Lemmings, the plague and a Children’s Crusade: The Pied Piper explored.

The medieval infestation of rats which caused the bubonic plague, is thought to be foundation for the narrative The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

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The story tells of the deliverance of the town of Hamlin from the infestation of rats by a mysterious Piper dressed in coloured clothes. Perhaps drawing from the migratory behaviour of lemmings, the story has the Piper lead the vast host of rodents out of town and into the sea where they drowned. When the towns people do not show sufficient gratitude to the Piper, he proceeds to lead their children away, never to be seen again.

This week in news, Scientists have published findings that it was not rats that originally caused the bubonic plague in medieval Europe, but in fact fleas carried from Asian gerbils. From 1347 onwards, the plague effectively wiped out over 30% of the European population.

However, the first record versions of the Pied Piper date back to 1300, some 50 years before the plague even broke out in Europe.

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The original story, recorded on a glass window in Hamlin Cathedral, Lower Saxony,  Germany,  tells of a Piper dressed in multi-coloured clothing, leading the children away from the town, never to return.  A town record from 1384 states:

“It is 100 years since our children left.

Theories around what happened to the 130 children of Hamlin vary, but an interesting account points to a Children’s Crusade.

Reputedly started in 1212, a German boy called  Nicholas, a shepherd from the Rhineland in Germany, possessed with an extra-ordinary eloquence,  tried to lead a group of children across the Alps and into Italy. Claiming that he had been visited by Jesus, he had been told to lead a Crusade to peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity. Through a series of supposed portents and miracles he gained a considerable following, including possibly as many as 30,000 children.

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He led his followers south towards the Mediterranean, in the belief that the sea would part on their arrival, allowing him and his followers to march to Jerusalem, but this did not happen. Sadly two out of three travelers died on the journey, and those who did not were offered citizenship by local authorities. Nicholas himself, refused to admit defeat, continued to Rome where the Pope encouraged him and his followers return to their families.

Nicholas did not survive the journey home, and back in Germany, his father was hanged by angry parents whose children and family members had also perished.

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Dr Who

Dr Who and its memorable theme song have graced our TV screens since the 60s and have become cult favourites worldwide.

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A Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, the Doctor, travels in a TARDIS, which appears as a blue British Police Box. It’s chameleon circuit which allows it to take on the appearance of local objects, broke forever fixing it in its 1960s form.

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The Doctor is a sci-fi Sherlock Holmes. Shedding one form and taking on another, he is a deathless being, bent on saving civilisations from various alien foes, and  gathering a series of pretty female companions in his travels.

His time machine, the TARDIS is an anagram for Time and Relative Dimension In Space and interestingly, it is not a time machine so much as a portal. The Fourth doctor, my favourite, played by Tom Baker, once explained its curious properties.

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The Doctor explained to companion Leela how the TARDIS can be bigger inside than out.  He uses the analogy of how a larger cube might appear to be able to fit inside a smaller one were the larger cube further away.

 

By making the two immediately accessible at the same time, the TARDIS creates, Dimensional Transcendentalism. 

In an earlier post, I touched on how stories have the capability to transport the reader through time. Stephen Hawking discussed the yet unexplored field of Imaginary Time by science fiction writers, and in many ways every book we read is a TARDIS.

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While so small in appearance, within its covers lies a whole new dimension of sight, sound, taste, touch and feel. Travellers who enter this TARDIS, rarely come out the same.

Ulysses 31

This blog has often touched upon the point that the popularist genre, science fiction, has its roots in high myths and legends. What was once the domain of scholars, philosophers, theologians and literary experts –  is now the domain of geeks and nerds worldwide.

What better illustration of this relationship than the 1980s French-Japanese animation, “Ulysses 31″.

The 26 episodes of the series, describe the struggles of Ulysses and his crew against the divinities that rule the universe, the ancient gods from Greek Mythology.  The gods are angered when Ulysses, commander of the giant space vessel Odyssey, kills the giant Cyclops to save a group of enslaved children, including his son.

Zeus sentences Ulysses to travel the universe with his crew frozen until he finds the Kingdom of Hades, at which point his crew will be revived and he will be able to return to Earth. Along the way they encounter numerous other famous figures from Greek mythology, given a sci-fi twist.

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Any lover of science fiction and fantasy can recognise many of the themes explored throughout the episodes:
  • The ship passes a moon that brings Numinor back to life, since it’s from his home planet of Zotra. When they investigate, the children disappear and Numinor suspects they’ve been kidnapped by a legendary witch.
  • Ulysses meets an old scholar named Heratos and his assistant, a young Zotrian woman named Atina. Heratos gives Ulysses a map that he says is to the Kingdom of Hades, but is actually to the Graveyard of Wrecks and Hulks which no-one has ever left alive, because the gods threatened Atina’s life if he did not deceive Ulysses. While there, Telemachus finds the black sphere which contains a map of Olympus.
  • Aeolus, King of the winds, kidnaps Ulysses to provide entertainment for his daughter’s birthday party. Unable to watch her father’s cruel sport, she frees the captives and helps them escape.
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  • Ulysses encounters Sisyphus a king condemned to fill a crater with boulders for all eternity for having dared to want the secret of immortality. Zeus has promised Sisyphus he can leave if he makes Ulysses take his place.
  • The Odyssey comes across a lifeless city world. On hearing that its people had the technology to bring the dead back to life, Yumi takes Numinor to the planet to revive him. However, she learns why there is no life in the city.
  • A space storm revives the companions as crazed automatons who take over the ship and try to crash it into space glaciers.
  • Passing through the domain of the great Sphinx, Ulysses must answer his riddle to leave safely. His treacherous daughter kidnaps the children and plots to make Ulysses her slave.
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  • Ulysses is saved from a Trident attack by Chronos, the god of time, who wants to use him as leverage to be allowed to reenter the home of the gods.
  • The Odyssey arrives on a tropical planet, where the ruling tyrant uses a magic prism to shrink them.
  • Ulysses follows a Trident carrier in hopes of learning more about the way out of Olympus, and finds himself trapped in bizarre worlds. To save the children, he will have to give up his memories.
  • Trying to help a stranded astronaut, Ulysses tries to find a hidden base on one of the deadly twin planets Scylla or Charydbis.
  • Coming across a piece of Zotra that could bring Numinor back to life, Ulysses and Yumi pursue it to a swamp planet where they are ambushed by monsters who can copy their forms.
  • Pirates kidnap the children to force Ulysses and No-No to brave the danger of the Sirens, said to guard a map of the Olympus universe.
  • Ulysses and the crew land on a planet similar to prehistoric earth. They encounter a winged female named Sauria, whose people are under attack from mutant vultures called Keconopters.
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  • The crew of the Odyssey are enslaved by the magic of the enchantress Circe and turned into pig-people to build a tower that will house all the knowledge of the universe.
  • Princess Ariadne comes upon the Odyssey, and asks for Ulysses’ help in saving her lover Theseus, who has been exiled to her father’s labyrinth to be killed by the fearsome Minotaur.
  • Mercurius, the bubble-dwelling “grandson of the gods,” enlists Ulysses’ help in taking a jewel from the brow of the giant Atlas under the promise that it will give him the power to send Ulysses home.
  • The shapechanger Nereus calls Ulysses for help when Shark Men, servants of the gods, take over his planet.
  • Ulysses is saved from an attack by the most powerful magician in the universe who breaks the gods’ curse on his crew; however, as payment for his services, demands to hunt Ulysses’s best men.
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  • Princess Hypsipile of the planet Lemnos is found by Ulysses; she tells them that the women of her planet are being forced by the Shark Men to build ships for the gods.
  • The Odyssey is dragged to a planet populated by machines, and governed by the tyrannical computer Cortex. One of its inhabitants, a “female” robot named Nanette, falls in love with No-No.
  • The Odyssey responds to a distress call from Queen Calypso, who tells him that if he saves her planet she will tell him the way back to earth. Calypso has been ordered by Zeus to betray Ulysses, but she falls in love with him and cannot carry out the gods’ orders.
  • Ulysses and the children are sent back in time and meet the original Ulysses, Telemachus and Penelope of Homer’s epic.
  • Needing raw materials to repair the Odyssey, Ulysses travels to a world where the inhabitants are addicted to eating seeds which induce amnesia.
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  • In the final episode, Ulysses and his companions reach the Kingdom of Hades. They meet Orpheus, who seeks Ulysses’ help to find his love, Euridyce, who has been taken to the Kingdom of Hades by Charon. Hades the god of death, tells Ulysses that he must leave his companions behind if he wishes to return to Earth. He rejects the offer, which was a final test, and they all return home.

What is truth?

In the west, we condone a liberal tolerance of all points of view – asserting there is no such thing as “ultimate truth.” This itself is a truth claim but is a valid truth claim because it supports freedom of thought. So we believe in individual freedom.

We don’t believe in any over arching system of ethics or system of truth,  until another culture contravenes our ideas of what is right and wrong. Case in point, what greater evil than the censorship of freedom of speech? right ?

In western nations,  we believe in the power of forgiveness but not in oppressive views or regulations about sexuality. Other cultures believe in conservative sexual values, but not necessarily in our liberal notions of forgiveness. Not an honour-shame society for example.

What is right and what is wrong ? Our bias tells us our ways are right and others are wrong. Other’s truth claims lead to violence and hate. Our truth claims are valid because they endorse freedom and life.

In western nations, we hold dearly to notions of liberal individualism, yet imposing such notions on developing communities, essentially divorcing the individual as an entity from their community, wreaks havoc both for the individual and for the community in question. So well meaning help, from the vantage point of what we value highly can  actually be a violence to a community.

This begs the question of whether there is an ultimate narrative to aspire to understanding – an ultimate hero-journey, an ultimate discovery of “what is” that will guide our way? Or do we simply impose order and narrative onto life? This quote caught my eye recently in the Huffington Post.

In 2009, Julianne Moore’s mother, Anne Smith, died suddenly of septic shock. She was 68, and Moore was devastated. After that, she stopped believing in God. “I learned when my mother died five years ago that there is no ‘there’ there,” Moore, 54, told the Hollywood Reporter.

“Structure, it’s all imposed. We impose order and narrative on everything in order to understand it. Otherwise, there’s nothing but chaos.”

Do we impose a narrative on life – or is there a narrative there to discover ? Ultimately, what is truth?

Interestingly, Pilate asked the same question of Christ. John 18 recounts:

37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

38What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”

40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!”

In John’s account, Jesus makes the startling claim to not “speak the truth” but the “be the truth” that all truth-tellers speak of.

In our understanding, the teachings of Christ are good and moral. He taught to forgive, to show mercy, to love our enemies. He gave up his life for these values. He was an iconoclast, a prophet not unlike Ghandi or Siddharta.

His audactious claims tell us a few things:

  1. He did not ever wish to be a good teacher pointing to the truth. He cannot be equated among good teachers for this claim.
  2. In the words of C S Lewis, “He is either a lunatic, a liar or …………….”

So, what do we do with his claim to BE the truth? If he claimed to embody the truth, this truth must be something like freedom or life, the only things that are of ultimate value and not relative worth.

Science makes truth claims, but science is a provable system of empirical tests. Science claims don’t seek to control us, but rather support our understanding of the reality we live in. Moreover, the claims of science are ultimately disprovable, and the next test or proof can totally shift our understanding of reality to a new and deeper truth claim.

C S Lewis explained his belief in God:

I believe Christianity just as I believe the sun rises, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

So Christ claimed to be the light by which we would see the world and reality.

In narrative terms, Christ claimed to be the ultimate narrative to aspire to, the ultimate meaning in the universe. He stated that we do not simply “impose order and narrative” onto everything, but his IS the grand narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Candide and ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’

François-Marie Arouet [1694 – 1778], known by his pen name, or nom de plume, Voltaire, was a French Englightenment writer, historian, and philosopher. Voltaire was a prolific writer, despite the strict censorship laws of the time. As a satirist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma, and the French institutions of  his day.

Candide, also L’Optimism is a French satire first published in 1759 by Voltaire. It begins with a young man, Candide, who has lived a sheltered life and indoctrinated with Leibnitzian optimism by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes his slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.

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Written as a playful comedy, behind its amusing façade, there lies very harsh criticism of contemporary European civilization. European governments such as France, Prussia, Portugal and England are each attacked ruthlessly. Organised religion, is also harshly treated. For example, while in Paraguay, Cacambo remarks, “[The Jesuits] are masters of everything, and the people have no money at all …”. Voltaire depicts the Jesuits holding the indigenous peoples as slaves while they claim to be helping them.

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Moreover, Candide was written into the context of mid 1700s natural disasters and war. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 led to a tsunami and city fires which rattled the philosophical optimism of the day, particularly that of Gottfried Leibnitz and his optimist worldview. Voltaire actively rejected Leibnizian optimism after the natural disaster, convinced that if this were the best possible world, it should surely be better than it is, describing the catastrophe as one of the most horrible disasters.

Voltaire concludes with Candide, advocating a deeply practical precept, “we must cultivate our garden“, in stead of the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds“.

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Candide has enjoyed both great success and great scandal. Immediately after its secretive publication, the book was widely banned because it contained religious blasphemy, political sedition and intellectual hostility hidden under a thin veil of satirical amusement. Today, Candide is recognized as Voltaire’s magnum opus and is often listed as part of the Western canon; it is arguably taught more than any other work of French literature. Candide has been listed as one of The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written.

Voltaire’s Bastards

In 1992, Candian born political scientist Jonathan Ralston Saul published “Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.” Part of a trilogy of political essays, Saul points out the ills of a dictatorship of reason, unbalanced by other human qualities.

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Saul points out that Voltaire and his contemporaries believed reason was the best defense against the arbitrary power of monarchs and the supersititons of relgious dogma. It was the key not only to challenge the powers of kings and aristocracies but also to creating a more just and humane society. This emphasis on reason has become central to modern thought. However, unfortunately, today’s rational society bears little resemblance to the visions of the 17th and 18th century humanist thinkers.

Our ruling elites justify themselves in the name of reason, but all too often their power and methodoloy is based on specialised knowledge and the manipulation of “rational strucutres” rather than reason. The link between justice and reason has been severed and our decision-makers, bereft of a viable ethical frameowrk have turned rational calculation into something short sighted and self-serving. This can and does lead to a directioness state that rewards the pursuit of power for power’s sake.

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Moreover, we live in a society fixated on rational solutions, management, expertise and professionalism in almost all areas, from politics and economics to education and cultural affairs. The rationalism Voltaire advocates, captured in Candide’s mantra, “we must cultivate our garden” has birthed has led to the rise of individualism with no regard for the role of society has not created greater individual autonomy and self-determination, as was once hoped, but isolation and alienation.

He calls for a pursuit of a more humanist ideal in which reason is balanced with other human mental capacities such as common sense, ethics, intuition, creativity, and memory, for the sake of the common good.

In brief

What interests me in this literary debate between political minds is that art and art forms are 100 years ahead of academic thought, most of the time.

The modernist writers of the turn of the century and their melanchology works, the surrealism and absurdism is art and literature and the nihilism produced by many of the war writers and poets – signalled he death knell that pure “rational frameworks” brought to society.  Lost and adrift without meaning, this generation saw the effects of reason driven ideology in Stalin and Hitler and its consequences.

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Children’s writers such as C S Lewis and J K Rowling have made as much sense as Raslton Saul in calling out western rationalism for its hollow promises. Harry Potter’s “muggles” a great example of the non-sense in seeing magical and spiritual things the cause of social ills.

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May we learn in this new generation, to balance celebrate learning and shun supersition without hiding within rational frameworks at the expense of ideology in the form of “truth”, intuition, creativity, spirituality and a framework for justice to work hand in hand with reason.

 

Prometheus [2012]

In his 2012 film Prometheus,, Ridley Scott revisits his Aliens franchise, deciding to tell the origin of not only his Alien creatures, but of humanity.

Plot Summary

The film opens with a humanoid  creature left on earth, a rocky and watery desolate place.  As his space ship leaves him, he drinks a potion and he collapses into the stream. His body dissolves into the water, and fragmented DNA reforms into strands; life is started on earth.

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Years later, in 2089, scientists Shaw and Holloway discover cave paintings of humans worshiping giants who are pointing to a constellation. They gather the data and present it to the Weyland corporation, invested in research into the origins of humanity. It seems Shaw and Holloway have found a star map. Weyland commissions the expedition aboard the space vessel, Prometheus, to seek out the star system and its inhabitable planet there.  The ship, and crew in cyro-sleep,  are guided by robot David.

Shaw and Holloway and the crew awake to find themselves near a desolate planet with a curious hive like structure. Within, there is a breathable atmosphere and heaped up bones and carcases of the inhabitants. The place seems to be a sarcophagus. David, proficient at multiple forms of communication, is able to awaken hologram like memories of the deaths of the giants here. It seems they were escaping a terror. David also opens long shut doors, taking the expedition into a temple-like chamber full of vases. Although dormant, from these vases quickly grow squirming, menacing demons – Aliens.

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The crew take a preserved giant head and one of the vases, back into the space ship. In the process they lose two crew in the honeycomb tunnels of the hive. These two poor souls are the first victims of the rapidly growing, frightening creatures disturbed in the chamber. In true Aliens style we know it’s just a matter of time before each crew member gets their come-uppance.

Aboard the ship, Shaw examines the giant head and discovers a close match to human DNA. They have discovered the Engineers – the predecessors to human life on earth. The discovery sends ripples through the crew aboard, “you’re messing with 300 years of Darwinism.” When Holloway asks Shaw if this disproves her faith, marked by a cross around her neck, she retorts, “but who made them?”

David opens the alien vase and extracts what looks like vials of liquid from within it.  Most enigmatically, he deliberately places a tiny drop of the black ink into Holloway’s glass of water.  That night Holloway and Shaw make love, but not before we discover that her father died fighting ebola in Africa and that she is sterile and cannot bear children.

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The next day, the crew return into the hive, however Holloway is seriously ill, and Shaw, unknown to her, is now pregnant with an alien foetus.  David explores alone and discovers the cockpit of the Engineers‘ spaceship. He activates the hologram memories again and discovers that the Engineers were bound for earth.

Curiously, the spaceship is packed to the gills with vases like those in the temple. It’s almost as if the ship is packed with weapons – fearful biological weapons.

Most interestingly, David discovers an Engineer in cryosleep with an audible heart beat. One is still alive.

Holloway is very ill and Captain Vickers will not allow him back on board. When the crew try to return him to get medical help, Vickers instead torches him with a flame thrower. Not long after Fifield, one of the ships crew left in the hive tunnels over night arrives, crazed and zombified. He too is promptly killed. Inside the ship, Weyland the elderly millionaire who established the Prometheus expedition, is found. It seems,  he commissioned the expedition to find the Engineers and discover the secret to his own immortality. Strangely, Captain Vickers is revealed to be his daughter. Both she and David have known the deadly nature of this expedition and are party to Weylands hubris.

At this point though now it is dawning on the crew, Shaw in particular, that the expedition is doomed. The alien foetus within her has grown rapidly and threatens to kill her. Boldly, she accesses a medical pod and performs surgery on herself, extracting the wriggling creatures and sewing herself up with laser stitches and staples. With only a few jabs of pain killers to abdomen and legs, she then proceeds to race and chase for the remainder of the film. The foetus she leaves to die, locked in the medical pod.

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Weyland and David awaken the Engineer, the one remaining creature of the race who spawned life on earth and are promptly and soundly beaten. This is no benevolent creator; no. The Engineer is bent on piloting his spacecraft straight towards earth where the vials of alien embyos and black sludge will obliterate life.

Is this the moral kick back for daring to name your space ship Prometheus? Is the search to find the gods, or to be like the gods, worthy of mortal punishment?

One by one the characters on the team Prometheus die off; in true Ridley fashion the female protagonist kicks butt. Despite the cesarian section, she shoots, kills, climbs and fights for the remainder of the film. She also maintains her faith, and although the Engineers wished to obliterate life on earth, she wishes to find the reason why, and the reason why they created life in the first place.

Thematic Points: 

Technology and Artificial Intelligence

Cryo-sleep, light speed, star maps, human like robots capabale of jealousy and deceit and proficient at “over 6 million forms of communication, ” the film explores a future only 80 years ahead of our own. David the robot is an enigmatic character, at once loyal to Weyland, he deliberately infects Holloway with Alien substance. His loyalty shifts from Weyland to Shaw upon Weyland’s death however, perhaps revealing a rather human expediency to preserve his own existence.

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Faith 

Shaw wears a crucifix and maintains a faith beyond scientific reason. At one point it is mentioned that surely by 2089, religion and faith would be no longer relevant. However, she is bent on asking the deepest of age old questions. Science fiction the genre, is able to ask the questions asked by myths and legends throughout time – why are we here ? where did we come from? What is the meaning of our existence? Is our creator benevolent or not? In fact, science fiction reasserts that humanity is not on a trajectory away from spiritual wonderings but into the same ones. The genius of Star Wars was that it portrayed a future and advanced scientific world into which spirituality was integrated, instead of being tied to the dated and contextual issues of post-enlightenment rationalism.

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The Myth of Prometheus & the Quest for Immortality

The central theme in Prometheus concerns the Titan who defies the gods and gifts humanity with fire, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment.  The gods want to limit their creations in case they attempt to usurp the gods.

Weyland is an elderly millionaire who seeks to find the origin of life and take immortality for himself. This hubris leads the mission to sure death and the unelashing of a terrible biological weapon into the universe. It seems both Weyland’s accomplices, David and Captain Vickers know of the dangers of the mission and comply. The moral framework of the story judges Weyland but not Shaw. She wishes to know her creator and to ask “why” and survives to continue her quest. Conversely, Weyland wishes to wrest immortality for himself, and so suffers judgement for his hubris.

The Origin of Life

As mentioned above, the narrative is set within the 21st century and is thus constrained by contemporary rational scientfic questions of life and origin. The story does not counter Darwinian evolution, instead addresses the missing link in evolutionary theory, “how did life start?” The Engineers are thus named because they are the agents of life [and death] but not the creators themselves. The film closes with Shaw jetting off, still searching for the answers. Moreover,  robotic responses [placed in the mouth of David] as to “why does it matter?”, sound hollow to the human heart and spirit. To be human is to question.

Interestingly, the Engineer who comes to prehistoric earth to generate life, gives up his own life,  for life to continue. Notes on the film production process allude to alternative plot elements, including an Engineer coming to earth 2000 years ago, to intervene in human barbarity, but was crucified. However Scott removed the plot element for fear it was too heavy handed.

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The Problem of Evil

The giants created life on earth and now seek to destroy it ? Why?  It’s like the planet and its hive are an enormous trap, set to lure over-reaching mortals in search of eternal life and answers of being, and then in turn to release utter destruction upon them and their species.

There is an amorality about the plot as well. The Engineers themselves are and have been consumed by Aliens. This biological weapon is indiscriminate, much like ebola, or the burrowing worm that lives in the eyeball intent only to blind, or the insect that lays it’s larva in the chest of a live host only to burst forth into life, killing it.

Why do we live alongside such creatures and imagine a benevolent world with a benign creator. Life is cruel – we alone place meaning onto that cruelty. So goes the questions as to the nature of morality in this universe.

However, it is intrinsic to narrative to create a meaningful universe. The characters have agency, face a crisis and struggle for catharsis. The absence of morality leaves both good and evil neutral – and removes the crisis. If there were no questions of morality, there would be nothing “wrong” with aliens destroying life; and we inherently believe in life. The suffering and randomness experienced in the universe does not discredit the existence of God, but rather, the existence of ultimate meaning  affirms that our suffering is significant and our struggle for catharsis, has worth.

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Some Final Thoughts:

In an earlier blog, Noah and the Quest for Immortality, I touched on the age old question, expressed in myths, legends and the greats of world literature – the question of life immortal. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero discovers that immortality lies only in human civilization and not in any herbal remedy to prolong life. The Noah story, which refashions this tale, reinjects into this epic narrative the note of eternal life. It lies in a promised descendent who would take destruction upon himself, delivering life and relationship with God back to humanity.

In the biblical account of Adam and Eve, the pair are originally granted immortality in the Garden and need not lust for it. Curiously they are tricked to eat of the fruit “of the knowledge of good and evil.” I say curiously,  because this knowledge is something they already possessed. Otherwise the dare would have no meaning for them. Why would they be tempted to take of what they already had ?

The power in the temptation was for them to believe God was withholding something from them – equality with him. He was a killjoy, a cheater, someone who wanted less for them than they could attain. The fruit of the “knowledge of good and evil” would bridge the gap. So in taking what they already had, they showed distrust for God’s voice and so distrust for God’s nature and their own identity. In doing so, they lost relationship with God, and so lost immortality.

The quest ever since then has been to reattain immortality. And more importantly, to reattain relationship with God. These two things should not be equated to be the same thing.

What the film Prometheus shows us, is that it’s not the quest for relationship with God, or to ask “why” that gets humanity into problems, but the selfish quest for immortality and its power, to the exlcusion of relationship with this creator, that is the problem. The one who seeks to know God, must also listen to how this God is telling the story of redemption in unexpected ways.

The film was a popular and critical success, grossing over $400 million world wide. Nevertheless, there  are major weaknesses to the plot, including the strange choice to have a young actor [Guy Pearce] made up to look like an old man Weyland. Moreover, the unlikely way Shaw runs, fights, climbs and chases after experiencing major abdominal surgery is close to ludicrous. Various other characters such as Captain Vickers and other minor characters are underdeveloped leaving plot elements enigmatic or weakened.

Nevertheless the story is an interesting prequel to the Aliens saga and exploration of origins.

Thank you Ernest Hemingway!

An earlier post, Pied Beauty,  touched on the sensory experience of language. Good writing lies in the authors’ ability to make the reader see, hear, taste, touch and feel. Unlike logic and rhetoric, the power of story is in its ability to make us feel, and so, to remember.

One such writer who has a genius for making the reader feel, is Hemingway.

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Ernest Hemingaway was born 1899 and was second of six children of a Chicago Doctor, Clarence and musician, Grace.  In his youth, he excelled at English and sports and spent his summers swimming and hunting with his father. He was a journalist before a writer, and  left school to work as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. The paper’s style guide informed much of his later style,

 use short sentences … use vigorous English. Be positive.

He worked only six months before volunteering for the Red Cross to become an ambulance driver in Italy. He left New York in May 1918 and by June was at the Italian Front.

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His experiences are recorded in several of his works. In Death in the Afternoon [1932] he recounts searching through rubble in Milan for fragments of bodies. His wounding by mortar fire and susbsequent convalescence in a hospital in Milan is recounted in his semi-autobioraphical novel Farewell to Arms [1929].

The young Hemingway fell in love with American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky. In his novel, the young solider and nurse, escape Italy to Switzerland overland and by boat where she dies in childbirth. However in reality, Hemmingway was discharged and returned to the USA in January 1919, intending to marry Agnes. By March she broke his heart by writing to him that she was to be married to an Italian officer.

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Back in the USA, Hemmingway worked again as a reporter and editor but he was restless. He met and fell in love with Hadley Richardson, the sister of a friend and they married in 1921.  Two months later he accepted a role as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star and the pair sailed for Paris.

Post-war Paris was a cheap place to live, the American dollar being strong. There Hemmingway fell among a gathering of  “the most interesting people in the world”. Writers, artists and thinkers gathered in Paris to enjoy a golden age of intellectual and cultural fervour. Here Hemingway wrote some fiction and poetry while working as a reporter for the Toronto Star. He covered contienental politics and completed some travel pieces.

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The group of modernist artists and writers among whom Hemingway found solace in Paris is recorded in A Sun Also Rises [1926] his first novel.  These included Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and F Scott Fitzgerald among others others. In the novel he captured the feeling among his peers of the post-war “lost generation” but he qualified that he felt his generation was “battered but not lost.”

Disciple of the modernist set, particularly Gertrude Stein, Hemingway developed a minimalist style which delivered maximum sensory experience in a lean, pared back sentence style. So famed is he for this economy of style, that there now exists a Hemingway App which promises to

make your writing bold and clear.

Hemingway’s writing is peppered with his love for drink and for women and for food. His work is a sensory feast. As his words amble, so do his feelings – the way a drink makes him feel, the meal he eats as he waits for his son to be born, the feeling for a woman he cannot have, his disgust for his compatriots behaviour, the weather, the feeling of the weight of a fishing line, the methodical rthyms of a day, the passions a man gives to his work.

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Everything is recounted in a beautiful spare style, the writing takes the reader along on a sensory journey through experience, without judgement. Hemmingway does not moralise. There is no right and wrong in his world, no good and bad, just feeling, feeling for the women he loves, feeling for his sons, feelings for his friend and colleagues, feelings for his work, feelings for the nations he encounters and the people along the way, feelings for the drinks that transport him into a sense of wellbeing, the meal that caps off the day.

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Between trips to Paris, Spain and Africa where he love game hunting, Hemingway published Farewell to Arms [1929], Death in the Afternoon [1932], The Green Hills of Africa [1935], To Have and To Have Not [1937] and other short stories.  For Whom the Bell Tolls [1940] was written during World War II and between 1942-1945 Hemmingway took a break from writing to act as foreign correspondent in Europe. After this time Hemingway began to struggle both in health and heart as his literary friends began to die one by one. In the 1950s, now with his fourth wife, he began The Old Man and the Sea [1952] . Of this he saidit was,

the best I can write ever of all of my life.

It won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1952.  In 1954 he suffered a series of accidents while in Africa and newspapers prematurely published obituaries of him. After these injuries caused him much pain and his heavy drinking turned into alchoholism.

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In October 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, a prize he is reputed for declaring belonged to Isak Dinesen and other writers. His health deteriorated greatly from here.

In 1956 he traveled to Europe and discovered a trunk of notebooks in the Ritz which had been left there from his Paris days. Excitedly he began the memoir of the time,  A Moveable Feast [1964], and completed Garden of Eden [1986] and Islands in the Stream [1970]. By 1959 he had slid into a depression from which he did not recover.

In the morning of July 2, 1961, shortly before his 62nd birthday, Hemingway shot himself with his favourite gun. A heavy drinker he likely also suffered from a genetic condition causing an inability for the body to metabolise iron, resulting in physical and mental deterioration.

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Hemmingways’ writing is poetry. Poetry to life and all the senses. His existence in the early 20th century was something magical and something lost; free from social constraints life was filtered through the senses, fully experienced without judgement. His drinking and poor health perhaps took the better of him, or perhaps his sensitive heart could take no more of life.

Nevertheless, his life is an essay to his philosophy of being. A song to his generation, who had jettisoned the certainty and moralism of the 19th century and lived adrift and alive, experiencing the shocks of wars, of loves and losses. What a piognant full stop to his life is his suicide and death. Hemingway seemed to not care about the end, only the living.

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Subsequent generations have moved beyond modernism into post-modernism and we currently experience an awakening of spirituality in arts and culture. Thoughts again are given to death as well as to life, to morality beyond immediate sensory experience.

Nevertheless, Hemingways’ writing remains a lovely collection of impressions,senses conveyed through word and syntax.

Thank you Ernest Hemingway.

Kurt Vonnegut Graphs Stories

This post is written by Ana Swanson and published in The Washington Post February 9th, 2015. Shared with gratitude to Ketan Shah.

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Kurt Vonnegut claimed that his prettiest contribution to culture wasn’t a popular novel like “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but a largely forgotten master’s thesis he wrote while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. The thesis argued that a main character has ups and downs that can be graphed to reveal the taxonomy of a story, as well as something about the culture it comes from. “The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads,” Vonnegut said.

In addition to churning out novels, Vonnegut was deeply interested in the practice of writing. The tips he wrote for other writers – including “How to write with style” and “Eight rules for writing fiction” — are concise, funny, and still very useful. The thesis shows that Vonnegut’s preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of writing started early in his career.

Vonnegut spelled out the main argument of his thesis in a hilarious lecture, where he also graphed some of the more common story types. (Vonnegut was famously funny and irreverent, and you can hear the audience losing it throughout.) He published the transcript of this talk in his memoir, “A Man Without a Country,” which includes his own drawings of the graphs.

Vonnegut plotted stories on a vertical “G-I axis,” representing the good or ill fortunes of the main character, and a horizontal “B-E” axis that represented the course of the story from beginning to end.

One of the most popular story types is what Vonnegut called “Man in Hole,” graphed here by designer Maya Eilam. Somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it again, and ends up better off than where they started. “You see this story again and again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted,” Vonnegut says in his lecture. A close variant is “Boy Loses Girl,” in which a person gets something amazing, loses it, and then gets it back again.

Creation and religious stories follow a different arc, one that feels unfamiliar to modern readers. In most creation stories, a deity delivers incremental gifts that build to form the world. The Old Testament features the same pattern, except it ends with humans getting the rug pulled out from under them.

The New Testament follows a more modern story path, according to Vonnegut. He was delighted by the similarity of that story arc with Cinderella, which he called, “The most popular story in our civilization. Every time it’s retold, someone makes a million dollars.”

Some of the most notable works of literature are more ambiguous – like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” which starts off bad and gets infinitely worse, and “Hamlet,” in which story developments are deeply ambiguous.

In his lecture, Vonnegut explains why we consider Hamlet, with this ambiguous and uncomfortable story type, to be a masterpiece:

“Cinderella or Kafka’s cockroach? I don’t think Shakespeare believed in a heaven or hell any more than I do. And so we don’t know whether it’s good news or bad news.

“I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.

“But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

“And if I die — God forbid — I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’”

Ana Swanston via Know More 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/02/09/kurt-vonnegut-graphed-the-worlds-most-popular-stories/

Poetry that frees the soul.

Cristina Domenech gave this amazing TED talk in October 2014. She teaches writing at an Argentinian prison, and tells the moving story of helping incarcerated people express themselves and understand themselves through poetry.

“It’s said that to be a poet, you have to go to hell and back.”

Cristina’s moving tale is about finding freedeom whatever our circumstances.

“All of us in our hell burn with happiness when we light the wick of the word”.

Pied Beauty

The beauty of language is when it creates a sensory experience – taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. Good literature, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem below captures such magic.

Verbal impressionism, his words leave you with a feeling rather than a concrete image.

PIED BEAUTY, 1877.

Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Indeed !