There be dragons!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Amused Muse about the Muse

I was reading Proverbs again today (it's something I do) and noticed at the very beginning (Prov 1:7) that the poet says "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." Fear of the Lord. Fear leads to knowledge. This seems similar to Plato's statement that "all philosophy begins in wonder" and certainly reflects the image of Gyges' wondering at the chasm in the ground and going into it, or the philosopher descending into the cave. Are wonder and fear related in this way? Do we both wonder and fear at some dark pit, some chasm? Certainly the ancients said that the world begin in an abyss, and Genesis of course begins with "the deeps" over which the spirit moves. At what are we wondering/fearing? That abyss seems to be internal rather than external - some darkness within us - and has echoes of the lacuna between image and imaged in which the truth resides.

But it occurred to me that Aristotle points out the purpose of tragedy is "to provoke fear and pity." Tragedy provokes fear or awe by revealing the deep pit inside each of us. We are awed by it and wonder "what's down there?" Yet we also have pity b/c we know that this pit is terrifying and dangerous. Caveat - beware - the Cave. Yet what is that caveat within us?

Plato explicitly uses the term "noble dogs" for his guardians who are the meeting point between the nobility of the intellectual rulers and the caninity of the appetitive workers. Man is both noble and canine; spirit and body; divine and mortal. What is the tragedy in that? Unless, of course, the dog knows it is a dog and not a god. By dog! ho kunos!

That certainly is a cave canem.

"We know what we are but we know not what we may become," as Ophelia states. Were we to be merely dogs, ants, goats we would have no knowledge of our dogness, or our antness, or our goatness. But b/c we are aware, b/c we wonder (an action unique to humans) we know that we are dogs and live everyday with our grossness. We are aware of our antness and live with our puny existence. We are aware of our goatness and live with the knowledge that goats become gyros. Before the slaughter we look up at the knife held by our Father and cry out in a mournful wail, a goat song - tragoidos. Tragedy is the cry over our own existence.

And as our dogness seems apparent enough our nobility does not. Show me an ounce of honor, a foot of soul, the weight of love. These things cannot be measured or held in the hand and so seem ephemeral - unreal - lies or illusions. They are mere myths we tell in order to feel better about our own dogness. Were we merely dogs this would be no problem and we could go about rolling in fish or sniffing bottoms or chasing rabbits and be none the wiser. But the dog knows it is a dog and hence the source of our sorrow. "For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief." (Ecc 1:18)

We are compelled by wonder (fear) to go down into the cave.
There in the dark we encounter the reality of our noble dog existence.
Once we are aware of our existence we are compelled by pity to go down into the cave to save others.

What is amusing about this? Tragos, in Greek, means goat, but also means the smell of the armpit. Tragedy is "the goat song" or "the armpit song". It is a reminder of our mortal selves translated into something beautiful. Imagine all those garlic and gar eating Greeks sitting in the outdoors from sunup to sundown for the Dionysiad. How it must have stunk! And how, surrounded by the smell of armpits, they would have been reminded by this beautiful singing and drama that man is also very noble. That realization should provoke fear and pity indeed.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Earthsea Trilogy



When Ursula K. LeGuin first wrote “The Word of Unbinding” in 1964 she perhaps did not foresee the world of Earthsea in the short story giving rise to one of the greater pieces of fantasy of the 20th century. The later Trilogy of Earthsea, consisting of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, is a work which, taken as a whole, rivals the power and insight of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Though far darker and creepier than Tolkien’s work, the Earthsea Trilogy offers a great vision of the nature of imagination, the human spirit, and the world of evil. It’s also an excellent and thrilling read.

The series is set in the Archipelago of Earthsea, a fictional world of rocky islands in which magic, artwork, and science coexist. LeGuin’s use of magic is far more complex than in the Harry Potter series or in Tolkien’s trilogy. In Earthsea magic works not as a haphazard entity of cabalistic phrases, nor as the obscure power of suggestion and hidden strength of Tolkien’s Ainur. Rather magic on Earthsea consists of the discovery of the true name of objects. Wizards are trained to learn the names given to physical objects at their first creation and to use such knowledge to alter reality. The craft is available mostly to men and women, but the world is also populated with dragons of great power and knowledge and spirits of various degrees who have access to magical abilities as well.

The first title in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, follows the life of a young wizard named Ged, also called “Sparrowhawk” who is sent by his mentor, Ogion, to study at the school for wizards on Roke Island. Here, rankled by the insults of a rival, Sparrowhawk ignores the injunction against the misuse of magic and conjures into this world a demon of shadows, or Gebbeth, that brutally scars his face and escapes into the world to cause ruin and destruction. The rest of the novel is about Sparrowhawk’s recovery and attempt to hunt down the Gebbeth.

LeGuin’s emphasis on responsibility in the novels contributes to the gravity of the writing. Sparrowhawk begins his wizardly life in a flippant, almost negligent way – as though he does not understand the power involved in what he is doing. His tremendous error and resultant pain are a reminder of the seriousness involved in any craft. Moreover, the craft of wizardly “namecalling” is a metaphor for the artistic process itself. Man, unlike other animals, traffics in images – each of which works to raise, or conjure, in the mind of subsequent viewers a response of understanding. Artists are, consequently, like wizards. They use imagery in order to create a type of magic in the mind; by fitting image to reality they illuminate truth. This craft is one of tremendous responsibility since the image could falsely represent reality and since such illumination always causes change. To use it carelessly causes “shadows” to enter the world.

The Tombs of Atuan, the second title in the series, deals primarily with shadows. It involves Tenhar, also called Arhan “the eaten one”, a priestess of the old, chthonic, gods of blood and human violence, called “The Nameless Ones” who are kept under control by constant vigilance and by a vast spiderweb of labyrinthine tunnels under the earth leading to the main cave of their dwelling. Sparrowhawk arrives on the island to find the lost half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and finds himself trapped in the labyrinth where he must confront the old gods. He wins Tenhar over with his kindness and shows to her the cruel slavery with which the Nameless Ones hold her in thrall. With her help he succeeds in his quest and escapes from the labyrinth.

The chthonic gods of Earthsea are only dimly understood and never fully seen; rather they are a presence of terror and unease who threaten the foundations of the world. In many ways they are terrors out of the subconscious; the use of the labyrinth image certainly reflects the Greek labyrinth at the center of which resided the man-eating Minotaur. Sparrowhawk’s descent into the darkness is, therefore, like a journey into the heart of the subconscious in order to find truth. Yet the focus of the work concerns Tenhar and her imprisonment to the old gods. Her freedom comes through her love of Sparrowhawk whose near death experience reveals to her that the Nameless Ones, the spirits of subconscious terror, only consume life and give nothing back to the world. She comes to see that the wisdom of love is better than the folly of slavery, just as light is better than darkness.

In the final work of the series, The Farthest Shore, Sparrowhawk must enter the land of the dead in order to stop a spiritual disease that is spreading through Earthsea, destroying magic and causing songs and artwork to cease. In the land of the dead Sparrowhawk confronts the necromancer, Cob, who has opened a rift between the two worlds in order to cheat his own death. Sparrowhawk must sacrifice all his magical ability in order to seal the rift and allow magic to return to Earthsea.

All three of LeGuin’s novels have an element of creepiness and terror about them but the last of the three most especially. This element of terror gives great weight to her observations about truth. Ultimately, we only know reality through images, as an image reflects the reality of things around us. We call a thing true when it correctly embodies the reality of the thing imaged. However, there always exists a vast chasm between the image and the thing imaged since we are never able to directly experience the reality of a thing, only the image of that reality. Thus we see not men but “the likeness as the appearance of a man” as Ezekiel 1:26 says. Over the deeps of that vast chasm truth moves like a wind and our magic is an attempt to make land out of the ocean of darkness and fear residing in the subconscious. But such an attempt always requires tremendous sacrifice and must give way, ultimately, to the realization that we are mortal and subject to the laws of our fallen world. Thus when Cob tries desperately to save his own life he not only loses it and becomes one of the dead but threatens the very life of the world itself. Only the magical death of another man succeeds in healing that rift and restoring the world to its proper order.

LeGuin’s stories are an engaging and remarkable read and her insight into human nature and the nature of magic are not to be missed. Though she may not have intended so powerful a story when she created her first little island in the Archipelago, she eventually crafted an excellent alternative universe and, through the magic of her craft, gave us all a fine bit of dry land in the vast world of literature.

FYI, there is a very bad rendition of The Earthsea Trilogy done by American studios. It truncates the story, takes out all the profundity of the novels and substitutes real drama for predictable boilerplate. The acting is poor and the sets are nothing to write about. I did just learn today that Goro Miyazaki (of Spirited Away fame) released a rendition of the series in 2006 named Teru no Uta (Tales from Earthsea), but have not yet seen it. Here is a clip:





Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Ring, The Ring


I'm using this blog as a marker for Juniors to post on something in Plato at their website.

I'm intrigued by the meaning of Gyges' ring. The ring, it seems, is not an object for good or for evil even if Gyges uses the ring for evil. So what is it? Most telling is that Gyges first discovers the properties of the ring while sitting at the monthly meeting of accounts before the king of Lydia. He is a thrall to another man, under the rule of laws and society and a thousand other chains that weigh him down. The ring allows him to be free of all of that - a "blank canvas", as one student put it, on which he now has the freedom to create good or evil. So what is the ring? Is the ring the power to throw off societal chains (modes, mannerisms, beliefs, expectations) and thus be free? If so the discussion about rock concerts vs. Mass are very apt - both are supposed to allow us to do this thing ("death where is thy sting?"), one only seems to be succeeding in our modern era (not the Mass).

That aside, the power of the ring seems to be a neutral power that essentially puts us like a stage hand in the creation of life's myth; once we throw off the power of law & custom wouldn't we have the ability to construct myth, influence the decisions of others, craft movies, music, stories, lies, identities? Wouldn't we be like Leonardo di Caprio in "Catch me if you Can"? Running from the straight laced law, perhaps, but enjoying every minute of our escape. In such a state we could be a tremendous force for goodness. The Ainur, for instance, were not of Middle Earth and could travel great distances very swiftly. But in such a state we would, perhaps, also be far more tempted to really destructive evil (vs. the small petty evils that the normal, law-bound man indulges in). After all, Saruman, as well as Gandalf, was an Ainur. After all Heinrich Himmler was an ubermensch.

Ultimately, it seems the ring represents, not a power that corrupts (as Tolkien's ring seems to inevitably do, thus suggesting a slightly different philosophy than Plato), but a neutral power that allows the wearer to slip the bonds of human societal norms and thus allows him to do tremendous good or tremendous evil.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Good Man is in the Tarot

Just had a fascinating insight into Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." O'Connor was intrigued by what she called "the conversion moment" - that is, the moment of grace given to a person by God in which, through pain, sorrow, or loss, they have the opportunity to accept or reject salvation. Only through that intense moment, O'Connor suggested, could a person could come to see the world as sacramental.




In "Good Man" the protagonist, grandmother, and her family stop for lunch at a restaurant called "The Tower". This seems a very odd name for a restaurant unless O'Connor was intending some greater symbolism. Certainly the tower of Babel comes to mind, but since Red Sammy Butts doesn't seem quite as grandiose as Nimrod the giant there must be some other symbolism occurring.




In the Rider-Waite Tarot deck there appears this image:












The major arcana of the tarot deck represent attitudes toward the world, some good, some evil which all serve to give language to our experience as humans. This one the XVI one in the major arcana shows two men plummetting toward merciless rocks after their fortress is riven with a thunderbolt from the heavens. It is night and murky clouds surround the tower while fire spews from the windows and a giant crown topples off the top of the edifice. The tower (like Babel) represents the extreme of pride in us when we think our little world is secure and we try to make ourselves rulers over our dominion rivalling God. The lightning bolt is the actus Dei which shatters our world and makes us realize our own helplessness. The fire is the passionate destruction that accompanies this cataclysm. The two figures, man and woman, mimic both the emperor & empress of III & IV (she still wears her crown), the high priestess & heirophant of II & V, and the lovers of VI while their position of falling helplessness mimics the position of the hanged man in Arcana XII. Thus they represent the pride of all these accomplishments dashed from its lofty hubris by life's cataclysmic violence.






Though not an identity to the Tarot, O'Connor's story bears striking resemblances; Bailey and the Mrs. seem to be like the High Priestess (with "cabbage face" and "rabbit ears" just like the Rider Waite drawing) and the Heirophant while June Star seems to resemble the imperiousness of the Empress and John Wesley is similar to the Emperor (the famous painting of the founder of the Arminian Methodist Movement being himself seated on a throne). Red Sammy Butts and his brown-skin wife are parodies of the Lovers and the car is the Chariot (arcana VII) which revolves after Pitty-Sing, the cat (a creature closely associated in Egyptian mythology with Thoth, magic, and mischevious change), jumps on Bailey's head, thus evoking arcana X "the Wheel of Fortune". Even the MisFit himself is described as


...an older man than the other two. His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look. He had a long creased face and didn't have on any shirt or undershirt. He had on blue jeans that were too tight for him and was holding a black hat and a gun.

... which closely resembles the image of the Devil in arcana XV, while Hiram, which means "exalted brother" in Jewish, can be likened to arcana VIII, Strength, and Bobby Lee can be likened to arcana IX, the Hermit, whose white beard, grey clothing
and venerable demeanor are similar to Robert E. Lee whose name is parodied in this destructive character. Grandmother's appearance when she first sets off on the trip bears remarkable similarity to the picture of the fool in arcana 0:

the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet.

So did O'Connor actually use the Tarot for the basis of this story? I don't think she was trying to make an identity here, certainly, but some of the same message as the Tarot does appear in Good
Man.