There be dragons!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Plato's 7th Letter

In his famous letter to the relatives and friends of Dion in which he sets forth his ideas about the Forms and the order of the universe, Plato has this line:
I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition (on the hidden knowledge of forms), as it is called, on this topic-except for some few, who are able with a little teaching to find it out for themselves. As for the rest, it would fill some of them quite illogically with a mistaken feeling of contempt, and others with lofty and vain-glorious expectations, as though they had learnt something high and mighty.
Why do poets craft masks? Why is truth hidden like leaven in bread? Why are the images shifting and various but the message remains the same? And why is imagery so important and attractive? Perhaps it is this; the trivial and vicious will either not see the reality even when laid bare before them or else they will abuse that reality. Imagery and myth become, then, a "smelting process" of alchemy by which the leadlike men are burned away and only the gold ones remain. Perhaps.
To wit, this video series:

A Dialogue

This is a conversation that occurred at my YouTube site. I thought it was interesting so I post it here.


ideas are great. beliefs are dangerous. if they are set up to be followed beyond all logic and reason, then beliefs are bad.

Thanks for that, vicmackey2008.  my commentary on this can be found at my blog.

Yes, your beliefs shape the way you view the world, that should be obvious to everyone. I am an Atheist and no I do not believe in ANY myths. I don't believe any claims without evidence and what I believe could change at any moment when new and better evidence comes to light. I don't need myths to justify or explain things in my life and I am comfortable in knowing that there are unknowns. I don't need a book to tell me how to be good and moral, I help people because I feel good when I do so.

What do you mean by "belief"?  You doubt that they exist? Or you doubt their veracity? Or you doubt their effectiveness in conveying truth?
Are you sure you don't believe any claims without evidence? Would that be belief? Or do you mean accept any claims without evidence (and consequently know, not believe)?
Do you believe that there is a thing such as a self? Love? Honor? Dignity? and if so, why?

Of course I think beliefs are real. I just think some beliefs go far beyond what we as thinking beings should accept. Religious beliefs do this. I believe in my country, but if they were to do wrong, I would speak out against that. Same thing goes with my parents, my friends, etc. Religions just seem to be the kind of beliefs where not only is logic discouraged, it dpesn't even apply. This allows for illogical fanatacism to arise. Ideas can be changed, beliefs not so much.

1. some beliefs do go far beyond what we are able to or ought to accept - that is, if acceptance is to be taken as literal acceptance. But acceptance of a truth seems to rely on what we mean by truth: i.e. the correspondence btwn an image and the reality imaged. Consequently, I can say "that story about those guys on the Enterprise is true" b/c it embodies a reality - but if I mean it is true in that it actually happened I would be committed.

also, "doing wrong" implies that a person holds a system of morals that allow them to judge a right from a wrong. that system is based on an absolute (humans are important, the environment is a good, logical thought achieves truth). this absolute frames the basis of our perception w/o which we could not say "this is right" or "this is wrong".
Many religions do discourage logic and lay themselves open for illogical fanaticism. Would that make ALL religions therefore bunk?

I think all religions are bunk. I understand why religions have arisen, and how they help us deal with the unknown. When looking at the evolution of religions, one begins to see interesting things. Religion/superstition has been used to explain sickness, natural disasters, etc. In today's scientific world we know these statements to false. We know that someone's pig did not die, or that a man is sterile because there is a witch in our town. Well, most of us do anyways.

I would distinguish btwn religion and superstition (even though the 2 are intertwined by many people). Superstition is believing in illogical things w/o reflection on their reality - a bit akin to bigotry. Religion is the outward expression of signs and symbols to represent or express an interior movement of spirit.
Is it possible that there could be a religion (even in theory) that could then facilitate rather than hinder the remarkable ability of man to think logically? Would it be bunk?

As to the question of whether or not there could be a religion that would excel the ability of man, I would have to say we are not there psychologically as a species. I guess it's the term "religion" that I have problems with. If religion was set to change to facts, evidence, etc, than I would be okay with it. Religion however is not set up to do such. This kind of changing idea that is based on evidence and observable facts is what we have termed as science. Science does further our abilities.

Religions have been said to do good, but I disagree. A person finds religion, begins to become a better person, but is this because of the religion, or in spite of it? I mean I don't like the idea that the only reason why people become better after finding a religion is because they want to be rewarded for it. I hold no such notions of heaven or hell, yet I choose to obey the law, and to help others. Why? Because I want to, rather than be coerced into it by threats of eternal torture.

I agree fully that threats of eternal torture (imperfect contrition) is the least reason for doing the good - yet it is a reason. Becoming a better person may be because of or in spite of the religion, depending on the religion. But again is it conceivable that there is a religion that facilitates rather than hinders self-improvement (if religion is defined as the outward expressions through signs and symbols of spiritual movement)?

Furthermore, I feel that the only reason religious people do become "better" people (assuming they have done so) is due to many factors, none of which are due to supernatural causes, such as the Holy Spirit, etc. I think it has a lot to do with group mentality, finding common ground, fear of death, fear of hell, the ability to actively participate in one's own delusion and take mere circumstance as evidence of it's authenticity. It's takes lack of awareness to buy into it.

This is undoubtedly true, though the language used to describe the improvement could be "the holy spirit" and it wouldn't detract from the improvement. I would add to your list above spiritual reflection - that is, the reflection of the spirit on its situation through reading, conversation or thought (just like now). May not be supernatural, but may not be natural either. Then what is it? What causes us to improve? And where do we get the idea of imprving from worse to better (and to best)?

I think we better ourselves because we have no choice. We are a very curious species, and this has led us to "discover" things, and either put them to use, or maximize them to their greatest potential. Now for things that we do not understand, we are prone to think up something magical to explain it, or we kill it, or at least we used to. Something that is just a natural response from the body, or from nature in general, would be seen as a miracle to the layman.

I must disagree with your opinion on the usage of the language, such as "the Holy Spirit", as I think such language does detract from improvement. I do not mean to say it detracts directly, and that such improvement would not be as great without such language, but when the improvement is given credit to the supernatural, as opposed to the individual, I feel this only causes the mind to continue to buy into a self-limiting ideology. Improvement always comes from within, not from the "beyond".

A vigorous discussion and very enjoyable. 
Thank you vicmackey2008.

AbecedariusRex, I enjoy this discussion as well. Let it be so for as long as we are able. Feel free to ask any questions, as I am delighted to be able to speak with one as intelligent as yourself.

Where do we get the idea to improve from good to better, and from better to best? Good question. We began improving ourselves in our primitive years from nescessity. First it began with improving the hunt for food. This brought a rise to making weapons, which led to making tools, which gave rise to many more improvements. With the domestication of certain plants for food we then set out to maximize our yield such of crops (best). The increase in food led to a sedentary life for some - continued.

This sedentary life allowed some to sit and ponder the why's, and to think up answers to the questions posed. It took thousands of years but this evolution of thought, which went from thinking up ways to feed ourselves, to thinking about other matters led us to improvement. Improvement, I think, is just something we do, as thinking and sentient creatures. We see the world around us and seek to make it better. Why? Because it brings comfort, and allows us to enjoy things more...supposedly.

perhaps your last argument is true. but thinking about what? about improving? improving toward what? better thinking? better comfort? then all our great ideas, loves, hopes, wars, artwork are all about comfort? From whence comes enjoyment in anything in such a hedonistic vision of the world? Or do we simply create pretty "lies breathed through silver" in order to comfort ourselves from the terror that we are apes in clothing?

Yes, our love and wars, etc have been about comfort. We were comfortable to let Hitler siege Europe until Pearl harbor. We dropped bombs on Japan because it comforted Amercians to know that their boys didn't have to die invading it. The paradox though is that we have created as many problems as we have solved to get to where we are today. We rise up and take action when we are discomforted, and continue in this action until comfort/peace etc, is obtained.

From whence comes enjoyment? I enjoy things because I can. Knowing that flowers will wilt and die does not make them ugly or smell bad. Knowing that I too will die does not make me not care about others or this world's future. Knowing this, and continuing forward is the greatest aspect of humanity. Mankind knows nothing lasts forever, but we persist in our optimism. Maybe it is because we don't know any better? Life is about the struggle against the tide, up till the last breath. Just breath.

forward toward what? how do we know where we are going? Is to live simply to breathe? If so why would I sacrifice anything, even the smallest bit of pleasure in my life for the sake of another person/thing/ideal? Optimism is for fools. Persistence is for dreamers. I say submit to the tide.

Optimism may be for fools, but I think this os what allows us to enjoy. I would say your sacrifice is noble in that you do it for reasons that are illogical, but yet in the end that sacrifice is for a better tomorrow. Such selflessness is something we are studying. It appears, so far, that we are genetically predisposd to altruism, in that in the end it helps us to help others, at least to a certain point.

i don't buy the better tomorrow thing. ought it not be a better here and now? tangible? isn't the better tomorrow simply eschatological periphrasis? if we are predisposed to altruism doesn't that betray something unspeakably wierd in us? reflection? cogitation? conscience? how do we deal with that? what is the language/myth/symbolism to be used? if it does not exist do we reinvent the wheel (rather than consult Lady Fortune and her rota fortuna bellisima)? & wht reasn have I 2 hlp others?

The better tomorrow thing is what compels most of us to engage in altruistic behavior. Perhaps it is merely the end to a story we thought up for ourselves? Such concepts make me laugh to beat the band. However, I cannot say I am not grateful for that sacrifice. What reason have you to help others. None, other than the reasons you have agreed to. These reasons come from inumerable teachings, events, and circumstances. I would tell you that you are obligated to help others.

Correction, I would not tell you that you are obligated to help others.

I believe we are apes in clothing. We are clever, and we have done many a great thing that no alien watching from the stars would have predicted, but we are what we are. Perhaps we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Thin of it as a machine, or a wheel, perhaps a wheel of time. Things flow where they may, but the wheel is still there to direct us to act by certain laws. We are moving towards a future we can't possibly predict, of both comfort, and misery, as always.

Have you read Boethius on time in his "consolation of philosophy"? the idea that we are "part of something much bigger than ourselves" gives me the willies. How would we know? And how would we talk about such a thing w/o a language by which to so do? the idea of the machine is disturbing too - fatalistic - fated by whom? what? points within the pattern dictated to by implacable gods. Is that not back to square one and the neolithic religions of stonehenge (recast in another language)?

In a sense yes, but we cannot deny that we occupy a universe that exerts certain laws. I think the superstition comes in when we try to apply beings to such things, then we shape them in an image that pleases us, gives our lives meaning, and then we set about pleasing that which we created to please ourselves in the first place. What a state of being! An absolute truth would be that we that live in a universe that flows according to laws. We are not special, we just are.

thanks again for the answers you give. your confidence and courtesy are appreciated.
"where we are today" - are we better or worse, I wonder? If better, why so much violence and fear? If worse would prior ages w/so much superstition be better? from whence comes the sense of comfort/peace? Is peace merely = comfort? Is it simply silence? At what point can we count ourselves truly "at peace"? Or is that merely an illusion? And why, as a race, are we so restless at heart?  2 many Qs no As

Peace is not about people dancing in the streets and loving one another. This is a misconception. Peace is not killing each other, and letting the world turn. We will never achieve this because the world is dependent on chaos and misery as a source of money. That useless thing we created, and now has become our masters. Are we better or worse. Neither. That is a subjective question. The question should be, "Are you better or worse?" Are you happy? Are you satisfied? Are you at peace?

and if I am ought I to pull the trigger?

there's a great movie about this called "Revolver". Jason Statham and Guy Ritchie, I think.
Yeah, I saw it. I need to watch it again, and think more on it. At the time I was merely hoping it to be like Snatch. I was disappointed. Such things cause us to overlook the lessons that can be learned.

We shall continue this discussion at a later time. For now, I am off to lands unknown, where the laws of the universe do not exist, and where time does not apply. Will I see mere glimpses of other realities, or live an entire lifetime in the span of minutes? This is what it means for me to sleep, as my dreams are what allow me to enjoy and live out that which we can only imagine and write about, or recreate in films. Being able to do so for an eternity, would certainly be heaven to me.

I thought perhaps you were referring to having to teach a class of high school students. I frequently find that to be a realm where the laws of space & time do not apply.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fagles and the Closed Circle

I was struck this time around teaching Aeschylus of the remarkable nature of this play. Robert Fagles in his illuminative commentary,
"Serpent and the Eagle", claims that the Oresteia stands as one of the two greatest works of the golden age (the second being Phidias' Parthenon). Indeed, when one considers the problem of, as Fagles calls it, the perpetual cycle of human barbarity then the Oresteia offers a solution that is unique in history and pivotal to the development of Western thought.

When I teach the work I always begin by reflecting on the idea that drama originated as a bloodless representation of the bloody sacrifice of a goat or man for the sake of the city. The cathartic experience of seeing another living creature die for the sake of the city's sin, literally of witnessing a "scape goat", cannot be underestimated in the modern world. We all still need this cathartic experience which, as Walker Percy points out, seems to elevate us out of our daily life of complacent normalcy. Thus we still go for thrills at amusement parks, sports, movies, games, anything to jolt us out of the dull greyness of life. For those witnessing this early form of ritual violence the result must have been powerful.

But for the victim it was probably no bed of roses. Thus the myth that the goat sang a song of sorrow before being killed; a goat (tragos) song (oidos) that led to the tragedy (tragoidos) of later civilization. Tragedy became the bloodless representation of the bloody ceremony of death that prompts catharsis. The same jolt could be had through seeing simulated violence instead of seeing real violence and thus a civilization gained the merits of the cathartic experience without the barbarity of bloodshed that disrupts with its inevitable consequences. Mythologically, some god must surely have sent this bloodless substitute. Thus Dionysus, it was said, granted to Athens the Dionysiad; the week-long religious festival of dramatic performance. What began as a single chorus chanting the sorrowful dirges of death (perhaps as accompaniment to the impending sacrifice) evolved at some point to a chorus and a single actor (named Thespis for the sake of argument and thus "thespians"); this evolved again into chorus and several speakers and eventually into several individual characters as we have in modern drama.

The tragoidoi were, however, much more like modern religious ritual than modern entertainment. Just as in the modern Mass of the Catholic Church a single speaker (the priest) would lead a chorus (the congregation) in a series of movements, setting, dress, music, and words all designed to create a mythological world separate from daily experience and reinforcing the idea of a greater or elevated reality to human existence. (As a side soap box, the Church used to have, therefore, beautiful music, robes, incense, lighting, a dress code all in existence to create this separate world. Modern Catholicism abandons all this and so losees the whole sense of drama as ritualized transcendence. But that is another issue).

Aeschylus' plays are not too far removed from the chorus and one or two speakers of earlier drama. His play is still a religious iteration of the reality underlying human existence (like someone writing down the words of the Mass read by later generations). Oresteia, Fagles says, is a dramatic retelling of an eternal human story of death and rebirth; a movement from darkness into light. Yet the play also answers the age old question of what to do with human violence.

The problem with our race is that our default state of thought is tribal; we think first and foremeost in terms of The Tribe. Most of our history is a bloody business of violence and retaliation which emerges primarily from thinking in terms of ourselves as members of a tribe rather than of a polis, or city. Tribe does not mean just primitive societies such as Africa or Indians of Brazil or natives of Borneo, nor is tribe merely a question of sanguinity; "our kin". Rather it is a way of thinking about the world that keeps us primitive and violent

I refer, here, to the analysis of David Pryce-Jones in his study of the Middle East, "The Closed Circle". Pryce-Jones sets out three main criteria that distinguish tribal thought from polity thought. Tribal thinking consists of

1. "our group" greater than "their group"; us vs. them; we are blessed and they are damned
2. honor and the gaining of honor as the driving force of society; all is justified in the acquisition of honor
3. coersion as the main force to influence those w/in the tribe; force or violence

All lead to greater violence, retaliation, and more violence. The constant violence in Palestine, Afghanistan and Africa; the gang wars in Los Angeles and Chicago; the bloodshed in Japan all emerge from this form of thinking. How to break this? Can one break this especially since it goes back to the neolithic era or beyond? The cycle of violence seems perpetual; something ingrained in us from the dawn of rational humans. We specialize in slaughtering one another. Nor is our slaughter ended simply by sending Jimmy Carter to the Middle East.

Aeschylus' play suggests, to the contrary, that the perpetual cycle of human barbarity can be overcome.

Yet it can only be conquered by a radical shift in thought. First recognizing that this bloody cycle is a reality, is perpetual, and emerges from thinking in terms of the tribe. Second, Aeschylus suggests that the cycle can be overcome only by triumphing over "the barbarian latent in ourselves"; the hubristic capacity to commit all manner of horrors. This violence is a form of barbarism antithetical to civilization, yet within every person - everyone is capable of committing horrors. Only by triumphing over the barbarian w/in can we possibly break the cycle of violence. But how is this triumph over ourselves accomplished?

Aeschylus suggests, according to Fagles, that it is done by compassion and lasting self-control. The first, compassion, is loving your neighbor as yourself, seeing the annointed image of God in your neighbor. The second, lasting self-control, is pulling the plank out of our own eyes before taking the splinter out of our neighbor's eye. It must be lasting - like the alcoholic realizing he is an alcoholic must take steps against his disease and refrain, for the rest of his life, from drinking. So too the person wanting to conquer this barbarism must act upon love, realize he has been bought at a great price, and continually control himself from acting contrary to this love.

The serpent of our tribal barbarian, loathsome, close to the earth, inhuman in its reptilian coldness, has to be conquered by the eagle of our political self, immortal, autonomous, angelic. Only this conquering of the serpent in us, this movement out of darkness to light, from earth bound slavery in sin to the freedom of the new dawn, only this is a solution to what otherwise would prove a lasting servitude of horror and blood. This remarkable insight on the part of Aeschylus at the dawn of the Golden Age of Athens, even if it didn't take root in the Athens that was eventually defeated by Sparta at the end of the Polyponnesian war, nevertheless paved the way for the greater and more powerful mythology that was to dominate Europe for over 2000 years, which was to alter the course of Western Civilization from barbaric tribal roots to civilized political cultures, which even now seems the only solution to the problem of perpetual bloodshed and retribution.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Joker's Origin Speeches


The Joker [holding a knife inside Gambol's mouth]: Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was... a drinker. And a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn't like that. Not-one-bit. So - me watching - he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it! Turns to me, and he says, "why so serious, son?" Comes at me with the knife... "Why so serious?" He sticks the blade in my mouth... "Let's put a smile on that face!" And... [looks sidelong at Gambol's thug, watching the whole thing in horror] Why so serious?


The Joker: Well, you look nervous. Is it the scars? You want to know how I got 'em? [He grabs Rachel's head and positions the knife by her mouth] Come here. Hey! Look at me. So I had a wife, beautiful, like you, who tells me I worry too much. Who tells me I ought to smile more. Who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks... Look at me! One day, they carve her face. And we have no money for surgeries. She can't take it. I just want to see her smile again, hm? I just want her to know that I don't care about the scars. So... I stick a razor in my mouth and do this... [the Joker mimics slicing his mouth open with his tongue] myself. And you know what? She can't stand the sight of me! She leaves. Now I see the funny side. Now I'm always smiling!

Both speeches tell tales of human cruelty and horror. The first is specifically catered to Gambol. It speaks of a father's cruelty to his son - beating of a mother, and the son attempts to stop the violence only to be maimed cruelly for trying to step in. This vision of broken homes, drunken fathers, abused mothers seems to be the plague of many homes within the black community. Our current culture registers thousands of situations like this one and the despair that festers due to witnessing such horror leads to violence and more violence. The very act of nobility, stepping in to stop the drunken father, is made into something futile and foolish. Who, after all, would attempt nobility against such overwhelming evil? Who would be brave enough to stop the evil rather than becoming evil himself? Surely the only way to survive in such a horrific world of violence is to become a monster just like daddy. This is the implication of Joker's speech to Gambol, a man who has turned to crime and violence and thus can never live a normal life of peace and love amidst his family. But the speech also is geared towards the henchmen and the audience. You see how good men are maimed? You see how even powerful men like Gambol are swallowed up by hungrier monsters like the Joker? Look upon my works you mighty and despair.

The second speech is similarly geared to Rachel. Little is known about Rachel's character except that she is a hard-headed woman making it in a man's world. She is tough, persistent, courageous and an ardent follower of justice. Having chosen such a life how can she risk the vulnerability of being in love? Her very noble choice of pursuing a career in law precludes the possibility that she ever have a loving family relationship. When Joker describes a husband/wife relationship with a despairing wife who has been pummelled by a cruel masculine world he is describing the possible world Rachel would experience were she to ever slip and let herself fall in love. Moreover, his maiming of himself (allegedly) represents the despair that the wife would experience which knows no remedy but more despair; a self-sacrificing husband whose very act of self-sacrifice causes only more sorrow. What else could a woman like Rachel expect but that the beautiful man she loves be tortured and maimed by the world? What else could she expect but that "the sharks" would come for them both eventually?

The really great depth of this version of the Joker is that he isn't just a maniac who blows things up or randomly kills people (like Jack Nicholson's character) nor is he just a silly wisecracker out to give grief to the guy in the grey tights (like Cesar Romero's character). Instead he is the psychologically dangerous character of the greater Batman graphic novels; he is the Nietzschean ubermensch, the Machiavellian prince, the character who is beyond the realm of right and wrong who worms his way into our subconscious with questions, suggestions and doubts. In short, he is the worst villain of the modern world b/c he can invade and infect any person anywhere, creating chaos that erupts in the despairing psychology that later manifests as violent action against others. He creates human time bombs using nothing more than words.

The two speeches also are conversely to male and female figures - thus to all people. A masculine story of father dominance, like Saturn devouring his children, for the young boy in Gambol. And for the little girl in Rachel, a feminine story of loss and sorrow, like Niobe or Rachel mourning and weeping because they are nought. The futility of power that emasculates the male; the helplessness of weakness that crushes the female. Adam's curse of "earning his bread by the sweat of his brow"; Eve's curse of "bearing her children in pain". Joker is the universal Satan in this instance and like Satan he breeds amongst his victims intense despair in the face of his irresistable evil.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday the 13th Post

Sonnet #29

When, in disgust with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone berate my aching pate,
And trouble deaf woodwork with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate.
When this one's a clod and this one's a dope,
A scalawag, a nincompoop, a tart,
When pimps are praised and whores are full of hope,
And all high thought is edifice and art,
Then in these thoughts my mind as black as night,
I bang my fist and rail against the grey,
(though silently for fear might children fright;
Or solid men in coats might take me away)
What good is rage the only wealth it brings;
Destruction, sorrow, cabbages and kings.

I rewrote it some.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thoughts on Iliad

I love having a job where I can not only teach writing but in the process of teaching writing work out new ideas about works which I love.

On the Iliad:


Achilles is spiritually blind.
Oedipus is spiritually blind.

Achilles has a, um, interesting relationship with Thetis, his mom.
Oediups has a, um, interesting relationship with his mom.

Achilles father, Peleus, is absent from the epic, spoken of only when asking if he is dead.
Oedipus has killed his father.

Achilles has a spiritual awakening only after an intense experience of pain and loss.
Oedipus has a spiritual awakening only after an intense experience of pain and loss.

So is Achilles another Oedipus? Was Homer aware of the myth? Or is Oedipus Achilles? Was Sophocles aware of the epic?

Briseis mourns over Patroclus' body in book 19 saying that the dead man was gentle and good to her; "you were always kind."
Helen mourns over Hector's body in book 24 (the last of three female mourners, Andromache and Hecabe, and the penultimate human voice in the epic poem) saying that the dead man was always gentle and good to her; "you with your gentle words and your gentle ways"

Both are slaves; both are left utterly alone at the end of the work (Helen b/c she lives with a lout and Briseis b/c Achilles soon will be dead).
Both are mourning over the "good man" character who is now dead.
Both are mourning over the Achilles duplicate (Patroclus and Hector connected by the wearing of the armor)

Homer makes the gods look ridiculous, undermines them, shows that they are not worthy of worhsip - but some of the humans who fail and die are. Homer elevates the humans to a position superior to the gods.
Why does he do this?
Hypothesis: He does this to

1. show that screwing up in life is not the worst thing possible

a. with perfect, unyielding and aloof gods who cannot experience the human condition the standard to which we hold ourselves makes us psychotic and homicidal (or suicidal)

2. smash the hold that the priesthood had on the lives of laypeople

a. a priesthood beholden to perfect gods would have held that perfection over laypeople like a cult or cabalistic master/slave relation

b. much like the scribes and Pharisees

c. Christ does later what Homer does here.

3. force the reader to find new gods (or god)

a. if these gods, these passions, are not to be worshipped as the God then who is? Deus ubi est?

Sonnet 116 (a blog for Ben)


  1. Let me not to the marriage of true minds
  2. Admit impediments, love is not love
  3. Which alters when it alteration finds,
  4. Or bends with the remover to remove.
  5. O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
  6. That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
  7. It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
  8. Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
  9. Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
  10. Within his bending sickle's compass come,
  11. Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
  12. But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
  13. If this be error and upon me proved,
  14. I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

(William Shakespeare)

I agree that one reading of the poem is an honest analysis of true love. Unfortunately, I have never found a passage of Shakespeare that is entirely honest; he is always wearing a mask and always has something up his sleeve. Consequently, this poem, which seems like a straightforward proclamation of the steadfastness of love probably is too good to be true. He does the same thing in Romeo & Juliet, offering what looks like a great romance but loaded with problems that indicate the opposite of real love. Here there are numerous ambiguities, subtle references, and structural alterations that indicate if nothing else a difficulty in the poem.

First, the English sonnet normally has in the third quatrain a complication of the subject introduced in the first two quatrains. What is the complication? There is none (apparently) - not even in the last bit of the poem. The normal indicator of complication "but" is in the 12th line at the end of the third quatrain. If the turn exists at the beginnig of the third quatrain then our complication of the discourse is that Love is not Time's fool - which means what? The Fool was subordinate to the King so that Love is the King and Time is the fool (instead of the other way around). But Shakespeare who wrote this poem also wrote "King Lear" - a tragic play in which the King, Lear, is imprisoned by his daughters for being foolish in his actions and the Fool is seen as far more free and wise than the king. Moreover, during the play King and Fool trade places and so represent the same thing in different postures. If this is so (and to an audience familiar with Lear it seems to be an intentional comparison) is the comparison supposed to be between the foolishness of Love and the kingliness of Time? Does Time rule over us? Is Love a foolish thing (b/c it certainly does make men foolish as Mercutio says and Iago attests)? Or are Love and Time the same thing?

Second, there is a frequent ambiguity to the use of pronouns; the "it" in lines 2,4&6 seemingly references to "love". But then what is the antecedent of "his" in line 7,9&10 ? The Star? Love? Time? If the "his" in 7 refers to the Polar Star then the worth of the star is unknown but his height is taken; meaning, we can measure the thing empirically but don't actually know what it is worth. Thus the Pole Star's attributes are identical to Love's and the "his" could reference either. If the "his" in 10 refers to "Time" that makes sense - but the ambiguity suggests that the sickle belongs to Love. Same with the "his" in 11 which seems to refer to Time since "brief hours and weeks" is the auspice of Time. But Love too is brief so the line could mean that Love does change in the short time we know of it on earth. This ambiguity is particularly pointed in the 12th line where the antecedent of "it" is completely obscure. What is born out to the edge of doom? Love? Time? It?

Finally, Shakespeare is a master of the language. Nowhere else in his corpus of works is there ever so seemingly straightforward and honest a proclamation. Also, nowhere else are there so many ambiguities, vagueries, mistakes and errors. Consequently, the last couplet can be read in two different ways.

If this be error and upon me proved,

What is the "this" to which he refers? The proclamation of love? The construct of the poem prior? the language itself? If it is the proclamation of love he has suggested hitherto that love doesn't ever change; that it is constant; that it looks upon the tumult of human life from a remote and aloof position similar to a star looking down upon earth. But this isn't right about love and Shakespeare knew it. Human love isn't constant as he proved in "Much Ado About Nothing" and "The Merchant of Venice" and "Romeo & Juliet" and "Othello" and numerous other works. Moreover, if he is referring to Love as a god or The God he seems to be describe an aloof and impersonal god that remains utterly unmoved by the sorrows and passions of human existence. But his whole religion of Incarnation, redemption, suffering and resurrection speaks contrary to this. Even if he is correct in assessing human love and divine love as unchanging and inflexible he would be well aware of the maxim that living things alter and change and dead things don't. Consequently the love he is describing isn't truly living but dead. Is he in error here? Is this the "this" to which he refers in line 13? If the "this" is the construct of the poem, it has already been shown that structurally the poem doesn't follow the normal modus operandi of a sonnet. There is no apparent complication, there is no consistent poetic conceit, there are numerous switches in the rhythmic pattern during the poem. So the poem is itself somewhat in error. The language is intentionally ambiguous and hard to fathom; it too is in error. The "this" is, consequently, proven to be in error.

Given this proof, the line "I never writ, nor no man ever loved" adopts a knew meaning. Is "I never writ" an excuse? An escape? A Thomistic "burn it; it's all straw" statement? And has anyone ever really loved? Do we really know what love is? Do we really want to know what love is? Or do we only think we know what love is and desire love as long as it makes us feel good and gives us pleasure? Complicated. Brilliant.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Malory's Grail Imagery

Considering the questions that arise from reading again Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur”; what is the Grail? What does it represent? And what is the quest for the Grail? And why cannot Lancelot succeed at the Quest? Surely the pursuit is not simply for a drinking cup, which is what the literal level would have us think; nor is it even a quest for the cup of the Last Supper, which is itself a metaphor. On that literal level the cup has associations with salvation and with the crucifixion/resurrection and with the Incarnation himself.

But why a drinking cup? Drinking, like eating, is central to human life and the preservation of human life but is also symbolic of taking into ourselves ideas and ways of thinking. Thus Adam and Eve when they transgress the law do so through eating of a fruit. Thus also Yahweh institutes a Passover Feast marking the freedom from bondage in Egypt. Thus also Christ institutes the Last Supper/Eucharistic Feast. So the Grail has something to do with taking into ourselves some nourishment spiritually, intellectually, emotionally.

Most commentators associate the Grail with Jesus and the finding of the Grail as seeing God in the beatific vision. It is a “vision of heaven”. But this raises problems in the Malory story wherein first the Grail is associated with Christ and the theophanic imagery that is pertinent to him, but also is associated with women who always seem to accompany the Grail to some degree. Second, though the finding of the Grail is accomplished by Galahad, Malory’s story neither makes him the most intriguing character nor does the story end with Galahad’s ascension into heaven. Instead, Malory’s story continues with the civil war, the loss of Camelot and death of Arthur, and the misfortunes of Arthur’s greatest knight, Lancelot. Consequently there seems to be more to the story of the Grail then merely seeing heaven.

Technically the Grail image, or Graal, was originally a dish or mixing bowl and comes from Celtic mythology where it was a cauldron owned by the Sea Lord, Mannannan son of Llyrr. This cauldron, overflowing with wine and food, was kept in the Domnu, the deep sea or abyss, in the land of the Fomorians, the giants under the sea and was a cup of rebirth, renewal and inspiration. Three drops from this cup transformed Gwion Bach into Taliessin, the great poet of Gaelic mythology. The Graal stands as a metaphor, then, for that source in the subconscious amidst the giants of nightmare and dreams which pours forth the inexhaustible images, ideas, and forms that inform the waking world. Finding the Grail is finding the source of these dreams.

Furthermore, the cup is a drinking cup from which pours forth water and wine (just as water and wine issued forth from the side of Christ on the Cross). This birth image consists of a mixture of two complementary elements. Water represents purity and whiteness, the ocean, the feminine powers of the subconscious and the body itself. Wine represents fire and heat, blood, and the sun. It is associated with the color red (and one recalls here the image in Malory of the red and white dragons that contend with each other over the land of Vortigern). Wine also represents the conscious realm of the mind. But the mixture of the two is what is important within the cauldron of the Grail.

Man consists of a metaphysical, immortal, divine element (the mind) and a physical, mortal, human element (the body). Most people consider that the metaphysical is superior, good, pure, and needs to be pursued while the physical body is thought of as bad, corrupt, inferior and needs to be punished or completely abandoned. The Cathars went so far as to help others release from this mortal coil by galloping about Southern France killing them. Even today, heretical sects in certain religions consider this world to be illusion and the greater glory to be in the next world; and they are willing to bet their body and the bodies of others against the promise of 72 virgins (or grapes).

There are also some people who completely deny the metaphysical realm and claim that all we have is the physical world of the body. Pleasure, indulgence, and power are the only claims to greatness one can make with such a vision.

But this schizophrenic way of looking at our existence is a warped vision. What the Grail image seems to suggest is that the good lies not in the next life but in this one; in a union or marriage between the metaphysical and physical worlds. In this sense the marriage to a good woman is the Grail. In this sense seeing heaven as the acquisition of a sense of balance or perfection is the Grail. In this sense Mary (or Elaine for Lancelot) is the Grail. The Grail, the sense of balance between these two halves of the red dragon and the white dragon is itself that peace with passeth (or is greater than) understanding which when made permanent we call secure, or salvation. It is a state of consciousness operating out of complete harmony within oneself and out of which one perceives the unity of all things.

Our hearts were made for this God and they are restless until they find their rest in Him.

The Grail represents the acquisition of harmonious balance with ourselves, the source of our being, out of which is born (with blood and water) the Church of ideas, images, actions, words, and love.

Friday, October 16, 2009

On Mythology

A new series of discussions up at YouTube.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oedipus and Human Life

The play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles certainly seems to embody the change and alteration held by the ancient world to be the heart of religious experience. But Oedipus also seems to undergo a certain experience of the stages of life as well. Consequently, the play can be taken as a metaphor for entering into that initiated world of self-reflection.The original Sphinxian question of four legs, two legs, three legs gives the stages of man in a protean, riddling fashion. Indeed there are eight stages to human life, paralleling the eight notes of the octave in music.

The Ages of Man
  1. Ut: Birth
  2. Re: Infancy
  3. Mi: Youth
  4. Fa: Adulthood
  5. Sol: Initiate
  6. La: Adept
  7. San: Master
  8. Ut: Death (which is a second birth)

Oedipus suggests that he meets with Laius (his father and king of Thebes) at a place where three roads meet. This meeting at the triskelion in which Oedipus kills the old man represents the meeting of the young adult with the "father figure" of imposed rule or law in his life. Somewhere that three roads meet we encounter the other – the father figure of imposed laws – and we kill it, rebel, and do our own thing – and immediately we engage in the pull of the earth, the way of all flesh, becoming wedded to our mother in the feminine powers of the natural self. Only when we come awake to the horrors of our own life, the pain we inflict, the suffering we have caused, do we actually gain eyes to really see what we are. For the first time we encounter ourselves and it blinds us, dazzles us, terrifies and sets us on a new path of discovery and discovery and discovery; one encounter with The Other after another equaling eight total encounters in spirallic path of repetitions.

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

- St. Paul
1 Corinthians 13


All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

-William Shakespeare
As You Like It
Act 2; scene 7

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

- William Wordsworth. 1770–1850
The Rainbow

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.

-John 21:18

The pill and real men

I really think there may be something to this. Men's fashions always seem to respond to what women want (aside from the outlandish wildflowers that populate the runways of Paris). Consequently, as female conceptions of masculine dynamism diminish comes the new dawning of the age of Aquarius - men that are twinkies.

Taking the pill for past 40 years 'has put women off masculine men'

Read more:

Monday, September 21, 2009

A bit of Isopsephia

The Tetragrammaton, YHVH, was the most powerful name of Almighty God to the Jews.

It occurs 5,410 times in the Bible, being divided among the books as follows: Genesis 153 times, Exodus 364, Leviticus 285, Numbers 387, Deuteronomy 230 (total in Torah 1,419); Joshua 170, Judges 158, Samuel 423, Kings 467, Isaiah 367, Jeremiah 555, Ezekiel 211, Minor Prophets 345 (total in Prophets 2,696); Psalms 645, Proverbs 87, Job 31, Ruth 16, Lamentations 32, Daniel 7, Ezra-Nehemiah 31, Chronicles 446 (total in Hagiographa 1,295).

So sacred was it that Jews would not utter it aloud after a certain era and substituted the name "Adonai" and "Jehovah" instead:
The true name of God was uttered only during worship in the Temple, in which the people were alone; and in the course of the services on the Day of Atonement the high priest pronounced the Sacred Name ten times.

A Jewish audience, familiar with that four letter formula would have recognized it when it showed up in literary isopsephia, the use of letters corresponding to numbers corresponding to concepts in religious literature.

Thus when the title of Christ, in three languages, shows up above the head of the crucified lord such an audience would immediately make the logical connection that this was the most powerful Elohim himself. In English the phrase above Christ's head is "Jesus the Nazarene King of the Jews" - in Latin "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum" (INRI) - in Greek "ησος Ναζωραος Bασιλες τν ουδαίων" (HNBO) - in Hebrew "Yeshua` HaNotsri U'Melech HaYehudim" (YHUH, or YHVH). Certainly, if nothing else, the Evangelists wished their audience to recognize the allusion.

The question then arises, if by the time of the crucifixion the utterance of the tetragrammaton was forbidden, wouldn't the Jewish crowd have recognized it and been incensed (in a bad way)? Wouldn't they riot against the Romans for committing such a blasphemy?

Matthew records no response from the Jews:

And sitting down they watched him there; And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.

Nor does Mark:

And it was the third hour, and they crucified him. And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS. And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.

Nor does Luke:

And saying, If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself. And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.

Only John, the Greek-inspired isopsephiaist, recounts any response from the crowd to this action:

Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst. And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, "Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews." Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written."

The response of "take that down - you should not have written it" seems mild in comparison to the severity of the blasphemy. Additionally, John is a later writer, c. 90-100 and was writing for Greeks and lapsed Jews. So the response of his gospels was, probably, his own addition since it doesn't appear in the other three earlier works. Moreover, look at Pilate's response in this gospel; "What I have written I have written," in Greek "απεκριθη ο πιλατος ο γεγραφα γεγραφα"

A strange formula. Christ himself, though, was the LOGOS, the word made flesh. Does "written" here have another meaning? Written versus spoken word? Set down permanently on paper or wood like a man nailed to a cross? The living word of the LOGOS speech vs. the (soon to be) dead word of writing? (very Platonic that) We have to write it down if we are to remember it, right? But the minute we do don't we lose the power of life that is in the thought/word/speech? We have only a patient etherized upon a table not Lincoln in full force at Gettysburg. We have three lumps of stone in the morning sun and not three terrifying trolls. So is the whole of the crucifixion somethin of an injunction against mistaking the dead written word for the living reality?
"I have written that I have written." The formula reminds us immediately of another linguistic formula "I am that I am" or YHWH.

Interesting also to note in John that the INRI inscription appears at 19:19 "εγραψεν δε και τιτλον ο πιλατος και εθηκεν επι του σταυρου ην δε γεγραμμενον ιησους ο ναζωραιος ο βασιλευς των ιουδαιων". (emphasis mine - nota bene "grammenon" as in "tetragrammaton") That's no big deal, except it would have been a big deal to John and his audience b/c 19 is 18+1 or 6+6+6+1 or 6661. Again, no big deal until we realize that this "number of the beast" is part of a calculation involving 6 (the number of rational thought) elevated three times (the number of perfection) plus 1 (the number of unity and wholeness) which corresponds to the risen Lord.

My ability with this is very poor, but INRI connected to YHVH would have sparked in the mind's of John (and the other writers) and his audience a connection that was surely unavoidable. How they worked this connection into their writings is a remarkable bit of artistry.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Why I love this series. Blood, violence, sex, intrigue - naw. The main reason is that the series tells a human story and shows the tragedy of this ancient world not as a history book might but as human beings struggling through the sorrow of life. Here is the battle of Philippi and the noble Brutus and Cassius, who appear very human and very much more attractive than the snot-nosed Octavius and his callous commanders, are at last cut to ribbons in battle.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beowulf performed

I love a great performance of a great work.
Here first is Benjamin Bagby of the group Sequentia performing in Old English accompanying himself with a lyre.

This next is a performance by Julian Glover in modern English with Old English masterfully interwoven. Glover does a really neat thing and performs the story as though it were being told at night around a campfire. That's perfect. Not only do we still do this, telling scary stories around a bonfire, but this surely would have been like the origin of that masterpiece that eventually made it to the Nowell Codex. Sir John Gielgud introduces the work:

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years Ago Today

Bernard Lewis makes an excellent point about the war against terrorism. We think it is a war to stop attacks from the last 50 years. Al-Qaeda, however, conceives of the war as a continuation of what began 1500 years ago!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tolkien : His Genius

The genius of J.R.R. Tolkien seems often overlooked when referring to his "children's story" of The Hobbit. The story, however, reveals powerful depth of thought and construction. Tolkien was very familiar with dragons and dragon imagery saying of his own youth that he once sought to encounter a dragon; "I desired dragons with a profound desire." After the Somme he undoubtedly lost such a desire. However, Tolkien seems to intimate in his work that the encounter with a dragon is actually an encounter with oneself; the anagogical level of self-reflection that reveals a man to himself.

The dragon imagery dominates the work of The Hobbit. Tolkien frequently drew dragon images and designs and incorporated the imagery even into his map of the geography of Middle Earth. In this map the dragon tail curls from out of Hobbiton (under Bilbo's doorstep) running north into Ered Luin and the Forodwaith; the spine of the dragon consists of the Misty Mountains running south to Rohan and the spike of Orthanc tower where the "dragon rider" (Saruman) would sit; the neck of the dragon, the White Mountains, runs East to the head composed of the mountain range around Mordor (Ered Lithui & Ephel Duath), and the incessantly burning fires of Orodruin are the eye of the dragon. The ranges of Ered Mithruin and Ered Nimrais are the splayed left back leg and right front leg respectively.

Tolkien was drawing on an ancient tradition of Anglo-Saxon artwork that depicted coiling, spirallic dragons doubling in upon themselves in a series of twists and turns. These images were, in turn, an artistic depiction of the solar spiral which can be mapped using a simple gnomon with a magnifying glass on it. The pattern that emerges from spring equinox to fall is one of a double spiral - the dragon. Since most Anglo-Saxon cultures reveal sun worship as an essential component of their religion, this comes as no surprise. As early as neolithic architecture we find solar imagery dominating the artistic imagination of the British Isles. The dragon of Anglo-Saxon art was the solar path, or mirrored in it at least.

But Tolkien seems to employ the imagery to an even greater level. His dragon imagery embodies the action of self-reflection that emerges in serious intellectual inquiry. The essential questions of "Who am I?" "What am I about?" "What am I capable of?" lie at the heart of the spiritual quest to know ourselves. Consequently, the pattern of the Hobbit, which is itself a spiritual journey of self-discovery, displays this mirror doubling in its imagery.

The episode with the trolls is mirrored in the episode with the spiders. The trolls are a comic representation of the Trinity who threaten to "consume" the dwarves and hobbit even as divinity "consumes" the spirit. They, or more accurately, William's purse, ask the question "'Ere! Oo are yoo?" In this encounter Bilbo is defined by who he is and in his flusteration cannot answer correctly. Consequently his response accidentally becomes a riddle prompting the trolls to ask the followup question "what's a burrahobbit?" This is the divine question - "what is man?" = the question of the sphinx and of the psalmist and of any pilgrim setting out on the mystical journey. The encounter with the trolls is like that first terrifying encounter with the other/god in the dark. Yet when dawn comes, the threatening protean images have become manageable and still; turned to stone. From this encounter Bilbo gains strength and knowledge as a burglar, but also acquires his blade, Sting; a small sword but powerful - emblematic of the keenness of intellect and inquiry.

Similarly, the multitudinous spiders are divine, otherworldly creatures of nightmare and darkness. They attack the dwarves and the hobbit in the darkness of Mirkwood when the company tries to seek help from the elusive wood elves and wrap them in the eternal shroud of webbing to be "consumed" later. But Bilbo's encounter with the Trolls has prepared him for this meeting and he saves the dwarves with the help of Sting. The spiders ask "what is it?" in reference to Sting. Here Bilbo is not defined by who he is but what he does. As such he helps the dwarves escape after a great battle with the spiders.

The visiting of the beneficent high elves in Rivendell in which Thorin and company are the voluntary guests of Elrond is mirrored by the "visiting" of the hostile wood elves in Mirkwood in which the company are involuntary guests of Thranduil. Rivendell is a place of joy and light, rest after their encounter with the trolls. The wood elves are a place of darkness and treacherously alluring bounty which imprisons the company. Both are representative of the capacity for creative thought; the first in its benevolent form of comedy, the second in its malevolent form of tragedy. Bilbo leaves from the first riding on ponies and escapes from the second riding on barrels; a fact that later will confuse Smaug and help to save Bilbo.

The episode of intruding on the home of the goblins parallels the episode of intruding on the home of Beorn. The former, an image of depravity in the dark, involves the kidnapping of the dwarves and Bilbo while the latter, an image of solitary abundance in the open country, involves the necessary invasion of Beorn's privacy. Though they have kidnapped the group, the goblins claim they have been intruded upon "sitting on our front porch" and Thorin and company must assume a suppliant posture before the great goblin king. Ultimately they are saved from their imminent death by Gandalf. Though they don't want to intrude on Beorn, the company must if they are to continue their journey. Again they are saved by Gandalf who encourages Thorin and company to assume a suppliant posture with the giant skin-changer. Both episodes involve dwarves barging in on the home of a stranger and consequently echo the initial chapter of "Unexpected Party" and the latter chapter of "On the Doorstep". Bilbo, who fades in the goblin and Beorn section, is mimicked by the goblin king (whose front porch he has intruded upon) and by Beorn (who is the big man to Bilbo's little man).

At the heart of the story, and in the very bowels of the dragon lies Gollum. Gollumis an interesting doppleganger of Bilbo. Once hobbit, or hobbit-like, he lives in a hole in the ground, eats alot, loves riddles, and has one very great treasure; the ring of power. Bilbo's meeting with him, and the pity invoked therefrom, forces the hobbit to face what he too might become. Solitary, miserable, imprisoned and tortured by his own mind, gollum is a "non-living man" - a manikin or "golem". He aquires from Gollum, then, insight, reflection, the power to be self-critical and examine his own heart through the cyclic thought that goes round and round (or "there and back again"). This power, limited to certain individuals, allows them to slip from the vision of the rest of the world, escape the slavery that normalcy and daily existence impose on most people, and become the outsider - the catcher in the rye. It is a power that can lead one to be able to create law, art, music, myth or fashion the norms that govern society. In short, it is the power that leads to autonomy; "self-law". But the power is dangerous b/c it also can give delusions of grandeur which exceed the proper realm of the wielder making him think he is a dragon rather than a man. In doing so, the wielder does not really become a dragon but an "unman", a golem, wrestling with himself in a schizophrenic slavery to the one ring that rules them all.


This sort of pathos is just what Bilbo must feel, confront, and leave behind. It poses an obstacle to his escape from the nightmarish womb of primordial existence in which Gollum dwells. No great leap for a man but a great leap for a hobbit. Nor is the escape without consequence as Bilbo hears behind him "Thief! Thief! Baggins! We hates it. Hates it forever!" Ever after the curse of becoming the manikin/doppleganger will dog Bilbo's domestic bliss (his Baggins side) pursuing him throughout Middle Earth, trying to join again the two halves that share the ring.

Bilbo's character as well has a dual element to it. He is both the domestic sedentary Baggins and the adventurous Took. He has elements of rabbit imagery but also of dragon imagery. He lives in a hole in the ground, likes comfort, likes to eat, has vast stores of treasure stowed away neatly in his hole, likes to blow smoke out of his nose, wears brightly colored clothing, is small and has hairy feet. Throughout the book the rabbit imagery appears again and again (with the trolls, the eagles, Beorn) but so too does the dragon imagery (riddles with Gollum, climbing the tree in Mirkwood, escaping the elves, facing Smaug, stealing the Arkenstone). Indeed, Bilbo's transformation in the novel is from the timid, domestic, rabbit straggling behind the dwarves into the bold, adventurous, dragonlike hero who leads the band in the end. Though Bilbo does not become a dragon in full (the threat of such an end appears only in LOTR when he begins to become like Sauron, the dragon) he nevertheless acquires characteristics that are "dragonlike" - loses his respectability among the hobbits and becomes a loner in Hobbiton, despite his wealth. He moves from grocer (fat, amiable, giving to others what they need in broad daylight; Barliman Butterbur) to "burglar indeed" (lean, solitary, taking from others under cover of darkness) when he steals the Arkenstone.
Moreover, Bilbo's nature seems to mimic the dragon, Smaug, in his propensity for riddles - he outriddles the dragon - his ability to acquire treasure, and his ability to see above all these "earth bound" individuals who live out their mundane lives in the Shire. At one point in Mirkwood, Bilbo climbs a tree and looks out over the vastness of the forest. There in the sunlight he sees thousands of little flying moths and the beauty of the moment strikes him as timeless. He experiences that other world beyond this in an almost angelic moment in which he is superior to the dwarves (little men). This response parallels the dragon's ability to fly above the earth, but without the contempt of a dragon for the small things and for beauty. A dragon, after all, cannot enjoy his own treasure; merely spoils it for others. But Bilbo does end up "soaring" above others. He is dubbed "elf friend" by the king of the wood elves, and proclaimed a prince by Bard. Indeed, he does fit the elvish Mithril armor better than many elf princes before him. Upon his return to Hobbiton he finds the cloddish Hobbits going about their material existence of selling his worldly goods at an auction. Tolkien makes a particular point that many were sorry he was not dead (a typical cloddish response) and that Bilbo had to take great pains to buy back his own silverware.

Ultimately Bilbo's confrontation with Smaug is the thing that allows him to soar even higher than the dragon. Though he acquires dragonish qualities his ability to confront and outriddle even this great terror breaks the dragon spell on him. Smaug asks him who he is and Bilbo, rather than reveal who he is tells what he has done. He hides behind the invisibility of his deeds and thus, when the despairing nature of the wyrm tries to catch him he can escape. What is a burrahobbit? Nothingness? Darkness? What is at the heart of man's existence? If it is nothingness then despair sets in and we become dragons or naught. But Bilbo's response, "I am what I have done" is something of a salvation. We may not be much, but we can do much and much for good. Thus when Bilbo steals the Arkenstone it is in an attempt for peace, not (as is paralleled in the Master of the Laketown) in a desperate attempt to save himself. This use of the treasure to help others allows him, in the end, to accept his smallness not as curse but as blessing. In the end we are admired by elves, men, dwarves, wizards who all like us very much; but are just little fellows in a very large world. And thank goodness for that.