There be dragons!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A cool gif of the Tao

It's coming down.  This time for permanent.  Enjoy this gif.  Sayonara.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Raskolnikov, Lost in the Cosmos: Theology, essays and theology essays

Raskolnikov, Lost in the Cosmos: Theology, essays and theology essays: Michael Jensen , Lecturer in Doctrine and Church History at Moore College in Sydney, has recently completed a series of blog posts on writi...

Monday, January 30, 2012

Grunewald's Resurrection

I was reflecting on this magnificent piece of artwork today by Matthias Grunewald.  The Resurrection is one of the panels in the Isenheim Altarpiece; the outside right panel to be precise.  Grunewald painted the panel within the measurements of a golden rectangle

The scene depicts the moment of the resurrection when the Lord rises from the grave.  It is divided into four sections marked by very pronounced lines of the sarcophagus, the large stone, & the arms of Christ who hovers over the open sarcophagus like a flower opening in the darkness.  This division parallels the geometric divisions in sacra geometria of natural man elevated to the supernatural level.

Surrounding the luminous figure of the Christ is a deep impenetrable darkness dotted with stars in the background.  At his feet in the first of the four sections of the painting are three fallen soldiers, bending over or prone from the shock of the resurrection's power and the earthquake that has broken open the tomb.  They are reminiscent of the worshipping figures of the three wise men.  One raises his left arm to ward off the power of the risen Lord.  The cloth of the risen figure seems to rise up almost from the body of this figure whose color scheme and whose lines of cloth resemble the sheaths of a dead plant.  The line of the risen figure's cloth stems, literally, from the very heart of this figure, traveling up the line of the second figure's shoulders and into the person of the Christ who floats suspended above their dark, petrified world of steel and stone.  This cloth acts as a tether, an umbilicus, a stem upon which the flower of the risen Lord rests.  It's predominantly white and blue colors remind one of the sky on a clear day; or spotless linen newly washed.  The line of the cloth follows the diagonal division of the golden rectangle of the panel's frame.  Part of the winding sheet drapes over the sarcophagus like milk poured out; its smooth purity contrasting directly with the roughness of the soldier's chainmail and the cold purity of the sculpted sarcophagus.  The perfectly chiseled tomb of right angles and smooth lines representing the slavery of the pattern lies open behind the two figures in the foreground, the lid lying to the side as though slid off rather than violently broken open.  To the right of the prostrate figures in the foreground one can barely make out the dead stump of a tree, cut down by axes rather than withered away.  The line direction of the stump points directly to the head of the risen Christ, though the new stalk full of life is the winding sheet, not this stump.

In the second section we find the third crouching figure who leans on his sword in an attitude that suggests not collapse but a struggle almost to rise up from the darkness of the earth.  In relation to the two other figures he is drawn in perspective according to the sacra geometria of the growth from the root, or exponential growth. The ground below him is flat, stoney like a stage upon which is unfolding a tremendous drama.  Above him looms precipitously a massive uncut stone of the same composition, color and shape (the golden rectangle) as the sarcophagus suggesting both a reduplication of the sarcophagus' finality and the imposition of the forms on the life of man.

The third section of the painting is dominated almost entirely by the red cloth of the winding sheet of Christ.  Like petals of a flower the fabric floats with the risen Lord and possesses a mysterious infolding like water or something organic.  The colors are predominately red but are also constituted of blue and yellow that encompass the scope of the spectrum passing from deep blue, to blood red, to pink, to orange, to yellow.  Taken together with the rest of the figure the cloth creates the inverted triangular division of Metatron's cube, or the tree of life, wherein Christ's head is at the top of the geometric image. Oddly, the sarcophagus, the boulder, and the edges of the corona do not seem at first to line up; the sarcophagus' right side is inline with the corona but the left is off the panel.  The boulder seems shifted to the right of the corona which is aligned in direct horizontal center of the panel.  What this does, however, is create an amazing artistic trick in the mind of the viewer.  Like the perception of straight columns in the parthenon we are treated here to a perception of a spiralic pattern in three dimension; the eye of the viewer moving from the base near the sarcophagus, back into the painting toward the boulder, back again outward toward the corona.  The three are lined up in the mind, therefore, even if visually they are not aligned in the painting itself.

The final section has the hands and arms of Christ which glow with a translucence and seem to inscribe a circle - the wounds of the hands marking two points on a golden rectangle.  This is the same shape perceived in the large boulder and in the sarcophagus.  Here, however, the shape has moved from being an emblem of finality in death, to a terror from the darkness, to the limits of a heavenly light.  It is the cruciform boundaries of the New Jerusalem inscribed within the circle of rainbow light that emanate like a corona from Christ's sternum rather than his head.  At the top of the golden rectangle is the head of Christ, serene, awake, aware, fully conscious.  He is the mystical flower that emerges from the dead earth; the awakened Buddha-mind aware of its world; the sun that rises on the morn; Dionysus ascendant in glory. 

The risen lord... Dionysus?

Statue of Dionysus

Full text of the Bacchae online at

This may seem a radical statement to make but the connections btwn Euripides' Dionysus in "The Bacchae" and the image of the Christ in Christian mythology bear a striking resemblance.  The basic movement of the play consists of
  1. an initiatory introduction, 
  2. the imprisonment and bursting from the prison house, 
  3. the patiens of Pentheus (maddening him, tearing him to shreds)
  4. the ascendancy of Bacchus

This movement is very similar to the Christian story which consists of
  1. the initiatory miracles and teachings
  2. the arrest and interrogation
  3. the patiens of Christ (via dolorosa, Crucifixion, death)
  4. the ascendancy of Christ

Many of the theophanic images (transfiguration, earthquake, exaltation) are similar - there is even a pieta of Agave with Pentheus' remains.  The incarnational aspect exists as well when Dionysus claims at the beginning of the play to have "transformed myself, assumed a mortal shape, altered my looks, so I resemble any human being."

Moreover, though we think of the Christ only as love he also has a terrifying aspect as judge at the cataract of doom.  This resembles Dionysus who intends to force Pentheus "to acknowledge Dionysus, son of Zeus, born in full divinity, most fearful and yet most kind to men."  

"The Last Judgment" by Michelangelo - notice the bold and terrifying posture of Christ as judge of the damned.

What then is the sin of Pentheus and of all Thebes?  Perhaps it is first and foremost the refusal (rather than simple neglect)to acknowledge divinity in the god - but this sin is propounded by the violent and sadistic insistence on order and control and then by the mocking prurience which leads him to seek out the "debaucheries" of the Bacchants on mount Cithaeron.  He is a creature consumed with pride who thinks everything is known, materialistic, under his control.  Things that defy his small world view must be crushed, chained, whipped, beheaded or tortured.  

Furthermore his pride is not limited to him alone but extends to the whole house of Cadmus who sowed the dragon teeth and to all the dragon race of Thebes.  Pentheus refuses the divinity of Dionysus, Cadmus makes a game of the divinity and urges his grandson to "lie royally" about religion.  Agave herself, after having killed her son, says that "In my pride I did not recognize the god, Nor understand the things I ought to have understood."  She, along with her sisters Ino and Autonoe, denied even the possibility that their sister, Semele's, pregnancy might be a divine conception and for this denial they are driven mad onto the hills of Cithaeron.  What, we wonder, would our reaction be if someone told us they had been impregnated by the god and now carried a divine child?  What might our reaction have been to the conception of the Christ were we to have lived at the time?  Is it possible on the one hand that our pride gets in the way of accepting even the remotest possibility of another world?  Is it possible that every conception is a divine thing and every child a divine child - and thus that every person is a sacred thing beyond our reckoning?

Bowl bearing the image of Bacchus at sea - vine grows from center of bowl (the omphalos, or navel) and spreads outward to the rim of the world, the heavens.
This story is not, therefore, merely a beatdown by strong gods on weak mortals.  Nor is it a story of madness or some macabre tale of human butchery punctuated by writhing, goth-like girls extolling the greatness of Bacchic drug use.  It is a play, rather, about the problem which our whole race faces, namely blinding hubris.  

DIONYSUS proclaims as he rises above the palace door: "Yes, I am Dionysus, son of Zeus.  You see me now before you as a god. You Thebans learned about my powers too late.   Dishonouring me, you earn the penalty. You refused my rites."  Consequently, to save mankind Dionysus must destroy mankind.  Hubris is only cured, it would seem, by great pain and suffering; "the fool in his heart has said there is no god"; wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord; drasanta pathos, pathei mathos.

For Euripides this correction of hubris follows the ancient rites of the land, planting, growing, harvesting, returning the leftovers to the earth, fallow season, and repetition.  The play has numerous elements of agricultural worship, the Eleusinian cult of Ceres, the most prominent of which is the shredding of Pentheus like the old stalks shredded and returned to fertilize the earth.   Pentheus threatens to "behead" Dionysus even as the stalks of wheat are beheaded.  Dionysus is shut in the prison of the earth like the seed in the ground and emerges after earthquake and tumult just as the seed riots out of the earth as the new shoot. Pentheus is dressed as a woman even as the sacrificial goat that fertilizes the land is dressed as a woman.  The king's shredded remains are cast about like the shredded old stalks scattered by happy women drunk on alcohol.   The play rests primarily on agricultural imagery but the rising from the ground, growth, ascendancy to the flower is itself an allegory for the growth of the mind/soul, the nous, to full self-awareness.  The "flower" of the mind is the awareness of one's place in the world: self-awareness: "Buddha-mind": coming to know.
Siddhartha Gautama who transcended the limitations of this world's pain and achieved full consciousness, self-awareness, or "Buddha mind". 

We must also bear in mind that Pentheus and Dionysus are closely related; they are cousins, Dionysus clings to Pentheus like a vine, both share the cross-dressing tendency, put on masks, are "kings" in their own right.  Consequently, to a great degree, Pentheus and Dionsysus are the same person.  When Pentheus is shredded Dionysus is right there and himself endures the shredding; like Osiris before him.  Thus our identification with Pentheus (we agonize over the description of his left arm being ripped from his body while he continued "shrieking as long as life was left in him") is also an identification with Dionysus.  When the god ascends at the final part of the play we ascend, hubris dispelled, with him.
The Tree of Life in Jewish Mysticism that leads to higher levels of consciousness.

The play is in essence about the abolition of pride in order to break out of the prison house of the one-dimensional and therefore deadened perspective of finality, and like the seed to ascend to a heaven of self-knowledge, self-awareness; gnothi seauton.  Pentheus' death is our death which must occur for our growth.  His shriek is our shriek.  His being "born high" is our reentry into the city of the chastised life - the head, or intellect, or conscious mind returning after great trauma to the visible world, now with a contrite heart.  Yet in such contrition the old self is exalted as a "vine-shoot", a "young lion-cub", a "young calf".  We are dead to ourselves so that, as Christ says,

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Or as echoed by Saint Paul,

as far as this world is concerned, you are already dead, and your true life is a hidden one in God, through Christ.

and again to the Colossians,

Consider yourselves dead to worldly contacts: have nothing to do with sexual immorality, dirty mindedness, uncontrolled passion, evil desire, and the lusts for other people's goods, which amounts to idolatry. It is because of these very things that the holy anger of God falls upon those who refuse to obey him. And never forget that you had your part in those dreadful things when you lived that old life.

And to the Romans,

Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead...

So, my brothers, the death of Christ on the cross has made you "dead" to the claims of the Law, and you are free to give yourselves... to another, the one who was raised from the dead [Christ], that we may be productive for God. While we were "in the flesh", the Law stimulated our sinful passions and so worked in our nature that we became productive--for death! But now that we stand clear of the Law, the claims which existed are dissolved by our "death", and we are free to serve God, not in the old obedience to the letter of the Law, but in a new way, in the Spirit.

It follows, my friends, that our lower nature has no claim upon us; we are not obligated to live on that level. If you do so, you must die. But if by the Spirit you put to death all the base pursuits of the body, then you will live.

And what of the sexual element?  So much is made of the homosexuality and the violence that people frequently overlook that Pentheus' death scene is loaded with heterosexual imagery.  Throughout the play there are references, puns, images of sexuality; everyone is "drumming with their thyrsus" and the land oozes with milk and honey while the Bacchants "frisk about" on the hills.  But most telling is Pentheus' switch from being the draconian Fascist dominatrix to becoming the perverted leering prurient.

PENTHEUS: [to one of his armed servants]

You there, bring me my weapons.  [to Dionysus] And you, No more talk!  Keep quiet!

DIONYSUS: Just a minute! [moving up to Pentheus] How'd you like to gaze upon those women out there,  sitting together in the mountains?

PENTHEUS: I'd like that. Yes, for that I'd pay in gold—and pay a lot.

Diagram of Chinese mysticism - greater understanding of the world through knowledge of the balance, or T'ao.

There are two explanations for this; either A) Euripides is a bad writer and has here an extremely awkward plot device or B) the nature of sadism is the flip side of the nature of sexual perversity.  I tend to think the latter is true and that Euripides is making a profound comment on the nature of our religious malady.  Violence, torture, sadism all used to follow in the examination of the conscience under the heading of "lechery", a heading which also included looking at pornography, committing adultery, and engaging in masturbation.  The sins of violence and the sins of sexuality both view the world as something to be dominated - the enacting of our "inexorable will" on the world at large (including our fellow men & women).  In such a world beauty, the divine realm, cannot be perceived and one lives in a tomb of impious negligence akin to somnambulent or zombie existence.  Dionysus can turn Pentheus' so quickly and handily because Pentheus' is already engaged in the thought pattern that leads to perversion.

Cup showing the death of Pentheus at the hands of the Maenads.

Additionally, the scene of Pentheus' death is rife with sexual connotations.  The scene occurs in a "valley full of streams with steep cliffs on either side" - like unto the "valley of the shadow of death" but also akin to the birth canal, the dark passage of the vesica piscis from which our life first crowned.  We either revere this setting as a holy grove or see it as a place of terror, desire, or mockery; giggling and tittering like immature boys gazing into Playboy for the first time.  Pentheus, of course, has come to stare with gaping mouth at what he thinks is going to be debauchery.  He wants to see miracles; people clothed in soft raiment.  And he thinks that he can engage in such actions with impunity, hidden in the cross-dressing madness which Dionysus has prompted him to.  

What he sees is vaguely sexual in nature but mostly mild and peaceful.  The women with "breasts swollen with milk" nurse wolf cubs and snakes; lie together in peace and with decorum; are arranged in orders of three.  Then Pentheus climbs a "high pine tree" overlooking the ravine; a tree that is shredded by women.  He experiences a physical intensity in his death similar to romantic ecstasy, an experience which, for most men, creates sensations similar to pain.  When he falls to the ground Pentheus lets out a long unending shriek and falls exhausted to the earth.  He is eventually torn to pieces by the women which he has abused (including his mother).  His failure to see the world, women, his fellow humans, as worthwhile has opened him up to this awful destruction.

But his misery, death, and dismemberment are also the means of the ascendancy of Dionysus.  He and Dionysus are one and as the one dies the other grows upward toward the sun.  Pentheus, whose name means tears, is destroyed and shredded, tears are destroyed, such that the god, Dio, might be all in all.  Pentheus' death, as bloody as it is, allows for the epiphany of Agave and Cadmus, the ascendancy of the god, and the conclusion of the mythical rite.

Mattheus Grunewald's "Resurrection" panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece - note the brilliance of the rosette in the midst of the surrounding darkness and the "stalk" of the winding sheet leading up to the resurrected figure.

Perhaps we forget in a Christianity encrusted with 2000 years of shifting imagery, the violence and blood of life, the tremendous nature of our sexuality & birth, and the potential for hubristic self-delusion; but in Euripides' play we can reconstitute that patiens which leads us to Calvary, or Cithaeron, wherein we die with the god in the hope of rising again to our ascendancy.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Books vs. Kindles

Against the Kindle (or other forms of electronic media)
1. pimping time
2. retention
3. open door to advertising
4. longevity
5. human soul's response to type of media

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The sting of death is sin

Listening to Handel today :

The phrase "the sting of death is sin and the strength of sin is the law" is a passage taken from 1 Corinthians 15 wherein Paul writes,

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory.”
Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?”
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

What do these phrases mean; "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God"? Normally this is interpreted to mean that the body cannot be part of the resurrection - but does Paul suggest flesh and blood as synonymous with mortality?  he certainly equates it to "corruption" - but not as though flesh and blood are evil; merely temporary, fading, passing away. Mysterious.

Moreover, Paul says, "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed" - we shall all be changed. What does he mean by "we shall not all sleep"? Perhaps to his audience that meant they would not die b/c the second coming was considered immanent. But I can't believe they were that zealously naive. Does Paul mean by "sleep" something else? And who is the "all"? Believers? Humanity? the entire created world?

Also, the "putting on" of the incorruptible and the immortal - like a cloak? Paul doesn't say we will become immortal, but that the corruptible will put on the incorruptible; the corruptible, the body we all have to endure, will become the eternal king. What could that mean? is it an acceptance of this world? A coming to accept the mortal for what it is and thus "seeing the world in a grain of sand" as Blake put it?

"The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law" - I'm baffled. If sin results from the sting of death then the meaning is that the knowledge of death causes us such pain that we think sin might comfort and it doesn't, just adds to the sting. Or maybe that if death weren't around we wouldn't feel sin as a sting at all. Or maybe that sin and the awareness of death and the pain both cause are all due to rational thought; only the rational creature is aware of death, sin, stings. A dog licks its balls in the ballroom. Further, if the strength of sin is the law, does that mean that we feel law as a sting when we sin? but as a balm when we do not sin? or that the law of the universe, the order of things, out of which we are put, causes us to feel our lack more intensely?

Finally, what is the victory of Jesus Christ? A seeing of our lives as transfigured; transcending the limitations of this mortal flesh, o'erleaping "the thousand natural shocks which flesh is heir to"? "After the first death there is no other," writes Dylan Thomas. Is this what Paul means? The Christ in us, once achieved, grants us the kingly perspective of seeing all our life as gift?

If we do not see all life as gift, if we see it merely as labor or onerous or one damn thing after another, "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow", then we would indeed be miserable bastards, wouldn't we? Seeing life as gift, allowing the Christ to grow in us until we are Jesus, Jeshu, YHWH - this makes all our labor worthwhile; gives light to our days, sleep to our nights, food to our tables.

This reminded me of the reading from John 1:3;"Sin is lawlessness"

Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.

But that's a subject for the next blog.  Back to grading essays.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Little Boys Lost

I was thinking today of fathers and their tendency to walk away from their sons; how many distractions, job, work, other adults, there are in the world to take a man away from "seeing" his kids.  I know my father suffered from this early on and mentioned it to me in my adult life - how sorry he was for it.  I hope I don't do that; but I know to some degree it is inevitable - or at least the temptation is always there.  Last night the boys and I all sat around watching a video game (I was playing) called "Portal 2".  We laughed, we thrilled at it together.  As a family we had a Chipotle dinner and blessed the house with holy water and "20+CMB+12" over the lintels in chalk singing "We Three Kings" together.  The boys purchased at Target a large Lego HALO spaceship and thrilled at putting it together up in their room.  I watched Minority Report with my daughter, and "The Fifth Element" and "Aeon Flux" - she enjoyed them.  Anyway, I guess I'm saying that I'm glad I don't walk away from my kids.  Against my moments of bad dad syndrome I couldn't imagine a world where I did that.  Reminds me of a poem by William Blake here:

William Blake

William Blake

The Little Boy Lost

'Father, father, where are you going?
O do not walk so fast!
Speak, father, speak to your little boy,
Or else I shall be lost.'

The night was dark, no father was there,
The child was wet with dew;
The mire was deep, and the child did weep,
And away the vapour flew.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Horowitz, Homer, Hubris and Hecabe

This quotation is by David Horowitz from his book "The End of Time"

If you last long enough and get to look over collective shoulders and measure the consequences, eventually you achieve life’s most irreversible result, which is the loss of innocence, the illusion that anything can happen and the hope that it will. This is a particularly destructive error. For if anything is possible, then nothing is necessary, and no conclusion follows. Consequently, no consideration can become a caution and no principle a restraint. The desire for more than is possible is the cause of greater human misery than any other.
Therefore recognition of consequences is the beginning of wisdom.
“Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything” (from Ravelstein by Saul Bellow)
This quotation seems to have remarkable pertinence both to the message of growing up in the Iliad and to the naive pride of Hecabe in "The Trojan Women".  In order for Achilles to stop being a menace to himself and others he has to be "pinned" by sorrow and loss so that he lose the vision that he is "the best of the Achaeans".  Only then can he learn real human emotion, share in the sorrow of our race, and consequently share in our ability to love.
Similarly Hecabe in Euripides' play seems to think the world of herself (her recollections of being a queen with so many sons, her repulsion at doing menial tasks such as cooking, and her proud volunteering to debate Helen) - but such an opinion cripples her when it comes to having to deal with the pain of the world.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The virtuous life

I liked this article here about the search for virtue in the Muslim life:

I enjoyed this post. Though I don’t share the same religious background I think your observation that “it is important that we look beyond the laundry list approach and focus on the key virtues” is quite astute. Too many people, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and even atheist see virtue as a series of laws or rules to follow. Perhaps b/c such an approach is simpler in appearance IDK. Might I take it a step further, though, and suggest that instead of even focusing on key virtues (in the Quran or elsewhere) we begin to mull over that ineffable question “what does it mean to be human?” Over the lintel of the school of Athens is inscribed “Gnothi seauton” – know yourself. Seems to me that’s a lifelong task that might never find complete satisfaction, but that even an inkling of self awareness means growth in the spirit. Sothlice.

Seems also to me that in the search for being a better person, seeking to know ourselves, or mature or whatever, art takes precedence over virtue and theology.  Art seems to convey the essence of what it means to be alive like nothing else can and gives us that vicarious experience of being alive through living someone else's experience.

Thus Rumi, again, expresses something of what being human seems to mean:

Phoenix as crucial

Achilles in beginning of epic = immature; undefined; infinite potential for greatness & possibility of escaping his fate; amorphous as water.  More the serpent's twistiness than the eagle's nobility.  thinks he is a god; "best of the Achaeans"

Achilles during epic = burns off the immature man; first slowly then in a conflagration after the death of Patroclus (cannot be quenched by that amorphous power of Scamander)

Achilles at the end of the epic = new man; mature; clearly defined and "set in place" by his now known fate; part of the human race.  realizes his equality to others (Priam); "a useless dead weight on the good green earth"

Why Phoenix, then?  surrogate of Peleus and Cheiron.  Voice of the elderly statesman.  Second of the three speakers (Odysseus= logos, Phoenix=ethos, Ajax=pathos) and appeals to ethical reasons; I am like your father. Don't disappoint your father.  Think of your father.

Ironic then that Achilles' greatest display of transformation (in Book 24) concerns thoughts of his father.  The transformation of son into father, and father fading away - is this an example of the alchemical exchange?  immaturity becoming maturity?  if so, that exchange is symbolized by the mythical creature the Phoenix; dies in flames, then resurrects anew as the transfigured bird.  This is an apotheosis image.  Man transfigured into deity by fire (the element of the sun) and fits the movement of the epic perfectly (i.e. immaturity, trial by fire, resurrection as new transfigured man)

Helpful article on Phoenix by Scott:

Green Man and Gawain

In the poem "Gawain and the Green Knight" the "ghostly knight" that enters into the court of Camelot is a manifestation of that legendary spirit of nature, the Green Man.

This character out of English mythology can be seen ornamenting gardens as a face peering out of the foliage

But he isn't necessarily a force that is welcoming to men. The Green man is fundamentally an elemental force that cares primarily for the green, the earth, the force that through the green fuse fires the flower

He has parallels to other cultures and other myths; Dionysus, for instance, or Mother Earth

Ents in Tolkien

Swamp Thing in DC comics

or the force that possesses the boys in Golding's "Lord of the Flies"

or like this rather menacing character in the video game Thief : the Dark Project

And in each of these manifestations the Green Man seeks not the good of humans but the blood, or life-force of humans; we are, after all, fertilizer for the grass.

If we are to survive, or become eternal we have to be able to face this elemental force; our own demise and sublimation into the earth (and all the night terrors that surround that ultimate reality).  The Green Knight is, therefore, like the boulder that pins our arm, or the tsunami that rolls into the beach resort - nature presenting us with an inescapable, unwinnable situation; a kobyashi maru.  Men must transcend or die.

The poem poses the question, then, of whether any civilization can create so noble a character to be able to face such a stark reality.  Does Camelot or any human culture have the ability of producing men and women able to face the Green Man?  or are we all doomed to be cowardly monkeys leaping into the trees away from the tigers in the forest of the night?

This, it seems, is why the character of Gawain as a sun hero seems so important in the poem.  Gawain represents the hero's journey which Campbell speaks of when referring to the monomyth; only Gawain is a specific type of hero which I deem "the sun hero".  He is a mortal who is inexperienced (as he says to Arthur he is without name and has done no deed); his defining colors are red and gold; he has on his shield the image of a star interlocking in eternity; he begins his journey at the start of the solar year (just after the solstice) and must commence finding the Green Chapel after a year and a day have transpired.  Thus in all his elements he is represented by solar imagery.  Moreover the sun hero's quest culminates in finding the home of his nemesis, another solar deity (sometimes his father), overcoming the obstacles set for him by that deity and being thus transfigured into a wiser and more powerful man, or even a solar deity himself (a process we call apotheosis: being exalted to god-like status).
Gawain comes to the castle of Bertilak, himself a solar character, whose lady poses challenges of honor and self-preservation to him.  Gawain defeats almost all of the challenges except the green belt that might keep him alive; an image that echoes of the symbol for eternity and yet is a deception since it is the thing that imperils him in the end.  Bertilak and the Green Knight are revealed to be one and the same and the final nick on Gawain's neck is a reminder of his failure.  He returns to court a wiser man, someone who sees beyond the pettiness of others, the sage or solar figure.  This return is also part of the monomyth and symbolizes resurrection - the new solar year of our own lives reflected in the newborn baby Jesus.

But the question remains whether men can transcend the earthly cycles of the Green Man.  Can we overcome the humus of our humanity?  the Adamah of our Adam?  or are we doomed to push up the daisies?

What Gawain seems to suggest is that our transcendence of death is achieved by transcending our own fears and desire for self-preservation.  Being honorable and exercising self-control need to take precedence over that urge to save ourselves; "he who would save his life will lose it."  The sun hero, Gawain, is only elevated to a greater status, that of the sun deity, by recognizing his own failing - seeing that he is not a god - and using that knowledge to persist in self-control and honor.  Like Phaethon who fails to drive the sun chariot, Gawain ultimately fails to keep faith with Bertilak.  I wonder whether, then the poem is saying that Gawain is ultimately a failure in apotheosis; he doesn't become a sun god b/c he cannot keep faith.  Or is the poem saying that only by the persistent  exercise of honor in the face of failure is he able to return to Camelot as "the boon giver", the wise man - one no longer at the mercy of the eternal cycles, but one with them.

(this entry is for William)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Crito and A Girl on a Horse

The following was a recent exchange between myself and an alumna concerning the Crito of Plato

      • G
        irl On A Horse
      Hi there, so I remember you telling me that if I ever had any questions concerning the books i'm reading at school that I can ask you questions about it! well here it goes...

      so I am required to write an argumentative essay regarding Aristotle's Crito, and we are to respond to the question, " Did socrates make the best decision" (in not escaping with crito). My position right now is that yes he did make the right decision on staying and carrying out the law...I was unsure at first on how to begin writing this paper. I then thought that I could demonstrate St. Thomas Aquinas' form that he uses in the Summa Theologica beginning with the question at hand and then outlining some objections, sed contra and then my opinion on why I think i am right and ending then of course with refuting the previously stated objections. This approach seemed almost like an easy way out....until i began writing it. The objection portion wont be hard because i will just outline a few of crito's steps in his argument but then I got stuck with the sed contra, Im not quite sure who I should use as my authoritative person...i originally was considering using St. Thomas Aquinas here but is it illogical to use someone as an authoritative view that came after Aristotle and who in fact studied him?

      Furthermore, I ran into another issue in that for defending why I think Socrates is right I was intending on using his very argument that he gives to maybe a better plan of action would be to illustrate why I believe Socrates is right and then use his own argument as the reply to the objections? and that is where I am now really stuck because I know that Socrates did the right thing in staying but I can't seem to formulate what im thinking into words :( I know that it was just for him to stay in prison and face his punishment that the law gave him and that he would rather die than hinder his ethics and be unjust...and then I had another thought that maybe the "Laws of Athens" have persuaded him to believe that they are just when they are in fact maybe not?
      anyhoo.... I did not realize how much I was actually writing so maybe since your most likely very busy with other important things if you could just explain to me your view about the question, "did socrates do the right thing?" (if you have time of course!) well thanks for your help! hope all is well!
      Girl on a Horse
    • wow. hang on while I read this tome.
    • okey dokey ... i normally take a slightly different angle than this (surprise there, yes?)
    • This seems to be an ethical or perhaps political angle to the work, which is legit, of course
    • but the angle I take is literary, or symbolic
    • athens is this world; the boat leaving is the boat of death, or suicide
    • what is being asked is whether or not it is just to "check out" from this world. is it just to take our life into our own hands and "our own quietus make with a bare bodkin"
    • the voices of Socrates' friends are the voices that argue for that. the voice of Socrates is the voice against that.
    • So what the Crito is asking is whether we have the right to escape the laws of this world, that seem so unjust at times, by "escaping" through suicide. His answer, of course, is no. though this world seems a dark, oppressive, sometimes unjust place, it is also the place that birthed us, succored us, educated us, and sustained us. When all goes well in this world we seem inclined to live and be happy and thank the creator. when thinks go not so much our way we think we can just end it all and find escape elsewhere. Socrates' response is that, no, we must remain in the world if we are to remain just and good. there is no "escape" to some ever receding Ausonian shore; no flight to another world; to undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. Rather, there is this world, and this life, and the justice of living in this world that we have, as good men, chosen.
    • that's a long way of responding that, yes, he does make the right decision. as to your paper the Aquinas model predates Aquinas (and is probably a carryover from the tradition of debate and reasoning in the Muslim world, but that's another story) so it shouldn't be too much of a problem to use it to analyze Plato's work.
    • can you split his own argument? or is the assignment asking for a personal evocation? in other words can you simply point out that the text makes sense and here it is? or do you have to somehow expound from your own treasure house of wisdom?
    • a series of reflections on various subjects one of which is the crito itself. in the essay Davis claims that a. the crito parallels the story of Theseus and the Minotaur (even as the Euthyphro does) and the ship is reminiscent of the ship carrying the youths to Crete. Thus b. the real issue is one of the avoidance of death's inevitability and the terror that causes. I blogged on this here:
      ‎`It seems very pretty,' she said when she had finished, `but it's rather hard to understand!' (You see she didn't like to confess, ever to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) `Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas -- only I don't exactly know what they are!'

    • Feel free to quote me liberally.

  • G
    irl On A Horse
    • thank you this makes much more sense! and that was the issue I ran into it felt like I was simply re-writing crito but since it is an argumentative essay I think I'm supposed to take a position on the matter and defend it ...but crito is an argument so I'll just keep the same points socrates uses to justify himself and some hoe make it me own interpretation? and then I had an idea last night I was going through my old english books and this may be a stretch but is Socrates' decision like that of a philosopher king? Because I was reading some articles that accused Socrates as being superficial and that most people would escape from prison at that maybe by doing the unexpected he is exemplifying what it means to be a philosopher king? having the balance of law and truth?

      • G
        irl On A Horse
      thank you for the links! i'm sure they will be of great help! and ill be sure to read that book! i am in desperate need of something other than the somewhat stale and boring 'required' books we have to read for my lit class
    • yes - boring and stale = higher education
    • I do think that most people overlook the rather graphic fact that Crito and the other dialogues are not really philosophy
    • b/c they have a philosopher at the center they are mistaken as such; but in reality they are artworks masquerading as philosophy.
    • thus Socrates' alleged "hypocrisy" at staying for the execution, or the charge of his being "foolhardy" or "carrying things tot he extreme to make a point" miss the boat (pun intended)
    • the boat means a river crossing - it's the boat from Delos (the original inhabitants were piratical Carians who were eventually expelled by King Minos of Crete) and is a parallel to the "boat" Crito offers to escape
    • so the king of that nightmare Minotaur offers to bear you to "safety"?
    • but flight from this world is not safety but horror. how do you"live with yourself" afterward?
    • Crito is wealthy. Why?
    • why does Socrates "wake from a sleep"?
    • all literary images that prompt one to think this is more a story about why we live rather than why Socrates is staying in Athens.

      • G
        irl On A Horse
      yea that is very true, funny how it is my term paper for philosophy! But I do get the refrence! haha it is actually very surprising how many students here have not read any sort of classical greek literature
      and these are the questions i ask myself!
    • yep.
    • Oh, and nota bene how many wealthy friends are saying they would be glad to pay for Socrates escape. why?
    • if Plato is again retelling the sun god story are these the other gods that accompany RA?
    • is the boat the boat of RA passing through the duat?
    • is Socrates recognizing that he must remain "within the cycle" and fight the dragon of death?
    • certainly the resulting dialogue (you must escape - i cannot escape - you must escape) is very echoing of those dialogues in BAbylonian and Assyrian mythology that precede that actual struggle with the sea dragon

      • G
        irl On A Horse
      and if so is does he know that he is so prepared to face that? hence why he remains so calm
    • but i digress
    • absolutely. his serenity is one of the hallmarks of his holiness (as it was in the Assyrian and Babylonian stories of Ahura-Mazda) and the sunhero.

      • G
        irl On A Horse
      but then how exactly did he prepare himself for that how does one reach that sort of intuition and perfect
  • again - in reality we don't
    • in archetype the character (hero, sun deity) does

      • G
        irl On A Horse
      true ha got abit ahead of myself there but i meant within the context of crito does he become this sun deity because of how he questions everything? or is it left unknown
    • i think in the context of the text itself he becomes the sun deity by his manful facing of the dragon (death, or the many headed jury)
    • again like the parallel to the myth of the sun deity he is facing trials that act as impediments to test is worthiness to be a deity

      • G
        irl On A Horse
      ooh ok like scilla
    • each one (Crito, the buddies, the jury, the many friends, the hemlock itself) is a challenge to "come down off that cross"
    • "if you are the son of god save yourself and us"
    • but it's a trap. like the scylla, yes, if you try to reason with it you lose everyone, if you push on through you lose 9 but you get through

      • G
        irl On A Horse
      oh ok this makes sense to me
    • the manful (not being sexist, I mean courageous) way in which he faces death is a form of combat and though he does it in an archetypal way - calmly and with great answers and arguments - it can be done by us to some degree
    • we are not perfect b/c we are not literary constructs, but humans. nevertheless, when that inevitable moment comes when we all must fall the archetype of the sun deity gives us a model which can encourage us to face the inevitable rather than cower in fear, flee, and be devoured by terror.
    • "I have fought the good fight, I have run the race to its end"
    • (BTW, look up how one actually dies from hemlock. it's gross. not at all what Plato describes. Consequently he is doing something tricky with that image. what is it, i wonder?)

      • G
        irl On A Horse
      hmmm interesting well ill look it up and see if i can make something of it