Sunday, October 26, 2014

Homage to Edgar Poe

I don't name him Edgar Allan Poe for what I consider to be good reason.  The "Allan" is taken from his stepfather (and stepmother too, I suppose), and Poe despised the man, who in turn thought Poe a degenerate gambler and all around wastrel; which I suppose he was by the standards of the time.  In paying homage, it's right I should avoid the name he is said to have hated.

It is, for good or ill, that time of the year where it's considered appropriate to think of Poe, or read or listen to some of his work at least.  Sometimes, alas, they're almost unrecognizable.  I listened to what was said to be a version of his The Tell-Tale Heart  broadcast by the Radio Classics channel while driving the other day and was amazed by its lack of resemblance to the story I recall reading.  Boris Karloff played one of the characters and someone else, whose name I can't recall, played the part of someone who it seems to be does not figure in the story at all; at least as a living, talking, acting agent.

But this is not unusual in the efforts which have been made to translate his work for radio, television or films.  There have been several of such efforts, for the most part involving actors like Karloff (Peter Loree and Vincent Price for example).  Very often, only the titles of these productions bear any relation to Poe's work, and often enough we're told that whatever it is we're watching or listening to is "from the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe!"  Or words to that effect.  That way, it was apparently believed, we'd spend our money to hear, see.  Poe is associated with what is now called horror.  I wonder if he would be pleased by that association.

Well, I suppose it may be said that we of the United States don't take a great deal of pride in our artists as a rule, and so feel no obligation to treat them with great respect.  But for my money (which I wouldn't spend except perhaps in acquiring his actual work, not what has so curiously come of it) Poe was the first great American writer.  For me, Hawthorne, Melville, Irving, Fenimore Cooper, Longfellow simply don't compare to Poe, who it seems had an analytic mind but was masterful in evoking emotions, and who was the first original artist in our history.  He was, I think, something entirely new.

I speak of his prose, not his poetry.  I don't much like his poetry.  I'm fond of The  Conqueror Worm because it is so odd, and have memorized most of The Raven for some reason, but it seems to me that it is in his poetry that Poe is most clearly a Romantic, and I don't like the Romantics.  I prefer Poe the literary critic and author of short stories.  Perhaps we Americans are best at writing shorter works; we tend to get carried away in our novels.  If so, it was Poe who first pioneered this region of literature with any success and rigor.

It seems Poe is considered Romantic, though.  This is somewhat odd, I think, as in his works involving the detective Dupin and his"science-fiction" work, as in his literary criticism, he demonstrated a real respect for analytic and critical thinking and used them to good effect.  But it would be inappropriate to think of him as a Realist, given the fundamental role of fantasy in so many of his stories.

He was above all a great storyteller, and his talent had an immense scope, from detective (or mystery) stories, to what would be called science-fiction stories, to horror, and adventure, even in comic writing, for which he is not known--he was remarkable in each.  He died at age 40, and we can only speculate about what he could have written had he lived longer.  It seems to me that given the extent and scope of his work, it is difficult to characterize him as lazy or undisciplined in his art if not in his life.

His life was sad, undoubtedly.  He might be a character in a Dickens novel given the tragedies with which he had to cope.  But there was no happy ending for Poe; no clear reason for his ending, either.   Much of that remains a mystery.  He was found incoherent, wearing clothes which were not his own, may have had cholera, or been poisoned by alcohol, may have been mugged.  A sad end for a man who wrote much of sadness.

We can only wonder what it was like to be a highly intelligent, sensitive and talented person in Poe's time in the U.S.  Death was more prevalent and more a part of life then, sickness, often deadly like tuberculosis common, communication slow and sporadic, cities filthy; premature burial was a real possibility, not just a product of a feverish imagination, little was known for certain, money was no easier to obtain, and may have been largely unobtainable to someone like Poe.

Because of the scope of his work, it's unfortunate he's remembered to any real degree only at this time of year.  But I may be being unfair.  He's certainly remembered and read by many, more so than many he criticized, like Longfellow, and probably always will be, due to our continuing fascination with death and the occult.  That fascination won't leave us until we stop dying.

Part of his continuing appeal may be the fact that in his writing he was not didactic, unlike so many who wrote at that time.  For many years now, writers of literature have had little interest in teaching us anything.  But the purveyors of other art forms, particularly movies and television shows to the extent they can be considered art, seem increasingly intent on teaching, or perhaps preaching, so the moralists among us need not feel deprived.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Goldengrove Unleaving

I like autumn (which is at least in my part of this Great Republic so appropriately and simply called "Fall").  I love the color we see in the trees, especially in the angled sunlight which makes the world seem somehow more comfortable and accepting.  I like the way fallen leaves swirl in the wind and the not yet oppressive chill in the air.  Some of my most tangible memories of my increasingly distant youth include the smell of burning leaves.  We lived in Michigan then; I don't recall burning leaves anywhere else during my family's travels.  No doubt burning them is prohibited now, and has been for quite some time. 

The title of this post is of course taken from a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins (how wonderful it must have been to have "Manley" as a middle name).  A very inventive poet with a suggestively archaic, almost magical, way with words.  "Grieving over goldengrove unleaving" is quite good, I think, as is "Kingdom of Daylight's Dauphin; dapple, dawn-drawn falcon" (I quote from memory, and may be inaccurate).  "Goldengrove" seems particularly appropriate given the temporary golden-like color of the leaves as they slowly--die.  There's no other word for it.

But they return, as does so much else after winter, and the turn of the seasons in turn induced our ancestors to dream of gods who died and were reborn, and even more to dream of being reborn after they died, or at least to live again in some manner, in some place, and better than they had here.  We've had that dream for quite some time, and have it still.  Probably, we had it in Europe even before the Eleusinian Mysteries developed, in some way or another, and those mysteries may date from Minoan times or even before.  Ancient Egypt had such dreamers as well, though in its case death and rebirth was likely suggested by the rise and fall of the Nile.

The person ostensibly grieving in Hopkins' (I'm tempted to call him "Manley" but won't) poem is a child, and the poet implies that those older than a child are inclined to consider the unleaving more coldly, which I assume means less sadly in this context.  This seems odd.  Why would a child grieve over falling leaves at all, let alone more than those old?  One would think children would find little to grieve over in dying nature, and suspect Hopkins of a bit of sly posing.  But we forget that children had a tendency to die with some frequency not long ago if they survived the trauma of birth.  Perhaps the anti-vaccine zealots will see to it that the days of high child mortality will return.  In any case, children in Hopkins' time may have been far more aware of death than they are now, and so may have been more likely to grieve as does his Margaret.

Why does the idea of dying cause us to grieve?  For reasons primarily selfish, perhaps.  Life is all we know.  So, it contains all we can desire as well as all we can fear.  Unless we think we continue in some sense, there's nothing "in" death for us that would render it worth our while.  The idea of nothingness is daunting to those who have been something.  And death deprives us of friends, family, lovers.  Death causes us to suffer just as life does (according to those jolly antinatalists).

The ancients, if they felt life after death was a kind of shadowy, poor substitute for the life they knew (the Greek Hades, for example), apparently longed for everlasting glory, or at least everlasting notoriety.  The story of Herostratus who burned the great temple to Artemis to the ground so his name would be known forever is instructive.  We still know his name, or some of us do.  Human lifetime was shorter then, though we hear of some who lived into what is considered old age even now. Yet they struggled for immortality of a sort.

If we become nothing at all, though, what possible difference can it make to us that we're remembered, by many or a few?  Clearly, the emphasis then was on the world and not on the world to come, and to such an extent that our lack of participation in the world due to death was not a concern.  What was of concern was what was thought or known by the living.

Perhaps the ancients' feelings towards death were less selfish than ours are now.  We're largely concerned by what, if anything, will happen to us, or what will happen after death.  They were concerned by how they would influence what would happen to or be thought by others after they died.  Or is the desire to influence what takes place after our death, and the steps we take to insure we still have such influence, the ultimate in selfish conduct?

Some of us through wills or trusts impose conditions on the disposal of our property or money in an effort to limit or restrict what our heirs may do with it once theirs.  What better example is there of concerning ourselves with things not in our control than seeking to control what takes place after our death?

Should a Stoic be concerned with what happens after death?  Perhaps Marcus Aurelius didn't take any steps to prevent his lunatic son Commodus from assuming the purple because he felt that to do so would be to seek to control what was not in his control.  But the fellowship we have, according to the Stoics, due to our sharing of the Divine Reason may extend after life if we become one with it after death, and because of that fellowship we retain an interest in those we would leave behind and act for their good.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

In our Stars

One has to wonder why, despite our reliance on science and our enlightened state, so many of us take astrology seriously.  You would think that its day is long gone, but it isn't.  One can see it in any  newspaper (even the ones which still are made up of paper), and be enthralled by an Eastern version of it in many Chinese restaurants.  Curiously, it seems that whether we are, e.g., a Cancer or a Horse, many fine qualities are attributed to us as being a part of our nature.  Our signs, or years, at birth never seem to ordain that we're idiots, or twisted, or fanatic, or hideous.

We all know the story of the Reagans, or at least Nancy Reagan's, belief in and reliance on astrology when considering the future.  It's reminiscent of Tiberius' reliance on it especially during his time in Capri.  Presumably, neither Ronald or Nancy would have hurled their astrologers off a cliff in the event of a bad "reading" however.

It must be said that astrology played a part in the birth of modern science, particularly astronomy, much as alchemy may be said to have played a part in the birth of modern chemistry.  Since the time of the ancient Chaldeans, at least, some of us have been busy identifying and plotting the courses of heavenly bodies.  These observations were reputedly quite precise; indeed, it appears that a good deal of mathematical information and knowledge were employed by those who read the stars and what else can be seen from the Earth.  The problems with astrology resulted from inferences made from the mathematics based on unfounded assumptions regarding the nature and influence of the stars and planets.

The cult of Mithras in the Roman Empire is an example of the influence of astrology on religion.  We know little of the ritual or liturgy of that cult, but we know from the mithraeums themselves that astrology was involved as the signs of the Zodiac are frequently on display, along with Mithras and his bull and the torch-bearing twins, Cautes and Cautopates.

Why, though, did we (and do we) associate the stars and the planets with our character and fate?    Were the predictable and regular movements of these objects in the sky suggestive of the order of the universe, the laws of the universe?  Being such, was it inferred that we were similarly ordered, or that the order in the sky necessarily governed the creatures of the Earth? 

It's difficult to contend that astrology was or is a means to control our destinies as that is plainly not the case.  Astrology seems to be an example of deterministic thinking; that is to say that we are controlled and unable to control ourselves.  It would then seem more plausible that astrology was used as a means by which to understand our destinies, to know the future which has already been ordained. 

It can't be the case that astrology was looked to as explaining, or at least predicting, what the gods had in store for us as we thought of them as gods themselves.  Particularly in ancient Greece and Rome, the gods were notoriously unpredictable and some of them easily offended or aroused to action.  It would be difficult in that case to attribute to them neatly ordered conduct such as that displayed in the sky.

The Romans, of course, adopted the apparently Etruscan practice of determining the future from the entrails of animals.  Thus the liver of an ox or other creature took the place of the stars as indicating the what was in store.  This seems even more unlikely than accepting the movement of the stars as governing us and our fate. 

Undoubtedly it was hoped that the future could be known and predicted and so it's nor surprising that we sought for (and found) ways by which that could be done.  Priests who knew that way were not required to be of high moral character themselves, as they were simply discerning what was written for us through a consideration of what took place in nature, not through a vision or grace bestowed, or special favor of the gods.  Astrology represented a kind of learning or system rather than a knowledge granted for good conduct.  It was not an award by the gods, it was something that could be taught.

We can "forgive" the ancients for their ignorance, but modern practice of astrology or consultation with astrologers is mystifying.  As it must be the case that most of us are now aware of the vastness of the universe and our planet's tiny part it in, it should be extremely difficult to believe that the stars and planets in their movements serve to fashion our nature and reveal our fates.  But we all still want to know the future, and it may be said that praying for such knowledge or awaiting a revelation of it by some beneficent deity is not all that different from seeking it in the movements of the stars and planets.    If we have no problem accepting the former, there is no problem with accepting the latter.

Acceptance, however, is not something that can be associated with astrology.  If we were blithely willing to accept whatever happens we'd have no need to know what is going to happen.  Astrology and certain kinds of religion may therefore be considered efforts on our part to disturb ourselves with things not in our control, a cardinal error for a Stoic.  I don't recall whether Epictetus, Seneca or Marcus Aurelius dealt with this practice, but will review their work to find out.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Histrionics and American Entertainment

I'm given to watching English television series which appear, now and then, on PBS and BBC America.  What passes for entertainment on the small screen here in God's favorite country seems to me to be very shabby in comparison, and I wonder why this is the case.

I suppose it's possible that the English are simply better actors, writers and producers than we are, but I suspect there are other reasons.  One of them may be the fact that American actors, if not now then in the past, came to believe that acting involved emoting as much as possible.  I'm not sure whether this is the result of the teaching of what's been called "method acting" or not, but there appears to have been an entire generation of American actors, such as Marlon Brando, who felt that acting at least in part consisted of shrieking, weeping, smirking, laughing, gesturing in a very broad, almost lunatic manner.  This evidently was required in order to impart a sense of reality to the fantasy unfolding on the screen; reality was very much a melodrama, filled with anguish, angst or ecstasy. 

I recall the story of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman during the filming of Marathon Man.  Hoffman felt that in order for him to portray his character, who was being hunted and tormented, he had to stay awake for days to achieve an appropriately overwrought appearance.  Supposedly, Olivier said to him:  "Oh my dear boy, why don't you try acting?  It's so much easier."  It may be that histrionic generation passed along their hysteria to succeeding generations.

Another reason may be that we consider ourselves, or are considered to be, utterly lacking in subtlety and wit.  We are profoundly stupid or are believed to be by those who seek to amuse us.  So, in order for us to know a particular character is angry, for example, it is necessary for the character to break various things near at hand or beat on someone, preferably a woman or a child.  Or better yet, the character shoots someone or several unlucky extras.

Those who seek to amuse us sometimes seek to enlighten us as well, it would appear, at least as they believe we should be enlightened.  And thinking us to be dullards they do so blatantly.  To teach us to not be racists, they populate the shows or movies we watch with representatives of every race if possible, sometimes even inserting a character of their own creation into a plot where no such character existed.  This is the accepted method of teaching us not to be sexist as well, of course.  Thus Peter Jackson saw to it that a female elf played a prominent part in his three-part version of The Hobbit, though no such character appears in the book.  Unsurprisingly, we're also being taught by the entertainment industry that same-sex couples, and gays and lesbians, are perfectly fine in the same manner.  All are equal in the world of show business if nowhere else.

What Hollywood and the entertainment industry apparently seek to teach us in these respects is admirable; racism, sexism, homophobia, prejudice are all noxious.  Whether it should be teaching us at all, and whether it should be doing so by, e.g., rewriting or falsifying the works of writers, are interesting questions regardless, however.

Violence and sex are of course omnipresent in our television; not so much in that of the English, it seems.  Perhaps, though, this only appears to be the case because we portray violence and sex in the same way we portray everything else--in as exaggerated a manner as possible.  We cannot merely imply violence and sex (that would require subtlety).  They must be apparent, jarringly obvious.  So must everything be.

This lack of, or perhaps more accurately contempt for, the subtle naturally extends to plots.  Nothing is a mystery, really; answers are as obvious as everything else.  And all must be done quickly.  Characters seem to finish each others sentences.  If there are no car chases there are chases on foot, or at the least all are in a hurry for one reason or another.

Perhaps our perception of reality is so manic we feel that any drama which purports to be real must be manic as well.  Or perhaps we are by now so used to the overwrought that we are jaded.  The merely overwrought may do nothing for us.  We require the extreme to be entertained.

This sort of thing seems to more or less inevitably lead to comparisons with ancient Rome though, doesn't it?  That would be tiresome and is something of a cliche.  Cliche of course is itself the rendering of wisdom into the obvious, and so we see cliche a great deal in our television as well.
 
The comparison is not a sound one, I think.  The Romans were remarkable because their excessiveness was original, while ours is not.  Our art imitates their life.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Significance of Ritual

Since I ceased attending mass and being an at least nominal member of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, I've thought now and then of joining a Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  That association has had many distinguished and even admirable members.  The Church has had its share of those as well, of course, but there always seems to be something peculiar about them, like Cardinal Newman and his belief that the "visible world" is unreal.  No commitment to a disturbingly human kind of God is required.  I find it increasingly difficult to worship a God that has human characteristics.  Unitarians are actively involved in good works, which is to their credit.

Perhaps I should say "revere" instead of "worship" when referring to God.  If worship requires praying to or petitioning or placating, or participating in set practices which are expressive of devotion, I stopped worshipping even before I stopped attending mass.  I would stand up, kneel and sit down when others did so, true, but wouldn't sing the largely silly songs that made up the liturgy and avoided as much as possible giving to others "the sign of peace," which for reasons unclear to me is done by shaking hands.

As best as I can recall, Jesus is not said to have gone about shaking hands with his apostles or with anyone else for that matter.  So, we don't shake hands as we do other things in memory of him.  The Gospels state he said "peace be with you" at least once, however, and suppose we may say it as well in his memory.  Shaking hands in imitation of Christ doesn't seem right, though.  The sign of peace must be the creation of some inspired liturgist, then.

Based on what little reading I've done, it seems Unitarians don't worship (as I define it) when they gather.  This should serve to attract me, but does not.  They have readings, it seems, though not necessarily from the Bible or from anything else.  Unfortunately it seems they also sing.  I find myself wondering why.

The simple truth is I have no desire to go somewhere on a Sunday and listen to people read and sing.  It doesn't matter to me what they choose to read or to sing; I don't want to watch or hear them do either or, worse yet, be called upon to read and sing myself and be suspect if I do not.  It would make sense to do so if failing to do so constituted a mortal sin assuring an eternity in hell, of course, but absent such a penalty there is no point as far as I'm concerned.  If one isn't worshipping, though, there is presumably something about gathering, reading and singing which serves some other purpose.  But not it appears for me.

But still, I find myself thinking now and then that something should be done, if not on a Sunday then on some other day, expressing a reverence for the divine, and that it should be done in a group of people.  It's possible I feel this because of the years I spent genuflecting, kneeling, standing, sitting, even singing, in a Catholic Church.  Or it may be the case that we humans have a need to acknowledge the divine with and before others and to do so in a special, prescribed way, which seems to us to have acquired divine sanction.

I'm inclined to think that ritual has and always will play a part in our affairs.  Certainly ancient peoples engaged in ritual, and felt that ritual had always to be performed in a certain way.  In Graeco-Roman religion any departure from the form of the ritual required that the participants begin it again and again until they got it right.  Even those who disdained traditional religious rituals sought to create their own--think of the Freemasons with their convoluted and contrived ceremonies, for example, or the preposterous forms dreamt up by leaders of the French Revolution to celebrate the Supreme Being.

When it comes to ritual, the High Latin Mass was quite a spectacle.  I'm not aware of any modern ritual which can compare with it.  Perhaps my assessment of the significance of ritual is a kind of nostalgia.  It seems clear the Unitarians have nothing similar.  It seems clear the Catholic Church has nothing similar, now.

If we're creatures of ritual, the absence of ritual must disturb us mightily.  Are we seeking some substitute for it?  If so I think the rituals of the future will be garish and barbaric.  The drab nature of what rituals we still have leaves us unsatisfied and we hunt for something which will be colorful and tinged with mysticism.  The Old Church understood the need for ritual quite well.  What person or institution or religion will grasp and exploit this need in the future?