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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.


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.


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]


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).


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).


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.


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]


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 (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 (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 (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.


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.


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]


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 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.



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.
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,

[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.

Some Troublesome Art Terms

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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.



– 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.



– 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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by tomtomrant

20 March 2014 at 2:31 pm

Ancient Greek Pederasty: Love, Lust, Power & Pedagogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

Primary Sources
Anacreon PMG 359 trans. P. Bing and R. Cohen (London: Routledge, 1993).
Plato Symposium trans. H. N. Fowler (1925), accessed 17 Sept 2013 at
Theognis Erotic Elegies 2 trans. P. Bing and R. Cohen (London: Routledge, 1993).
Various Puerilities from The Greek Anthology 12 trans. Daryl Hine (Princeton, 2009)

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

[1] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[2] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[3] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[4] Percy 1996, 192.

[5] Averill and Nunley 1992, 21.

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

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

[8] Lear and Cantarella 2008, 192.

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

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

[11] Bing and Cohen 1993, 93.

[12] Lear and Cantarella 2008, 10.

[13] Chong-Gossard 2013.

[14] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[15] Morris and Powell 2010, 28.

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

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

Written by tomtomrant

6 March 2014 at 5:24 pm

‘Sir Gawain’ and the green girdle

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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.


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.