Monthly Archives: September 2017

Euripides: Heracles: Heroic vs. Moral Courage

“… Heracles was struck by madness through the jealousy of Hera, and threw his own children, who had been borne to him by Megara, into the fire,” (Apollodorus, 73)

“Heracles after his marriage with Megara, daughter of Creon, had children by her. . . . Leaving his sons in Thebes, he himself went to Argos to accomplish his labors,” (Euripides, 283)

The most common telling of the Herculean myth – part of the wider series of cult myths which were told all through ancient Mediterranean culture, perhaps as a regional / societal reflex to the civilizing force that had shifted these native Mediterranean cultures away from their more “barbaric” pasts into a somewhat more unified (possibly through trade) city culture – is found in Apollodorus of Athens’ encyclopedic retelling of the labors: Hercules kills his children and must undertake a dangerous task to make amends for his crimes.

Why would Hercules kill his own children? Apollodorus only tells us that “Heracles was struck by madness through the jealousy of Hera,” (73), but what exactly is this jealousy of Heracles that fuels Hera’s rage? A possible answer is that Hera is attempting to keep Zeus’ seed from spreading and influencing the region any further. However, Hercules’ crime leads to his need for an expiation of his guilt through the undertaking of the labors. These labors have a strong civilizing force in that not only is Hercules carrying out the commands of Eurystheus, the ruler of Tiryns who is using Hercules to rid the surrounding lands of dangers to his kingdom, but by his very travels he is influencing these lands with his (and by proxy, Zeus’) presence (religion). Therefore we have a civilizing force working on behalf of a city that is successful because of his relation to Zeus. Hera is ultimately unsuccessful in thwarting her husband’s plans and is eventually reconciled (hierogamy) with Hercules after “he obtained immortality,” and “married her daughter, Hebe,” (91).

Interestingly, we are seeing the evolved remnants of some of the themes we have covered so far: overthrow and creation. In previous myths we have seen how the younger generations have overthrown their parents (Zeus, Marduk), yet Hera reverses this trend and now wishes to kill her husband’s offspring because of her jealousy. She is a more complex character because we are now getting another point of view, just as we see in the Rig Veda when the Maruts disagree with Indra (Rig Veda, 167) over who has rights to a sacrifice (power struggle). We also see the remnants of the creation myth in that Greek civilization is “creating” the Mediterranean world in its own image through Hercules’ slaying of the terrible monsters. Yet we and the contemporary audience of this myth have already moved into a world of pure mythos to explain the creation of the world because the world already exists, it’s just uncivilized and therefore needs a civilizing force to tame it, not to actually create it out of the corpses of the slain monsters (such as Marduk slaying Tiamat).

And it is this moving out of a world of pure Logos (priestly myths exclusively for a priestly class) and into a world of Mythos (a world of regular people living in cities) that leads us to Euripides’ retelling of the Herculean myth. Euripides changes one key aspect of the basic story: Hercules kills his children after he has completed his labors and gone down into to Hades.  Hercules is changed from a character who only possess great physical courage which allows him to complete the labors into someone more psychologically complex who also possess great moral courage to endure the pain he has caused. Hercules initially wants to kill himself (a reflex of his previous form), but his friend, Theseus talks him out suicide because talk of killing oneself is “the words of an ordinary man,” (Euripides 330). Hercules is not an ordinary man not just because he will not kill himself (as an ordinary man would do), or because he is the child of Zeus (semi-divine, and in that sense not at all like anyone in the audience listening to the play), but because he has the moral courage to endure this terrible pain, his “last worst labor,” (Euripides 331). Hercules must and can serve as an example not just as someone who is physically strong and can protect the city (civilization), but is also morally strong and can serve his fellow man, similar to how Gilgamesh devoted his life to serving his city after his failed journey.

This psychological complexity is important because for a warrior, such as Hercules or Gilgamesh to live in society, he has to channel his great powers into something that does not disrupt the delicate balance of living within a city (civilization). Civilization has rules and laws that must be imposed on even a semi-divine hero, like Hercules, to maintain order. The warrior’s code of self-rule is overruled by codified laws (such as Hammurabi). Though his actions have helped create civilization through the act of “All those wars I fought, those beasts I slew” (Euripides, 331) he most certainly suffers from what we would call PTSD (no longer is it Hera’s rage, but rather something mental and interior to the individual; a Freudian repression) and must figure out how to live alongside the common people / his neighbors. This is a new kind of hero who serves the city and can cope with the burdens of life by channeling (what Freud calls Sublimation) the destructive impulses (recall that Hercules is a reflex of Zeus; Zeus’s thunderbolt and Hercule’s club are similar projections of male violence) into something more constructive, and less terrifying for his neighbors.

Simply by switching the order of events – the labors as a penance for the killing of his children into the labors as the reason why he killed his children – we see the evolution of heroic myth from that of a hero clad in lion skins and swinging a giant club at anyone who gets in his way in a barbaric society and who merely possess great physical courage into the city poetry that worships someone who is morally courageous and therefore someone more recognizable and imitable by the common people rather than just the priests who ritualize the mythos of creation in the temples, someone who can rationalize a problem rather than simply apply violence to every situation and can unite people through example rather than brute force. In this way the evolution of the Herculean myth is a combining of both the characters Gilgamesh (civilized, city) and Enkidu (wild, barbaric) into one new vision of the heroic example.

M. Butterfly: Post-structuralism: ‘Textualized’ subjects of post-structuralism and other ‘metanarratives’

Consider the characters of the movie and/or the opera as ‘textualized’ subjects of post-structuralism – that is, as subjects whose ‘reality’ is always referential, never absolute.

I keep coming back to the scene when Butterfly is wearing an American style dress during the height of her resistance to the “reality” that Pinkerton is not coming back when Prince Yamadori shows up instead to marry her. Her identity is referencing that of a what she believes is of the typical American housewife, albeit one who is rather fancy and quite wealthy judging by the quality of her dress. She tries her best to “dress” herself in this identity, but it’s an obvious mask everyone sees through, in fact nobody even comments on her change of clothes because they are seeing right past what she is referencing and are seeing only the Butterfly underneath the foreign garb. This is interesting because she looks totally out of place in this dress, too. She seems to be playing dress up the way children would with dolls, though based on her experience as a geisha, putting on a costume to inhabit a role of fantasy (for male customers) is nothing so foreign to her or, for that matter, to any of the Japanese. Technically, she is simulating a reality in an attempt to create for herself a new reality, but as with all simulations, she falls short.

This, in turn, reveals another layer of reference because under her American dress is the girl they call Butterfly, which isn’t even her given name. To Prince Yamadori she is just a prize to be had, a conquest to add to his harem. He sees her as a prostitute to be bought but does not see the Cio-Cio-san underneath. But then with these onion-like layers, we have to wonder then if everything is referential, is there any identity at all? Who is the “real” Cio-Cio-san under the American dress and behind the Butterfly persona? Here then we are presented with an example of différance in that this individual woman can be called “Butterfly”, or “Cio-Cio-san”, or “Housewife” and in each instance she takes on (or attempts to take on)  a new reality that is different from her other realities. We are seeing Butterfly in a different reference; she no longer is wearing the traditional Japanese dress, she’s identifying herself with an other in defiance of what she no longer wishes to be associated with: a Japanese woman.

Yet she can’t help but expose a slippage back into her other identity because she is, after all, a Japanese woman living in Japan. She can’t fully inhabit her new binary because she isn’t a white, American, blonde, woman (like Pinkerton’s American wife). However, we do need to be careful here because if she had been raised in America from a small child (like her son will be), and was only ever raised with American culture, and dress, and American speech was all she knew and inhabited, then her mere biological characteristics would not necessarily preclude her from “legitimately” identifying as a typical American housewife, albeit as someone who also possesses Asian physical characteristics.

In fact this leads into part of the next question from the take-away: How reliable is what we think we know about the characters and cultures in the opera? If I had been born and raised in, say, the Amazon and had never been influenced by any culture outside of the deep Brazilian rainforest, I might not make much of any distinction between who is Japanese and who is American and what either of these two foreign cultures might represent or mean. I, as this supposed foreign observer, would not be interpreting the situation through the lens of what I think “Japan” is vs what I think “America” is, or what “honor” is vs what “individualism” is, rather I might see a contradiction in that the male in the relationship is acting one way whereas the female is acting another and that they are not adhering to my own (foreign) concept of what a relationship “should” be about.

To take it even further, if I was aware of what honor is I might think she is using honor as an excuse to not face the “reality” that Pinkerton is not coming back and that she’s just being stubborn and not because she really is honorable, as is the prefered reading of “honor” in this case, doing so because she truly believes absolutely in what she is doing with no doubts at all. All-in-all everything becomes relative, not absolute, but always from the point of view of another observer. To Butterfly or Pinkerton their reality may seem perfectly “absolute”, but  from a relative point of view those realities fall apart.


And this idea of how a reality might seem absolute to the individual experiencing it leads us to the next topic:


What other ‘metanarratives’ do you see in the movie and opera? What role do they play?

The metanarrative which most interested me was that of the importance (or not) of telling the truth as we understand it. I was first struck by this during the courtroom scene when Gallimard is asked, by a incredulous judge, how he could not have known Song was a man. According to the court Gallimard must be telling a lie, right? How could anyone be so unobservant? Yet we the audience who have spent nearly 2 hours riding along in this situation did not know either! We too were fooled and if we had been quizzed by a legal tribunal as to whether or not Song was a woman, most of us would have rolled our eye at such a boneheaded question: of course the truth is that Song is a woman!

Yet suppose we were to place the characters in the film into an impressionist painting. Would we then be able to clearly distinguish who was whom, and which gender any of these figures posses? Would we be lying if we said we were certain a figure holding a baby was a woman? Or a figure on a motorcycle was a man? And if we changed our answer would we then be telling the truth?

And so like in an impressionist painting, the characters are creating and inventing their own truth about their identity. Perhaps Song is more willing to be fluid while Gallimard is more resistant to slippage between identities, but is the possibility that either of them are lying even necessarily a “bad” thing? Yes, we favor the “truth” and, like the judge are initially incredulous to any idea outside of Song being a man and Gallimard being a spy, but are these “facts” actually the real truth?

Both characters live very post-modern lives in that they are lonely and isolated and live in worlds that is seething with energy to reinvent themselves (mostly through political revolution), a world neither of them seem to fully comprehend, either. Both characters reject traditional “realism” in an effort to invent their own “truths”, and not necessarily because either of them are lying, but because they are more open to other possibilities, even if it comes at the expense of willfully (or unwittingly) failing to investigate their reality much further under the surface reality they’ve created – in other words, neither seem willing to undress their reality and expose it in its naked condition, until the very end.

Yet even in the end when Song strips naked and Gallimard takes on a persona of Butterfly, are they still any closer to the truth, or are they just inhabiting a new truth as they define truth now?

Ultimately it comes down to how the characters are creating their own reality by creating a real from an unreal. Gallimard, in his role as a diplomat (inept as he is) believes he is telling the truth about how the Chinese and the Americans will behave in the current political crisis in Southeast Asia. He may not be totally confident in his beliefs and is hiding behind a dismissive, almost arrogant attitude, but he has to look good in front of the ambassador and his less than friendly coworkers. Song too believes she is truthful in being a woman because, as she says, “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act”. She’s become more woman than woman, she’s become a meta-woman, the ultimate simulation of a woman based on what she thinks a woman is supposed to be. She too has to put on a good show to convince Gallimard and in her own way is also telling the truth about the reality she is inhabiting.

Yet as with any specific reading of a text, these characters readings of their reality and what they believe is truth is unreliable and artificial. From Comrade Chin’s point of view Song is decadent and a disgrace to the cultural revolution. Song should inhabit the established cultural roles and norms as imposed by Chairman Mao and anything deviating from that is a lie, perhaps even treason! Comrade Chin sees Song as a deceitful liar, albeit a useful liar for China’s political gain. The same holds true for Gallimard. He’s a meta-Westerner, an educated, arrogant, in-over-his-head colonialist who thinks all Asians are exotic butterflies and the Chinese take full advantage of this reading of him as if this is an accurate, truthful reading of Gallimard the individual. Gallimard begins the story believing this narrative of himself and very much wishes to inhabit that defined reality, yet he’s not nearly qualified to really be of any political use to the Chinese because he really isn’t a meta-Westerner after all, it’s a lie, and like the impressionist painting, he and the Chinese made a poor reading of who he really was.

Ultimately how then can anyone ever really be telling the truth when our own realities can be so easily thrown into doubt or are at least fluid? Song is more woman than woman, so is she lying when she says she’s a woman? Gallimard loves Butterfly and so is he telling the truth when he says he didn’t know she was (at least physically) a man? Even if we could read the minds of Song and Gallimard we might still be no closer to determining who is telling the truth here because what is the truth?

Deconstruction / Postmodernism: Simulation of the Real

René Magritte’s 1928 painting “La Trahison des Images” (“The Treachery of Images”) is a fun example of the simulation the real. On the one hand it is just the image of a pipe, not a pipe itself – it is a simulation of a pipe. On the other, however, is the fact that it is, in fact, a real painting of a pipe. The painting does in fact exist even if what it is a painting of does not exist.

Another example is from the novel War and Peace when Marya gives her brother Andrey (an atheist) an icon to wear around his neck as he heads off to war. She simply believes this icon will keep the grace of God with him as he heads into danger, and though he does not believe in God he does wear this because he loves his sister. In neither case is the icon actually God nor is it love, but it simulates both of these things at once (in a different way to each of them). Later in the novel a peasant woman describes how an icon in a distant church was physically weeping, yet Andrey’s friend, Pierre, explains it was all a trick to separate poor people from their money. The peasant woman takes offence because to her the weeping icon was a sign of and by God, but for Pierre it was a sign of corruption and deceit.

I use these two examples of icons because Baudrillard talks about religious icons and the role they play in the religious experience. An orthodox Catholic places great importance of the icons of Jesus and Mary and St. John the Baptist, whereas some Protestant faiths (those of the iconoclasts tradition) do not believe religious imagery should be used since it gets in the way of the act of God’s breath of life into the soul. This then raises an interesting paradox within Protestantism’s belief of self-salvation (the individual working out their own salvation) of thus interpreting God differently than their neighbor, unlike the Catholic’s who have a structured hierarchy of images with which God is already interpreted for them. The iconoclasts may be “the ones who accorded [the images] their actual worth”, but what exactly is this “actual worth” since it differs from individual to individual?

In short, which is real? The icon or the absence of the icon? The pipe, or the simulation of the pipe?

To build on the religious experience of images, Milton’s Paradise Lost describes the fruit that Adam and Eve ate as being an apple, yet nowhere in the Bible is there any distinction as to what fruit it might be, it’s simply the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (as opposed to the fruit of the tree of life). No apples are in the Hebrew Old Testament book of Genesis. Yet ask any “man on the street” what fruit was eaten in in the bible and they will (most likely) say it is an apple. The apple has become a symbol of the downfall of humanity, the fruit we ate which got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden (Paradise). Humanity was tricked and the apple has becomes a symbol of this deceit, a dissimulation, when in fact it was originally that which gave us the knowledge of good and evil (the knowledge of God himself).

The Rig Veda: Conquest over Tiamat

“He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels (from it).

He sliced her in half like a fish for drying:

Half of her he put up to the roof of the sky,

Drew a bolt across and made a guard hold it.

Her waters he arranged so that they could not escape.” (The Epic of Creation, 255)

The Mother-Goddess Tiamat is serving multiple purposes here. FIrst (though in no particular order), she is a metonymy for the ocean, an emanation / pathogenesis, “And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,” (233) of life, which Marduk cuts in half (like Moses will later in another Semitic text, the Hebrew Bible), but she is also a source of fertility / nourishment (a fish) from which Marduk will create the world (cosmogony) from.

Second, she is part of the older generation which Marduk battles against (theomachy) and succeeds in overthrowing and securing his position of power when he takes the Tablet of Destinies, “Wrested from him the Tablet of Destinies,” (254) which cements his fate as the supreme ruler (Sky-God) and establishes his pattern for celestial hierophany (the heavenly sacred order).

This overthrow is also significant because since Marduk is male and Tiamat is female we have a fiction (mythos) explaining how the patriarchy has wrestled power away from the matriarchy. Tiamat, like the Ginnungagap, is a mixture of two forms. Here this mixture is of the waters, the fresh (as represented by the progenitor God Apsu) and the salt waters. Fertile Tiamat had been the goddess who the successive gods, such as Marduk, emanated from (like Aditi is in the Rig Veda), but now Marduk in his bid for power seeks to gain this power of creation for himself and whom the other gods have given him commission to do so, “We hereby give you sovereignty over all of the whole universe,” (250) and, “They gave him an unfaceable weapon [the winds] to crush the foe,” (250). Tiamat’s mysterious female powers of creation (the fertile waters) are now under Marduk’s (a male’s) complete control, “LUGAL-DIMMER-ANKIA is his name. Trust in him!” (259). Marduk, the Bull-Calf of the Sun is the new, masculine Warrior-Sky-God.

One other point to address is that, like Zeus later, Marduk, a male, has taken on the previously feminine role of birth and creation. The second generation of Gods emanated from Tiamat, but now the world and all subsequent generations can be brought into existence through the violent effort of the dominant male. What had once been a mysterious emanation that can’t be easily explained, can now quantified through Marduk’s actions with Taimat’s corpse.

Third we have the cosmogony where after having killed off the old generation (overthrow), the new world can be created according to Marduk’s plan. Marduk, now the God-Sky-King creates the world through the corpse of the Proto-Godess, Tiamat. And from this cosmogony, man – a slave race – is created from the blood of Qingu (blood anthropogony), “He created mankind from his blood,” (261).

All-in-all, this myth justifies Marduk’s violence. Tiamat originally was willing to show compassion (a female trait), “Even though their ways are grievous, we should bear it patiently,” (234) towards the younger generation for causing trouble and for killing the progenitor god, Apsu. Yet Marduk does not need compassion, he is a violent male, yet he still has to justify his violent actions and this mythos explains / justifies how and why Marduk slew Tiamat to create the world we now (as Babylonians, anyway) are slaves in and worshipers of the Sky-God, Marduk.

Deconstruction / Postmodernism: Derrida’s ‘différance’

In their introduction to deconstruction, Rivkin and Ryan explain that Derrida’s term ‘différance’  is a ‘primordial process of differentiation,’ a ‘simultaneous process of deferment in time and difference in space’ (258). Attempt to explain this concept in your own words and/or examples.


I have to admit with struggling with this concept for awhile before I felt like I might have gotten a handle on it.

In the introduction to Derrida’s essay, the author mentions the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander. Anaximander wondered that if Z has a beginning then there must be a state, Y, in which Z came from. But where did Y come from? Y must have come from X which also had a beginning.

Further complicating this concept is at what point does X become Y, and Y become Z? Or to use another analogy, at what point does a person who is dry become wet? Is there a state of dryness and wetness that is either both or neither? Even in math we see this concept when we keep dividing by 2. 2 divided by 2 is 1, half of 1 is 1/2, half again is 1/4, and so on. At no point is there ever really half, or even a defined point in space anymore – it’s just an infinite series of points we can say is there, but never really point to since there is not a “there” there.

Time is another example. When is “now”? “Now” happened in the past and there might be another “now” coming in the future, but the slippage between the future and the past is immediate; “Now” never happens, it’s either going to happen or has already happened.

I started to think of this concept in relation to M. Butterfly. At what point is Song Liling the Butterfly or the spy? And for that matter at what point are any of the Chinese actual individuals or a collective (‘commrades”) who make up the new communist state? What concrete identity do they posses at any given time? Is there a point where Song Liling is Butterfly “right now” and is there another point when Song Liling is a spy “right now”? Or are they fluid and do they overlap with no discernible distinction between them?

Also, as pertains to how symbols are related to each other (a trace, as the text uses the term), how would Song Liling as Butterfly be defined if Song Liling wasn’t also a spy? Each symbol, or binary, is dependent on each other for meaning since while Song Liling could easily be one or the other, each in themselves would not have the same context as we understand it from the film without being each related and necessary to the other.

This is what, I believe, Derrida means by différance.

Structuralism: Barthes definition of the intermediate; the ethics of signs

Barthes says that ‘the intermediate sign[…]reveals a degraded spectacle’ (84). What does Barthes mean by intermediate? And how does this relate to ‘an ethics of signs?


‘Intermediate’ means a sign that stands halfway between “the artificial and [the] natural,” (84), it is a sign that is attempting to explain a particular effect (in this case that the offending senators of Rome were under great moral and psychological stress), but is also so completely artificial that to even achieve the effect for the actors it required large quantities of vaseline.

Barthe’s believes a sign must either be completely abstract, such as the flag in a Chinese play signifying a military regiment, or it must be formed naturally from the genuine experience. Here Barthe’s mentions Stanislavski who is famous for his school on acting and preparing actors to react genuinely to the material they are performing rather than just taking a few vocal and dance lessons. An actor who is genuine in their performance would not need vaseline to convey moral struggle, their moral struggle would manifest itself naturally without the aid of a prop.

This relates to an ‘ethics of signs’ in that the ‘intermediate’ sign is thus considered a “degraded spectacle,” (84) because it is unethical in that it fails to be genuine in how it is attempting to signify its intent and it adds a layer of artifice to the real world where none should be needed. Barthe’s goes as far to say that this intermediate sign is “deceitful” because it can actually “confuse the sign with what is signified,” (84) – in this example it confuses the sweat with real moral struggle. The sweat is not the moral struggle, however, it is an artificial prop attempting to show moral struggle, but it fails to actually represent the moral struggle of the killing of Caesar and the plunging of all Roman civilization into political turmoil.

page 244 of 348 of Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others

Anshar tells his vizier, Kakka to relay a message to his parents tha Tiamut is pissed and Marduk wants to be champion. Lots of repetition here, but one confusing aspect is that Anshar says that he had sent Anu and Nudimmud (on seperate attempts) to face Tiamut, but I re-read it and it was Ea who was sent and chickend out.