An Alien Shore

… stories have shapes … and … the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.

~ Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is well known for his essays on the common tropes of stories and their meanings. Like a museum of cultural artefacts, popular and enduring narratives reveal much about a nation’s collective identity.

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Vonnegut, for example, likens the Christian Biblical story to the Cinderella narrative, a narrative so popular it is repeated each generation in one form or another – Think Oliver Twist, Annie, Pretty Woman and so forth. The once impoverished protagonist is beloved of the prince and not only overcomes oppression and ignobility, but arises from the ashes to ascend into the heights of bliss as beloved and co-heir to the kingdom.

The Jewish scriptures on the other hand tell more a protracted tale of survival through suffering, wandering and woe, in the vein of Homer’s Odysseus. Hope and faith which endure through darkness is the theme of Jewish narrative and is perhaps best exampled in the short narrative of Job.

In the Book of Job, the mortal man beset with many ills, is faced with the realisation that humanity has one bitter end – death. This death is part of a catch-22 deal that has humanity cornered. ‘A man [sic] is born to mischief as the sparks fly up,’ [Job 5:7] and while he, Job, is as moral a man as has ever lived, no morality is moral enough to reach perfection. His friends urge penance and he rejects this claiming he has already lived a moral life and instead turns upon God with an audacious demand for an account to humanity.

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What a curious and unpious narrative to mark a nations identity?! How does it nuance our understanding of the greater canon of scripture?

Perhaps examining other popular and enduring stories will help us.

A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all. Avatar or Pocahontas? As stories they’re almost identical.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

This narrative is a hero-quest and the protagonist crosses into the alien and unfamiliar world of their sworn enemies. Romeo and Juliet follows a similar trajectory. When Romeo enters his enemies house in disguise, he falls for their daughter. They pursue an elicit love affair that ends with an elopement, and while their love is doomed, the tragedy of these two lovers draws the warring families into peace talks.

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It is a powerful theme. Reconciliation is found when one learns to love ones enemies by living in their world and seeing the battle from their vantage point. Even if their quest may be doomed, this very action can bring an end to the conflict that has divided the two worlds.

This story of Job is so simple and so profound; it is the fulcrum of the greater narrative, the link between Jewish scriptures and the New Testament. Job, the mouthpiece of the Hebrew people, calls God to provide a personal account for the inevitable sufferings of humanity, and the New Testament supplies the response.

The New Testament recounts the arrival of the author of the story, into the story. This character, lands on the alien shore and befriends the inhabitants of this world. Here he  falls in love with them and taking up arms against the enemy forces, the enemy of death, the character perishes in his battle for their freedoms. While the story is tragic, despite his death,  he takes down the enemy – death itself – and so does what no man has done before, returns life to the ailing population.

Whether the Bible is a Cinderella story, a Pocahontas story, an Avatar story, or another hero-journey, it is clear that the repeated motifs of the popular stories we love and retell, resonate deeply with human identity and our search for meaning, destiny and purpose.

The Stranger Things of Story

There is perhaps no more striking representation of the battle between good and evil than in Stranger Things, the Netflix series which released its second season in late October 2017. This battle is seen through the eyes of children in a normal town of Hawkins Indiana.

Set one year after the events of Season 1, it is Halloween October 1984, and we are treated once again to pop culture references of ’80s movies including Aliens, Ghost Busters, Strange Encounters of the Third Kind, Dungeons and Dragons and arcade games such as pac-man and space invaders.

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In the first season of ‘Stranger Things’, we met Eleven, a girl with telekinetic powers who has been caged and tormented in a research lab, and who opens the door way to ‘the upside down‘. This nightmarish world is a dark shadow of our own, a literal ‘upside down’ version of reality where dark things lurk and various innocents such as Will and Barb are drawn and even lost.

In Season 2, we see the characters each dealing with the after effects of their adventures in season 1. Will, still connected to the upside down, is seeing visions of the evil menace over Hawkins and he warns his friends. They believe he is simply experiencing post traumatic stress flashbacks however soon he becomes affected by the “shadow monster” as though possessed by a demonic power.

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Can Eleven and the gang stop the forces of evil again before it consumes their friend Will, their town Hawkins and maybe their entire world?

As mentioned in earlier Bear Skin posts, many stories have a doorway metaphor allowing protagonists to pass into a magical or mythical world of adventure.  Indeed, classics such as “Alice in Wonderland” or ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, contain a literal door through which children pass into a magical land. Here a a battle of good and evil occurs, or at least a discovery of true self and courage. Other classics such as “Harry Potter” tell of parallel worlds [the worlds of muggles and of Witchcraft and Wizardry] which live in close relationship. Only the few special characters are able to navigate both and it is there the true battles of life and death are fought and won.

This metaphor duality of our world, of scientific objectivity on the one hand and the world of narrative and myth on the other, represents the division between the conscious and the subconscious, the natural and the supernatural. These stories and the journey of protagonists between worlds, through the doorway or portal, takes the reader or viewer on a journey into their own dream-state, to do battle with the evil which lurks there.

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‘Stranger Things’ and other doorway stories, shows how unexamined rationalism, or worlds without myth and legend, impoverish the mind and spirit. The ordinary world that denies the magical or mythical world does so to its own detriment. It seems that those who deny the chaos and disorder of the subconscious will eventually be ruled by it; 19th century humanist rationalism, ever optimistic about the greater and greater advancements of human knowledge, gave rise to the cruelty and chaotic destruction of the early 20th century regimes of Stalin, Hitler and Lenin.

And so what is the solution to our dilemma?

It is the hero who must bridge the two worlds, crossing between and doing battle with the forces or chaos within the subconscious. The hero-journey, so prevalent in narrative, myth and legend is the descent into the psyche as though into another world to encounter the monsters of chaos therein. The hero will face the beast he or she fears the most and there through acts of courage and often great sacrifice, vanquish them or contain them.

In returning, the hero can then seal up the fractured psyche, restoring the integrity of the soul. What magical force does this hero use? Well, the most powerful a mystical force available to humans – the force of love.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Herodotus [Ἡρόδοτος] was a Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus in the modern-day Turkey in the fifth century BC (c. 484–c. 425 BC). As a contemporary with Socrates, Euripedes and Aeschylus, he lived during what is known as the Golden Age of Greece.

He is often referred to as “The Father of History”, because he broke from Homeric tradition of mythologising events and treated his historical subjects with a method of investigation. The Histories, the record of his “inquiry” (ἱστορία historía)—was the result of  his collection of eye witness accounts and other materials and his systematic and critical arrangement of them into a historiographic narrative.

His work meditates on the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars which occurred one generation before his life. While prone to some fancies and inaccuracies, his work played a significant role in establishing a framework for later historical writings.

 

You can view this and other TED-Ed videos HERE.

Thales, the Father of Philosophy

Thales of Miletus,  c. 624 – c. 546 BC was a Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who influenced much of later classical Greek and western thought

He was one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who were concerned with “the essence of things. They were named physiologoi (φυσιολόγοι), physical or natural philosophers or physikoi (physicists) because they sought natural explanations for phenomena, as opposed to the earlier theologoi (theologians), whose explanations looked to the supernatural.

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The pre-Socratic philosophers were asking:

  • From where does everything come?
  • From what is everything created?
  • How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
  • How might we describe nature mathematically?

Thales’ hypothesised that the originating principle of nature and matter was a single substance: water. Moreover, rather than assuming that earthquakes were the result of the whims of divine beings, Thales explained them by theorising that the Earth was a large disc which floated on water and that earthquakes occurred when the Earth was rocked by waves.

Thales used geometry to calculate the heights of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore.

Placing your stick at the end of the shadow of the pyramid, you made by the sun’s rays two triangles, and so proved that the pyramid[height] was to the stick [height] as the shadow of the pyramid to the shadow of the stick.

W. W. Rouse Ball, A Short Account of the History of Mathematics (1893, 1925)

He is the first known individual to use deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving the Thales’ theorem which observed that any triangle which sits along the diameter of a circle will by nature be a right angled triangle.

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Thales was one of the seven sages of Greece, ho heptoi sophoi, (οἱ ἑπτὰ σοφοί) alongside Solon of Athens, and Periander of Corinth. These sages were known for pithy sayings including the inscription [attributed to Thales] at the Oracle of Delphi

Know thyself!

The Seven Sages of Greece were not only philosophers, scientists and teachers but also involved in political life. Thales political involvement had mainly to do with the involvement of his region, Ionia in the defense of Anatolia [Asia Minor] against the growing power of the Persians. The neighbouring king of Lydia, king Croesus, had conquered many of the coastal cities of the Ionians and he engaged Thales support in his war against the Medes. The war endured for five years, but in the sixth an eclipse of the Sun spontaneously halted a battle in progress (the Battle of Halys). It seems that Thales had predicted this solar eclipse and based on it the Lydians and Medes made peace immediately, swearing a blood oath.

Croesus

The Medes were vassals of the Persians under Cyrus. Croesus now sided with the Medes against the Persians and marched in the direction of Persia, stopping by the river Halys, then unbridged.  The king gave the problem to Thales who got the army across by digging a diversion upstream so as to reduce the flow, making it possible to ford the river.  When Croesus was unsuccessful against the Persian armies in Cappadocia, he marched home, and summoned his dependents and allies to send fresh troops to Sardis. The Persian army surrounded the armies of Croesus, trapping them within the walls of Sardis. This time, Thales fame as a counselor was to advise the Milesians not to engage in “fighting together”, with the Lydians against the Persians.

Croesus was defeated before the city of Sardis by Cyrus, and Miletus was subsequently spared because it had taken no action. Cyrus was so impressed by Croesus’ wisdom and his connection with the sages that he spared him and took his advice on various matters. The Ionians were now free and Miletus, received favorable terms from Cyrus including amnesty.

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It was Thales wisdom in science, philosophy and politics which led to the rise of the Milesian school of philosophy which was influenced by both Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics and astronomy. It was Anaxagoras  [c. 510 – c. 428 BC] of the Milesian school of philosophy who later brought its teaching to Athens, influencing Socrates and Pericles under the Golden Age of Greece.

Although Socrates born two centuries later [c. 470 – 399 BC], is more famously remembered to be the ‘father of western philosophy’, it is Thales earlier wisdom and scientific endeavours that have led to him being credited with fathering western philosophy.