Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Oresteia

The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides by Aeschylus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And now we enter the world of Greek gods, and the heroic age that to the Greeks of the 5th century B.C. was in the not so distant past. To the Greeks, this was an age when gods still walked the earth and communed with the locals. It is in short the story of the birth of civilization as told by a man who himself fought for the survival of the Greek way of life in more than his plays, Aeschylus. His self-penned epitath reads nothing of his fame as a playwright, but proudly boasts his service in the Greek armies victory against the invading Persians at the battle of Marathon. His plays are a proud celebration of the civilizing aspects of Greek culture.

As Aeschylus famously stated that his works were "slices from the banquet of Homer", this can be read as being between the events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is the story of the cursed house of Atreus, the triumphant and doomed return of King Agamemnon from his victory at Troy. He has enraged his Queen Clytemnestra by sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia in order to appease the goddess Artemis. She has had ten long years to brood over this, and to add insult to injury Agamemnon returns with a literal trophy wife, none other than the daughter of Troy's King Priam, the priestess of Apollo Cassandra. Clytemnestra murders them both, and this is something that Aeschylus' contemporary audience knew well, so he bring the sense of foreboding and doom to nearly unbearable heights. Everyone knew of the curse on the house of Atreus, but the Oresteia is much bigger than the story of Agamemnon or his son Orestes vengeance and matricide. Aeschylus seeks not to extirpate the bloodguilt of Orestes, but to reconcile the order of gods to a just life for mankind.

It's difficult to express just how important Aeschylus is to western culture. He is the founder of the art of performance drama, and produced the only extant trilogy we have of the ancient Greek theater, here contained as the Oresteia of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides. His touch contains something extraordinary that he was notoriously unable to quite express, as satirized by the great comic dramatist Aristophanes. This is understandable considering the subject matter, nothing short of the establishment of the Greek concept of justice, which encompasses a uniting of the forces of heaven and earth.

This volume contains an imperishable essay of about 100 pages by Professor Robert Fagles of Dublin University entitled The Serpent and the Eagle. This essay alone almost makes the book worth the cost. His blank verse translation of the Oresteia conveys the range of expression to a pitch so terrifying as to make the story come alive in your hands, and the redemptive call for eternal vigilance expressed in the Eumenides is like walking out of a house on fire into a crisp Autumn night.

The Oresteia is a call to action, a reminder of the dangers of hubris, and above all a celebration of freedom and the Greek way of life. As Robert Fagles phrases it, "the Oresteia is our rite of passage from savagery to civilization." For a fan of western literature, this is an indispensable source of joy, and a key insight into many of the themes that dominate the genre of drama.

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Myths of the Ancient Greeks

Myths of the Ancient GreeksMyths of the Ancient Greeks by Richard P. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Myths of the Ancient Greeks is a book with perfect economy of title. It is a brief retelling of the major surviving myths of the ancient Greeks, and Martin adds a light touch to the stories. He succeeds in making very accessible stories that are notoriously difficult to comprehend. This is not a scholarly look at the myths, but again a light introduction to the stories that may peak your interest into deeper study.

The introduction is wonderful, and makes a key point that any person familiar with Greek myth must understand: that these myths can never be fully understood. The Ancient Greeks had very different concepts of morality, justice, honor, duty, and above all religion than we presently possess, whether we are in the Christian west, or the varieties of eastern belief systems. Once you accept that these stories may not be something we can fully grasp, we may try to imagine what it would be like to think like the ancient Greeks, and this is one of the wonderful and mind expanding aspects of the study of Greek myth.

A light, but not simple book that succeeds beautifully as an introduction to a strange, beautiful, and terrifying world of thought.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Letter to a Christian Nation

Letter to a Christian Nation (Vintage)Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is somewhat unfortunate that the title of this book is a misnomer. The United States is not a "Christian Nation" despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of its citizens are in fact Christian. The United States is a secular republic, the worlds first, and it is an important fact to bear in mind.

That said, this is the most concise of the major recent works dubbed the "New Atheism", and it is highly potent. If you are unfamiliar with the views held in common by many atheists you would do well to read this short work. Sam Harris is a very precise author and he pulls no punches in a frontal assault on the beliefs of mainstream Christianity. What makes Harris an exciting and important author, is his central belief that religion represents the greatest threat to civilization, as it is based upon faith instead of the principle ethic of the enlightenment: reason.

This is a very good read, and Harris makes many arguments against Christianity that I find to be (although certainly not original) nearly impossible if not impossible to refute. This is a solid atheist tract, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in faith in general.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics)The Epic of Gilgamesh by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an archetypal myth, predating the Hebrew bible by around 2 millennia. The reason it is archetypal has as much to do with its thematic elements as with its antiquity. It tells the tale of the 27th century B.C. god-king Gilgamesh (Sumerian Bilgames) and his search for meaning in life. It deals heavily with humanities greatest fear: death.

Gilgamesh is grieved by his mortality and seeks a cure for this sorrowful state, taking us on a quest to find Utnaptishim, the immortal human survivor of the great deluge. Utnaptishim was granted immortality by the gods after the god Enlil was angered that humans had survived his catastrophe. All other gods agreed to make humans mortal henceforth.

Here is what I find particularly interesting in the Epic. First, the obvious parallels to the Hebrew story of Noah, as well as recurring significance for the number seven. Now, as you are likely aware, Islam replaced the Babylonian mythology by force, much in the same ways the Christian faith replaced the Greek mythology. However, remnants of the old persist for both East and West. In Islam, fire is a particularly feared cause of death. We find roots in the Sumerian poem 'the Death of Bilgames', where Bilgames companion Enkidu returns from the netherworld and explains the fates of all who dwell there. Those who perish by fire do not enter the netherworld, they are in a state of permanent displacement, alluded as the worst fate of all. There is much more of interest in this poem that I won't spoil should you decide to read it.

To sum up, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a treatise on the proper duties of a king, the futility of any attempt at immortality save the remembrance in the living of those who accomplish great things, and the importance of solid friendship is implicit in the relationship between wild-man Enkidu and two-thirds god, one third human Gilgamesh.

Very interesting, beautiful, and well worth study.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols

This is a synopsis of the 2nd of 4 essays in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. I hope you find it informative.

In literature a symbol is any literary structure that can be isolated for critical attention. Ethical criticism consists of the systemization of literary symbolism. In the middle ages, literary criticism was taken from theology producing the scheme of literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogic criticism. From Dante we have the term 'Polysemous', which means that any work of literature will have multiple meanings. The poet has not the final word on meaning. When an artist produces his art, he gives it to the public, and the public is able to assign multiple meanings to a work, and meanings that perhaps the artist never intended. Here Frye introduces the concept of 'phases', meaning a sequence of contexts or relationships in which the whole of a work may be interpreted. He maintains that a finite number of valid critical methods exist, and that these methods may be contained in a single theory.

Literal and Descriptive Phases: Symbol as Motif and as Sign

When reading, our attention moves both outward (centrifugally) and inward (centripetally). When out attention focuses centrifugally we think of the things the words mean, to our memory of their associations. When we focus centripetally we develop a sense of the larger verbal pattern the words make. Verbal elements connecting centrifugally are referred to as 'signs', the centripetal verbal structure is referred to as 'motifs'.

Verbal structures are classified in this theory according to whether the final direction of meaning is centrifugal - as in descriptive or assertive writing - or centripetal - as in literature. Literary meaning has no "true" or "false" value. It's relation to the external world is always hypothetical. In literature, questions of truth or factuality are subordinated to the primary aim of producing a structure of words for its own sake. Therefore the sign values of symbols are subordinate to their importance as a structure of interconnected motifs. At the center of Frye's theories lie the maxim: Literature is an autonomous verbal structure. This principle is necessary in order for the attempt to make an autonomous science of literary criticism.

The patterns in literature bring us pleasure, an interest in detachment. Originally descriptive works may survive by virtue of their style long after the factual representation has ceased. Remember, in literature entertainment value trumps instructional value. Reality takes a back seat to pleasure in literature. Frye designates centrifugal meaning for works of theology and metaphysics, as their influence from without literature creates centrifugal movement. The privilege of the poet to ignore facts contributes to the idea of the poet as a "licenced liar", but as Sir Phillip Sidney said, "the poet never affirmith". The poet no more lies than tells the truth.

The poet depends upon conformity to his hypothetical postulates. As Frye points out, one who quarrels with postulates has no business in literature. The accepted postulate is the contract between the poet and his/her reader. Therefore in literary criticism, when we refer to "literal" meaning, we refer to the work as a whole, it's meaning within its hypothetical verbal structure. Any paraphrasing produces outward meaning. The concept of literal meaning as simple descriptive meaning, as in theology, will not do for literary criticism.

All art possesses both temporal and spatial aspects. Narrative (mythos) corresponds to rhythm, meaning (dianoia) to pattern. A poems meaning is literally its pattern or integrity as a verbal structure. A word can centripetally have a various meaning depending upon context. On the literal level, where symbols are motifs, any unit may be relevant to our understanding. On the descriptive level, where symbols are signs, a symbol is a body of hypothetical verbal structures.

Literature deeply influenced by the descriptive aspect of symbolism tends towards realistic narrative and didactic or descriptive meaning. Here the rhythm will be the prose of direct speech, and the effort will be towards a clear representation of external reality (as in the documentary realism of Zola, Dreiser).

The literal equivalent is the French 'symbolisme' with its centripetal patterns, where direct statement is subjugated to pattern integrity. In symbolisme the poetic symbol means primarily itself in relation to the poem, the unity of the poem may be understood as a unity of mood, the images point to each other. Here we use words like evoke and suggest, we find an evocation of a harmony of sounds, a growing richness of meaning unlimited by denotation. In poetry, the basis for literary expression is irony, a pattern of words that turn away from descriptive meaning.

Literary criticism has reflected the distinction between the literal and descriptive aspects of symbolism. The "Learned Criticism" treats a poem as a verbal document related to history and the ideas it reflects. In the "New Criticism" the poem is interpreted as self-contained interlocking motifs. Here the key word is "texture".

Formal Phase: Symbol as Image

The seeming antithetical aspects of the literal and descriptive phases, the ironic withdrawal from reality and explicit connection with it, compose the essential unity of works in the most common of critical terms: form. A few terms from Aristotle:

Mimesis Praxeos - an imitation of an action identified with mythos.
Praxis - Human action imitated in histories.
Theoria - Human action imitated in mythos.

Mythos is concerned with typical actions, dianoia with secondary imitation of thoughts. "Mimesis Logou" concerns typical thoughts, images, metaphors.

The form of a poem is the same whether it is examined stationary or as moving from beginning to end. Mythos is the dianoia in movement, dianoia is the mythosmimesis) art does not reflect external events or ideas, rather it reflects the ideal, the exemplary, and therefore does not provide external historical insight.

Frye gives us an example from Hamlet, which said that poetry holds a "mirror up to nature". Literature reflects nature in its containing form. The symbol here may be called "image". The ideas in literature are not real propositions, but verbal formulae which imitates real propositions. Therefore Words' pantheism, Dante's theism, and Lucretius'  epicureanism are all read the same when read for style rather than subject matter.

Formal criticism begins by examining a poems imagery, bringing out it's distinctive pattern. The frequently repeated images form the poems "tonality", with the episodic and isolated imagery relating in contrast. The form is the same whether studied as narrative or as meaning. In analyzing the recurrent imagery, formal criticism attaches the imagery to a central form, and offers commentary on what is implicit in this. Good commentary reads and translates what's there, avoiding the "intentional fallacy", or the notion that the poet has a primary intention of conveying meaning to a reader. Again, intention belongs to discursive writing, what a poet means to say is the poem itself. Art has intrinsic mystery that remains no matter how explored it is. All commentary is allegorical interpretation, the attaching of ideas to the structure of the poems imagery. A poem is allegorical itself when a poet indicates the relationship of his imagery to examples and precepts, therefore restricting the critics freedom of interpretation. In the Pilgrims Progress we have a continuous allegory at one extreme, extending to the center of literature itself where image structure, no matter how suggestive, has an implicit relation only to events and ideas, where poetic imagery begins to recede from example and precept to become increasingly ironic and paradoxical. Here, where the poem is withdrawn from explicit statement the critic has more freedom and feels at home. At this other extreme, again we find the French Symbolisme, the technique for suggesting or evoking things while avoiding the explicit naming of them.

In the "Heraldic Symbol" (Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, Melville's White Whale) we find a central emblematic image in which no continuous relationship exists between art and nature. The Heraldic Symbol is in a paradoxical and ironic relationship to both narrative and meaning, and is based on the strong sense of a lurking antagonism between literal and descriptive symbolic aspects. Other techniques such as private association intend the symbolism not to be understood, as in Dadaism.

This wide range of possible commentary should be kept in mind, so as to not fall into the perspective of Renaissance and Medieval criticism where all poetry is treated as continuous allegory, nor to the modern critics who insist that poetry is anti-allegorical and paradoxical. Now we have a conception of literature as a body of hypothetical creations not necessarily involved in the worlds of truth and fact, nor necessarily withdrawn from them, but which may enter into any kind of relationship to them, ranging from the most to the least explicit. The necessity of assuming a distinction between empirical fact and illusion does not exist for the poet. The dichotomy between delight and instruction, and between style and message is resolved by the conception of art as having neither a direct nor negative relation to reality, but a potential relation to it.

The traditional theory of catharsis, implying our emotional response to art, is not the raising of an actual emotion, but the raising and casting out of an actual emotion on the wave of something else. That "something else" may be called exhilaration or exuberance: something liberated from experience. Our threefold external compulsion of action, thought, and feeling meets a fourth: imagination which rises free of all other compulsion resulting in unlimited spiritual freedom.

Mythical Phase: Symbol as Archetype

In the formal phase the poem belongs neither to the class "art", nor to the class "verbal", it represents its own class. There are two aspects to it's form; it is unique, an artifact with its own structure of imagery, and it is part of a class of similar forms. The idea of the external relation of a poem to other poems brings us to two critical considerations: convention and genre. The study of genres is based on analogies of form, the study of conventions. The central principle of the formal phase, that a poem is an imitation of nature, isolates the poem. However, the poem may also be examined as an imitation of other poems. This criticism relates poems by linking the symbols within them.

A new poem manifest something latent in the order of words that is literature, and is therefore not a creation ex nihilo. Literature can have life, nature, imaginative truth as its content, but it is not created from these forces, rather literature is created out of the forces of literature. Literature shapes itself. The notion of convention showing a lack of feeling and that sincerity is attained by disregarding it is opposed to the facts of literary experience and history. Eliot said that a good poet is more likely to steal than to imitate. The false notion of originality meaning a break with traditional form stems from the idea of the poem as a description of emotion, literally meaning the emotions held by the poet. In reality, originality returns to the origins of poetry, radicalism to literature's roots. The proper view of convention indicates a poems involvement with other poems, not with vague abstractions of tradition or style.

In discursive writing the writer writes as an act of conscious will, becoming analogous to its father. The poet is better described as a midwife, his creation is an unconscious act.

The mythical phase looks at poetry as one of the techniques of civilization and is concerned with the social aspect of poetry. Here the symbol is the communicable unit or 'archetype', the typical of recurrent image. These symbols connect poems and unify our literary experience. Archetypal criticism is concerned primarily with literature as a social fact, as a mode of communication. It studies literature's conventions and genres to fit poems into a body of poetry as a whole.

In each phase of symbolism, there is a point at which the critic must break away from the range of the poets knowledge. The poets conscious knowledge is considered only so far as the poet may allude to or imitate other poets or make deliberate use of convention. Explicitly conventionalized literature must be distinguished from literature which conceals or ignores conventionalized links.

Archetypes are associative clusters, complex variables. At one extreme is pure convention, at the other pure variable. Each phase of symbolism has a particular approach to narrative and meaning. In the literal phase, the narrative is the flow of significant sounds, the meaning is ambiguous, and we find a complex verbal pattern. In the descriptive phase, the narrative is an imitation of real events, the meaning is an imitation of objects or propositions. In the formal phase, poetry exists between the example and the precept. The elements of recurrence  and desire come to the foreground in archetypal criticism, again the study of symbols as units of communication. Here the narrative aspect is a recurrent act of symbolic communication, a ritual, and the significant content is the conflict between desire and reality.

In archetypal plot analysis we deal with terms of generic, recurring, or conventional actions with analogies to ritual: weddings, funerals, executions etc. In archetypal analysis of meaning we deal with terms of generic, recurring, or conventional shape indicated by mood and resolution, be it tragic, comic, or ironic, in which the relation of desire to experience is expressed. In the archetypal phase the poem imitates nature as a cyclical process with a recurrence of rhythm, ritual, and cycle. Expressing the moral dialectic, poetry in its archetypal aspect illustrates the fulfillment of desire and defines the obstacles to attaining it. The ritual expresses the dialectic of desire and repugnance.

Archetypal criticism rests on two patterns: cyclical and dialectic. In the union of ritual and dream in literature we get myth. Myth gives meaning to ritual and narrative to dream. Again, the mythos (ritual) is the dianoia (dream) in motion. The same distinction in emphasis as between thematic and fictional literature exists here.

To the literary critic, the ritual is the content of dramatic action, not the source of it. And again, the historicity of the ritual is a moot point. The ritual may have analogies to actual rituals and to hypothetical literary rituals. Documentary criticism has misled some archetypal critics into thinking that all ritual elements need be traced directly to historical ritual, resulting in the "lost golden age" hypothesis. Here we must remember the distinction between the duties of anthropology and the duties of the literary critic.

The first unit of poetry larger than the individual poem, is the total work of the poet. By comparing recurring patterns in a poets work, we may gain psychological insights. When we find a device repeated by his or her contemporaries we have "convention", and when we find a device in different ages we have "genre". The critic may draw upon the full resources of modern knowledge without fear of anachronism.

An archetypal symbol is often a natural object with a human meaning. Poetry is a vehicle for truth, morality, and beauty, but the poet does not aim at these things, rather he or she aims at inner verbal strength. Pursuit of beauty is dangerous nonsense, beauty in art is like happiness in morals: it may accompany the act but cannot be the goal of the act. The neurotic compulsion to beautify everything leads to an exaggerated cult of style, it becomes reactionary restricting the poets subject or method, and marshals in the forces of prudery to limit the poets vision. Here vanity of ego replaces the honest pride of the craftsman.

The formal phase of narrative and meaning, although including the external relation of literature to events and ideas, nevertheless brings us back ultimately to the aesthetic view of a work as an object of contemplation, a "techne" designed for ornament or pleasure rather than use. Remember Oscar Wilde, "all art is quite useless". The archetypal view of literature shows us literature as a total form. By adding this phase to the other three we pass Kierkegaard's either/or dilemma between aesthetic idolatry and ethical freedom. Here we reject these external goals as idolatrous and demonic.

Anagogic Phase: Symbol as Monad

In our study of phases of literary symbolism, we have been going up a parallel sequence to that of medieval criticism. The descriptive phase corresponds to to historical and literal criticism in the medieval scheme. The formal phase, the level of commentary and interpretation, corresponds to the allegorical criticism in the medieval scheme. The mythical phase, where poetry is a technique of social communication, corresponds to the moral criticism in the medieval scheme.

A parallel also emerges between the five modes of Historical criticism and the five phases in Ethical criticism. Literal meaning is involved with techniques of thematic irony introduced by symbolisme. Descriptive symbolism of Documentary Naturalism was exemplified in the 19th century, bearing a close connection with the low-mimetic mode. Formal symbolism was typical of Renaissance and neoclassical writers, connecting with the high-mimetic mode. Archetypal criticism finds its center in romance, ballads, and folk tales. The Anagogic Phase is concerned with myth in its more narrow, technical sense or fiction dealing with divine of semi-divine powers.

Archetypes and myths are associated with the primitive and the popular, or "naive" literature. In the greatest works of Shakespeare and Dante we sense a converging significance, we are approaching seeing what the whole of literary experience is about: the still center of the order of words.

The study of archetypes is the study of literary symbols as parts of the whole of literature. At the center of the archetypes we find universal symbols; light, dark, quest, food, sex, symbols common to humanity. In the archetypal phase, literature is myth, uniting ritual and dream thus limiting the dream. Three things are noticed when we examine the dream:

1. Its limits are not the real, but the conceivable.
2. The limits of the conceivable is a world of fulfilled desire free of anxiety and frustration.
3. The dream universe exists entirely in the dreamer.

In the Anagogic Phase, literature imitates the total dream of humanity, thought lies at the circumference of reality. From the Formal Phase, where nature is content and the poem is contained in nature, to the Archetypal phase where the whole of poetry is still contained within the limits of the natural or the plausible, finally in the Anagogic phase nature becomes the contained rather than the container. The archetypal universal symbols are themselves the forms of nature. This is the imaginative limit of desire, which is infinite, eternal, and apocalyptic.

In the Anagogic phase, poetry imitates human action as total ritual. Anagogically, poetry unites total ritual, or unlimited social action with total dream or unlimited individual thought. Its universe is infinite and boundless hypothesis, uncontained by any civilization or set of moral values. Here dianoia is no longer a mimesis logou, but the Logos, both reason and creative act. Literature most influenced by this phase is scripture or apocalyptic revelation, with god the central image conveying unlimited power in human form. When they lose existential content they become purely imaginative, as Classical mythology did after the rise of Christianity.

The principle of the anagogic perspective is that anything may be the poems subject. The symbol is a monad, all symbols united in a single infinite and eternal verbal symbol which is, as dianoia the Logos, and as mythos the total creative act. Symbol is the center of literary experience, the epiphany. The Anagogic view of criticism sees literature no longer as commentary of life or reality, but containing them within its universe.

The unit of relationship between symbols is the metaphor, two objects are identified and each retain their form. On the literal level metaphor appears as a simple juxtaposition. At the descriptive level metaphor is simile. At the formal level metaphor is an analogy of proportion. At the archetypal level metaphor unites images into clusters or classes. At the anagogic level metaphor is a statement of hypothetical identity.

The study of literature takes us toward seeing poetry as the imitation of infinite social action, infinite human thought, the mind of man who is all men, the universal creative work which is all words.

This concludes the summary of essay two of four. Essay three on Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths will be next. I hope you enjoyed this and found it informative.