There be dragons!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Heroic Macbeth

A recent essay on Macbeth:

There is a long standing tradition in drama that one doesn’t say the name of the play you are going to see tonight.  It is “The Scottish Play” or sometimes “The Cursed Play” or “MacBee” or even “Mackie Bee”.  This superstitious claptrap may be due to the fact that the play contains witches, murder, betrayal, and even Hecate.  Or it may be because the play normally plays on a black set with black costumes and low lighting so players trip a lot.  On the surface, the literal level, the play seems to be about an individual soul entering into damnation.  Indeed that is one good literal reading of the play.  But I suggest here an alternate view on Shakespeare’s great “Scottish Play.”  The historical context of the play seems to hint to us that instead of rotten villain, evil to the core, Macbeth may arguably be the supreme hero of Shakespearean drama.
The work certainly begins with a heroic, albeit flawed, protagonist.  Macbeth is described as “brave Macbeth” and “noble Macbeth”, fearless in facing his enemies on the battlefield.  Yet he is also “full o’ the milk of human kindness”, reflects on “pity like a naked newborn babe”, and he seems to truly love his wife.  He is, however, very violent – steeped in war – brooding, moody, solitary – a real emo.  He is also childless which, on the Elizabethan stage, constituted a great flaw in the character and, though evidence does exist in the play that Mr. and Mrs. M did have at least one child, by the time of the play’s opening they have gone through the death of “all their pretty chickens… in one fell swoop” and now seem incapable of having any new ones.  There is no Macbeth legacy.
Macbeth’s desire to become more powerful in this world, then, seems his downfall and he enters into a job of murder which he thinks will secure him the throne but secures him only nightmares and further murders and further terror and violence until he sees time as drudgery progressing as “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (which) creeps in the this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time.”  At the end he is left wifeless, childless, friendless and he himself proclaims that his life “has fallen into the sewer” – gone down the toilet.  Certainly he seems to have been the architect of his own ruin.
Yet, Shakespeare is never simple.  To understand his nuance we need a little history.  Macbeth was written between 1599 and 1606 - most commonly dated 1606.  Queen Elizabeth I, of the House of Tudor, was already three years dead and her successor, James I, of the House of Stuart, had come to power on 24 March 1603.  James was a learned man and he authored or approved several works, including the King James Bible.  He was very interested in witchcraft and the study of demons and even wrote a book called Daemonology in 1597.  Interest in spiritual powers and the dark arts was, understandably, quite popular in Shakespearean England.
But more to the point, political unrest, suspicion and terror dominated the English populace at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century.  One event in particular seems to have figured prominently in the reign of James I and undoubtedly in Shakespeare’s life as well.  This event was in November of 1605 and involved a plot led by Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament and institute a Catholic government in England. 
The plan, called “The Gunpowder Plot” was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England's Parliament on 5 November 1605, as the prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands during which James's nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was to be installed as the English Catholic head of state. 
Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot! 
The plot was foiled due to an anonymous letter and at their trial on 27 January 1606, eight of the surviving “Powder Men” (as they were called), including Fawkes, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  The Gunpowder Plot was seen by many as an instance of demonic intervention to destroy the holy rule of James. A Treatise of Equivocation, by Henry Garnett a Jesuit priest involved in the plot, was found on one of the plotters.  This treatise was “a book whereupon men may read strange matters.”
Technically “Equivocation” is
“the use of equivocal or ambiguous expressions, especially in order to mislead or hedge; prevarication.  In Logic it is a fallacy caused by the double meaning of a word.”
But according to Janet E. Haley, in her excellent article, “Equivocation and the legal conflict over religious identity in early modern England”, this particular work on equivocation
“…was written to instruct priests sent on a ‘mission’ established by the Society of Jesus, whose aim was to preserve the Catholic Church in the newest heathen territory, England.  The Treatise prepared priests to face the perilous questions asked of them by official interrogators, who as enforcers of the Anglican settlement had devised a series of interrogatories widely known as the ‘bloody questions’ because they could force a Catholic priest to elect between the Queen and the Pope.”
During the latter part of her reign, Elizabeth had brutally persecuted Catholics in England and hopes of securing greater religious tolerance under King James had by 1605, faded, leaving many English Catholics disappointed.  During the time of the persecutions Catholic priests were banned from saying the Mass, and could be imprisoned if they did.  To counter this ban the Catholic Church had been sending missionaries, mostly Jesuits, to England to secretly minister to those Catholics who remained.  These missionary Jesuits would be imprisoned, tortured and put to death if found on English soil.  Thus they were encouraged and trained to bend the truth in order to elude their interrogators.  In short, they were encouraged to equivocate.  Janet Haley notes that, in order to survive, Jesuits and Catholics “endorsed a form of response which gave the interpreter no indication of its possible ambiguities.”  Thus, by necessity, men lied to survive and the real motives of a man were inevitably suspect.
This time of distrust and crisis came to be referred to as “the equivocation controversy.” Anti-Catholic sentiment & patriotic support of the king in England were very high.  As is frequently the case, self-reflection & humility were proportionately low.  To survive in such a nationalistic tempest, both clergy and laity had to learn to equivocate; “to beguile the time” they had to “look like the time.”  It is, therefore, highly likely that Shakespeare was writing a piece of artwork which, on the surface, seems to praise authority and give to wrongdoers their just desserts; “a rope, a rope”.  But while doing so, Shakespeare may be “looking like the innocent flower but being the serpent under’t” – he seems to have embodied in the play a remarkable sympathy for the protagonist who may actually be heroic in his final moments.
Indeed in such a climate where to say the wrong thing meant death and to say the right thing sometimes also meant death, where other men tried to hound out the inner workings of an individual’s heart, where conformity and right thinking (orthodoxy) became tools of a totalitarian state, and where violence lurked around every corner how else was one to survive than to hide away behind a mask the real intentions and loyalties one held.  “Mental reservation,” Haley notes, “was a key strategy in preserving secret identity, and it was objectionable in direct proportion to its tendency to undermine a state program increasingly committed to policing personal identity on the basis of religious affiliation.”
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
    A penn'orth of cheese to choke him,
    A pint of beer to wash it down,
    And a jolly good fire to burn him. 
One major clue as to what Shakespeare is doing, then, can be found in the speech of The Porter in Act II, 3.
Thomas De Quincey reads the scene as a returning to normalcy after a monstrous deed;
"When the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them."
The door warden is the simple and human in contrast to Macbeth’s monstrous and inhuman nature.  He’s funny and we laugh that such things as treachery and regicide might have merely been night terrors.
Yet as FREDERIC B. TROMLY in his article “Macbeth and His Porter” notes this scene is all too quickly read as comic relief;“(the scene’s) placement immediately after the murder of Duncan suggests that its primary purpose is to adjust and clarify the audience's response to Macbeth's "deed."
Tromly goes on to assert that,
“the Porter's significance resides in his similarities to his master; he shakily stands as a metaphor or figure for Macbeth. The ultimate function of the scene is to humanize the murderer by forcing us to recognize him in the "ordinary" Porter and perhaps in ourselves as well.”
Recall that equivocation is “the use of equivocal or ambiguous expressions, especially in order to mislead or hedge; prevarication.  In Logic it is a fallacy caused by the double meaning of a word.”
Indeed the Porter himself uses the word, linking it to a devil -
Knock, knock! Who's there, in th'other devil's name? Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator. (Act II, 3)
And in fact, this technique of equivocation, of ambiguity or “hedging”, runs throughout Shakespeare’s corpus of work; in Hamlet, Lear, Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice – indeed it constitutes the art of the poet who relies on nuances of words for his craft – sometimes intentionally leading us to one conclusion when really we ought to get another.
What better thing for a playwright to do during a time of national crisis and patriotic fervor, then to learn to equivocate and put his real meaning hidden within an obvious meaning, one that confirmed all the popular sentiments?  For Shakespeare, Inverness represents hell, made so by the crime of regicide, and the door warden represents a porter at the gates of hell.   He himself jokes that, “If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key.” But by suggesting that he lets into hell not just the big crimes of murder, torture, or genocide, but the little crimes as well such as putting in cheap cloth instead of expensive, or trying to corner the market on grain futures, the porter character makes a connection between Macbeth and ourselves.  Macbeth is an example of the literary figure of MAN IN EXTREMIS, that is, an ordinary guy put into an extraordinary situation in order to observe how human nature works.  He is “man writ large” to echo a phrase from Plato’s “Republic.”
What happens when someone sins?  Not just the big sins like murder, but the small sins such as lying to a friend, cheating on a test, and getting caught up in patriotic zeal against the Pope or religious zeal against the infidel?  How did men respond during the EXTREMIS of the equivocation controversy?  How would we respond in such extreme situations?
It seems from the start of the play we have a decent from the heroic figure of Cawdor, a man juxtaposed to Macbeth and who seems heroic because
He confess'd his treasons,
Implored your highness' pardon and set forth
A deep repentance: nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it; he died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owed,
As 'twere a careless trifle.
But as Duncan notices immediately afterwards
There is no art
To find the mind's construction in the face.
The outer face that we show to the world often hides deep, tortured elements of our soul known only to God. "For God seeth not as man seeth: for man looketh upon the outward appearance, but the Lord beholdeth the heart."  Duncan thought he saw a noble man in Cawdor, when behind the smiling mask of courtly obeisance lay a rebel soul.  Conversely, we think we are seeing an evil man in Macbeth and indeed we may be; but what depths of sorrow, what struggles, what fears, and even what nobility might reside within the man, only God knows.
The play seeks to answer this question.  What happens to Macbeth?  And not just Macbeth but every one of us?  What happens to man in extreme situations; MAN IN EXTREMIS?  Can he remain courageous in the extreme deprivations of hell; on the battlefield, in the midst of a soured relationship, facing cancer, having committed a horrible crime that he cannot fix.  As Dostoevsky later notes, the crime, though important, is not the most important thing; it is the despair brought on by the crime that is.
Whatever his initial motives for killing Duncan, whether for sheer power, or because he rightly saw Duncan doing a poor job as king (why else would Cawdor have rebelled), or as some substitute for the barrenness of his marriage (“he has no children” says MacDuff), the end result of Macbeth’s life is not pretty.  He has night terrors.  He is “unmanned” by fear. He is made less manly and more womanish by visions.  He sees shades that no one else sees.  He futilely seeks to alleviate his pain by making others suffer.  He alienates and kills his only friend.  He alienates his own wife.  He views life as wearisome and pointless.  His erstwhile friends become hounds seeking out his innermost secrets.  Eventually he finds himself teetering on the brink of despair, lost in a state where
that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
Yet Macbeth is a thinking man.  He considers and reasons and deliberates even more than Hamlet.  His soliloquys reveal a tremendous consideration of the reasons for good acts, of the afterlife, of the power of words and images.  And perhaps it is this thinking that leads him to defy despair.  Because eventually he decides NOT to be cowed by the fears and terrors which seek to destroy him.
The mind I sway by and the heart I bear
Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear (he vows)
And as each assurance from the witches that “everything will be okay” proves itself to be a falsehood, Macbeth concludes that he has only one course to follow.  Eventually he realizes,
They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But, bear-like, I must fight the course.
In this case, however, “the course” is not just the destiny laid down for him or the inevitable end of his diabolic actions.  Rather “the course” is the river of tears, despair, which courses toward him like a flood.  Like King Cnut he is fighting the tide of ruin rather than submitting to it.  The witches who, like the devil, were seemingly his friends and allies but who proved his deceivers are rejected by Macbeth when he vows
be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense;
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope. 

Thus during the end battle Macbeth is not just a raging demon of violence.  
In fact, he checks himself from killing Macduff because his soul is “too much charged” with the blood of Macduff’s family.  But when Macduff taunts him saying
Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o' the time:
We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted on a pole, and underwrit,
'Here may you see the tyrant.’
Macbeth responds with defiance saying,
I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,
And to be baited with the rabble's curse.
Even though all that had hitherto pointed to his success now is gone, even
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane
And (Macduff) opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last.
The last what?  The extreme ambiguity of the word leads us back to an equivocation.  Does Shakespeare here mean that Macbeth is defiant of the will of God even at the end, and thus damned?  Is Macbeth’s clinging to life set in contrast to noble Cawdor’s throwing away life “like a trifle”?  Or could it be that Shakespeare means that even when all good things are gone, something in man, something steely and unbroken, still defies despair and clings resiliently to hope?  What after all does the Enemy want from us but that we despair?  Did Robert Southwell despair during the extreme tortures of Mr. Topclyfe?  Did Guy Fawkes despair as his arms and legs were ripped from his body?
Perhaps in the mind of Shakespeare the deep damnation of our taking off lies not in breaking the commandments but in despairing that we can ever rectify the situation after we inevitably do break them.  Perhaps what the play shows us through the use of MAN IN EXTREMIS is that to defy despair is the ultimate act of courage, the supreme heroism of life’s drama. 
Perhaps it is here, in this world, pressed “upon this bank of shoal of time” that we must decide not to submit to our own destruction but actually to say with Macbeth –
Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'

Works Cited:
Janet E. Haley, Equivocation and the Legal Conflict Over Religious Identity in Early Modern England.  (Yale Journal of Law & Humanities, 1991), Vol 3:33

Frederic B. Tromly, “Macbeth and his porter.”  Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring, 1975), pp. 151-156

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Plato, Dante, and the Liberal Arts path to autonomy

Generally, Dante is regarded as structuring his work on Aristotelian division; but indeed he is far more Platonically based than Aristotelian.  In fact, the structure of Dante's work rests on the Medieval structure of the Liberal Arts which, itself, is dependent on an earlier educational model of the Divided Line as laid out in Plato's Republic.

Margherita Fiorello nicely outlines this structure of the Liberal Arts as correspondent to Medieval Alchemy:

The Liberal Arts consisted of two sections; the Quadrivium and the Trivium.  The Quadrivium ("four roads") was composed of four sections; arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy.  The Trivium ("three roads") was composed of three sections; grammar, logic, rhetoric.

They were not the same as the divisions we now mark between, say, sophomores and juniors, but were, rather, disciplines which one learned through studying certain texts.  The Quadrivium trained the mind to an intellectual rigor, or strength.  The Trivium trained the heart (or "third eye" - the "chakra", or "ajna" as the Eastern mystics called it) to perceive through love.

The Quadrivium is itself a reconstitution of the ancient Platonic image of the Divided Line.  Tudor B. Munteanu argues at his blog that the Divided Line was NOT based on the Golden Proportion Division:

In my understanding, however, it seems that the Divided Line was an image best left in the mind; difficult to concretize visually - namely b/c Plato seems to overlap the second (pistis) with the third (dianoia) as the connecting "middle term" of the Golden Proportion.  They are the same in size, operating on the same thing (objects), connecting the world of the visible to the world of the intelligible.  The rift might seem vast, but is no more vast than the line between the lower half of the vesica piscis and the upper half.  The rift is the canyon between the violent and the malebolges of Nether Hell down which Geryon carries the two poets.  In the Divided Line the middle term of b connects the world of the physical (a) with the world of the metaphysical (c) - this model carries through to the doctrine of the Incarnation in the Catholic world view, Christ being, being both man and god, stands for the "middle term" between earth and heaven.  Similarly, belief (pistis) and understanding (dianoia) work intimately with one another to connect the visible world of images with the intelligible world of forms.  The whole guardian must be trained in gymnastic and music equally, the ruler must be both philosopher and king equally, the pilgrim (Dante) must become both bishop and emperor equally, physical and metaphysical, dead and living both.
Dante himself acknowledges this paradoxical existence in Canto XXVII when he is faced with walking through the fire - the last trial on the ascent up Purgatory.  He says of his fear
per chi/io divenni tal, quando lo'ntesi,
qual e colui che ne la fossa e messo.

I was like a corpse put in the grave,
the words I heard so touched my heart with fear.
- XXVII, 14 - 15

What terrifies him is the impossibility of the paradox.  How does one die and remain alive?  The only thing that those on this side of the world of the visible perceive is that the body dies - horribly; we see "too sharply in (our) mind bodies (that) die burning at the stake." (XXVII, 17 - 18).  The trick is to cross through that fire, as Augustine later suggests in the "Confessions" in order to see that life exists on the other side.  Only then can we graduate from children to adults.

Adulthood implies autonomy - we move from being subordinate to the law to being lawmakers - children to men - slaves to freemen. Thus the Liberal Arts' whole purpose is to prepare us to make that spiritual/intellectual move; to prepare men destined to vote in a republic to be able to vote.  In similo modo Plato suggests that the movement from Gyges to Er occurs only through an education that prepares us to see "beyond the veil" to what undergirds the created world like the stern of a trireme - the spindle of necessity.  Just as Er passes through death (like Coleridge's Mariner) and returns to the world to tell others, to the cave to rescue prisoners, so too does the pilgrim Dante return to write his poem.  His poem is the testimony of the other world, like Er's testimony of the afterlife or the risen Christ's testimony to the Apostles.
The last section of the work, Paradiso, is the pleasure which guides him - seeing at last that God and man are one - an action only possible after going through the educational agony of the first two sections of the Liberal Arts.

*work in progress*

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dante, the Sumerians, and the Flower of Life

Sumerian ziggurats are based on a 7 tier system the ascent of which constituted a pilgrimage that changed the Unredeemed Man into the Cosmic Man.

Purgatory is based on a seven tiered system the ascent of which alters the Unredeemed Man (Dante) into the Redeemed Man ready to "leap into the stars" and become "Cosmic Man"

Though I strongly doubt that Dante had any knowledge of the ziggurats, it is possible that the mathematical knowledge carried through the generations from 3000BC to 1300AD. This system of seven is a reference in both cultures to the spiritual growth represented by The Seed of Life and The Flower of Life.

The Gnomon, or idea (Fiat Lux) is planted into the soil of Unredeemed Man; darkness and chaos - Adam or Gyges.  Over the course of six days (circles, petals)

it develops into The Seed of Life which looks like this:

This Seed, Redeemed, or Resurrected Man (The Anointed, Meshua, Osiris), is the soul read to "leap into the stars"; to grow into a tree (Ygdrassil) or a lotus plant,  which eventually "joins with the love that moves the sun and the other stars:

l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle.

This "flower" that is produced is The Empyrean, the Rosa Mystica, The Flower of Life (what Plato calls "the spindle of necessity" and "the whorls" in Republic X) which was represented this way in the ancient world:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Reality, Truth, and the Image

Normally we think of truth as empirical truth, i.e. that which can be measured, tasted, touched, weighed.  That is a post-Enlightenment conception of truth.  It disallows concepts such as love, honor, duty, and forces one to prospect in the brain juices for the source of emotions and even reason itself.  

A better understanding of truth is in the idea of a relationship between two terms; reality and image.

Reality is that which is.  Such a definition may seem relative and indeed it is.  Things have a reality outside my perception but they are not reality for me until they become real, until they enter my perview and have effect on me.  When I was young the reality of my parents' frailty, weakness, exhaustion was non-existent.  All was good, laundry was done, food was on the table, everyone was happy and mom and dad were like a pillar.  My greatest concerns were whether chicks would dig me, whether I would get teased for my weight, whether I would be able to play Dragon's Lair at the arcade that afternoon.  When I was sophomore in high school my mom was shot by a crazed gunman on the highway.  The shotgun blast blew out the back window of the car on the driver's side and one of the pellets struck my mom in the face and lodged in her head.  She made it through surgery and returned to us and is alive today.  But the experience as a young man of helping my feeble mom out of the car, of seeing her slowly recover, of cleaning her blood out of the front seat of the car, made her frailty and my dad's a reality for me.  Sure it existed before but it was only real to me and only changed me after that moment.  All myth and all religion and all human thought used to concern itself with this principle, that is, the maturation of the individual man or woman.  Reality had to do not with how to make a faster internet or a sleeker car or get a man on the moon, but it had to do with perception and a man was prompted, through symbols and rituals, to come to perceive the world not as a child but as a man.  "When I was a child I thought like a child..."

Image generally is the concept we hold in the mind of any thing, be it object or experience or generally how the world functions.  The image can be derived, as Descartes suggests, first from the sense perception of the physical world, but it can also be derived from our basic genetic makeup (we have an image of our own physical self but also of our dreams, emotions, thoughts, loves and hatreds) and it can be derived from constructed imagery, art.  Thus image is whatever we have put in our head that frames the future perception of the world - "phantasmagoria" as Yeats called it - the bulk of images that we acquire throughout our existence.

Truth is a proximity or relationship between these two things.  The image captures something of reality.  The better it captures that reality the "truer" it is.  The worse it captures that reality the less true, or false, it is.  We say of a movie that has moved us to tears, "That was true."  Of a piece of music that grips us, "That was true."   Of a book or painting or sculpture that captures our imagination, "That was true."  The historical reality of the thing is not a consideration in this case; historically Normandy beach was much smokier and more terrifying and we don't actually experience it when we watch "Saving Private Ryan" - yet the movie rings true.  The sinking of the Titanic might have looked just like James Cameron depicted it, yet the despair, sappy love story, and general mayhem do not seem near as "true" as the earlier version of "A Night To Remember".  "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."  Which do we choose?  The story about the tiger or the other story?

The proximity of image to reality is only made possible by this third element.  This is what Plato is referring to in his dialogues under the guise of addressing the golden proportion.  Only through understanding the proximity can we come to live in reality, have real life, see clearly.  This proximity is, therefore, the way to reality, the truth, and the life lived in reality.  It is what we refer to in the character we call "The Anointed One" (the Xristos) Tetragrammaton (IESU); or The LOGOS.  Christ, who appears in the mandorla/aureola of the vesica piscis, is the connection between the eternal divine of reality and the temporal mortality of the image.  Image fades, doesn't fully capture, has to shift and shift and shift again, regrowing like the grass each spring.  But reality remains constant and eternal and shining.  

What then are we doing when we study the images but learning more about the proximity and living in the light and life of reality?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Second Step (Purgatory IX)

In Canto IX of Purgatory Dante describes the second of the three steps up to the gates of Purgatory in the following way:

Era il secondo tinto più che perso,
d'una petrina ruvida e arsiccia,
crepata per lo lungo e per traverso.

Esolen translates this as

The second step, a scorched and rough-cut stone,
was veined with cracks all over and across,
and darker than the darkest violet-brown.

while Mandelbaum

The second step, made out of crumbling rock,
rough-textured, scorched, with cracks that ran across
its length and width, was darker than deep purple.

Longfellow with the same passage

The second, tinct of deeper hue than perse,
Was of a calcined and uneven stone,
Cracked all asunder lengthwise and across.

And Sayers

And dyed more dark than perse the second was -
A calcined stone, rugged and rough in grain,
And it was cracked both lengthwise and across.

The word "perso" translated variously as black, purple, deep purple, or "darkest violet-brown" (Esolen) carries for Dante's audience two connotations lost on us in English.  First, that the color is the color of the church year, Lent and Advent, in the Medieval era (there were no green vestments).  The second step indicates penitence and waiting rather than the permanent sorrow of black.  Second, the color was the color of royalty - derived from the rare mollusk and producing "the persian cloth" of kings.  Thus the second step, though cracked all over, is also the stone of the king (Christ) who broke the bridges of hell and turned the permanence of death (black) into the penitence of the liturgical year.  Purgatory, different from Inferno, is a temporary state rather than a permanent.  Joy and beauty abound throughout the text because the souls are bound for Heaven - not locked into that inflexible psychological loop of fixation on an injury or object which constitutes the mental state of hell.  The stairs up to the gates of Purgatory are all about Faith (white), Hope (purple) and Charity (red), the theological virtues which the Virgilian human intellect, necessary for the seeing of evil as it really is, does not comprehend.  The journey through Purgatory, which is a journey of the heart (the silver key) more than of the head (the gold key), cannot be accomplished unless one gives oneself over to experiencing these three virtues which complete the "virility" of man.
Details, details, right?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Scruton and the Deconstructionists

Roger Scruton writes, at the end of his excellent analysis that
…it is futile to defend Western culture by attacking feminism, gay liberation and other movements which have captured the curriculum.  For these movements are the effect and not the cause of cultural uncertainty.  And this uncertainty occurs not at the level of the curriculum, but at the level of social reproduction.  The loss of the transition from youth to adulthood means the loss of sexual restraint, and therefore the loss of trust between the sexes.  The sexes cease to be partners and become rivals.
and earlier
In a study of Orwell’s 1984… Alain Besancon argues that the totalitarian society envisaged by Orwell can be understood only in theological terms.  For it is a society founded on a transcendental negation, a supreme ‘naysaying’ to the human condition to which ther is and can be no merely human rejoinder.  In this society there is only power, and the goal of power is power.  In the place where love should be there is absence; in the place of law another absence; in place of obligation, friendship, responsibility and right only absence.  Truth is what power decides, and reality no more than a construct of power.  People can be ‘vaporised’ – for their existence was never more than provisional, a momentary arrest in the flow of unmeaning.  Language has been turned against itself, so that the attempt to mean something – the desperate bid for a significant utterance – will always fail.  Newspeak deconstructs the word, so that nothing speaks (or writes) in it save power.  And ruling through this power is a supreme cleverness, the Mephistophelian irony of O’Brien, who undermines in his rhetoric the very system that he serves, mockingly enforcing through torture the view that torture, like everything else, is utterly pointless… When at last the veil is lifted (on this mindset of deconstructionism), we perceive a wondrous landscape: a world of negations, a world in which, wherever we look for presence we find absence, a world not of people but of vacant idols, a world which offers, in the places where we seek for order, friendship and moral value, only the skeleton of power.  There is no creation in this world, though it is full of cleverness – a cleverness actively deployed in the cause of Nothing.  It is a world of uncreation, without hope or faith or love, since no ‘text’ could possibly mean those transcendental things.  It is a world in which negation has been endowed with the supreme instruments – power and intellect – so making absence into the all-embracing presence.  It is, in short, the world of the Devil.p. 147 – 148

This is brilliant.  Three things come to mind.  First, that outlined here is the same problem Socrates faces in the Gyges’ ring analogy raised by Glaucon.  The ring found in the cave grants the bearer “invisibility” which is the power to see that all things are constructs of the human mind; images, words, ceremony, even ideas are not necessarily connected to anything but are mere signifiers and thus completely at the mercy of one who can control them.  To realize such a thing makes one above humanity and awake to the world.  One becomes what Nietzsche called “the ubermensch”.  This is not an evil in itself, it is merely a knowledge, a magus, but it can become an evil depending on how it is used.  The deconstructionists use this knowledge to dominate over others for, as Scruton points out, in their despair they see nothing beyond the signifier.  For the deconstructionist we are totally alone on this ball of mud.  Nor can they bring themselves to live “as if” there was something transcendental for such a thing requires the negation of power.  To acquire power is their only reason for being.  They are sorcerers who use the power of imagery to dominate, as opposed to wizard who use the power of imagery to embolden and encourage (Saruman to Gandalf).  The second thought on this, then, is that the same diabolic activity is what has occurred in groups such as the Legionaries of Christ and amongst the Illuminati and Masons who see all life as the acquisition of more power – through dominating others, abusing others, enslaving others.  And the third idea flowing from this is that, for those who do not know the full extent of the rot, such sorcerous thoughts have infected our institutions in the modern world long enough that they have deeply infiltrated our politics and culture.  Thus, I think Dinesh D’Souza is wrong in his analysis of the current POTUS – he isn’t recrafting the world in anti-colonial terms; he’s recrafting the world for the acquisition of more power to himself.  In essence B.O. is nothing more than a sorcerer, a conjuror (though not a very good one IMO).  He is a child of the deconstructionist riddled universities that see no meaning in anything and all institutions of the West as one long, sick, meaningless joke.  Basically, B.O. is the perfect deconstructionist – a presidential Jacques Derrida, if you will.  Read this book.  It’s brilliant.

The humanities, as these emerged in the nineteenth-century university, were not designed to instill a common culture.  On the contrary, they assumed the work of ‘acculturation’ to be already complete.  Their purpose was to reflect on the human world, by providing images, stories, works of art, and expressions that would become part of the mental repertoire of those who absorbed them.We have abundant scientific knowledge of our world and technical mastery over it.  But its meaning is hidden from us.  We have knowledge of the facts, and knowledge of the means, but no knowledge of the end.  … this peculiar ignorance – not ignorance that, or ignorance how but ignorance what.  We no longer know what to do or what to feel; the meaninglessness of our world is a projection of our numbness towards it…. That is the point of high culture; neither to ‘do dirt on life’, nor to emphasize its senselessness, but to recuperate by imaginative means the old experience of home.…we need the vision of ourselves as ennobled by our aims and passions, existing in ethical relation with our kind.  But we must free ourselves of those last romantic illusions – including the illusion that love is the answer.  Love is not the answer, but the question, the thing which sets us searching for meaning in a world from which meaning has retreated.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pip & Percival

Teaching "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens and noticing this time around an excellent example of mythopoeic speculation.  Bernard Batto in his great analysis of the book of Exodus, "Slaying the Dragon" defines mythopoeic speculation as, 

The conscious, reflected application of older myths and mythic elements to new situations...the process by which new myths are created or old myths are extended to include new dimensions.

This human process of recreation occurs in each generation of artists (ours included) who draw from the old in order to create the new, and thus continue to comment on the eternity of the human spirit.  Egyptians used to call this the sowing of the seed and represented the process by taking crucial artifacts from an older monument and burying them in the foundations of a new monument.  In our own time mythopoeic speculation can be seen most readily in the repetition of movies such as "Seven Samurai", "Magnificent Seven" and "Bug's Life" the plot of each mirroring the one before it.  Dickens' great story is no different.  He is drawing from the second of the two great pillars of British culture which are the King James Bible and the Arthurian cycle.  His story of Pip, Estella, Miss Havisham and Magwich is really the story of Percival ("Peredur" in the Mabinogion), the third knight in the quest to achieve the holy grail.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Percival

First, the situation of both characters is very similar.  According to the Mabinogion, Percival's father was a knight killed in a vendetta whose mother fled to the wilderness with her little boy.  He was raised, therefore, totally cut off from the "civilized" world of the court - a country bumpkin, or hayseed, if you will, but full of the zeal and energy of that rustic world.  
he was slain, and six of his sons likewise. Now the name of his seventh son was Peredur, and he was the youngest of them. And he was not of an age to go to wars and encounters, otherwise he might have been slain as well as his father and brothers. His mother was a scheming and thoughtful woman, and she was very solicitous concerning this her only son and his possessions. So she took counsel with herself to leave the inhabited country, and to flee to the deserts and unfrequented wildernesses. 
Similarly, Pip's father and mother died in his infancy and he has grown up in the marsh country, raised by his sister and her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery.  Dickens makes Joe very rustic; uneducated, good hearted, well meaning but clumsy and plain.  The marsh is remote, wild, isolated, a scene well depicted in the BBC version of the story.  

It is as far from the court of "Camelot" as possible.  Dickens' trope on the image, though, is that this rustic background is nothing to be ashamed of but is full of, what Dickens saw as, country virtues.  It is only a source of shame when compared to the gentile and dandified world of city life.

Pip comes into direct contact with this city life in the person of Estella.  Percival encounters "city life" when he first sees a cadre of knights pass by.  This vision is later reinforced in the vision of the grail.  Both characters, though, are brought out of their lowly condition by a vision of beauty.  In Percival is kindled a desire to become a member of the court, 
"Mother," said Peredur, "what are those yonder?" "They are angels, my son," said she. "By my faith," said Peredur, "I will go and become an angel with them." 
a desire he immediately tries to fulfill by leaving home, defeating a a knight, and traveling to Camelot clad in the defeated knight's armor.  Percival then enters, like many other knights, on the grail quest.  In the Arthurian cycle, however, the grail is closely associated with the image of the feminine.  The shape of the cup, the attraction toward the beautiful, the gentling effect the grail has, all point to a connection between the grail cup and the belle dame image of chivalric lore.  Percival encounters his belle dame in the pageant of the grail castle;
Thereupon, behold five maidens came from the chamber into the hall. And Peredur was certain that he had never seen another of so fair an aspect as the chief of the maidens. And she had an old garment of satin upon her, which had once been handsome, but was then so tattered, that her skin could be seen through it. And whiter was her skin than the bloom of crystal, and her hair and her two eyebrows were blacker than jet, and on her cheeks were two red spots, redder than whatever is reddest. And the maiden welcomed Peredur, and put her arms about his neck, and made him sit down beside her. 
The grail is also associated with the cup of the last supper and the crucifixion of Christ (it is both the cup used to initiate the Mass and the cup that catches the blood of Christ on the cross) but its connection to the feminine raises an intriguing Medieval comment on the nature of sexual desire as it relates to salvation; a governing of desire toward its proper end and a putting of oneself at the service of beauty in order to channel desire toward selflessness.  

Percival's seeking and eventual attaining of the grail are, then, both salvific and romantic; romance as a way toward salvation.  This is most readily apparent in the story of Percival and the temptress by the shore.  Percival's desires for women are still misplaced - he has to recognize women as fellow sufferers and not the source of but merely vessels of beauty; the grail itself is not the goal but what the grail holds or represents.  

In a very similar way, Pip begins by desiring Estella (his "star") but is confused as to why he desires the young debutante.  She treats him haughtily and with disdain, as though she were royalty.  Pip even has a conversation with his friend, Biddy (a character similar to Elaine in the story of Arthur, though Elaine is Lancelot's wife), in which he reveals to her his confusion of Estella.  
"Biddy," said I, after binding her to secrecy, "I want to be a gentleman."
"O, I wouldn't, if I was you!" she returned. "I don't think it would answer."
"Biddy," said I, with some severity, "I have particular reasons for wanting to be a gentleman."
"You know best, Pip; but don't you think you are happier as you are?"
"Biddy," I exclaimed, impatiently, "I am not at all happy as I am. I am disgusted with my calling and with my life. I have never taken to either, since I was bound. Don't be absurd."
...Biddy turned her face suddenly towards mine, and looked far more attentively at me than she had looked at the sailing ships....
"Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite her or to gain her over?" Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause.
"I don't know," I moodily answered.
"Because, if it is to spite her," Biddy pursued, "I should think—but you know best—that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think—but you know best—she was not worth gaining over."
Exactly what I myself had thought, many times. Exactly what was perfectly manifest to me at the moment. But how could I, a poor dazed village lad, avoid that wonderful inconsistency into which the best and wisest of men fall every day?
(GE: Chapter XVII)
The fact that Pip is either trying to gain Estella or spite her indicates a misplacement of his motivation; he is not motivated out of real life or equality to her but is motivated for selfish reasons.  Thus she becomes the temptress by the shore - a temptress that he can only defeat by remembering death and calling on the "cross" of reality.  In other words, Pip has to have an awakening to the hollowness and emptiness, the vanity, of the material world - a world gained for him by the suffering of Magwich and confirmed in its brutal inhumanity by the character of Drummle - lest he become a damned soul and fail at the grail quest.

Yet Pip suffers from the same flaw as Percival; neither character asks the right questions.  When Percival first encounters the knights he asks about all the trappings, armor, weapons, banners of the knights, all the outward signs of glory and honor, but not about what constitutes authentic heroism and self-sacrifice, real glory and honor.  
"What is this?" demanded Peredur, concerning the saddle. "It is a saddle," said Owain. Then he asked about all the accoutrements which he saw upon the men, and the horses, and the arms, and what they were for, and how they were used. And Owain shewed him all these things fully, and told him what use was made of them.
Percival is entranced by the illusion of the material and does not ask questions that might bring him beyond that temporal world.  His mother exacerbates the problem when she tells him, upon his leaving home, not to ask too many questions.  Thus, when Perival is later in the grail castle, he does not ask about the pageant of the grail that passes before him.  Because he does not so do he is incapable of healing the Fisher King, a king who has a wound in his vital parts (his groin) that cannot be healed by natural causes.  As Matthew Annis points out,
...the Fisher King originates (as a literary character) in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval. The reader first encounters the Fisher King when Perceval meets a fisherman who offers Perceval lodging. In his castle, the fisherman reveals himself to be a king who is weak and bedridden, and yet has such an abundance of wealth that he can provide his guest a grand feast. During the feast, Perceval witnesses a Grail Procession but fails to ask his host any questions pertaining to what he sees. As a result, all the inhabitants of the castle disappear the next morning (Chrétien de Troyes 32-37).
This story has found numerous incarnations in Western literature.  Annis notes in the same article that
There are many different versions of the story of the Fisher King, and the character is not represented uniformly in every text. In the medieval period, Chrétien de Troyes' Percival makes him a completely ambiguous figure, while Wolfram von Eschenbach provides him an elaborate background in his Parzival. The Vulgate Cycle expands the Fisher King into multiple Maimed Kings, each suffering from some type of wound; yet Thomas Malory virtually ignores the Fisher King in his Morte Darthur. Modern texts treat the Fisher King less as a character and more as a motif: T. S. Eliot incorporates the motif of the Fisher King into the desolated modern city and its people in his poem, The Waste Land; in other modern texts, the Fisher King is embodied in a Vietnam War veteran, children in search of their fathers' identities, and the baseball coach of a team on a hopeless losing streak. The Fisher King also appears in various films, from Eric Rohmer's adaptation of Chrétien's Perceval to Terry Gilliam's buddy comedy, The Fisher King. In every version of the story, though, the Fisher King is completely helpless and depends on another to alleviate his suffering.
The wounding of the Fisher King parallels the wounding of Miss Havisham.  Just as he is wounded in that part most vital to manliness, the genitals, from which a man draws his power as a man and effects the world in a procreative way, so too Miss Havisham in the novel has been wounded in the heart.  She has been jilted at her wedding by an unscrupulous man and carries with her a wound in the seat of emotion from which women draw their intuitive power and ability to receive love.  In medieval literature, the seat of power for men is dynamic, procreative, inseminating, sexual power; the seat of power for women is the intuitive, receptive, emotional heart (an image that only begins to take shape in medieval romantic literature as heretofore the kidneys, not the heart, were the seat of emotions).  Havisham, like the Fisher King, cannot be healed by normal means but must have a supernatural healing - a healing by the fire of the holy spirit - to cure her of her bitter entombment in a false material world.

But Pip can no more cure her than Percival can cure the Fisher King.  Pip refuses to ask questions such as why Miss Havisham suffers as she does, whether Estella's disdain is the right way to treat someone, whether his world with Joe Gargery ought to be sufficient, or later where his own money comes from or what the proper human attitude toward other humans ought to be.  As a boy he does not help Miss Havisham ought of love but out of duty, fear, and later the expectation of receiving good fortune.  Later, Pip takes for granted that the wealth he receives is from Miss Havisham and even that it is due to him so that he can become a gentleman.  His cavalier attitude toward material goods, unquestioning of their origins, positions him to become a man similarly heartless to the Drummle character.  Like Percival he is tempted by the "woman by the shore", the false lady, to succumb to the illusion of the material world.

Finally, both achieve the grail in the same way.  In the midst of temptation Percival looks on the cruciform image of his sword and he remembers a dying girl he once loved.  Howard Pyle relates the story in his "The Story of The Grail and the Passing of Arthur":
Then, by and by, the lady grew very fond toward Sir Percival, and she put her arms about his shoulders and held him very close to her. With this the wine swam still more powerfully in Sir Percival's head, and he knew not very well what he said or did. And he said, "Lady, tell me — what is this, and why am I here?" To this she answered, "Percival, thou glorious knight! this is the pavilion of Love, and I am the spirit of Venus who inhabits it. So yield thou to that spirit and take thou the joy of thy life whiles thou mayst."
Therewith she reached her arms again to Sir Percival and he reached his arms toward her and he took her into his arms. And kissed the lady. Sir Percival kissed her upon the lips and the fire from her lips passed into his heart and set his soul aflame.
Then, in that moment, he knew not why, he suddenly bethought him of that fair lady whom he had met in the tent when first he went forth as a knight, clad in his armor of wicker-work.And he thought of how he had kissed her that time; and he thought of how he had beheld her in that cold and windy room of the castle, lying dead and white before him ; and he thought of how he had beheld the Spear and the Grail that time in the castle. Then it was as though a wind of ice struck across the flame of his passion, and he cried out thrice in a loud voice, "God! God! God! What is this I would do, and why should I sin in this wise?" And therewith he drew upon his forehead the sign of the cross.
Then in an instant the lady who sat beside him shrieked very loud and shrill, and all about him was confusion and turbulence. And Percival looked, and behold! it was not a strange and beautiful lady who sat beside him like a wonderful goddess, but it was the Enchantress Vivien, clad in red and bedecked with her jewels. For it was she who had thus planned the undoing of Sir Percival by causing him to sin. 

This memento moris, a recalling of death, jolts him back into the cold light of day such that he rejects the temptress (the belle dame sans merci, or false lady) and prays for help from Mary (the belle dame, or true lady).  Immediately the temptress disappears and Percival is left on a barren shore, but he is joined by the other two knights, Bors and Galahad, who are close to succeeding at the grail quest and together the three go one to achieve the grail together.  In much the same way Pip has to grapple with the harsh revelation that his wealth has been due to the sweat and blood of a convict, Magwich, who loves him as a son.  Then he has to see his beloved Estella married to the brutish Drummle (the false knight) and undergo a painful marriage of abuse and loneliness which chastens her.  Both experiences are harsh encounters with death, but they are necessary for young Pip to realize the truth about his situation.  Only by accepting Magwich does he come to love the man as a father and selfless try to get Magwich free of imprisonment.  Only by seeing his lady, Estella, stripped from him and shackled to a brute of a man does Pip come to see not only what he has lost but what is truly important to him. 

 Through the experience of memento moris Pip ascends to a higher plane of human understanding, trading in the false lady for the true.  Though at the end of the novel he doesn't wed Estella (contrary to the lovely ending of the BBC production) he meets her at the end as a fellow human being and sufferer along the way.  Since she is no longer the source of desire and beauty (the great expectation), Pip is able to show her compassion and friendship.  Like Percival, Pip's expectations have ascended beyond the realm of the material world toward a real apotheosis of spiritual understanding.  Thus, just as Percival leaves the realm of the grail and returns to die in the civil war of Camelot, Pip can part from Estella with blessings as a fellow human being and return to the toil of the world.

The story of Percival and of Pip seems at first as a tale of tragedy and to some degree it is so.  Nevertheless, it is a powerful tale about the nature of our human condition, love, desire and attainment of sanctity.  Tragedy is a necessary part of sanctity and sorrow and loss are vital to our waking up to expectations greater than we could ever imagine.  Only such expectations can promise real happiness, real honor, real humanity and the fulfillment of such expectations comes not from the material wealth and beauty of the grail but from the holy wine, the blood of Christ, poured out for suffering humanity.