Empire Talks

I have recently moved to London and blogging has taken a bit of a back seat to job hunting, finding new friends and routines, new weather and more.

London is an amazing city, the seat of the British Empire. The city is layered with every era of art, architecture, literature, philosophy and political upheaval usually only accessed through school books.

Just living here is an education.

Victoria

Museums are plentiful, free and lined with rare treasures, antiquities and artefacts. Brightly lit theatres boast among their cast members Hollywood actors and world class talent. Some shows run for years on end. Libraries, churches, houses of parliament, consulates, hotels, each are heartrendingly beautiful and well preserved.

As an Aussie in London, I’m struck with the power of “empirical” imagery in a the city streets, free to view from pavements for both rich and poor. There are statues of Victoria, Wellington, Nelson and Bodicea, an Obelisk taken from Egypt, dragon markers to outline the borders of the City of London, sphinxes on park benches, a Unicorn on the coat of arms, Griffins, a winged bull , Peter Pan in Hyde Park and the list goes on.

City_Dragon

As a child of the “new-colonies” as we antipodeans are historically referred to, such regal imagery in public places is somewhat curious and wonderful. The importance of such imagery does not go unobserved.

Herodotus was noted as “father of history” for his inquiry ‘historia’ into the events surrounding the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century BC.  He collected his materials systematically and critically, and then arranged them into a historiographic narrative thus breaking with the Homeric tradition to poetically allude to mythic origins.

However, even Herodotus could not help tracing the genealogies of human kings to the divine nor recount the significance of the oracles on the behaviours of men.

Sphinx london

As James Romm wrote,

Herodotus worked under a common ancient Greek cultural assumption that the way events are remembered and retold (e.g. in myths or legends) produces a valid kind of understanding, even when this retelling is not entirely factual. For Herodotus, then, it takes both myth and history to produce truthful understanding.

London tells a story on its streets, its squares, its cornices and its parks. Not only are there everywhere images of leaders, monarchs, notable men and women of history but these leaders are co-conspirators with creatures of myth and legend as though standing in a line of history which reaches back into the realm of dreams and myths itself.

british-royal-coat-of-arms-on-somerset-house-london-s010xb

Such mythic imagery, gives the Empire gravitas. A propaganda of sorts. And yet, perhaps like Herodotus we learn that it takes both myth and history to produce a truthful understanding of ourselves.

Muriel Rukeyser writes:

The world is not made of atoms, it’s made of stories.

Indeed. An Empire is certainly made of more than guns and steel. It’s made of the narratives that weave the hearts of its people together.

Le Mort de Socrate

On the eve of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David painted the Death of Socrates [Le Mort de Socrate]. The oil on canvas work completed in 1887, focuses on the scene from Plato’s work Phaedo in which the philosopher, convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens, was sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock.

He was given the choice of exile or death, and he boldly chose death.

Socrates actions taught his pupils that a true philosopher neither fears nor flees death, but rather faces it with the same calm he applies to life. The scene, while capturing a moment of tragic end, in fact also depicts the moment of the birth of western philosophy.  Socrates death signalled the end of the reign of superstition and dogma in Greece, and the birth of rationalism and individualism.

Is it not ironic that the very men who accused Socrates of “introducing new gods” and “corrupting the youth of Athens”, by executing him, essentially killed their own traditions and saw the birth of what they feared, a radical new ideology that would transform their nation and the world.

What power is there in one man’s death to bring down his enemy’s legacy and give ascendancy to his own?

It is as though “ideas” are one’s true power, [the pen, rather than the sword?], and one’s true immortality?

Atelier_de_Nicolas_de_Largillière,_portrait_de_Voltaire,_détail_(musée_Carnavalet)_-002

Aslo on the eve of the French Revolution, Voltaire, aka François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), died at the age of 84. He was an enlightenment writer whose wit and word frequently targeted intolerance, religious dogma, and other French institutions of his day.

He did not die for his beliefs, but rather ten years after his death of old age the French Revolution [1789-1799], broke out, turning France on its head. The blood thirsty rise of the common people in France saw the overthrow of the aristocracy and the institution of a republic, the abolition of slavery in French colonies, and the establishment of the French motto ‘liberty, brotherhood and equality’ [liberte, fraternite, egalite].

Interestingly,  while in Socrates case, the ruling elite secured their own demise by killing the philosopher they opposed, in Voltaire’s case, the ruling elite secured their demise by ignoring the philosopher poet and his disciples, finding instead angry bourgeois with gunpowder, torches and ploughshares at their doors, and guillotines and prisons awaiting them.

The French Revolution

Moreover, while Socrates ideas defeated his enemies ideas costing his life, one life, Voltaire’s ideas defeated his enemies, costing them their lives, thousands of lives.

What is mightier then, the power of the sword, or the pen?!

Well one may ask, what ideas bring life? One must better ask, what ideas bear good fruit, generations after they are germinated in a philosopher or poets teachings ?

Perhaps as in all legacies, time is true decider.

As written about in an earlier Bear Skin post, Jonathan Ralston-Saul’s incisive work “Voltaire’s Bastards” gives a critical analysis of the legacy of Voltaire’s writings.

Voltaire and his contemporaries believed reason was the best defense against the arbitrary power of monarchs and the superstitions of religious 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, subsequent 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 methodology is based on specialised knowledge and the manipulation of “rational structures” rather than reason. The link between justice and reason has been severed and our decision-makers, bereft of a viable ethical framework have turned rational calculation into something short sighted and self-serving. This can and does lead to a directionless state that rewards the pursuit of power for power’s sake.

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, … 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.

Ralston-Saul called for a pursuit of a humanism 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.

The death of Socrates show us so powerfully, that ideas give or take life. Socrates did not fear the loss of his own life, because he knew that there were power and truth in his ideas, ideas which would long outlive him. In contrast, Voltaire’s ideas while enlightened, gave birth to a range of ‘children’, among them bloodshed, individualism and management as proxy for leadership, the pursuit of rational structures and of power pursuits.

 

The Alchemist

The Alchemist (O Alquimista) is a novel by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho which was first published in 1988. Originally written in Portuguese, it became an international bestseller translated into some 70 languages and selling over 65 million copies to date.

Coelho wrote The Alchemist in only two weeks in 1987. He explained he was able to write at this pace because the story was “already written in [his] soul.” The book’s main theme is about finding one’s destiny. According to The New York TimesThe Alchemist is,

more self-help than literature.

The Advertiser, an Australian newspaper, reviewed the book in 1993 saying,

of books that I can recommend with the unshakeable confidence of having read them and been entranced, impressed, entertained or moved, the universal gift is perhaps a limpid little fable called The Alchemist… In hauntingly spare prose, translated from the Brazilian original in Portuguese, it follows a young Andalusian shepherd into the desert on his quest for a dream and the fulfilment of his destiny.

65 million copies does not lie. What then is so  appealing about this novel?

Andalusian Shepherd

An allegorical novel, The Alchemist follows the journey of an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago. Believing a recurring dream to be prophetic, he asks a Romani fortune-teller in a nearby town about its meaning. The woman interprets the dream as a prophecy telling the boy that he will discover a treasure at the Egyptian pyramids.

Early into his journey, Santiago meets an old king named Melchizedek or the king of Salem, who tells him to sell his sheep so as to travel to Egypt and introduces the idea of a Personal Legend, which,

“…is what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.”

He adds that,

…when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

Along the way, the boy meets an Englishman who has come in search of an Alchemist and continues his travels with him. When they reach an oasis, Santiago meets and falls in love with an Arabian girl named Fatima, whom he asks to marry him. She promises to do so only after he completes his journey. He is frustrated by this, but later learns that true love will not stop nor must one sacrifice to it one’s personal destiny, since to do so robs it of truth.
Mattheus_van_Hellemont_The_Alchemist

The boy then encounters a wise alchemist who also teaches him to realize his true self. Finally they risk a journey through the territory of warring tribes, where the boy is forced to demonstrate his oneness with “The Soul of the World” by turning himself into a simoom before he is allowed to proceed.

When he begins digging within sight of the pyramids, he is robbed but learns accidentally from the leader of the thieves that the treasure he seeks was all the time in the ruined church where he had his original dream.

This story can be traced to an Hasisdic folk tale earlier addressed in a Bear Skin post.  Coehlo used the frame of the story to construct the larger fable of Santiago’s journey.

The Alchemist

The enduring popularity of the Alchemist, a simple story written off as “a limpid tale” or “more self help than literature” and quite obviously based on an earlier folk tale shows how stories that resonating with audiences does not require originality, length, complexity or intellectual rigour.

Good stories strike at the heart and readers vote with their feet or rather, their wallet.

The Good Guy/ Bad Guy Myth

This article was written by Marina Benjamin and published in Aeon Magazine on 25th January 2018.

For the original article please click HERE:

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The first time we see Darth Vader doing more than heavy breathing in Star Wars (1977), he’s strangling a man to death. A few scenes later, he’s blowing up a planet. He kills his subordinates, chokes people with his mind, does all kinds of things a good guy would never do. But then the nature of a bad guy is that he does things a good guy would never do.

Darth Vader

Good guys don’t just fight for personal gain: they fight for what’s right – their values.

This moral physics underlies not just Star Wars, but also film series such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and X-Men (2000-), as well as most Disney cartoons. Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books, in Narnia and at Hogwarts, and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics. In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki – who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.

Edda

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.

Propoganda

Most folklore scholarship since the Second World War has been concerned with archetypes or commonalities among folktales, the implicit drive being that if the myths and stories of all nations had more in common than divided them, then people of all nations could likewise have more in common than divides us. It was a radical idea, when earlier folktales had been published specifically to show how people in one nation were unlike those in another.

In her study of folklore From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), the English author and critic Marina Warner rejects a reading of folktales, popularised by the American child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, as a set of analogies for our psychological and developmental struggles. Warner argues instead that external circumstances make these stories resonate with readers and listeners through the centuries. Still, both scholars want to trace the common tropes of folktales and fairy-tales insofar as they stay the same, or similar, through the centuries.

Princess and Trolls

Novelists and filmmakers who base their work on folklore also seem to focus on commonalities. George Lucas very explicitly based Star Wars on Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which describes the journey of a figure such as Luke Skywalker as a human universal. J R R Tolkien used his scholarship of Old English epics to recast the stories in an alternative, timeless landscape; and many comic books explicitly or implicitly recycle the ancient myths and legends, keeping alive story threads shared by stories new and old, or that old stories from different societies around the world share with each other.

Less discussed is the historic shift that altered the nature of so many of our modern retellings of folklore, to wit: the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values. That shift lies in the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values. Good guys stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to die for a cause. This trope is so omnipresent in our modern stories, movies, books, even our political metaphors, that it is sometimes difficult to see how new it is, or how bizarre it looks, considered in light of either ethics or storytelling.

Grimms Fairy Tales

When the Grimm brothers wrote down their local folktales in the 19th century, their aim was to use them to define the German Volk, and unite the German people into a modern nation. The Grimms were students of the philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who emphasised the role of language and folk traditions in defining values. In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), von Herder argued that language was ‘a natural organ of the understanding’, and that the German patriotic spirit resided in the way that the nation’s language and history developed over time. Von Herder and the Grimms were proponents of the then-new idea that the citizens of a nation should be bound by a common set of values, not by kinship or land use. For the Grimms, stories such as Godfather Death, or the Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn, revealed the pure form of thought that arose from their language.

The corollary of uniting the Volk through a storified set of essential characteristics and values is that those outside the culture were seen as lacking the values Germans considered their own. Von Herder might have understood the potential for mass violence in this idea, because he praised the wonderful variety of human cultures: specifically, he believed that German Jews should have equal rights to German Christians. Still, the nationalist potential of the Grimm brothers’ project was gradually amplified as its influence spread across Europe, and folklorists began writing books of national folklore specifically to define their own national character. Not least, many modern nations went on to realise the explosive possibilities for abuse in a mode of thinking that casts ‘the other’ as a kind of moral monster.

Slavic Myth

In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), the American scholar Maria Tatar remarks on the way that Wilhelm Grimm would slip in, say, adages about the importance of keeping promises. She argued that: ‘Rather than coming to terms with the absence of a moral order … he persisted in adding moral pronouncements even where there was no moral.’ Such additions established the idea that it was values (not just dinner) at stake in the conflicts that these stories dramatised. No doubt the Grimms’ additions influenced Bettelheim, Campbell and other folklorists who argued for the inherent morality of folktales, even if they had not always been told as moral fables.

As part of this new nationalist consciousness, other authors started changing the old stories to make a moral distinction between, for example, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Before Joseph Ritson’s 1795 retelling of these legends, earlier written stories about the outlaw mostly showed him carousing in the forest with his merry men. He didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor until Ritson’s version – written to inspire a British populist uprising after the French Revolution. Ritson’s rendering was so popular that modern retellings of Robin Hood, such as Disney’s 1973 cartoon or the film Prince of Thieves (1991) are more centrally about outlaw moral obligations than outlaw hijinks. The Sheriff of Nottingham was transformed from a simple antagonist to someone who symbolised the abuses of power against the powerless. Even within a single nation (Robin Hood), or a single household (Cinderella), every scale of conflict was restaged as a conflict of values.

IliadThe Iliad

Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties

Or consider the legend of King Arthur. In the 12th century, poets writing about him were often French, like Chrétien de Troyes, because King Arthur wasn’t yet closely associated with the soul of Britain. What’s more, his adversaries were often, literally, monsters, rather than people who symbolised moral weaknesses. By the early 19th century, when Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, King Arthur becomes an ideal of a specifically British manhood, and he battles human characters who represent moral frailties. By the 20th century, the word ‘Camelot’ came to mean a kingdom too idealistic to survive on Earth.

Once the idea of national values entered our storytelling, the peculiar moral physics underlying the phenomenon of good guys versus bad guys has been remarkably consistent. One telling feature is that characters frequently change sides in conflicts: if a character’s identity resides in his values, then when he changes his mind about a moral question, he is essentially swapping sides, or defecting. This is not always acknowledged. For example, when in the PBS series Power of Myth (1988) the journalist Bill Moyers discussed with Campbell how many ancient tropes Star Wars deployed, they didn’t consider how bizarre it would have seemed to the ancient storytellers had Darth Vader changed his mind about anger and hatred, and switched sides in his war with Luke and the Rebels. Contrast this with The Iliad, where Achilles doesn’t become Trojan when he is angry at Agamemnon. Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties. Since their conflict is not a metaphor for some internal battle of anger versus love, switching sides because of a transport of feeling would be incoherent. In Star Wars, the opposing teams each represent a set of human properties. What side Darth Vader fights on is therefore absolutely dependent on whether anger or love is foremost in his heart.

Wonder Woman

Bad guys change their minds and become good in exactly the same way in countless, ostensibly folkloric, modern stories: The Lord of the RingsBuffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the Harry Potter series (1997-2007). When a bad character has a change of heart, it’s always a cathartic emotional moment – since what’s at stake for a character is losing the central part of his identity. Another peculiarity in the moral physics of good guys versus bad is that bad guys have no loyalty and routinely punish their own; whether it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham starving his own people or Darth Vader killing his subordinates, bad guys are cavalier with human life, and they rebuke their allies for petty transgressions. This has been true since the earliest modern bad guys, though it scarcely exists among older adversaries who might be hungry for human flesh, but don’t kill their own.

Good guys, on the other hand, accept all applicants into the fold, and prove their loyalty even when their teammates transgress. Consider Friar Tuck getting drunk on ale while Robin Hood looks the other way. Or Luke Skywalker welcoming the roguish Han Solo on side. Good guys work with rogues, oddballs and ex-bad guys, plus their battles often hinge on someone who was treated badly by the bad guys crossing over and becoming a good guy. Forgiving characters their wicked deeds is an emotional climax in many good guy/bad guy stories. Indeed, it’s essential that the good side is a motley crew that will never, ever reject a fellow footsoldier.

Luke Skywalker

Again, this is a point of pride that seems incoherent in the context of pre-modern storytelling. Not only do people in ancient stories not switch sides in fights but Achilles, say, would never win because his army was composed of the rejects from the Trojans’. In old stories, great warriors aren’t scrappy recruits, there for the moral education: they’re experts.

Stories about good guys and bad guys that are implicitly moral – in the sense that they invest an individual’s entire social identity in him not changing his mind about a moral issue – perversely end up discouraging any moral deliberation. Instead of anguishing over multidimensional characters in conflict – as we find in The Iliad, or the Mahabharata or Hamlet – such stories rigidly categorise people according to the values they symbolise, flattening all the deliberation and imagination of ethical action into a single thumbs up or thumbs down. Either a person is acceptable for Team Good, or he belongs to Team Evil.

Frodo

Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.

The idea that whole categories of people should be locked up made the concentration camps possible

It’s no coincidence that good guy/bad guy movies, comic books and games have large, impassioned and volatile fandoms – even the word ‘fandom’ suggests the idea of a nation, or kingdom. What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.

Rumplestiltskin

When I talked with Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps (2017), about the rise of the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, she told me: ‘Three inventions collided to make concentration camps possible: barbed wire, automatic weapons, and the belief that whole categories of people should be locked up.’ When we read, watch and tell stories of good guys warring against bad guys, we are essentially persuading ourselves that our opponents would not be fighting us, indeed they would not be on the other team at all, if they had any loyalty or valued human life. In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals. It is the Grimms’ and von Herder’s vision taken to its logical nationalist conclusion that implies that ‘categories of people should be locked up’.

Watching Wonder Woman at the end of the 2017 movie give a speech about preemptively forgiving ‘humanity’ for all the inevitable offences of the Second World War, I was reminded yet again that stories of good guys and bad guys actively make a virtue of letting the home team in a conflict get away with any expedient atrocity.

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Written by Marina Benjamin,  published on January 25th 2018, you can read the original article, titled “Why is Pop Culture So Obsessed with Battles Between Good and Evil?” in Aeon at https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-pop-culture-obsessed-with-battles-between-good-and-evil.