The True Man Show

In 1998, Truman Burbank tried to break out of his own life.

He had been born and raised inside a highly elaborate TV show. Truman’s life had been scripted. His love life, his family, his career, it had all been controlled for him.

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The few things he truly wanted – that girl in high school, that trip across the sea – were all taken from him for the sake of TV show ratings.

FILE - This undated file image originally provided by Paramount Pictures shows Jim Carrey starring as Truman Burbank in the 1998 movie "The Truman Show," in which Carrey's character discovers every moment of his life has been broadcast.  (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Melinda Sue Gordon, file) ** NO SALES **

When he gains inklings of the artifice [a studio lamp falls from the ‘sky’ – among other things] he seeks to escape the story. 

As he punctures through the horizons of his own known existence, the audience of his show, are on the edge of their seats. The daring quest of this man to break free of the contraints of his world – sends ratings through the roof.

He is now becoming a ‘true man’. 

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In a parallel universe, Thomas Anderson, a lonely computer programmer known as “Neo” has inklings all was not well with the world. 

Various clues indicate an alternative reality, and so Neo follows mysterious characters  “down the rabbit” hole. He wakes to find that his previous reality, was in fact an elaborate computer program labelled the Matrix, in which all humans are bound as comatose units of bio-electricity. 

In the Matrix, humans are wired to believe their lives are free but in fact they are litte more than battery cells fueling super-intelligent machines. Neo joins the army of rebels in their quest to “unplug” enslaved humans from the Matrix and to shut down the Matrix. 

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What these stories have in common is the question of ‘true freedom’ and thus the question ‘true humanity’.

They join the poems, songs and stories from ancient times that thread together inklings that all is not well with this life – and in fact a greater reality lies beyond. 

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But is it true? Are we characters in a play? Is there really a great reality lie outside this dusty cockpit stage, or TV sound studio, or augmented reality?

More importantly is there a  ‘someone’ observing us, or scripting, our story? 

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Dare we believe there is an ultimate-narrative, and like Neo waking from a dream, that we can better understand our life there? 

Does this greater truth yield greater freedom? 

 neo

Or when we wake from our dream, to “escape our narrative” will we only we find ourselves in ever higher layers of dreams?

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Moreover, if there is ultimate reality, how would we even know it if we found it?

Religions and faiths can be known as ‘meta-narratives’ or stories that simply explain the nature of reality, the nature of humanity and the nature of ‘true freedom’.  


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The Christian narrative makes daring claims on ulimate reality and so,  to the nature of ultimate freedom:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light to all mankind.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  ~ John 1:1-4, 14.

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Welcome to “Byzantium”

We’re pleased to share another guest blog by the ever popular Damien Shalley. He introduces himself here:

Damien Shalley sometimes confuses armadillos with peccadilloes, usually when he’s had too much Tempranillo.  He wishes that Kanye West would just come out of his shell a little.  If he was a rapper, he’d call himself “Daddy Cruel”. He would like to thank whoever invented yoga pants.  He would not like to thank whoever invented Pimento Loaf.   He knows who the real Slim Shady is, but he’ll never tell.

If you would like to contribute a guest blog to Bear Skin, please don’t hesitate to email me at jennifer@bearskin.org

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Welcome to “Byzantium”

by Damien Shalley

(for ‘Josie’)

 

Byzantium was an ancient city founded by the Greeks, the origins of which are shrouded in legend.  A wealthy city at the nexus of Asian-European trade, it was conquered by the Romans (who called it Constantinople), and conquered again by the Ottoman Turks, who made it the capital of their empire.  Today it is called Istanbul and vestiges of its’ ancient power and forgotten glories remain.  It is a city that has existed throughout modernity; a city that has seen prosperity, a city that has seen blood and violence, a city that has seen the vicissitudes of existence.

Perhaps that is why Irish director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”, “Interview with the Vampire”, “Ondine”) chose Byzantium as the name of his 2012 vampire film, starring the beguiling Gemma Arterton and talented Irish newcomer Saoirse Ronan.  Jordan examines the time-worn, desolate existence of a mother and daughter vampire duo living part of their hope-free eternity at the Byzantium guesthouse in a desolate English seaside town.  The central theme of this film is emptiness – the infinite emptiness resulting from perpetual exclusion from salvation.  Jordan shows us convincingly – and in gloriously lush style – that the true fate of a vampire is isolation from everything that is good.  This isn’t the famous Ms. Meyer’s “Twighlight”. (Thankfully).

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Jordan’s film has been described as a meditation on family, life, love and death.  It is all of those things and more, wrapped up in stylish visuals and a well-known concept with appeal to audiences.  Gemma Arterton plays Clara, a mysterious, hardworking lady of the evening (literally).  She is on the lamb, running from mysterious men whose role in the proceedings becomes clearer as the film progresses.  Clara is provided with information by one of her clients about a run-down old seaside guesthouse called the “Byzantium” which she decides might be a safe (and productive) home base.  Saoirse Ronan plays Eleanor, Clara’s daughter, a particularly “unsweet” 16 year old with a somewhat philosophical bent, who enrols in a local school after moving to her new coastal home,  and who mortifies her teachers with a writing assignment detailing her centuries of existence and her need to prey on unsuspecting souls to survive.  Together, the two women work in tandem to defeat (or temporarily deny) the goal of their pursuers.  As the film progresses, we are witness to flashbacks which flesh out the story and offer insight into the two women and their current predicament at the “guesthouse at the end of the world”.

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There is a mournful aspect to these women – their relationship features many familiar mother-daughter dynamics, and Clara genuinely loves Eleanor – but ultimately they are both doomed.  Eleanor has a thoughtful disposition and dispatches her victims with a sense of melancholy.  She also feels a certain disdain for her mother’s more “scattershot” approach to predation.   The more experienced Clara has weathered centuries of interactions with humanity and is much less conscientious about her victims.  The two women are inseparable though, due to their family bond and their condition.  Love knows no boundaries, even for the undead.

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The screenplay for “Byzantium” was written by Moira Buffini, adapting her successful play “A Vampire Story” for movie audiences.  Her work examines the lonely routine of the vampire and the very un-“Twilight” concept that there is nothing glamorous about vampirism.  Director Jordan takes this concept further by examining what being a vampire actually means.  Jordan’s vampires are soulless entities relegated to a tiresome earthly existence of perpetual feeding on the gullible.  They are creatures who can experience no true satisfaction despite living through the ages and knowing all that this world contains.  They are ultimately condemned to an eternity excluded from God, and what’s worse, they know this all too well.  Their efforts on this mortal coil will all amount to nothing, and at the end of time salvation will elude them.  In the meantime, they must go through the motions in order to live through another night.  They will experience both good and bad in all its forms, build existences only to see them crumble, enjoy wealth and power then watch it disappear and be constantly reminded of the perpetual “veil of tears” that summarises earthly existence.  Just like the ancient city Byzantium.

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Some critics have suggested that his film is not particularly insightful and is ultimately nothing more than a reworking of a story we’ve seen many times before, presented in a visually beautiful way.  “Byzantium” also pitches to commercial audiences by offering a quotient of exploitable elements; blood, beauty and seductive glamour.  (Well, this is still a vampire movie after all). Jordan’s concept of an empty eternity for the soulless nightstalkers he showcases has been described as somewhat superficial.  More cynical observers have suggested that the beauty of the cast and the elegant photography might prevent some viewers from acknowledging that aspects of the film are somewhat “half-baked”. It has been noted on more than one occasion by critics that there is a certain lack of substance to the women’s back story and that their tale really doesn’t justify two hours of screen time.  The flashbacks to their past are probably the least interesting parts of the film, although they do offer some understanding as to why the women find themselves in their modern day predicament.  Has Jordan presented a compelling narrative? Decide for yourself.

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Director Jordan has on more than one occasion been accused of dwelling on beauty in a somewhat lascivious manner, “overplaying his hand” as a director, as it were.  There might be some validity to this criticism.  Whether this is good or bad is up to the individual viewer.  He has also been accused of “popularising” serious subject matter – he turned Angela Carter’s screenplay for his early film effort “The Company of Wolves” (a re-examination of the original Charles Perrault “Little Red Riding Hood” tale) into a strangely dream-like B-grade horror movie packed with sensual imagery that confounds critics to this day.  Saoirse Ronan’s Eleanor character is sometimes presented in “Byzantium” as a red-hooded “innocent” with the innate potential to destroy any “wolves” who may pursue her, and this concept appears to be a “through line” in much of Jordan’s work.

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The conundrum that Byzantium” presents is that whilst the glamour aspect of vampirism is downplayed (philosophically, at least), the film is so beautiful to look at that it is entirely possible audiences will miss this very point.  Jordan presents creatures that rely on the abuse of all that is good – honesty, integrity, attraction and love – creatures that will happily prey on the undeserving.  They exploit the weakest link in order to maintain a godless and ultimately hopeless earthly existence.  Jordan offers viewers vampires as soulless creatures – predatory animals – and  nasty ones at that.  His vampires are beautiful and seductive, though – the eternal trap for the unsuspecting.  These kittens have claws.

Jordan has taken an uncommon approach to this type of tale.  In modern pop culture, vampires are synonymous with elegance, glamour, stylish living and eternal life.  “Byzantium” takes a closer look at the vampire narrative and uncovers a bleakness and hopelessness that is, for the most part overlooked in modern cinema.  Warner Herzog’s silent film classic “Nosferatu” went quite a way towards revealing the “truth” behind the vampire concept – his vampire is a creature of pity, condemned to an opportunistic existence preying on strangers, a lonely creature ugly in both appearance and purpose, a creature whose eternal fate has already been sealed and who must now remorselessly destroy the innocent in order to survive until the next sunset.  Nobody would suggest that “Byzantium” is even remotely equal to Herzog’s classic, but there is a definite similarity of purpose between the two films.  Critic Max Nelson, (“Byzantium”, Film Comment, June 25, 2013) offered this perceptive comment about the movie.

“…in the film’s longest flashback: teenaged Clara escapes the brothel where she’s been forced to live and work, sails to the same island that her daughter will visit a couple hundred years later, and, after making herself immortal, bathes with wild, joyful abandon in a torrential downpour of blood. It’s an unsettling take on the Christian redemption narrative: a victim of the worst possible injustices is washed clean in blood and given eternal life—only, at least at this point, the eternal life in question looks a lot more like Hell than Heaven.”

This seems to summarise director Jordan’s intent in perfect economy of words.  For those who appreciate this perspective, Byzantium will be a worthwhile viewing experience.

Byzantium, film

Neil Jordan Filmography

 

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 09: Actress Gemma Arterton, director Neil Jordan and actress Saoirse Ronan of "Byzantium" pose at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2012 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images)

BOND GIRL GEMMA IS SEXY MOVIE VAMP Actress Gemma Arterton ( Quantum of Solace ) gets her teeth into her new horror movie Byzantium. The 27-year-old actress stars as Clara, a vampire who has to protect herself and her daughter (played by Saoirse Ronan) from those seeking to plunge a stake through their hearts. Picture Mother and daughter: Gemma Arterton with Saoirse Ronan 74018 EDITORIAL USE ONLY

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Ozymandias

Next in a series on romantic literature, this poem Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a classic. Published in 1818, it is one of Shelley’s most famous works.

The romantic poets were lovers of antiquities and their writings dwelt on themes such as fate and the supremacy of nature over human efforts.

 

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias

Written a year after the British Museum acquired a fragment of the statue of Rameses II from the 13th century BC. The poem explores the nature of the impermanence of even the greatest of civilizations; even their legacies fade into obscurity and oblivion.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

First printed in 1798, written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has left it’s mark on western thought. It marked the turn to romanticism in literature at the start of the 19th century and has influenced much of the new-wave spiritualism and environmentalism prevalent to this day.

Originator of the idiom “albatross around one’s neck,” the tale tells the tale of an ancient seafaring captain whose ship strays into Antarctic waters and is stranded in an ice jam. When an albatross appears, it leads them out and brings a fair wind to sail them north.

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.

It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!

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Despite the saving power of the albatross and the good omen it proved to be, curiously the mariners shoots the Albatross.

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white moonshine.”

`God save thee, ancient Mariner,
From the fiends that plague thee thus! –
Why look’st thou so?’ -“With my crossbow
I shot the Albatross.”

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The superstitious crew at first lament the death of the good omen, but when a good wind prevails they assume the death of the bird brought them salvation.

And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!

Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
‘Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

rime of the ancient

However, once the boat is stranded in a still sea, the crew punish the mariner by forcing him to wear the dead bird around his neck.

And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.

Ah! well-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.”

rime of the ancient mariner

The mariner and his crew are then visited by a ship captained by death and a crew playing dice for the lives of the mariner and his men.

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that Woman’s mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
`The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!’
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

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The crew one by one are taken but the mariner is cursed to live on watching his men die slowly – it seems as retribution for killing the albatross.

One after one, by the star-dogged moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.

Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.

The souls did from their bodies fly, –
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my crossbow!”

Unable to pray, sleep or die, the mariner lives on alone for seven days, until in despair he notices the beauty of the sea creatures and praises their loveliness. This utterance, releases the mariner’s from the curse.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”

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The wind picks ups immediately and fresh rain falls reviving the mariner. In his daze he envisions his dead crew steer his ship home or that a spirit beneath the waves carries the vessel forward.

Upon returning home he is met by a hermit, who rows a boat with a pilot and a boy who greet him in the harbour. However, his wretched boat sinks in a whirlpool beneath the waves and they drag him into their boat thinking him dead.

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Salvaged from the sea he is cursed forever to retell the tale to all who would hear it.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”

The poem is significant to the romantic literature movement for its animation and personification of nature. The mariner kills an innocent seabird, one that aided his ship from danger. In retribution, he loses his crew to death’s dice and himself is cursed to live on to remind generations after that “dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.” Only once he praises the beauty of the sea creatures he once feared, is he released from his punishments.

As the industrial revolution carved up Europe, the romantic poets lamented the death of nature.  Religion, in the wake of Kantian philosophy,  had been relegated to the realm of the private and intellectual while politics, economics, business and science, divorced from spirituality became disciplines commandeered by experts, ruled by reason but devoid of ethics and prone to domination by the strongest of wills.

Seeing the figurehead religion as sham, party to the desecration of nature through capitalist and imperialist pursuits, the romantics kept alive a spirituality and transcendent love of the earth by turning back to classical imagery, Greek and Roman myths and legends in which nature and her elements have agency.

The 20th and now 21st centuries have experienced a flowering of religious interest and environmental concerns which can be attributed to the works of the early romantic poets such as Coleridge and his peers.

The World of Story

Beneath the entertainment and diversion of narrative and art lies a great power – the power to tell a truth or truths.  Many of us would watch a film or read a book for an escape from the real world, but there are in fact much greater and deeper purpose to story and art. 

Post-enlightenment theory and post-modern philosophy would have us believe that “there can be no certainty in an objective reality or morality.” The only certainty we can have is our own existence and experience.

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In contrast, for narrative to work, a story must exist within a world built upon various rules: a historical, political, geographical, and moral framework, one fit with religions, fate and destiny for characters and a trajectory and denoument for the plot. The hero belongs to this world and explores it, constrained by its rules and limitations, struggling against foes therein, travelling through its landscape and striving to find catharisis and resolution.

Immersion in a narrative world for the contemporary reader, is immersion in a world of objective meaning, against which the protagonist can struggle to find themselves. By following the protagonist through this  world, the reader can find some foundation from which to understand their own world, a world often too terrible and great to understand alone through one’s subjective lens.

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I, Claudius

The novel, I, Claudius, [1934] by Robert Graves is a clever work of historical fiction spanning 80 years of early imperial Rome. The book, which narrates the lives of the Emperors from Julius Caesar’s death at the hands of the Senate in 44 BC to Caligula’s assassination in 41 AD, is written as an autobiography and memoir of the Emperor Claudius.

Long before HBO gave us ROME and other mini-series, Graves account boldly takes on the behind the scenes account of family machinations, wives, mothers, lovers and alliances pulling the strings of history.

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The novel recounts Claudius’ life within a family who view him as somewhat of an idiot. This was largely due to his nervous tics, stammering and a significant limp. He was in fact no dolt. He was of good stock. His mother Antonia was the daughter of Marc Antony and his father Drusus was the second son of brilliant but evil Livia, Augustus’ wife.

Graves, a British scholar and historian, translated the works of Roman historian Suetonius from Latin into English and claimed that Claudius came to him in a dream and demanded that his real story be told. Since Claudius, is known to have written an autobiography that covered the lives of the Caesars, an eight volumes, a work which is now lost, Graves determined to “discover” the work in his own way.

 

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The fact that he was always perceived to be mentally deficient was in fact a boon to Claudius, since he was not perceived to be a threat to his ambitious relatives.In Graves’ version, he uses the peculiarities of Claudius’ nature to develop a sympathetic character whose survival in a murderous dynasty depended largely upon his family’s incorrect assumption about him. The novel, afforded Graves a way to write about the lives of the first four Emperors of Rome (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius) from an insiders view. In doing so he draws back the veil of history to show behind the scenes of court life, into the family machinations of a treacherous dynasty.

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In an early episode, Claudius is privy to a prophecy contained in the book of “Sibylline Curiosities”. This concerns the fates of the “hairy ones” (i.e. The Caesars – from the Latin word “caesar”, meaning “a fine head of hair”) who are to rule Rome. The penultimate verse concerns his own reign, and Claudius can tell the identity of the last emperor described. From the outset, then, Graves establishes a fatalistic tone that plays out at the end of Graves’ second novel, Claudius the God in which he himself is poisoned by his own wife, and succeeded by her wicked son Nero.

                        II.

“A HUNDRED YEARS OF THE PUNIC CURSE
AND ROME WILL BE SLAVE TO A HAIRY MAN,
A HAIRY MAN THAT IS SCANT OF HAIR,
EVERY MAN’S WOMAN AND EACH WOMAN’S MAN.
THE STEED THAT HE RIDES SHALL HAVE TOES FOR HOOVES.
HE SHALL DIE AT THE HAND OF HIS SON, NO SON,
AND NOT ON THE FIELD OF WAR.

THE HAIRY ONE NEXT TO ENSLAVE THE STATE
SHALL BE SON, NO SON, OF HIS HAIRY LAST.
HE SHALL HAVE HAIR IN A GENEROUS MOP.
HE SHALL GIVE ROME MARBLE IN PLACE OF CLAY
AND FETTER HER FAST WITH UNSEEN CHAINS,
AND SHALL DIE AT THE HAND OF HIS WIFE, NO WIFE,
TO THE GAIN OF HIS SON, NO SON.

THE HAIRY THIRD TO ENSLAVE THE STATE
SHALL BE SON, NO SON, OF HIS HAIRY LAST.
HE SHALL BE MUD WELL MIXED WITH BLOOD,
A HAIRY MAN THAT IS SCANT OF HAIR.
HE SHALL GIVE ROME VICTORIES AND DEFEAT
AND DIE TO THE GAIN OF HIS SON, NO SON-
A PILLOW SHALL BE HIS SWORD.

THE HAIRY FOURTH TO ENSLAVE THE STATE
SHALL BE SON, NO SON, OF HIS HAIRY LAST.
A HAIRY MAN THAT IS SCANT OF HAIR,
HE SHALL GIVE ROME POISONS AND BLASPHEMIES
AND DIE FROM A KICK OF HIS AGED HORSE
THAT CARRIED HIM AS A CHILD.

THE HAIRY FIFTH TO ENSLAVE THE STATE,
TO ENSLAVE THE STATE, THOUGH AGAINST HIS WILL,
SHALL BE THAT IDIOT WHOM ALL DESPISED.
HE SHALL HAVE HAIR IN A GENEROUS MOP.
HE SHALL GIVE ROME WATER AND WINTER BREAD
AND DIE AT THE HAND OF HIS WIFE, NO WIFE,
TO THE GAIN OF HIS SON, NO SON.

THE HAIRY SIXTH TO ENSLAVE THE STATE
SHALL BE SON, NO SON, OF THIS HAIRY LAST.
HE SHALL GIVE ROME FIDDLERS AND FEAR AND FIRE.
HIS HAND SHALL BE RED WITH A PARENT’S BLOOD.
NO HAIRY SEVENTH TO HIM SUCCEEDS
AND BLOOD SHALL GUSH FROM HIS TOMB.”


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The novel illustrates the terrors and limits of power. The imperial family unravel over the course of the book; a maddened dynasty, subjecting one another to greater and greater indignities in their quest for power.  Claudius himself, though unwilling to take the throne, has gone down in history as bloodthirsty ruler from an iron throne.

An able politician nevertheless, the reign of Claudius included the invasion and conquest of Britain in 43 AD, the addition of Thrace, Noricum, Pamphylia, Lycia, Judea and Mauretania to the territorial empire, and the granting of Roman citizenship to the provinces – a right spoken of by the apostle Paul (Acts 22:25).

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As such, a novel like I, Claudius, paints a vivid picture of the world into which the early church was born.  The political and social environment of the Julio-Claudian dynasty lays the backdrop for events in the outpost of Judea and the New Testament.

  1. The claims of Jesus, directly contrasted to claims of the Emperors.

Australian historian and theologian Bruce Winter’s body of work (Seek the Welfare of the City [1994], Paul and Philo Among the Sophists: Alexandrian and Corinthian Responses to the Julio-Claudian Movement [2002]), points out the many claims of Christ came directly in opposition to the claims of the deified Emperors:

god, Son of a god,

prince of peace,

saviour of the world.

These sentiments and the establishment of the Imperial Cult across the Empire, instituting games and festival to pay homage to the divine and semi-divine rulers, were an effective method of establishing Pax Romana, the Roman peace. However, as the Sibyline prophecy portends, the slavery of the state by these Roman leaders, deified within their own lifetime, led them to sacrifice the lives of others to ensure the continuance of their rule. Bloodthirsty would be an apt description of the lives of these Caesars.

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In contrast, Jesus Ben Joseph of Nazareth, goes down in history for giving his life up for the people he claimed to rule.

Tacitus in Annals 15:44 writes:

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

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Most, ironically, the ultimate claims to divinity by the Emperors was punctuated by their mortal ends. Christ’s however was marked by his own followers and eyewitnesses claims of his resurrection from the dead.

This leads us to the next point.

2. The Jews, from whence Christianity first sprung, were the most unlikely to make claims of Christ’s divinity.

In an empire which deified mortal leaders, the Jews would have nothing of it. The indignation of the religious elite and their agitations against Christ were in fact incited by his daring claims to equality with God – Luke 22:70-72.

It did not end with his execution. Claudius appears in the New Testament in Acts 18:1-4, when Paul encounters Jewish Christians Priscilla and Aquila who have been expelled from Rome by Claudius [dated around 54 AD] due to riots happening there between religious Jews and Christians over the matter of the identity of the Messiah.

Roman Historian Suetonius in Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Claudius 25, confirms Acts 18

He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus [Christ].

Acts 12: 21-23 roundly judges Herod Agrippa for accepting adulation as a god, saying his painful death eaten by worms, was punishment from God for not giving due praise to the Lord.

herod agrippa

Josephus writes in Antiquities 19.8.2 343-361

Presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor rejected their impious flattery. But he shortly afterward looked up and saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, just as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain arose in his belly, striking with a most violent intensity.

3. It was eyewitnesses of Christ who made divine claims about Christ.

As shown above it was within 25 years of Christ’s death, that the Jews were stirred up enough about claims of Jesus’ messiah/ Christ to already be a thorn in Claudius’ side. This means that it was the eyewitnesses of Christ who were agitating. Christ’s identity was not a fabrication of scholars and theologians in the centuries to come.

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Emperor Claudius in his  Letter to the Alexandrians denounces the Jews: 

“I explicitly order the Jews not to agitate for more privileges than they formerly possessed ……….otherwise I will by all means take vengeance on them as fomenters of which is a general plague infecting the whole world”

Paul the apostle is one whom many critics and commentators of the Bible claim, “invented” the divinity of Christ. However, it was Claudius’ friend and companion Gallio who excused the accusations against Paul in Corinth, reported in Acts 18:12-17.  Gallio’s behaviour on this occasion showed the impartial attitude of Roman officials towards Christianity in its early days. Gallio’s rule in Achaia can be dated to between 51-52 AD and means the life and writings of Paul can be accurately dated to this time.

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All in all, historical sources such as Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus and others can validate many of the claims of the New Testament writers. Moreover, Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius provides a backdrop of the imperial court, from which the claims and person of Christ stand in stark contrast.

Where one reigned with terror and death, the other gave his life for those he ruled. And his followers changed the world.

Dream Catcher

Sophie peered into the jar and there, sure enough, she saw the faint, translucent outline of something about the size of a hen’s egg. There was just a touch of colour in it, a pale sea-green, soft and shimmering and very beautiful. There it lay, this small oblong sea-green jellyfish thing, at the bottom of the jar, quite peaceful, but pulsing gently, the whole of it moving in and out ever so slightly, as though it were breathing.

“It’s moving!” Sophie cried, “It’s alive!”

“Of course it’s alive.”

“What will you feed it on?” Sophie asked.

“It’s not needing any food,” the BFG told her.

“That’s cruel,” Sophie said. “Everything alive needs food of some sort. Even trees and plants.”

“The north wind is alive,” the BFG said. “It is moving. It touches you on the cheek and on the hands. But nobody is feeding it.”

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Sophie was silent. This extraordinary giant was disturbing her ideas. He seemed to be leading her towards mysteries that were beyond her understanding.

“A dream is not needing anything,” the BFG went on. “If it’s a good one, it is waiting peacably for ever until it is released and allowed to do its job. If it is a bad one, it is always fighting to get out.”

The BFG, Roald Dahl, 1982: p. 101-102.

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For all you writers and dream-catchers out there. The dreams aren’t going away, so don’t stop catching them, labelling them, categorising them and storing them. And don’t stop blowing them in people’s ears – for people need to dream!

The Death Defying Boo Saville

Damien Shalley is a regular [and popular] guest blogger for Bear Skin. He introduces himself in cryptic fashion:

Damien Shalley knows nothing about quantum mechanics, but won’t support it if it’s anything like the other mechanics he’s dealt with.  He puts raspberry topping on his fruit loops, which he fondly calls the “Breakfast of Champions”. He once ate an entire raw hot chilli pepper with nonchalant disregard for his personal safety.  He offers thanks to the paramedics who revived him.  He wishes “Scientific American” magazine was a little racier.

If you have a piece to submit to Bear Skin please don’t hesitate to contact me at jennifer@bearskin.org

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The Death-Defying Boo Saville

by Damien Shalley

 

Death frightens us all.  We strive to continue existing under almost any circumstance because human beings fear dying.  We fear the process of departing from this life, we fear no longer existing and some of us may even fear ultimate judgement or a kind of “cosmic justice” whereby earthly wrongs are righted.  Art is immensely useful in our human exploration of what scares us and what plagues our thoughts – resolutely and perpetually – in the deepest recesses of our consciousness.

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The art scene of the early 21st century was impacted by a trend known as “New Gothic”.  Themes prevalent in traditional Gothic works of art and literature – primarily an obsession with death, decay and our ultimate fate as mortals – re-emerged in some thought-provoking and sometimes confronting works by the likes of Caroline Folkenroth, Stefanie Lynn Evans, Judith Weratschnig and many others.  One artist at the forefront of this new vanguard was Boo Saville.  Saville rose to fame with some startling pieces and attracted cashed-up buyers and media attention, but over time she evolved a new perspective on life (and death) and her reflections on those subjects in her work began to change.  She now no longer identifies as “New Gothic” – or Gothic anything, despite acknowledging that some or her existing pieces could rightly be interpreted within that framework – and much of more recent work is strongly akin to the abstracts of Mark Rothko.  But why?  Artists almost always evolve, but why change tack to this degree?  Strangely enough for a creative soul, at least part of the answer to this question lies in modern science.  The truth, as they say, will set you free.

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Boo Saville’s “Polycephaly” exhibition opened in London in 2014 and the breadth of work on display showed an artist operating on multiple levels.  Her works incorporated numerous mediums – pictures created with paint, bleach, dye and even Biro ink – and illustrated various themes including death, but also life, love and hope.  These were examples of not just experimental art techniques, but also the evolving mind of an artist.  Questioned about the motivation behind her newer works by U.K. journalist Holly Fraser in October 2014, Saville was asked whether her philosophical position on death had changed.  Her answer was intriguing.

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“I realised there was going to be a dead end. I found it confusing and hard to get my head around. I still do. We all do”.

She continued,

“I listen to a lot of podcasts when I work, and funnily enough there was this one podcast from Yale about death. It was about what happens when we die, why death frightens us, and whether or not there’s a soul. It amazed me. It got to the conclusion that we don’t experience our own death anyway, so it doesn’t exist to us. The only death we experience is the death of others, and that’s the hard bit to take as human beings. At that point I had a realisation and began making loads of abstract work because I lost that inquisitiveness. I thought, if death doesn’t exist then it’s an irrelevant argument.”

http://www.hungertv.com/feature/interview-boo-saville/

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This statement is as illuminating as it is truthful. Medical science has shown us in recent years that human sensory functions gradually “switch off” as natural death approaches.  The slowing of the human heartbeat prepares the brain for impeding nullification, and we “shut down” quietly without full sensory awareness.  When the heart ultimately fails, the brain and subsequently the brain-stem deoxygenise and we slip away.  This might well explain the “white light” or “tunnel of light” phenomenon that is anecdotally experienced by some people whose hearts have stopped beating and are then revived.  Of those who are successfully resuscitated under such circumstances, approximately 18-20 per cent of people claim to have had this experience.  It is currently considered by doctors to be a function of oxygen deprivation originating in the outer brain and, due to cessation of blood flow, it appears to move gradually toward the centre of the brain and subsequently the brain stem over a period of time (somewhere between six and eighteen minutes, in some cases longer).  But people don’t experience this part consciously.  We may well harbour a fear of no longer existing, of no longer being “switched on”, but the process of departing is more than likely something that we as individuals will never know.  In a strange way, this process parallels our births.  We don’t recall them either (although some rare souls claim to have vestigial memories of this experience).  For the majority however, we only ever know consciousness.  We take our places in this world only ever knowing life and leave with that same knowledge.  And that may well soothe some anxieties at least.

BooSaville

The final comments on this topic are perhaps best left to Boo Saville – quoted by Holly Fraser in the same article – when asked about her current psychological relationship with death,

“It’s now just part of life to me. I don’t see it in a macabre, “monster under the bed” kind of way. It also helps me come to terms with ageing and my own body”.  And how should people cope with the knowledge that they will one day make an exit from this mortal coil?  Well?

“Making art is an amazing way of leaving something behind.”

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Why this narrative?

Faiths and belief systems are characterised by narratives. An earlier post On Suffering, pointed out how the narratives of different world religions make sense of suffering.

The Christian narrative at its core, is based on a simple tenet:

believe in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and believe that his death was for the restoration of your created purpose – and you will be saved.

Belief itself shapes space and time and so beliefs holds significance.

So why this narrative? What is so magical about this story, that our belief alone shapes eternity?  Doesn’t belief in an exclusive narrative such as this create hate, exclusion and  pride?

Many beliefs do create hate, exclusivity and pride. A belief in moralism or intellectualism definitely leads to pride. It says that “I’m good” or “I’m smart” and “I’m better than you” or I’m smarter than you.” Michel Foucault argued that all truth claims are in fact power-plays.

foucault

In response, it has been pointed out by many apologists and thinkers that the post-Enlightenment post-modern sentiment “there’s no such thing as truth” is an oxymoron, a self-defeating statement. It undermines its own assertion. It corrodes its own ability to claim truth.

The reality is that everybody has beliefs about the world, and by the very nature of believing, excludes others. The significance then lies NOT in suspending belief in an effort to be inclusive, but by extending genuine love to others.

I believe that the Christian narrative fully understood, should make the most loving, inclusive and humble people.

At it’s core, the Christian narrative tells us Ultimate Reality, became flesh and walked the planet. This man, loved those who did not love him, and forgave those who hated him and killed him. The story says, you are not saved because you’re good, but because this man was the good person you could never be. The only way to attain life is to accept you are NOT suffiicient for salvation. His resurrection from death, means that death itself is turned backwards and its power broken. This life IS significant, despite its suffering.

 why this narrative

This narrative, enacted in the hearts and lives of believers, should and could change the world.

 

Light and Magic – The Music of Ladytron

Now a regular guest blogger with Bear Skin, Damien Shalley submits another piece this time about electro pop group Lady Tron. He introduces himself in his characteristic style:

Damien Shalley owns a Teflon coated polyester tie that is surprisingly silk-like in appearance.  He stays away from open flames whilst wearing it.  He believes that the greatest living Englishman isn’t Stephen Hawking but Lemmy from Motorhead.  He would like someone to explain to him the precise difference between tequila and mescal.  He does not enjoy the taste of parsnip.

If you’re a reader of Bear Skin and would like to submit your own writing, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at jennifer@bearskin.org

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“Light and Magic – the Music of Ladytron”

by Damien Shalley

What does a music fan do to combat the monotonous reality of musical force feeding?  Start exploring the music scene for yourself, that’s what.  “Seek and you shall find.” And perhaps let yourself be guided on your journey by the spectacular sounds emanating from cult electro-pop bands from the UK. Everybody’s favourite electro pop band du jour is the U.K.’s Chvrches (that’s how they spell it – it’s pronounced “Churches” for the uninitiated).  Critics, fans and even casual, non-musical observers seem to love this Glaswegian three-piece and their impossibly catchy tunes.  But Chvrches are standing on the shoulders of giants.  Giants called Ladytron.

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So who or what are Ladytron?  Only the single best electronic pop outfit on earth, that’s who.  In the early 21st century, they were seemingly the lone exponents of stylish electronica in a music scene dominated by grungy guitars and flannel shirts.  Anyone who had ever been aurally seduced by the Eurythmic’s “Love is a Stranger” and then lived to wonder whatever happened to sophisticated electro-pop knew instantly when they heard “Playgirl” that Liverpool’s Ladytron were now carrying that torch. In style, too!

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Ladytron are pioneers of new sonic space.  They fit no precise pop music category but are obviously heavily influenced by classic electronica from the 80’s.  They deliver lush, synthesizer-based compositions with evocative, relatable lyrics.  They also mix new and old technology – the main component of their sound is vintage keyboards.  The two founding members of the group (Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu) are D.J.’s and producers who also work with other artists, remixing for outfits like Placebo, Soulwax, and the legendary Goldfrapp.  They possess a “warm” sound in a musical sub-genre traditionally associated with coldness, tour with a live drummer and occasionally use modified guitar chords to sound like synths and vice versa. They belong to no specific trend or movement, unless being glamorously uplifting is a trend.

Hunt and Wu met in the 1990’s and recorded a song as studio project in 1999 called “He Took Her to a Movie” utilising guest vocalist Lisa Eriksson.  Positive feedback resulted in Hunt and Wu developing their project further.  Their original concept evolved into a four piece live band incorporating the elegant, Scottish-born Helen Marnie as lead vocalist and the darkly attractive Mira Aroyo, as co-front woman.  They have gone on to release six full-length original albums and a seemingly innumerable collection of remix compilations.  They have a cult following worldwide and have toured extensively, opening for Bjork, Nine Inch Nails and headlining their own shows.  (They played Brisbane’s Tivoli in 2008 and the Hi-Fi in 2009).  They last released a studio album, “Gravity the Seducer”, in 2011 but a new original album is on the way.  They have never been particularly famous and seem quite prepared to approach the business of making music in their own way.  Their emphasis remains on quality sounds, not fame or global domination of the airwaves.

To be fair, Ladytron have achieved a certain level success to date, primarily in the U.K. and Europe, but even there they’re never been “mainstream”.  They have released six original albums – five studio recordings and a haughty live album.  There has also been the mandatory “Best of” album (featuring two new tracks, one quite delicious) and a number of remix albums, some of which are surprisingly innovative.  Lead singer Helen Marnie also released her first solo album “Crystal World” in 2013 to solid reviews.  But they’ve never been a “break-out” smash anywhere, despite consistently delivering quality music.  They’re a synth pop fan’s secret wish, beckoning seductively from the background.

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Early Ladytron was marked by a retro-futuristic flavour.  Their first album “604” (2001) is dominated by tunes that are relatively spare and infused with electronic beats that one might hear emanating from a Casio keyboard.  It’s as if someone opened up a can of pop music circa 1985.  “Commodore Rock” is perhaps the ultimate example of this simple style.  Yet the album also yielded one of the band’s most infectious songs – “Playgirl”.  An almost perfect electro-pop melody with insightful lyrics about the human need to love and be loved, “Playgirl” offered the musical cognoscenti a glimpse of what Ladytron was capable of doing, and more importantly, what they were capable of becoming in the future.

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The band’s next effort, 2002’s “Light and Magic”, offered further musical evolution.  The style is similar to “604” but not as bare, and more emphasis is placed on song writing.  This is synth with substance.  Tracks like “Seventeen” were designed for commercial airplay whilst reinforcing the band’s technical roots. The title track itself is a traditionally structured, solidly commercial and delightfully upbeat composition which expands the Ladytron oeuvre whilst acting as a counter balance to some of the more clinical (yet entrancing) tunes, a prime example being the digital dystopia of “True Mathematics”.

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“Softcore Jukebox” (2003) is a mix album of covers by Ladytron’s Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu.  Some of their favourite artists and songs are featured.  There are two Ladytron songs included, the single remix of “Blue Jeans” called “Blue Jeans 2.0” (featuring the oblique lyrics “You’ve been trying to protect me, an insect living in your memory”) and a cover version of “Oops Oh My“ by Tweet.  Although not strictly a Ladytron album in itself, “Softcore Jukebox” does give an insight into the musical influences of the founding members of the band.  This release features the inclusion of a vibrant (and unexpected) My Bloody Valentine rock number called “Soon” and the disarmingly funny (and insightful) 80’s track “What’s a Girl to Do?” by Cristina.

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“Witching Hour” (2005) is characterised by richer production and strong, traditionally structured songs delivered with a pristine technological edge.  It is consistently good from start to finish – an “album experience” as old school vinyl fanciers like to say – and yielded the concert favourite “Destroy Everything You Touch” and the utterly infectious “Sugar”.  This is Ladytron’s high water mark – the band defined in shimmering digital glory.  “Fighting in Built Up areas” will set your speakers alight with its complex tonal mix, “Witching Hour” offers a relaxing “soft power” listening experience, “International Dateline” reflects beautifully on the break-up of a relationship and the understated tunefulness of “The Last One Standing” manages to take that subject matter even further without disheartening listeners.  And the ominous yet catchy track “Weekend” will have special resonance for those with a tendency to overdo things a little on a Friday or Saturday night.  This album represents the defining moment for Ladytron as a recording outfit and summarises what the band represent.  “Do yourself a favour ………….”

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2008’s “Velocifero”, whilst not as consistent overall as “Witching Hour”, yielded some of Ladytron’s best- ever material.  “Burning Up”, “Runaway”, “I’m Not Scared”, and “Ghosts” all throb with intensity, melody and heart.  The production on this pacy album is refined yet dramatic.  This is speaker-searing audio perfection, and many of the tunes on the disc have become remix favourites.  “They Gave You a Heart”, “Versus” and even the robotic “Black Cat” and “Deep Blue” are worthwhile listens and the album itself will really put your stereo to the test (and yield most rewarding results).

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Live at the London Astoria is a solid collection of the band’s best singles mixed with deeper album cuts.  The live versions of many of Ladytron’s best-known tracks are infused with new energy here, some of them almost sounding like new compositions.  It’s a rare live album that can sit alongside well-known studio recordings and compliment them with something truly fresh.  This is one such album.

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“Gravity the Seducer” (2011).  Regarded as something of a disappointment in general by fans, this album saw Ladytron experiment with softer, more ambient sounds.  There are a few fantastic tunes here too, just not as many as dedicated followers might have expected.  “Ace of Hz” and “Mirage” are pure Ladytron, and the album does lend itself to multiple listens.  Overall though, this is probably not the best place to start your Ladytron listening experience, and would probably be better suited as the soundtrack to a strange science fiction movie (or spinning on a turntable in someone’s moon palace).  This is perhaps best described as artful electronica.

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In a perfect world, Ladytron would be more famous than Chvrches.  They’d be more famous than Nicki Minaj in fact, and they wouldn’t need her gimmicky videos and controversial album covers. Why?  Because Ladytron are actually good.  The music they create is very much their own -distinctly retro yet undeniably current.  It’s just as worthwhile as any rap superstar’s beat-laden banalities, and Ladytron’s  lyrics are upbeat and intelligent.

Impossibly elegant, delightfully upbeat, deliciously seductive and utterly sublime – that’s Ladytron. So the next time you’ve been bludgeoned into coma town by the stultifying fare that currently clogs commercial radio playlists, say “no” to turgid tunes and “yes” to salvation by synthesizer.

Tell ‘em Ladytron sent ya!

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 LADYTRON

Helen Marnielead vocals, synthesizers

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Mira Aroyovocals, synthesisers

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Reuben Wusynthesizers

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Daniel Huntsynthesizers, guitar, vocals

Ladytron Discography

  • 604 (2001)
  • Light & Magic (2002)
  • Softcore Jukebox (2003)
  • Witching Hour (2005)
  • Velocifero (2008)
  • Live at the London Astoria 16.07.08 (2009)
  • Best of 00–10 in 2011
  • Gravity the Seducer (2011)
  • Remixed and Rare (Various)  (All Ladytron albums have also been released in “Remixed and Rare” versions, and there have been numerous “Extended Play” releases featuring tracks from these compilations and further remixes).

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Helen Marnie Discography

  • Crystal World (2013)  (Features singles “The Hunter” and “Hearts on Fire”)
  • The Wolves [upcoming]

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