate insightful information about the world or society’, it generally corrupts the facts in the interest of making the artwork more engaging, meaningful and popular. (Facts and data are the solid basis of genuine education or social change, not fictional characters and hypothetical artistic constructs.) Yet even ‘providing entertainment’ is disconcertingly subjective, depending on the capricious tastes of the audience somehow aligning with the effects created by the artist. To suggest, as artists and educators do, that artistic effects can be constructed to meet an abstracted goal of ‘insight’ or ‘entertainment’, or that there are some ‘aesthetic standards’ which must be met to call an artwork ‘accomplished’, makes no sense because such goals and standards cannot be reliably measured. Art ‘theory’ disguises the fact that ‘artistic success’, without an audience, is a directionless quest. 

This lack of a clear goal or objective aesthetic standards means that artworks have no clear construction principles, so there isn’t anything meaningful to study in Art schools – except how to become popular with a certain audience the academy deems sufficiently ‘refined’. (Art colleges don’t train potential artists, but select their favourite prospects in another example of pure populism – what other objective criteria exist for selection?) A key characteristic of artworks is that they are all formed of myriad elements which uniquely combine to create something like unique effects – no two instances of a given ‘technique’ have the exact same effect in the context of different artworks. Practicing ‘technique’ in isolation is therefore less like practicing hoops in preparation for a basketball game and more like buying lottery tickets to ‘practice’ winning the jackpot. Furthermore, an unpopular but supposedly ‘technically accomplished’ artwork cannot be convincingly defended in such a way as to render it financially successful. Because what other purpose can the ‘technique’ have except to make the artwork more meaningful for viewers and what other measure of meaningful can a successful artwork have besides popularity?

Why all successful art is basically populist

So how do you become a successful artist? There is only one answer. You pander to an audience – of viewers, or of investors. Now I’m not suggesting that artworks that are more popular than others are necessarily ‘better’ (although financially they usually are). An artist doesn’t need to produce the most extreme blockbuster highest-grossing success to have approbation and a career. But to succeed on any level above that of the hobbyist, the artist needs to appeal to a group. This target group can be the lowest common denominator, or it can be fans of a particular genre or of a particular class or political persuasion, or even the group that thinks itself ‘alternative’ or ‘niche’ (a group whose members are of course more homogenous than they like to think). The group can even be teachers of the artform or traditionalists, supposed guardians of the artform’s ‘conventions’ – if there are enough of them to financially support the artist, that is. But the successful artist must appeal narrowly and specifically to some group. All arts are basically popularity contests for larger or smaller groups in society. And this gives the lie to the common claim that the arts are fundamentally about ‘individual expression’, at least, successful artists are not or are only coincidentally individualistic in any way. 

This is because appealing to a group always involves conforming to their expectations. This means all bankable ideas need to be already popular in some way, or, even easier, simply somehow attached to the already popular ideas. Put a famous or topical person, place, issue, event or idea in your artwork somewhere and garner your audience from this (political statements or brand references are particularly effective here). In fact, a measure of popularity can be gained through linking your artwork to more practical and substantial non-artistic products and services. Print your artwork onto a T-shirt or coffee mug or toaster, or, even better, make your artwork expository – perform a public service and explain key practical, or scientific concepts in your artwork, or simply turn it into a ‘how to’ video and get those Youtube search hits. By doing this, you can more coherently prove the worth of your art by pointing to this aspect of concrete practical utility: e.g. ‘It educates’.

The drive toward popularity and conformity of course also has certain unfortunate moral and political side effects. Unpopular or disturbing truths, or highly complex ideas don’t properly belong in successful art. Clever artists can sometimes get by by hiding these difficult concepts inside their otherwise very populist works but there tends to be trade-offs involved, such as stereotyping or sentimentality, and generally if the majority audience get even a whiff of the most uncomfortable of ideas, the results can be dire for the success of the enterprise. The alternative is to try to engage smaller more niche audiences by exposing the disturbing truths of the majority, while avoiding the thoughts that would trouble your niche group themselves. There are ways around this, but challenging your audience is a difficult process, and successful art, by its collective, populist nature, must be either mild and inoffensive, or more or less tacitly fascist, or both. The successful artist must find collective appeal through conformity largely through not challenging the audience, or through challenging it only to the extent that it savours such challenge. All of this suggests the extreme hazard of novelty.

Originality in art can only occur in very narrow parameters. Either the audience has to be the sort that savours the unexpected (not a large audience), or originality needs to be extremely mild, like changing the décor in the living room – in which case it is actually a form of entertaining change and movement, rather than any true originality. Extreme originality makes viewers uncomfortable and the artist unpopular. You might be someone who feels that originality is vital for your art. If so, then look forward to either lack of success or years of protracted funding applications – your career may as well be in producing or investment rather than in the Arts since more of your time will be spent in business meetings rather than making art. Few benefactors or corporations will fund an artwork which has no distinct marketing strategy or readily apparent audience. What else could limited and risky Arts funding be based on? Certainly not ‘technique’ or university qualifications since every artist can profess the same art ‘theory’ and study references. The artist that wins the funding grant must stand out from the crowd, but not with that dangerous ‘originality’ – with charm and ‘connections’ and popularity of course. 

Am I suggesting that a lot of art is merely marketing? Yes and not just in the most cynical of cases. The successful artist doesn’t need to agree with her audience, clearly does not need to feel the effects of the artwork herself, and can simply work to manipulate her audience to make money. This is where audience profiling, test screenings and polling come into play. Art and advertising as not fundamentally different – although marketing techniques tend to be far more effective and bankable that supposedly ‘artistic’ ones. Alternatively, the artist can be more genuine and create artworks more organically by becoming one of the ‘in-group’ herself, through forming social bonds, attending fashionable parties, coming to hold the same views as her audience, then creating from her own blinkered ‘self-expression’. But this apparent difference between the cynical and more genuine artist is purely academic anyway as there is no objective measure again, and popularity can attach itself to either. 

So you don’t need to undergo any kind of anguished distinctly artistic process for your art and, beyond a very minimal level of basic competence, it is actually quite cruel and naïve for Arts educators to waste students’ time in teaching them ‘theory’ when they should instead be encouraging them to be popular by any means. Career artists need to learn to be the life of the party, to booze and schmooze, to keep their fingers on the pulse of what is hip and trending, to be charming and attractive, and uber-social (or, at least, to keep their personal benefactors forever happy with obsequious kow-towing). The life of the introverted artist is particularly difficult (even impossible) as she needs to be frequently ‘noticed’ and ‘discovered’ by adoring fans and benefactors seemingly by chance – if she isn’t somehow forced by circumstance into the limelight then her art needs to be particularly stupendously populist in nature to find an audience.

There are only 2 reasons to enjoy art

Now let’s consider art from the perspective of the viewer rather than the artist. What are we doing when we are inspired by and become enthusiasts of art? All kinds of complex and high-brow theories come to mind. We can enjoy art as a kind of self-reflection into understanding the world or society, or maybe as a kind of profound aesthetic ‘experience’ – a source of emotional thrills or comfort, even a kind of psychological therapy. There is of course nothing wrong with approaching art in this way, if you would like to. However, these supposed effects or uses of art are at best purely subjective and personal, and sadly confusing and deceptive when considered from the perspective of the art theorist, or for any kind of practical utility. Firstly, as I suggested earlier, knowledge content in art isn’t very reliable – art does not convey facts or data very accurately. You would be better to study Psychology, Sociology, or the Sciences to understand key knowledge about the world and society. Art provides a kind of pop psychology and implicit knowledge content: you shouldn’t diagnose your mental health issues on the basis of a movie, nor can you support your job application on the basis of knowledge obtained from reading a poem. As for the aesthetic ‘experience’, this is a more or less entirely personal affair taking place inside your own body. This artistic effect has about as much utility as the nice sensation you get from eating ice cream. The emotional effect of art is often ineffable (not expressible in words) which makes studying this aspect illusory, discussing it with others extremely difficult, and somehow using this to become an artist yourself tremendously obscure. As a kind of emotional therapy it is not greatly productive or reliable either – you’d best actually visit your mental health professional.

In reality, we enjoy art for only 2 reasons: because it has social utility and because it pleases us. Social utility is related to the popularity of the artwork. We consume art because it allows us to form social bonds with others. We can talk about artworks with others, drawing all kinds of conclusions about the artist’s intention, the decisions of characters, the nature of the experience or the merit of ideas expressed in the work, and about the personalities of our friends with whom we are discussing the artwork, or of our social selves through reflecting on our own reactions. Yes, the knowledge content of artwork is dubious, but social bonds are highly important for human beings, and the very act of communicating these questionable ideas with others is valuable – this is what I mean by social utility. People bond over the artforms they love, or at least, over cultural (not factual) understandings garnered from them. 

Social utility also suggests that art is a lot like fashion – the artworks you like indicate something about how you want to be perceived by others or about your personality. Purchasing a particular artwork reflects the purchaser’s likes and dislikes (their personality), confirms their worldview, and displays their membership of social tribes to others. Art is discussed between individuals in all kinds of highly complex contexts: at parties, in debates and forums, in intellectual papers at universities. People read about the life of the artist, the process of creation, the different philosophic theories referenced or genre conventions employed, theories of perspective, history and culture reflected therein. Yet aside from possibly entertaining and amusing an audience, and maybe practicing some writing or public speaking skills, the upshot of all this theory and discussion is measured only in social utility. Did your theoretical discussion make you more popular, solidify social bonds or win you social connections? No? Then what was all this about? – as the discussion itself, all the ‘theory’, ‘argument’, ‘ideas’ and ‘discoveries’ made, has no other practical utility. Political, social, moral theories, at least those formed on the basis of art, are in truth nothing more than a kind of fashionable statement you are making about your personality. You’re the kind of person who believes in this idea, or stands for this principle. (Again, if you actually want these ideas to influence political policy, you should turn to facts and data not artworks to substantiate them.) The irony of all this is of course that heated theoretical discussions about art tend to repel not attract others – thus underlining the extreme pointlessness of complex aesthetic discourse. Since the basic popularity of an artwork is not under discussion (and the artwork is not currently under construction anyway), all the theories and criticisms and comparisons have no practical utility at all – besides impressing others.

The other reason we enjoy art is that it is satisfying because it passes the time enjoyably. Basically, art is entertaining. This seems a little disappointing as art feels as if it is more significant than this, but I can’t find any pragmatic substantive evidence to the contrary. It occupies our time by engaging us (assuming we fit into its target audience) and, after we have consumed it, any change that it has wrought is purely emotional or theoretic – or it has social utility (see above). In fact, art discussions that cause social fractures (so seem to have negative social utility) actually demonstrate the pure subjective pleasure of puzzling out the theoretical conundrums that art raises – practically and philosophically, it is a highly complex equivalent to solving a Sudoku for your own amusement.

Furthermore, unless we involve social utility (or popularity) in our assessment, there isn’t actually any way to meaningfully quantify the amount of pleasure a particular artwork provides. There is no objective measure of satisfaction plus technically an artwork is experienced differently every time you view it. This means that watching reality television or a dumb action flick is just as aesthetically ‘nourishing’ as reading poetry or watching Shakespeare. Whatever supposed ‘profundity’ these more high-brow artworks bestow isn’t contained within the artwork itself but in its social utility (the social-cultural associations that obtain – if your audience is attuned to these). Moreover, a ranking of ‘the greatest artworks’ reflects the interests of the people making the ranking and not anything supposedly objective about the artworks themselves. You can try to analyse ‘the good parts’ of an artwork but you’ll only be describing effects or techniques which happen to resonate with you or with you and those like you. So if you think a great movie really works because of brilliant art direction, and another one sucks and was only popular because the main actor was sexy, this only indicates that you are the kind of audience member who values art direction over actor sex appeal – a statement that is either amusing or of some social utility or merely just a useless thought you had one day. All these judgements are themselves irrelevant to the art of filmmaking, because success is measured by popularity of any ilk.

What about the Humanities?

A career in the Humanities is similarly dependent on social utility and popularity. The study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world (Science) is likely to have tangible practical objective utility, while the study of human society and culture (the Humanities) is not. Why would someone pay you to do this? What are they buying? The only worth would be social utility – a kind of ‘method of being fashionable or facilitating communication in different social or cultural contexts’. Consider: The law is a fictional construct devised to keep society (human interactions) in order and lawyers are only paid to know the social utility of legal processes and disputes. Politicians are obviously social performers, but political theory is nothing but largely unsubstantiated ideas which can be put to some social utility (often, sadly, unreliably or disastrously). History, as a discipline, may gesture toward objectivity in the analysis of sources, but needs to inform social interactions in the present to be useful (which it scarcely does). Abstract philosophy rarely is anything more than an amusing form of social interplay (at least, without empirical support and incorporation into the Sciences). 

A career in any of these fields has the same risks and shortcomings of the artist – university study is unproductive as the supposed ‘theory’ has no objective purpose besides the enjoyment or social utility it might bring to you. Humanities theorists are likely to live a drastically precarious and unstable existence, unless they are able to monetise their social utility or popularity, unless they can ‘put on a good show’, and even then, as with the artist, their standing is precarious and largely comprised of maintaining social approval. Careers in the Humanities are built on popularity alone – with funding bodies or a paying audience of some kind, or, on exceedingly rare occasions, by slightly working with administrators to attempt to resolve current society-wide social conflicts (many of them irresolvable). Again, attending those fashionable parties is more important than studying theory as social utility is all you have to stand on. 

Conclusion

To sum up, if you want to build a career in the Arts or Humanities, you need to focus on learning how to find and be popular with audiences. If you like to deconstruct and analyse artworks, the only reason to do this is (a) because it’s fun, and (b) because it has social utility, i.e. it will be useful for interacting with others – the analysis will allow you to get good grades on an essay, or impress people at a party, or to forge social bonds. Again, it is possible to study Science or a trade on your own, without any necessary social utility. This is because you can experiment and discover laws, form theories, or hone a practical skill in aid of a concrete purpose (building a chair, cutting a key, designing a pump). However, if you study art on your own, alone, without human interaction (perhaps in some anonymous institution even), and you don’t use your studies to forge social bonds (or your interminable research isolation or iconoclastic interpretations actually repel others), then you need to know that you are only doing this to amuse yourself (or to win a place in an increasingly irrelevant and precarious department of some university). You aren’t doing anything more significant than this. I hope these perhaps somewhat harsh realities provide you with some focus and security in your future hobbies, careers, or other Arts or Humanites-related endeavours. 


Postscript: ramifications – further conclusions and objections

Art as instrument for social change?

Art isn’t actually a particularly effective way to go about educating or persuading people. Leaving aside the fact that good intentions do not necessarily make an artwork popular and successful, the educational value or the social-political message is often dumbed down and perverted by the process of incorporating it into an artwork – because art is a pleasurable illusion, not a facsimile of reality. “Based on a true story” is only “based” on reality. The world of the story in a play or film or novel isn’t the real world, and the characters that populate it are aesthetic creations of the artist only. In fact, the knowledge and social critique presented in these kinds of artworks are frequently overexaggerated and inaccurate, since the basis of engagement is with content that is easy to convey dramatically, rather than with more reliable evidence such as statistics, facts, and data. The audience is gaining only a general feeling of substance, a simplified impression of reality, and, most disturbing of all, only the semblance of knowledge or compassion for the fictionalised characters and their plight. This warm knowledgeable or socially-progressive feeling is itself only another one of the commodities offered to make an artwork more bankable and popular with its audience – this feeling is actually quite well-liked, particularly with audiences that already agree with the message itself. This conception of art, apparently conveying a social message, is just one narrow and not necessarily particularly effective way (depending on your audience) to make your artwork popular. It’s also pretty similar to advertising and propaganda. 

Art as gift to posterity?

There seems to be great artists of the past that succeed through their artistic skills alone – people like Da Vinci, Bach or Shakespeare. It is important to realise that popularity and social utility is still the only measure of their success – initially, in their own times, but also subsequently. Shakespeare was popular in his own day which is one of the reasons why his plays have been preserved. Bach, who wrote in a style going out of fashion in his own day, was not so fortunate, and many of his pieces were lost for a century or so. However, we need to remember that no matter how impressive their works seem to us today, their enduring popularity is largely a result of historical accident. These great artists are known today because there was something about their works that still makes them popular. I say this was an accident as the direction of fashions and trends across time isn’t reliably predictable and if history had taken a different course, we might have rediscovered different artists from the past. There are also artists who are highly respected today but their works are rarely seen. These artists could still be considered popular, I suppose, although perhaps for more historical than artistic reasons. 

However, you do have to wonder about what the point of popularity is – when you’re dead. Shakespeare, being popular in his own day, could make his living from his artwork. This was not so for Bach or even the creators of those modern movies which flop at the box-office but find a following decades later. This reveals the extreme pointlessness of trying to create artworks ‘for posterity’. The struggling artist may reason, “Well my work isn’t popular today, but in a hundred years it’ll be rediscovered and proclaimed a masterpiece.” How can this artist predict the direction of future popularity? (Maybe we will live in a future police state and the only cherished art will be Nazi art.) How would the artist know the objective features of a ‘masterpiece’ anyway? Since the artist doesn’t have a viable audience today, she must be using some other measure than popularity to judge – this measure, if it isn’t just hubris, is probably that meaningless ‘technique’ or ‘theory’ again. Considering that ‘art theory’ suggests that the artist must suffer for their art, it seems to me a very poor deal indeed: the ‘great’ artist suffers, alone and misunderstood, creating her artworks, dies impoverished, then achieves fame and recognition in some future time due to chance re-emergence and overdue recognition. This story is either a total worthless fiction, an unlikely reality that is still worthless (as the artist is dead anyway) or this artist actually is producing great artworks that would be popular today too – if she learned some basic PR instead of languishing in the meaningless mire of ‘technique’ and ‘theory’. 

Art as a communication tool?

While the idea of art as itself educational is problematic, maybe there is something to be said for the idea of using art within the context of education or communication itself. This is the conception of art as a tool that can be used to communicate in a non-arts context. Scientists, for example, often face difficulties explaining scientific theory clearly to the public, or even to their students. Such communication is obviously important to bring about political and practical change as needed, or to raise a new generation of scientists – which is why many Arts graduates end up with some form of paid work in Communications. Arts methods can help with improving communication, but this is generally not why people study the Arts because, firstly, the kind of Arts knowledge or skill needed to communicate ideas doesn’t require years of study – in fact, most scientists can master the basics themselves. This explains why Arts or Communication degrees aren’t generally very sought after by employers – most people have or can learn the basic communication skills easily without schooling. Furthermore, there is little evidence of this goal among artists, or teachers of the Arts. Art theory rarely focuses on methods for clear communication, and I sure can recall Arts lecturers who didn’t seem to possess clear communication skills themselves… 

Communication seems to be not so much the goal of the Arts, but an interesting additional use to which apparently artistic elements can be put – like using chalk not to create pavement art but to write on a blackboard when teaching a class. There is a certain artfulness involved in constructing an essay, writing a letter or scientific paper, but we don’t see these are artistic activities per se. Furthermore, how can we judge the quality of the art techniques used to communicate the educational material? Again, we judge them by their clarity and engagement, which is basically by their popularity again. The information communicated may be accurate or inaccurate, pleasing or uninteresting in itself, but the arts techniques used to communicate can only be judged on the degree to which an audience finds them engaging (and not by some specifically aesthetic set of ‘communication standards’ of their own). This is why salespeople earn commission not by their abstract ‘performance’ but by the number of sales they make. 

And this is why, in the absence of reliable popularity measures, teachers are generally underpaid and undervalued. The work of transforming knowledge and skills into engaging lessons is a complex communication skill, but, like with the non-commercial artist, gauging a teacher’s worth is exceedingly difficult. This is because a teacher could be popular for the wrong reasons – for allowing students to shirk their schoolwork or by distorting the content entertainingly or, more commonly, for extraneous popularity – with parents or other teaching staff. Students are forced to come to class so attendance or the purchase of a ticket isn’t an effective measure of a teacher’s success. Student grades are problematic as a measure because students themselves are seen as largely responsible for their own success or failure in their learning. Word of mouth – students reporting that a teacher is clear and engaging – is generally not trusted as students themselves are considered too immature to judge, or, even if they did enjoy a teacher’s lessons, singing a teacher’s praises is often considered socially uncool by other students. And, needless to say, assessment of teachers by government inspectors is problematic (even if the teachers’ union allows it) as what makes good teaching is just as contentious as what makes good art. All in all, regarding the Arts as Communications medium, make your Arts degree more practical by studying Communications or Marketing instead. 

Consequences for Arts education

Most of the implications of this essay about the worthlessness of aesthetic theory fall heavily on educational institutions, which are, beyond the infant and early childhood years, by their nature largely theoretical. Education is designed to prepare the student for a task which that student is deemed not yet ready for. Consequently, much of education is theoretical knowledge, and hypothetical skill. This poses a significant problem in just about every discipline. But in the Arts and Humanities, in the abstract forms presented at school, all knowledge and theory is largely worthless. Unlike in Maths and Science, where high school Algebra or Chemistry knowledge can be built upon at university to produce a bankable skill, if the student wants to go on to a career in the Arts, since theoretical study has only a tenuous connection to popularity, social utility or fun, everything learned is entirely impractical. The ephemeral nature of Art is such that the knowledge content actually doesn’t build sequentially over time. Add to this, practicing skill is challenging even in Maths and Science. But the Arts and Humanities pose a particularly drastic leap between the classroom and career as the vital element of social utility and popularity is near impossible to simulate – consider the tedium and the forced audience enthusiasm of parents at that interminable school play or concert. 

However, we can improve the teaching of the Arts and Humanities by heeding the conclusions of this essay. Firstly, stop pretending these subjects are serious professional disciplines. This sounds harsh but most adults who are interested in the Arts and Humanities are not professionally employed in them, at least, not in the academic side of them emphasised at school. (Since the main value of the Arts and Humanities is social utility, this means that these subjects are actually modern updated equivalents of old-fashion etiquette, elocution, comportment, nationalistic and morality classes.) Teach these subjects as hobbies and fun activities first. The teachers of these subjects should be somewhat like entertainers themselves, presenting and performing rather than leading classwork within these fields. You might even blur together the Humanities and the Arts (including Literature, which, beyond early literacy instruction, is little more than continued reading and writing practice) and use material from all different branches on the basis of interest rather than abstract curriculum. Furthermore, most careers in the Arts and Humanities actually fuse these disciplines with more practical Science and Business applications so you could present films or other artworks on topics from other disciplines. Avoid assessing students, at least, on the knowledge and theory – this is a mostly impractical body of knowledge for everyone, which turns off students and deceives them about what these disciplines actually exist for.

Secondly, have students practice skill by creating artworks for each other, of for a variety of very specific audiences, and finding ways of seeking genuine feedback from these audiences rather than a teacher. Don’t use teacher-written rubrics or measures. Try to avoid social bias by having students perform to different classes or schools maybe (we don’t often know the artist personally in real-life). Or put on performances outside class time so students learn how to attract not just perform for an audience. Think widely in terms of performance type – plays, films, books, comics, speeches, Youtube videos, visual art, poems, and multi-modal forms. And the presentation of Humanities work should be treated like an Arts performance too – with focus on social engagement over all else. Thirdly, get students to draw links between their personalities and the Arts and Humanities. Which artworks or historical periods or political theories do they like more and how does this reflect their personalities? What does this suggest about interactions with others who focus on other (or similar) artworks or Humanities-based ideas? You might combine this with Health and Wellbeing classes and actually teach some social skills too. 

Of course, all of this is ruined by our universities and their government-mandated entrance rankings which generally consist of impractical intellectual written analysis – these need to change. The general focus on written analysis in the Arts, Humanities and particularly English Literature shifts the focus from the real aims of these disciplines (social utility) onto elitist and arcane academic theory (written for a small and insignificant sub-set of possible real audiences, generally the least commercially viable!). The focus on analysing authorial viewpoints and the prospective thematic content of artworks, scenarios, or sources in supposedly objective-sounding formal prose is an example not of meaningful social utility, or enjoyment (particularly unlikely), but amateur Sociology, that is, students are trained to interpret supposedly objective social messaging and political issues within texts by teachers not trained in Sociology, and without the presence anywhere of concrete statistical data or external evidence to support such claims. The Arts and Humanities has much much more to say than these narrow ivory-tower inaccessible pastimes. If students need to have assessment focussed on literacy alone – aka. writing essays above any other form of assessment – students should at least be able to write more broadly, addressing other forms of social utility, such as interpreting texts from perspectives of different audiences, or justifying personal opinions of texts using data or broader referents. To be authentic, students should focus on why artworks are popular or interesting, not just on what social-political messages they supposedly ‘encode’. A focus on interpreting texts in terms of Communications or Marketing would also be more meaningful. 

Auditions or interviews seem more reasonable measures for university entry to Arts and Humanities courses – if these courses are to be quite as popular as the generic Arts degree is to be today, which I doubt. I see university study of the Arts and Humanities, at least at an undergraduate level, as being far more practical, like the practical component of current Fine Arts courses, with possible exceptions for Humanities careers in which concrete knowledge is practically required, such as for lawyers. Students can specialise later in their degree or at the post-graduate level if they want to take the rare academic route into research. University Arts graduates are far more likely to find a job and be valued in society if they have greater abilities at communication and social utility (social skills and being popular) beyond just researching and writing theoretical essays. 

Advice for Arts and Humanities students

The above essay suggests that Arts and Humanities students need to get out more. Get your work to a real audience whether this is online or in person. Seek audience response and feedback which is genuine, not polite (or overly harsh or theoretical), and which is not biased by other factors. If success evades you, adjust the artwork or adjust the audience. Do some market research (again investigate Communications and Marketing in more detail). Find like-minded people, friends, potential audiences, and investors. Consider what they want and how you can meet those needs. Remember that the only point of analysing artworks is to discuss them with others – to form social bonds, or to unpick together why the work is popular. Art analysis without an audience is as meaningless as artwork without one. If this social conception of art is repellent to you, i.e. makes you feel as if your expression is being hampered by too much pandering to the market, that your artwork is being distorted to such an extent that you feel like you are merely selling a product instead of being an artist, then I would suggest that this is not a career for you. There is nothing wrong with Art as a hobby, but remember that the only point of a hobby, if you are going to be antisocial about it, is to have fun. The kind of enjoyment you get from such a hobby isn’t objectively any better than any other kind of amusing pastime though. (You might see it as a kind of therapy too, but again, no more than occasionally relaxing with a glass of wine on the couch might be too.) And if you take your artwork so seriously that it is no longer fun then stop doing it. There isn’t some future use you can put those skills toward besides social utility or enjoyment. 

Postscript for those who still make a distinction between ‘art’ and ‘popularity’: the business prospects

Even though I have spent much of this essay pointing out that there is no substantive or meaningful difference between the more ‘art technique’ and the more ‘commercial asset’ parts of a given artwork, I know there may be readers who can theoretically see the difference between, say, an actor’s performance (considered an art), and the work of the advertising firm who makes the movie posters to publicise the film (considered merely marketing). In terms of financial success and popularity, there is no difference between these two types of work on a production, and assessment of their relative merits is purely theoretical, but if we hypothetically take the position that by ‘art’ we refer to the former type and not the latter, the following is an attempt to ‘monetise’ this aspect and point out that, even if such a distinction could meaningfully be made (and I insist that it can’t), then the career prospects of the artist still don’t improve, and only get worse. 

The nature of the ‘art’ element on its own is firstly excessively complicated and subtle. This is because all artforms are like a multifaceted lattice of interconnecting strands such that no one strand can be said to have a clear function. This seems counterintuitive because surely, for example, the function of tragic music is to induce tears, costume design may signal the time period, etc. However, these effects depend entirely on their context and have no meaning on their own – music is only tragic in a pitiful context, the time period is not apparent from the appearance of a deer-stalker hat alone. To put this in more real-world terms, the composer and the costume designer can all do an apparently competent job, but be let down by (mediocrity of or) lack of accord with other artists on the production. Tragic music on a ludicrously poorly acted scene will not achieve its intended effect. Even the solo poet can destroy his or her great opening line by a poorly chosen word or phrase in the second. 

If this weren’t tenuous enough, particular ‘artistic’ elements can have multiple purposes – the music can be tragic and poignant and brooding and reference the villain’s theme; the costume design can evoke period andcharacter and setting and mood and be basically practical all in the same moment. If any of these myriad individual meanings clash internally (e.g. a ‘historical’ hat which the character would never be wearing indoors), the artwork can be compromised. But this becomes extremely difficult when you consider that any of the individual effects for particular artistic elements can also clash with individual effects for other artistic elements (e.g. music that is appropriately tragic from one character’s perspective, but sounds incongruous with another character’s monologue in the same scene; the classic problem of an early scene which fails to set up or properly convey a key effect or detail for a later one). And this is without considering more complex symbolic and social-political meanings that might interlink elements and the fact that particular effects don’t have one-to-one correspondences but are graded – a bit too much subtly and an effect isn’t apparent; a bit too heavy-handed and an effect is too obvious and simplistic. 

All of this complexity explains why artistic success cannot be taught, because no abstract artistic techniques reliably have the same effect. This makes sense not just because artistic techniques evolve, eventually becoming stereotyped formulas, but actually no two instances of a given technique have the exact same effect in context. Now you might argue that the legs of a chair depend on its joints to form part of the chair, but the overall clear purpose and goal of a chair makes it clear what the purpose of the legs is and the coordination of all of its other parts and their construction is therefore straightforward. Meanwhile, the artist basically weaves together her elements more or less blindly, according to whim and some kind of vague optimism or artistic ‘intuition’ of what an audience might like or what part of the ‘human condition’ she is ‘illuminating’ at any given moment.

Now add to this the prospect of commercial success. Never mind artistic merit on its own terms, consider the true measure of artistic success – popularity. What contribution does that singular costume designer and her selection of a deer-stalker hat for the character to wear in scene 38 make to the financial success of the production? What contribution does the singular poet make in her composition of one stanza of one poem published in a larger collection of works? Considered on its own, within the context of the artwork, the artist’s particular addition contributes an effect which is diverse (in that it can have multiple meanings), contingent (in that it needs the contribution of other elements and/or other artists to realise much of its effect), enigmatic (in that subtleties require interpretation) and, taken altogether, obscure (due to the diversity, contingency and enigmatic properties just mentioned). Add to this the considerable time and effort usually required to make such complex artistic decisions too. It is clear that, taken into full consideration, this singular contribution appears pitifully small and insubstantial, and this is without considering the other forces needed to bring this artwork to an audience. 

To be financially successful, the artwork then needs the contribution of supposed ‘non-artists’, all of whom can demand a more substantial fee principally on the basis of their far more obvious practical utility functions – the investors, producers, publishers, manufacturers, lawyers, accountants, publicists, presenters, and exhibitors. Which of these is most instrumental in popular success? You might defend the artist by pointing out that without the artist, there would be no artwork to invest in, publish, market or exhibit. But this argument works the other way around too – without the investors, publishers, marketing executives, or exhibitors, the artwork would never have reached an audience to make it successful. Who wins the argument? The ones who can more coherently prove their worth by pointing to their concrete contributions – and, unless they have negotiated some kind of highly contentious and difficult contractual agreement guaranteeing significant remuneration, it’s not the artists who generally win this argument, as their work is really ‘pure illusion’. 

I am not intending here to discourage everyone from pursuing the Arts, but to put the ‘theory’ and ‘technique’ taught at Art colleges into meaningful perspective – it is really not important in the grand scheme of things. The career artist would better cultivate her art by focussing on pleasing an audience in the way which demand dictates, or by cultivating beneficial social connections.

Written by tomtomrant

11 March 2022 at 1:14 pm

Stop using ‘Jojo Rabbit’ (2019) in History classes

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As a History teacher, I’m always looking to use an engaging movie in class, particularly to round off the school year. However, I don’t believe in just playing movies for the sake of it – students should at least see something they wouldn’t otherwise encounter, and hopefully the film should tie into the curriculum content we have been studying in class. The challenge in the final weeks of school before Christmas is that you want to keep it light and fun, as well as relevant to their learning – which becomes difficult when the unit is about the Holocaust.

Jojo Rabbit is a 2019 comedy directed by Taika Waititi about Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany in which the 10-year-old protagonist (Jojo), who has an imaginary-friend version of Hitler, discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. Typical of this director, the tone is very light and silly, with Nazi Youth leaders performed in a comically slapdash and satirical manner by Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. My year 10 students loved it, half of them having seen the film already. The movie is certainly easy to find amusing with lots of people dressed as Nazis saying “Heil Hitler” in silly ways with amusing fake German accents, and sardonic directions to the children like “No stabbing!” and “Let’s blow things up!” There are some pretty funny one-liners, plus there is a sense of watching something naughty and risqué since children are often taught not to make jokes about Nazis or Hitler and the film jokingly juxtaposes Nazi propaganda with the excitement of a child’s school adventure camp.

The film has garnered some criticism for its comedic approach to the subject matter, as you would expect, because satirising the Nazis can be interpreted as making light of their crimes. I certainly don’t think the filmmakers intended to make light of the Nazis – the film ensures the human suffering wrought by the Nazis and their dehumanisation of the Jews is conveyed through the death of Jojo’s mother, and Jojo’s eventual friendship with Elsa, the Jewish girl hidden in the attic. However, whether intended or not, I think the film does inadvertently make light of Nazism, and in its attempts to keep its tone light and amusing, it distorts the historical reality. (Unfortunately, the controversial subject matter of the movie is used as an excuse by the film’s defenders – ironically, the audience is blamed for being unable to appreciate a well-meaning satire about Nazis when it is actually the filmmakers who have failed to present that satire effectively.[1])

The jolly street scenes of Nazi Germany in Jojo Rabbit

Leaving aside criticism of the film from the perspective of a general filmgoer, for educating History students it has some significant problems. The narrative is fictional of course, but the historical backdrop to the story was of course a historical reality – and the film fails to present this accurately. The central narrative is essentially from an excitable 10-year-old boy’s perspective; this explains the bright colour pallet, the cheerful idealisation of Nazi paraphernalia, the exaggerated portrayal of Jews as ridiculous demonic super-villains, and of course the jolly ‘imaginary-friend’ version of Hitler – all well and good. However, the encroaching ‘real world’ outside Jojo’s perspective is also unrealistically sunshine and lollypops too: the fictional German city of Falkenheim is clean, bright and intact, with barely a trace of Allied bombing raids, Nazi repression, or war rationing. Jojo and his mother go for pleasant bike rides in the park, and to the shops. The only sign of Nazi atrocities are some bloodless corpses hanging in the town square; the suffering of the war is represented by just one car-load of war wounded driving past. The argument that the film presents a 10-year-old boy’s happy perspective wears thin when almost nothing seems to encroach upon his merriment – even the death of his mother causes him one tearful half-scene of weeping over her shoes, before the extreme suffering involved in surviving in a war zone, during World War 2, without a parental figure fails to materialise in the film’s world.

And the problem isn’t just these superficial elements of setting and background action – Jojo’s perspective is actually too sweet and unrealistic too. Being a Nazi doesn’t just involve a substitution of pictures of Hitler rather than, say, Justin Bieber or Spiderman, on your bedroom wall. It doesn’t just involve swapping out the big bad wolf for the Jews. The ideology is about extremist racial purity, nationalist loyalty, hyper-masculinity, and xenophobia. Nazi intolerance, arrogance and coercive violence mysteriously doesn’t feature in Jojo’s beliefs, nor those of his friends, nor even his Hitler Youth instructors. Even the Gestapo officers who raid Jojo’s house are unrealistically relaxed and sardonic. It is understandable that Jojo himself would colour his experiences with naïve youthful joy, but wouldn’t he occasionally be scared by the vehemence and violence of his Nazi leaders? I mean, really scared, not just a little reluctant to take part in war games or hazardous sports. Jojo has been either somehow protected from the extremes of Nazism – which seems unrealistic (the Nazis are not known for their subtlety) – or he has been not just enticed by, but crushed, violated, and brainwashed by the ideology – which the film fails to convey. (Either that or the filmmakers actually don’t understand Nazism and have inadvertently created a film that suggests it wasn’t that bad.)

Usually a film is helpful in History classes primarily because it is a more emotive and empathetic vehicle for exploring History. We can read facts, evidence and sources about History, but a film tends to be most useful for recreating the look and feel of a time and place, collecting together all the myriad political, economic and cultural aspects to produce a stronger sense of emotional reality, especially in regards to the experience of cruelty and suffering. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, this film evokes a highly inaccurate impression of the historical reality of Nazi Germany. The film’s strengths are in portraying some selective elements of Nazi ideology such as hero worship of Hitler and vilification of the Jews but even these elements are superficial (and pretty much entirely conveyed in the first 10 minutes). The film does not portray how Jojo comes to believe in Hitler or how his anti-Semitic views developed. More worryingly, it doesn’t present the consequences of these poisonous beliefs very clearly either. The lies and deception involved in Nazi ideology is portrayed almost entirely through simply making the Nazi leaders and Hitler Youth look foolish while they say simplistically exaggerated anti-Semitic slurs. Leaving aside the offense these scenes can cause, this is not very historically informative – I could cover this much more meaningfully in 10 minutes of standard teaching time.

This leaves us with basically no reason to show this film to students – besides offering amusing distraction in a form which pretends to be informed by History. If you absolutely must present a Holocaust-themed comedy to History students, a better alternative would be the similarly controversial film Life Is Beautiful from 1997. This charts the experiences of a fictional Italian family who end up in a concentration camp, and the tone throughout is similarly light and amusing. The key difference here is that, while the film is told mostly from a child’s point of view and contains no graphic violence, much like Jojo Rabbit, the horrors of fascism and the Holocaust exist just offscreen and are portrayed as appropriately cruel and merciless. The humour in Life Is Beautiful comes entirely from the ostensibly Jewish family itself, principally from Roberto Benigni’s character of Guido, with his energetic love of life. Fascism is mocked by Benigni in the first half of the film, but the fascists are grim and unamusing themselves. The concentration camp itself is perhaps a little unrealistically lax in its protocols at times, but the horror of the gas chambers, of mass graves and cruel murders still exist here and are treated with great seriousness – it is only Benigni’s character who acts as if these horrors don’t exist, and the film makes it very clear that this is in order to spare his son the suffering of understanding this horrible reality. Add to that, Life is Beautiful employs more sophisticated farce elements at times, with a minimum of cheap one-liners, and contains a genuinely moving ending instead of, re: Jojo, no ending at all – Jojo and Elsa dancing in the street seems to reflect the filmmakers’ desperation and naivety more than anything else.

Roberto Benigni (right) in Life Is Beautiful (1997)

[1] I’m reminded here of the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, a shockingly bad attempt at comedy claiming that all criticism was due to misogyny against its female leads instead of poor filmmaking.

Written by tomtomrant

14 December 2021 at 4:42 pm

The wild and wicked “Arabian Nights”: a reader’s guide

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I recently finished reading “The 1001 nights”, a medieval Arab story collection of astonishing size, dizzying bibliography, immense political incorrectness, and, to me, mesmerizing entertainment value – yet I arguably only read a fifth of it. Let me explain.

Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion

My story begins one Christmas sometime in my teens when I was gifted, not the famous story collection, but Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion. This is a book-length study of the famous work written in a partly-scholarly and partly more readable fashion by a British historian. I read a few chapters but was disappointed, not with Irwin’s work, but because I wanted to read the “Nights”, not read about it.

Years passed and a new Penguin Classics edition of the “Nights” came to my attention. It was in 3 volumes, which sounds overly long, but the new translation by Malcolm Lyons was supposed to be excellent. I think, for I didn’t retain them over the years, I may have owned the first and second volumes and had enjoyed them to start with but soon, finding the sheer size of the work unwieldy, my interest waned.

The translation by Malcolm Lyons in 3 volumes.

Then during Covid19 lockdown recently, I noticed the Irwin book on my shelf still and decided to read it from cover to cover. Irwin’s book explores the history of the “Nights”, along with its influence, imitators, forgers, and links to interesting historical references. This got me in the mood to reading the story collection once more – but which edition should I read?

You see, the “Arabian Nights”, as they tend to be known in the Western world, were originally translated into English in the 18th and 19th centuries by a motley collection of early ‘scholars’ of dubious ability and reputation. Richard Burton’s 19th century translation is usually the one that appears in budget editions nowadays – and Irwin points out his bungled understanding of Arabic, his near plagiarism of other English translations, his mercenary motives, his execrable propensity to translate poetry literally, his tendency to embellish and add stories that weren’t in the original collection; at least he wasn’t prudish and priggish, unlike some of the others. These translations also are clearly associated with the European (and colonial) portrayal of Middle Eastern cultures as sensuous, alien and backward which goes by the name of Orientalism in Edward Said’s famous critical theory.

So all this got me wondering – which edition did Irwin, the veritable expert, recommend? I flicked through the book but could find no mention of Malcolm Lyons’ translation at all, which was puzzling until I realised that Irwin’s book predated the new translation. Furthermore, the new translation had a foreword written by Irwin. This seemed promising, and indeed, upon closer examination (read: Internet trawling) I found that Irwin’s foreword was indeed, regarding the new version, enthusiastic and complimentary. This seemed to clinch things then – I’d have to buy the Lyons version again. But I did remember that it was rather overly long…

The Lyons “best of” anthology

It then occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I could find a compilation, a ‘best of’ perhaps, and whatdayaknow there was an abridged compilation, of the Lyons translation, edited by Irwin. How propitious! (It even had an attractive cover design with hardy hardback construction so I sent away for a second-hand edition which promised a bonus layer of musty pre-used antiquity. Yum.)

And it didn’t disappoint. At first. Let me explain this too. The “1001 Nights” is so named for the story of King Shahriyar, who, due to some unfortunate experiences with traitorous duplicitous women, makes a vow to henceforward always ensure that his future wives are, the morning after consummating their duties in the bridal bed, promptly executed. (This beautifully illustrates the mix of violence, intolerance and sex which characterises the “Nights”.) And so it goes until Princess Shahrazad volunteers herself, consummates the wedding, then contrives to tell Shahriyar amusing stories which never quite seem to end, so the king has to keep her alive for another night to hear the next bit. Shahrazad continues telling story after story, night after night, and these are therefore “The 1001 Nights”. (Ultimately, spoilers: she’s saved as the end as she wins him round eventually – presumably because he comes to like her, or the 3 of his children she’s given birth to in the meantime, or something.)

Some editing was needed in my anthology edition because the editors had decided to dispense with the breaks between each night – which I think is sacrilege – so I had to first devise a complicated system of annotation and look-up tables which I glued into the end papers so I could effectively mark where the breaks were and how Shahrazad introduced the next night. It’s a bit complicated and I won’t go into the detail – the point is I fixed it as best I could through cross-referencing the complete translation online.

But now for my reading experience: the start of the collection is great – setting up this sadistic root story, and the initial 200 or so nights (recall: that’s not 200 stories she’s telling, but the 200 or so interruptions to the stories as “Morning now dawned and Shahrazad broke off from what she had been allowed to say…”). But then I noticed at this point that the stories abruptly, not to put too fine a point on it, got crap. Suddenly, the selections changed to a series of pathetic moralistic animal tales – like sub-par Aesop’s fables (which are pretty simplistic and drab themselves). This was followed by perhaps not quite as boring, but highly ordinary stories of the ‘fairy tale’ variety, some of which didn’t even have anything particularly magical about them, sort of medieval tavern stories, generally about viziers marrying off princes and princesses or merchants swindling each other. I began to realise that a lot of tales were in my compilation because they were famous for one little detail only, such as Ali Baba’s “open sesame” cave, or Aladdin’s magic lamp, or the Ebony Horse (notable from the 1940 film adaptation, “The Thief of Baghdad”). The rest of the stories themselves were pretty lacklustre and the most famous stories, particularly ‘Ali Baba’ and ‘Aladdin’ don’t have nights-breaks because they do not exist in any original Arabic text of the “1001 Nights”, but only in some European translations, suggesting duplicity of some sort, or maybe just questionable authenticity in terms of the Arabic originals which are no longer extant. Even the stories of Sindbad the Sailor are not believed to be truly “Nights” originals – and it shows as many of them come over as rambling unsatisfying Homeric rip-offs. 

So now I had an abridged story collection, most of which wasn’t very good. I kind of wished the compilation had just included the first (good) part of the “Nights” and dispensed with the rest. Then I recalled that there was another new good translation that Irwin had mentioned. This one was by Hussain Haddawy, but it was actually a translation of a different manuscript of the ‘Nights’, which was reportedly older and shorter – only including about 250 nights before it broke off. Irwin had seen this as a weakness – 250 out of the total 1001 wasn’t what he considered complete exactly – but, reading Haddawy’s introduction, he argued that his manuscript was more ‘authentic’ since it was older, and included fewer inauthentic stories that had been added by others, clearly to stretch the manuscript to the requisite 1001 nights. Irwin and others disagree with this view, and I had been on Team Irwin all this time, but I had to admit that the actual experience of reading the stories (or the edited highlights anyway) suggested to me that, if Haddawy wasn’t right about the early tales being more authentic, it certainly seemed a ready explanation as to why the early stories were superior.

Haddawy’s translation – my recommended version

This of course then led me to buy Haddawy’s translation (in an out-of-print hardback edition since the new paperback ones had that annoying ‘uneven pages’ effect which publishers for some reason find appealing) – and read it all again! The nights breaks were actually more frequent in the Haddawy version, and he uses the word “devil” where Lyons uses jinn or ‘ifrit (which was a shame), but overall the best bits were much the same, plus there was a good deal more of it that had been edited out of the compilation edition – so it was a win! There were still 2 or 3 pretty lacklustre stories toward the end, but not nearly as much and I just pretended they weren’t there. The rest of the stories left out of the immense Lyons translation I double-checked by reading a blog I found online which not only summarised much of the rest of the collection, but also confirmed my suspicions that it was all rather disappointing (barring the crazy story of ‘Aziz and Aziza’ which I marked out as an exception).

So there you have it – a longwinded explanation of my view on the best edition of the ‘Arabian Nights’ to read. Incomplete, I suppose, although it occurs to me that the “1001” of the title is probably supposed to be an expression meaning “a lot” or “an infinity” of nights, and not literally 1001, and attempts both medieval and modern, Arab and European, to make up the shortfall have, in my view, almost tarnished the reputation of the cycle’s foundation, which is so much more gloriously complex and, well, mad, than the lengthy padding which follows it.

To give you a brief taster, the story collection opens with a prologue introducing King Shahrayar and his brother Shahzaman, who we hear both have difficulties with their wives’ marital infidelities when they set out on long journeys. Straightaway the tale entertains with its sex and sexism – the infidelities of the wives are portrayed in incredibly over-the-top fashion: involving veritable orgies of entire harems, and lots of openings of legs, and “topping”, and cries of “you slut”, and spending time “kissing, embracing, fornicating and drinking wine until the end of the day”. Why exactly the wives want to betray their husbands in this way, or how they even come to contrive to do so in so flagrant a manner, is not at all explored – the assumption seems to be that women as typically like this. The “Nights”, in a way, makes up for this misogyny throughout the collection, as many stories are notable for an abundance of intelligent women who generally outsmart the male protagonists (although this was probably considered at the time as another sign of their deviousness, but be that as it may). The misogynistic and at times pornographic nature of the text is also compensated for by the extreme exaggerated silliness of the situations portrayed – this ridiculous orgy is witnessed by kings pretending to be somewhere else, peering through window shades like suspicious fools, and includes a scene where one king, witnessing the duplicity of his brother’s wife, suddenly feels much better about his own wife’s betrayals, knowing his brother is similarly encumbered by secret wife orgies. His mood is so buoyed by this that his brother wonders why he’s so cheery all of a sudden. This leads to another amusing scene where the first brother doesn’t want to the tell what has cheered him up because “I fear you will feel even more troubled and careworn than I”. I mean, this stuff is pretty morally repellent, but, when it comes to medieval literature, it’s definitely not boring.

Then the kings are so demoralised by their marital situations that they suddenly decide to journey the earth looking for others worse afflicted and encounter a magic pillar, and a demon, who keeps his wife magically imprisoned to protect her sexuality, but she basically orders the 2 kings out of a tree (in which they are pathetically hiding and typically watching, the way they do) and forces them to have sex with her while her demon husband sleeps. And somehow this is the event which leads Shahriyar to set up his “one-use-only” arrangement as per his future wives and thus Shahrazad enters the tale, begging her father, the king’s vizier, to let her be taken as the king’s next marital victim. Here, before the “Nights” proper has even started, the narrative breaks off, as the vizier tries to convince Shahrazad to give up her wedding plans through telling an amusing short story involving a talking ox and donkey. Shahrazad counters his argument with a particularly misogynistic story about a merchant and his wife.

This capacity to break suddenly into story is the great charm and complexity of the “Nights”. And nowhere in the collection is this done so well than in these opening 200 or so nights, where Shahrazad’s stories, themselves embedded within Shahriyar’s narrative, themselves start featuring characters that begin telling stories also. The incidents become quite complex, especially as many of the stories share common elements, not just sex, ridiculous misogyny, and over-the-top violence, but also similar quests, encounters with eccentric demons (jinni) who meddle with the narrative, and quite a few stories are told ostensibly to beg for the storyteller’s life. The pacing is also particularly impressive, with each individual story being reasonably short and fast-moving, even amusingly eschewing the tedious repetitiveness of typical fairy tales: at one point the narrator remarks: “He told him everything [that had happened so far] from beginning to end (but there is no point in repeating that).” How refreshing! – and considerate of my time. The one exception to this brevity is the final sequence involving the hunchback stories, but these stories happen to be in a lighter vein and feature the notorious barber, an unreliable narrator who is portrayed as self-absorbed and irritatingly overly talkative, who tells a long sequence of I suspect intentionally incoherent and tedious stories – ha ha.

Assuming you don’t want to eschew this rather trying final comedy, the place to stop in Haddawy’s translation is page 295, or at the end of the 170th night, as the remaining 3 tales are lacklustre and overlong. The uniquely interesting, and sexually explicit, story of “Aziz and Aziza” is the only story that I recommend which isn’t in Haddawy’s manuscript. This can be found from nights 112 to 128 in volume 1 of Lyons’ translation, although there is a rather tedious introduction you need to read from night 110 (the opening of the lacklustre story in which it happens to be embedded). Considering medieval literature is usually full of bland repetition, dated humour, and tedious religious piety, this collection is unique and startling. I might just read it again now…

Written by tomtomrant

23 September 2021 at 3:15 pm

Dark Emu controversy: Scholarship’s communication problem

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The recent controversy around Bruce Pascoe’s “Dark Emu” – brought to a head on Saturday by the academic criticism of anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe – exposes a central problem in public communication of scholarship in this country, particularly history. Bruce Pascoe may have been cavalier with the truth but his writings are much more accessible than those of scholarship – and it shows.

I am a high school History teacher so I have an interest in the communication of history to young people. Aboriginal history is a difficult subject to teach but the greatest problem I experience is actually finding the time and resources to prepare informed History lessons. All current textbooks are ridiculously basic and out-of-date. I order the most recent scholarship and find it dense, abstract, abstruse. In my local public library, I find decades-old books about ‘Aborigines’, which are either dubious or racist. I engage an Aboriginal speaker to give a lesson to my year 7s – but neither of us are researchers. Teachers are usually overloaded with so many classes, and do not have the time or resources to launch our own research projects – where can a teacher turn to?

Well, Bruce Pascoe’s book came to the rescue. This book was not only short and accessible, but full of specific quotations and visual sources – the raw material of History. For the discipline of History itself is not about some ‘agreed story’ or ‘established facts’ – it is a process of questioning and interpreting stories and sources. After all, the Victorian government’s school curriculum says students are to “Analyse and corroborate sources and ask questions about their accuracy, usefulness and reliability”; they are to “Explain different historical interpretations and contested debates about the past”. Pascoe illustrates the process of historical interpretation in his short work far more effectively than any other history book I’ve yet seen.

As a teacher, I find Sutton and Walshe’s academic critique helpful, yes – they highlight the many inaccuracies in Pascoe’s work – but their main arguments are actually academic in the other sense, as in, of mainly theoretical interest. The labels of “hunter-gather” versus “agriculturalist”, which Pascoe confuses, do not consume the interests of everyday readers – or of my students. I have returned to my year 7 History unit which was based on Pascoe’s book and I find nothing amiss. As a History graduate myself, I did not copy over the sources or arguments which seemed strained or precarious. Most readers come away from Dark Emu questioning their understanding of pre-colonial Aboriginal peoples, not cherishing distinct answers.

Meanwhile, Sutton seems preoccupied with History as a list of ‘accurate’ facts. On the Good Weekend podcast, he says of Dark Emu’s inaccuracies, “We’re going to have a whole lot of children saying well last year you taught me this and now you’re teaching me something quite different: which one is true?” This is not a problem: better our students ask “which one is true?” rather than accept what they are taught at face value.

Pascoe’s work is an open question, a challenge, not scholarship – Young Dark Emu is not only clearly a children’s book, but includes the hardly formal adjective “truer”.

Sutton says that more work is needed by education departments “to sit down and do some proper research on these subjects” rather than relying on dubious works like Dark Emu. Well, regrettably (as it would make my workload more reasonable) our state governments don’t provide teachers with any resources of this nature. The Victorian Curriculum provides teachers with a mere list of vague curriculum dot-points. For example, the year 7/8 History curriculum says teachers are to teach, “The significant beliefs, values and practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures including trade with other communities, causes and effects of warfare, and death and funerary customs”. What these beliefs, values and practices actually specifically are, is not described. Teachers either need to become researchers requiring more time and resources (not terribly likely in Education), or it is actually scholars and researchers like Sutton who should be sharing their scholarship in much more accessible forms.

Scholars seem dismayed at the popularity of Pascoe’s book and suspect political motives – simplistic leftist agendas, black armband histories, personal aggrandisement – but actually the book is, unlike much scholarship, just basically accessible. I look forward to Sutton and Walshe’s deconstruction of Dark Emu as a rare historical text that will engage with actual historical sources before our very eyes – and encourage Sutton particularly to put his money where his mouth is and write us a more accurate historical work about Aboriginal culture that is anywhere near as accessible as Pascoe’s. This would not only open the eyes of my students, but hopefully of everyday Australians too, those who respect scholarship but are unable to endure the mire of academic inscrutability.

Written by tomtomrant

20 June 2021 at 7:30 pm

Marie-Antoinette: victim of misogyny or of her own political choices?

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How would you explain this increasing hostility to Marie-Antoinette, culminating in her execution? Was she a victim of misogyny or of her own political choices?

Though popular at first among the French people in the late 18th century, Marie-Antoinette, the Austrian archduchess who became the wife of Louis XVI of France, was all but universally maligned by the time of her trial and execution in 1793. In a time of civil unrest and revolution, her role as aristocrat and queen no doubt explains her lack of popularity. However, the outright hostility reflected in the press, among various government factions, in popular pamphlets, street protests, and even within her own aristocratic circle raises the question of her culpability. In this essay I will examine the evidence for Marie-Antoinette’s blameworthiness and whether and to what extent this explains her destruction. It seems that the general hatred for the queen was less a result of her political choices and more a consequence of shifting political and social standards against which the queen was scarcely given the means to adjust, if such was even possible.

Thomas Jefferson, American minister to France in the 1780s, famously declared, referring to Marie-Antoinette and the French revolution, “had there been no queen, there would have been no revolution.”[1] Most modern historians consider this an obvious exaggeration.[2] The causes of the revolution are well-known and only peripherally related to the queen: issues such as social inequality, fiscal crisis, outmoded social structures, regressive taxation, and the decadence of the nobility. The absolute monarchy of France vested all powers in the king, who ruled using social structures and laws which one way or another had existed for centuries. Even as tensions increased between the ruling elite and the Third Estate before the revolution, the culpability of Marie-Antoinette for the crisis rested, in real terms, on nothing more than her sometimes flagrant exhibition of great wealth. As we shall see, it was chiefly in symbolic terms that she was considered culpable, in what her character and position meant in principle and by inference, and it was largely the popular press and rumour that did the inferring.

Of course, symbolism plays a vital and necessary role in any power hierarchy, especially a monarchy. Trappings of state, religious belief, and ritualistic customs are all involved in political propaganda, in maintaining power for the elite. From Marie-Antoinette’s youthful years, political symbolism played a large part; it was, for example, the principal reason for her marriage. Austria and France were traditionally enemies and had only recently sought an alliance on the commencement of the Seven Years War.[3] The marriage of the French dauphin and the Austrian archduchess was privately controversial in that many members of the French court still distained the Austrians; the pro-Austrian French foreign minister fell from power the same year as the marriage.[4] But the French and Austrian governments painted a picture of harmony between the two powers in making the match; Austria gave the young Maria Antonia a French name and even went so far as to straighten her teeth, decking her out like a French doll,[5] while France hailed her as the embodiment of beauty and charm, celebrating her arrival with an enormous pageant featuring cheering crowds and fireworks.[6] Yet even before the revolution, popular sentiment turned against the new dauphine with early attacks emanating from the court. Many of these were a result of frictions with Louis XV’s prejudiced mistress Madame Du Barry,[7] who, as with earlier mistress Madame de Pompadour, was widely resented as using her feminine charms to manipulate the king.[8] Connection with these mistresses in the public mind, egged on by pamphlet literature and Marie-Antoinette’s dazzling beauty, led to similar allegations of political influence[9] which it seems were quite unfounded; Marie-Antoinette seemed quite uninterested and deficient at advancing Habsburg political causes, as attested in her letters home.[10] Even after Marie-Antoinette became queen in 1774, ongoing delays in consummating her marriage led to scurrilous rumours of the king’s impotence and the queen’s promiscuity.[11] 

At this early stage, we should note that the damage to the queen’s reputation resulted from private, ordinary events of royal life overinflated by rumour and supposition on behalf of a populace already dissatisfied with the monarchy for unrelated reasons. A crucial component in the creation and maintenance of these exaggerated impressions was the reticent distance between the queen and the public, and the unfavourable impressions drawn from her few instances of visibility. Her sequestered existence at Versailles concealed her from view; her few public appearances dressed in lavish outfits, or attending decadent balls, or breezing through the streets in an elegant sleigh (almost always without her husband in tow) did not endear her to the desperate, oppressed populace.[12] Antonia Fraser has suggested that Marie-Antoinette was socially a more progressive royal,[13] preferring relatively simple furnishings[14] and an open, casual mood at parties[15]  rather than the gaudy over-ornamentation or excessive ceremony of the old monarchy; “[i]t was the life of Versailles that was going out of date, not that of [Marie-Antoinette’s] Petit Trianon.”[16] Ironically, these modern tastes were seen to represent the queen’s alleged over-familiar vulgarity and coquettish ways; she was not modern but  improperly old-fashioned. The purchase of the Château de Saint-Cloud, made, unconventionally, in the queen’s name, was considered an outrage, once again symbolising her apparently pernicious influence over the king.[17] Undeniably, such acquisitions put further strain on the royal coffers, and, as Ian Dunlop remarks, this was “a form of expenditure that was very visible to the public eye.”[18]

The queen’s condemnation was intensified by a plethora of damning, entirely symbolic associations converging simultaneously in the collective consciousness of the common people. The notorious Diamond Necklace Affair, in which the queen was entirely innocent of any wrongdoing, seems to represent purely thematically some perverse fantasia on the theme of the queen’s presumed depravity. In brief, the gullible Cardinal de Rohan, taken in by con-artist Madame de La Motte, made a bid on the purchase of the most expensive diamond necklace in the world, believing himself to be acting on behalf of the queen.[19] When the rouse was revealed and the scandal broke, the king made the mistake of mounting a public trial rather than settling the matter privately.[20] The symbolic ramifications were damaging for the queen since the deception necessitated the cardinal’s belief not only that the queen would buy such an expensive bauble, but that she would engage in clandestine meetings with gentleman admirers.[21] Furthermore, the apparently credible impersonator of the queen was a young prostitute,[22] the diamonds were originally commissioned by Louis XV for one of his mistresses,[23] and the whole episode resembled the plot of The Marriage of Figaro, the play and opera preoccupied with aristocratic infidelity.[24] The themes of prostitution, sexual impropriety, decadent expenditure, fraud, deception, and pernicious abuse of power were all symbolically fused with the character and station of the queen, and exposed publically by lawyers naturally partisan against the government.[25]

Also, the prominence of deceptive women in the case appears to have contributed to the scandal, owing to contemporary beliefs about gender roles. As Lynn Hunt argues, French queens were considered secondary in status to their husbands; succession passed down the male line, for example.[26] Generally, the idea of an active, powerful woman was frowned upon; the woman was to exist in the private domestic sphere and this was her proper place.[27] In this respect, Marie-Antoinette’s modern tastes, coupled with her high status and political position made her the anti-thesis of the conventional womanly ideal. This became more complicated with the advent of the revolution, for, as Hunt argues, killing the king, the traditional high status masculine symbol, necessitated questions about where woman stood.[28] More broadly, the revolution, in invoking change, left the meaning and role of woman (along with much else) less defined, with an openness that was both inspiring in its freedoms but dangerous in its indeterminacy. While the revolution raised the question of women’s rights for the first time[29] and many distinctly antipaternalistic family laws were passed,[30] women were still denied full citizenship as outlined in the Rights of Man.[31] Furthermore, it seems that femininity and action in the public sphere came to be seen as not so much incompatible as perverse and unnatural;[32] some scholars even argue that women had more influence and freedom under the ancien régime.[33] The perceived incongruity of the queen’s aristocratic position with the domestic ideal of motherhood can be seen in the public fiasco surrounding Madame Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Marie-Antoinette with her sons,[34] and in the contradictions involved in conceiving the queen as a true citizen in the revolutionary sense: “To grant Marie-Antoinette the title citoyenne… was simultaneously to elevate her to the ranks of virtuous womanhood and to lower her to the same status as other women.”[35] Her presentation at her trial principally as a loving mother[36] cannot have endeared her prejudiced prosecutors who only saw a dissembling queen.[37]

As the revolution progressed, the pamphlet and popular literature assumed a moral tone, the upholding of proper feminine etiquette was transformed into wholesale policing according to a supposedly ‘proper’ system of ethics. Jacques Hébert’s fictional character le père Duchesne (Father or Old Man Duchesne) was portrayed in the press as meeting Marie-Antoinette and lecturing her in domesticity and the renouncing of aristocratic ways, always with little success.[38] The king was spared the brunt of such moral censure, perhaps because the revolutionary press wanted to portray him as corrupt but not powerful;[39] the king was impotent, while the queen was the malicious manipulator.[40] Furthermore, as a foreigner, Marie-Antoinette must be secretly sending money to Austria,[41] scheming plots and conspiracies against the state.[42]

The queen’s execution took place during the Terror, marking the peak of revolutionary hysteria characterised by “‘patriots’’… stigmatizing their opponents as enemies of the new order… rather than simply adherents of contrary points of view.”[43] In other words, opinions, suspicions and moral judgments were actively ‘rounded up’ into hysterical almost supernatural actualities. The pamphlet literature was rife with denunciations and caricatures of the queen.[44] Marie-Antoinette was not only a slut, a harlot portrayed in pornographic detail,[45] she was caricatured in mythological form as a distorted male-female monster,[46] half-woman, half-goat,[47] -wolf[48] or -tigress.[49] She was compared to all the dissembling murderesses of history,[50] and accused of lesbianism[51] and incest.[52]

It is difficult to deny the sensational falsity of many of these assertions, and yet, for example, the incest accusation cropped up during the queen’s trial as a serious charge.[53] If one of the aims of the revolution was to redefine the people’s rights according to their status as human beings rather than their status in the social order, the treatment of the queen as queen and not as person was a great failing. Qualities which might in other circumstances be considered character strengths were ignored or twisted into signs of her depravity. Her early compassion for a man injured in a stag-hunt and widely celebrated in engravings and tapestries was swiftly forgotten.[54] Her self-assurance and composure in traumatic situations such as attacks by the mob in Versailles and the Tuileries[55] was not taken as exemplifying bravery or strength of character. More often her self-possession was interpreted as indignant aristocratic pride[56] or haughty indifference.[57] The accusations of incest and lesbianism are open to speculation –  Antonia Fraser suggests that her early female attachments were probably more emotional than physical[58] – yet the private nature of such details once again emphasizes the issue of distance and isolation. The populace could hardly be privy to any reliable sources for this kind of private information about the queen, and, conversely, the queen’s isolation, first at Versailles, and then under arrest in the months before her execution, separated her from the people such that their voices of dissent and the changing social-political landscape of the revolution cannot have been easy for the queen to discern. Indeed, as Mirabeau of La Marck remarked on the eve of the revolution, “What do they [the king and queen] think they are doing?… [C]annot they see the abyss which is opening under their feet?”[59]

In conclusion, I would explain the rising hostility against Marie-Antoinette as a result of prejudices and misunderstandings between the queen and the people, exacerbated by distance, unpredictable revolutionary change, and the status quo, itself largely unrelated to and out of the control of the queen. From an examination of the evidence, Marie-Antoinette seems to have committed few actual offences against the state or the people; she was lampooned for misdemeanours, amounting to little more than social faux-pas, most of which seem unavoidable or a result of difficult social and political circumstances. Principally, she was caught between crushing opposites in a time of unpredictably shifting standards – she was an Austrian in France, a ruling aristocrat but also a human mother, a self-assured queen to a weak-willed king, inheriting not only the interests, manners and position of a sovereign in the French feudal system, but the reputation of one of Louis XV’s mistresses. Even if she’d wanted to, she could hardly have adopted the manner of a sans-culotteswoman overnight without meeting immense incredulity and disparagement. Her supposed crimes seem well out of proportion to the punishment; as the queen herself remarked, “Oh my god, if we have committed faults, we have certainty expiated them.”[60]


[1] Thomas Jefferson, “Autobiography,” in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. H. A. Washington (Washington, D.C., 1853-1864), 1:1O1, qtd. in Nancy N. Barker, “‘Let Them Eat Cake’: The Mythical Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution,” Historian 55 (1993): 722.

[2] Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 722.

[3] Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001), 9.

[4] Sarah Maza, “The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited (1785-1786): The Case of the Missing Queen,” in Eroticism and the Body Politic, ed. Lynn Hunt (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 66.

[5] Pierre Saint-Amand, “Terrorizing Marie Antoinette,” trans. Jennifer Curtiss Gage, Critical Inquiry 20 (1994), 388-89.

[6] Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 710-711.

[7] Ian Dunlop, Marie-Antoinette: a Portrait (London: Phoenix, 1993), 96.

[8] Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 711; Maza, “The Diamond Necklace Affair,” 66-67.

[9] Essais historiques sur la vie de Marie-Antoinette d’Autriche, reine de France (London, 1789), cited in Maza, “The Diamond Necklace Affair,” 69; Saint-Amand, “Terrorizing Marie Antoinette,” 389.

[10] Alfred d’Arneth and M. A. Geffroy, Marie-Antoinette: Correspondance secrète entre Marie-Thérèse et le Comte de Mercy-Argenteau, Vol. 1 (Paris, 1874), 322-3, 329, qtd. in Fraser, Marie Antoinette, 93.

[11] Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 712; Elizabeth Colwill, “Just Another Citoyenne? Marie-Antoinette on Trial, 1790-1793,” History Workshop Journal 28 (1989), 68.

[12] Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 713.

[13] Fraser, Marie Antoinette, 425.

[14] Ibid., 139.

[15] Dunlop, Marie-Antoinette, 241.

[16] Fraser, Marie Antoinette, 426.

[17] Dunlop, Marie-Antoinette, 240.

[18] Ibid., 244-245.

[19] Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 715; Maza, “The Diamond Necklace Affair,” 70-71.

[20] Maza, “The Diamond Necklace Affair,” 70.

[21] Ibid., 72.

[22] Saint-Amand, “Terrorizing Marie Antoinette,” 392.

[23] Maza, “The Diamond Necklace Affair,” 71.

[24] Ibid., 79.

[25] Ibid., 73.

[26] Lynn Hunt, “The Bad Mother,” in The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1993),89.

[27] Ibid., 98.

[28] Lynn Hunt, “Reading the French Revolution: A Reply,” French Historical Studies 19 (1995), 293.

[29] Ibid., 294.

[30] Madelyn Gutwirth, “Sacred Father; Profane Sons: Lynn Hunt’s French Revolution,” French Historical Studies 19 (1995), 269.

[31] Peter McPhee, The French Revolution 1789-1799 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 68.

[32] Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 714.

[33] Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, D’une mort à l’autre: Précipices de la Révolution (Paris, 1989), and Joan B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca, N. Y., 1988) cited in Saint-Amand, “Terrorizing Marie Antoinette,” 386.

[34] Louis-Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Souvenirs (Paris, 1835), and Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France (25 August 1787), cited in Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 717.

[35] Colwill, “Marie-Antoinette on Trial,” 68.

[36] Actes du Tribunal Révolutionnaire, ed. Gérard Walter (Paris, 1986), cited in Colwill, “Marie-Antoinette on Trial,” 79.

[37] Colwill, “Marie-Antoinette on Trial,” 79.

[38] Le Pére Duchesne, no. 36 [26 February 1791], cited in Hunt, “The Bad Mother,” 111; Le Pére Duchesne, no. 71 [28 August 1791], cited in Colwill, “Marie-Antoinette on Trial,” 69-70.

[39] Colwill, “Marie-Antoinette on Trial,” 74.

[40] Ibid., 72.

[41] Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 719.

[42] Maza, “The Diamond Necklace Affair,” 81.

[43] McPhee, The French Revolution, 149.

[44] Hunt, “The Bad Mother,” 106.

[45] Le Pére Duchesne, no. 136, cited in Colwill, “Marie-Antoinette on Trial,” 72.

[46] Hunt, “The Bad Mother,” 91, 120.

[47] Les Deux ne font qu’un. ca. 1791, from French Caricature and the French Revolution, 1798-1799 (exhibition catalog, Wight Art Gallery, UCLA, 1 November-18 December 1988), p. 190, printed in Saint-Amand, “Terrorizing Marie Antoinette,” 394.

[48] Colwill, “Marie-Antoinette on Trial,” 73.

[49] Attributed to Jacques Hébert, Ibid.

[50] Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 718.

[51] Saint-Amand, “Terrorizing Marie Antoinette,” 392; Hunt, “The Bad Mother,” 104; Maza, “The Diamond Necklace Affair,” 81-82.

[52] Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 718; Colwill, “Marie-Antoinette on Trial,” 79.

[53] Actes du Tribunal Révolutionnaire, ed. Gérard Walter (Paris, 1986), cited in Colwill, “Marie-Antoinette on Trial,” 79; Hunt, “The Bad Mother,” 101.

[54] D’Arneth, Correspondance secrète, Vol. 1, 107, and Albert Vuaflart and Henri Bourin, Les Portraits de Marie-Antoinette, Vol. 2, (Paris, 1910), 89, cited in Fraser, Marie Antoinette, 77.

[55] Fraser, Marie Antoinette, 423; Barker, “Let Them Eat Cake,” 720-721.

[56] Dunlop, Marie-Antoinette, 286.

[57] Joan Haslip, Marie Antoinette (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), 170.

[58] Fraser, Marie Antoinette, 421.

[59] Dunlop, Marie-Antoinette, 265.

[60] Jean-Pierre Dormois, ed., Lettres de Louis XVI et de Marie-Antoinette, 1789-1793 (Paris, 1988), 43, qtd. in Fraser, Marie Antoinette, 429.

Written by tomtomrant

8 February 2021 at 1:16 pm

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‘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

Tagged with , , , ,

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

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

Tagged with , ,

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.”

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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.

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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

90s-sitcom-quiz

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

“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]

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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

‘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