Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

Contemporary heroes such as Bruce Wayne from Batman and Edward Cullen from Twilight, as well as more classic romantic leads such as Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, or Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre, each owe many of their features and their popularity to George Gordon Byron.

Lord Byron [1788-1824], was an English poet, well known within the Romantic movement. It was he who created or rather popularised the features of an anti-hero which became known as The Byronic Hero.

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An early taste of Rebel Without a Cause, the Byronic hero epitomised the man who stood outside of society unapologetically, expressing the wild and free impulses of masculinity, otherwise caged and buttoned within civilisation.

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Of course, moody heroes existed earlier, including Hamlet by Shakespeare and Werther by Goethe. This character however, was shaped and styled by Byron’s hand to emerge,

…a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.

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Byron’s first truly famous work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage [1812], was a striking portrayal of the Byronic hero.  He later wrote of it, 

…I awoke one morning and found myself famous.

Commentators conclude the popularity of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, was that the Byronic hero expressed some of the melancholy and disillusionment felt by a generation weary of the wars of the post-Revolution and Napoleonic eras.

Childe Harold

He achieved notoriety within his own life time for embodying many of the characteristics of his own rebellious hero.

Himself a descendent of Captain John “mad Jack” Byron, Lord Byron described Conrad, the pirate hero of his work The Corsair [1814] thus:

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XI)

There is somewhat an interesting dislocation between the popularity of the Byronic hero, and the interest that followed Byron throughout his lifetime, with the coincident repsonses of critics.

Rumours of his multiple affairs, including an incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta, and a legal separation from his wife made him an outcast who fled England in 1816.

When Don Juan was first published in 1819, the poem was criticised for its “immoral content”, though it was also immensely popular.

Don Juan

Perhaps contradictions follow the Byronic hero just as suffering, independence and rebellion do. Albert Camus wrote in The Stranger [1942],

The Byronic Hero, incapable of love, or capable only of an impossible love, suffers endlessly. He solitary, languid, his condition exhausts him. If he wants to feel alive, it must be in terrible exaltation of a brief and destructive action.

Why do we love to hate or rather, hate and yet love the bad boy?

Loved and loathed himself, Lord Byron was famously described by his lover, Lady Mary Lamb as…

… mad, bad and dangerous to know.

 

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Much Ado About Nothing

Queensland Theatre Company [QTC] recently produced Much Ado About Nothing and set the play in a contemporary beach-side home of wealthy widower Leonato, with his daughter Hero and niece Beatrice. Here they celebrate the visit of the Prince of Aragon, and his friends Count Claudio and Signor Benedick, men who are returned from service in the Royal Naval Forces.

The production was director Jason Klarwein’s mainstage directorial debut and to his credit, is raucusly funny and accessible. With a clever revolving set, the addition of live musical numbers, some audience interplay and a talented cast of actors – the production effectively wrings meaning and comedy from every turn.

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Much Ado, tells a lively and relateable tale of romance and betrayal and draws out the tensions between the the enslaving powers and institutions of love and the allure of freedom and independence.

Shakespeare’s greatness lies in part, to his masterful use of language and poetry and in part to his nuanced insights into human jealousy, love, hubris, revenge and vulnerabilities. As such, transplanting the story to a contemporary context only serves to highlight the humorous truths and insightful understanding of human beings through Shakespeare’s plays now some 400 years old.

What is most striking about Shakespearean staples such as Much Ado, is that they are not dissimilar to soapies or cheap penny-novellas in essence. They are made of the same stuff – star crossed-love stories, dilemmas of mistaken identities, machinations of wicked antagonists and the dysfunctions of family and culture.

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But what makes them different to mere pulp fiction?

Instead of succumbing to cliche, Shakespeare shines light onto seemingly every facet of broken humanity to reveal the humorous, tragic, poignant and transcendent elements of love, revenge and redemption. Much Ado for example, reveals from the mouth of Beatrice remarkably insightful feminist dialogue on the plight of a woman in love and marriage, her resistance to being owned by a man and caged like a bird.

It is commonly accepted that Shakespeare plagiarised common medieval plots for his plays and innovated on their bare bones structures. Watching the delightful comedy, set in contemporary time and place, laughing outright at the scathing burns and witty insights of the characters whether knowing or unknowing – one is reminded that classic does not mean new, it just means “truer” and “more timeless.”

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So today, we remake Shakespeare, just as in his day, Shakespeare remade medieval and classic court tales. The beauty of classics is that there exist layers of truth each subsequent generation can appreciate.

 

 

The Brain and the Power of Story

Imagine that you invented a device that can record my memories, my dreams, my ideas, and transmit them to your brain. That would be a game-changing technology, right? But in fact, we already possess this device, and it’s called human communication system and effective storytelling. To understand how this device works, we have to look into our brains. 

 

This awesome TED Talk by Uri Hasson illustrates the power of “neural-entrainment” a process of creating synchronicity between brainwaves among groups of people, by simply telling a story.

Hasson shows how story telling creates shared feeling and shared thought  in much the same way that metronomes will syncronise their rhythms when sharing a vibrating base.

Such synchronicity is powerful and dangerous as it illustrates how bias can easily be transmitted among groups. However, the onus is on us to consider what stories we absorb, and what stories we share. We should continue to share stories and ideas freely, since together we are more powerful than we are alone.

You can see the original TED Talk here.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

Srinivasa Ramanujan [1887-1920] was a Tamil Indian mathematician, who in relative isolation and without almost any formal training, made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions.

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In 1913, he wrote a series of letters to scholars at Cambridge University and caught the attention of British mathematician G. H. Hardy, who realized that Ramanujan had rediscovered previously known theorems in addition to producing new ones.

The Man Who Knew Infinity” is a 2015  British film made about his life. It was based on the 1991 novel of the same name by Robert Kanigal and focuses on the tension Ramanujan faced being accepted by the academic elite due to his foreign birth and lack of training.

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This academic reserve was only compounded by Ramanujan’s devout religious fervor and confessions that he felt the revelations of mathematical proofs that came to his intuition, were from God.

He famously stated: 

An equation for me has no meaning unless it represents a thought of God.

Hardy, an avowed atheist, opposed Ramanujan’s intuitive methods throughout their relationship, demanding of him proofs to establish the validity of this theories. A dyed-in-the-wool modernist, Hardy could not but maintain a dry tolerance for Ramanujan’s strange, eastern, mystical ways.

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However, across the course of the film Hardy changes his views and in the closing scenes Hardy, played by Jeremy Irons, admits before his peers at the Mathematical Society:

We are merely explorers of infinity in the pursuit of absolute perfection.

His conclusion: maybe, somewhere beyond his world of scientific proofs, there is something that explains the existence of the beautiful patterns of the mathematical world. Maybe there is something or someone that can only be discerned by intuition, not by proofs, but by reveling in the marvelous fingerprints of mathematical equations which exist in all their elegance, to be discovered by subtle minds like Ramanujan’s.

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Maybe, just maybe, as a civilization we grow in our scientific knowledge, we are not growing out of a belief in God, but only moving deeper in our wonder and awe of the world, deeper towards a knowledge of God.