Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Labelling Issues - Feminism

So, I have talked about this kind of stuff with a lot of people over the past year or so, since I began to to study certain aspects of feminism in relation to my interests in identity theory and, having seen a huge amount of relevant material recently on my Facebook Newsfeed, I have decided to write down some of my thoughts in a short entry. 

What I want to talk about is a trend and an issue that I am seeing within contemporary feminist movements which I feel the need to mention and draw attention to. Certainly, there have been a huge number of benefits brought about by feminist thought and theory and I would like to think that overall the contributions of the feminist movements have been positive. 

Aaron Young, Underdog (2009).
Image posted by artruby.com

However, in order to introduce the issue, I shall say that I am someone who believes in the equality of genders who does not consider myself a feminist. Note, I did not say that I am against feminism, only that I do not consider myself to be one.

"What?" I can hear you saying. "But you are a feminist, because you literally just said that you are what a feminist is, right?"

That kind of thinking right there, is the issue. 

Feminism, at least in my understanding, is a grouping of many different ideologies and movements and groups which ultimately attempts to work against patriarchal structures and allow both women and men (anyone who argues that men cannot benefit equally (on the identity front, at least) from feminism I would consider to be greatly mistaken) freedom from those structures and the ability to self-determine who they want to be, rather than being moulded into certain stereotypes based off their gender. 

So if a central part of feminism is the desire to allow all individuals the right to create their own identity, why then do so many of its supporters feel that it is okay to attach a label to another person even if that individual rejects that label? The two things are, to me, at odds.

I know that many have the attitude of, "well if all feminists think x and this person thinks x, then they are a feminist". But I think that this is ultimately very reductionist, especially as it then grants feminist thought and theory a monopoly over the idea of equality, which I do not think it is fair to grant it. It should not be the case that anyone who desires equality must therefore adopt a label applied to them externally, especially not from a movement which purports to encourage individuals to construct their own identities. Certainly, feminism has been excellent at allowing us to progress, it has enabled civil rights movements and done some fantastic things, but if anything that should mean that its standards are higher when it comes to reflecting its core attitudes at the level of surface behaviour. 

Another point that I would like to raise is that those who consider themselves part of the feminist movement can often be hostile towards those women who do not care to use the label of "feminist" for themselves. They are often (certainly not in all cases) seen as traitors or misinformed and perhaps some of them are, but I think that to label someone misinformed or ignorant simply for disagreeing with you is the anathema to the liberty and empowerment that feminist theory is trying to promote.

My aim within this post was neither to encourage practice of feminism nor to discourage it, for though there are evidently problems within its theory (as there are in all theories of identity, which is understandable, as people are complicated) it is definitely something worth keeping around. Furthermore, I was not intending to talk about feminism as a whole, only trends that I, as an outsider, have spotted and thought worth discussing. 

Fragment of the face of a queen, yellow jasper, c. 1353–1336 B.C. Middle Egypt
Image posted by Free Parking

As I said in the beginning, this was intended to be a very short entry in which I just raised some points of thought. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Beastiary: Entry I, Explorers

The time has come to return to the realm of MBTI once again, but in a slightly different way than the previous series. Firstly, this series is going to be far, far shorter (totalling at four entries) and rather than taking a group of characters, from a variety of different series, for each type, I am instead going to be discussing the general rather than the particular.

Basically, the idea is that I will take a different kind of magical or mythological being and assign a different MBTI type to each one, one creature for each personality type. The idea is to consider how various fantasy archetypes map onto the sixteen personality types, which should hopefully allow us to understand both with a little more clarity. 

So, the first group of types I shall be discussing are known as the Explorers. These are the types which combine the Sensing and Perceiving traits (ESTP, ESFP, ISTP, ISFP). Due to this combination, they are very practical individuals, who possess great spontaneity whilst also able to utilise their environment with fluidity and ease. They are the field types, the ones who prefer to be doing, rather than merely thinking about.

The creatures I will be discussing as part of this entry are: Dwarves, Satyrs/Maenads, Graeae and Werewolves.

Of course, how could I not include a picture from the Hobbit?
Image posted by Swan Sandra

ESTP (The Adventurer) - Dwarves

Dwarves are traditionally a practical, action-oriented race, traditionally associated with crafting, in the form of mining and metallurgy. Stereotypically, they are seen as a straightforward people, blunt and outspoken, though often possessing strong hearts and deep-rooted loyalties for those whom they consider friends. ESTPs, true to the title Adventurer, are always ready to leap into the action. They, like many Dwarves, can be seen as hotheaded, preferring to focus so much on what is that what could be that they will often refuse to plan or think ahead, instead living firmly in the moment. Dwarves within fantasy are often portrayed as highly moral people, often presented with codes of honour and firm views on justice. Whilst the ESTP might not follow unwavering principles, they do often see morality as didactic, thus they likely have opinions on what is right and this motivates them to act, even when culture or tradition might try to stop them. Adventurers are passionate about the physical and the sensory, seeking fun and excitement. Dwarves have a penchant for revelry as well, as displayed by their fondness of drinking.

The Bacchante by Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Image posted by A Certain I Don't Know What

ESFP (The Performer) - Satyrs and Maenads

Somewhat less popular than dwarves are the followers of Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, song and revelry (known to the Romans as Bacchus). More than this, he was also a God closely aligned with pleasure, physically and was also known as the God of ritual madness and religious ecstasy. He has been used within philosophy, most notably that of Nietzsche, as a figure aligned with the nullification of the individual and entering into a unity with all things in order to avoid suffering. So let me explain how this might tie into the ESFP type.

Well, the ESFP, Performer, type look upon life as an opportunity for happiness, seeing how they can enjoy themselves and how they can excite and connect with others. For the Performer, life is a party, with a few boring scenes to separate one festivity from another and this is very much in line with the followers of Dionysus, who very much have a "we sleep, we party" attitude to the world. They are bold and outspoken individuals, much like the Maenads who were certainly not soft-spoken and reserved types. ESFPs are well acquainted with desire and they embrace it, indulge in it, as do those who subscribe to Dionysus' doctrine. Hand in hand with this goes the ESFPs fluency when it comes to art and the aesthetic and, as I pointed out, half of Nietzsche's conception of aesthetics (within the birth of tragedy, at least) is built upon the Dionysian foundation. Dionysus is a god of music, which is itself a major branch of the creative artistic.  Furthermore, ESFPs seek harmony, intimately so, and loath conflict or hostility, which matches with the "lighten up" and "let it go" attitude of the Dionysian. Finally, it is important to highlight that all this abundant energy and thirst for release in the form of revelry means that both ESFPs and Satyrs / Maenads are not the most focused of individuals, that it can be hard to keep their attention at times and they are loath to invest in anything they might consider to be boring. 

Image posted by Venale

ISTP (The Crafter) - Graeae

Also known as the fates, the Graeae are a trio of three women from Greek legend (there is also a Norse incarnation in the form of the Norn) who have great knowledge concerning the world and are able to see across time. They share a single eye between them, thus only one is able to see at a time and whilst each of these three individuals has a distinct personality, the concept of a seer or a mystic has its own personality archetype which we can compare to the ISTP.

Firstly, I think that it is key to note the ISTP ability to remain relaxed, even in tense situations, as they are able to mentally, if not physically, distance themselves and think it a detached manner. This fits with the seer archetype, who is often able to see much, yet is able to do so only be standing mostly outside of it, peering in. This is not to say that the ISTP are impractical, quite the contrary, but it does mean that they are able to act, for lack of a better term, "professionally". They are actually very practical, though they understand when and where to act in order to have the most effect. In the stories, when a seer acts, their action is informed with mystical knowledge of events and it reverberates across the narrative, changing things greatly. Interestingly, the Crafter is known to be very grounded in the present, which may put them at odds with some of the future-obsessed seer types, though I would argue that the kind of seer these ISTP map to are those who, in spite of their foresight, know very clearly that they live in the present. Due in no small part to their perceptiveness, Crafters can be stubborn when it comes to defending their attitudes and convictions, much as those characters who can see the future, or at least beyond the present, are often forced, and more than able, to defend their predictions. 

llustration for an article about a spanish killer who claimed to have transformed himself into a wolf during his killings.

Image posted by Quark Master

ISFP (The Composer) - Werewolves

I really do not think that I need to explain to anyone what a Werewolf is, so I'll just jump right in and explain how these tie to the ISFP, Composer, type.

Composers are sensitive and creatively passionate individuals and this deep-rooted desire to express themselves and create themselves a stable identity is something which I think is centrally reflected in the Werewolf. These lycanthropes are often displayed as struggling with their own identities due to their straddling of two worlds: the human and the beastial, which often leads them to be very inwardly focused individuals, though this gives them, like ISFPs, a great desire to express themselves and to be understood by others. Ultimately, through an exploration of this inner nature, ISFPs are able to communicate to others who they are, often through some kind of artistic practice and this reflects many contemporary Werewolf stories in which the Werewolf reveals themselves as a Werewolf to another person. Another key point is that ISFPs, though often reserved, are deeply passionate people and, when the mood strikes them or the topic of conversation swings in their favour, they visibly brighten and are able to share their passion for that which they care about. Werewolves are creatures of passion as well, possessing this wild, inner-life, the call of the beast, which likewise fills them with passion and drive under the right circumstances (such as the full moon). ISFPs often struggle to relax this inner passion, which often makes them prone to stress, and this, I think, can be considered akin to the Werewolf trying to control the beast within themselves, if we class this beast as a wild and untamable passion for that which they hold dear.

So, that brings the first Beastiary entry to a close! In the next entry, I will be discussing the Analyst types: INTJs, INTPs, ENTJs and ENTPs - Devils, Sphinxes, Will-o'-the-Wisps and Dopplegangers!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Goldfinch - A Nietzschean Glance

This week, I finished reading Donna Tartt's third novel, the Goldfinch, which is an absolute monolith of a tome and took me almost a month to complete. In truth, I found the book to be quite hard work though I will not be shy about concluding that it is an absolutely fantastic work of literature and it is certainly one which I will be thinking about for a few more weeks at least. However, on reaching the end of the work, I had a few thoughts which I though to share here.

A warning, though I have refrained from mentioning anything major, there may be a few spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read the book. That being said, they will only spoil as much as would be spoiled from having read the blurb. 

Primarily, my thoughts centre around how ideas found in Nietzsche's birth of tragedy, his thoughts surrounding the purpose of art, can be seen to be at work within the novel. This is not to imply that Tartt herself deliberately sought to implement these into her narrative (though I would not be surprised if this were the case as she has included references to Heidegger within the Goldfinch and the Secret History was filled with philosophical references) but instead to say that Nietzsche's ideas as to the role that art plays can be used to perhaps further elucidate what Tartt is saying.

Nietzsche, then, puts forwards two modes of art, the definitions of which are not absolute, for the pair overlap and interact, though are fundamentally angled away from one another. Before I go on to explain these concepts, I think it important to first point out that Nietzsche has a metaphysical attitude which is hovering in the background. Fundamentally, Nietzsche sees the world as being a place of suffering, and the role of art is to cover up this suffering. These concepts are the Apollonian and the Dionysian

Apollonianism is the way in which art is used to conjure up a beautiful illusion, behind which we can hide the fundamental nature of suffering possessed by the world. It most easily maps to the visual kinds of art, such as painting and sculpture, for these are the mediums most often used to capture stories, which are integral to an understanding of the Apollonian. This artistic drive seeks to allow the individual to immerse themselves in the ideal, in this system of symbols which enables them to overcome suffering through the creation of this grand illusion. 

If the Apollonian is basking in the glory of the individual, the Dionysianism is the contrary: the temporary destruction of the individual. Unseen forms of art, the most clear example being music, more easily fall into this drive, which is a drive to loose one's individuality and become united with the whole of nature. Whereas the Apollonian relieves suffering through hiding it, the Dionysian seeks to disassemble the individual, who can then no longer suffer. 

The man himself.

So, with that sketchy account of Nietzsche's aesthetic philosophy, I should probably explain how this links with the Goldfinch.

The Apollonian element within the novel is demonstrated in the way in which Theo uses art to give himself a reason to continue living. It is not as explicit as art directly preventing him from committing suicide, though there certainly is an element of that within the story. Instead, art is used by our main character as a way of connecting with the individuals who are most important in his life, centrally his mother. The Goldfinch painting is used to link him to his mother, as well as bringing both Hobie and Boris into his life in very particular ways. For a character who, from such a young age, experiences such profound loss (a lot of people die in this story, and the narrative can be very lonely at times), art definitely becomes one of his greatest links to others. This goes beyond the painting of the title, for his links to Hobie, who becomes a central father figure, are brought about through antique furniture, which I would definitely consider to be art. 

Interestingly enough, I cannot see a clear example of how art is used within the piece to give voice to the Dionysian aspect of art, though that does not mean that one is there. I searched for references to music, but those references are used to link Theo to his mother, rather than allow him to deindividuate to escape his suffering. That being said, there is another, non-art plot element which certainly does fulfil the Dionysian: drugs.

Yes, the constant tripping and experiments with various kinds of drug within the book can be read as a Dionysian element, for Theo is certainly using them to avoid the very deep emotional pain which is always just below the surface, barely contained. This can be particularly seen in the section of the book where he and Boris are first friendly (Boris is very much an Id character, if we wanted to toss in a little Freud), for the two of them become so close that the lines between them begin to blur, which could be read as a little nod towards the Dionysian. 

Certainly, Theo constantly deals with loneliness throughout the book, with a constant feeling of alienation and this is certainly linked to the Dionysian element of removing the boundaries between yourself and the rest of the world, through dissolving your individual self. It is an idea which links very clearly with certain concepts from Buddhism. 

Going beyond Nietzsche, the book does have a somewhat philosophical perspective concerning the nature of art as well as a few other things. The character of Boris is consistently used as a catalyst to shake-up Theo's approaches to the world around him, as well as holding several overt philosophical approaches himself. His understanding of morality, for example, as something which is not as black and quite as Theo might consider it, which, though it does lead Boris to do some deplorable things, does seem to hold true for Boris' character remains lovable and admirable, even Theo is unable to truly blame him, once all is through.

Regarding Art, the Goldfinch makes a point of exploring the idea that pictures we have only ever seen in replication, images rendered by people hundreds of years before our great-grandparents were even born, can speak to us in the most personal of ways. This idea is somewhat covered by Nietzsche's Apollonian, but I believe that it goes beyond it. It is not so much that the picture participates in the weaving of this illusion to hide us from pain and grief, but that the picture has the power to speak to us individually, rather than addressing the whole of humanity. When I look at a picture in a museum, I can feel it speaking to me, not to all men, but to me, in particular. There is an individual as well as collective way of approaching the understanding of a work of art.

Today was a particularly short entry, but no matter, it was only intended to share a few thoughts. Thanks for reading!

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once again, Donna Tartt has displayed excellent literary ability and, whilst it took me a while to get through it, I definitely enjoyed reading The Goldfinch. It is the kind of book that I will be thinking over for a while to come before I have become even remotely close to exploring it properly. Excellent work!

View all my reviews

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Aedra and Daedra and Moth Priests, Oh My! - Religion in the Elder Scrolls

Though they have been with us for a while now, the Elder Scrolls games gained a huge amount of prestige with their 2011 release of Skyrim, the fifth instalment in the saga and one of the most immersive and beautifully rendered games I have ever played. These games are all set within the same world, though they have each tended to restrict the experience to a single region of this wider world, as well as allowing many years to have passed within the world between each game.

Something which has remained consistent, yet relatively in the background, throughout the games is the inclusion of a religious element, as is to be expected when a huge selling point for the games is cultural immersion. I find religion a fascinating topic and this applies equally to the real world religions and to religion as they it is represented in fiction and thus I was interested in thinking about how the religions within the Elder Scrolls are constructed, what elements from history have been taken and been made fictional as well as some of the commentary that one might be able to take from certain readings of them.

Image posted by Illith-Anthonar

Aedra and Daedra 

The two primary religious groups within the more recent games are the followers of the Divines (or the Aedra) and the cultists of the Daedric Princes (the Daedra). From the outset, we can note that the former is an organised religion, with Churches and formal temples and clerical hierarchies, as well as formalised religious texts and practices, whereas the latter (for the most part) are portrayed as being less strict, more wild and informal.

Without much difficulty, these can map onto Christianity and the amorphous Paganism against which it is often framed, a reading which is further supported by the former’s view that the latter are dangerous and often deserving of death for their practices. Interestingly, Daedra worship links nicely with the concept of Paganism as neither of them can be clearly defined into a neat little box. Just as the term Pagan can cover a vast range of cultures and religious / philosophical positions, there are many Daedric princes, each with very different practices and attitudes, and whilst we can argue that there are common threads running between the Daedra, there are also similar commonalities running through various forms of Paganism, otherwise the term would have no meaning whatsoever.

Furthermore, one can clearly see parallels between Christianity and the Aedra, as these Gods very rarely appear in the game (and when they do, they are not so much characters as spectacles), which reflects the traditional Christian conception of the way in which Gods interacts with the world as being either as a background influence, only very rarely making his will directly manifest in the form of miracles. This conversely applies to the Daedra, who directly speak to mortals and who take an overt and active interest in the moral world, which is much more in line with certain Pagan attitudes towards the Gods, such as the attitudes which are held by the Greeks and which are made evident in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. 

Image posted by FusRoDamnGurl

The relationship between the followers of the Aedra and the Daedric cultists also mirrors the historical relationship between Christianity and Paganism. In short, the two are at odds, though they are evidently not complete opposites, with elements mingling in a grey, in between area and they evidently share a history. Often, followers of the Daedra are tolerated, if not welcomed, though they are seen as being more primitive. Though there is obvious hostility, for a branch of the church, the Vigilants of Stendarr, exist to deal out justice, which specifically includes the hunting of Daedra and their followers. Evidently, this is a reference to the concept of a religious inquisition, often used not to hunt those of other faiths, but all those who do not uphold the faith in question. 

Traditionally, the God of Christianity is conceived of as a perfect being, one who is associated with any concept which can be deemed noble. Likewise, the domains of the Nine Divines are all concerned with lofty concepts such as Time, Love, Logic, Work, Nature etc. These are transcendent Gods, whose followers are focused on a realm beyond their own. On the other hand, the Daedric princes rule over domains such as Conspiracy, the Hunt, Madness, the Outcast, Domination, etc. We can see clearly that they share some concepts (there is an Aedra of nature (Kynareth) and a Daedra of the Hunt (Hircine)), though they cover these in different ways. Kynareth promotes the beauty of nature and unity with it, whereas Hircine is concentrated in the beastial nature of all creatures and the chaos within the wilderness. The trend suggests that the Daedric princes are far more mortal, representing the more practical elements of the world, in all its ugliness rather than the transcendental concepts, though this is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive.

Image posted by Stuff That Art Does

The Meaning of Godhood

Interestingly, the Elder Scrolls series can be used to allow us to reflect on what actually makes a God. At the centre of this discussion are the Tribunal, a group of three, ancient elves who managed to obtain immortality and great power through manipulating an artefact known as the Heart of Lorkhan, which was taken from Lorkhan, an Aedra himself, for tricking the other Gods into creating the world. Essentially, through harvesting the divine energy left within the heart, the three became "living Gods". 

Ultimately, however, throughout the course of Morrowind's central plot, the three are ultimately stripped of their powers and their religious following, with one of their number, Vivec, even suggesting that they should be considered Saints and Heroes rather than Gods in their own right.

What is suggested here is that, in spite of their using a source of power that is linked to an Aedra and in spite of their extensive power and immortality, the Tribunal are not truly Gods. A God is not constituted by his power, or by his following, but by his very essence and nature. The Aedra are Gods because they are powerful spiritual beings whose power was used to create the world and all living things within it. Both their nature and their actions give them the title, not their power.

Thus, whilst the Daedric princes are also powerful, they cannot be rightly called Gods. Sure, they are also spiritual beings, but they have no connection to the mortal world, and a rumoured to have been born from a force which hates it with a deep-rooted passion. They, like the Tribunal, have power and a following, but they cannot be correctly called Gods. 

Image posted by C0nn3ct

The Moth Priests

A final point I wish to raise is in connection with the Moth Priests. For a series named the Elder Scrolls, the Scrolls themselves, which are used to contain prophecies, rarely seem to surface in many of the plot lines. The nature of these scrolls is interesting, as they are supposed to represent the idea of divine knowledge which, whilst it can be somewhat understood, can never be fully comprehended and which costs much. In order to read the scrolls, one must prepare in accordance with the rituals of the Moth Priests, with those who do not are unable to read the scrolls and suffer for the attempt. Yet even with the utmost preparation, reading the scrolls ultimately results in blindness.

The initial, and by no means wrong, reading lends itself to the idea that there exists knowledge outside of the realm of mortals that we cannot freely or properly understand. It highlights that knowledge comes with a price and that there are some things which will always be beyond our ken, the attempt to bring them into our understand results in a terrible loss.

However, another reading could argue that what is truly being represented is the idea that fervent devotion to a cause or to an idea, such as an organised religion or a personal philosophy, can result in an inability to clearly perceive the world around you. Through their academic devotion to the scrolls, the Moth Priests are ultimately unable to actually interact with the world in which they live, due to the price they have paid. So fixated on the future, on the prophecies within the scrolls, they become estranged from the present. 

Image posted by LizardBorn

So that does it for my reading of religion within the Elder Scrolls! Thanks for reading!

Sunday, 6 July 2014

In Memoriam: A Reading of Maya Angelou's "Awaking in New York"

For those of you who have somehow managed to miss the very sad news, the great poet Maya Angelou passed away earlier this year. If you do not know who this wonderful lady is, then I would recommend searching her name on Google. (Or having a look at some of the articles posted on the Guardian about her life after her death). 

In truth, I had hoped to post an entry about her a while back, though never got around to really thinking about it. So, I have decided to do a close reading of one of Angelou's poems: Awaking in New York.

Photograph taken at sunrise in the city that never sleeps, New York City. 
Image posted by Ivanrgonzalez

Awaking in New York - Maya Angelou
Curtains forcing their will 
against the wind,
children sleep,
exchanging dreams with 
seraphim. The city
drags itself awake on 
subway straps; and
I, an alarm, awake as a 
rumor of war,
lie stretching into dawn, 
unasked and unheeded.
In order to provide a frame to the discussion, I think that it will be useful to discuss the poem in terms of five central oppositions which are demonstrably set up within it. These oppositions are done so dialectically, meaning that they are presented in pairs, with two concepts which are unable to fully co-operate (on account of their being opposite), but are also somehow inadequate on their own, implying that they need their opposite in order to exist, even independently.

Four of the five oppositions are closely linked, almost to the point where, on one reading, it would not be far-fetched to interpret them as ultimately one single opposition constructed by multiple concepts. The fifth opposition, however, whilst not entirely estranged from the others, exists with more independence than the others, and its subject matter seems to dissolve and become lost in favour of other concepts as the poem unfolds.

As it is the first to appear, I shall discuss this oppositional pair first.

The first pair of lines within the poem establish a tension between the curtains and the wind, describing the former as attempting to force their will upon the latter. Curtains are artificial by definition, they are created by man from fabric, another artificial and man made material, and that they are set against the wind, which is a natural phenomenon and, largely, beyond the control of humanity, draws out the opposition of the City and Nature. I use the curtains to represent the city in general, as it is clear from our title that we are situated in New York and furthermore, the use of personification to give the curtains intent ("their will"), plural intent, no less, allows us to use them as a representative token for the will of humanity. Thus, we can read from the opening a comment upon the nature of the urban environment, viewing it in contrast to the natural. This opposition could be alternatively read as a divide between the natural and the artificial.

Lightning NYC! by Frank Hazebroek via 500px.
Image posted by Tect0nic

Moving to the third line, we meet the first mention of sleep, which is to be expected when reading a poem about waking up. This second opposition, waking vs. sleeping, is also bound up with the third opposition: innocence vs. war. The mention of children, perhaps more so because they are sleeping, is a clear reference to innocence, for even the most poorly behaved child is still viewed as an innocent. Furthermore, they are associated with goodness, for they are linked with "seraphim" who, according to theology are the most powerful of the angels, those who deal with God directly. Thus, the children are linked indirectly to God, through religious imagery. Interestingly, they are described as "exchanging dreams", though it is not specified what for. Possibly, the Seraphim are exchanging their own dreams, though we cannot be sure. Even so, the use of the word exchange implies a dual way relationship, a relationship between equals. Within the poem, the children are given a position of great innocence, in which their dreaming gives them an almost direct link to supreme goodness in the figure of God.

War is directly mentioned in the poem, though only in the form of a "rumor", something which is distant. It is bound directly with the persona, who is awaking as this "rumor of war", thus linking war and its inherent violence with the realm of awakeness, thus opposing it to the innocence of the sleeping world, where the children and the angels stand on even footing. The persona describes itself as an "alarm" which implies quickness, panic, alertness, all of which starkly contrast with the mellow image of exchanging dreams. Awakeness is not painted in a favourable light when compared to dreams, a point further enforced by the use of the phrase "drags itself awake", implying that the city is reluctant to move from dream to reality.

Image posted by Graziiaa

Therefore, we have these two stages: the dream inside the individual and the outside, the city. This establishes tension between the concept of the individual and the collective of individuals who dwell in the city, which is the final opposition I will discuss. First however, I wish to continue with this opposition between the inside and the outside. This is evident in the poem beyond the level of the individual and the city, it also exists between the city and that which is outside it.

This division between the city and that which is outside it serves to isolate the city and paint it as a lonely place, in spite of the fact that it is home to approximately eight million people. It is one of the perhaps subtler divisions within the poem, as it is implied rather than outwardly stated. The central implication is within the line "drags itself awake" as this is used reflexively. The city is waking up itself. It is self-sufficient, not needing outside influence. Furthermore, the dawn is seen as something that requires stretching towards, giving it distance. Additionally, the use of the word "rumor" is highly significant, for discussing the "rumor of war" puts that conflict at a distance on two levels. Not only is the war geographically distant (unless, though unlikely, Angelou is referencing some conflict which occurred in New York), it also exists only in rumour, it is yet to happen. The city is thus distanced not only spatially, but also temporally.

"Rumor" is also relevant to the final opposition, the individual vs. the collective. By their very nature, rumours flourish in places where there are lots of people, as they are an exclusively social phenomenon. New York, one might imagine, is the perfect space for such things to propagate, with the vast population creating an incredible word of mouth resource, required in order to create rumours. Rumour is thus a manifestation of the collective. However, rumours and hearsay are often associated with falsehood, thus connecting the collective with mistruth. By contrast, this encourages the equation of the individual and truth. By removing the concept of truth from the collective, or at least through casting doubt over it, we reach a point of fragmentation, where relationships to other people become strained and the persona becomes isolated.

Isolation is the conclusion of the poem, for the final line, "unasked and unheeded", give the impression that the persona is not wanted and unacknowledged. This can be taken as a direct comment upon the lifestyle within the city of New York, for the individual is surrounded by so many people that they themselves become lost and blinded to others. Ultimately, the city is a place in which there are so many people that nobody can be seen due to all the others.

This leads us to discuss the concept of hierarchy, which is possibly referenced by the use of the phrase "on/subway straps". Within all social environments, there is a hierarchy, a difference between the haves and the have-nots. New York, perhaps more than most, is that kind of place, like all big cities it has its homeless and its elite socialites, the two not always quite so far apart (or quite so different) as one might think.

So, there we have it. Angelou's poem invokes dialectical oppositions to explore what it means to be an individual in an urban environment through raising issues of individual identity and the isolating effect of becoming lost in a crowd, though it also raises questions as to the position of humanity in general, delving into the divide between waking and sleeping, as well as a small, opening nod towards the human vs. nature and city vs. nature divides.

It is, in my opinion, an excellent poem by an excellent poet. One I shall forever miss. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

Lilith: Redeeming a Legacy

Whether it is as the vampire "Goddess" (it's complicated) from True Blood or the first of all demons from Supernatural, the name Lilith has pervaded popular culture, especially the fantasy genre. Consistently, she is viewed as an "evil" character, as a corrupted being who seeks to tempt and lure protagonists into danger or perform some other great act of evil. Marvel adopted her not once, but twice, as the eldest daughter of Dracula and as the mother of all demons. In even more contemporary and young adult popular culture, there is a demon in Cassandra Clare's Moral Instruments named Lilith. 

Whenever a character appears in a book, a show or a game with this name, you know that they are going to turn out to be more than they might initially appear (take for example Lilith as she appears in Fable II or as she appears in something as far removed from Fantasy as Frasier) and you know that, more often than not, she will turn out to be your foe. Characters named Lilith are always female, always rebellious and almost always in possession of some dark power or part of some unholy hierarchy. 

Image posted by Sadisticupid

But who exactly is this figure of Lilith? Where does she come from?

The short answer is that Lilith appears as a highly mysterious and somewhat prolific figure in the Jewish mythologies of Assyria and Babylonia. Mentions of her are widespread and, as with many ancient figures, she seems to have a huge number of different incarnations According to most accounts, Lilith is a demon or somehow linked to demonic or dark forces. Often, she is associated with childbirth, as a negative influence who seeks to steal and devour children, or as a temptress who seduces and ultimately destroys men, thus preventing them from having children with mortal women.

According to some sources, once a child was born in a Jewish family, they would be given an amulet to wear, which would have been spelled in order to protect them from Lilith. This was often worn until the child was circumcised, at which point they were seen as protected by God through the Jewish Covenant. 

So, from this reading, we have an evil, monstrous figure indeed, one which deserves the legacy she has received: appearing throughout our culture as a seductress and corrupter, as a demon, a devil or a witch. And yet, this is not the only reading of the figure of Lilith, there is another...

Painting by John Collier

According to this second reading of Lilith, the earliest evidence of which is to be found in the Alphabet of Sirach, Lilith is no demon. In fact, she is the wife of Adam, as in Adam and Eve. Furthermore, she is Adam's first wife and, unlike Eve, she was not created from Adam's rib after he was created, but at the same time as him and from the "earth". Naturally, having been made from the same stuff as her husband, Lilith considered herself, and rightly so, Adam's equal and therefore she refused to submit to him. Thus, according to the legend, she leaves him and the Garden of Eden forever, refusing to return and somehow ends up mating with the archangel Samael (in religious texts, these things just seem to happen). 

We can read Lilith as a female version of Lucifer, though I would argue that the crimes of Lucifer are far greater than those of Lilith. True, both are defying what is seen as the will of God, a complex concept to be sure, but whereas Lilith is asserting that she is equal to Adam, Lucifer asserted himself as the equal to God. Hence, Lucifer is punished with damnation, whereas the story as to what happens to Lilith after her "rebellion" becomes immediately unclear.

So, the question I shall ask is this: if we are to read the story of Lilith in this second way, why does our culture continue to connect her name with evil and corruption?

If Lilith's only crime is that she, as a woman, wanted to be equal with Adam, representative of man, what is so evil about it? I think that we can find an answer within traditional, particularly religious, attitudes to gender and sexuality, attitudes which our culture, in spite of numerous assertions to the contrary, have still failed to entirely shake.

The rebellion of Lilith against Adam can be easily read as the threatening of masculine power by the feminine. She disobeys him, refuses to submit to him. This is her original crime and it is this transgression that has led to her demonisation. By refusing to obey her husband and perhaps because she is depicted as copulating with an Archangel, she is consider a tempter and a corrupter. True, Samael is not considered entirely innocent, but the majority of the blame is placed on Lilith, for she is the anomaly: a rebellious woman. 

Image posted by Caligo Chaos Reigns
If we harken back to the two traditional roles given to women within literature, we can see more easily how she is so easily likened to demons, devils and the like. According to a traditional attitude towards literary woman, one which is, thankfully, heavily outdated yet, unfortunately, still relevant today, women fit into the category of the Lady or the Whore. Ladies are noble, delicate, subservient the ultimate example of what woman should be according to traditional gender roles. They are significantly desexualised in that they do not participate in such activity, certainly outside of the marital bed, but this only serves to make them more desirable to the male characters around them. Whores, however, are seen as the complete antithesis to the traditional role of women. They are disobedient to or outside of, or at least on the fringes of, the patriarchal structure, and sexually free. This leads to the corruption of their image, the corruption of Lilith's image.

We can see, with no shortage of clarity, how the traditional has influenced modern representations of Lilith. Whilst she is, undoubtedly, shown as a tempter, she is almost always cast in traditionally female roles. In Supernatural, Lilith is the first demon, making her effectively the mother of all demons as well as the bride or daughter of Lucifer. The Lilith of True Blood is the mother of vampires and the bride of God. Modern representations of Lilith within fantasy all seem to buy into this conception of her as a demon and temptress, but also as a traditional woman.

What I am saying, then, is that, whilst I have no problem with the name of Lilith being used for demonic and seductive characters (I still think that such representations can be interesting, original and entertaining) I do think that her namesake can be used for a lot more. Yes, Lilith has diabolic connotations and those can be interesting to explore. But still, this alternative interpretation of her character and what she means within Jewish mythology means that characters named for her should not be eternally limited to the role of the harbinger of darkness and desire.

Interestingly enough, her namesake has been used in one manner, though not in the form of a character. There exists a feminist, Jewish magazine which uses her namesake to convey their message of respect for woman, their desire for equality as well as reconciliation with Judaism. Lilith is a name with many connotations and much potential and it should not be confined to the demonic.

Cover of the latest issue of Lilith

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Beyond Morality: Why Morality Is More Than Human

Within the fantasy genre, there is an annoying trend in which any kind of being which consider themselves to be better, or "more evolved", than humans consider themselves to be beyond morality, or when they dismiss morality as a "silly human idea". One of the most grating examples is from the Man of Steel film:

Image posted by Lizbeth Vaughn

I think that this represents a very superficial understanding of what morality and ethics actually are. In fact, I would go as far as saying that this "understanding" is not really an understanding what so ever, but a profound misunderstanding as to the very nature of ethics.

The conception of ethics that is being applied here is likely that of an ethical theory, the most (in)famous of which is Utilitarianism in its many incarnations. Under this understanding, ethical thinking and morality can be, not incorrectly for this system, thought of as merely a tool which one gets out whenever one as reached the point at which they need to make a decision. 

If one takes a far more holistic view of morality, in which one is able to view everything as participating in a moral dimension, then we encounter a problem with this perspective. What do I mean by moral dimension? Simply the idea that moral thinking and attitudes pervade all areas of life, that moral ideas are expressed in almost every action that one takes. In short, that all aspects of life can have moral relevance and understood in a moral context. Upon this view of ethical practice, I think that it becomes nonsensical to say such things as "we are beyond morality" or "morality is a human invention".

I can hear you ask - but why?

Simply because if you consider the characters that are being discussed in these contexts, the super-human characters are not all that different to the human characters. Sure, they have various different abilities and outlooks, but for the most part they are shown to think and react in ways which it is at least possible for a human to react. 

Image posted by Villainous Cenobite

Often, such "amoral" characters are said to have no empathy or an increased desire for vengeance. Sure, lacking empathy at all has ramifications for morality, but it does not render a moral system immediately unquestionable. Were one to study sociopathic behaviour, it is true that they perform acts which others thing deplorable, but they often retain some moral sense, even if it might be a twisted and confused one.

So in short, whilst these beings might possess a different system of morality, and employing different moral concepts or different conceptions of the same moral concepts, they cannot be said to lack a sense of morality. Even if they have a morality which would allow them to do almost anything, they still have a sense of morality. Perhaps it is not the most developed or thought out sense of morality, but it is a sense of morality none-the-less. 

I do not think it is even possible to have a character who entirely lacks a sense of morality. Were a character to view everything as ultimately of no moral value or relevance, such as with moral nihilism, then they still possess a moral system. In fact, the only situation in which I think one could lack a moral system would be for an automaton, who made no decisions of their own. But in this situation, we have another question: are they therefore still a "character"?