There be dragons!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A theory

Rereading the Odyssey (and loving every minute of it) I was struck with a sudden possible interpretation of the wanderings. The movement of the work is from Kalypso to Penelope, the tropical island to the home in ruins, from fantasy to reality. As such, the work abounds in image after image of women and male/female relationships. Unlike Iliad, Odyssey is chock full of women and descriptions of women and sexual imagery. Why? Is it possible that Homer is proposing that the journey is one from a fantastical vision of what men want women to be (the immortal sexy insatiable supermodel on the tropical island) to what women are (the faithful, crafty but aging mortal woman on the island that needs a king)? If so, in the journeys, every monster seems a permutation of either the male or female fantasy; they are ways of looking at the world that are monstrous.

For instance, Scylla and Charybdis are both female perversity. Charybdis was the daughter of Poseidon and Gaia (Sea and Earth) and she devours, sucks down everything. She is like the joke about what you call a woman who can suck a tennis ball through a ten foot hose; yet she is monstrous and dangerous. Like Tiamat or other ancient feminine goddess figures she seeks to devour everything and has to be avoided. Even the ocean is sucked down into her maw, causing a whirlpool, an image which has obvious feminine connotations.

On the other side, Scylla, is also feminine; a monstrous mutation of a nymph whom Circe calls "no mortal, she's an immortal devastation, terrible, savage, wild, no fighting her, no defense..." the only response one can have is to "just flee the creature." Scylla seems to be the all devouring sexuality of woman unchecked. The type of woman that "eats men alive".

But to escape this, the final test of the journeys, Odysseus must pass through hell and horror. He has to come to grips with his own male tendency to fantasize women as goddesses, which makes them into monsters.

Thus, in his journey back to normalcy, Odysseus must slip through that thin gap between the all devouring feminine forces; placing women too low or too high. He cannot make it unscathed but loses 6 of his men - then after the incident with the cattle of Helios, loses his entire crew to a storm and is driven back to Charybdis. He survives only by clinging to a fig tree. Why? Why is he "driven" back to that monstrous vision of female sexuality? Why is it a fig tree that saves him? The fig is associated with fertility and female eroticism; sacred to Greek and Roman; was it associated with Athena? Is his salvation from the feminine beast to cling to the slim idea that women (and their sexuality) are really goods? Why does he lose all of his crew? Are they the remnants of teenage delusions of grandeur? The appetites? Those forces which a grown man must divest himself of if he is to survive? Further down the road, how does the cattle of Helios incident play into this? The Cyclops, Sirens, Laistragonians, Lotus-eaters, all are easy to see as permutations of this monstrous vision of woman as goddess/devil. What of the cattle that belong to the sun god?

Every man has to sail back to normalcy if he is going to be sane. He must come to see women as sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, and not as supermodels impervious to change or thought or imperfection. Only then can he at last "come home" from a world of war and monsters to his own role as daddy, husband, son, beloved of those most beautiful and protector of those most loved.

A Little Logic

So how is it that we know anything is true? How is it that all things aren't just opinion?
Let's try some logic. Let's rule out those things which don't submit well to opinion such as mathematics, basic physics, and Keanu Reeves acting ability and focus only on that realm much subject to opinion and arrogance, morality.

There are three possibilities:
1. all things are opinion and nothing is true
2. some things are opinion and some things are true
3. no things are subject to opinion and all things are true

If all things are opinion and nothing is true then there really is no argument at all - b/c all things are simply the subjective view of the opiner. But how do we know that all things are opinion? Wouldn't this be a truth? So nothing is true except that nothing is true? The only truth is that there is no truth? That makes no sense.

So let's skip number 2 and go on to number three. All things are true and there are no opinions. But if there are no opinions don't people have divergent views on things (morality that is)? Then if all things are true wouldn't every view be true even if it diverges from another view? Am I right and are you right and is all quite content? Wouldn't the existence of divergent viewpoints indicate that not everything is true? Either I am right or you are right b/c we can't be both right and diametrically opposed to one other... that makes no sense.

So we're left with number 2; some things are opinion and some things are true. If so, then wouldn't the process be to convert opinion into truth? How best to do this? Wouldn't the best way be to find out what other thinkers and writers, respected and noted on the subject, have to say? To read them, determine what they are saying, discover what they mean? Surely it wouldn't mean to simply find flaws in their arguments, not read them, or dismiss them b/c they contradict our deeply held beliefs (such as the right to have long hair or the right to be sexually active).

Seems that, as Aristotle and Plato both point out, if the purpose of life is to be happy and if happiness comes through virtuous living and if virtuous living can only be discovered by hard work and intense focus then not doing the work, being satisfied with talent, allowing ourselves to persist in our own idiocy would not be the best way to become happy.

Just a guess, of course.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Writings of John and the Eleusinian Mysteries

I just finished a fine article on the writings of John (Possible Influence of the Mysteries on the Form and Interrelation of the Johannine Writings , 1932) wherein the author, Elbert Russell, claims that the three texts composed by Saint John bear striking resemblance to the three movements of the Eleusinian mysteries. The mysteries were composed of a preparation/purification period (called katharsis/prorresis) the acting out of the drama (called dromonen) and the explanation of the elements of the ritual (called the epopteia). Russell notes that "The First Epistle of John...was an introductory writing, corresponding to the preliminary purification and instruction, the katharsis and the prorresis; the Gospel formed the drama or dromenon; and the Apocalypse provided the opopteia with the symbolic assurance of future blessedness." Russell goes on to explain that the rites of Eleusis evolved originally from agricultural rites - a fact which I only mildly agree with. I think the Eleusinian cults didn't evolve but continued a vision which even the chthonic religions of the neolithic age saw; life works in patterns, even the cycles of the seasons, the planting, harvest, the motion of the stars and planets. The cult of Eleusis merely recast this understanding (which drew together the agricultural aspect with the mathematic and the metaphysical) in terms of a specific mythological atmosphere.

John's writings, as they do seem to conform with the pattern of the mystery cults, and even Christianity itself don't seem undermined by the conformity, rather Christianity seems to build upon an ancient vision of the world, offering new insight into the questions undoubtedly asked by the Psalmist and the initiates into the mysteries; "if all this is true than what am I? How do I fit in?" or to use the words of the Psalmist "when I look at the stars, the work of your hands, the sun and the moon, what is man that you should love him? mortal man that you should visit him?" Christianity suggests that in the midst of these very real patterns and structures of the world man is not just a cog; he isn't just a decimal point in the equation. Man is so vital that the Patterner himself came down, the Logos became incarnate as one of us; God so loved the world that he gave his only son.

Discussing whether this is only a message, or whether it really happened is a bootless discussion. This is what Christianity proclaims; and the energizing hope that such a message carries (as Benedict XVI discusses in Spes Salve) allows believers to live like no other people on the earth. That is very exciting indeed - and I think the early Church was right to adopt the signs and symbols of the cult which so closely proclaimed what it was proclaiming. Our modern Church is deadly wrong in stripping her alters bare and substituting the feel good Mass for the smells and bells of old. For if the message is to be believed then the katharsis and the prorresis have to be completed correctly, the dromenon must be completed with lights, props, incense and other time honored tools, and the epopteia must be accomplished such that people understand. Boy what a lot of work remains.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

An Inconvenient Truth (the Wild Cherry Dub)

I thought that Al Gore's little terror flick needed a snappier soundtrack. I also tried to reiterate his message more clearly at the end of the movie by allowing him to repeat himself (which he never does). Anyone else notice that the clip of the globe at the end of the movie is focused on the Middle East? Why is that?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Quickly on hope and inquiry

I am struck by the frequency of others to question the validity of statements rather than inquiring into their merit. Why is it that we (myself included) have more of a tendency to doubt the validity of what another person says rather than inquire into whether what they are saying has some meaning that we don't yet see? I'm thinking of the frequent criticism of the psalms or of recognized philosophers (such as Plato or Aristotle) each of which seems to be perceived by more sage thinkers of the modern era as potential targets open for hunting down and killing rather than as potential veins of gold open for mining. Those works accepted for so many generations as sapiential are dismissed quickly b/c they do not fit our more elevated sensibilities. I think this is an egregious error for it shuts out far too quickly the ability to see in the work of others answers to the very questions we have ourselves. Thus, in our zeal to shoot down the great artists and thinkers, we only wound ourselves. Thus we make the attainment of hope that much more difficult as with each generation we work laboriously to find a clue that leads us out of the labyrinth of the mind.

Monday, February 11, 2008

In answer to Anselm (and in praise of Saint Thomas)

I wrote this as a response to an excellent blog by Andrew Haines on Saint Anselm's ontological proof of God:

A good analysis of Anselm's Proslogion argument. Thank you. I much prefer the thought of Saint Thomas, however, who suggests in Summa Prima Pars, Ar. 1 that God's existence, though self-evident in itself, is not self-evident to us b/c we cannot know the essence of Being (God). Rather, Thomas suggests, we come to understand more about who God is by negative differentias and by a series of "comparisons with material things", thus proceeding from one comparison to another we grow closer to being able to put "things in their right order and control them well," as Thomas states in the opening of the Contra Gentiles.

Although I agree that Anselm's proof can lead to a greater comprehension of the mystery of God, I think he fails in two respects. First, by relying only on a rational argument and seemingly ignoring the second form whereby man attains to truth (one that "transcends all the industry of reason," as Thomas says) Anselm fails to convince the reader of God's existence. Aquinas' five proofs are far more convincing, not b/c more sound but b/c Aquinas admits to their being not "articles of faith, but... preambles to the articles." The five proofs of Aquinas, consequently, become buttresses for furthering the faith of one who believes, not as bludgeons to force a non-believer into belief.

Second, by using the ontological proof as an airtight argument against which only "a fool" would argue Anselm cuts out the agony of the atheist's struggle. Indeed, the psalm suggests that "the fool in his heart has said, 'there is no God'"; but Aquinas takes this to mean that rejection of the LOGOS (God) makes all thought impossible and thus makes man foolish. This does not, Aquinas notes, make the struggle any less b/c the atheist in struggling to recognize that LOGOS exists realizes his darkness and yet cannot overcome it by his own power. As Thomas notes "(the existence of LOGOS) precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist." But Aquinas offers a way out for the perplexed by suggesting that "the prime author and mover of the universe is intelligence," before suggesting that he is YHVH or Joshua bar Joseph or any sort of personal god.

Thomas thus shows more mercy to struggling humanity when he states that all men, even "the simple", come to know God through his effects by a slow, gradual process of "(putting) forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things" and not by intelligence alone, lest "the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few."
Thomas is less elitist, more understanding of human weakness, and thus far more palatable than Anselm in his advocacy for belief.

Thanks again for the thoughts on Anselm which provided for a brief intellectual escape from the cold of Minnesota and the agony of grading essays.

George Orwell Kicks Butt (Again)

Orwell on language (thanks to jmcnamara at Capital Community College Foundation):

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A New Archbishop

Poor Rowan Williams. Seems he's in hot holy water after his statement, which he made without meaning to offend anyone, that Sharia law in England was an inevitable event. Moreover, Williams said, in a statement which he made without trying to cause offense to anyone, the imposition of Sharia law in England might not be a bad thing. As Williams noted, without trying to offend anyone, at least Sharia law promotes family values.

Poor slob.

Now his congregation is demanding he step down because he was offensive.

Might I suggest another candidate for Archbishop in the person of Rowan Atkinson? I think he'd do a fine job.