Category Archives: Gloss


‘“ both eyes, (the loss of) and to find someone

     who talked his own dialect. We

     talked of every boy and girl in the valley

     but when he came back from leave

he was sad because he had been able to feel

     all the ribs of his cow ….”’

The Pisan Cantos, 76: 190-194


In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of the final days when God shall judge the nations and people, and the worthy who remain “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks” (The Bible, Isiah 2.4). God is saying the righteous shall know peace, yet Pound paints a far more pessimistic picture for the wounded young men who are returning home from war. The man’s cow has been poorly treated, it can provide little sustenance, and may even be near death which could devastate a poor farmer who relies on his livestock not just to eat but also to produce an income. Yet beyond just this farmer’s situation, Pound reveals how the whole natural world has been mistreated during the war, that so much which requires care has been neglected, that what the young men were off fighting for was dying in their absence.

In the time of Isaiah, a cow might also provide the meat of the sacrifice needed to maintain the covenant with God, yet could such a starved beast be worthy enough for God? Perhaps this farmer is sad because he finds himself in a similar situation with Cain whose sacrifices were not respected by God. Perhaps the farmer senses the beast’s exposed ribs as evidence of the distance he and God have grown apart and he is reminded of how much killing he was involved with during the war. And, like Cain whose sacrifice was rejected by God because he assumed it was his works alone, not faith, which would grant him favor, the farmer may see his reprieve from war as merely a temporary situation – he is only on leave after all, which is ironic since he has lost both his eyes and yet the army still expects him back at some point.

As the farmer touches his starving cow he is reminded of the endless and fruitless toil of his lonely existence. While “We” have the luxury to gossip about “every boy and girl in the valley”, the farmer, alone, must sustain not only himself, but all of us who depend on him. Just as “We” depended on his service in the Army to protect our lives, “We” continue to depend on him to feed and nourish us. Yet how can he provide for so many when his cow has been starved? How much life can he wring out of the land and livestock? How much life is even left in the earth which has been bombed and blasted and turned into a moonscape of rubble? If the cow cannot eat, how can “We”? The entire fate of existence seems to rest upon a blind man and his starving cow.

Starved of faith, food, and friendship, the farmer and his cow resemble the most horrific terrors of war. The cow’s exposed ribs resemble the millions who were starved in concentration camps: men, women, and children who in broad daylight were rounded up while their fellow citizens did nothing. Where was God when endless trainloads of people were turned into ash in a perverted sacrifice to evil? Where was God when everyone else let it happen? Why did “We” not sustain our neighbors with the bravery required to stand up to injustice, to sacrifice ourselves in an act of pure faith in God that could have saved millions? Yet we willingly went blind and so God rejected our empty actions. “We” only “talked of every boy and girl in the valley”, not acted in their defense.

Yet while this poor farmer took up the call of his nation, would it not have been better had he stayed home? Was the cause he fought for righteous? Was the nation he killed for virtuous, or did he take part in an act of complete barbarity, blindly following the rallying cry of a corrupt state? Perhaps “We” who “talked of every boy and girl in the valley” are like the women in Siegfried Sassoon’s “Glory of Women” who, having also succumb to the state’s propaganda, gave a white feather to all the young men who believed





wars” (78: 224-228).


This blind farmer, who carries with him the memory of war, speaks with the unique “dialect” of wartime experience that the boys and girls of the valley are ignorant of. Yes, he is blind, and he may try to tell them that pursuing senseless violence against each other only leads to misery, but he might as well be speaking a dead language to deaf ears. In fact, he is speaking for the dead, a “dialect” that no one living wants to understand. And in this sense Pound and the farmer are deeply connected at the center beating heart of this Canto. The cow’s ribs resemble the bars on Pound’s cell, and Pound’s efforts to connect all of history, time, truth, and memory are only seen by the camp psychologists as curious scribbled poetry and not the cry of all human experience that begs to be heard by every boy and girl and even Presidents.

And now “We” reap what “We” have sown: a God who seems to have turned his back on all of humanity as he did with Cain, a starving cow, and a blind farmer who laments his fate because whom he placed his faith in turned out to be a false God, like the golden calf in the desert.


Yet perhaps there is hope here, too. Pound writes “he was sad because he had been able to feel”, and this line in isolation reveals that the farmer is still capable of feeling, even if it sadness and even if it does not follow sight. The farmer has not been totally deprived of his humanity, he is still capable of intense emotion even after suffering though the horrors of war. The farmer reaches out to his cow, starved as it is, and places his hand on the animal, comforts the beast with the simple gesture of a gentle, caring touch. He reconnects with what for so long he had been away from and begins the process of healing, of creating life rather than taking it. His first act home is not to pick up the hammer and beat his blood-soaked sword into a ploughshare, but to simply allow himself to be reminded of his connection with life.

Pound creates a humble scene of this blind farmer caressing his cow between the gentle sloping green-grassy hills below the snowy mountain peaks as if the entire weight of this single act of human kindness was enough to impress a sacred spot “in the valley” that could shelter and nurture all those with enough faith who chose to live there. He is like Moses descended from the surrounding mountains into the valley below to bring the true law – righteousness – to those who have been starved with false faith in the bombed-out desert wasteland they themselves created. This gift may seem meager and nearly incapable of sustaining life, but the farmer can offer his starving cow to provide the nourishment the soul requires.

Thus the farmer seems to be existing in two possible states: one in which he has been forsaken in a wilderness of death, and another where he is like the shepherd who, though blind, through kindness, can lead his starving flock out of the valley of the shadow of death because he has faith God is still with him, will restore his soul, and will prepare a table for him in the presence of his enemies. The cow still lives and thus God has maintained the sacrament in kind. The farmer can now either choose to accept this offering or turn his back because it appears too meager.

This is a critical moment for the farmer and Pound uses the ellipses to denote the uncertainty of what the outcome shall be. Pound is requiring each of us to complete the image, to freely choose which direction we will walk. Do we listen to Pound’s and the farmer’s strange “dialect” and put down our swords to be beaten into ploughshares so that the life of the farm can increase? Or do we turn our backs and send Pound and the farmer back to war, their eyes missing though they see far better than any of us do?

Additional Works Cited


The Bible, King James Version. Bible Hub, 2018.,

Virgil and Ovid on Aeneas and Dido

These two texts are foundational in the Western Tradition’s view of passionate love and they highlight the misogyny inherent in Roman culture that valued the male’s  “virtue” – virtus – of strength and masculinity and his devotion to Jove over the later Christian piety which is portrayed as feminine (motherly virtue and chastity).

In context, Aeneas loves his country, not the woman whom he had an affair with (and got pregnant) and excuses his misogyny by basically saying that the gods told him to move on out of Carthage.

We also see the tension between what Dido believes is a legitimate marriage and what Aeneas believes is an illegitimate marriage. Though she claims the lightning of the gods serve as the wedding torches and the gods themselves are witness to a legitimate ceremony, he does not recognize that particular supernatural authority. In fact we could tease this out as being the bedrock upon which the conflict between Rome and Carthage was built and why the two cities hated each other.

We also have the theme of love as insanity where she is like the wounded animal who, with the arrow having pierced her still as she tries to escape the hunter, stands in contrast to Aeneas who is passive. The woman is described as being little more than a terrified beast who lives off of instinct and emotion whereas the man is the passive, rational master hunter.

It is important to remember, however, that Virgil’s and Ovid’s audience were well aware what they were writing was a historical fiction, just as we know the film Gladiator is a historical fiction and as Shakespeare’s audience know Richard III was historical fiction. Yet the images are so powerful and convincing to an audience that they become embedded in our thinking and traditions and culture until the not just the stories, but the cultural attitudes present in the stories remain with us through the centuries.


Le Morte Darthur: The Masculine & Feminine State Dynamic

“Ryght so there cam a damesell into the halle and salewed the kyng and prayde hym of succoure.”

Sir Gareth of Orkney, 226:12

The damesell’s interaction with Arthur at court reveals a political complexity concerning the obligations between men and women in the context of the medieval romance genre. Here, women possess considerable power and influence and are just as capable as the men to perform in the state political sphere. This male / female relationship dynamic illustrates the intricacy of the roles both men and women can play in the political realm and reveals the considerable power women actually possess in spite of the majority of Malory’s word count being devoted to masculine action and influence.

The damesell, unable to take care of the Rede Knyght of the Rede Laundys by herself, addresses Kynge Arthur in person at his court in hopes this masculine governing body will provide her with necessary service, “[my sustir] is beseged with a tirraunte,” (226:16) and that the damesell has “come to you for succoure” (226:18). The damesell understands that the purpose of Arthur’s administration is an effort to bring order to all England, which she is showing respect to by coming directly to Arthur as well as deferring to his rule. However, in not revealing the full facts of the case, the name and location of her “sustir”, she is refused. Though Arthur and his (male) knights have sworn and are obligated to protect ladies from harm (the Pentecostal Oath), especially against a “tirraunte” (226:16) who is doing such harm, Arthur can refuse this obligation since the damesell is also refusing information for him. The damesell, understanding that Arthur cannot just send out his military without having full reliable information, shows political tact, “than muste I seke forther” (226:35) when Arthur denies her request.

While she does ultimately obtain a champion, Sir Gareth, “graunte me to have this adventure of this damesell,” (227:7) since his true royal lineage is kept from her she does not see the worth that this “kychyn knave” could honorably provide for her, and in fact grows angry, “she wexed angry” (227:17) and insults Arthur himself in front of the whole assembled court, “Fy on the” (227:16). The damesell requires the full and honorable force of the masculine state institution to uphold its obligations to protect the people, especially in this case since it’s a lady in need of assistance, and so she feels justified in behaving openly hostile towards the king since she believes these obligations are not only not being met, she also believes her honor and need of assistance is being mocked by being assigned this “kychyn knave” as if it were some sort of bastardized consolation prize. For his part, Arthur shows political tact and restraint by not punishing the damesell for insubordination or disrespect since she is, after all, one of the lady’s he has sworn to protect, a fact the damesell is well aware of and knows will protect her in this verbal sparring match.

Yet Arthur does have an option that allows him to uphold his protection obligations without necessarily being directly implicated in the damsell’s affair should the adventure turn out bad for the him and the state. By allowing Gareth to be knighted not by the head of the state, Arthur, but by his lieutenant, Lancelot “than Sir Launcelot gaff hym the order of knyghthode” (229:16), Arthur can still save face and not neglect his obligations. In turn, the damesell, though begrudgingly, does her part in shaping the character of this fresh knight by constantly testing him, either through verbal abuse, “thou stynkyst all of the kychyn,” (229:28) or by upholding the chivilaristic rule of mercy as a teaching moment (as far as she believes it to be) for Gareth, “sle hym nat, for and thou do thou shalt repente hit” (236:9).

Thus both parties, male and female, show political shrewdness and take full advantage of the complicated opportunities which have been given to each of them. For the damesell’s sake, at worst Gareth would be killed by one of the numerous knights they will encounter during the adventure and so she will be free to just “seke forther,” and in Arthur’s case he has an opportunity to remove yet another “tirraunte” from his kingdom. In their own ways, both Arthur and the damesell possess great influence in the shaping of society and in upholding chivalry.

Rhetorical Analysis of Eve L. Ewing’s “Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts”

“Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts” is an opinion editorial written by the University of Chicago sociologist, Eve L. Ewing and was published in the New York Times on April 6, 2017. Ewing argues the Trump administration’s efforts to defund the arts, specifically in regards to the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, could be interpreted as one of the methods an authoritarian regime employs to moderate any dissent and criticism levied at it. Ewing claims that “artists play a distinctive role in challenging authoritarianism” and is attempting to educate her readers that if American art is allowed to only “serve the instruments of power,” American society may lose the benefit and freedom to criticize those in power.

Ewing says “we should be very afraid” there is a political war on the arts and it is in her declarative of “we should” that reveals who she is attempting to reach. With an affluent readership of 14.5 million subscriptions earning a mean of roughly $75,000 annually (“New York Times Audience,”) Ewing has carefully chosen (and been chosen by) her forum by speaking directly to this majority demographic of the New York Times. In a 2014 Pew Research poll, 65% of New York Times readers identified as politically left of center (“Where News Audiences Fit,”) a liberal audience assumed to be friendly to the arts and who identify with the belief that “lives other than [their] own have value.” Ewing is also counting on the New York Times’ 56.9% post-graduate college educated audience, (“New York Times Audience,”) to understand the implications stemming from some of the 20th century’s most notorious authoritarians who likewise viewed the arts and artists as a threat to their power, such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet who “tortured and exiled” mulraists, and Joseph Stalin who “executed all of the Soviet Union’s Ukrainian folk poets” (Ewing).

Ewing compares President Trump’s “public castigation of the “Hamilton” cast” in retaliation for their “fairly tame commentary” against the Vice President to Brazil’s authoritarian government blocking of a museum director’s exhibition because it contained a photograph “seen as embarrassing to the police.” Ewing further primes her audience’s concern of impending American authoritarianism by leading off the article with the example of the Nazi’s war against the arts, a war her audience will know began two years before Germany even invaded Poland. She explains how in 1937 a Nazi art exhibition was set up to promote the “ideal Aryan society” and to denigrate art and artists the Third Reich believed “could play a key role in the rise or fall of their dictatorship.” Ewing is banking on her audience’s education, socio-economic standing, beliefs, and political leanings to be in a position to understand how co-opting the arts can solidify the power structures of an authoritarian regime.

Thus, kairos is vital to Ewing’s argument as this opinion editorial was published fewer than 3 months after Trump was inaugurated. She is taking full advantage of the exigence of political turmoil surrounding his presidency to reach an audience who will not be able to resist making the connection between a candidate they did not support during the election with that of the authoritarian terrors of Pinochet, Stalin, and Hitler she describes in the article. She is attempting to educate her intended audience, to draw attention to the possibility that something as seemingly innocuous as defunding the National Endowment for the Arts or publicly feuding with the outspoken actors in a Broadway play could, in fact, be the “canary in the coal mine” (Ewing) of a larger, more ominous threat to contemporary American culture where political dissent and criticism should be practised without reprisal. Ewing’s credentials as a university sociologist may influence anyone still on the fence as to if there truly is a legitimate cause for concern over Trump’s actions. An astute audience will understand that if this topic already has the attention of a major news outlet as well as other university educated professionals, like themselves, then perhaps there is more to the argument than mere speculation.

Ewing’s goal is to utilize a major American forum to excite an already receptive audience into seeing the possibility that allowing authoritarians to “attack the arts” is actually a symptom of a regime unwilling to be criticized and that is attempting to “[create] a society where propaganda reigns and dissent is silenced” (Ewing). She also understands that many in her audience may also be some of the very same / sympathetic to those “who occupy marginalized social positions” (Ewing) and could be directly affected if their freedom to criticize was usurped by an authoritarian regime. Ewing tells her audience that there is still “a chance to see daylight again,” but her choice of the word “chance” assumes her audience will also intuit that there is an even greater probability they might not “see daylight again” should her argument not be taken seriously.


Works Cited

Ewing, Eve L., “Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts.” The New York Times, 6 Apr. 2017. Accessed Feb 2018.

“New York Times Audience.” The New York Times, Aug 2010. Accessed Feb 2018.

“Where News Audiences Fit on the Political Spectrum.” Pew Research Center, 21 Oct, 2014. Accessed Feb 2018.

Formal Differences in “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”

The formal differences between Blake’s “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” highlight the poet’s conflicting ideas concerning the dual nature of a creator. In both poems Blake uses rhymed couplets which suggests an overall order being imposed upon nature by a creator/artist, however, the assonance of the end rhymes in “The Lamb”, such as “thee” and “mead” (long e), “lamb” (long a), and “child” (long i), contrast in tonality with the harsher consonant end rhymes of “night” (short i, sharp t), “beat” (short e, sharp t), and “grasp” (short a, sharp p), found in “The Tyger”. The softer, soothing vowels of the former poem evoke a sense of comfort and reassurance which is also representative in the structure of the individual stanzas. While “The Lamb” has only two stanzas with indentations highlighting the comforting repetitions of “Little Lamb …”, in contrast, “The Tyger” uses violent, warlike vocabulary and is fragmented consisting of 6 stanzas whose only repetition is found in the lines “What immortal hand or eye / Could [Dare] frame thy fearful symmetry,” which creates an overwhelming sense of discomfort. Blake has also structured both poems to act as a sort of dialectic, however unlike “The Lamb” which has an answer for the question of “who made thee”, “The Tyger” offers no such reassurance, the question is left unanswered and the poem concludes with a question mark. While both poems ask similar questions about the nature of a creator, Blake reveals a complicated relationship he may have had with this creator, one in which the creator can both be “mild” but who can also “twist the sinews of thy heart”.

The Boundaries Of Myth

Late in Homer’s Iliad the “ghost of stricken Patroclus,” (Homer, 23: 124) appears before Achilles in a vision. In this scene the living and the dead, the realm of the mortal and the realm of the shadowy afterlife bridges a gulf which normally separates them and serves as a metaphor for a human’s desire to understand what will become of their mortal essence once they die, Achilles “stretched his loving arms / but could not seize [Patroclus], no, the ghost slipped underground / like a wisp of smoke,” (Homer, 23: 117). Humanity’s place in the universe is uncertain and dangerous and so myth attempts to address these unknowns by defining the boundaries which separate us from wild animals, or between men from women, the hero from the citizen, or between the living and the dead who, like Patroclus, continue to look to the living for remembrance. These myths guided the peoples of Proto Indo-European descent towards an understanding of how humanity should live and what humanity’s purpose is within the greater cosmic fabric of the universe.


The Rig Veda:The Boundary Of The Classes

For there to be death there must first come a creation and the earliest Proto Indo-European myths each deal with this subject. However, unlike later myths whose audience consisted of the ordinary citizen who might have the leisure to contemplate the fate of their own soul, these earliest myths were written by and performed for priests and the gods they prayed to. These myths show how the earliest people dealt with and attempted to make sense of the unknown, be it invaders from foreign lands, or droughts and floods which ruined the annual crops. Their world was full of immediate dangers and mystery, unlike later myth which tends to deal with more esoteric concerns, and so their myths helped make sense of what was affecting their daily lives and gave these people a semblance of control over their destiny if only they carried out the proper rituals and appeased the gods who they believed were in control of the universe.

Responsible for these rituals were the priests (the Brahmin), one of the four classes created when “the gods [created] the world by dismembering the cosmic giant, Purusa,” (Rig Veda, 29). The other classes, the warrior class who fought, the People, and the servants (slaves), were also created out of this act of dismemberment (sociogony) when Purusa (known here as the Man) was divided into multiple segments; “his arms were made into the Warrior, his thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born,” (Rig Veda, 31). Here the act of creating society and the class structure is born from the sacrifice of the Man and in this way all of society is connected to the Man, a sort of shared consciousness common to all classes, but also deeply relegated to their proper place within society.

From the rest of the Man, the entire universe is created (cosmogony), “From his navel the middle realm of space arose; from his head the sky evolved. From his two feet came the earth, and the quarters of the sky from his ear,” (Rig Veda, 31). What we have here, and what the priests may have ritualized in the temples to honor this act of creation, was human sacrifice. Though as grisly as this may sound to us, the act of an individual giving up their life for the greater good of society is the deeper meaning. Each of the classes must work together and within their boundaries to maintain order in society and the universe. Death is transformed into life and the boundary between the two is no longer two separate states, but rather one continuous existence, “With the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice,” (Rig Veda, 31).


The Prose Edda: The Geographic Boundary

While the earliest, least sophisticated peoples may have taken these creation myths at their word – actual human sacrifice and all – later myths attempted to explain the nuances of creation as having a more tangible existence. In the Prose Edda, Gangleri asks Odin (disguised as three kings), “‘How were things set up before the different families came into being and mankind increased?’”, (Prose Edda, 13). Odin explains how the world was divided into three regions: foggy Niflheim, fiery Muspellsheim, and the Ginnungagap melt-zone. From the boundary between Muspellsheim and Ginnungagap, “The likeness of a man appeared and was named Ymir,” (Prose Edda, 14). As in the Rig Veda creation myth, a being is sacrificed to create the earth and order, and a hierarchy is established, “It is my belief that this Odin and his brothers are the rulers of heaven and earth,” (Prose Edda, 15). In fact the very structure of this myth suggests man’s proper place in creation where the gods rule from Heaven like a panel of judges, and man lives below, “behind Midgard’s wall,” (Prose Edda, 18) in Asgard (Troy) where Odin can, “see through all worlds and into all men’s doings,” (Prose Edda, 18).

However, unlike the Rig Veda in which the cosmic consciousness is one with all creation, including all of mankind, this later myth sets up a strong dividing line where man not only must know his place in society here on Earth, but also on the cosmic scale where he is subservient to the gods. Odin sits not only as a king, but also as a judge who is keeper of the law. This suggests, along with mankind living behind the wall of Midgard the further refinement of human civilization into cities with laws that apply to everyone and not just the laborers and slaves born from the less desirable cuts of the sacrificed Man who live under the warriors and priests that were formed from the better cuts of the Man.

Yet man does at least have the opportunity to interact with the Gods as Gangleri does when Odin holds court for him. The boundary between the two worlds is crossed (albeit temporarily) and man – here a king, not a priest –  is educated as to how the universe was created and what his place in it should be. Unlike the priests who performed the rituals of the Rig Veda in order to maintain the delicate balance of the universe, most likely in secret rituals hidden away from the average worker toiling away in the fields, the mysteries of the universe are revealed to a political elite who can then use this knowledge to order the laws of their societies in the image of the gods.


Myths From Mesopotamia: The Boundary Between Male And Female

The two creation myths we’ve explored so far have been exclusively a male endeavor, the Man is sacrificed to create the universe, and the Frost Giant, Ymir is another male figure from whom the physical world is ordered over which Odin, yet another male, rules and judges. These myths may have been adequate to explain how the universe was ordered on the grand scale, however, the sexual union between man and woman is how humanity creates life on Earth.

As we see in later myths, the male is responsible for creation and holds the power of creation, yet the female originally held this power. The Babylonians believed Tiamat, a female goddess, was the progenitor god, a goddess who gives birth to the gods, much like Aditi does in the Rig Veda, “Apsu, the first one, their begetter / And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 233). Tiamat, an ocean goddess, is identified with the fertility symbol of the fish, and it is her mixing with the fresh waters of Apsu (symbolic of the mixing of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) which brings about life. Once again we see how the mixing of boundaries, as with the Niflheim and Muspellsheim zones, is responsible for creation.

Ancient belief also held that the female was complete in herself since she alone could give birth (parthenogenesis). This female realm is one of pure mythos where the moon (the cosmic) regulates the menstrual cycle, where she is able to self-produce milk to feed the infant, and where the baby is born from an ocean of life inside of her. Yet while Tiamat (the woman) is responsible for bearing all life, her cosmic power is usurped by the male destructive force. When Tiamat shows compassion towards the gods who disturbed her, “And Tiamat became mute before them; / However grievous their behavior to her,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 233), this sets in motion a war that will eventually be her undoing, a war in which a male, Marduk, is able to consolidate power from the other gods in order to succeed. In fact his victory is very much like a rape, “He shot an arrow which pierced her belly, / split her down the middle and slit her heart,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 253). Through force (overthrow) the male takes the power of creation away from the woman, or at least contains it so that he may use it for his own advantage, “He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels {from it},” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 255).

This myth attempts to explain why the male is necessary at all in the act of creation and sets up the distinction where the male becomes a creator Sky God who rules above everyone, while the woman is relegated to the realm of Earth. Together they are both necessary in the act of creation – the compassionate woman who nourishes and the powerful male who fights – yet a hierarchy is clearly established where the male reigns above the woman through force.


Myths From Mesopotamia: The City / Wilderness Boundary

Similar to Marduk, Gilgamesh is a male authority figure who uses his power to get what he wants from women, “Gilgamesh would not leave [young girls alone], / The daughters of warriors, the brides of young men. / The gods often heard their complaints,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 52). Marduk is interfering with the order of his society by disrespecting the union between a lawfully married man and woman, and as we explored previously with Odin and Gangleri, the laws of society are based directly from the image of the god rulers. Yet unlike our previous characters, Gilgamesh is not a god but rather a mortal hero (however, he is still at least still semi-divine), as well as someone who probably actually existed in the third millennium B.C.E. Thus the gods are no longer at the center of the story with their cosmic struggles of creation, but the focus here is more human and the story more grounded in a reality of kings and rulers and unlike the gods who have the power to do as they please, humanity – including the hero – must abide by the laws of society.

Gilgamesh’s actions creates discord within the city walls and it is these city walls which separates civilization from the unknown wilderness; within is order, law, culture, and the people who worship the gods; outside is chaos and disorder. This contrast is highlighted between the relationship between Enkidu, a wild-born man who has no concept of civilization, and Gilgamesh who rules in the city, albeit with little regard to the people he rules over. Yet the two need each other in that Gilgamesh needs the friendship of someone who is his equal, while Enkidu benefits from the civilizing force of the city. In a sense the two friends cross their respective boundaries and form a sort of marriage in which the partnership is a benefit to each other as well as to their civilization.

Overall we see a tempering of the two respective states man could live in (wild vs civilized) and by joining together both men are improved. After Enkidu has sex with the socially experienced Shamhat, “The gazelles saw Enkidu and scattered,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 56), and “he had acquired judgment {?}, had become wiser,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 56), in other words he becomes civilized because he now possesses reason, unlike the wild animals, and so is kicked out of the world of beasts, much like we see in the Book of Genesis, another Semitic text dealing with the attainment of (forbidden) knowledge which then separates humanity from the wilds. And with the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh has given up his independence in favor of a mutually beneficial relationship, one which he mourns deeply when Enkidu dies, “Gilgamesh mourned bitterly for Enkidu his friend,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 95).


The Heroic Boundary

The key element which makes a hero a Hero is that, unlike the gods who cannot die, the mortal can. The hero’s actions against great odds while knowing he could be killed are what makes him a hero, but this quest for heroic status – immortality – is a fictional immortality. Unlike women who can self-regenerate (Tiamat through parthenogenesis, or through just regular mortal childbirth), the male hero must find his immortality in great deeds and from the stories that are told about him after he dies.

One of the common great deeds in myth is through the slaying a monster: Gilgamesh must slay Humbaba, “Thus the weapons of Gilgamesh succeeded against Humbaba,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 74), Indra slays the dragon, “He killed the dragon who lay upon the mountain;” (Rig Veda, 149), Sigurd kills Fafnir, “Sigurd plunged the sword up under the left shoulder, so that it sank to the hilt,” (The Saga of the Volsungs, 63), and Heracles performs his labors. This heroic state of the monster killer is contrasted to the fate of Enkidu who does not have the heroic capacity to face the inevitability of death and so his body rots into the Earth, “Vermin eat [like (?)] an old [garment],” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 123). And so even more than slaying a monster, it is the slaying of death, or the overcoming of the fear of death, which separates a hero from the rest of us. However, Gilgamesh admits that, “I am afraid of Death,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 95), and in a reversal from earlier in the story, “I saw the lions and was afraid,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 95), and so his journey of finding actual immortality (to become like a God) is a failure, but as a hero his immortality lives on in the fame his deeds brought him.


Medea: The Boundary Of The Oath

In Euripides’ play, the Nurse tells us of Medea, “And she herself helped Jason in every way. / This is indeed the greatest salvation of all – / For the wife not to stand apart from the husband,” (The Medea, 59). In this we are shown the sanctity of the union between man and woman (a sanctity which Gilgamesh earlier had disrupted), and the great power that comes when a man and woman are joined together (marriage). And as we have seen in earlier myths, this union is a civilizing force that holds society together (as with Enkidu and Gilgamesh). Though men and women differ on the cosmic scale, it is necessary for them to work together in order to reproduce and maintain the cosmic cycle of life and regeneration Female), and power and security (male). Yet Jason, though he is the man and maintains the hierarchy where women are subservient to their husbands, does not honor his responsibility to uphold the sacred bond between himself and his wife, “And poor Medea is slighted, and cries aloud on the / Vows they made to each other,” (The Medea, 59). Perhaps as the hero Jason felt himself not beholden to this earthly responsibility towards the law, but Medea, though a woman, is not as powerless as we might assume.

Medea is an aristocrat and so she understands that power comes from being ruthless as well as from possessing intelligence (a luxury afforded the wealthy in a civilized society) similar to the knowledge Shamat uses to subdue Enkidu. However, unlike Tiamat who was willing to look past the rowdy gods who annoyed her rest, Medea is not compassionate. Medea is a foreigner in her husband’s land (patrilocal society) and while she cannot rely on her own family to help (she did kill many of them, after all), aiding her is her homeopathic knowledge of poisons and potions making her a sort of perverted fertility goddess, as we see with her cauldron of rejuvenation. In other words, this makes her a dangerous person to break a vow with, which might be one of the (misogynist) reasons Hesiod describes women as, “a great affliction to mortals as they dwell with their husbands,” (Theogony, 20). Yet Medea gives voice to all women who have given up their families, their friends, and their homelands for the sake of their husbands and children. Medea longs for equality, “I would very much rather stand / Three times in the front of battle then bear one child,” (The Medea, 67) yet in spite of this she has given her life to Jason. When Jason breaks this vow, he incurs the full weight of her wrath. Medea has nothing in her world except Jason and the favor of his family; without that she has nothing left to lose.

Thus the breaking of the oath of marriage literally kills the order of the family, “Your children are dead, and by their own mother’s hand,” (The Medea, 103). And unlike previous myths from which the bodies of the slain were used as ingredients of creation, here it a sacrifice, quite literally since these were her own children, to the sanctity of the oath of marriage. Order has been restored through vengeance and death. Thus medea possess both the traits of the male hero and the female life-bringer.


The Boundary Of Duty And Honor

“What if I put down my studded shield / and heavy helmet, prop my spear on the rampart / and go forth, just as I am, to meet Achilles,” (Iliad, 545). As we have seen earlier with Gigamesh who also had a crisis of confidence, here Hector questions the point of the war. He wonders if it would be better, “to give back Helen,” (Iliad, 545) in hopes of saving Troy from the vengeance of his enemy. Yet unlike Medea who does not hesitate to sacrifice her family for the sake of the oath between her and Jason, Hector thinks of his son, “and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms, lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods,” (Iliad, 211). Perhaps there is more to civilized life than war and death? The child, too seems to intuit the danger of war, “but the boy recoiled, / cringing against his nurse’s full breast, / screaming out at the sight of his own father,” (Iliad, 211), but it is ambiguous if the child is frightened by the possibility of his father’s death in battle, or is terrified by the possibility Hector might waver in his duty to fight for the family (a true hero must face death, after all).

Hector’s Hamlet-like soul-searching is contrasted with Achilles who will, “show no mercy, / no respect for me, my rights – he’ll cut me down / straight off,” (Iliad, 545). Like Gilgamesh who wavered and failed in his bid for god-like immortality, Hector, too does not meet the qualification of a true hero, like Achilles. Yet unlike Enkidu who was wild and barbarian but not of heroic stock, it is the invaders outside the city walls, the men, like Achilles, who are willing to give up their lives in a moment’s notice who are the heroes of the story. The hero is not found behind walls contemplating his mortality, but rather exists outside civilization, much like Sigmund and Sinfjotli do when they don the wolf skins and live as heroes, yet outlaws, too (The Saga of the Volsungs, 44). In fact the hero has become incompatible with civilization, as we see with Hercules whose ancient PTSD brought on by years of heroic deeds causes him to destroy his family. There is no heroic glory and immortality in the city, only temporary safety from men (men metamorphosed into wolves) like Achilles. The city is full of intelligent people who are quick to use their intelligence over the sword in an effort to preserve their lives and honor, people like Medea who used her power to uphold these virtues, and Hector who only wears the armor of a hero, “The rest of his flesh seemed all encased in armor, / burnished, brazen – Achilles’ armor that Hector stripped,” (Iliad, 552), but is really an imposter who is chased around his safe city walls by the truly heroic man / wolf. In the end Hector performed his duty, but his wavering in how to perform his duty was his downfall, a duty Achilles does not fail to uphold.

In this essay we have explored several distinct boundaries found in common all through early Proto Indo-European myths. These boundaries attempt to define humanity’s proper place within a universe that otherwise is dangerous and unforgiving. And much like the gods who rely on humanity to continually worship them and give them a meaningful existence less they cease to exist altogether, humanity relies on myth to give their own lives meaning, to create order out of chaos just as the gods did when they created the universe. By creating myth, humanity ultimately creates the whole universe, a universe of law and duty and order, a universe where humanity understands their role amidst a vast, uncertain wilderness.

M. Butterfly: Marxism: The State’s Stage Directions

The opening stage directions of the play M. Butterfly are a microcosm of the Marxist power-dynamic. In just these few opening paragraphs we are not only presented with the individual’s powerlessness within the State as a being coerced by the repressive state apparatus, but also as an interpolated subject of the ideological state apparatus. In this essay I will examine only the initial stage directions on page 1 of the play as it relates to the central concepts of Marxist criticism.

The play’s first line presents us with the power the state holds over the individual, “M. Gallimard’s prison cell. Paris,” (Hwang, 1). We do not yet know who this individual is, only that the state has imprisoned them. For all we know this “M. Gallimard” is a sort of everyman, a representation of our own powerless against the power of the state. The stage directions go on to further enforce the power of the state, “Lights fade up,” (Hwang, 1) as if the unseen hand of the all-powerful state is in complete control of every facet of this individual’s life. And we the audience who are viewing this individual on stage are mimicking one of the roles of the state, that of a prison guard much like was found in the Panopticon where the individual is continually on display and, “Inspection function[s] ceaselessly,” (Foucault, 551). The play is giving us a representation of the repressive state apparatus, the force the state holds to coerce and exert power upon the individual as well as the inability of the individual to hide from or escape this power.

As the lights rise and reveal in detail who this Gallimard is, we are presented with a critique of not just the repressive state apparatus, but also of the ideological state apparatus. Whereas the former is involved in power and coercion over the individual, the later is involved with how that individual operates within the state and what is expected of that individual. Though Gallimard’s situation is humble, he nevertheless is in possession of a “comfortable bathrobe,” (Hwang, 1), and two pieces of technology. For comparison sake, upstage we can see a Chinese woman in “traditional Chinese garb,” (Hwang, 1) dancing to Chinese music. This comparison is important in that it reinforces the expected norms (as seen through Western eyes) of the two cultures and what the state expects from each individual on stage. Gallimard is presented as a man of leisure, albeit imprisoned, and he has the comforts of his culture’s technology while the indistinct Chinese dancer wears what a Westerner would assume is appropriate Chinese attire.  If we look deeper, we are presented with the image of a Western man who has (a few) creature comforts, but is ultimately imprisoned by his own culture’s ideology. Unlike the dancer who is (seemingly) at least more free than Gallimard to move about and dance, Gallimard wears “a sad smile on his face,” (Hwang, 1). There is no joy for Gallimard as he is imprisoned not only by the state but also by his state’s ideology. The focus on the objects that surround these individuals – his bathrobe, her traditional dress, the music – make up the materialism that defines these characters consciousness.

In the third paragraph of the opening stage directions of the play, we are shown how Gallimard’s cultural ideology attempts to override that of the dancer’s, “the Chinese opera music dissolves into a Western opera,” (Hwang, 1). Gallimard’s ideology, that which is the norm of his oppressive culture, bleeds over and attempts to take control of a whole other culture. And so we are presented not just with a representation of colonialism, but with the power of cultural ideology over the individual. And if we take a step even further back, the stage directions themselves are acting both as a repressive state apparatus by controlling every minute action of all the individuals on stage, as well as an ideological state apparatus by defining what the proper “roles” are for each actor on stage. In other words, we could interpret the stage directions as being a representation of the state’s power over the individual.

At this point in the play the actors have not acted and we, the audience, can only watch and interpret the images on the stage. And while we do not know anything personal about Gallimard, such as his class, we can interpret his imprisonment as not just someone who has succumbed to the power of the state, but who is an alienated being. In fact our not knowing the circumstances of Gallimard’s imprisonment heightens the alienated individuals lack of understanding as to what his place is in society. All the actor knows is that he is on stage (being observed and examined by a shadowy audience / prison guard), that some unseen force has complete power over him (the lights coming on mysteriously), and that he is trapped by a system (his prison cell) that provides for him some creature comforts, but how exactly these comforts come into existence is unknown. Gallimard’s body language – he looks tired and sits on  a crate – coupled with his apparent sadness seems to be saying that while Gallimard has accepted his condition as subservient to the state power, he is not made happy by the circumstances. Marx describes the condition of the worker in a capitalist state as being like a machine, the “capitalist goals and questions of profit and loss are paramount, workers are bereft of their full humanity and are thought of as ‘hands’ or ‘the labour force’”, and that, “People, in a word, become things,” (Barry 157). Gallimard then is not all that different than the contents of his cell, he is no more or less distinguished from the the bathrobe which cloths him, the crate on which he sits his weary body, the hot plate which cooks his meals, or the tape recorder which provides his entertainment.

Now that we, the audience / prison guard have defined this Gallimard as nothing more than a thing, a function of the state of which we keep an eye on, we get a glimpse of how this actor’s society, as well as our own, is structured. At the base is the physical objects themselves, and though we don’t understand how these objects came into existence – after all we too as the audience / prison guard are alienated beings who take part in, “repetitive tasks in a sequence of whose nature and purpose he or she has no overall grasp,” (Barry, 157) – we understand their significance as being those objects which determine everything that rests upon this base. Marx defines this relationship as the superstructure. Gallimard is acting out this relationship as he is literally resting upon one of the objects created and provided by the state: the “wooden crate,” (Hwang, 1). Gallimard’s state is defined by and supported by the State and the objects that are produced by the State. His comfort yet also his unhappiness is, “‘determined’ (or shaped) by the nature of the economic base,” (Barry, 158).

Gallimard’s state as we have defined it as it pertains to the individual may seem bleak and dehumanizing, yet from the point of view of the State, specifically as influenced by Lenin, it is necessary for the individual, here represented in the art of a stage performance, to “become part of the organized, methodical, and unified labours of the social-democratic party,” (Barry 160). Self expression is seen as detrimental to the overall health and prosperity of the State and art itself should, “be explicitly committed to the political cause of the Left,” (Barry, 160). Notice he does not say it is committed to the cause of the individual, but to a specific political ideology. Art is a function and product of the State just like the hot plate, the bathrobe, the crate, and the tape recorder. Art’s role, such as this play, is to encourage behavior in the individual that is beneficial to the State. True, the individual may be unhappy in their emotional life, as Gallimard appears to be, but their physical needs are being met by the State and so the State is able to maintain its power to continue to provide these basic needs. Thus the stage directions are akin to the State party’s orders, they tell the individual how they should behave within the State while also providing for the individual’s basic needs.

Not all of the State’s power manifests itself through outright force. Althusser refines Marx by suggesting that there is a, “much more subtle view of how society works,” (Barry, 165). Elements of society, such as art, play just as an important role in shaping us as ideological beings as do the physical objects of a capitalist society. This function of art can be heard in how the music in the stage directions has a noticeable effect on the individual. The initial piece of music is described as a “percussive clatter,” (Hwang, 1), however when the music of Gallimard’s culture is cross-faded over the traditional Chinese music, “the difference in music now gives [her movements] a balletic quality,” (Hwang, 1). Though the dancer’s culture has not changed, the way we interpret the dancer’s movement within the State is altered. What was before an undefined series of movements, the dancer’s movements now have meaning, an ideology, in relation to the music being played. The dancer takes on western, balletic qualities where before the dancer was only someone wearing “traditional Chinese garb,” (Hwang, 1) and thus the dancer is absorbed into the dominant culture’s ideology, which is “a system of representations at the heart of a given society,” (Barry, 163), in this case, Western ballet.

Also coded here is the distinction between genders in that the hegemony, Gallimard, is imposing his cultural norm upon the “other” individual. Though he is a prisoner, Gallimard is still able to exercise his power as the dominant cultural influence, a white male over a non-white female.

However, the power of hegemony Gallimard is expressing is not a free choice. Gallimard is a interpellated individual, meaning that he really only has one choice of music (art) with which to express himself. As a prisoner of the State, he’s been given a piece of music by the State (as the stage directions describe) with which he can express his culture / ideology “freely” with, or use to impose his own culture / ideology over another with. Yet Gallimard has no choice in what piece of music to express himself with nor does he even attempt to appropriate the initial Chinese music, but rather the State imposes Puccini’s Love Duet over everyone. Gallimard may think his ideology is a choice that he made or at least consciously agreed to, when, in fact, he really has no choice at all. The dancer’s movements may now have “a balletic quality,” (Hwang, 1) but that is only because that is his ideology interpreting the dance “correctly”, or to put it another way, the State is telling him how he should be interpreting the dancer. All other interpretations would then be other and “wrong” and not an accepted part of the power dynamic of his dominant culture. Gallimard’s cultural ideology is that which says one piece of music (his State’s art) is more beautiful and makes the world more beautiful (balletic) than any other. The possibility that perhaps the Chinese dancer believed the initial piece of music was more beautiful, or at least equal to the West’s never enters into Gallimard’s, let alone the stage direction’s (the State’s) consciousness.

In only a few lines of text at the beginning of the play we can see the power dynamic of a Marxist system being acted out. The power of the State is all-encompassing, like the rounded Panopticon which sees in all directions at once, it is also all-powerful in that it provides everything for the individual, whether or not they want it. In this system the individual is reduced to a product that can be moulded into whatever the State requires while at the same time allowing the individual to believe they have free choice in this process. However, the power of the State is complete and we, like Gallimard, are a prisoner to it. The State, like the play, provides the stage directions for our life and our ideology with which we then must act out.


Works Cited


Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press. 2002.

Gollapudi, Aparna. Discipline and Punish – Foucault. Accessed 07 December 2017.

Gollapudi, Aparna. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus-Althusser. Accessed 07 December 2017.

Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly: with an afterword by the playwright. Plume, 2006.

M. Butterfly (opera): Postcolonial: Colonial Expansion vs. Native Orthodoxy

One of the more interesting aspects of the opera is that while America is acting as a colonial power (metropole), such as Pinkerton’s attitudes towards Japanese (colony) traditions (the concept of marriage), as well as the aggressive stance of the US Naval gunship presence in Japanese waters, the Japanese themselves (other than Butterfly) revert to a more traditional / orthodox “Japanese-ness” towards the American presence. So much time is spent in Japan with no real colonial power as a representative, other than Sharpless (who seems quite sympathetic to the Japanese anyway), that we could read the opera as offering us a glimpse into the mind and culture of a society that is attempting to refuse colonization. From Butterfly’s Uncle who disowns her, to Prince Yamadori who attempts to set up a traditional marriage, the Japanese are mostly unified in their mistrust of the Americans and in their own desire to remain Japanese.

Of course the Japanese in the opera are not wholly on board with antagonism against the Americans. Goro, for example, while he plays the traditional role of a matchmaker, has been influenced by the American idea of capitalism and greed (the imperialist influence). In fact we could look at Goro and Sharpless as two subtly distinct discourses about colonial influence on Japan. Both men take part in the devaluing of Japanese culture, however Sharpless is hesitant and seems to struggle with the morality of Pinkerton’s actions, whereas Goro has no such qualms and sees only a business opportunity.  Sharpless at least sees Butterfly as a human being; Goro sees a dishonored object to be sold to the colonial power. Ironically, Goro is acting as a pure capitalist that does not value the individual over profit. And perhaps the reason why Sharpless is hesitant is because he can see both sides of the issue within his western discourse because he is a westerner whereas Goro either does not have access to this discourse, or at least chooses not to take part in it.

When we dig deeper, we should next ask ourselves what does it mean to be Japanese (as opposed to a colonial power)? Is there an essence of “Japanese-ness” like there is a supposed feminine essence? This question seems to be at the heart of the Japanese attitudes towards the colonial power, as well as the American’s attitudes towards the Japanese. For example, Butterfly’s uncle represents the traditional mindset of family honor and duty and Butterfly’s willingness to be appropriated by an American is unacceptable to the uncle. This essence is bound up in duty and honor and family, and can be seen in contrast to the essence of the westerners who value profit, and leisure. And this identification with a Japanese essence is what motivates the more orthodox members of the society to rebel against the colonial imperialist influence and this idea of an essence creates a discourse of what it means to be Japanese. Ultimately, the characters are creating their own discourses based on what they feel is the essence of their culture, but as we see everyone seems to have a unique take on what this means.

In contrast to the Japanese in the opera who hold on to an orthodox, anti-western discourse towards the west, is Butterfly. She allows her Japanese essence to be colonized by an American discourse. She, like Goro, sees an opportunity in Pinkerton to better her life. However, unlike Goro who is using the situation for purely financial gain, she is doing so because the Japanese discourse she has grown up in has let her down. Duty to her family has only landed her in a geisha house with little prospect for honor in her culture and so she sees Pinkerton as an escape. She is buying into the colonizer’s discourse: that of becoming a typical American housewife who is free from the oppressive orthodox traditions of Japan. She appropriates American culture in her manner of dress and the locks on the doors, and she sees the west as being exotic (other) much like Pinkerton sees her as exotic. However, the truly sad part of all this is that Pinkerton is misappropriating Japanese culture by using Butterfly and not taking her seriously. He just wants to have fun (he devalues her and her culture), whereas for her the choice to give up one discourse for another is nearly a matter of life and death for her and the child.  

In the end Butterfly cannot escape her own culture no matter how many American dresses she wears or locks she attaches to the doors because no matter how many individual choices she makes that run counter to her Japanese culture, her life is not self-determined, she is at the mercy of the power structure of her own culture as well as the fetishization of a western male who does not value her or her people’s past and culture. Once she finally accepts the truth of her situation she, like many of the people around her, reverts to orthodoxy and commits seppuku, which ironically is also the only truly self-determined action she can take.

Stepping back from the opera, I think this idea of how cultural appropriation and colonization leads to the people in a community to revert to an orthodoxy is a driving force in current world politics. The massive divide between Western and Muslim beliefs seem to only entrench each side further and further into orthodoxy whenever one side attempts to interfere with the other’s culture. For example when the west overthrows the leader of a middle eastern nation, like Saddam Hussein, the moral justification may be for human rights reasons, but the people who actually live there, even knowing they live under a tyrannical leader, do not accept western influence and in the void left by a lack of leadership they revert to the orthodoxy of their culture. The same is true in the west when someone of Muslim faith carries out a terrorist attack and in the aftermath the voices who are the loudest are those who are the most conservative.

The irony is that the more a culture attempts to colonize another, the more likely the result will be a strengthening of the colonized orthodoxy. The more the colonizer devalues the colonized culture and people, the more the colonized will hold onto and value their own culture. Even in the case of imperialism where it seems a culture benefits by more economic opportunity (like Butterfly and Goro in the opera), there comes a point when people begin to question these materialist values and may begin look to a more traditional discourse that gives their lives more meaning, even if it comes at the expense of the comfort and leisure capitalist colonialism provides.

Colonialism / Postcolonialism: McIntosh’s Argument Against Kindness to end Racism

What is problematic about the belief that “racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude?” Why is emphasizing individual kindness among interracial interaction not valid as the primary strategy for ending pervasive racism in society according to McIntosh?


As we learned in the Marxism unit we have systems in place that privileges white skin whether or not those same people are aware of the system existing or not, or whether they approve of the system or not. She goes on to say that only changing our attitudes is not enough, we must “acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions,” of the system and construct a new base.

McIntosh believes individual kindness is not enough to change the system since the system is so entrenched that “freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people,” and this system must be fundamentally changed to really allow there to be true equality. But how do we change the system? Being aware of our attitudes and the systems in place that privilege white skin over other skin is vital, yet what is McIntosh proposing we do? Do we “seize the means of production,” as Marx said? Is just being aware of privilege enough to end privilege?

I believe that kindness is, in fact, the only real strategy. Kindness, however, is not the act of being gracious (which implies a sort of power structure consisting of a dominant party conferring their graciousness towards a disadvantaged party), it involves empathy, humility, and the putting aside our own ego. It involves seeing the worth in not just ourselves but also in another individual and recognizing that someone else might be the better person for a job, or an apartment rental, or that their argument is better than our own. A society consisting of truly kind people is a society in which there is no inequality, in which no structures are built in the first place to oppress others or disadvantage others. In such a society everyone’s worth is valued to its earned degree and the contents of everyone’s knapsack are valued.

McIntosh says, “it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base”. To do this we have to put aside our own egos, our own pride, and have empathy for all the people in our lives.

In Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Brothers Karamazov” one of the main characters, a monk, comes upon a group of children beating up another child. When the monk intervenes to help the bullied child, that child bites the monk’s finger and runs away. The monk was surprised by the child’s reaction to his kindness, yet what he did not understand was why the child was being bullied. The child was being bullied because his father had been seen drunk in town and had made a fool of himself and his very poor family. The boy was ashamed to have this attention heaped upon the fact that he was already poor and looked down upon and he saw that having this “kindly” monk (a person of privilege) step in to “help” in would only make his social situation even worse. The monk realized that we can’t help everyone, but what we can do is be aware of their situation (as well as our own) and be empathetic to their situation (as well as our own), to value them as human beings and not as someone who is just labeled as being poor or of a different race or gender.  True kindness is valuing each person as a vital human being.

New Historicism and Cultural Materialism

My favorite novel is War and Peace, and part of the reason why I love it isn’t just because of the writing but because of the reasons why Tolstoy wrote it. Now I never considered that my love of the novel was in fact a part of what the new historicism critics were doing, but I think I can give a good example of how this works.

Barry says that, “the word of the past replaces the world of the past,” (Barry, 175) meaning that all we have to go on are the texts that have been left behind to us since the actual time in history no longer exists.

In Tolstoy’s case we could include in our analysis of War and Peace:

  • His wife’s daily journal. If you ever wanted to know what a pain in the ass Tolstoy was, as well as some insight into Tolstoy’s attitude towards women, serfs, the upper-classes, and how he behaved in general, read his poor wife’s journal.
  • We could look at Tolstoy’s military records (he served in the Crimean War 10 years previous to writing the novel) as well as his correspondence writing from that war in which we see him grow more disillusioned with war itself.
  • We could also look at the political reforms of the 1860’s, specifically the Russian Serf Emancipation of Emperor Alexander II.  


So armed with these additional texts we could get a better picture of what the author was living through at the time as well as give us extra insight into the author himself. Combined we get a bigger picture of not just what the novel is about, but why it exists in the world, why Tolstoy felt a book about the beginnings of the Decembrists Revolt was relevant half a century later.

War and Peace as seen through the old historicism lens could read:

  • The characters of the novel are constrained to act in accordance with their constrained social status under the ultimate rule of the Tsar and their desire to fight Napoleon’s invasion of their country.


War and Peace as seen through the new historicism lens could read:

  • The characters of the novel are greatly influenced by the new thinking of the age, such as nihilism, radical political reform, social justice, and the erosion of and political complicitness of the Orthodox church in regards to the power of the Tsar.

Iliad: The Psychological Complexity of the Warrior

“As the East and South Winds fight in killer-squalls

deep in a mountain valley thrashing stands of timber,

oak and ash and cornel with bark stretched taut and hard

and they whip their long sharp branches against each other,

a deafening roar goes up, the splintered timber crashing -” (Iliad, 16: 889)


“And he forged a fallow field, broad rich plowland”

(Iliad, 18:629)


“still more Paeonian men the runner would have killed

if the swirling river had not risen, crying out in fury,

taking a man’s shape, its voice breaking out of a whirlpool:” (Iliad, 21:237)


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 (opera): Marxism: Power Relationship Nodes and Connections

I thought it might be fun to do a map of some of the connections found in the Madame Butterfly opera and explore how these relationships relate to historical and materialist criticism. I stuck to only a few major relationships, however many, many more could be explored. I had also intended to do a map for Pinkerton as well, but Butterfly’s alone was so in-depth that I’m just sticking to this one example. I intentionally left out Pinkerton and Sharpless (and their corresponding connections and nodes) so I could limit my focus to that solely of culture / society / the state (the power structures).

For Butterfly’s map of power relationship nodes and connections I placed Japan at the top and Butterfly at the bottom since I felt this best explains the pressures Butterfly feels in the opera and this gives us a good visual shorthand visualizing how complicated her situation is as well as how powerless she seems to be with so much weight bearing down on her. Marx explains how the individual can often feel alienated or oppressed from the world in which they are participating and this map shows how Butterfly might feel about the world / society she wishes to divorce herself from.

As we learned at the beginning of the unit our condition is affected by our environment and shapes how we interact with the world. In Butterfly’s case she is greatly influenced by her being Japanese, as we see with a line directly from Japan to Butterfly, and this is a major factor in how she interprets her world. Even her desire to break free of this power structure is informed by her Japanese-ness, and not an American-ness (such as the ideal of American individualism / rebelliousness) of which she knows very little outside of magazines and Pinkerton’s relationship to her. In this sense Japan is what Marx calls the base and everything that follows (below on my map) is the superstructure of which that society (Butterfly’s world) consists.

I’ve next made a split below Japan into Family and Society. These are smaller units of the larger Japan and are directly related in both directions, but they are distinct in that Butterfly would identify with each in different ways. For example Suzuki and her son, Sorrow are part of her intimate network of caregivers and providers while her Uncle, though a blood relation (unlike Suzuki) is a reminder of the pressures of Society. Both nodes also represent unique ideologies: Family is that which Butterfly is trying to create anew – the dynamic of Butterfly, the servant Suzuki, and the fatherless child is not a traditional family – and Society is that ideology from which she is trying to free herself from, as we can see with nodes such as Goro, Prince Yamadori, and the Geisha House all falling under that heading.

Other connections we could make might be economic, such as the Geisha House which can provide her with a source of income if she is willing to submit herself to that life again, but also the economic situation of her own House which, with the money quickly running out, is a source of stress and oppression which, if unresolved, could force her, literally, from one house (her House under the Family node) to the other (the Geisha House under the Society node).

All-in-all this map represents the state and State in which Butterfly lives in. The state is broken up into two categories: the repressive state apparatus which coerces power, such as the nodes Goro and Prince Yamadori, both of whom actively try to influence her behavior. We could also look to the dream sequence in the film as a coercive apparatus where the black and white newsreel imagery of a modern and powerful (military) Japanese society is, as Freud might tell us, is actively influencing her through the subconscious.

The other category is the ideological state apparatus and an example from our map that fits here would be the Family. The Family is, of course, related to Society in that Society is informing the Family members how to behave (as Japanese) – as we see with the Uncle’s influence / warnings – but it is also a separate node in this case because Butterfly is part of a non-traditional family – she is married to a foreigner, she is a single mother, and her only close companion is someone from a lower class, Suzuki. This ideological state Butterfly exists in also helps us understand how, as Althusser questions, change can take place within the State (capital “S”) because we can see how her circumstance isolates her and informs her decisions to insist on this Family ideology over the Society ideology.

Yet even though she is favoring one ideology over another, we can see how these ideologies are interpolated and how Butterfly is an interpolated subject (and Subject) within the overall ideology of Japan / Japanese-ness. Althusser wonders how is it that societies remain stable and why do people chose to remain submissive to their state and State, and these interconnections explain how a person is defined by their state (State) and how complicated it can be to extract oneself from these ideologies – if that’s even possible at all.

One final point, and one which is not on our map, is that of the magazines Butterfly reads. For her these magazines are a source of education and information that she uses as motivation (power) to free herself from her current ideological state (and State). This information she has access to runs counter to the ideology of Japanese society by showing how western women should look and behave. She is consciously privileging this counter-narrative (binary) and she is interpreting this information in a way that she believes will give her power. For example, she begins to dress as an American thus privileging one interpretation of Society (American) over another Society (Japan). From this information she has constructed a narrative in which she is the good American housewife and this gives her a power of will to endure the absence of Pinkerton, an absence which is not just emotionally painful, but also economically (the lack of money) and socially painful (the shunning of her Uncle’s Family).

Finally we can trace Butterfly’s discourse, or the limits of her experience as it relates to her state / State. Butterfly’s relationship to the ideology of the State is unique and she seems to be actively rebelling against her condition within the State, however she is not doing so as, say, a modern feminist who is challenging the hegemony (such discourse does not exist for her, even if some of her actions do coincidently align with that discourse). Butterfly’s discourse is chiefly social / societal because her previous life as a practical slave in the Geisha House (which came about because of her family’s fall from respect and a need for money) is something she refuses to return to. She has existed within the machine of Society and she wants to free herself from that oppression, and oppression so powerful it actually took her real name, Cio-Cio-san, away from her (loss of identity via the State). She has seen how alienating and oppressive the State is, she bears the scars of her state, and so she reacts against these states by attempting to forge a new narrative / ideology / identity. Yet her tragedy is that she cen never really escape her state / State and in the end suffers the ultimate alienation of all states: Death

Marxism: Althusser’s ‘Ideology’

For Althusser ‘ideology’ is a very particular term that he theorizes very carefully. Explain in your own words, using quotes from Althusser’s essay, what he means by ‘ideology’? How is Althusser’s notion of ideology different from 18th and 19th century theorizations of the relationship between an individual and his social conditions?


He begins with Thesis 1: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”

Thesis 1 ideology is saying that what we refer to as “religious ideology, ethical ideology, [etc.],” (693) are “largely imaginary,” and “do not correspond to reality,” (693). He does say that ideologies make “allusion to reality,” (693) and therefore need to be interpreted so we can see the real world that exists behind these imaginary representations of our world. In other words it’s like the René Magritte’s painting The Human Condition where we’re looking behind what the canvas (the canvas in the painting) is hiding.

He then explains there are two ways we can interpret reality: mechanistic, which he relates to the relationship between the King being a representation of God, and hermeneutic, which says “God is the essence of real Man,”(693). He sums this up by saying we use the imaginary to represent reality.

Next he explains that one way this worked was that those in power (Priests or Despots) were the responsible agents that “forged,” (694) an ideology to control the people. Another way was through “material alienation,” (694) in which we create an imaginary (alienating) “representation of [our] condition,” (694) because we have been alienated by these representations. Not quite sure what he’s getting at with material alienation – why would we create that which we has already alienated us?

He explains, “What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live,” (695). In other words, Thesis 1 ideology is our relationship with our condition of existence.

M. Butterfly: Feminism: Is Gender Identity Natural / Innate or Socially Constructed?

Is gender identity natural/innate or socially constructed? Are specific bodies linked to specific behaviors/appearances/identities male= masculine, female= feminine?


Considering how contentious both sides of this debate is I believe the answer is “a little bit of both”. For example, in the film Song is constructing a feminine identity designed to please a Western male, while Gallimard (the Western male) possesses many innate feminine characteristics. Both sides of the debate are presented here amid a backdrop of social revolution to show how fluid and complicated the distinction is while hinting at a “radical” possibility of a world in which there is no distinction to be made (the communist state where everyone is “equal”). The film is using the characters as binaries to help us understand gender by differentiating between them and then mixes them together until the distinction is so blurred that we can no longer tell where one end and the other begins.

When we look at the essentialist argument we are presented with biological differences: a woman’s body is (usually) reproductive, whereas a man’s body is (usually) more muscular. Just inhabiting a certain physical body can influence how we interact with the world, such as someone who is blind will interact with the world differently than a sighted person. The essentialists believe that “[w]omen are more caring,” (Rivkin, 530) but also can be defined as that which is “not male”, a nonidentity expressed through ecriture feminine that is fluid and non-rational. The problem here is that, as with my example of someone who is blind, it seems to be creating a hierarchy where there might perhaps be a preferred state of being (sighted is preferred over blind), or with the ecriture feminine that women will fall into the stereotype of being mysterious as opposed to logical.

From the constructivist side of the argument it seems the essentialists are “taking an effect to be a cause” (Rivkin, 530) where biology is used as a sort of excuse to subordinate women. The argument is taken even further to say that in a capitalist society women are assigned from birth, based on their sex, to behave in a way that benefits the state by staying at home and performing as “domestic laborers,” (Rivkin, 530). In other words gender is a social construct and therefore can be deconstructed or thrown out altogether. However, this is also problematic in that it has the possibility of leading to there being no distinction at all between men  and women and that our biology plays no role in our gender.

The film presents this problem of competing ideologies by showing us that gender exists on a spectrum, that gender is a representation of a reality, a reality we construct but that it is also based on the hyper-real in which there is no absolute ideal model or form to base it on. Both Song and Gallimard construct their reality out of what they think defines their gender.  Song looks at fashion magazines, Gallimard looks to Puccini, but in both cases they are drawing on constructed identities and not anything concrete and specific, it is all imitation where there is no original.

All this then leads to the performative nature of gender, “the way in which gender is constructed through specific corporeal acts,” (Butler, 2). The most extreme examples of this is within the media where we are influenced and stereotyped into performing a specific gender script. The models in Song’s magazines are grotesquely feminine with their gaudy makeup, and the characters in Puccini’s opera are embarrassingly stereotypical. Yet both Song and Gallimard have been heavily influenced by these images and initially act out according to what they believe is the script they should be following. It is no wonder then that they both wind up being punished by society for breaking away from these “putatively regulated cultural fictions,” (Butler, 4). Society believes Song and Gallimard are gender “imposters” who have been exposed and must be punished for going against the roles they have been assigned.

Yet what and who is this society that is imposing these roles on the actors? Again, the film seems to be commenting on this society by giving us characters who are both male. Typically males have held the dominant role in society (hegemony) yet here both males are struggling with what it means to even be male. Gallimard does not fit the role of the typical male in that he is ridiculed by his colleagues, is ineffectual in his attempt to assert his political views, and winds up falling in love with a biological man. Song, too is a critique of the male hegemonic system in that Song as a biological man seems to know more what it is to be a woman than a biological woman does. Song controls the relationship, demands a child be given to her/him, and puts Gallimard in a subservient role in the relationship. In short Song acts very masculine while putting on the staged trappings of the feminine. And again we have a blurring of the lines of what it means to be masculine in that during the time we believed Song to be biologically a woman we accepted her seemingly masculine actions as being “normal” because she was a foreigner who acts different than we do. But when Song is exposed as a biological male, Gallimard turns against Song even though the only thing that has really changed is the biology – Song’s actions had always been quite masculine but once the male essence had been added to the male biology then Gallimard rejects Song even though he had been attracted to a very masculine identity in every other way other than in the biological sense.

This is an interesting critique of the patriarchy in that it shows how fluid and malleable this institution really is. And in the end there does seem to be – from Gallimard – an understanding that the patriarchy has been in control the whole time and has dominated his view of what a relationship can be. The entire time he has been manipulated by a biological male who has control over him and so by setting up Gallimard as a more feminine male we can really see how this affects biological women because we see how the power dynamic oppresses and penalizes women in this system through the lens of taking away the power from our example of a biological male (Gallimard). In other words by exposing a male as feminine and then oppressing this male, we can see how men use power to emasculate other men as well as oppress women by attempting to make them inferior. This also exposes the troubling subordination of homosexuals in society.

Through all this it is no wonder that society seems to be comfortable in creating very rigid and specific roles to play because at least by having a script we aren’t left to have to figure out how to navigate gender with no guide whatsoever. Connell says that, “[t]here is likely to be a ‘fit’ between hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity,” (Connell, 61)  because having these defined stage directions in our script is, “more familiar and manageable,” (Connell, 61). In other words we do not have to worry about being placed on trial or sent to a quarry to break rocks as long as we stick to the roles given to us.

Feminism: The Ascendance of Masculinities

Why do men need the ascendance of masculinities (Rambo, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Schwarzenegger) that highlight the failures of living up to these hegemonic figures and expectations?


I’d argue men do not need it and quite often are very tired of this “creation of models of masculinity,” (61). For many men the whole “ritual of induction into trade and masculinity,” (62) as highlighted by the example of London printers is very much a drudgery and the relief of acceptance is more a relief that it’s over and that the ritual doesn’t have to be repeated (at least at such a base level), not so much that men actually enjoy it. The feeling of being “brothers,” (62) is more akin to a sort of Stockholm syndrome than one of having participated in a system they were proud to be a part of as they went through it. Ask a man who’s been in the military and then been in combat and while he’ll talk of the brotherhood of his unit, he’s not going to have much (if anything) good to say about the war itself. A band of brothers is created out of necessity rather than as a goal to cope with the horrors of the indoctrination.

There is also the level of insecurity men feel specifically because there is no attaining the ideal of someone like Mohammed Ali. And the inherent violence in many male “fantasy,” (61) figures is not an extension of men’s (assumed) seething violence that is ready to boil over at the drop of a feather, but rather a feeling of aggression towards that which makes men feel inadequate. Men are at war with insecurity itself because men are unable to attain the “model of masculinity,” (61).

The real takeaway, however, is for men to be aware of what this system is actually perpetuating. By being complicit in this system (61) it has the effect of forcibly subordinating (specifically) women by maintaining “the maintenance of practices that institutionalize men’s dominance over women,” (61). Through awareness of the consequences of participating in hyper-masculinity then perhaps change towards equality can occur while at the same time relieving men of the insecurity of not being able to live up to a concocted ideal.  


Adam Wagner’s response:

I am inclined to agree with Dan to a certain degree. I think society as a whole is seeing a stray from the hyper-masculine physical type of portrayal we’ve seen in the past. The most classic example of Superhero movies is (slowly but nonetheless) moving towards a more diverse cast. Heroes are becoming more complex rather than just a Superman-esque beat ‘em up type.

That being said, I do think there is still a hegemonic masculinity in regards to being ‘center stage.’ We may not see the Arnold Schwarzenegger types nearly as often, but there is still a strive for “a social ascendancy achieved in a play into the organization of private life and cultural processes” (Connell). This is seen specifically in blue-collar type media. Take, for instance, Wolf of Wall Street. While this film was based on a true story, it is interesting regardless to view it as placing men center stage. The main character does despicable things to reach his place of wealth. Despite this, does the audience despise him? No, rather he is almost cheered on. Why? Because there is always an inclination towards wishing victory for one – specifically, victory for one we’ve considered as historically ‘victorious’ for so long. The audience is accustomed to supported the strong, leader male in the aforementioned physical strength way and this transfers to the ‘new’ wealthy protagonist; money is taking priority over physical ability.

This can also be seen in the general mindset of college-aged Millenials. If one were to approach a white, twenty-something college male student and ask “what do you want to do after college?” the response would most certainly involve trips and expenses that would, at their current wage level be impossible. There is a general assumption of success in the future. This is the idea of Wolf of Wall Street – any man with intelligence can achieve fantastic success. Of course, in an actual society, the level of wealth most individuals strive for is unattainable, leading to general unhappiness. Despite these examples, most white males cannot help but imagine themselves this way as that is what the modern day role model (Robert Downey Jr, Leonardo DiCaprio, so on) portrays.

As well, in a similar setting, if you talk to females about the future a frequent joke is “oh, I’ll just marry rich!” This isn’t the overall mindset, but it is heard often nonetheless. While female-empowering movies are, thankfully, appearing more frequently, these movies are focusing on the physical aspect of before. While this is still important, there are not nearly as many economic and intellectually empowering movies coming to light. While, admittedly, not a big movie-goer, the last big-hit success of this nature I can recall was Legally Blonde in 2001. Women in power are becoming more vocal about this issue; however, it is still not nearly as prevalent in big-hit media.

With regards to the physical attributes, I think Dan is certainly right. We are seeing a decline in the physically masculine ascension. Yet, I do think in commercials and other media the blue-collar, white businessman is becoming even more prevalent. Being rich is the new masculine.

My response:

Excellent point about Wolf of Wall Street being a more modern ideal of masculinity. I do think it’s interesting that this ideal is played for comedy, however. A lot of the film is very funny and the filmmakers do not pull any punches on judging these characters harshly – they are greedy, vain, and egocentric. The ideals of masculinity are being made fun of for how buying into these ideals can be seen as negative and have a negative effect on the people around them.

Other films which also question these roles would be There Will Be Blood that is quite critical of the drive for greed at all costs, even though Daniel Plainview (the main character) is hyper-masculine. No Country For Old men shows how old fashioned the John Wayne type is and how the old ideals of masculinity can’t exist in the modern world. The Social Network goes even further and makes the main, male character who is wildly successful into a lonely, maladjusted figure deserving of ridicule. And a film like Goodfellas that seems to glamorize that lifestyle is really a harsh critique of it and exposes the male ideal of being a powerful male who can do anything he wants (including murder) as being a false ideal that can only destroy us.

Adam Wagner’s response:

I find your back-and-forth interesting, but I would also like to point out that every example you give (Wolf of Wall Street, There Will Be Blood, The Social Network, etc.) the men are *still* rich, white, and successful.  Yes, the films/filmmakers judge them harshly for their behavior, but they are also still portraying these traits as something that will ultimately lead to wealth/success. To be sure, there is a lot to be said for the negative connotations being portrayed here, but in my opinion it is also saying that the metaphorical “Deal With The Devil” will always pay handsomely if you are willing to sacrifice your soul.

I know this kind-of leads back to your original point, but I am also still troubled by the current ideology that equates being rich with being morally corrupt.  If, as you say, Rich is the new Masculine, then we are *also* tying Masculine with morally bankrupt. If it has become impossible (In popular culture) to obtain financial success without also sacrificing your soul (metaphorically speaking), what will the next generation be left to conclude from this line of reasoning?  I, myself, do actually see this change as a positive one because it will ultimately discourage the narrative of “Masculinity” as something Noble or Admirable. In my mind, anything that makes it harder for the world to produce more power-hungry people is a positive change, but I am also left asking what this will cost humanity as a species.

I know I’ve derailed your conversation a bit from where you started, but I find all of this super interesting in a meta-societal way.

The Saga of the Volsungs: Magic Writing

“She saw that something else had been cut over what lay underneath and that the runes had been falsified.” (The Saga of the Volsungs, 97)

Though the women in myth do not (usually) possess the power of violent, physical force that the men have when solving their problems, they nevertheless possess an equally useful skill: knowledge, specifically the use and understanding of the written language to manage their affairs and of society in general. Gudrun, along with Brynhild (67), and Kostbera (97) posses not only the ability to read and write the runes (the men, too are capable of this as well), but more importantly they
correctly interpret these runes.

Sigurd says of Brynhild, “Never can there be found a wiser woman in the world than you,” (71) after she teaches him the power, “mighty things,” (67) of the various runes. These runes – victory runes, wave runes (the sea), speech runes, ale, aid, healing (here a branch), and the mind – are very much like magic spells, or as we would recognize them as “legal fictions,” (Sapiens, 31) in that the ability to use these runes (words, writing) allows the clever person to manage a society.  As writing is a representation of something else, these runes carry with them the power and knowledge to control what they are representing. With the ability to, for example, control troop information in a battle (victory runes), or to heal an injured soldier (branch runes), or to educate a village, clan, or city (mind runes) so that information is not lost “Until the gods perish,” (70) people can control and manage their lives and the societies they live in even if they are made refugees, conquered, married off, or live vast distances from one another. In this way the runes (language) are representative of the power of the people who understand them and can use them wisely.

Yet while Brynhild says the runes are, “For all to use unspoiled / and unprofaned,” (70) it is a man, Vingi who profanes the runes and attempts to conceal Gudrun’s message of warning to her brothers. And while the men, such as Hogni are capable of reading the runes at the basic level, they are incapable of reading deeper into their meaning. These men are easily fooled by the false runes and it is a woman, Kostbera who, “discerned through her wisdom what the runes said,” (97). She even goes as far as to insult Hogni’s literacy, “You cannot be very skilled at reading runes,” (98) and backs up her runic interpretation by saying how she, “wondered how so wise a woman could have carved them so confusedly,” (98). For her the truth of the matter is clearly written, yet the confused nature of the runes speaks to the complexity of the political situation and ultimately Hogni does not heed the hidden warning (prophecy) and thus is doomed by Atli’s false invitation.

And it is in this complexity of interpretations, the female’s deeper insight as opposed to the male’s more literal interpretations of the runes, where we can glimpse the complexity of a political society as well as the woman’s role in preserving their society. Society is preserved through the use of language which the woman master, even if they are not always successful in forestalling a momentary disaster. And, to take my analogy a little further, the preservation of the Icelandic and Viking peoples still exists within our own magical runes of modern language. These cultures still “exist” because our runes say they existed, and while we can’t point to an actual Viking, their culture “lives” on through language.


Barry asks, “If normative language can be seen as in some way male-orientated, the question arises of whether there might be a form of language which is free from this bias, or even in some way orientated towards the female.”

Perhaps a difference can be seen in examining the stereotypes of how men and women use language. For example, men are seen as using language with a specific goal in mind, the stereotype being men try to fix their partner’s problems with “why don’t you just tell your boss X or Y?”. Conversely, the stereotypical female use of language is to use language as a way of expressing emotion, such as “I’m really frustrated with my boss.”

These of course are stereotypes and tropes in our society since men do express their emotions to their partners and women do explain to people how to perform tasks. And the same can be seen in art, such as the character Ripley in the Alien films who performs both stereotypically male and female roles, often at the very same time (protecting a child in her arms while firing a flamethrower).

So what then would be a non-masculine language? Marks and Courtivron seem to be saying that a whole new language – written through their (women’s) bodies – must be invented. Even “pronouncing the word ‘silence’” would be done away with since that would impose a syntax, or a male-dominated control over the language. What this language would be I could image as a form of dance, a physical expression of want and desire and feeling, sort of like bees using their bodies to tell the hive where the pollen is located. Of course this presents the problem of their still would be a language with a rigid syntax that has been imposed on the culture.

M. Butterfly (film): Psychoanalysis: Audience as Superego

The film M. Butterfly allows the audience to actively participate in the role of the Freudian topography as a representative of the superego. An audience plays a major role in the film, not only as a character on screen but the filmmakers are counting on the audience’s reaction when confronted with a revelation counter to what we accept in normative society. In an effort to explore the audience’s preconceived biases, the filmmakers attempt to revolutionize the audience’s thinking to go beyond the current “normal” to suggest the possibility of a new, progressive “normal”. In this essay I will explore the different types of audience as presented in the film and will explore how the role of the audience as a superego shapes the characters as well as how these characters shape the audience in return.

The first example of an audience playing the role of superego, which Freud corresponds to the conscience (Barry, 97), is at the beginning of the film when Gallimard attends the embassy performance of Madame Butterfly (M Butterfly 00:05:10). In this scene Gallimard admits to having never seen the opera and is thus ignorant of its content. He is self-conscious of this fact and this exposes his alienation from the rest of the audience who is familiar with the opera. Gallimard is positioned as an outsider within his own culture, however he is not totally alien to the morals and norms of his Western European culture as we learn in the following conversation with Song when she argues against his reading of the opera. He says, “You made me see the beauty of the story. Of her death. It’s pure sacrifice… It’s very beautiful,” (M Butterfly 00:07:57) which she counters as his reading as being “… one of your favorite fantasies isn’t it? The submissive oriental woman and the cruel white man?”  (M Butterfly 00:08:36). Gallimard’s reading of the opera is assumed to be in line with that of the audience of the film, but Song is showing us that perhaps the audience’s reading is in error, perhaps we as an audience, a superego who are judging the characters, are not infallible and thus are capable of reevualating the normative pressure we impose on the characters (society).

The next example of the importance of the role of the audience is when Gallimard attends the traditional Chinese theater (M Butterfly 00:14:37). Here Gallimard is completely a foreigner since he cannot understand what the actors are saying as well as his being the only Westerner in the audience. Yet when he goes backstage he is given the opportunity to see how manufactured, how unreal, even chaotic this performance is, (M Butterfly 00:16:18). In a sense this is similar to the process of psychoanalysis when the patient – Gallimard plays a dual role as both the patient and as a proxy for the audience in this scene – begins to strip away the layers of repression (in this case the artifice of culture, here represented as the theater troupe) in an effort to expose what lies underneath. We have learned Gallimard’s reading of the opera (and thus the Chinese as a whole) is from a typical Western European point of view, and so this is his (and the audience’s) opportunity to see past these preconceived biases, to uncover these repressed and troubling biases about how we view a foreign culture and deal with them in the open.

Through the course of the film from this point forward we the audience become highly active in our role as the superego. We watch as Gallimard’s and Song’s relationship grows into what we, at first, assume will be a traditional relationship between a man and a woman, albeit across vastly different cultures. All this, however, takes place not in front of the audience of society, but tucked away in secret with only we the film audience watching events unfold. In a way we have been separated from the cultural norms of society as we undertake more in depth and private psychoanalysis of our “patients”.

While we are surprised to learn Song is biologically a man because our biases as a normative superego may initially reject this relationship possibility, yet having spent the duration of the film learning about these characters we’ve been given an opportunity to rethink our position as a normative influence on these characters. We are then presented with a choice: we could decide to continue to insist on a culturally normative relationship between a man and woman, or we have an opportunity to rethink our analysis, to have our minds changed, to engage in a revolution of norms and accept this new possibility.

And so we as a film audience who have undergone the psychoanalysis of the film where we have uncovered this repressed secret, join back up with the audience of society and we are confronted with how we will decide to judge these characters as represented in the courtroom scene, (M Butterfly 01:18:00). Here society as an audience literally judges Gallimard, especially when that audience learns he did not know the biological sex of Song, (M Butterfly 01:21:50), and thus that audience (society) finds him guilty. Gallimard deviates from the norm of French society and the rule of law insists he is to be punished for spying, in effect, on the alternative lifestyle. Yet we as an audience in the theater have been revolutionized, we were given the opportunity to know more than just the base facts in the case because we have grown with these two people and understand how this misunderstanding (either willful or from ignorance) could have ever taken place. We have seen backstage, just as Gallimard had earlier, and thus we are in conflict with French society. We now have conflicting superegos and we, too are to be judged.

This leads to the final example with an audience consisting of actual prisoners (themselves outcasts like Gallimard) who watch and judge Gallimard as he transforms on stage, (M Butterfly 01:29:27). They, like us, are captive to this transformation and not only have no power to stop the metamorphosis, but seem to accept it, a far cry from Gallimard’s previous audience of a jury in the French courtroom who cast him out. In this case one audience (French society as a superego) has been replaced with another audience (prisoners as an opposing, revolutionary superego), and while we might initially identify with the former, over the course of the film in which we are a captive audience, we wind up empathizing with Gallimard’s plight and therefore we as the superego are transformed into something wholly new.. No longer are we the normative societal force that frowns on Gallimard’s behavior, we are a different normative force who accept this transformation.

When we began the film we assumed a traditional interpretation of the characters: Gallimard is a man, Song is a woman. However, we are held captive to this traditionally accepted reading. Society (as a superego) forces us to conform to a certain standard of what constitutes a “proper” romantic relationship.

Yet why must this be so, is there no possibility of revolution in society, as there is in both China and France during the film? Can’t the superego, strict as it is as a normalizing influence be a reshaped? However, once it is reshaped, does it not just become the replacement normalizing force? Has the power now only shifted from one power structure to another? In the film the Chinese have undergone a cultural revolution where everyone is supposed to be equal, yet we see how even in this new system the new norms are enforced with strict punishments that are meted out when an individual runs afoul of them.

Who then is left to say our new, revolutionized judgment is any more authentic or legitimate than our previous biases? Are we as society’s audience also prisoners of society who judges based only on available, and often limited information? Ultimately, could this uncertainty as to the legitimacy of the authority of the superego lead to such a breakdown of an individual that they are no longer able to function in society, to which Gallimard reacts by literally killing himself, an extreme example of psychosis where the relationship with an external reality (the superego) “breaks down altogether,” (Gollapudi)?


Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press. 2002.

Gollapudi, Aparna. Principles of Literary Criticism. Accessed 30 October 2017.

M Butterfly. Dir. David Cronenberg. Warner Bros. 1993. Film.

M. Butterfly: Psychoanalysis

Each of the major characters in the opera can not only be slotted into each of the three topographic landscapes of Freud’s theory – Id, Superego, and Ego – but that the overall structure of the opera is representative of the entire model Freud is positing where there is a) desire, b) a mediating conscience, and c) an individual who must decide what to consciously pursue and what to repress.

One possible assembly of these pieces could consist of Pinkerton as the Id, Suzuki as the Superego, and Butterfly as the Ego. Here Pinkerton represents that which Butterfly desires to have: a husband who will give her life new identity and take her away from her previous, unsatisfactory life. However, Suzuki, who is always close at hand (much as we can’t ever escape our ever-nagging conscience) and whom is necessary for Butterfly to do pretty much anything in the home, represents the Superego who is attempting to instruct Butterfly that her decision to pursue Pinkerton is doomed. Finally, Butterfly is the Ego which must try to negotiate between the two, and on a few occasions verbally threatens Suzuki because Butterfly does not like being confronted with the painful advice being given when Suzuki tries to get Butterfly to really consider the consequences of her desire, or in other words to confront the possibility she is repressing her fear that this relationship is doomed.

Within this Freudian dynamic we can see the pleasure principle at work in Butterfly. She substitutes the pain she feels – the loss (lack) of Pinkerton’s physical presence, but also the pain of the repressed fear she has as to his actual intentions – with a reality she can control: a delusion of certainty that he is absolutely coming back (transference). Pinkerton’s absence is similar to the Fort-da game Freud describes in that Butterfly is processing this unusually long and painful separation as a sort of pressure gauge whose eventual relief will produce an even greater pleasure upon his return. In this sense she might believe Pinkerton’s absence is actually a voluntary renunciation she has control over because she tells herself it is her duty as the wife to support her hardworking husband even while he is away. She is, in her mind, the good American housewife who will be rewarded for her sacrifice.

Yet Butterfly’s separation (lack) from her desire (Pinkerton), the object she desperately needs in order to complete or at least maintain her constructed identity as a dutiful American housewife, is really a separation from a desire she can never really possess. For her Pinkerton is the key to her shedding the Japanese identity into the ideal American housewife, yet which itself is something she has almost no concept of other than what she imagines that to even mean. Probably she has never even met an American woman before and has based her identity on what Pinkerton has told her it could be like. Ironically, Pinkerton might not even know what the ideal American housewife is supposed to consist of!  

It is in this misunderstanding that we can see Butterfly attempt to symbolize her desire through a sort of created language when she wears the American style dress and sets the house up with western locks (symbolic of her repressing her Japanese-ness). She’s trying to approximate a meaning to a system she’s practically ignorant of (American culture). And the further she commits to this reasoning the more she’s invested into it because the consequences would be shame and the ridicule of everyone in the village. How her family and the villagers see her drives her on to separate herself from that identity, in effect her identity is being influenced by the outside world, an influence she rebels against.

Butterfly is living a highly fragmented existance, she is neither her old self nor is she the self she desires to be, she’s become, in effect, the uncanny in that he looks like Butterfly, but she also no longer resembles Butterfly. Not to mention the name Butterfly being problematic itself. She is a prosthetic, what we call the Ideal-I, a being existing somewhere between the experiential I she is and the ideal person she can never be.

Lacan explains we can never really posses what we desire, yet Butterfly does wind up back in Pinkerton’s embrace, literally the embrace of her desire. Yet in the Freudian sense to completely indulge that desire, to let that animal nature we repress to fully embrace and nurture us (as Pinkerton does as he holds her like a helpless child as she dies from her wound), would be to strip away our humanity and figuratively cause our death, a psychic death dramatized in the opera as her suicide since that accepted embrace of the repressed desire (the animal nature) is a form of suicide. She has attempted to return to a sense of wholeness, but by accepting the embrace of this Ego, it is a perverted and unnatural act that strips her away of her ultimate identity as a living human being.

Freud: Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Freud mentions the “compulsion of destiny” as something that “seems intelligible on a rational basis,” (174) or in other words what the ancients called “Destiny” is little more than our inability to break from the habit of “‘perpetual recurrence of the same thing'”(173), our own repressed compulsions manifesting (what Freud calls transference) themselves over and over through the same (or seemingly similar) outlets.

One example (and in keeping with the theme of the ancients) is that of Heracles in Euripides play Herakles. Hercules is a warrior, he has been on numerous dangerous missions (the 12 labors) where his life was in great danger, and in fact he was even in Hades right as the story begins. Hercules has taken the lives of countless men and beasts, he is death and he brings death wherever he goes. Heracles is, in effect, a killing machine.

The play, tragically, ends with Heracles killing his own children in a fit of rage, or what we would now call something akin to PTSD. All the killing he has done, because that is his “Destiny”, causes him to continue to kill, which is his inescapable “Fate”. He repeats the same terrible acts over and over, even against those he loves because he can’t escape this destiny: a repressed compulsion to kill that he tries to keep repressed but which manifests itself in the most terrible ways possible, even against his conscious will and desire.

Hercules wishes he could live a normal life with his family, but he’s doomed to express his repressed “Destiny” (killing) because he has no other outlet and it becomes a compounding issue: the more he kills the worse his PTSD becomes and thus the more he kills. But he was born to kill, not to be a family man sitting at home smoking a pipe and listening to Perry Como on the hi-fi. He can’t repress his desire and though the actions of his desire to kill are terrible to him he repeats them over and over and, in effect, becomes sicker and sicker.

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.

Structuralism: Saussure’s “arbitrary” nature of the sign

Saussure says that the nature of the relationship between the constituents of the sign, the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.  Consider what Saussure means by this “arbitrary” nature of the sign.


What Saussure is getting at when he uses the term “arbitrary” is that the word we use to signify, say “car” is, is just the sound wave we use to represent that personal vehicle in my driveway. The word “car” isn’t actually The Car Itself, it’s just an agreed upon soundwave we use to signify The Car Itself.

Of course we have to keep in mind that this word, “car”, is something we are all agreeing to use so in that sense it is not completely arbitrary since both you and I have been taught this word and agree to continue to use it. Saussure says the words we are using are not “left entirely to the speaker,” but rather the word “has no natural connection with the signified,” (79).

However, there is nothing to stop us from agreeing to use a different word, such as in the 1985 episode of The Twilight Zone, “Wordplay” where society decides to change what every word means, much to the frustration of the main character who never got the memo and winds up having no idea how to speak the new language.

Also when confronted with something that as yet does not have a name, while a new word to signify this new object can be picked quite arbitrarily (such as the infamous “Boaty McBoatface”), the person or people giving the name often draw upon established language as guidance, such as using Latin to name a new biological species. In such a case there is a naming convention agreed upon to deal with new discoveries in order to maintain consistency rather than being completely arbitrary.

Saussure goes on to explore onomatopoeia and interjections as being possible exceptions to the rule, but even in these cases we see in comparing languages there is a large degree of variance: in English, when we hurt ourselves we say “ouch”, in French it’s “aie”, and when a dog barks we mimic it in English by saying “bow-wow”, whereas in French “oua-oua” is used. These examples sound quite different, even though they are supposedly mimicking the typical sound of a dog’s bark.

A Thousand Years of Forbidden Knowledge

In Dr. Faustus, Lucifer entertains with “some pastime” (Marlowe A2.3: 99) as he parades the various sins of hell in their corporeal forms before their host, Faustus. Lucifer is giving a performance, in effect telling the story of how he, Lucifer with his crew believe they will succeed in corrupting humanity – or at least in corrupting Faustus. In this essay I wish to take on the role of Lucifer and examine seven texts which explore the idea of forbidden knowledge as it appears in its various forms over a thousand years of English literature from the Old to the Modern period.



“For fifty winters,” (Beowulf 129) Beowulf ruled his people well yet what could have caused it all to go so wrong? Early in the tale we learn of Hengest’s vengeance when “the flashing sword” (Beowulf 102) is placed in his lap. Though peace had persisted through winter, now that it was spring and his people were no longer required to keep the peace, he sought his vengeance. Hengest’s revenge is a clue as to why a dragon has begun to terrorize Beowulf’s people. This dragon had “for three hundred winters,” (Beowulf 131) guarded a treasure which remained buried in a barrow far from man, yet because of a slave who was “escaping from men’s anger,” (Beowulf 130) happened to stumble upon this treasure and carry it off into the world caused the dragon’s vengeance was loosed upon Beowulf’s kingdom.

Yet what is this treasure and why was it buried? The contents are no doubt of great earthly wealth, but it’s doing little good just buried in the ground. What we learn of this treasure is that it had been deliberately buried by someone who was the last of his people, perhaps an ancient king like Beowulf and Hrothgar since he is described as “the protector of rings” (Beowulf 130). Yet like Beowulf who also has no heir, this protector of rings does not use his wealth to forge any new alliances and thus enrich his fellow man as was custom, instead he greedily hides it away from man where it can do no good. In effect the treasure becomes symbolic of greed itself and the dragon becomes the consuming consequences of pursuing this greed; the treasure is literally cursed. Hidden away this treasure is a forbidden knowledge best left untouched, yet Beowulf, perhaps wishing to provide for his people financially since he has no heir to provide them with, but more importantly for the fame it might bestow our epic hero, seeks the treasure, a knowledge of sorts, that is not his in hopes of securing a prosperous future.

And perhaps if Beowulf had acted more like Hrothgar (who also had no heir) and allowed for a champion to slay this dragon then maybe events would have turned out better. However, “the giver of gold [Beowulf] disdained / to track the dragon with a troop / of warlike men,” (Beowulf 133) because his own pride (ofermod) has convinced him that only he is capable of the feat (Beowulf 137). Like the man who buried his treasure in the earth and does not share his wealth, Beowulf does not allow for his own people to share in the chance at glory. Glory, the ultimate goal for the epic hero, must be all his just as wealth is the ultimate goal for a man who buries his riches in a barrow.

Beowulf thus is ultimately consumed by the dragon’s fire and dies. His obsession with the cursed treasure, a quest for what amounts to obtaining a forbidden knowledge, coupled with his pride, a theme we will see repeated again in Milton, is his ultimate undoing.



The Breton lai of Milun not only explores instances of secrets and forbidden knowledge, but it also carries over the theme of genealogy and an heir from Beowulf. Milun is a story about the family, specifically the legitimacy of family and at this point in English literature we see the shift in identity towards the family and away from Beowulf’s clans, and how the women now, not the men, are central to this new identity even though we have not yet reached the point where we actually learn these women’s names.

Central to the story is our heroine’s pregnancy with the “fine” knight Milun. Fearful that she “would be severely punished: tortured, or sold as a slave,” (Marie 98) she must hide her condition less she forfeit “her honour and good name,” (Marie 98). Her father has plans for her to be betrothed to “a very wealthy man from the region,” (Marie 98) and if he were to find out what his daughter has been doing in the bedchamber near her garden then nobody would have her. THe irony being that as she fears becoming a slave, she is being bought and sold as a slave.

Her insistence on attracting Milun and exploring her sexual passions with him places her in an almost impossible situation. She cries that she “never realized that things would turn out this way,” (Marie 99) apparently because nobody told her of the consequences of sexual intercourse. Yet her situation is not entirely impossible either. Her’s is a true love, unlike that with her betrothal to the nobleman, and as we know from the genre of romance, true love will prevail even if it takes awhile and some scheming to see it through.

The final scheme in the lai involves murder. Milun and his (newly reconciled) son plan how to reunite the family and the son suggests that “I shall kill her husband and marry her to you,” (Marie 103). And had the lai not followed the conventions of the genre and the son really had carried out the murder we would not have had a nice family reconciliation but rather perhaps the terrible consequences of tasting the forbidden knowledge of murder. Yet divine providence stepped in and we learn that “[H]er husband was dead,” (Marie 104). True love won out and the nobleman whom she had been married to just conveniently dies. In fact her husband dies because he was ignorant to the forbidden knowledge of her (lack of) virginity. As we will explore in A Journal of the Plague Year when hundreds of thousands die to the ignorance of what was causing the plague, so too does this nobleman pay the price for this hidden and forbidden knowledge.

Thankfully for the son, he does not have to taste the forbidden fruit of murder and the family is affirmed in love and the legitimacy of the son is secure.


The Miller’s Tale

Sexual intercourse with a woman who (currently) belongs to another is a theme explored not just in Marie de France, but also in Chaucer. Yet while our genre remains that of love, unlike Milun which is a romance, here Chaucer writes a fabliaux, a dirty story focusing more on the genitals than it does the heart. And here too we explore the consequences of forbidden knowledge, only this time with much more levity and mirth than in Beowulf of Milun.

Our first clue as to what Chaucer is up to is in the Miller’s prologue when the Miller says to the Reve, “Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold,” (Chaucer 3152). Right away we know we are going to be in for a tale about cheating wives and all the trouble that can bring. This contrasts with Milun in that Marie de France writes tales for the court about the importance and bonding of family and ennobled love, whereas Chaucer, speaking as the drunken Miller to the sickly Reve, is basically giving his 14th century audience the equivalent of porn.

One thing to keep in mind here however, Chaucer isn’t completely straying out of the genre because line in Milun the Miller’s Tale also focuses on a young woman married to an older man who doesn’t deserve her. Yet whereas the heroine in Milun was at least betrothed to someone she shared the same class with, the old and uneducated carpenter, “He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude,” (Chaucer 3227), is here mismatched to his 18 year old wife and he is incredibly jealous, “And demed hymself been lik a cokewold,” (Chaucer 3226). And so this mismatch and jealousy is the opportunity for someone like the learned, youthful, and horny scholar, Nicholas to take advantage of this carpenter so that he can sleep with the young wife: “‘A clerk hadde litherly biset his whyle, / But if he koude a carpenter bigyle,” (Chaucer 3299).

Nicholas’ plan preys on the carpenter’s ignorance and uses his “forbidden knowledge” as power to get what he wants because he knows it will impress the old man; “This man is falle, with his astromye,” and the carpenter believes, “Men sholde nat knowe of Goddes pryvetee,” (Chaucer 3454) and so is convinced that the knowledge Nicholas has about a second “Noes flood,” (Chaucer 3518) is true and imminent and goes along with the outrageous plan to hang bathtubs from the rafters, “Men may dyen of ymaginacioun,” (Chaucer 3612).

In the end the carpenter is completely humiliated, “That he was holde wood in al the toun;” (Chaucer 3846) and, “Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,” (Chaucer 3850). The carpenter had bought into the supposed authority of the the young clerk, Nicholas and because he was so blinded with jealousy that anyone with even the remotest ability and education (power) was able to take advantage of him. The carpenter’s desire to trust in a forbidden knowledge, even though he said man shouldn’t pry into the mind of God, turned out to be his undoing.

Yet how was it exactly that Nicholas was able to pry into the mind of God, or at least appear to posses such knowledge? Perhaps in Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus is a clue.


Doctor Faustus

In the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas is a literate man; he can write and read, and so he has access to knowledge that someone like the carpenter does not have. In short learning has moved on from being an oral tradition, such as in Beowulf, or Marie de France reading her lais to a baronial court or the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales passing the time with each other telling their various stories, and can now be found written down in a book whose barrier to entry is the ability to read. This literacy, coupled with more and more people moving to the cities to find work, work that required an education, institutions arose to train young people, like Nicholas, in the required curriculum of the day. And so no longer was the bible the only book that contained what you needed to get along in the world. The bible may contain the providential word of God, but it could not teach you much about law, logic, or how to be a doctor. Yet just as conservative religion had grown out of the teachings found in the bible, an orthodox curriculum of the new secular knowledge, a new providence, had arisen.

But what exactly was in these books? According to Faustus, “O, what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence / Is promised to the studious artisan!” (Marlowe A1.1:55) can be found in books, but not just any books, but rather “necromantic books,” (Marlowe A1.1:53), and anything containing not the boring orthodoxy of the standard curriculum but which, “try thy brains to gain a deity,” (Marlowe A1.1:65). Faustus is not interested in being a clerk, he wants to be a 16th century Oppenheimer and unlock the mysteries of the universe and he is willing to dig, like Beowulf looking for a dragon’s horde, to find, “all the wealth that our forefathers hid / Within the massy entrails of the earth,” (Marlowe A1.1:148).

Not surprisingly this quest for knowledge has its consequences in that Faustus eventually must relinquish his immortal soul to Lucifer, but it also reveals a shift in literature from the medieval and into a (early) modern world of science and rationalism. In one scene Faustus tells Lucifer that he believes, “hell’s a fable,” but to which Lucifer replies, “Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind,” (Marlowe A2.1:127). This focus on experience is important because it contrasts with a world view consisting of authority coming from the revealed word of God. God’s authority is being challenged by the possibility of the forbidden knowledge of experience in the hopes of gaining a power that could perhaps make oneself a God. But this choice between authority and experience also gives rise to doubt because now what is someone to believe? Who really has authority? Our author, Marlowe, was born a generation after Martin Luther challenged the church’s authority and so now people have the freedom to choose between letting the church tell them how to find salvation or to try and figure it out for themselves. Yet what are the real consequences to all this freedom?


Paradise Lost

While we do not learn of what becomes of Faustus after Marlowe’s Lucifer comes to collect his soul, we might imagine it could be something similar to what Milton’s Lucifer experiences once he’s kicked out of heaven; “look on me, / Me who have touched and tasted,” (Milton IX:687) Satan says to Eve as he attempts to seduce her into eating the forbidden fruit. And from Eve’s pre-fall point of view, Satan seems to be making a convincing argument, “Yet rung of his persuasive words, impregned / With reason, to her seeing, and with truth,” (Milton IX:737).

But just as Faustus vacillates with doubt and wonders if it’s not too late to repent, “‘Tis thou hast damned distressed Faustus’ soul. / Is’t not too late?” (Marlowe A2.3:75), Milton’s Satan soliloquizes his decision to rebel against God. Satan reflects that “nor was his service hard,” (Milton IV:45) so then why did he ever decide to rebel? Basically, Satan is jealous of the Son of God, “with envy against the Son of God, that day / Honoured by his great father, and proclaimed / Messiah king anointed,” (Milton V:662) because Satan is no longer the most important angel in heaven and must be subordinate to someone else and be subject to “new laws thou seest imposed; / New laws from him who reigns,” (Milton V:679). From Satan’s point of view God is a tyrant and so like a child who first discovers they can say “no” when they don’t want to do something, he rebels. He acts like the drunken Miller from Chaucer who speaks out of turn and upsets the hierarchy.

This decision to rebel raises an important question as to why Satan, and later Eve and Adam, is free to even make such a choice in the first place. Wouldn’t God have saved everyone a whole lot of time and trouble had he not given anybody the freedom, “free to fall,” (Milton III:99), to make such terrible decisions? Herein lies the paradox of the freedom we have to either be freely obedient to God’s rule and his hierarchy, or to use our Godlike freedom to be like Faustus so that we too “shall be as gods,” (Milton IX:708). What God wants is not robots who “had served necessity, / Not me,” (Milton III:110) but beings who are obedient because they also understand that only God can truly handle ultimate freedom. By breaking our obedience to God we overreach and attempt to gain the knowledge that God has, a knowledge which has literally been forbidden to us by God.

And the consequences of this overreach is dire. In book XI, Milton describes the angel Michael’s prophecy of humanity’s fate in great detail, and pretty much all of it is graphic and tragic, “A lazar-house it seemed, wherein were laid / Numbers of all diseased,” (Milton XI:479). Our overreach of knowledge and disobedience leads to nothing but suffering, a theme we see explored in great detail in Daniel DeFoe’s novel about the Great Plague of London in 1665.


A Journal of the Plague Year

While Adam and Eve know perfectly well why they had been banished from Eden and have had the consequences their offspring will endure due to their decision to rebel against God literally revealed to them, the people of London in 1665 have no such clear knowledge. As we have explored above, humanity has the freedom to choose whose authority he wishes to serve: he can rely on the revealed word of God, or he can look elsewhere, to books and experience to make sense of the world. Yet what good can either of these do in a world that, “for many People that had the Plague upon them, knew nothing of it; till the inward Gangreen had affected their Vitals and they dy’d in a few Moments,” (Defoe 77). Worse still were those who supposedly possessed the authority of God who instead of offering hope, “those Ministers, in their Sermons, rather sunk, than lifted up the Hearts of their Hearers,” (Defoe 26). All is in confusion, society has broken down and nobody possesses the knowledge to defend themselves from death.

And so where do people turn? Some turn to looting (Defoe 85), some to homeopathic remedy, “his Wife’s Remedy was washing her Head in Vinegar,” (Defoe 87), or succumbing outright to despair, “for People that were Infected, and near their End, and delirious also, would run to those Pits wrapped in Blankets, or Rugs, and throw themselves in,” (Defoe 59). In effect all knowledge has been cursed, like a dragon’s horde, and it leads to a systematic collapse of civilization. The very top of man’s society, the wealthy, abandon the poor which leads to commerce and trade either being taken over by criminals and swindlers (Defoe 27-28) or just falling apart entirely (Defoe 141), which leads to the political and religious authorities deteriorating (Defoe 226). Marie de France wrote of God’s Providence guiding the family towards reunion and a restoration of ennobled civilization (Milun), but in the modern world there only seems to be tricksters like Chaucer’s Nicolas taking advantage of a confused situation.

Thus it would seem civilization is doomed and there is nothing man can do to improve his standing in a world where he is free to indulge in any and all knowledge and where there seems to be no real authority. However, just as Adam and Eve put Eden behind them, “The world was all before them,” (Milton XII:646), perhaps then it might be possible to make the best of a terrible situation to rebuild civilization.


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

In our previous examples the pursuit of forbidden knowledge has only led to despair; Beowulf, Milun’s lover, Chaucer’s carpenter, Dr. Faustus, Milton’s Lucifer and Eve, and Defoe’s London society have all suffered the consequences of reaching beyond their limitations. Yet is the pursuit of “forbidden knowledge” and a desire for freedom only a path leading towards destruction? When we think back to the paradox Milton explores in Paradise Lost where real freedom is actually in obedience to God and rebelling against it leads to destruction, perhaps we can look to Olaudah Equiano’s life as a slave as a counter-example to how he used his pursuit of freedom and knowledge to better himself and society.

A religious allusion to Jesus turning water into wine so that the masses could hear the word of God (revelation) cannot be understated when Equiano meets up again with Dr Irving and was then “daily employed in reducing old Neptune’s dominions by purifying the briny element and making it fresh,” (Equiano 172). This process of turning undrinkable seawater into fresh, life-giving water contrasts with Faustus’ greed for power by use of “magic, magic that hath ravished me,” (Marlowe A1.1:112), and also contrasts with Defoe’s London society who wrongly thought so many were dying of the plague because, “the Calamity was spread by Infection, that is to say, by some certain Steams, or Fumes,” (Defoe 73). Yet Equiano seemed to have tapped into a forbidden knowledge that previously could have been thought of as a sort of alchemy, a knowledge he has perhaps gained through some of the very same books (Equiano 68) Faustus and Chaucer’s Nicholas used in their greedy and manipulative abuse of power.

Equiano also seemingly contrasts with our previous examples in his quest for freedom. Milton has taught us freedom is obedience to God and obedience will keep our freedom in check lest we try to overreach and become like God, but Equiano experiences almost constant mistreatment at the hands of those he’s supposed to be obedient to: his owners. Yet Equiano is not seeking freedom from God’s rule, but from the tyranny of men. Equiano writes, “Christ is my pilot wise, my compass is his word,” (Equiano 199) because not only is God a literal guide in the scientific and secular sense where Equiano must navigate his way on a ship, but also in the spiritual sense of his own obedience to God in guiding him through a chaos, much like the one Lucifer travels through (Milton II:910), so that He will, “save me in the trying hour,” (Equiano 199). Like Lucifer, Equiano rebels, but what he rebels against is an actual injustice, not against a just obedience that wasn’t really that hard anyway (Milton IV:45). Even Equiano’s pride contrasts with Milton’s Lucifer in that he posses a self-worth, but not an overabundance that blinds him into believing he can become like God.

Equiano then makes for a fitting conclusion to our exploration of forbidden knowledge in that he uses his reason to seek only that which can improve him and his fellow man, but does not go beyond that. He understands his limitations but is perfectly happy with such restrictions. He has “put [his] ears to,” (Equiano 68) forbidden knowledge, but like the books that remained silent when he was illiterate, has been practical in his application of what knowledge he eventually learns through his experiences

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano : Different but the Same

what advantages do not a refined people possess over those who are rude and uncultivated?” (45)

The first image we get of Olaudah Equiano is of his actual portrait on the cover and title page. Here he looks perfectly refined in the western sense with his lace scarf, expensive red jacket and the Bible open to the Book of Acts. He embodies, literally, the idea that just because he is black he is nevertheless no less of a dignified human than a white man, “Surely the minds of the Spaniards did not change with their complexions!” (45). Our first impression of him is of an assimilated black man into western civilization, and so we must put our ear to his book “in hopes it would answer [us],” (68) so that we might learn who this black man wearing the clothes of a white man is.

In the first chapter of his narrative we learn exactly just how civilized, arguably more civilized, this black man is to that of the white men who enslave him. When compared to Defoe’s plague infested Londoners, Equiano’s people seem more advanced as well. “Sometimes we are visited by locusts,” (38) and when a famine follows his people respond as a social collective (38) unlike the wealthy of London who run off into hiding at the first sign of inconvenience from the Plague. In fact by the nature of his people’s cleanliness, “Those that touched the dead at any time were obliged to wash and purify themselves,” (42) and their architecture which was designed to “keep off the different insects,” (36), they are better protected from disease than the “more advanced” people who enslave them. Practical experience does more for a “simple” people living in the African interior than all the libraries of knowledge in England.

Equiano goes into great detail as to the advanced level of civilization his native people possess. They engage in trade with the Oye-Eboe who bring them “arms, gun-powder, hats, beads, and dried fish” (37). They are familiar with science, “We compute the year from the day which the sun crosses the line,” (40-41). His people comport themselves respectfully, “we were totally unaccustomed with swearing,” (41). They are knowledgeable of medicine in that they “practiced bleeding by cupping, and were very successful in healing wounds and expelling poisons,” (42). In other words they are self sufficient and capable of managing plague, famine, and war, quite unlike Defoe’s terrified and helpless Londoners.

A key to their success is in their community and the norm of helping their neighbors, “The whole neighborhood afford their unanimous assistance in building [houses], and, in return, receive and expect no other recompense than a feast,” (36). This is a far cry from the white men who, as we learn later in the narrative take advantage of Equiano and outright steal from him for their own gain, or like in Defoe who just lock up their neighbors to save themselves when the plague breaks out.

Equiano is so cultured and civilized that upon first meeting these white men he asks “if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair?” (55). There is great irony in a slave questioning the very humanity of a race of people who sees him as merely a piece of ignorant property.

From this point on he must, in effect, build a bridge between his own civilization and identity to that of his captors. He must prove his worth by becoming more like his captors in appearance so that they might pause long enough to hear his story. Of course he has the ability to tell his story because he possesses the financial means to do so. Like Defoe’s wealthy Londoners who are able to save themselves and pass on their genes, Equiano is also able to protect his identity and pass it on to later generations, quite unlike the millions of less fortunate Africans whose stories were never told. And perhaps in this one aspect Western civilization has the advantage over “those who are rude and uncultivated,” (45) in its ability to pass down not just the practical technical knowledge of staying alive, but because they have the ability “to keep their great men when they died,” (63).

Paradise Lost : God’s adversary?

Meanwhile the adversary of God and man,’ (Book II, 629)

The word “adversary” (2:629) is carrying a lot of thematic weight in the poem. Initially, “adversary” can be defined in its classic sense, that of the traditional, epic antagonist, such as Grendel, or the Dragon of the horde, or even in the romantic sense of the jealous husband who locks up his young and pretty wife. Milton is drawing on this traditional view of the word “adversary” to build the character of Satan up in the same tradition as the old epics and romances so that the character will be instantly recognizable, and sympathetic.

An example of “adversary” in the classic definition can be seen in such lines as “That glory never shall his wrath or might / Extort from me.” (1:110) where we witness Satan’s defiance against his enemy, God. We know this will be a good fight, and we also know that any great hero has to have a foe worthy of his attention because in vanquishing such a mighty foe is for the greatest of all glory and eventual reward, “The world shall burn, and from her ashes spring / New heaven and earth, wherein the just shall dwell,” (3:334).

Another example of Milton’s use of “adversary” comes in the later definition we have explored in the genre of the romance. Satan, in his temptation of youthful and naive Eve, prays on her innocence as well has her vanity to capture her, “Taste this, and be henceforth among the gods / Thyself a goddess,” (5:77). Satan is like the jealous old husband of Chaucer who against all odds manages to score a wife who is out of his accepted social position – in other words, he is grasping for more than he is has been allowed by society, or in this case, God.

This then leads us into the use of the word “adversary” as playing directly into how the character of Satan sees himself. Satan defines his worth through this adversarial relationship with God, his pride blinds him into thinking he is equal enough to actually be an “adversary” of God. Yet we know he is lacking all the facts, specifically God’s existence outside of all time, “Wherein past, present, future he beholds,” (3:78) and thus is unaware of the inevitable outcome. Satan is unaware just how doomed he is since God has already seen Satan’s failure, but he does not have this knowledge and so we watch as he fights a battle he cannot win.

All this helps build up a character we are familiar with from the tradition of literature (from epic to romance and the medieval) which creates an antagonist who is powerful enough to be dangerous (and also entertaining to read about), but relatable enough through his flaws so that we can empathize with just how dangerous Satan can be in our own lives. Milton has personified evil and humanized it, he is showing us how evil is ultimately a human adversary which is a part of our very nature. Evil is transformed from an ambiguous, or monstrous concept outside of ourselves into something entirely human capable of great evil within ourselves.

Eliot and Baraka: Identity and Disenfranchisement

While T.S. Eliot and Amiri Baraka have seemingly opposing philosophies concerning the role of the poet’s identity in art, their work shares similar cultural realities; both attempt to address the inequality of the modern world, specifically as it relates to the identity of marginalized members of society.

In 1919, T.S. Eliot explained in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the poet is distinct from the poetry they are writing and that poetry “… is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” (Eliot 42). Eliot’s view of the individual’s identity can hardly be surprising in the context of when this essay was written so soon after the end of WW1. Mechanized advancements in warfare, such as the airplane and long-range artillery, had depersonalized the value of human life by turning the battlefield into a meatgrinder where the value of the individual is little more than a stain upon the vastness of an apocalyptic wasteland where death comes at any moment from an entrenched and unseen enemy.

Eliot’s depersonalization and loss of identity is reflected in his poem “Preludes” where he describes the modern city not through the individual people who inhabit it, but through the stains left behind from these collective masses. His lines, “The burnt out ends of smoky days”, “The grimy scraps”, and “… faint stale smells of beer” (Kalaidjian 34) build up an image of humanity’s waste to allude to the idea of humanity as waste.

Eliot also argues that the role of the poet in creating art is a process of “continual surrender of himself,” (Eliot 39). Here he is explaining that the artist is part of a tradition, the classical Western Tradition, that is greater than himself and that this tradition is totally inescapable. Eliot is arguing that the artist writes “not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country,” (Eliot 37). Eliot’s definition of the artist is not as a unique individual, but is someone who is part of a process of the past and the present. Eliot’s artist has no individual identity but whose “mature” mind is a catalyst (“a filament of platinum,“) (Eliot 39) that causes a chemical reaction between two previously existing gasses to form a new substance but that ultimately destroys the catalyst. Eliot uses as analogy the impersonal advances of science and technology to define the identity of the artist.  

Nearly fifty years after Eliot’s essay, the poet Amiri Baraka will stand at the front lines of the Civil Rights movement and use his poetry as a force demanding that the individual – specifically the African American – be recognized and taken seriously as a part of American (Western) society. Baraka is part of a generation who no longer is willing to accept an identity of the African American as being “Invisible”, as Ralph Ellison uses the term in his 1952 novel, “Invisible Man”. Baraka is not willing to be a filament subsumed by the white world, rather he will use art violently against a “static reality,” (Reilly 168).

Amiri Baraka seems to stand in sharp contrast to Eliot in that he is an active (even violent) agent of protest against the classical Western Tradition in order to “free himself, and his people,” (Reilly 15) as he, still known as LeRoi Jones at the time, stated in his 1966 interview with Stewart Smith and Peter Thon when asked about what happens to “a creative person when you start to give yourself over entirely to protest activities,” (Reilly 15).

In “Poem for Black Hearts”, which eulogizes Civil Rights leader Malcolm X, Baraka (Jones) uses his poem as a call for black men to literally avenge Malcolm X’s death, “Malcolm’s assassination demands retribution from black men against white men,” (Watts 112). It should be noticed, however that Baraka is saying white men will call black men “faggots” if black men do not fight back, a call to action which seeks to move discrimination off onto another marginalized group.

“Poem for Black Hearts” further contrasts to Eliot in that Baraka is not only an active agent for (violent) change, but he is breaking from the tradition and forms Eliot believes the artist is beholden to. Baraka is writing in free verse, of which Eliot said “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job” (Perloff) because Baraka is, in effect using new methods to express his refusal to be lumped in with the “static” hegemony of the Western Tradition. The lines of Baraka’s poem swell in length as they continue down the page and as they become more impassioned and more insistent that action be taken, unlike “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” where Eliot’s narrator waffles with the same indecision as Hamlet and ultimately just grows “old” with “the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” (Eliot 15). Where Eliot uses ironic rhymes, “tool” and “Fool”, “meticulous” and “ridiculous”, “use” and “obtuse” to describe the sad state of the narrator, Baraka uses the phrases “stupid animal” and “dumb white man” (Watts 111) to describe whom he is fighting with no lack of certainty.

Yet despite these seemingly ungulfable differences, both poets are exploring the everyday life of the disenfranchised in a modern world which has taken on the qualities of a prison. For example, Baraka writes in “KA ‘BA” that black people “sprawl in grey chains,” (Kalaidjian 294) while in Eliot’s “Preludes” the state of modern man is like “Women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots,” (Kalaidjian 36). Even Prufrock’s waffling can be seen expressed in the confused dual-consciousness Baraka alludes to in “Dope” where Baraka is both preacher and slave parishioner, drug addict and the hustling dealer. Prufrock himself lives under a sky that is “Like a patient etherised upon a table,” (Eliot 11) which shares the themes of society and religion as being like a drug (dope) sedating us.

Though Eliot may hold his definition of the Western Tradition in highest regard, he is not saying poetry is only a product of this ancient tradition. Eliot writes, “The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations,” (Eliot 38). These undistinguished reputations which the poet must take into consideration when creating art can include everything from pop-culture to black activists (for they lie outside the hegemony) and so he is saying it is vital to have a finger on the pulse of the times.

For Eliot the state of the modern man is in doubt, as we have seen with Prufrock. War has ravaged the nations whose culture make up the majority of the Western Tradition and so man is described by Eliot in “Gerontion” as being “A dull head among windy spaces,” (Eliot 31) who is in debt to the foreign banks (here described with the racist stereotype of “the jew”, which is not even given the dignity of capitalization, and draws a racist scapegoat comparison with Baraka’s use of the derogatory “faggot”), who owns a goat that “coughs”, and whose maid “Sneezes”. Everyone is sick and it is a “dry month” and they are “waiting for rain”. There is no relief and our narrator is so weakened and ineffectual he has lost his senses, his “sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch,” (Eliot 33). All is uncertain, the old symbols are twisted, Christ is no longer a lamb but now comes as “the tiger,” (Eliot 31).

Baraka, too is reacting to the state of the world as he sees it. In “Square Business” he writes about the hegemony,

… They own each

Other. They own

my mother. They own

and own, go on, what else

is theirs?

Time. Time is. (Watts 111)

Baraka is showing us how greed motivated society is while alluding to how his own people have been and still are owned by a structure with so much power that it owns time itself. This section of the poem demonstrates this through rhymes that are enjambed into the next line, as if those in power are reaching down into the next line to take as much as they can there, too. When Baraka writes of his own people, they “kill each other” and live “on a dirty courtyard,” (Kalaidjian 293), which could perhaps be the same courtyard from Eliot’s “Preludes” where,

a gusty shower wraps

The grimy scraps

Of withered leaves about your feet

And newspapers from vacant lots; (Kalaidjian 34)

Eliot gives us a society that is old and sick, and Baraka gives us one that continues to enslave the people. Both Eliot’s people and Baraka’s are faceless, and we only see pieces of them, “the yellow soles of feet” (Eliot 34), (emphasis on the pun with soles and souls), or “full of masks and dances and swelling chants / with african eyes, and noses, and arms,” (Kalaidjian 294). In both examples the individual is depersonalized into a modern art jumble of body parts or is hidden behind a mask whose greater spiritual meaning we can’t fathom or has been utterly degraded.

Yet as Eliot’s generation grew out of the violence of WW1 to inform his mechanized worldview of the depersonalized individual full of Hamlet’s uncertainty, Baraka turns the violence right back around and uses it to give meaning and purpose back to the individual. He writes in “Black Art” (Benston 115),

we want “poems that kill.”

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot

guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys

and take their weapons leaving them dead

with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.

Baraka is giving his audience the stage directions he believes they need to break the chains of oppression, something he alludes to with his stage / performance directions in “Dope”, and he is giving direction to what had previously been the uncertainty that wracked the minds of generations. In “Gerontion”, Eliot’s narrator did not fight at the “hot gates” (Eliot 31) at Thermopylae, but Baraka’s generation fights at the hot gates of the inner city ghetto against the new forces of oppression, the “cops”. Baraka removes Hamlet’s doubt and returns his agency to act, even if it is bloody violent and might end in his own death – at least there will be decision and change! Perhaps Baraka is speaking “the sacred words” that will “raise up / return, destroy, and create,” (Kalaidjian 294) not just his people, but all people who have for too long been disenfranchised.

In 1957 Eliot wrote in his essay “The Music of Poetry”, “Every revolution in poetry is apt to be, and sometimes to announce itself to be, a return to common speech,” (Harris 55). Just two years after Ginsberg’s “Howl”, Eliot is in effect saying that poetry (and thereby the poet) can give agency and voice to the people whom society has silenced. The same year Eliot was penning his essay on a potential “revolution in poetry”, The Little Rock Nine were being escorted to their classrooms by federal troops; black people would finally begin the process of integration into the white American educational system and thus become accredited members of Eliot’s Western Tradition.

Yet poetry alone was not going to open wide the gates of American institutions to the African American. While Eliot had been writing to and about an audience that while depersonalized at least had the agency to act, Baraka had been “given an ‘undesirable discharge’” from the military on the grounds that “he had been a communist” (Watts 27), and by 1964 he would write in his poem “Short Speech to My Friends”,

                             / The perversity

                              of separation, isolation,

after so many years of trying to enter

    their kingdoms, (Rich)

Adrienne Rich, herself an artist who explores the role of the oppressed and marginalized in her own work, describes Baraka’s disillusionment as that “… of a young artist doing what some few manage or dare to do: question the foundations of the neighborhood in which he or she has come of age and received affirmation,” (Rich). Just at a time when it would seem African Americans were beginning to be included as a legitimate segment of American society, Baraka only grows disillusioned with the idea of being subsumed by white America and by 1966 wrote in his essay collection “Home”, “The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it,” (Watts 175). Baraka doesn’t want to be part of Eliot’s Tradition, rather he writes in 1969,

… Hard work. Brutal work…. Build a house, man.

Build a city, A Nation. This is the heaviest

work. A poem? One Page? Ahhhh man, consider

200,000,000 people, feed and clothe them, in the

beauty of god. That is where it’s at. And yeh,

man, do it well. Incredibly Well. (Watts 196)

Baraka is calling for real, concrete action to aid the disenfranchised and voiceless. Poetry is a vehicle for revolution in the real world, not just in language as Eliot believes.

Baraka is honoring his people by leading them in a new direction, and in fact honoring his people is a concept in his 1965 novel, “The System of Dante’s Hell” where he puts the heretics, not the treacherous as Dante had, into the lowest levels of hell. Honoring his people and not selling himself or them out is more important than anything else and he is unwilling to let Eliot’s Tradition continue to define him and his people. Yet the irony here is that he is still using the Tradition; Eliot famously quotes Dante in an epigraph for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. He may have evicted the traitors and rearranged the furniture in hell, but it’s still Dante’s, and by tradition, Eliot’s hell. And so while Baraka rejects a tradition that, “continues to function in the artist’s work for the simple reason that a conscious act of repudiation does not necessarily constitute an expunging,” and that  “there will always be a tension between the artist’s proclaimed repudiation and the continuing role of that heritage in his work,” (Benston 72). Baraka goes as far as to put Eliot (as well as Pound and Joyce) in hell, but he is still acknowledging their influence by merely mentioning them.

I have spent much time here accusing Eliot of being little more than the establishment, but he too was a voice for changing cultural norms. In his 1915 poem “Cousin Nancy” he writes,

Miss Nancy Ellicott

Strode across the hills and broke them,

Rode across the hills and broke them –

The barren New England hills –

Riding to hounds

Over the cow-pasture.

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked

And danced all the modern dances;

And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,

But they knew that it was modern. (Cooper 8)

Eliot is aware the times are changing and that society and art will have to find new modes and methods to express itself. However, “Eliot’s deliberate association with popular culture, and with its largely African American roots, provided a way of laying claim to revolutionary cultural power while simultaneously acknowledging ambivalence about his relationship to it,” (Cooper 7). Just as Baraka has an uneasy relationship with the Western Tradition, Eliot’s relationship with the people he is writing about is just as complicated.

In conclusion, both poets give voice to the disenfranchised, yet both poets were not immune to the forces of oppression their work explores. Eliot was an anti-semite (Kakutani), and Baraka’s objectification of women, “the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped,” (Watts 332) is incendiary. And while I do not argue that their personal flaws negate the messages of their art, it is important to recognize the dualities present in each poet since it highlights the complexity of these issues of the poet’s role in their art. Eliot gives voice to the everyday person yet lionizes a system that has for centuries held little regard for anyone who is not white. Eliot’s world seems unsustainable as humanity is reduced to gathering scraps in a courtyard or as they ride over “barren New England hills”, and Baraka, though he fights against Eliot’s inherently racist and oppressive tradition in hopes of revolutionizing a better world, he nevertheless participates in homophobia and misogyny because this seemingly legitimizes him in the eyes of the black male community. Both poets are keenly aware of a tradition they are a part of and though Eliot chooses to conform to it – in fact has become the face for these traditional views – while Baraka fights against it, both reveal the struggle of the ordinary individual who must try to make sense of a world that is inherently oppressive.


Works Cited


Baraka, Amiri. “Dope.” Poetry Foundation. 2009.

Benston, Kimberly W., editor. Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978.

Cooper, J. (2000). T.S. Eliot’s orchestra : Critical essays on poetry and music (Garland reference library of the humanities ; v. 2030). New York: Garland Pub.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Poems. San Diego: Harvest, 1998. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Perspecta, vol. 19, 1982, pp. 36–42.,

Harris, William J., The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka. University of Missouri Press, 1985.

Jones, LeRoi., The Systems of Dante’s Hell. Grove Press, Inc. 1963.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Bigotry in Motion”. The New York Times Magazine. 16 March 1997.

Kalaidjian, Walter., Understanding Poetry. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.


Reilly, Charlie, editor. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Rich, Adrienne. “What Country Is This? Rereading LeRoi Jones’s The Dead Lecturer.” Boston Review. 01 Mar. 2009.

Watts, Jerry Gafio., Amiri Baraka The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York University Press, 2001.

Cultural Reflection for “Her”

Since 2009 I have played the game World of Warcraft, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, MMORPG. And while the social interactions in the game are with actual human beings, the sense interactions with the game environment are completely virtual. This brings up an interesting situation where the game world, known as Azeroth, has become, in my mind, a place that is just as real as, say the student center, or the state of Wyoming.  I can just as easily find an alchemy vendor in many of the game’s cities as I can the nearest Walgreens in my hometown, and in both cases they involve just as much planning to get to and might even require an extra trip to the bank to make sure I have enough money (gold) to make my purchases.

Yet just merely interacting with this virtual environment is not the only benefit I’ve discovered. Some of my favorite actual memories are of moments within this game space. For example, when I first began playing I grouped up with a stranger to complete a particularly difficult task. We were able to complete our goal and then went our separate ways but a few months later (in real time) we ran into each other late at night in a rainy jungle environment (the zone of Feralas) and for over an hour we chatted about our game progress, what we’ve been doing since we last met, and what our plans were. In my mind that event didn’t take place in my living room in front of a computer screen but actually at the inn at the village of Camp Mojache in Feralas. In fact I have no memory of my physical self, only of the virtual setting and our two characters.

And it is this loss of “reality” and “self” within a virtual world that I find so appealing. After a long day of work or school, getting lost in an idealized environment full of monsters, difficult tasks, and real players is a relief, a stress reducer, and a chance to take on an alternate identity, which in my case is a Female Pandaren Holy Priest who rides a psychedelic dragon and is responsible for healing injured players.

There have been times when I’ve stepped away from the game for extended periods of time, yet my mind always recalls my experiences within it as if I had actually been an inhabitant of that world. I never recall my physical state, but always recall my experiences in relation to the virtual one. For me Azeroth is a real, living place full of real people (which is true, after all since all the players are being controlled by actual human beings). In fact I would go as far to say that Azeroth is more real (in my mind) than that of a fictional world of a novel. Perhaps because a virtual world allows you to actively engage in its environment whereas other forms of entertainment only allow for passive engagement is what makes the experience so much more realistic, but whatever the cause is the effect is uncanny. I have had dreams which take place within the game world, and more often than not have wished my real life and my virtual one could be swapped – at least for a little while.

And so the film “Her” captures this weird relationship between the virtual and the real and asks the viewer if an emotional experience gained from a fiction is any less valid than one received from the “real” world? My memories of World of Warcraft are real memories, and my experiences in the game did actually happen in that I performed a task using my computer to make the event occur, so why wouldn’t my emotions be just as valid as if I had, say taken a trip to Costa Rica and ran into an old friend in a small village one rainy evening as I waited for a bus? What really is the difference other than my physical body got to participate to a much greater degree in one example than the other?

I feel these issues need to be explored and addressed as technology advances and as the line between the real and the virtual grows even less clear if for any reason other than to help people cope with the loss that will eventually occur when the people who own and run World of Warcraft decide to shut it down and force everyone to disconnect from a virtual reality they have spent nearly a decade having real experiences and memories inside of. Being able to cope with an event like that by having our emotions of loss validated and not just brushed off as it having only been a video game will be important the deeper and more immersive the virtual realities become.  I have had real emotional experiences within a virtual world and losing that would cause me grief and distress, and so it’s reassuring to see artists and filmmakers explore this phenomena because it lets me know I’m not crazy for having such a deep connection with something that is not “real” – whatever that even means!

Essence vs. Experience

While both St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas believe they have found the methods which prove God’s existence, each of them come at the problem from unique starting points and apply different methodologies. In this paper I will compare and contrast both of the Saint’s methods and will conclude with how though St. Aquinas’ argument is more convincing than St. Anselm’s, neither are quite strong enough to stand up to close scrutiny.

St. Anselm’s approach to the existence of God can be defined simply with his self-evident ontological argument, God is “that, than which no greater can be conceived” (260). The Saint is making the case for God a priori in that is he deduces from the essence of God God’s actual existence. St. Anselm is arguing how it is possible to argue simply from a properly conceived definition alone. He does not need outside experience, unlike St. Aquinas who we will look at later, other than an ability to think properly: to not be a fool in the weak sense as of someone who cannot understand what words even mean.

As we deconstruct his argument we can assume many great things can be conceived, from fame to fabulous islands laden with treasure (as one of Anselm’s critics, Gaunilo will use as analogy). The question we then ask ourselves is what is greater than all? An island with treasure sounds great, but is there anything that could possibly be greater? For St. Anselm, determining how one thing might be greater than another can be attributed to St. Augustine’s Great Chain of Being. This helpful guide places a hierarchy on all things existing in the universe, from pebbles, to cats, to humans, and finally to God, and the higher up the chain they are the more good (greater) they are than the thing below them. With this hierarchy in mind, St. Anselm shows how it is better for things to exist in reality than just in the imagination, which also counters Gaunillo’s argument of a fantastic, and totally unreal island.

Notice also that St. Anselm is careful to not use the word “greatest” here, rather he just uses “greater”, and this avoids an arrogant assumption that we could possibly know what is greatest of all to be conceived. This then leads us into conception itself because if you think about ever increasing things in how they are greater, eventually you will arrive at the very thing which no greater can be conceived: God. And if you were able to conceive of something greater then that would actually be God. And so St. Anselm is saying that just by thinking about a carefully defined argument we can’t but help arrive at the conclusion that God exists.

St. Aquinas’ approach, on the other hand, can be defined as a posteriori, where he argues from the effects of God as we see them in our everyday world and from there builds his argument up towards God’s existence – a bottom up argument as opposed to St. Anselm’s top down approach. His is a cosmological argument that depends on experience and the senses, unlike St. Anselm’s argument which proves his point by definition alone, and while St. Aquinas offers five proofs in support of his argument, the Argument from Change is the one I will focus on here.

St. Aquinas is arguing that all change is caused by something else, be it a broken window or a barn fire, and some thing must have been the cause whose effects we can now see / sense. If we think logically about these actual experiences (unlike St Anselm who wants us to think carefully about an ontological argument) then we know someone must have thrown a rock or lit a match for either of these objects to have something happen to them, and so those things too have a cause (a vandal, or a pyromaniac for example). St. Aquinas extends this basic common sense thinking to argue that the universe itself, with all the things in it (including windows and barms, vandals and pyromaniacs) must also have a cause for them being in existence which he identifies as a “first mover”, and this “first mover” must therefore ultimately be God.

As we explored in St. Anselm, there is a point in which no greater can be conceived, meaning there is an ultimate point in which we can stop and say we’ve found God. St. Aquinas too is careful to not get stuck in an infinite regress of endless causes and says there must be a single, ultimate “first” (272) cause because we can sense the universe exists and therefore some thing must have been the cause that created it. Were there an infinite series of causes there would be no first cause meaning the universe wouldn’t even exist.

Of course how we get from the physical world of experience to the spiritual one involves a little help from God Himself. St. Aquinas writes, “The divine rights of grace do not abolish the human rights of natural reason,” (266), and from this we learn through the gifts of reason that God has given us that God’s existence can be revealed to us, even if exactly how God works or what He is made of would be beyond our reason alone to discover or comprehend.  

St. Aquinas is also arguing against St. Anselm in that St. Anselm is assuming we can actually know God’s essence well enough for that to be self evident to us (as if it were, say a clear and distinct definition, as Descartes might put it), but St. Aquinas is saying we can’t possible have a self evident understanding of God’s essence to lead us to proving God exists. He is, in fact, calling the entire foundation of St. Anselm’s premise suspect and faulty. God can reveal Himself to us, but we can’t get their on our own.

Of the two arguments, I believe St. Aquinas is making a stronger case. St. Anselm is saying we have it within ourselves to (innately) know God, that we do not need anything other than the gifts of reason God has given us to know him, however this is all predicated on the notion that words themselves actually mean exactly what we believe them to, that language has the ability to stand in representation perfectly of that which is being described, and also that we are even capable of actually understanding God’s essence. St. Aquinas is, I believe, far more practical and scientific because we can rely on our senses which seem to serve us quite well enough in the everyday world. The main weakness in St. Aquinas’ argument however is with the senses themselves. How can we be sure we are actually sensing the world well enough to draw definite conclusions about what is causing what and how? Are our senses deceiving actually us? This is an aspect he never addresses.

And so I conclude that neither Saint has a bulletproof argument making the case for the existence of God. The main cause for hope, however is that both Saint’s believe we do have the ability within us, either through an ontological thought experiment or through practical experience, to use our gifts to know God. We will have to wait nearly 400 years for Descartes to thoroughly examine the flaws in both Saint’s premises to arrive at a more concrete argument for the existence of God, but he too will carry on the tradition of showing how we have it in ourselves to discover the greater truths of being and the existence of God.

Cultural Analysis of Anheuser-Busch’s “Born the Hard Way”

While America’s largest brewer of beer might not seem a likely source for social activism, the Anheuser-Busch Super Bowl commercial “Born the Hard Way” deals head-on with the negative attitude some Americans have towards immigrants. Immigration is currently a hot political issue, specifically in dealing with immigrants from the Middle East, and the most recent Presidential election seemed to be temperature gauge for how some segments of American society negatively feel about foreigners. In this essay I will demonstrate how “Born The Hard Way” ultimately supports American hegemony and the ideology that immigration is good for America by summarizing the text, applying the storytelling and race analytical methods, and discussing an article from The Atlantic which strengthens this claim .


The Budweiser commercial, “Born the Hard Way”, which I will refer to as “the text”, begins with a medium shot of the protagonist, Adolphus Busch in a bar. A person off the right side of the frame comments (in an accent) that the protagonist doesn’t look like he’s “from around here”. The commercial uses flashback to show the journey the protagonist has taken to get to the as yet unspecified “here”. Our protagonist is shown traveling on a ship in stormy seas and telling a doctor who stitches up a wound on the protagonist’s forehead that he wants to go to America to “brew beer”. We jump ahead to his arrival in America where an angry crowd is telling immigrants like him to “go back home”. The commercial jumps ahead again to our protagonist on a river boat standing next to a black man who is also a passenger. This riverboat catches fire and the protagonist must jump into the river and continue his journey by foot and rowboat until he reaches the city of St Louis. The commercial ends back with the opening location in the bar when the protagonist explains to the man who had originally made the comment about where he might be from what sort of beer he’d like to make. This man introduces himself as Eberhard Anheuser. The commercial ends as the two man shake hands and the scene fades to a title card of the brand name “Anheuser-Busch, When nothing stops your dream. This is the beer we’ll raise.”

Storytelling method

The text can be categorized into multiple narrative elements. The genre of the text would be closest to the drama with elements of the historical and the western mixed in. The subject deals with an immigrant who comes to America to brew beer. The theme of the text is that of the unwanted immigrant finding and making their way in America through hard work and fighting adversity. The conflict of the text is man vs. society. The master plot can best be described as that of the underdog. The tone of the text is serious but also a little romantic, too. The mood of the text is sentimental, and sometimes gloomy and mysterious. The text uses a third person narrative to tell its story.

As this is a commercial for a consumer brand (not a specific product) the text employs historical characters to tell its story. The protagonist of the story is Adolphus Busch who is the first and most prominent character we see in the text and is present in every scene. The antagonist of the story would be a combination of society (in scenes where he is told to “go home”) and nature (as with the various bad weather the protagonist must endure). The foil of the text would be Eberhard Anheuser in that he appears already established in America and is the one who reaches out his hand first during their introduction. The minor characters of the text would be the doctor on the ship who gives our protagonist stitches, the angry American who tells the protagonist to “go back home”, the black man on the riverboat with whom the protagonist shares a peaceful, friendly moment, and the man who welcomes the protagonist to St. Louis. The archetype of the protagonist can best be described as that of the creator because he has a clear vision (as we see in his notebook he writes in during all through the text) and a desire to see that vision realized at all costs no matter how dangerous.

Clocking in at only 1 minute long, the text has numerous examples of intertextuality weaved throughout. The first example is an allusion to the “Adventures of  Huckleberry Finn” wherein our protagonist is shown on a riverboat with a free black man presumably somewhere along the Mississippi. This allusion contrasts with the immigrant’s story of the protagonist and places into historical context the less than immigrant status of black people who were already living in America at the time while at the same time showing how these two communities were connected and had something in common. The second example of intertextuality would be to that of the Martin Scorsese film, “Gangs of New York”, specifically in the “go back home” scene of the text. In Scorsese’s film immigrants are one the one hand shown as being criminals, but on the other are also as being discriminated against to such a degree that it was very difficult for them to integrate into the wider American culture. Our text acknowledges this aspect of American history but by showing our protagonist in a positive light and not being embittered or turning to crime it rejects the idea that immigrants are criminals and argues they are vital to America’s economic and cultural success. I admit to enjoying both of these intertextual examples and I felt they were appropriate to the story being told.

The most prominent symbol in the text is that of our protagonist’s notebook which is the most prominent image on the screen for two of the three scenes our protagonist is seen interacting with it. The meaning of this notebook symbol is it carries the dreams and ideas of our protagonist, something he is continually updating and refining through the text. This notebook is important to the text because it represents the mind and thoughts of our protagonist, a person who we can believe is smart, thoughtful, and studious because of their assiduous notetaking. Another interpretation of this symbol could be that it shows immigrants as being literate since the prevailing stereotype of immigrants is that of illiterates who offer nothing to society. The notebook itself is a common symbol used to show the thoughts and motivations of a character and can be seen in numerous other texts such as in the texts “Heathers”, “Death Note”, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”.

Race and Ethnicity method

The race I will be analyzing from the text will be white since they are the most prominent race depicted in the text. Two distinct behaviors of the white race are depicted in this text, 1) the hard working and imaginative immigrant who prevails through his own agency against any adversity is the predominant behavior shown (chiefly through our protagonist though also in the minor characters), and 2) that of the racist, angry native who wants immigrants to “go back home”. The physical appearance of the characters is of them wearing period accurate clothing, however our protagonist’s clothing is well kept and clean, even in the bad weather, whereas the angry, immigrant-hater has an unkempt appearance due to his longish hair sticking out of his hat. The hegemonic values of white people in this text revolve almost exclusively around work, specifically a strong work ethic, even the immigrant-hater can be assumed to hate immigrants because he fears they will take his job away. White people are seen on the move in search of work and even when relaxing in a bar, such as our protagonist and foil, are still “at work” in that they are making contacts and business deals with each other.

It is much easier to compare the portrayal of white people as representing the value of hard work than it is to contrast this representation, especially when dealing with advertising which seeks to enforce hegemonic values of work ethic in hopes of influencing potential customers into identifying with their brand. Most television shows and films perpetuate American hegemony and ideology by showing white people as having jobs or careers, and even when they do not, white people are shown as being highly resourceful, such as in the films “Jerry Maguire”, “Boiler Room”, and “The Social Network”. In contrast to this image of white people valuing work ethic would be the film “Gangs of New York” which, incidentally, is used as intertextuality in this very text we are analyzing. In “Gangs of New York” white people are shown as being criminals and more apt to kill each other than possessing a “pull up your bootstrap” ethic. It would be fair to say examples of white people valuing a strong work ethic far outnumber those which do not, and on the occasions where texts show white people not engaging in the traditional work ethic, such as the television series “Breaking Bad”, the amount of hard work going into a criminal enterprise outweighs the amount of work that a person would have to put into a traditional 9-5 job. White people, therefore are consistently shown as being hardworking, and highly resourceful.

While one example in the text is shown with white people interacting with another race the main relationship in the text lies between the various white ethnicities and cultures. The audience of the text is rooting for our protagonist because the audience can relate to this hard working outsider who is trying to succeed against great odds, a struggle many in the audience, an audience which spans the globe since this is a Super Bowl commercial, may be very familiar and sympathetic with. The power in this text is held by the same race as our protagonist, however since our protagonist is German he is singled out as being a foreigner among his own race and thus is not in a position of power outside of his dreams, as represented by the notebook symbol. This fracturing of a similar racial group via ethnic differences is one we know through hindsight as one which is a temporary setback for our German protagonist since the brand being represented is literally named after the protagonist, and since German people are not typically singled out anymore in America as being a hated class. Each of the characters are shown as being active in this text, chiefly through their hard work as with our protagonist making his way across an ocean and continent, as well as the numerous people, blacks included, who fled the burning riverboat on their way to a new life in St Louis. Everywhere in the text people are moving and are on the move and this represents the active, hive-like nature of hard working Americans – most of whom happen to be white in this text.

Overall the text provides a positive portrayal of white people. White people are shown as being hard working (as with our protagonist’s difficult journey), studious (as with our protagonist’s assiduous journal keeping), kind (as with the doctor who stitches up the protagonist), and industrious (as with the business handshake at the end of the text). The audience would be highly influenced by this text because it represents white people in a manner the audience is used to seeing them portrayed, and it reinforces what white people believe themselves to value: hard work leads to success. In a small way the text does hurt white people’s social standing among whites across the globe by exposing the American hatred and anger sometimes levied at immigrants in this country, specifically in today’s political and social climate where immigrants from the Middle East are not trusted and seen as dangerous and whom our government is actively trying to keep from entering the country. Though only one person of color is shown in the text, the audience is being persuaded that the white protagonist immigrant is a stand-in for all immigrants.

Supportive source

In Brian Alberts’ article in The Atlantic he describes the role immigrants played, specifically German immigrants, in bringing beer to America and the role it played in naturalizing these immigrants. And like today’s climate which has seen a sharp rise an anti-immigration sentiment, hostility towards immigrants was strong enough to form groups, one of which was known as the “Know-Nothings”, who banded together into temperance organizations protesting this beer these immigrants were attempting to brew and sell to Americans. Our text taps into this moment in history where beer played a role in “immigrant activism that negotiated American economic and cultural life and in turn transformed both German-American citizenship and the brewing industry.” (Alberts)


“Born  the Hard Way” aims at a political and social message that reinforces the positive role of the immigrant in the American experience. And while the status of the immigrant has often been the focus of hatred and jealousy, the ideal of America as a nation who values immigrants and their hard work is a deeply held belief and a major component of American ideology. This text supports the traditional ideology and hegemony of America through its focus on immigrants, mainly white men, and how they can prosper and achieve business success. Though this ad does not attempt to directly deal with the status of people who are Muslim, it attempts to show immigrants as being hardworking and productive members of society who can contribute to our culture so fundamentally that what they offer might eventually become a major symbol of hegemonic American identity: Budweiser beer.

Works Cited

Alberts, Brian. “How Budweiser’s Super Bowl Ad Taps America’s Contentious Immigration Past.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 05 Feb 2017. Web. 18 Apr 2017.

BudweiserCanada. “Born the Hard Way.” YouTube, January 31, 2017. Web. 12 Apr 2017.

Reading Response for Ada Limón

Ada Limón’s reading was the most professional and polished reading I have attended so far for this course, and while I enjoyed her performance, I left with more questions than I began the evening with.

Ada’s presentation of her work and her ability to “work the crowd” reflected a strong and practised professionality. Ada is a well known poet and no doubt performs numerous readings so it is no wonder she is comfortable with her banter between poems (even during them!). Her overall presentation was engaging, she spoke with a clear and measured style, and she came across as a very “nice” person, someone who reminds me of that kind aunt whose visits are greatly anticipated.

Yet it was her measured and polished presentation, along with her easy and charming personality which left me confused. Her poems, most of which were from her book Bright Dead Things, did not seem to match up to the kind, funny lady reading comfortably in front of a crowded room where only moments before, in a posh lounge adjoining the hall, a piano player fingered away the sort of classical jazz you would hear in a private country club. Could this be the same poet who lifts up her shirt or squats to pee with a pit bull bitch in a garage? Is this sweet, impeccably (though still casually) dressed lady the sort of person who talks about her “first full-fledged fuck”?

And it was exactly this dissonance between poet and poem which I have been struggling with since I first read the entirety of Bright Dead Things. When I began her book I knew nothing of the poet and assumed she was a white lady from somewhere in California and Kentucky whose interests were fairly typical of the white, middle class experience: pop culture (“a big-voiced singer found dead in her London flat.”), people mowing their lawns, domestic affairs – to be honest I initially assumed this was the sort of poetry for the not-too-bad-off wine drinking ladies, a stereotype for sure, but my honest first impression. There did not seem to be a strong character in the book, and all the poems ended with a strong conclusion as if something had been figured out – as if the purpose of art was solving equations and writing platitudes.

Yet the more I thought about this disconnect between poet and book, and reader and poems, the more I came to realize that her very un-remarkability might be at the very core of what she is trying to express. Thinking back to my initial stereotype of whom the poet might be speaks to how easy it is to judge a person, how easy it is to assume that kind aunt of ours only spends all day drinking wine with friends who tip-toe through antique shops before going home at night to a few cats and an herbal tea. How generic I must think the people I’m more closely related to: middle class Americans. How have I had no understanding that these are the same people who fuck and piss like a “hard bitch”, who have fears and worries that, while not as dramatic as a march for civil rights or time spent saving children in Syria, are no less valid.

And so while I left Ada’s reading with more questions than I went in with, they are questions of myself, questions about what do I really know about what the people around me are going through, questions about why I want to placing more worth on some extreme display of civic demonstration over the simple life of a kind, well-spoken poet who has lost family members, lives in Kentucky, and simply just wants to live. Does all art, or in fact do all people need to spend all their energy fighting the system, is it not hard enough just to get through our own, simple lives without someone judging us for not doing enough, for not living up to some sort of unrealistic expectation?

I feel I have a lot of soul searching to do, and I am grateful to Ada Limón for reminding me of the struggle and complexity inside even the kindest, and most beautifully average person.

Cultural Response for “13th”

While choosing to be racist is a personal choice, so much of our society is structured to encourage racism that simply choosing not to be racist will not be enough to end the cycle.  In this essay I will examine the ways in which the structures that perpetuate racism could be changed, as well as explore the futility of public figures who have tried to “apologize” for instituting a system that devastated black communities and deepened the wounds of racism in America.

The big question is, “What can we do to end the cycle of racism?”. To say there is an easy or obvious answer to this question would be to ignore the 150 years of racial history since the end of the Civil War. And while racism is a way of thinking a person chooses to adhere to, other factors are at play, specifically economic ones which perpetuate this cycle. Being that we live in a capitalist society the very foundation of our society is based on business and money: the more money a business can make while at the same time minimizing the costs associated with running the business the more the stockholders and corporate leaders will benefit. As shown in “13th”, business interests then align with political leaders (through such organizations as the American Legislative Exchange Council) to enact laws which judge black and Latino communities as criminals in an effort to circumnavigate the 13th Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting slavery in hopes of having access to plentiful and cheap labor.

One possible solution could be disincentivizing corporations through either prohibiting lobbying via excessive campaign contributions, or at least outlawing certain businesses, such as private prisons to lobby for laws which provide the “criminals” for them to make money off of as cheap labor. And while this would not do much to immediately change the mindset of people who are racist, it would go some distance in removing one of the excuses racist’s trot out when defending their racism: that all black people are criminals who deserve to be locked up.

Next, let’s assume we can solve the structures that perpetuate racism. What then? What do we tell the communities and individuals who have been devastated by centuries of exploitation? In the film “13th”, politicians express regret for worsening the cycle, yet how can an apology genuinely be enough?  Yes these politicians are responsible for legalizing slavery in America, but these apologies from white men feel hollow because they are still in a position of power. The white man is behaving as if he is benevolent and can just handwave away the racism of people in power who look down on those with no power. An apology does not change the power structure in America.

As seen in another documentary, “Scarface 4 Life Rykers Island”, countless black men leave prison violated and fundamentally changed to such a degree that one former inmate says prison was just “a gladiator school”. How can so many people who have been conditioned towards violence and mistrust ever be repaid and be accepted back into society? Compared with solving the causes of racism, this issue may be even more difficult to overcome and there may be no act strong enough to make up for the injustice done to literally millions of human beings. Even putting aside the legality of giving back the billions of dollars made off of legalized slavery in the prison system, what good would this money do for people who have been conditioned to behave as selfishly as the people who enslaved them?

The short answer is that there is very little that can realistically be done, at least not immediately. However, changing laws and disincentivizing business interests can go a long way to changing the structures that perpetuate racism.

James Baldwin said in his famous Cambridge University debate with the conservative William F. Buckley that racist people (white people) have been raised to believe “that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible … at least they are not black.” Perhaps then the only solution is allowing black human beings the dignity of actually being a human beings, that instead of treating black people as animals, or gladiators, or as slave labor, by removing not just the literal shackles of oppression but the metaphorical shackles too, can we free people from debasement. When we live in a society that allows those in charge – politicians, business executives – to manipulate the laws to oppress an entire race of people for their own greed and gain, can we be surprised those of us who are not part of the oppressed population would turn our eyes away and say “at least it’s not happening to me”? Leveling the playing field could go a long way to at least removing the excuses racist people have for their racism and force them to come to terms with how they view their fellow citizens.


Works Cited

13th. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Netflix, 7 Oct. 2016.

Reed, Troy. “Scarface 4 Life Rykers Island.” YouTube, 18 Nov. 2016,

“James Baldwin Debates William F. Buckley (1965).” YouTube, 27 Oct. 2012,

Is the examined life for all men?

When Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living for a man,” (97) he had meant all men. Plato, however, came to the conclusion that such examinations were not meant for all men, but that only a select few were cut out for such rigor. In this essay I will explore how both Socrates and Plato agreed on what constitutes the good life, but also how they differed in their ultimate conclusions of how this good life can be achieved.

When Socrates was executed he “seems to have kept his calm and courage to the end,” (117). Though an understandably solemn occasion for his roughly fifteen friends in attendance, Socrates seemed quite prepared to die. Socrates is prepared not only because he has no wisdom about what death even is, he says death is either “like a dreamless sleep,” (98), or an opportunity to “spend my time testing and examining people [in Hades],” (99), but because he has lived his life in harmony. Though considered a gadfly by his detractors, Socrates has done no wrong, he has willingly followed the rules of Athens by being a citizen and even refuses to escape his jailors. He has, in effect, embodied the Form of the Good by not focusing his life on selfish pursuits, such as Euthyphro, but in examining and pursuing what makes a person good. And Socrates believes this ability is open to anyone who chooses to examine their own life and live in harmony.

Plato, too believes that living in harmony is the key to the good life and that Socrates was justified in “doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul,” (150). By divorcing our desires from our souls we move from loving, for example a single beautiful body or many beautiful bodies, to moving up what he calls the Ladder of Love into the Form of Beauty itself. By moving away from the visible things of this world we can more easily enter into the abstract, intelligible world of the Forms – death will be far less painful because through this study of philosophy (the examined life), we “are cultivating dying,” (142). No longer does desire stir conflict in our bodies, but by living in harmony we can “drive toward otherworldliness,” (142).

Yet while both Socrates and Plato agree that harmony within the soul is the key to the good life, they disagree on whom may achieve this. Socrates believes anyone is capable of achieving this. For example Socrates demonstrated that even a simple slave boy could recognize the Form of Truth without ever had been previously acquainted with it, “the boy sees that taking the diagonal of the square solves the problem,” (103). Through dialectic and geometry Socrates shows that even the most humble and uneducated person can achieve a knowledge of the Forms and so it follows that anyone is capable of examining the world and their life to achieve harmony and happiness.

And while Plato agrees that education is “the art of orientation,” (137), as we have seen with how Socrates handled the slave boy by guiding him and not “stuffing the mind with facts,” (137), Plato believes only a select few of us can ultimately achieve this knowledge of the Forms.

Plato first compares our soul with society itself by showing how reason, desire, and spirit are not only the functions of the soul, but are also the functions of society. In each person desire motivates, reason guides, and spirit animates, whereas in a society reason rules, desire produces, and spirit acts. All three of these functions need to operate in harmony for their to be happiness. It then follows that since society is made up of people then everyone must fall into one of those three categories: desire, reason, or spirit and that they must all work in harmony for the overall society to be happy. This leads to a structure where reason sits at the very top because only reason has the wisdom of the Forms to guide the rest of society. The lower levels, spirit and desire, though just as necessary, do not share in the greater knowledge of the Forms because they can only focus on the tasks set out for them to complete at the rule of reason. If desire and spirit were to have access to the knowledge of reason then there would be chaos which Plato compares to a ship’s crew who likens the “captain as nothing but a windbag with his head in the clouds,” (151).

In conclusion we can see how while Socrates and Plato agreed that when we examine our lives we can move along a the divided line from a world of the visible things of this world into the intelligible, abstract world of the Forms, the two philosophers disagreed on who is capable of achieving this. Socrates takes a very democratic approach and believes we are all like the slave boy who can recognize the Forms when we are instructed well, whereas Plato believes only a select few of us can do so because only a select few are capable of providing reason and thus being the leaders of a happy and just society just as reason attempts to lead the other two parts of a harmonious soul: desire and spirit.

Le Morte Darthur: Redefining the “gentil” Man

‘But this much I shall offer me to you,’ said Sir Lancelot, ‘if it may please the King’s good grace and you, my lord Sir Gawain. I shall first begin at Sandwich, and there I shall go in my shirt barefoot; and at every ten miles’ end I shall found and gar make a house of religious …’

The revelation of Malory’s Lancelot is that a truly noble action is now to disarm oneself, offer generosity upon God, and allow God (or at least the church) to redistribute these gifts to those most needy.

A definition of nobility (gentil, gentle) which has been continuous through our texts concerns generosity. In Beowulf, Hrothgar is described as a “faultless king” (Beowulf, 121) due to his generosity. The giving of gifts is what a noble leader is supposed to do, and it is frowned upon when a leader fails to do so, such as in “Lanval” whom King Arthur “did not remember” (Lanval, 73). We’ve progressed a long way from Theseus giving gifts, “Conforeth and honoureth every man,” (Knight’s Tale, 2716), when Palamon’s losing, yet still heavily armed mercenaries needed to be kept from revolting due to any lingering shame they may have felt at losing the tournament.

Lancelot’s willingness to disarm himself (493) mirrors Sir Gaheris’ and Sir Gareth’s decision to remain unarmed, “we will be there in peaceable wise, and bear no harness of war upon us” (480) when Lancelot is to rescue the Queen. They will not take arms against he who had previously favored them because they are in debt to him, gift giving has strengthened and reaffirmed the bonds which tie clans together just as it had in Beowulf, “many men / will greet their friends with gifts;” (Beowulf, 120). By remaining unarmed they are humble before Lancelot, thus Lancelot’s decision reflects this respect shown to him.

Lancelot’s decision to found and endow, presumably at his own expense, a new church every ten miles is also revolutionary because rather than allowing the corrupt court of King Arthur (only King Arthur knew of Sir Gawain’s secret (502) of strength) to posses Lancelot’s wealth, he will give it to the church who might actually do some good with it. After all, The Pope has the authority to demand peace, “charging [Arthur] upon pain of interdicting of all England” (489) and so seeks the welfare of those who might otherwise be killed in a needless battle, such as Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth.

Thus Malory’s Lancelot redefines nobility by moving on from the gift giving which strengthened the bonds of warrior clans (as in Beowulf), or corrupt Arthurian court to providing a new definition of nobility through the peaceable actions of laying down arms so that innocent may not needlessly die, and endowing the ultimate authority, that of the church, with generous gifts to expand its influence.

Yet unlike Palamon’s men whose shame for losing was subdued by the generous Theseus of Chaucer’s Knight, Lancelot’s revolutionary ideas of what nobility should be are not accepted without a fight. Sir Gawain still holds to the old ideal of nobility found in Beowulf – he even possesses seemingly supernatural abilities as Beowulf had (502) –  but Lancelot wounds Sir Gawain to such an extent that the fatal blow eventually kills Sir Gawain, “And so at the hour of noon Sir Gawain yielded up the ghost.” (509). Malory’s Lancelot has, metaphorically, dealt the final blow upon the old / traditional definition of epic nobility and is now vanguard, in the guise of the church, “and there he put a habit upon Sir Lancelot” (521), for the new, humble nobility which seeks peace instead of war.

Reading Response for Fork Socket

The Fork Socket reading event at the Wolverine Public House was a lively and enjoyable experience. Not only were there readings from three CSU students, but the hosts also provided comic entertainment to create a fun and inviting atmosphere. In contrast to the previous reading I attended for Mike Lala, an event I found somewhat pretentious, the Fork Socket event was far more engaging, though the quality of the works read were somewhat uneven at times.

Our hosts kicked off the evening with a comedic commentary of the funny hand gestures used by Radiohead’s lead singer, Thom Yorke. An edited version of that band’s “In Rainbows” basement sessions was shown on the projector while the two hosts, flanking the screen and channeling a combination of their inner David Attenborough, Al Michaels, and Monty Python, labeled and explained each funny hand gesture and odd gyration. I enjoyed this routine a lot and it helped create a mood for the evening which was relaxed and no doubt helped to ease any potential stagefright for the student readers.

The first reader was Michelle LaCross, not Michelle Obama as her introducer initially promised. However, with the assistance of impromptu interpretive dance from one of the audience members we were quickly relieved of this initial disappointment.

Michelle read a work of nonfiction, a memory piece about how her mother would take her and her siblings on long car rides to the beach where they built campfires and spent family time together. The story was very pleasant, however, it never moved past the surface of nostalgia to really dig deep into why her mother needed these trips. There was mention of a father who was not invited on these trips, and later mention of a step-father – implying a divorce and remarriage had taken place – yet at no time did I feel the work was mature enough to really explore anything beyond how Michelle enjoyed the time spent in the car and at the beach. Perhaps if she explored the emotions of her mother further, if we had a better sense of what the family was escaping we would be more likely to experience this memory with Michelle rather than just hear her tell about it. A key image in the story was that of her mother’s “poking stick” so perhaps Michelle can use this image to poke harder into the surface of this memory.

As Michelle was reading I realized I was sitting in a very bad spot to take notes while the readings took place: front row, just a few feet from each reader. Since these were students, and possibly not used to much public speaking, let alone reading very personal work, I felt it would be “bad form” to scribble notes as they read. In the future I won’t sit so close..

The next reader was Megan Clarke who was also introduced with lively interpretative dance as accompaniment. Megan’s work was from a novel she is currently working on and in this chapter our main character is running away from home and takes a bus from Pennsylvania to Boston and the radio station where she had been conceived. Most of the action takes place on the bus as she is seated next to a young man who is on his way towards a potential ivy league education, a stark contrast to our lesbian, poor, runaway, teenage narrator.

Megan has a gift for comedy and was an excellent reader – she commanded a strong stage presence, read clearly and didn’t drop a single joke. Yet the one aspect I struggled with was that her character was so similar to Holden Caulfield. So often I have seen in young people’s writings narrators and characters who seem to have too much figured out, who seem quick to judge everyone around them without much time spent looking within or how their “teenage attitude” affects the people around them. The characters seem more busy with posturing than being empathetic. However, since we were only given a single chapter from within a larger body of work I do not know if my reading of this character is too limited so I will not criticize too harshly. Megan is a talented writer who has created a strong and potentially interesting character even if that character feels like many I have read before.  

I would also recommend Megan do a bit more research. The final scene of her reading takes place outside the radio station in Boston where her character was conceived, but she lists the call sign as KMLX. Radio stations on the east coast do not start their call-sign with the letter “K”, rather “W” is used instead. While this a small detail, in a work which feels autobiographical as this one does this is the sort of mistake which can harm the credibility of the story.

At this point in the evening our hosts set up a large-scale game of Battleship for two random contestants to play on stage during the intermission. Wonderfully crude, handmade battleships laid out on a tarp with taped grid lines were set up and two names were drawn from a sandwich bag. Serendipitously, the reader whose character was poor and starving, Megan Clarke, was selected and won the game and was presented with a combination coffee maker and toaster oven / griddle.

The final reader for the evening was Leah White, MFA student and the TA of this class. Leah read a series of poems each simply titled “Example” which were personal images and memories of her mother whom had passed away not too many years ago. While each poem was brief, each was highly charged with specific imagery – I distinctly remember a pearl necklace – and Leah seemed very interested in the sound of each word, as if she was physically shaping her words as if they were gifts to the audience or as if she were performing an act of conjuring these memories into something more real. I admit to getting lost in each poem (hence my exact memory of each one being poor) and I was struck with how they conveyed the sort of personal details I found familiar in how I remember my Grandmother who passed away many years ago. Leah did not try to describe her mother whole rather she described the parts of her mother which meant the most to her. Perhaps why I thought of my grandmother is because Leah’s poems allowed me to reflect on the loss of someone I loved rather than being forced to imagine someone whom I will never really know, and in this way my grandmother and her mother became a sort of one, a singularity I could relate to at the most personal level. I was deeply moved.

Hombre: Reading Response for Mike Lala and Rachel Hall

I arrived early at the Gregory Alliar Museum for Mike Lala’s poetry reading and took a moment to wander quietly from painting to painting through the gallery as the audience filtered in. One painting in particular interested me, a simple rectangle frame with the image of a Mexican farmer bent over a field as he labored with a hoe. He wore jeans and green bowler, and his face was hidden. The plackard read Hombre Cultivando la Tierra, 1995 and that the painting was a promised gift to Polly and Mark Addison who, it seemed to me, were quite patient in waiting these 22 years for their art.

“I am on perpetual loan,” Hombre told me as we moved on through the gallery. “I go from museum to museum, staying a few weeks here before moving on to a new gallery.”

“You must be familiar with events like these?” I inquired.

“Yes. Art is my life, after all. I work very hard at it, day and night.”

I explained to Hombre that this evening we would be hearing a poetry reading from a New York poet named Mike Lala, as well as an opening reading from Rachel Hall, a professor of English who is also based in New York. Hombre was eager to join me and so we took our seats near the front row.

Rachel read from her book of collected and connected short stories titled Heirlooms, and though we were unable to catch the title of the specific story, it centered on a young woman living in France near the beginning of World War 2. Rachel read smoothly and clearly, no doubt a skill she learned from her years as a professor as Hombre commented, however, we soon found ourselves growing bored of the story.

“I’m not sure I understand what the point of this is,” Hombre whispered.

“I believe she’s trying to tell us about that feeling of uncertainty immediately before the war but through the lens of her first pregnancy and her family.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps this is what your English department would like you to say about this reading?” Hombre countered.

“To be honest, I’m not sure what the expectation is.”

“I think the expectation should be to honestly talk about how you feel.”

We listened patiently as Rachel’s story continued and we learned our character lost the child, that her neighbors read books about farming (and how unusual that was to them!), and that the bed sheets smelt stale which was probably some allusion to her marriage or sex in general being repugnant to her. We learned about all the material things in this character’s life: so many possessions, so many things to be tied down with: the pleats of a skirt, foods of all kind, and a fancy stroller, la poussette as it was always referred to in French, which was highly coveted.

She described barley as being “versatile” and I heard Hombre chuckle causing his green canvas hat to shake.

“I do not see the point to that story,” He said as Rachel stepped away and Mike Lala was being introduced. “It was very sad, but very non-specific. Nothing happened, there was no tension or drama, and though the writing was technically proficient, it all leads up to a lot of nothing.”

“I have very little,” Hombre continued. “I do not own the land and my labor is for the benefit of a wealthy landowner, much as it has been for thousands of years all over the world. And the work is very hard and I am hunched over at it all day. But I do not complain because what else will I do? I know how to till the earth, I know when to plant the seeds, and I know when to harvest. Who else will do this? And besides, I love it. Sometimes there is no harvest, sometimes the crops wither or are flooded and I worry I might starve. It is a hard life to dig all day, but there is truth and beauty in it, too.”

“And you didn’t see that in this story?”

“I saw a story that would get a passing grade from a university professor because it is crafted the way university professors require their stories to be crafted. I see this a lot in my travels. A lot of people show up to hear something they want to hear but they do not want to be honestly challenged. They do not want a real farmer who smells of sweat and earth and whose hands are raw from gripping a hoe in the sweaty sun, they do not want what is real, they want what is safe, what is nostalgic, they want what looks like art, but not real art. They want something to hang on the wall, something to advance their university career so they can graduate more people like them.”

Though I could not see Hombre’s face I could sense he did not have much hope for the evening’s main attraction, Mike Lala and so he sat with his head bowed, his face perpetually hidden.

Mike was a very good reader, and he had a smooth, yet breathless style to each of his poems. Often he would be out of breath and have to pause and gather in a fresh lung to continue. His poems were complicated, taking advantage of Google translate to create new poems from the original ancient Roman poet’s, Catullus with new, modern meanings in an attempt to compare but also contrast our two decadent and corrupted societies. Having seen his poems on the page he seemed interested in the form and physical structure of poetry, and I mentioned this to Hombre.

“I’m afraid this is not much better,” Hombre admitted after the final reading. “Our poet is too concerned with appearances and the material possessions of the world. In his final poem I was worried his breathless list of all those useless material things he saw on Elizabeth Street might actually suffocate him. Our poet has inherited Audre Lorde’s diamond from coal but now wears it like gaudy jewelry. What does it matter to want all these things, all these possessions? What is the point of all this experimentation of poetry if it only leads to so much naval-gazing and selfishness?”

As the audience dispersed I walked Hombre back to his frame. Hombre took his place bent over the hoe over the cracked earth of the Mexican prairie.

“Art is not for galleries,” Hombre said. “Art should be life, art should be struggle, art should be work and sweat and confrontation. Art does not need to be approved by a university chair and given awards by other university chairs in the hopes of creating more university chairs. Art is supposed to make us think and act! Art is the exercise of critical thinking for us to take into the world to change the world.”

“So you did not think what we heard here tonight was art?”

“I think our speakers believed it was art because that’s what they’ve been told is art. But the true way of art was lost tonight. If Seamus’ father could walk out of his potato field, or Blake could put down the sick roses he tends to, or if Gwendolyn could leave that empty house Sadie left her and see what has become of their efforts, I think they would despair. Art should work towards something, not just be a centerpiece for the wine drinking classes.”

“What should I write about this evening, Hombre?” I asked.

“Write the truth. Say you had a pleasant evening but that you found it lacking in anything real.”

“I don’t want to be rude, and I don’t want to be “that guy” in my English department who is always causing trouble by being overly critical of his colleagues hard work.”

“Than perhaps you might consider becoming a farmer?” He answered and then returned to his duties.

As I exited the gallery I wished Hombre good luck on his travels, an artist – a worker – forever on the road and never safe at home to just hang on a wall.

Hombre Cultivando la Tierra, 1995, Tony Ortega

Beowulf: Beowulf and the Cup of the New Covenant

“Then the lady of the Helmings walked about the hall,

offering the precious, ornamented cup

to old and young alike,” (Beowulf, 89)

In Beowulf, gift giving is an important act. The King gives rings to the people as payment (76, 140), weapons and armor are handed down through families (120), and treasures are rewarded for bravery (100, 121) or to solidify a truce (85). However, these earthly gifts are transitory and will eventually rust (143), whereas the gift of eternal salvation through Christ’s covenant with man is offered repeatedly in the mead halls by the peace-weaving women (124).

Christ’s covenant with man is that of an arbitrator, someone who will fight evil for us and intercede on our behalf before God. No longer does man alone have to bear the burden of upholding ancient laws to achieve God’s salvation, Christ offers us Grace instead. And as part of this deal Christ asks us to have faith in Him alone and to remember this agreement as part of a ritual. In the Book of Matthew, 22:20 (ESV), Christ tells his disciples “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” He asks them (and us) to drink in memory of Him as a symbol of their faith in Him to succeed.

The New Covenant, however, is exactly what is missing from the world of Beowulf. Not only is Christ’s Covenant unknown to these people, they are even ignorant of the ancient laws preceding it. No wonder then that the Danes have angered a terrible creature from the time before even the ancient laws were enacted. How can the Danes be merry in Heorot when they live in ignorance of the God who banished these monsters and giants? (77, 113)

When Beowulf attempts to rid the world of these terrors he is taking the burden of the Dane’s sin upon himself as Christ would for us; he is sacrificing himself. And we should pause here for a moment to reflect how complicated this image is because we have to remember that Hrothgar puts his faith in Beowulf as we would Christ. Hrothgar does not know Christ either, yet he behaves correctly in letting a savior take on the burden of sin for him since he is powerless to do so alone. Our author is not saying Beowulf is Christ, Beowulf eventually loses his earthly treasure (his life) when he puts faith only in himself (145). Beowulf is a false savior, but is not a dishonorable one and thus he was well rewarded in this life for his efforts.

Yet ignorance of Grace is still no excuse because the cup of Grace is offered to everyone, “young and old alike” (89) in the hall of life (Heorot). Hrothgar and his wife, Wealhtheow, understand the meaning of faith and grace, and she as a peace-weaver (124) offers this knowledge to everyone who might have it – she is very Christ-like in this regard. Even when the cup is stolen (130) and hidden away in a barrow, it does not rid the world of our salvation through Grace. Jealous evil in the guise of the dragon might guard this treasure from men, and so much time may pass that this Grace passes from all memory, but it is still there and even a lowly thief, or slave (131) can happen upon it and be rewarded with its gift, “begged [his Lord] for the bond of peace”, “and that unhappy man was granted his prayer”.

Thus the cup we see referred to over and over in the poem (89, 99, 103, 123, 124, 129), is truly the cup of the new Covenant filled with the blood of Christ, the true hero of mankind, according to our poet.

The One Reconciled with the Many

2500 years before modern-day particle physicists, the Ionian philosopher Parmenides, and later the Atomists, followed logical reasoning towards discovering what we currently believe to be the fundamental structure of the universe. In this essay I will show how both schools believed in a universal One that is, in effect, all of reality, how this leads towards a scepticism of our own senses, and how these views differed on the key point of change as we perceive it.

The first, and most alien concept for us to intuit is that of the One. Prior to Parmenides, philosophers and the epic poets explained a world governed either by a pantheon of meddlesome gods, a Boundless that brought order through a vortex motion in the universe, as was the case with Anaximander, or through a system of opposition, such as Heraclitus believed. Parmenides’ breakthrough was in realizing there cannot be a nothing. In previous philosophies there always exists some distance between that which governed (god, boundless, etc.,) and that which was being governed (people, the seasons, etc.,); a sort of chasm in which the controlling force had to reach over in order to influence that which existed in a different sphere. Parmenides, using only rational thought, realized there can be no nothing, no part of the universe that does not exist. Everything is, and that is is the One.

An example which can help us to wrap our brains around the idea of there not being nothing is to examine thought itself in this way: “You cannot think “nothing”. Why not? Because nothing is not, and to think is [as Parmenides explains] to think of what is,” (28). In other words nothing is a definable something and therefore it can no longer meet the definition of nothing. There simply is no nothing.

The atomists, too believed in a One, however they refined this One into a fundamental substance (though this word can be misleading). Democritus, a philosopher living a generation after Parmenides called this atoms. Atoms, like the One are, literally, everything and there is no point in the universe which does not contain them. The word atom literally means “uncuttable” because to do so would mean there is a nothing for them to exist, now cut, inside of which, because of Parmenides, we understand to be impossible. Therefore the universe in all directions and at all points connecting must be made entirely of these atoms.

A strange phenomena now arises because of this line of thinking, and one in which both Parmenides and the atomists attempted to explain. The problem is with our own senses. Parmenides understood the One not just as all of everything, but that it also does not change: it is eternal. Yet we can clearly sense change all around us be it the changing of the seasons, our own ageing, or the positions of the stars in the sky.  

Parmenides explains this problem of appearance and reality by simply saying we are experiencing reality incorrectly, that our senses are just opinions and our observations of reality are only “the opinions of mortals in which there is no true belief,” (30). The Atomists also believed we are incorrectly experiencing reality, however as with their exploration of the One, they too refined Parmenides’ somewhat confounding conclusion.

Though the Atomists were unable to physically examine these atoms, they understood, also solely through logical thought, that these atoms must behave in unique ways. Though the eternal substance of the atom never changes, the way these atoms interact with each other can vary. For example, one atom might be in the shape (again a misleading, but still useful description) of the letter “N”, while another might be in the shape of a “Z”. Many different combinations can arise from differences in these atoms, either through shape, position, or how they are arranged. These differences will then alter our perception of the atoms. In furthering our example, if we were we to try and taste a “N” atom with our tongues which might be made up of countless combinations of “T”, “U”, and “G” atoms, our experience with “N” will vary from tongue to tongue. I might say “N” tastes bitter, while you with your unique combination of tongue atoms might say it tastes sweet.

Because of this unique way in which atoms interact with themselves we are then unable to accurately experience reality – the One – as it is truly is. We sense change when, in fact, there is only the One, or the atom. We experience reality though convention, not how it truly is.

However, a key difference arises between Parmenides and the Atomists when it comes to the “many”. While both schools believe there is only a universal One, Parmenides sees this One as a solid, homogeneous eternity where nothing changes and everything just is. The Atomists, however, attempt to account for what we perceive to be many things. Atoms, these singular bits of eternal “Oneness” are described in the plural, yet how can there be many atoms if there is no nothing to differentiate them? The solution is what Democritus defines as the void.

This void is not nothing, rather the void is a thing itself yet containing no atoms. Though this might seem contradictory it does follow reason since “what-does-not-contain-any-body need not be the same as what-is-not-at-all,” (33). The void is, it just contains no atoms. So while they both still agree there cannot be nothing, what is is refined by the Atomists into things and no-thing.

When the Atomists settled on this refinement of Parmenides’ observations it resolved not only the paradox of the One and the Many, but also the subsequent paradox that if there was only a One there could not even be any movement, as the philosopher Zeno reasoned. When Zeno looked at Parmenides’ arguments he understood via reductio ad absurdum that a man racing after a tortoise cold never catch it since no finite point could be separated from another finite point (a nothing between finite points) for which a runner could pass to eventually overtake the animal. Obviously our own experience shows this is not true since we can clearly outclass even the most spry turtle. Luckily for our runner the Atomists were able to resolve this paradox with the concept of the void.

In conclusion we have seen how Parmenides’ concept of a universal and eternal One was reasoned by understanding that there can be no nothing, and then how this was taken up by the Atomists in the form of atoms existing in a void. We have also seen how through the unique pairings of atoms we are unable to experience reality as it truly is, and that our experience is merely convention and not an accurate observation of reality. We have also seen that, though Parmenides and the Atomists were very similar in their understanding of the universe, the breakthrough for the Atomists was that there could exist a something that contained no-thing: a void. This broke the paradoxes arising from Parmenides and allowed philosophers to reconcile our senses with reality, a reality modern science has shown to closely model the thought experiments of ancient philosophers living roughly 25 centuries ago.