What’s in a spell?

This semester I embarked on the very first subject of a law degree, a study which, if completed at the current pace of one subject per semester, will take me 12 long years to complete.

As a lover of debate, dialogue, the parsing of meaning, the construction of ideas from mere ink marks on paper, much of law, even the introductory subject I have completed thus far, is fascinating.

For example, the legal definition of a “person” in Australian law is “a body politic or corporate as well as an individual.” [Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth)]. So, to be a “person” in legal terms is to be more than a human individual, but also to be a business, or a nation, at least in terms of rights and responsibilities.

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The magic is that a business is created, or born, when a person or group of people register a business name, acquire an ABN, perhaps create a constitution outlining shares and duties and VOILA,  a person is summoned from thin air, from ink marks on paper.

It follows, ergo, that since words create things, and contracts and constitutions, rightly parsed and formally agreed upon, create something with legal force, an entity, a person, out of the air from nothing…. then laws are like spells.

Furthermore, after studying a few semesters of Biblical Hebrew, it came clear that the commonly used magical term “Abbrakadabra” had Semitic roots. “E’barah, ki’dibborah” literally reads “let it be [created] by the word.” The Hebrew verb barah is used in Genesis 1 to describe God’s creation of the heavens and the earth from nothing, from mere words or commands.

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What unfolds though is an interesting correlation between ancient literature and modern physics. The Hebrew account of creation, in comparison to many creation myths of the Ancient Near East [ANE] saw all matter arising from the divine word or “logos”. Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian creation accounts of that time, told of the stars, planets, oceans and mountains being formed from the corpses of slain divinities.

Contemporary physics identifies energy underlying all matter, and asserts that our thoughts themselves create energy. It seems the ancient Hebrews understood the world is the articulation of a spectacular divine thought and word.

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Another unique feature of the Hebrew creation story is the nobility granted to humanity. Rather than a servile race, condemned to suffer from the whims of their makers, Hebrews saw humans, gifted with God’s image, capable of further shaping and forming the material world.

Indeed, it is by “words” that humans create laws, contracts, constitutions and so forth, which form societies, nations, businesses, relationships and more.

Percy Shelley in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” [1821] writes “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What he points out is that by the “word,” poets move ideas into energy. In doing so they bring into being, a force and energy, much like a law or a spell does. 

It is their poems, songs, elegies and ballads, which have the force to move humans, to move societies, and to change them and form them anew. 

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It was and is the job of poets, much like lawyers and good governors, to bring life to societies, to nations, to businesses, to individuals and more.

 

Nevermore

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—            Only this and nothing more.”

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First published in January 1845, The Raven is one of the most famous and recognisable poems ever written.

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It certainly made writer Edgar Allen Poe widely popular within his own life time.

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    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
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It is noted for its musicality and stylized language. The rhythmic meter is called trochaic octameter – eight beats per line, each beat having one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable.
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The poem is said to be inspired by a talking raven in Dickens’Barnaby Rudge.  It tells of a bird’s midnight visit to a distraught lover, pining for his love Lenore, and illustrates the man’s slow fall into madness.
Characteristically Gothic and supernatural atmosphere, Poe makes use of a number of folk, mythological, religious, and classical references.
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 Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
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The main theme of the poem is one of undying devotion and the agonising conflict between the desire to both forget his love and the desire to remember.
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The narrator hearing the bird utter one word “Nevermore” assumes it is the raven’s “only stock and store”, and, yet, he continues to ask it questions, knowing what the answer will be.
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   “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

 

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He was also known to give recitals of “The Raven“. A guest at one soiree famously noted…

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He would turn down the lamps till the room was almost dark, then standing in the center of the apartment he would recite … in the most melodious of voices … So marvelous was his power as a reader that the auditors would be afraid to draw breath lest the enchanted spell be broken.

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Poe wrote of the poem which immortalised him,

the death… of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.

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Indeed, The Raven in Gothic tone and mood, certainly captures a lover’s midnight reflections and agonies powerfully and emotively.

The Poet Who Painted With His Words

Guillaume Apollinaire [1880-1918], part of the Modernist set of artists, writers and thinkers who gathered in Paris around the turn of the century, was a unique poet who combined text and images into a new form of poetry, the Calligramme.

Champion of the avant-garde, writer and art-critic Apollinaire explained and defended Cubism and other experimental art forms to a suspicious public.  At a time of rapid change and a growing gulf between classical forms of traditional art and the emerging popular art forms of cinema and the phonograph, Apollinaire sought to bridge the divide and express Modernism with his poetry.

Through the Calligramme, Apollinaire created a “written portrait”, a “poem picture”. He sought to express the unfolding Modernism and unchain his readers from the conventions of poetry – to read and see something new.

You can see more about Guillaume Apollinaire via this brilliant video from TED-ED.

Game of Faiths

The HBO series Games of Thrones aired the final episode for Season 6 last Sunday to an epic 9 million viewers. The fantasy drama is  based on a series of novels by George R. R. Martin, which currently number 5 in a potential series of 7 books, and form the greater compilation entitled,  A Song of Ice and Fire.

With nods to J.R.R. Tolkien, the epic fantasy novels are set in a parallel world which shows many cultural, sociological and literary similarities to Medieval and Renaissance Europe and the Near East, with added mythical beasts and magical cults.

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Darker and more blood thirsty than Tolkien, the books and now TV series have incited consternation for the frequent demise of major characters.

‘Why the appeal?’ one may well ask!

To early impressions, the stories can seem amoral. Many of the “good” characters get axed [literally] quite quickly, while the wicked prosper. All manner of vices proliferate on page and screen. Terrible inequalities emerge between owner and slave, between men with power and women without, between kings with money and armies and peasants without, and so forth.

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While unsavoury in nature, this portrayal of the world bears more likeness to true human history than other romantic epics of literature, Tolkien’s works included.

One cannot read much history without encountering the same gruesomely bloody and immoral acts portrayed within Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin, based much of the political machinations at the heart of the books on the British events of the Wars of the Roses. Some of the alarming and brutal customs including Cersei’s public walk of shame through the streets of the capital, or Tyrion’s ‘trial by combat’ come straight from Medieval history.

Moreover, the island of Westeros bears much historically in common with the British Isles with its long elaborate history of settlements, invasions and skirmishes between the Celts, Britons, Romans and Anglo-Saxons.

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History is brimming over with brutality. One reads of the Egyptian dynasties in which incestuous marriages were not uncommon, or Roman dynasties in which inbreeding created maddened rulers, cruel and drunk on power. Of course there were Persian rulers who impaled prisoners or crucified them publicly to deter dissent. One cannot read much of the most revered texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition,  the Old Testament, without encountering brutal accounts of parricide, polygamy, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, attempted genocide and more.

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And so, the world of Game of Thrones portrays life as cheap, hard and subject to the power plays of ruling elite. Caught in the midst of these power plays are the vulnerable – the women, the disabled, the illegitimate and the lesser born. And why shouldn’t it be so, for this is in fact the pattern of history is it not?

Here lies an interesting differential between history and poetry. While most often written from the vantage point of the victor, history is (at least in name) concerned the “what” and “when” of events past. On the other hand, poetry addresses the “whys” of human affairs. Poetry is unapologetically biased, adding layers of meaning, morality, and destiny to human accounts, straying into the metaphysical.

We look to art and narrative to provide a reprieve from the random patterns of brutality that make up life.

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It’s interesting then to revisit the claim Martin’s narratives seem amoral or without redemption. In fact, the stories are framed by an epic quest of cosmic proportions. The stories embody a narrative of redemption, ironically while religions within the stories function like any other element of an intricate socio-political universe.

In Martin’s world pagan Druidic beliefs exist along side the the established religion, the Faith of the Seven. George R.R. Martin, a catholic in upbringing, based the Faith of the Seven on the Medieval Catholic church, replete with inquisitions and political machinatons. Further afield, mostly originating in the east are other faiths including worship of  The Faceless God, or god of death, The Horse God of the Dothraki,  and of the Red God, or the Lord of Light, a religion based on Zorastrianism.

These religions form part of the fabric of Martin’s world and provide characters with agency. For example,  Cersei uses the Faith of the Seven and its adherents for political advantage, but is later caught in her own trap and manipulated in return.

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Behind this however, Game of Thrones paints a background of a cosmic battle between the forces of death and of life. Beyond the petty doings of human men and women, with their iron suits, gold coins, wicked hearts and political ambition, lies a massive army of  evil undead which threaten to wipe out all humanity and bring an unending winter.

Game of Thrones stretches beyond history and religion, and reaches into poetry; it sings a song of salvation.

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This song is familiar to us all, since it follows the pattern of every Hero Journey.

It is Jon Snow who demonstrates he is a true leader, one worthy of this cosmic battle. He sacrifices for his men and gains their loyalty and trust. He is betrayed at the hands of his friends and murdered, but he returns from the clutches of death to prompt the Priestess of Light to declare him  Azor Ahai, the one prophesied to bring balance between light and dark, to end the Great Battle with the forces of darkness and death.

Jon Snow is a humble man, over-looked by nobles and princes, one willing to give his life for his friends, one betrayed by his closest brothers, one who returns from the dead, reborn with a unique mandate-  to restore peace and harmony to a broken world.

 

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George Martin’s study of history and religion within the greater context of mythology and poetry, informs us how modern and post-modern teachings have impoverished western culture. In an effort to encourage objectivity and tolerance in increasingly diverse political and religious melting pots, western tradition has eliminated any meta-narrative or song of salvation.

Martin, like Tolkien reasserts a grand narrative, an epic hero story, one which echoes with the same themes and motifs of all epic narratives throughout the generations.

Why we need tragedy

Having recently absorbed a whole season of Netflix-original Bloodline, that’s 13 hours of television viewing in the space of a few weeks, I have been impressed upon by, not only the marvel of on-demand long-form drama, but also the importance of the genre of tragedy.

Bloodline is thriller-drama based around several generations of the Rayburn family. It focuses on the return of black-sheep Danny, to the Rayburn home in Florida Keys on the occasion of the 45th wedding anniversary of his parents. Several decades of lies and family secrets are slowly uncovered, leading to greater and greater treachery and ultimately, tragedy.

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Percy Shelley in his essay, “A Defense of Poetry” famously stated,

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Tragedy is an interesting example of such legislation, as the catharsis it offers is often a reaffirmation of just desserts for hubris. Protagonists of tragedy rarely emerge unscathed, and if they do their lessons are sorely learned.

A theme of Bear Skin is how the hard stuff of life such as conflict, tension, pain, sorrow, and misunderstandings can be redeemed through story. Story tellers combine these raw elements with a character journey and use the readers inherent sense of justice to create a crescendo of crisis.

Resolution then occurs through catharsis or emotional release, often through the payoff required by justice. If our protagonist is not, as it were, caught by conventional justice or punished for their crimes, they often suffer worse through pain, guilt, trauma or an ever increasing slide into self compromise.

Why tragedy then? Why do we or anyone want stories about people suffering? Tolstoy, Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights old all knew the power of tragic narrative.

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Tragedy presents us with a protagonist full of foibles, flaws, human faults, and vices. The audience is invited to both empathise with the protagonist, but also to judge with the objectivity of a third party observer.

By creating a degree of separation, the story-teller can lead the audience through the experience of cleansing punishment experienced by the protagonist or the key players, and to process internal behaviour change, without deep self-mortification.

Tragedy is in many cases, salvation, for it is another who suffers for our sins. We observe the evils, the justified motives, the small steps which lead to a crime – and while we can empathise with their journey, and we suffer with them, we are reborn to live anew.

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Waking as from a dream, we return to life, granted a second chance, the chance to live a better, wiser, more integrated life.