Who is the baddy?

We all know that story does not work without a crisis; the protagonist requires a challenge to overcome, the dragon to slay, the mountain to conquer, the darkness to subdue. Every hero requires a nemesis and every protagonist, an antagonist. This is the stuff of good stories – drama, tension, a fight.

Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as:

“a cruelly malicious person;….a scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot”.

Important evil agency in the plot.…………Interesting!

mary poppins

As a child watching Mary Poppins I remember the bad guys clearly – they worked  in the bank. Cold, miserly, money hungry, they would steal men’s time away from their children, away from joy, fun and family. In contrast, Mary sought to bring the children’s dreams alive and to mend relationships between parents and their offspring.

The sensitive viewer may grow to believe that banks and institutions are evil, that the arts and pursuits of family, simple hearty work [such as chimney sweeping] and creativity are true, good and right. But is this a fair representation of reality?

 

Well not really,  but it’s just a kids story, right?

In a cowboy or Western movie – the baddy is an Indian or Mexican. In a spy or war movie, the baddy is a German or Eastern European or Muslim. Are the baddies foreign nationals?  Are the baddies the capitalists [Mary Poppins]  or the government [Divergent/ Hunger Games]?  Are the baddies the drug dealers and criminals amongst us ? Who are the bad guys, really?

 

cowboysbond-villains-blofeld

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The very word villain comes from the Middle-English word for “base or low born rustic” or medieval latin “farmhand”. In medieval times, it accounted for one who did not behave in manner befitting a Knight – one of lowly, dishonourable behaviour.  In contemporary parlance, the word is cognate to the french word for “ugly.” The term “sinister” comes from the latin root for “left.”

So in narrative terms – cruetly and malice, wickedness and crime are related to social class, political persuasion and physical appearance? Maybe not in such simplistic terms but if we continue to digest simple stories and their simple morals, perhaps we produce a society of people with narrow minded stereotypical views of who out there needs to be punished for social ills.

How do we redress this?

maleficent

Of late, years Hollywood has played a lot with story conventions around stereotypical bad buys, and we have more tales telling the back stories of villains such as Wreck It Ralph, Despicable Me, Maleficent, Shrek, Monsters Inc and so forth. Children learn that the bad guy [or girl] has a story too.

However since classical days, the greatest of literary works are the most complex in their approach to the nature and origin of evil.

Greek and Roman plays and poems presented complex tales of conflicted heros with murky motivations. Shakespeares characters are deeply wrought characters full of  jealousy, hubris, power lust, and vengeance. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the Russian writers are famed for the manner in which they can cast characters both empathetic and corrupted at once. The genuis of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is that while evil lay without in the form of Voldemort, it existed in very real form within Hogwarts too, among the full blooded wizards, the Slytherin families and even within Harry himself and his desire for power.

harry and voldemort

Most tales of inner struggles are tragedies. Simple stories of good versus bad can end happily when good guy defeats bad guy, but what does one do when the good guy IS the bad guy? How does this story possibly end happily?

John Lennon’s song has become the anthem of peace marches since the ’60s

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

 

For us to realise that there is no baddy “out there” – not another nation, not another religion, not an ugly person or a different person – this requires a terrbile self knowing and self realisation that is absent from Lennon’s anthem – the baddy is within.

This sounds like religious dogma you might protest…. Religion has created all manner of  guilt complexes to make us out the be the culprit of all wrong doings.  Religion exists to torture us in the knowledge that we are “baaaaaad” deeply and irrevocably bad. However, it does seem that within this realisation comes the truest form of self- knowing.

religious guilt

No wonder our human psychology is complex – we construct stories in which  the fault belongs to others. These narratives save us from descending into madness. Acceptance of culpability would crush us. But lack of acceptance creates in us a delusion, a splintering from true self-knowing. So what is the answer?

I personally find the solution in Hebrew literature. Ancient and deeply perceptive, Hebrew narrative is nuanced enough to make the protagonist both empathetic [we can identify with them] but also the villain. When you pass by the normal foils – giants, lions, enemy kingdoms – you find the true problem. The human heart is the problem. While there is evil and conflict and tension from without – ultimately it’s the complex, betraying and deceitful human heart at the bottom of it all.

This narrative however, does not descend into despair. It does so by introducing a new note into the story – the note of grace.  When the crushing knowledge of human culpability is first raised, so is the notion of a sacrifice, a scape-goat. First, literally it was a goat or lamb, ceremonially slain at feast times and symbolically expunging evil. However, such symbols cannot redress the evil in the human heart, can they?

Abraham

And so transpires the greatest myth of all, the myth become history [as CS Lewis puts it], God become man, to die a death that only man can die, and redress an evil that only God can redress. This scape-goat moves from beyond symbol into something so groundshattering  that philsophers and theologians are still confused by the depth and weight of it all. This event in history, permits true self knowledge. Humanity can know self to be corrupt without despair, for the punishment has fallen upon the scape-goat, the innocent. This gracious act in turns becomes the wellspring of transformed action, as with a new lease of life, humanity can simultaneously know self and rejoice.

How would this transform politics, international relations, human relations – the fundamental understanding that the problem lies within?  And this knowledge does not result in despair, nor in delusion, but in glorious self knowing and true “peace on earth.”

 

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Narrative of Identity – Part II

In an earlier post, Journalism as Narrative, [Jan 11, 2015], I examined the fact that everyone is telling stories, even journalists. The way news items are chosen and framed presents a picture of the world.

I highlighted one of my favourite bloggers, Brandon Stanton, and his page, Humans of New York. The blog subverts the trend of selling drama,  to tell the stories of every day people.  He, almost daily posts images of people he encounters in the streets of New York, and a few lines of dialogue that captures something unique about them.

In this exerpt he explains to University students in Dublin, how he engages people in the street:

 

With over 11 million Facebook followers, Stanton resonates with his audience by highlighting the beauty, complexity, humour and vulnerability of human beings.  Nothing quite captures the power of his story telling as what has happened over the last 7 days. On January 20th Stanton took this picture of 13 year old Vidal Chastanet,  in his neighbourhood, Brownsville, New York.

"Who's influenced you the most in your life?"<br /><br /><br />
"My principal, Ms. Lopez."<br /><br /><br />
"How has she influenced you?"<br /><br /><br />
"When we get in trouble, she doesn't suspend us.  She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us.  And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built.  And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter."
“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”
“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“How has she influenced you?”
“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”
On January 23rd, Stanton found and interviewed Mrs Lopez, the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy.
A couple days back, I posted the portrait of a young man who described an influential principal in his life by the name of Ms. Lopez.  Yesterday I was fortunate to meet Ms. Lopez at her school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy.</p><br /><br />
<p>“This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high.  We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’   Our color is purple.  Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff.  Because purple is the color of royalty.  I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens.  They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math.   And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome.  When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up.  But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

“This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our color is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the color of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

Inspired by the community and the response to Vidal’s story, which had received over a million likes, Stanton spent time brainstorming with the teaching staff how he and the HONY [Humans of New York] community could help. Stanton and Ms Lopez discussed  a school trip to see Harvard University.

Our discussion covered many needs, but we kept returning to one in particular– the limited horizons of disadvantaged youth. Ms. Lopez’s school is situated in a neighborhood with the highest crime rate in New York, and many of her scholars have very limited mobility. Some of them are very much ‘stuck’ in their neighborhood. And many have never left the city. “It can be very difficult for them to dream beyond what they know,” Ms. Lopez explained.

Stanton promptly launched an crowdfunding campaign on Indigogo with the goal of $100, 000 to send Vidal’s class to Harvard. Subsequent posts told the stories of other citizens of the neighbourhood, other teachers of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, the teaching staff, the school community. Stanton spent almost the whole week in Vidal’s world recording the remarkable human beings and the lives they live. With each post he promoted the fundraising campaign which quiclly grew beyond a simple trip to Harvard.

Earlier today this article was released:

 Just amazing. And in less than five days. Thanks to the 34,893 of you who have donated so far. (That’s getting close to an Indiegogo record, by the way!) Thanks also to those of you who have been following along, and lending comments of support. I’m so proud of how everyone has rallied around this story, in ways that go so far beyond just raising money.
Vidal 2
With over $1 million dollars raised in just under a week,  the campaign was nothing less than record breaking. Funds were raised for 10 years of trips to see Harvard University, summer programs for the local school children, and a scholarship fund for students to attend university.  This not only illustrates the power of digital media and the creation of a “community” of people as far flung as South Africa, New Zealand, India, Iran and Brownsville, New York, but also the power of simply telling people’s stories.
By connecting with people’s stories, the world seems a little smaller, strangers seem a little stranger and our hearts connect with the plight of others making their problems our problems.
"When you posted last week about all the ways Vidal helps around the house, most of the comments were very nice.  But a few people really ripped into me.  They said that I was lazy and I was a bad mother.  I wanted to reply, but Vidal stopped me.  He said: 'Don't worry about them, Mom.  Let them be negative.  They don't know how it is.'"

 

Narrative of Identity

In mid January this year,  hundreds of thousands of marchers and numerous world leaders took to the streets of Paris to support freedom of expression.  The slaying of 12 journalists in their Charlie Hedbo headquarters, for its polemical pieces and mocking illustrations of the prophet Muhammad, raised the issue of religious intolerance as well as freedom of expression.  France, the heartland of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, would not stand for censorship on this issue and the magazine lives on.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-15551998

How does culture work like that? How does a nation spill half a million people onto the streets simultaneously to fight for an idenity? This phenomenon is not infrequent in times of upheaval, but what makes larges masses of people move as one?

In Queensland, we stand this week between Australia Day, 26th January and our State Election, 31st January. Much of the discussion and polemic in the media concerns,  “what it is to be an Australian”, our heritage, our ethos. How does our state collectively make a decision about what political party to choose? How do we move as one when it comes to decisions to go to war? How can a crowd of spectators at a match simultaneously break into laughter or cheer at once, except when something strikes a chord in their heart, a memory, a shared value?

AustraliaAustralianAustralians

How else do we achieve national untiy at all except through story telling, repeated, iterative, gradual story telling. From school onwards, we are told the story of our nation, our struggles, our journey, our coming of age, our national icons, our spirit. Slowly we believe, we are more than just residents of an address but citizens of a national village, who share a common bond, who belong together more than we belong apart.

While much of this narrative can be murkied propoganda, we need these stories to function as unified whole. Let us examine what stories we are telling ourselves! What is shaping our knowledge of right and wrong? What are we telling our children about the future?

Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the Modernist “ache”

Upon reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles, one feels distinctly manipulated. The text is so melancholy, the characters so pitiable, society so repressive and unjust. One wonders “what essay is Thomas Hardy writing through his novel about his world”? Why does he wish to make his readers so miserable?

The story is set in the 1870s in county Wessex. Tess Durbeyfield is a saintly rural maiden, misunderstood by her poor parents. Her uneducated father believes they have connections to aristocracy through the name “D’Urberville”.  She is sent to “claim kin” and  finds work to help support her family and  watched over by the rather abrasive landowners son Alec Stoke.

tess of the D 2

Alec, on pretense of helping her one day, leads her into the woods where he rapes her. She returns home and  cannot talk of the crime or of the sickly child she bears and buries in an unmarked grave. Several years pass and she finds herself working as a milkmaid for a local farmer, and is courted by the parsons son, Angel Clare. Fearful to tell Angel the truth, she conceals it until the day of their marriage. On the night of their wedding,  he confesses to her a previous relationship with an older woman and so she in turn she tells him of the misdemeanour. He promptly disowns her and sails for Brazil, but not without propositioning Tess’ milkmaid friend to accompany him as his mistress. She declines.

Hard on her luck, Tess is forced to become the mistress  to wealthy Alec. In Brazil,  Angel suffers failures with his farming ventures and repents of his angry impulses. Sickly with yellow fever, he returns to England and confesses his love for Tess, She cannot have him and turns him away. As he leaves however, Tess murders Alec and pursues Angel. The novel closes with the couple at Stonehenge, where Tess rests upon an ancient altar. As the police descend to take Tess to prison and certain and death, she states she is glad, for Angel loves her and she him.

Hardy was an educated Victorian man concerned with the injustices of his day. Tess is almost an image of Hardy’s beautiful pastoral England, raped by the landed gentry, abused and managed by those using the name of the church. When she lies upon the pagan altar, she is at her happiest. The narrator concludes the novel with the statement:

“‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals (in the Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess,”

Justice, however,  is not really just at all. What passes for “Justice” is in fact one of the pagan gods enjoying a bit of “sport,” or a frivolous game.  The fates are frivolous. This is the ache of the modern view – there is no dream. Just reality, bare and stark.

tess of the D

Not only is society in transition between an ancient pastoral land, to industrial urbanisation, but also from the enlightenment certainty to modern melancholy. Unlike classic tragedy, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the tale does not allude to a “norm” against which the tragedy occurs. Romeo and Juliet’s families acknowledge that their warring houses could have prevented the deaths. The court of Macbeth acknowledge that powerlust and hubris brought about the decline of the kingdom and so forth.

One feels with Hardy, that with the decline of enlightenment certainty, comes a decline in confidence in redemption of any kind. The modernist ache is to contemplate society and its evils without affirming an alternative ending. Other than to aspire to compassionate humanism, we cannot ultimately hope but to avoid the sport of the gods.

 

One Thousand and One Nights – (Arabic: كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة‎ Kitāb alf laylah wa-laylah)

One Thousand and One Nights  is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic golden age, 7th – 13th century AD. The tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore and literature.  I detect some parallels with the Hebrew and Biblical account of the book of Esther and the origins of the Feast of Purim.

1001 Arabian Nights 2

The versions of One Thousand and One Nights vary, but what is common throughout all the editions is the initial frame story of the ruler Shahryar (from Persian: شهريار‎, meaning “king” or “sovereign”) and his wife Schehrezade (from Persian: شهرزاد‎, possibly meaning “of noble lineage”).  The main frame story concerns a Persian king and his shock to discover his wife’s infidelity. He has her executed and in his bitterness and grief, decides that all women are the same. The king, Shahryar, begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Schehrezade, the vizier’s daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king, curious about how the story ends, is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights. It ends with the king giving his wife a pardon and sparing her life.

The biblical account of Esther is set during the reign of King Ahaserus [Xerxes, 5th C. BC] and  the story was likely composed sometime in the 3rd or 2nd century BC. It tells of the King of Persia whose wife refuses his command to appear before his banquet of noblemen and so he deposes her for fear that women throughout the kingdom would disobey their husbands. Not long after Xerxes seeks for a new wife by bringing virgins from all around the kingdom into the palace. The girls are prepared for the Royal House over one year and then are brought to the king for one night. After one night they are moved into the royal harem and not called again unless by name.  The story tells of an orphaned Jewish girl in the kingdom, raised by her cousin Mordecai, who was brought in before the king. She is favoured her among all the virgins and chosen to be his bride.

1001 Nights Esther

Not long after this Haman, the vizier [Prime Minister] brings charges against the Jewish people for not honouring the customs of the nation. Haman requests the King decree the Jews should be exterminated. Mordecai, Esther’s cousin,  passes news of the decree to Esther in the palace and urges her that she will not be spared by the decree and must intercede for her people. She tells him that anyone who comes to the king unbidden will be executed, except those he extends his golden scepter to. She resolves to fast and pray and then approach the king without invitation. After three days, she approaches the king, who extends his sceptre to her and asks her what she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Instead of laying her case before the king, she instead invites him and Haman to attend a banquet. During the banquet again the king asks what she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Again instead of laying forth her request, Esther invites them both to a second banquet.

The next day at the second banquet the king again asks what Esther’s petition may be up to half the kingdom. This time she asks for the lives of herself and her people be spared. The king seeing that it was Haman who had established the decree, is furious and he walks out onto the balcony. In the meantime Haman pleads with Esther by falling upon her couch. When the king returns he perceives  Haman to be molesting the queen and immediately orders his execution.  Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, is given Haman’s place as vizier and he promptly writes another decree for the Jews to defend themselves. The occasion is celebrated to the present day in the feast of Purim, the day the Jews were spared anhialation by a faithful womans’ courage and her ability to artfully delay the king.

1001 Nights

While elements are conflated and details changed, in both stories, the clever queen saves her own life and the lives of others by knowing how to go about matters of national and international diplomacy with subtle grace. Both women engage in theatrical delays across a series of nights, creating intrigue and enticing the King to change policies and preserve lives.

 

The Myth of Thamus and Theuth

In the writings of Phaedrus, Socrates tells his disciples this story.

Among the ancient Egyptian gods, there was one called Theuth who discovered “number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of draughts and dice, and above all else, writing” (Phaedrus, 274d). One day, Theuth visited Thamus, King of Egypt, urging him to disseminate the arts around Egypt. For each art that Theuth presented, Thamus offered his praise and criticism. When it came to writing, Theuth said:

O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom. (Phaedrus, 274e)

But Thamus replied that, as the “father of writing,” Theuth’s affection for writing had kept him from acknowledging the truth about writing. In fact, Thamus asserted, writing increases forgetfulness rather than memory. Instead of internalizing and understanding things, students will rely on writing as a potion for reminding. Moreover, students will be exposed to many ideas without properly thinking about them. Thus, they will have an “appearance of wisdom” while “for the most part they will know nothing” (Phaedrus, 275a-b).

myth of theuth 3

Socrates used the illustration to point out that writing alone has no understanding of itself and “continues to signify just the same thing forever” (Phaedrus, 275d-e). Nor does it discern its audience nor offer self explanation. Socrates instead favoured conversation, “the living, breathing discourse of a man who knows, of which the written one can be fairly called an image” (Phaedrus, 276a). Socrates praised dialectic:

The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows . . . Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be. (277a)

As a lover of good writing and an advocate of literacy as key to community development and human emancipation, I find this conversation  interesting for a few reassons.

  1. First, it comes to us via text. We enjoy it and think about it purely because it is recorded in writing.
  2. Second, Socrates highlights that “meaning” is the soul of communication, and the rendering of the human heart and mind, its greatest good. The absence of human interaction, leaves a vacuum, giving space for the empty pursuit of knowledge, disconnection of thought from feeling, and the subjectification of meaning altogether.

myth of theuth 2

Much like contemporary complaints of electronic forms of communication “killing conversation”, we can view first hand an ancient discussion of the same problem. The key it seems, is that humans must talk “to” each other and not “about” each other.  Reading “about love” is not the same as “behaving lovingly”.

Nevertheless, the power of this analogy even today, shows that writing has its place. Phaedrus accused Socrates of inventing the myth to support his point and Socrates did not disagree.  Word pictures, poems and stories particularly have an ability to capture timeless truths, and carry meaning throughout the ages.

A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe,
helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him
—Dylan Thomas

When all is said and done, nothing beats human relationships, dialogue, discourse, dialectic and discussion. Turn off our e-devices, close the books and have a chat.

Into the Woods

The latest Disney holiday release, “Into the Woods” is interestingly, not a children’s film at all but rather an exploration of contemporary philosophical themes.

Written by Stephen Sondheim,  “Into the Woods”  initially debuted on stage in San Francisco in 1986 and since has won several Tony Awards, and toured globally. Despite its mature themes, in 2014, Disney pictures released a star studded version directed by a Rob Marshall to great critical and commercial success.

into the woods 3

The point of the musical seems less to entertain and beguile children, but rather to make a forary into post-modern thought. Admittedly, it does so lightheartedly and with flair.

Step one, de-sanitise the tale, return it to its gruesome original state and juxtapose it with other tales.

 

The musical tells the interweaving tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Bean Stalk and the characters sing and dance their way through the narrative with charming ease. Retainin the gruesome elements of the original Grimm’s tales means the ugly sisters chop of toes to fit shoes, Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf [and promptly revived by the gallant baker and his knife], and Rapunzel is banished to a swamp by the witch who has blinded her lover.

Step two, explore what happens after the characters attain their wishes, the post- “happily ever after”.

 

Once each character receives their wishes, and “happily ever after,” the narrative explores their subsequent unravelling. Cinderella’s Prince is adulterous, Jack’s giant ramgaes through the country in search of her lost harp and hen, key characters die off. Each of the characters begins to blame the other for the chaos.  The story moves from fairy tale into solemn reality……. things don’t always work out the way we think they will. The witch cautions them all to question their wishes, that each of them contributed to the demise by what they desired.

Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you

Perhaps the most profound lines come in the closing song:

Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen

 into the woods 2

Step three: Redefine the very notion of knowing and meaning.

 

The characters chant to each other:

Wrong things, right things…

Who can say what’s true?…

Witches can be right, Giants can be good.

You decide what’s right you decide what’s good

The story closes with half the fairy story characters dead or disappeared, and the remaining few, huddled together in the woods, to hear the story from the beginning. They are adrift in a world without certain meaning and outcomes and must define meaning for themselves together. The find comfort in each other and not in the narratives they have imagined.

into the woods 5

So what?

 

Doctor of Philosophy and Catholic commentator, Taylor Marshall in his blog review,  labels the story “pernicious” and outlines the philosophic nominalism evident in the narrative. For him, the moralism evident in which the characters are cautioned to make their own reality, is deceptive. Instead, he cautions that in fact “rationalism” and discovery of “what is” is in fact the fittest form of human endeavour. As sojourners here, our job is to discover the world, it’s rules and paradigms, the order that God has placed and to abide by this order. http://taylormarshall.com/2014/12/into-the-woods-movie-a-dads-critical-review.html

I find his reasoning misses the mark.

Fairy stories have always been ground for phillsophical and theological debate – rich with imagery they naturally speak to the dream and the psyche. They play an important role in our subconscious development. It’s important to know that you can overcome the giant. It’s important to know that while there is wickedness in the world, that goodness still prevails. It’s important to know that love saves and that goodness is redemptive.

However, fairy stories, for their simplicity, can be oppressive too.  Is wickedness so black and white? is the witch always wrong  or is she a person too with a story to understand? Should girls be waiting for a prince or there is there another narrative girls can listen to? Does a requited love story always bestow the end of all unhappiness upon a girl or boy? Can our wishes for wealth, greener pastures, beauty and so on – lead us into more trouble than we know?

“Story is a spell and we should be careful what we tell,  because children listen” !!

Definitely !!

“Be careful what you wish, wishes are children, they come true”.

Absolutely !!

There is ground to question the narratives we absorb year after year. However, what “Into the Woods” shows us is that by dissolving meaning, we dissolve the grounds for narrative itself. The characters cannot ascertain whether the giant is “good” or “bad” and so slay her out of their immediate need. The cling to each other in the woods, a community adrift finding solace, and meaning  in each other.

The true end point of post-modern thought is absurdism. There is no more story to tell because there is no meaning to speak of. We’re just “Waiting for Godot.”

Instead of deciding this,  I would urge the characters of these fairy stories, to not define their own meaning but instead to break out of the story they are trapped within to find a GREATER story and a GREATER meaning. If we as readers find tales we read too limiting in moralism, in their two dimensional villains and stereotypical endings, we need to read MORE narrative, and absorb MORE and broader definitions of meaning, not less.

Narrative by nature, says something, and asserts meaning. Meaning is required for crisis and catharsis. Without these we have no stories to tell, no songs to sing.

Stories are wishes, wishes are children, we should be careful what story we wish, what spell we tell, because children believe them, because they come true. The stories we listen to define us and our perspective on the world. What we believe, we become.

I know a story where the wishes of the two protagonists, unravel the whole of human history requiring a promised hero to save them, a king, a prince to arrive and deliver them. This story covers thousands of years and weaves its way through civilsations and empires and finds itself in a regional outpost, a backwater, where a young man from a country village gives his life up for his nation. And saves the world.

That is a GREAT story.

Madness and denial in Shutter Island

The 2010, Martin Scorcese film, Shutter Island explores madness and denial in a film noir style detective thriller.  The two protagonists are led on a winding tale of secrets, conspiracy, and double motives. Two US Marshals, Teddy and Chuck [Leonardo Di Caprio and Mark Ruffalo], travel to Shutter Island, to visit Ashecliffe hospital, notable for housing the criminally insane. A woman patient, guilty of the drowning death of her three children,  has escaped and things are not well. Strangely her doctor, Dr. Sheehan,  has also just departed on vacation and the doctors and patients seem caught up in a web of secrets.  When the two men arrive, a storm traps them there for several days further complicating matters and compounding the eerie mysteriousness of the island institution.

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Upon arrival, the men are stripped of their weapons and treated to the harsh regulations of the islands. Mysteriously they are barred from viewing certain buildings, and their actions are heavily monitored.  Despite the assurance that the island has been thoroughly searched,  the inmate Rachel Solando, seems to have vanished without explanation.

Throughout the film, Teddy suffers flashbacks of terrors he witness during WWII, especially during the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. He has instinctive suspicions about the motives of the head Doctors, particularly Dr. Naehring, who has a German accent. Moreover, he is haunted by visions of his deceased wife Delores who died in a house fire, set alight by one Andrew Laeddis. In one dream, Delores tells Teddy that Rachel is still on the island, as so is her killer Andrew Laeddis.

After a terrible night of the storm, alarms have been reset and patients are found wandering outside of their cells. Without explanation, Rachael Solando is found. Suspicious the doctors had simply been hiding her, Teddy interviewis her, when she suddenly starts shrieking that Teddy is her [dead] husband.  More and more suspicious the truth is being hidden, Teddy breaks into C Building alone and encounters George Noyce a prisioner in solitary confinement there. He assaults Teddy, telling him to stop searching for Laeddis and warns warns that the doctors on the island are performing illegal lobotomies on patients. He claims that everyone including Chuck is playing and elaborate game to deceive Teddy.

shutter island

 

Increasingly confused by the mysterious island and contradictions among resisdents and staff, Teddy and Chuck explore the forbidden Lighthouse on the island and the two get separated. Thinking he can see a body fallen from the cliffs, Teddy climbs down and meets a woman hiding  in a cave. She tells him she is the real Rachel Solando, who worked as a doctor on the island until she questioned some of the medical experiments being undertaken at which point she was committed as a patient to prevent her from escaping. When Teddy returns, he discovers the staff believe he came to the island alone and that Chuck Aule had never accompanied him.

Isolated but determined to uncover the plot, Teddy returns to the forbidden light house where he encounters the head doctor, Dr. Cawley. Here Cawley explains that Teddy is himself Andrew Laeddis [and anagram of his own name], incarcerated for the murder of his depressive wife who drowned her own children. Thus, Rachel Solando is an anagram for his wifes name Delores Chanal. The past few days, the staff of the institution had experimented with a new therapy, allowing Teddy [Laeddis] to role play a Federal Marshall investigating the island, in an effort to break through this conspiracy laden insanity. The only way Teddy could live after her death, was to invent an elaborate story of her murder and his desire to seek down the killer. Chuck is in fact Teddy’s psychiatrist, Dr. Sheehan.

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The doctors indicate that Laeddis has achieved a state of clarity 9 months prior but had degenerated again into a state of denial. Here again Teddy faces the truth of his actions and admits his guilt for not realising his wife’s trouble and getting her help when she needed it. However, despite this clarity,  the next morning it’s clear that Teddy has regressed into the role play again, refusing to ‘remember‘ who Dr. Sheehan is. Teddy then asks whether it is better to “live as a monster or die a good man.” The film closes as he willingly follows the orderlies, who take him away to undergo a lobotomy.

The film explores a dream-within-a-dream. As we dream of Teddy [as viewers], he dreams of Teddy as Laeddis. The truth comes to him in flashbacks and hallucinations – his wife, the children, her killer. His fractured personality, created to prevent himself from bearing the full weight and terror of understanding his actions, creates in him a distance from his visions. His visions are his true-self.  He can only handle clues, one at a time, a mystery thriller he must solve as the protagonist, the good guy, hunting down the culprit. However, when he discovers the truth it is again too much to bear and he reverts again to the “dream” of forgetting. Finally, he would rather live without the memory and “half a man”. He would rather die with the delusion of being good than know his true self.

If only we would heed the truth that comes to us through dreams, through stories. There we can act as the protagonist and hero, seeking out the culprit to all the ills and wrongs of life. However, when faced with the reality of our own human nature, will we accept it or revert instead to the dream of denial? Would we rather live with the delusion of being good than know our true selves?

 

 

Library for All

Facebook and Twitter boast particpiation in political uprisings in Egypt and Iran, and share realtime footage of disasters unfolding in Paris and Sydney. Free university courses, YouTube tutorials on just about every subject abound, while blogs and other sharing platforms put learning and sharing into the hands of the user. Yet still information access in inequitable and one charity is seeking to address that.

This charity seeks to bring low cost technology into marginalised and developing areas, and fill it with free digital resources, to create a “Library for All”.

We believe that all children should have the chance to learn. This is why we built Library For All, a digital library for the developing world. By increasing access to books and knowledge, children will have a much better chance of learning the basics. Our goal is to increase literacy and support education in all subject areas by providing access to books through our digital library.

– https://www.libraryforall.org/

 

If words are thought, and freedom of thought and freedom of speech a human right, then as much as food and water and healthcare, human beings need access to words, ideas, stories and information to flourish.

 

 

Untranslatable

One of the most magical things about language is the element of “semantic range.” This is the realm of meaning for a word that gives language its depth and colour.

For example, in English the word “house” can mean “the building in which I live”. It can also be the verb “to house” meaning  “to keep under shelter”.  It however can also mean, “dynasty” such as the “House of Windsor” or it could mean a type of theatre –  “play house” or a toilet – “out house.” This doesn’t account for other usages such as idioms, “to bring the house down” or “to get on like a house on fire.”

Quickly we can see the richness of language and good writers pick up these nuances and play them to maximum effect, much like great musicians play with notes, chords and keys.

Words are simply human thoughts, and when words are lost, or whole languages die, unique thoughts are lost. George Orwell, in 1984, in his description of a dystopic future world ruled by “Big Brother”, describes the gradual elimination of words from the dictionary in an effort to curb thought.

So in celebration of the richness of language and the richness of thoughts, please enjoy this series of “untranslatable words from other languages”.

1. Fernweh (German)

2. Komorebi (Japanese)

3. Tingo (Pascuense)

4. Pochemuchka (Russian)

5. Gökotta (Swedish)

6. Bakku-shan (Japanese)

7. Backpfeifengesicht (German)

8. Aware (Japanese)

9. Tsundoku (Japanese)

10. Shlimazl (Yiddish)

11. Rire dans sa barbe (French)

12. Waldeinsamkeit (German)

13. Hanyauku (Rukwangali)

14. Gattara (Italian)

15. Prozvonit (Czech)

16. Iktsuarpok (Inuit)

17. Papakata (Cook Islands Maori)

18. Friolero (Spanish)

19. Schilderwald (German)

20. Utepils (Norwegian)

21. Mamihlapinatapei (Yagan)

22. Culaccino (Italian)

23. Ilunga (Tshiluba)

24. Kyoikumama (Japanese)

25. Age-otori (Japanese)

26. Chai-Pani (Hindi)

27. Won (Korean)

28. Tokka (Finnish)

29. Schadenfreude (German)

30. Wabi-Sabi (Japanese)

http://www.boredpanda.com/untranslatable-words-found-in-translation-anjana-iyer/