26 December 2011

Being Changed by Literature

Change can be good, but it is not necessarily always easy.  Several changes that a person can experience may be barely noticeable: they wake up one morning and something is different.  Changes brought about by literature are usually not so quiet; at least not in my life.  Some of these changes I have instigated, others have been instigated for me by assigned readings in university, and others are serendipitous.

The changes that I have experienced in reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for example, were of the latter kind.  I picked it up on purpose, but simply to distract myself.  It ended up being the focus of my 60 page senior thesis for the B. A. in English Literature.  Because of that one moment, the one choice to read something for the sheer distraction of it, I have stumbled onto the concentration for my future literary pursuits.  I still have more to say about it, lots more.  And, I really hated The Waste Land the first few times I read it; I thought to myself, “How can people call this good?”  But, now, I call it good!

Albert Camus changed the way I look at life in general.  I would say that the changes that have happened in my life since first reading his works were self-instigated.  I purposely and purposefully chose his Myth of Sisyphus with change in mind.  What happened was not so much an actual outright change, but a merging and an upgrading of my thinking.  I found that I already shared several of his thoughts and ideas, but was unable to articulate them and that he had been kind enough to put them in writing.  Others of his ideas were not mine, but I agree with them and now they are.

The reading that I have been doing lately has both intrigued and bothered me.  It is of the assigned variety.  It is mostly philosophical in nature, which I have not had much experience with.  Well, I should rephrase that.  I have read literature that is philosophical, but have not read much systematic philosophy and then attempted to read literature through it.  Some of these works are difficult, and my initial response is dislike or distaste.  The dislike is not because of the difficulty, nor because they are philosophy or philosophical, but because they lack poetry—I am mostly referring to Kant.

I have read many things that are merely good, enjoyable; that I am glad to have read, but that I will most likely not read again.

Then, there are those works that initially I dislike, or even hate; yet, as I read them I realize that I am changing.  In these times, change is not comfortable.  My mind will not stop working on the new ideas.   I lose more sleep than usual.   The Waste Land, as I mentioned, is one of these works.

Soon, if the literature is strong I will begin to let the words become a part of my way of thinking.   But, this is a choice.  My choice.  I will not blindly believe; I absolutely refuse to call something good just because someone else does.  If I did that, I would lose respect for myself as I have often lost respect for others that do this; i.e. call something good because that is the popular consensus.

Some of the works I have been reading lately are not literature, but philosophy and literary criticism.  The professor raves about them and I was initially excited to be introduced to them; that is, until I read them.  I had a strong dislike to a few, but after thinking about them and discussing them, they are slowly moving into my “must read again and again” category.  And, several have given me ideas for expanding my research on Eliot.

Not only will I not call something good simply because that is the general consensus; I will argue, fight, declare my disgust of the work—if I do not like it.  I will, however, usually give the work a fair chance by reading it for myself.  Sometimes, but not many times, the work of literature will remain on my “do not like” list.  More often the work will become one of my favorites, and not merely because of my investment in it, but because of its investment in me.

Investment in literature is not something I take too seriously, nor is it something I take lightly.  I am serious about literature and the part it will play in my future; I will wrestle with a text as long as is necessary, if I believe that it is worth it.  I refuse to take any of it so seriously, however, that I am angered when others joke or have fun at the expense of the literature.  If there is no fun in it, I will not bother.  The day I lose pleasure in literature and its study is the day I find something else to be fill my time.

That does not mean that I will only read silly literature—how much of that is running around in the wild?  What I mean is that I will not let literature become something about which I cannot change my mind.  If it is good, I will read it, enjoy it, wrestle with it, write about it, but I will not let it be my holy text.  I have no holy text and will have none, thank you.  Nothing is sacred unless we make it sacred.

My mind is my mind and I will run it the way I want to run it.1 Literature does have an enormous impact on much of my thinking and my way of being.  However, I have no problem changing my mind if I think that what I am reading no longer suits me, or serves me.  Maybe I am fooling myself.  Maybe I just think I change my mind, when in reality it is another work of literature that has done it for me….

1. At least I think this way; I could be wrong and have no free will whatsoever.  I’ll have to keep reading the philosophers and get back with you on it.

19 December 2011

Book Obsession

I am obsessed with books and reading. 

My current year’s (i.e. 2011) reading list is too long to finish this year, at my present reading rate.  It comprises mostly contemporary literary fiction, but there are a few modernist and classic titles.  The list began when I asked my friends for recommendations of contemporary literary novels.  Then, it grew as I read a novel I liked and searched for others similar to it.  There are close to one hundred books on the list; which does not include the non-fiction, philosophy, poetry and short stories I want to read. 

This may sound rather benign and harmless, but nearly every time I get online I am looking for more books; I often check books out from the library that are not on my list and attempt to read them concurrently with the listed books. 

Books are always on my mind: at night I think about what I want to read next from my list (or not from my list); during the day I have a stack of books that I am working on, while I look longingly and with desperate remorse at my shelves of books (and stacks of books that won’t fit on the already full shelves).

It’s not that I’m a book-pack-rat.  And, it’s not that my books are like first editions or collectible; most of them are paperback.  I read, have read and plan to re-read most of the books I own.  If I read a book and it doesn’t rate at least 4 stars and fairly beg to be read again, then I will get rid of it: either selling it on Amazon, donating it to the local used bookstore or swapping it on PaperBackSwap

Still, I have a lot of books and have a very hard time, with withdrawal-type symptoms, when I think of giving up buying them—even for a short time.  My palms are sweating now and my heart is pounding, and I’m merely thinking about it so I can write about it. 

I have not sought medical help for this, but am beginning to think it may be necessary.

15 December 2011

Agamemnon Part III – The Consequences of Sacrifice

In my last post, I wrote about the silencing of the voice of the victim.  That same idea is carried into the first antistrophe 5, which says, “Lusting for war, the bloody arbiters / Closed heart and ears, and would not heed / The girl-voice plead.”  Those carrying her to the slaughter, those who had been guests in her father’s house and had known her from an infant, closed their ears and their hearts.  Agamemnon goes a step further.  At the end of antistrophe 5, he “Bade them, as with the bit that mutely tames the steed, / Her fair lips’ speech refrain, / Lest she should speak a curse on Atreus’ home and seed.” 
This was unnecessary.  For the curse has already been spoken; at the end of the epode, after the first antistrophe, we find, “At home there tarries like a lurking snake, / Biding its time, a wrath unreconciled, / A wily watcher, passionate to slake, / In blood, resentment for a murdered child.”  It is fitting that the end of the movement of strophes and antistrophes would also foretell the end of the play itself.  If we go back to the watchman from my first post of this series, we can see that he wants the war with Troy to be over because he is tired of watching day and night.  He believes Clytemnestra to be awaiting her man’s return, in the manner of Odysseus’s wife Penelope.  He says in the beginning of the play:
Let the loud summons ring within the ears
Of Agamemnon’s queen, that she anon
Start from her couch and with a shrill voice cry
A joyous welcome to the beacon-blaze,
For Ilion’s fall ….
Clytemnestra, however, has a completely different reason for wanting Agamemnon to return, and Aeschylus tells us what it is before we even finish the first complete movement of the play.  Her “wrath unreconciled” will barely allow her to pretend joy at the Achaeans’ return, but she must play the part of the good and loyal wife, lest she rouse Agamemnon’s suspicions. 
I want to avoid ruining the entire play for those who have not read it, but I am keeping my initial goal in mind; which is to briefly look at the back story of the Iliad.  During the writing of these posts, I have followed other tangential ideas, but have tried to ensure that they are still connect and not merely touching as they fly by.  Sacrifice, honor, silencing victims and war are all themes that I see that this play shares with the Iliad.  I want to look at the manner in which Agamemnon’s foretold doom is carried out.  Behind the execution of that prophecy is an old, dark presence; revenge.
The idea of revenge is prominent in early poetry and drama.  It is evident in the Iliad, the Odyssey, the play I am now studying, and even in Scandinavian sagas—including Beowulf.  In most cases revenge is carried out by a male character related to a victim.  This play is an exception, in that Agamemnon’s sons do not carry out the pre-ordained and foretold end of the king.  Clytemnestra is key in the orchestration and the fulfillment of the deed, by her hand Agamemnon’s blood is actually shed.  She slakes “in blood” the “resentment for a murdered child.”
Clytemnestra says, after killing Agamemnon:
My guilt thou harpest, o’er and o’er!
I bid thee reckon me no more
As Agamemnon’s spouse.
The old Avenger, stern of mood
for Atreus and his feast of blood,
Hath struck the lord of Atreus’ house,
And in the semblance of his wife
The king hath slain.—
Yea , for the murdered children’s life,
A chieftain’s in requital ta’en.
She claims that the Avenger took her form and struck Agamemnon down.  This is a euphuistic way of saying that she was overcome by vengeance and wrath.  In this short second stanza of this second refrain, Aeschylus makes a connection between Greek drama and the Hebrew religion.  The latter, states in the law, “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21.23-25). 
It seems that the idea of vengeance is strong and deep in the human history.  What drives it?  Agamemnon murdered his own child and, as we will see, goes off to Troy and begins to amass treasure and women slaves.  And while the Iliad was written before Agamemnon, the back story must have been there even while Homer was singing the poem.
Aeschylus’ play covers what happens back home—Agamemnon’s home.  As I hinted earlier, this is the final post in my study of Agamemnon.  Next, I will look at a few parts of The Trojan Women by Euripides, particularly the parts that give us a portrayal of Helen, who Aeschylus calls “one false woman.”
I have a quote from The Trojan Women that fits nicely with the discussion of vengeance.  Cassandra, who was taken prisoner by Agamemnon and who was also killed by Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ play, says this in The Trojan Women:
O Mother, fill mine hair with happy flowers,
And speed me forth. Yea, if my spirit cowers,
Drive me with wrath! So liveth Loxias,
A bloodier bride than ever Helen was
Go I to Agamemnon, Lord most high
Of Hellas!… I shall kill him, mother; I
Shall kill him, and lay waste his house with fire
As he laid ours. My brethren and my sire
Shall win again….
      (Checking herself) But part I must let be,
And speak not. Not the axe that craveth me,
And more than me; not the dark wanderings
Of mother-murder that my bridal brings,
And all the House of Atreus down, down, down….
She dies in Agamemnon, but she had her own plans for letting the old Avenger take her form in order to take vengeance on the king for killing her family.

That's the end....

12 December 2011


This whole thing has really become a pain in my ass.  Occupy Wall Street began as a cry for equality, a call to the government that the disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor was too great; that our country is going to Hell on a fast train of economic fucked-up-edness!  Well, now OWS has decided to screw with people's (not only the 1%'s) livelihoods.

In a previous post I talked about this not making much sense, and it still doesn't.  It is even more fucked up: the occupiers have taken over and closed certain ports on the West Coast of the U.S.  Why?  What good can come of holding people's stuff in a containers?  It does NOT matter whose stuff it is.  Also, I would like to know how this is helping the economy, how this is helping the jobless, how this is bring equality.  How is making all the longshoremen leave work helpful?  Are they getting paid to go home?  According the Huffington Post article to which I have linked above:

Union officials say longshoremen were not paid after Occupy Oakland protesters blockaded the port Nov. 2.

DeAndre Whitten, 48, an Oakland longshoreman for 12 years, said it was his understanding he would be losing about $500 in pay for the day. But he said he supported the protest effort.

"I'm excited. It was way overdue. I hope they keep it up," Whitten said. "I have no problem with it. But my wife wasn't happy about it." (emphasis mine)

Of course his wife wouldn't be happy.  She probably has to pay the bills and shop for groceries.  I wouldn't be happy, either, in that situation.  $500 is a lot of money for those in the 99%, right?  If you say it isn't, then you are not actually part of the 99% and have no reason to bitch and moan about the state of affairs in this country, do you?  How can these longshoremen support their families if THEIR jobs are in jeopardy?  Are the longshoremen who have jobs not part of the 99%?  Then, how in Hell is keeping them from work helping?  Shit!  From the same Huffington Post article:

"This is joke. What are they protesting?" Christian Vega, 32, who sat in his truck carrying a load of recycled paper from Pittsburg said Monday morning. He said the delay was costing him $600.

"It only hurts me and the other drivers. We have jobs and families to support and feed. Most of them don't," Vega said.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan also urged protesters to consider the impact on port workers.

"Thousands of people work at the Port of Oakland every day. Thousands more in agriculture and other industries also depend on the Port of Oakland for their daily wages," Quan said. (again, emphasis mine)

One protester stated that they were trying to make things better for them (the workers, farmers, etc.), as if this were the Communist Revolution and he were Lenin or something.  Losing $500 or $600 would do me NO good, would it you?  If so, I'll give you my address and you can send me a check post haste.

And the containers on the ships, what of those?  For example, if a family is moving from Hawaii to the mainland, will their belongings be held up until these people, who don't really know what they want, decide to let them go?  Or people in certain parts of Alaska that require shipments from outside: will they get their food, their clothing, or whatever else they might need?  

The occupiers do not want the government in their business, yet they want the government in rich peoples' business, which in the long run will require the government to be in the business of the occupiers themselves.  How can there be equality if no one knows who has what?  How do the occupiers propose this equality be reached?  Magically?  The only way their "demands" can be met is by implementing big government, giving up financial privacy and re-working the entire government and financial sectors of our country.  What are the solutions?  Shit, I'm tired of hearing about the problems.  I know the fucking problems.  How do we fix those problems?

I agree that something has to be done in this country, yet I can't agree that this is that something.  There are too many unanswered questions and too many agendas and too many voices.  The occupiers are not one voice.  Some want this, some that.  Nothing can be done with that kind of chaos; at least nothing worth rallying about.

What will they get up to next?  A little wet work with the guillotine, perhaps?

Here is a great perspective on this whole thing by Bernie Glassman (also on Huffington Post):  Arising to the Interconnectedness of Life? A Buddhist Perspective on the Occupy Movement

UPDATE: This is an awesome open letter.  An Open Letter from America’s Port Truck Drivers on Occupy the Ports

I may not be all the way with OWS, but I can appreciate when the hard-working people speak up about the necessity of change.  

06 December 2011

Agamemnon Part II – Silencing the Voice of the Victim

In the first part of this series on Aeschylus' Agamemnon, I wrote that I would continue with the consequences of Agamemnon's choices, which are foretold and are included in the first chorus. Well, I am not going to write about that—this time.

Instead, I want to look at antistrophe 6, which begins, “And then—but I beheld not, nor can tell, / What further fate befell:”  According to Gil Bailie in his Violence Unveiled, this closing of the eyes, this being silent about the horror, “virtually defines myth.”[1] In other words, he says that if a person’s eyes are open they will not see myth, but truth.  Then, he goes on to equate truth with gospel.  He discusses the word aletheia, which is the Greek word for truth, and then sneaks the word gospel in beside it.

Gospel, however, comes from the Anglo-Saxon for good spell, which in turn comes from the Greek word euangelion. Euangelion means good message. A good message does not automatically provide evidence of veracity. There are many good messages that are complete fiction, but that does not make them bad, or even untrue. Bailie is confusing the denotation of the word myth, with its connotation. It has come to mean something that is not true, and is usually used to refer to the belief systems of other people. In attempting to make his argument, he tries to make "truth" equate to "gospel" and thus remove any hint of myth from the Christian religion. This makes sense in light of what Bailie is up to. But, Joseph Campbell points out that all myths are true in their context. There is only a problem when the myth and the symbols connected with it are transplanted. The myth then becomes strange and all sorts of glosses and commentaries become necessary in the attempt to explain away that strangeness.

Myth is not untruth, even if that is the connotation now attached to the word; rather, it is not-completely-revealed truth. We have to be careful that we do not immediately think this signifies half-truth. It does nothing of the sort. The Bible itself ends with a book named "The Revelation," or if you think it should be the Greek transliteration—Apok├ílypsis, which means the unveiling. If gospel and truth are the opposite of myth, in Bailie's terms; that is, if gospel equals truth and myth equals not-truth (or even hidden or secret truth), then what is revealed in "The Revelation of St. John?" So, I propose that the meaning of the Greek word mythos can still contain much of the Christian religion, because much of that religion is hidden or secret.

Bailie discusses interesting thoughts about violence and they ways in which humans deal with it. Unfortunately, he is too busy trying to prove that Christianity is not a mythology, and thus misses many opportunities to question truly and honestly the causes and consequences of violence. He comes down hard on the Greek tragedians, but they are able to show violence without showing it. This is part of their genius. The writers of the Hebrew and Christian texts have to settle for writing blatant descriptions of the details of the violence, because they are incapable of doing otherwise. This has nothing to do with myth or truth. It is merely the styles of writing of different cultures. Yet, Bailie insists that Aeschylus' use of "I beheld not, nor can tell" makes the entire thing the opposite of gospel truth.

In the Greek tragedies, violence is unveiled without being graphic. The emotions of those involved in the action are more important, because those emotions draw in the audience, and in this way, they arrive at the catharsis.[2] To borrow from the Hebrew Scriptures, the idea is that of the prophet Nathan who says to King David, "You are the man." Readers cannot connect with that as easily as they can when the story comes at a slant. In other words, to watch or read about an innocent person suffering, and being given cues and clues to the emotions and thoughts of those causing that suffering, lets the audience know that in every human there is both good and evil.[3] And, although I would like it to be untrue, sometimes the evil comes out on top, as in the case of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia. Not only could that be considered evil, but consider all the evil that followed as consequence of it.

Agamemnon is a fine example of what happens when we trust superstitions (of any sort), rather than what we know to be right, true and good in our own hearts/minds. The human conscience can be a beautiful or a deadly thing, depending on perspective.

It is also a mistake to assume that Greek tragedy equals Greek mythology. Tragedies do include mythology, but they are not it entirely. The Greeks had no Bible, per se. They learned of their gods and goddesses by watching dramas and listening to travelling bards, but these only contain aspects of the mythology needed to tell the story. Most of the stories are human stories. Mythology proper, on the other hand, relates to deities and the people of those deities, and how those people do or do not keep the deities' laws, and the consequences—whether good or bad. That sounds mighty close to religion. Here, we arrive at another tangle of words, and the debates and discussions have been and will be going on for more years than I care to know.

I am looking at the Greek tragedies in terms of humanity and humanness, not in terms of their metaphysical truth or lack thereof. In other words, what can we—as humans—take home from this work of literature or drama? What overarching themes do these works contain that will help me be a better father, husband, leader, follower, or simply a better human being?
Image of Iphigenia from here.

[1] Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, (New York: Crossroad PC, 2004). 33.
[2] For more on catharsis, see Aristotle's Poetics.
[3] I do not attempt, here, to define these two terms philosophically or theologically. Good and evil are concepts that have spawned many discussions and wars and every other kind of disharmony, disunity and contention. I use these terms in their most basic sense.

02 December 2011

Agamemnon Part I – Blood is Thinner Than Honor

Aeschylus’s play, Agamemnon, begins with a watchman waiting for the time “When shall stream up the glow of signal-flame, / the bale-fire bright, and tell its Trojan tale— / Troy town is ta’en:”  (48).  From the viewpoint of the Trojan war, this play begins at the end.  But, with strophe I, after the first chorus, it returns to the beginning.  The chorus gives us some background, setting and the amount of time that has passed since the Achaeans have gone to war in Ilion. 
Aeschylus, in the antistrophe I, after the first chorus, takes us further back, takes us to the time when the sons of Atreus and the Greeks were waiting to sail for Troy.  Then, the fateful omen of the birds and its interpretation.  The omen, which is contained the antistrophe I and the epode, says, basically, that Agamemnon has to offer his daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to get the wind blowing so the ships can leave.  But, it also clearly says that revenge will fall on his head! 
Now, right there Agamemnon should have said, “You know what, Menelaus, you can go after your two-timing wife yourself, because this whole thing sounds like a really messed up deal for me and mine.” 
But, blood is thinner than honor.  Agamemnon, like all the other Greek leaders, had made an oath to help Menelaus retrieve Helen should she be “kidnapped.”  That’s not in this play, but it is convenient that it was there.  I have a sneaking suspicion that it was added later as a way of reconciling the idiocy of all the Greek city-states (or clans or whatever you want to call them) going to war just to get back an adulterous woman.  The oath makes it a matter of honor, not to mention there is the opportunity for power and for glory.  So, Agamemnon becomes a monster:
And so he steeled his heart—ah, well-a-day—
   Aiding a war for one false woman’s sake,
          His child to slay,
   And with her spilt blood make
An offering, to speed the ships on their way!
That's just abhorrent.  Agamemnon struggled with this!  A father slays an innocent child—and his own innocent child, at that—to get back an adulterous slut!  Aeschylus is nice and merely calls her a “false woman.”  That name is too kind and I could call her much worse than I have, but I will refrain for my readers’ sake. 
It seems I have given away what is happening in this play up to antistrophe 6 (after the first chorus).  This drama is Aeschylus’s way of dealing with choices.  He is facing the idea of choices and, as we will see later, investigating the outcomes and consequences of the choices that people make.  War is a choice.  The agreement made with Menelaus to help get Helen back is not contained here, so Aeschylus’s immediate and contemporary audience must have been familiar with it, or else some of the action would seem strange.  It seems strange anyway.  Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter because some guy tells him that is what the two eagles doing their feeding dance in the sky means, and because he has his honor to uphold.  That being said, Agamemnon still had a choice.  He chose honor over Iphigenia.  He chose power over the love of his family.  He chose his brother’s wrecked marriage with a whore wife over his own marriage.
The concept of choice, consequence and outcome is an important one in much of Classical Literature, and  we will encounter it again later, when we’re looking at the Iliad, so it is important to keep in mind.   Honor, power and glory are also very important concepts which I will try to remember to look at as I come to them.
Near the end of the first chorus, the consequences of Agamemnon’s choices are already foretold, and with that I will continue next time.


As a reminder, I am reading E. D. A. Morshead’s translation of Agamemnon from Seven Famous Greek Plays, edited, with introductions, by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr.