Monday, September 17, 2018

The New Epics, Part 1: The Lord of the Rings

This is the first in a series of posts on the topic of what constitutes an "epic." Late August and the start of Fall has filled me with nostalgia for when I taught in Core. Due to the program's structure, certain works of literature were wedded to corresponding times of year. During this period, having spent several years in Core 3, I always think of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Gilgamesh. (Come late winter it would be Beowulf and Inferno.) One of the things I always asked my students in those courses was, "what would you consider a modern-day 'epic'?" The question tended to elicit some good discussion (and some fascinating contenders) and expose the bias that something always needs to be very old to be considered an "epic" or a "classic."

"Epic" has been an over-used word for many years. (Lately, "iconic" has gotten just as bad. If people forgot that word altogether, I wouldn't mind.) There is a very specific definition for "epic," though, as a literary genre. In that context, "epic" is primarily used to refer to long narrative poetry, as you would find in Beowulf, the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Mahabharata. Leaving the definition at that seems very narrow and unsatisfying. On the other hand, resorting to a definition such as "long narrative involving a hero" seems a bit too broad, even though one can find Senior thesespresentations, and peer-reviewed articles along just those lines. (In some ways, I prefer Faith No More's definition of "Epic," though we need not dwell on that here.)

In these posts, I'm going to offer some examples of what I believe to be more modern "epics." In some cases, this will stretch the usual understanding by going beyond literature. Though I don't think an epic needs to be old, it should be able to stand the test of time and remain relevant for a long period, at the least for what it says about the time it was made. Here are the rather loose criteria I plan to use:

1.) The work(s) must possess scope, depth, and/or creative ambition. It must be an attempt to accomplish something grand.

2.) There should be a persistent cultural influence on other creative works. How has it affected the literary, cinematic, and wider popular world we live in?

3.) It should interact with and draw upon previous creative works. (Homer drew on preexisting Greek stories and myths, the Aeneid plays off The Odyssey, the Mahabharata refashions Vedic stories, and so on.)

4.) The work(s) must comment on the dilemma of being human.

5.) For the purposes of these entries, I'll be selecting works that have great personal meaning. This will make the list idiosyncratic, but that's the point: take my ideas, change them, and come up with your own list.

This week's contender for the status of "New Epic": J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

The ambition, depth, and creativity of these books is unmistakable. Tolkien created an entirely alternate world, complete with maps, fully-formed languages of different races of beings (especially elvish), long genealogies of important characters, and thousands of years of back story. Entering these books means engaging with a three-dimensional universe.

The ongoing influence of The Lord of the Rings is also indisputable, whether it is music, movies, role-playing games, or literature. The entire fantasy genre would look very, very different and other elements of popular culture (like Dungeons and Dragons) might not exist at all. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as others have noted.

Tolkien also drew upon the ages of mythology that preceded him, as well as his traumatic experiences in World War I. From the former, he was especially influenced by Beowulf (having written perhaps the most influential article ever on that tale) and Norse legends, with their trolls, monsters, and magic rings. The Celtic heritage of elves, spirits, and fairies also makes an obvious contribution. Like an alchemist, Tolkien pulled in all these base sources, but transformed them into an entirely new substance.

That substance is alive throughout the mammoth work with comments on the human condition, even though many of the characters are not strictly "human." It is a world of polarities. Ethereal Elves are balanced out by barbaric Orcs, majestic Ents by dimwitted Trolls, soaring Eagles by foul dinosaur-like creatures. The same is found in the main characters: Gandalf is foiled by Saruman, Aragorn by Boromir, Theoden by Denethor, Frodo by Gollum. The first list, though, is of creatures defined by their natures. The second list of pairings finds the binaries separated by moral choices: Either gradually or by sudden urge, the likes of Gandaly, Aragorn, Theoden, and Frodo separate themselves from their structural opposites of Saruman, Boromir, Denethor, and Golloum by choosing hope, forgiveness, and fidelity over fear, vengeance, and selfishness. None of these "fallen" characters was irredeemable and none of the "heroic" characters was infallible. This is a story about how people are defined by their choices.

This is also, and much more centrally to me, a story about loss. Like many other epics, the centerpiece of the story is a journey, but this journey is unique in that the hero (Frodo) does not technically complete the quest and he is utterly broken by the experience. For me, the most wrenching line in the books' many pages comes when Frodo admits this fact to his friend Samwise: "The Shire is saved, but not for me."

I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was nine and I entered it as an adventure story, which it certainly is. Then, I rediscovered it during one of the best movie-going experiences of my life, seeing Peter Jackson's film version of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001.

Rereading it many years later with my own children, I have come to appreciate how much this epic is shot through with the sadness of loss, a topic on which I have blogged before.. This is a story about seeing the world you've known come to an end. Everyone in these books is losing almost everything they held dear: the Elves are leaving for the West, the dwarves are sinking deeper and deeper into their mines and obscurity, the power of wizards has vanished. The land is filled with ruins and fallen kingdoms. Not even the destruction of the evil Sauron can arrest the march of time and change.

Whenever I read the books, I hope for Frodo to be strong enough, just this once, to destroy the ring and live happily ever after, but the genius of this epic is that Tolkien realized the hero must always fail. To live happily ever after is to never change, to never admit the journey has damaged you and the world around is always taking away those things most precious. Though I have some criticisms of the film versions of these books, the conclusion of Return of the King, particularly the closing song "Into the West" by Annie Lennox, captures this mood perfectly. The end of the tale is not triumphant but mournful.

In the book Meditations on Middle Earth, a collection of essays on Tolkien's influence on current writers, Michael Swanwick contributed a piece which I believe has perhaps the most insightful summary of this theme in The Lord of the Rings. He writes that the books tell us, "Those who are willing to pay for all they have, to suffer and make sacrifices, to toil selflessly and honorably, and then to surrender their authority over what remains, ultimately gain the satisfaction of knowing that the world has a future worth passing on to their children. But it has no place for them anymore."

Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Mahabharata, and Beowulf all contain this same lament of familiar worlds passing away as new, uncertain futures are born. The Lord of the Rings poignantly communicates this same deeply human sorrow. This message has special meaning for me as, noted at the beginning, the origin of my interest in thinking anew about the epic genre is my nostalgia for the Core program and being part of its team. Worlds changing and passing away, indeed.

On another, more positive topic, an announcement: my book, Malleable Mara: Transformations of a Buddhist Symbol of Evil has a page and description on SUNY Press's website. The book will be available in March, at which time I will post a link to that.

Next time, I contemplate how an even more recent wizard-related book series fits my new definition of "epic." Until then, take care.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Fear of the Dark

As a scholar of comparative religion drawn primarily to the study of mythology, I've often wondered about the precise moment or apparatus in human development that led to our species' capacity for elaborate, abstract narrative. Paul Trout's  Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination (2011) broaches that very subject and takes an innovative, as well as perhaps controversial, stance on the question. Though not without its flaws, his approach is fascinating and it touches on two earlier blog posts. In this post, I'm going to summarize the book, give a critique, and show how it connects to some prominent narratives in popular culture.

The story begins with the fate suffered by many of our species' ancestors:

Put simply, as fossil evidence shows, millions of years ago, early hominids in the human line (Homo ergaster, Homo habilis, Homo erectus), easy prey for eagles, big cats, and so forth. The graphic, brutal image above is based on the perfect fit between sabertooth tiger teeth and holes found in early human skulls.

Trout argues that early human ancestors developed first mimetic, then vocal, then linguistic, then storytelling methods for evading predators. If these techniques would have aided hominids in escaping predation, natural selection would ensure that those behaviors increased over successive generations. Trout writes, "At the hearth fire, perhaps deep within a cave, our ancestors imitated predators to control and conquer their fear of them. By imitating, mimicking, simulating, and impersonating the very animals that frightened them, they were able to imbue themselves with greater resolve, more courage, heightened physical strength, and a more intense sense of group solidarity" (127). This, according to Trout, was the birth of human storytelling.

Over time, scenes like this:

Become scenes like this:

The imagination, elaboration, and mystification of predators was also the birth of another tell-tale narrative trope: the monster. Trout spends early chapters drawing interesting parallels between famous mythic monsters and the prehistoric beasts known to hunt human ancestors. The dragon, for instance, combines raptor, snake, and feline body parts, while eagles, snakes, and leopards are very likely candidates for animals that hunted early humans. Besides that, most monsters tend to have prominent teeth and claws, which ancient predators of humans would also have possessed. Thus, it's no wonder monsters frighten us: the monster template is based on predator-recognition alarms wired into our brains and genes. Having blogged previously about monsters, I found Trout's discussion interesting. If he's right, he might not be far off in asserting that real-life "monsters" in the form of predators "spurred the development of the human imagination" and made humans the species we are, with the big, imaginative brains we possess (136).

Trout cites myths from around the world that talk about how, at the beginning of time, there was a monster that had to be defeated before humans could inhabit the earth. The Vedic Hinduism of India, Babylonian myth of Mesopotamia, the !Kung of Africa, Aborigines of Australia, and Cree of North America are just few examples, showing the presence of such a myth across the globe. Trout believes this wide dispersal of the narrative demonstrates it is fundamental to human storytelling and reflects a genetic memory of when our species overcame predators to become the dominant life-form on the planet.

Trout's insight reminded me of some popular culture media that make the same point. The most recent iterations of Godzilla and King Kong (as part of an attempted cinematic "monsterverse" to rival Marvel's movies) state that these beasts ruled the world long before humans and might be emerging to retake it.

(As a sidenote, that is a marked departure from the origin of Godzilla, who in the original Japanese Gojira (1954) is decidedly a creature of modern times, created by American atomic bomb testing. I'm also not a tremendous fan of Godzilla's look in these films.)

Those familiar with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel storylines know that in that mythology, demons ruled the world first and were expelled over time by the first humans. Monsters and vampires persist as the hybrid progeny of those first demons.

Behind all that is the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote many interconnected, intertextual tales of the horrible "Old Ones" who ruled the world before humans and will one day return to re-stake their claim. The most famous of these Old Ones is the cephalopodic Cthulhu.

Could it be that this line of narrative is re-enacting the ancient human triumph over predators?

As with other books purporting to trace an evolutionary origin in the deep past for a human behavior, Trout's claims are at best suggestive, but not definitive. Though he's convinced me that response to predation must have had something to do with the development of the human capacity and tendency for myth-making, it might be an overstatement to claim it is the reason for such a complex cognitive process. Also, selecting myths from here and there across the world, while interesting and certainly revealing, is also difficult to do without risking loss of context.

Those shortcomings aside, Trout does build on some solid foundations in evolutionary psychology, particularly speculations about the development of human cognition. I have blogged about some of these points before, particularly in relation to the origin of religiosity. Namely, those individuals who perceived the world around as made up of "agents" (i.e., anything that moves by itself) and further determines these agents to have "mind mechanisms" (i.e., desires and intentions) like themselves, will have an advantage in detecting and avoiding predators. Over-detection (for instance, getting spooked and running away from a falling rock, thinking it was a leopard) is far safer than under-detection. Over time, due to selection, these traits would be prevalent and would lead to our species perceiving agents and minds throughout the environment even when they do not exist. As a result of this evolution of abstract thinking, the argument goes, our minds create all kinds of fantastic fictional characters to populate the world, such as ghosts, giants, demons, gods, elves, vampires, etc. Scott Attan, author of In Gods We Trust: the Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, calls the brain's tendency to generate so many "false positives" the "Tragedy of Cognition."

As I remarked earlier regarding the origin of myth-making, it seems rather simplistic to attribute something as complex as religious behavior to one natural selection factor. However, Trout's hypothesis does suggest reasons for why monsters and horror stories have persisted beyond the point when we are preyed upon regularly: they're still good for a jolt of endorphins and for social cohesion. It's also good, as a recent NPR article shows, for dealing with the wide-range of fears and anxieties the modern world throws at us.

One of the things I suppose I enjoyed about Trout's book is that it reinforced a notion I've held for sometime: It's the dark things of the world and (more importantly) our reactions to them that make us who we are.

In conclusion, in 1992 British heavy metal act Iron Maiden came out with the song"Fear of the Dark," which could have been the soundtrack for Trout's book. It's linked below, for those who are interested.

Until next time, take care.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Inner Light

In 1992, Star Trek: the Next Generation aired an episode entitled "The Inner Light." In that story, when the Enterprise encounters an alien probe, Captain Picard is struck by a beam and (seemingly) transported to an alien world where he lives for decades, marrying, having children, growing old, and seeing the planet begin to die. At the conclusion, he reawakens on the Enterprise bridge, with only minutes having passed in the real world while he lived an entire life on the alien world. The probe turns out to have been the alien world's way of ensuring that someone, somewhere will remember them after their planet dies. Picard is certainly impacted by the experience. A flute he'd learned to play during the mental journey is included in the probe and he keeps it for the rest of his days.

Reading a book of folklore and mythology the other day, I came across not one but two older stories of similar occurrences. In one, an Arabian chieftain is enticed by a sorcerer to look deeply into a pan of water. The image of a town begins to form and before he knows it, the chieftain has washed up on a beach in front of that settlement. A young woman greets him and before long they are married and having children, living prosperously in the town. Years pass, the man's wife dies, his children grow, and he wanders to the beach. The waters engulf him and in a flash he has returned to his chieftain throne, the sorcerer standing before him, with only seconds having elapsed.

Hebrew mythology contains a similar story of King Solomon.

We are told that one day Solomon was playing a game with Asmodeus, king of the demons. To make a point, Asmodeus weaves a spell around Solomon. transporting him to another land where he must live as a poor beggar. He meets a woman, gets married, and works his way back up in the world, but is eventually drawn back to his game with Asmodeus. Thinking he was gone for decades, he roars at the demon who demurs that the king had never gone anywhere and only a moment had passed.

In India, in the Yogavasishtha, there is the story of the sage who saw inside the mind of a hunter and got lost there, becoming the hunter, who then became a sage, while years and years seemed to pass, though little time had actually transpired at all.

Where do these stories from around the world come from? Is it from the experience of very vivid dreams that seem so real and so expansive, but are just passing moments in our slumbering minds, and we awake with a jolt to the world we know? Or, is the mind capable of creating a whole other world, as one man claimed happened when he suffered a concussion? In that story, and in the thread on the Fortean Times website about the supposed incident, a man claims to have been hit in the head and while unconscious accumulated years and years of memories of having married and started a family. It all evaporated when he was put into a squad car to go to the hospital to be treated for his injury.

Can such experiences really happen, or are these stories just mythic expressions of our attempts to deal with the fogginess of time, the gossamer-like quality of dreams, and our sometimes tenuous grasp of reality? Besides Star Trek's "The Inner Light," there are other well-known popular culture treatments of these ideas, like the movies Inception and The Matrix. Examples of humans considering these occurrences stretch back a long ways, but what does it all mean? The Star Trek episode's title, "The Inner Light," comes from a 1968 Beatles song written by George Harrison as a B-side to "Lady Madonna." Perhaps the song can lend a clue.

Though the instruments are meant to be evocative of Indian music, the lyrics are straight out of a chapter of the Chinese Daoist work Dao De Ching: "Without going out of my door / I can know all things of earth. / Without looking out of my window, / I could know the ways of heaven. / The farther one travels, / The less one knows."

These lines express the Daoist sensibility that all people, and all things for that matter, are perfect as they are and have no need of outside correction or development. The world within is all you need.

These stories across culture, time, and medium could be seen as reinforcing the Daoist idea that, despite the seeming smallness of our craniums, there are entire worlds and teeming dimensions to be found within us that stagger space and stretch mere minutes into lifetimes. Picard's interior experience of the passing of an entire life on another world opened him up to an existence (i.e., marriage, family) that he had not considered. One could argue that the greatest distance he ever traveled was without ever leaving the ship. All he really needed to do was look within himself. Perhaps that is a lesson for all of us. To quote from another Beatles song, "The movement you need is on your shoulder."

That's all for now. In upcoming blogs, you can expect a discussion on the Asian philosophical influences on Walt Whitman, the status of Harry Potter as an "epic" figure, and much, much more. 

Until then, take care.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Family Vacation 2018

Apologies, dear readers, for the gap in posting. I was away with my family on vacation. In this post, I'm going to share some stories and pictures from that experience, but also delve into the philosophical and cultural concept of the "vacation."

In short, this vacation was great fun. Not having fun is impossible with a group like this:

This year, as we have for the past two years, we traveled up to the coast of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It's about an eight hour drive, which was fairly uneventful until we encountered this storm front in central Wisconsin.

While we were pulled off due to heavy rain and hail, we learned on the radio that the county was under a tornado warning. Given the cloud formations we saw, I think we came pretty close to seeing something.

At any rate, things settled down considerably once we arrived. We had a place in the town of Ontonagon near the beach, with a view of the Porcupine mountains in the distance.

During the day, we had some really fun times playing on the beach and swimming in the water, although the boys did much, much better with the chilly lake temps.

At night we had fires on the beach and truly spectacular sunsets over the lake.


The Porcupine Mountains have some fun hiking trails. One of our favorites is the Lake of the Clouds, where just a little walking takes you above the tree-line to see expanses of forest and the placid lake waters spanning out below. Pictures don't really do it justice.

We visited the Presque Isle water falls, and took other, similarly beautiful forays into the forest.

On this trip we tried kayaking for the first time and really enjoyed it.

Another experience of note was a close encounter with the meditating bear of the Porcupine Mountains (a.k.a., the "Porkies").

On a previous trip, I'd wanted to get a picture of this humorous mile-marker sign.

On a day trip, we traveled to the Chassell Strawberry Festival and stopped off at the Shrine of the Snowshoe priest, which commemorates the first Bishop of the area, who made his way from follower to follower on snowshoes. To me, it looks like he's suspended atop a giant iron spider, but I've been known to misinterpret these things.

On July 8th we spent the day in Ontonagon visiting the town's lighthouse for a tour. 

That night before bed, I was reading a book about supernatural events associated with Lake Superior. Imagine my surprise when several pages covered supposed haunting events at that very lighthouse! To take it even further, on one night a year ghost lights are supposed to appear near the Ontonagon Lighthouse. Which night? Why, July 8th, the very night I was reading the book. Creepy!

To match our experience going through Wisconsin, we watched a squall line blow in across the lake, which really puts your own tiny existence into perspective.

That night, during the storm the front above produced, we played Takenoko a new board-game acquired at a really unique toy store in Hancock, MI. As the waves crashed and thunder rumbled, we did what anyone who knows something about Lake Superior storms would do: we played "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" on Youtube.

Vacations teach you a lot about yourself. Growing up, I was always very fortunate to have parents who made visiting different parts of the country a priority. At the time, I had almost no appreciation for it - all I knew was that my lazy summertime routine was going to be disrupted and I would have to go hiking in the hot, insect-ridden wilderness. Though some of those hikes were pretty tough for a kid, now as an adult, my perception of those times has changed 180 degrees. They were invaluable experiences and, especially when I became a teenager, crucial times of self-reflection when I could be apart from my everyday circumstances to contemplate life and recharge mentally, physically, and spiritually.

The concept of the "vacation" has been around for a very long time in Western history. Interestingly, as an NPR interview from about ten years ago notes, the purpose of self-discovery has long been part of vacationing. With widening income inequality in America, a shrinking middle class, and the continuous pressure for efficiency and productivity at the expense of leisure, fewer and fewer people in this country are willing and able to take time off from work. According to the subtitle in one article, "Americans are expected to work like robots." 

The part of me that is terribly cynical about our culture does not find this surprising: vacations are wonderful opportunities for contemplation, which gives one time to think, and our culture does not like to spend time thinking. American capitalism and consumerism encourage the busier, faster, more distracted lifestyle. We live in fast-forward when we need to hit "pause" far more often in order to get a really good look at ourselves. 

Another part of me feels a mix of gratitude and guilt: I am extremely fortunate to be able to have been able to spend this time with my parents when I was younger and now with my wife and children. So many do not have that chance. Humans need space to figure out --- or perhaps more accurately, simply remember -- who they are. Vacations have always served that role for me. I remember one summer (1996, to be exact) when I did not really feel the greatest about life or who I was, looking out at the clear,  star-filled Wyoming sky and thinking, "You know, it's not all bad." Hitting the "pause" button gives you a chance to figure out -- no, remember -- what's really important. There is no debate for me.

The Upper Peninsula, Lake Superior, the Porcupines, and Ontonagon have become special places for us. It was tough to say goodbye to them, but hopefully it will only be for a little while, and then we can go back to the spot where we remember ourselves.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Willy Wonka: A Comparative Religion Analysis

Last week I had the opportunity to see a children's production of Willy Wonka. I've always found the story interesting and read Roald Dahl's original novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) to my sons years ago. The character of Willy Wonka has multiple layers, and in this post I want to analyze him, and by extension the story, through the lens of Comparative Religion.

Gene Wilder famously played the part in the 1971 version of the movie.

Johnny Depp took on the role in 2005, though with much less impact, as I will discuss below.

The story itself is an obvious morality play. The children who tour the faculty are all guilty of some sort of vice of excess. Augustus Gloop is gluttonous, Violet Beauregarde is obsessed with chewing gum, Veruca Salt is materialistic, and Mike Teavee watches too much, well, TV. On the other hand, Charlie Bucket, the impoverished and goodhearted child, is rewarded for his honesty and virtue. In this way, the story is a morality play, much like other famous works, such as Everyman, a Medieval play that espoused good deeds as the only thing that lives on after you die.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also has similarities to that towering epic of Medieval poetry, Dante's Divine Comedy. In that work, specifically Inferno, sinners dwell in Hell, embodying their sins with contrapassos, punishments that act out the offense. The Lustful are blown about in violent winds, just as they allowed themselves to be blown around by passions; those who bred Schism and Discord are cut apart by blades, just as they cut apart society; and so on. 

The vice-ridden children are unable to resist temptations in Wonka's factory that lead them to expose their latent flaws. Augustus Gloop, who cannot stop swallowing food, is swallowed up by chocolate.

Violet literally becomes the bubblegum she is chewing.

Only Charlie emerges from the journey unscathed. The fact that the story is a journey from spot to spot in the factory, each with its own lesson to impart, resembles not only Dante's journey through the levels of the tripartite Medieval Christian afterlife, but also some other religious works. In the Buddhist tradition, the Gandavyuha Sutra (just one chapter of the longer Avatamsaka Sutra) describes the disciple Sudhana's journey from teacher to teacher, learning one lesson at a time as he approaches awakening.

Aside from the larger story, the character of Willy Wonka invites even more scrutiny. There is a reason why Gene Wilder succeeds in bringing Wonka to life where Johnny Depp failed: Wonka is both whimsical and sinister. He is a jester-like, trickster-like chastiser of wrongs as much as a rewarder of virtue. He rests on the border of dream and nightmare. Wilder captures this paradox while Depp just comes across as an emotionally-stunted eccentric. A figure that tests and punishes children has to have a touch of madness to him, and even revel in it. To see what I mean, check out how he delights in tormenting his guests during the boat trip scene:

Willy Wonka's costume also communicates his dangerous stature, especially, oddly enough, his trademark hat.

Far from standing for refinement or urbaneness, as one would suppose with a top-hat or bowler hat, such headwear often signifies its opposite, namely the intention to undermine the prevalent social order. Think of Baron Samedi of Vodoun (discussed in an earlier blog).

Or Alex from A Clockwork Orange.

How top- and bowler hats became signifiers for rebellion and madness is not clear, although one promising hypothesis deals with "erethism," a nervous system disorder that can be caused by repeated exposure to mercury. Erethism is sometimes known colloquially as "mad hatter's disease" as those who worked with hats back in the day used mercury to attach the felt.

Wonka is also set apart by his diminutive, orange-skinned, green-haired minions, the Oompa Loompas. They are curious creatures who do not fit into any set classification. They work for Wonka, do his bidding, and take turns announcing the moral failures of each respective child after he or she has been revealed as a glutton, television addict, and so on. 

The Hindu god Shiva, also a category-breaker and challenger of the social status-quo, has a band of small-statured followers (called ganas) who form his entourage.

Mara in Buddhism also has an army of misshapen beasts, primarily seen when he attacks Gautama at Bodh-Gaya. Here they are in a carving on a railing at the Sanchi Stupa in central India.

In at least one instance, Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, the Batman villain the Joker employs tiny, violent creatures to do his evil will, as seen in the excerpt from the comic below.

If you look in the bottom lower right of the image above, you'll see the Joker himself, wearing a purple suit, a hat, and holding a cane. To make the resemblance obvious, here again is Willy Wonka.

What all the foregoing comparisons reveal is that Willy Wonka does not function as a benevolent children's character, but inhabits a space closer to the category-breaking trickster figures of religion and mythology who dish out pain and punishment far more than rewards. He is an embodiment of Victor Turner's concept of "liminality," also called "anti-structure."  Turner used those terms to describe how societies used ritual to move individuals through different life stages. Adolescents, for instance, exist in a liminal (i.e., uncategorized) state of not-child but not-adult, and are thus ritually moved to adulthood by coming of age ceremonies. The psychedelic world of the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa Loompas, and Wonka himself (in dress and behavior) exemplify the uncategorized nature of liminal anti-structure. 

The book and the movie(s) follow Turner's ritual structure. In the beginning, the world is the inverse of what we would hope for: the bad people are prosperous (the "naughty" children) and the good (Charlie and his family) are poor. We enter the Chocolate Factory, the liminal space, and chaos reigns and the usual rules are suspended, allowing for unconventional means to punish vices of excess and affirm virtue, in the form of Charlie Bucket. Leaving Wonka's Factory, the world is now ordered much closer to our moral expectations. Wonka's anti-structure has actually been invoked to defend social structure: Madness has been employed in the service of sanity, and our guide has been Willy Wonka.

Such is my reading of the character and the story. What are your thoughts? Feel free to share.

Until the next time, take care. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Composite Hero

About a year and a half ago, I had the chance to read Steven Rosen's The Jedi in the Lotus, a book about the Hindu symbolism and themes of the Star Wars films. Rosen makes some interesting points in the book and the one I want to concentrate and expand upon in this post is the concept of the "composite hero." The term refers to a group of characters who each strongly exemplify a primary skill or personality trait needed to balance out the others in the group. The members of the group, on their own, are imbalanced or incomplete, but together, they form a unified whole or complete "hero."

The concept of the "composite hero" is a way to think about how narratives like this:

Can be compared to narratives like this:

Rosen, probably drawing on the work of famed Ramayana scholar Robert Goldman, notes that in the Indian epic the characters of Rama, his brother Lakshmana, his wife Sita, and his follower Hanuman (pictured above), all complement and complete one another. (For a quick synopsis of the Ramayanaread this link or, better yet, get this book!) Rama is the paradigmatic leader and king, Lakshmana represents brotherly loyalty, Hanuman stands for strength and devotion, and Sita is the exemplar of faithful womanhood. (Sita's portrayal has been seen as problematic and its cultural meaning is, at the least, debatable.)

Rosen compares the interactions of these characters in the epic to the main heroic ensemble of the original Star Wars. Each of those characters also embodies an archetypal ideal: the maverick mercenary (Han), the enthusiastic youth (Luke), the idealist (Leia), the tough guy (Chewie), the wise mentor (Obi-Wan), and the sidekicks (Threepio and Artoo). Each has his/her own strengths, but when they come together, they create something much stronger than the sum of the parts.

The novel Watership Down, which is one of my absolute favorites to have read with Xander, has much the same dynamic.

The book tells the story of a group of rabbits fleeing a disaster and trying to establish a new warren. For those who haven't read it, the book is remarkably erudite and is in many ways a version of the Aeneid, but for kids...and with rabbits. Hazel is a caring, natural leader, Bigwig is tough and resolute, Bluebell provides humor, Dandelion tells stories for the group, Fiver is a kind of prophet and seer, and so on. None of these rabbits would be able to make it as an individual, but by pooling their talents, they are able to survive and create a new home.

A currently popular mythic narrative speaks to the same sense of composite heroics.

As Nick Fury says in the first Avengers (2012): "There was an idea...called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, to see if they could become something more." Over the course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that's exactly what they do: come together to be something greater than they could be on their own.

Certainly there is no shortage of narratives starring a lone hero who, using only his/her own talents and resourcefulness, accomplishes a goal or succeeds in a quest. Those stories emphasize our desire to feel unique and powerful as individuals. The narrative of the composite hero speaks to a different need: the need to feel like part of a team, as an accepted member of a community. Paradoxically, in these narratives, the characters only find out how talented they are as individulas by discovering how much they need other people. Their uniqueness emerges primarily when they work together with those who contribute very different things.

It may be a stretch, but I wonder if the narrative of the composite hero will become even more popular in times where we experience more and more social alienation. Going back to our roots as a species, we most likely lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers who all contributed, each in their own way, to the survival of the community. In a vastly more aggregated, industrialized society, it can be difficult to see how one's contributions help the greater whole or how one truly stands out in a teeming, faceless crowd. 

We all want to know that we matter and that we have something to offer. The myth of the composite hero offers a very basic, human truth about how to discover what that is: we truly find ourselves in our relationships to other people.

That's all for now. Until the next time, take care.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Religion and Music

The last of the anniversary vote-getters is the topic of this post: Religion and Music. Music has always had a central role in religious practice. The earliest worship scriptures we have (namely the 1500 BCE Vedic writings from South Asia) are hymns. In other words, they are songs. Prior to that, certain ancient Mesopotamian writings make clear the role of music in reaching out to the deities they worshiped. There are those who argue that music is inherently religious, while others argue that music created religion, or vice versa. That's a debate for another time  - it's clear the two have long been interrelated, and will continue to be.

What I want to do here is look at some of the ways religious ideas have been employed in popular music from the last few decades, particularly in songs that (for one reason or another) I have personally found compelling. There are prominent examples I won't do much with, like Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" or Joan Osborne's "What if God was One of Us?" not because they're bad songs, but they just never really spoke to me.

The first example, for both the song and its video, is Madonna's (controversial) "Like a Prayer" from 1989. The video is below and the lyrics are here.

While some saw the song and video as blending the sacred with the profane and showing how sexuality could be sacred (even comparing it to the Biblical Song of Songs), others saw the video and its use of Christian imagery as blasphemous, including the pope at the time, John Paul II.

In other cases, songs use religious imagery or ideas to critique society. One such example, also from the late 1980s, is Motley Crue's "Wild Side." Supposedly, bassist and lead songwriter Nikki Sixx wrote the song as a twisting and inversion of the Lord's Prayer to describe life on the pitiless streets of Los Angeles. Read the lyrics and see for yourself.

Some bands employ religious imagery over and over in their songs, like U2. We could talk about "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Mysterious Ways, " "If God will Send His Angels," for Christian imagery or, I would argue, "Beautiful Day" or "Walk On" for Zen Buddhist inspirations. However, I have always enjoyed one of the band's lesser known and rougher-edged tunes: "The Fly." Off Achtung Baby, the song was conceived of as a message sent from a demon or a trickster figure suffering in Hell. Read the lyrics and take a listen.

I enjoy everything about the song, from how the distorted guitars match the distorted thoughts, to the switch between high-voiced choruses and snarling verses, to the soaring guitar solo. The greatest part, though, is the philosophical: the singer ("the Fly" persona) offers many compelling and persuasive aphorisms, but he is, after all, a denizen of Hell. Is he being insightful and offering sincere advice, or is this just another attempt at deceit? I used to think of the song every time I taught Othello in Core 4, since that combination of insight and deceit perfectly summarizes Iago. Whichever it is, we get some of my favorite lyrics of all time about the experience of writing or any other kind of creative endeavor: "Every artist is a cannibal / Every poet is a thief / All kill their inspiration / And sing about the grief." 

One final example evokes, in both its ebullience and its lyrics, the sentiment with which we started: music itself is a kind of religion as it gives rise to spiritual, transcendent feelings. This is the song "Ever Tear Drop is a Waterfall" by Coldplay. Read the lyrics and take a listen.

The song talks about how the beat of the music melds with the narrator's pulse, puts "Heaven in sight" and lights up the "Cathedrals in my heart." That's a beautiful image for how music and religion connect with one another, not to mention our own vitality. Beyond that, I've always found this song to be particularly inspirational. Whenever I'm down, I like to think I'm only "in the gap between the two trapeze" -- whatever it is, it's just a blip and I'll catch hold in a minute. In addition, I love the mind-blowing Zen-like quality of saying that "Every siren is a symphony / And every tear's a waterfall."

Religious experience is often defined as "ecstatic," which derives from Greek literally as "standing outside oneself." If you've ever been to your favorite band's concert and felt part of something bigger than yourself as the crowd cheers, or just been compelled to dance at home alone to a catchy song, can't we say that's being pulled "outside oneself"? Whenever we do, we enact what humans have known since the beginning: music and religion go together.

What are your favorite songs that deal with religious topics, images, or themes? What music gives you a transcendent feeling? Feel free to comment to this blog or at Facebook. Until the next time, take care.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Black Panther: the Poison of Anger and the Need for Justice

As has happened in the past, a topic has captured my interest to supersede my regularly scheduled blogging subject. (Don't worry, "Religion and Music" will have its day.)

This past week I (finally) had the chance to see Black Panther, the story of a superhero from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and it was as epic as everyone has been saying. This is a tale of truly mythic proportions, all with a resonating social conscience. There is a great deal I think this movie can teach us about how festering anger, even righteous anger, can destroy the good along with the bad. Simultaneously, it points out the need to recognize the egregious mistakes committed in the name of "tradition." These points are primarily carried out in the contrast between T'Challa (a.k.a "Black Panther") and N'Jadaka ("Killmonger"), which evokes (to me, at least) nothing less than the grand complexity of the Indian epic Mahabharata.

Before we get to that, though, there are a couple of other items worthy of note in this film. (Be careful if you haven't seen it yet, because I may give away spoilers.)

First, in what may be an unpopular statement, Black Panther's portrayal of its female characters vastly surpasses what you find in other superhero films, up to and including Wonder Woman.

From the elite warriors of the Dora Milaje (led by the fierce Okoye), to the scientist Shuri, to Queen Ramonda, to the resourceful Nakia, these are rich, multifaceted, self-determined people who are actually the ones to put things back together at a crucial moment when all seems broken. Having just re-watched Wonder Woman recently, the female characters in Black Panther seem far more multidimensional, and thus more empowering.

Second, I was rather taken aback to hear the character M'Baku ("Man-Ape" in the comics) say "Glory to Hanuman" prior to a ritual fight.

Hanuman is an Indian religious figure, not African. I wonder why the filmmakers would select Hanuman as the patron of the Jabari ape clan when there were ape figures in African mythology, such as A'ani of Egypt or Ghekre of the Baule in the Ivory Coast. Whatever the reason, they found it necessary to censor the use of Hanuman's name for distribution in India.

Third, as I blogged about a while back, there is a complicated relationship between fathers and sons, and Black Panther expertly delves into that territory. This isn't anything new for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or obviously the comics, for that matter). A recurrent aspect of the Thor movies is the hero coming to terms with Odin's expectations, and failures. Tony Stark also deals with father issues, as shown in Iron Man 2 and Captain America: Civil War. That the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken the care to create a multi-generational narrative is impressive, and something that (as I have noted before) puts it in touch with other world mythologies.

As I  mentioned above, one myth that Black Panther powerfully resembles is the Hindu Mahabharata, specifically how the past histories and antagonism between the characters Karna and Arjuna parallel N'Jadaka and T'Challa. In Mahabharata, the young woman Kunti becomes pregnant -- via an incantation -- with the sun god Surya's child. Fearing what will become of her and the child since she is not married, Kunti abandons the baby, who grows up to be Karna. Later, Kunti marries Pandu, who allows her to use the incantation again, giving birth to five other sons, one of whom is Arjuna, fathered by the god Indra. Arjuna grows up in royal splendor as a celebrated figure in the warrior class. Karna is also a worthy warrior, but given the ignorance of his parentage, he is denied the respect and honors that are his right. He grows up resenting and hating the Pandavas, especially Arjuna, and when the war for the right to rule the kingdom begins, Karna sides with the Pandavas' deadly enemies. The enmity between Karna and Arjuna builds to a fever pitch until, in the last days of the war (and in an act that is not his most honorable), Arjuna kills Karna while the latter's chariot wheel is stuck in the mud.

Karna is an unquestionably tragic figure. He is filled with rage because his life was ruined by forces outside of his control. He was treated unfairly all his life, first by his mother, then the impersonal constraints of hereditary social class, then by his own half-brothers.

N'Jadaka, the antagonist in Black Panther, has just as much reason to be angry. He can also easily be interpreted as a tragic figure.

After his father was killed by T'Challa's father, N'Jadaka was left to grow up amid American poverty, discrimination, and institutionalized racism. During this time, his anger (toward global oppression, T'Challa's father, T'Challa himself, and Wakanda in general) only festers and intensifies. He learns combat skills and becomes a lethal, remorseless murderer nicknamed "Killmonger," all as part of a plot to return to Wakanda and exact vengeance on all who've wronged him. Killmonger is entirely justified in his anger, but his plan (to spread Wakanda's weapons across the world and spark dozens of insurrections and wars) would only metastasize his pain throughout the globe, not to mention reproduce the problematic colonialist policy he decries.

T'Challa faces his own issues with anger and vengeance, but to a degree he has conquered some of those inner demons after hunting down his father's killer in Captain America: Civil War. You can see his transformation in the clip below.

Even with this character growth, Killmonger at first proves to be more powerful, overthrowing and nearly killing T'Challa. While he hovers between life and death, T'Challa encounters his father and his other ancestors. Now, knowing that his father killed N'Jadaka's father and abandoned the young boy to poverty and discrimination in America, just as Wakanda has abandoned the world through its isolationism, T'Challa comes to an epiphany you can watch in the clip below.

This epiphany restores T'Challa strength, physically as well as morally. Prior to that, he had been an apologist for his father and the Wakandan way, but now he recognizes all of their omissions, shortcomings, and crimes. Though T'Challa and N'Jadaka have not had their rematch yet, this scene decides the outcome for it inverts the relationship between the characters. Previously, N'Jadaka possessed the greater moral claim due to the wrongs he suffered and T'Challa's refusal to acknowledge them. However, N'Jadaka forfeits that claim by following a destructive path equivalent to the name "Killmonger." He has allowed his anger to make him cruel, vindictive, and oblivious to how he has become just like those he hates. On the other hand, when T'Challa shows the willingness to question and challenge his own society's assumptions and criticize it where it must rightly be criticized, he truly becomes "Black Panther" again and regains the moral high ground.

Black Panther has much to teach us about how to deal with injustice. N'Jadaka is completely justified in his outrage, but by myopically seeking vengeance, he loses himself to the identity of Killmonger. To paraphrase my colleague Rob Reuter, holding onto to anger is like drinking poison and expecting it to hurt someone else. Clinging to rage only corrodes your soul and turns you into that which you despise.

At the same time, it is naive and unreasonable to expect those who've been wronged to "just get over it." In Mahabharata, Kunti reaches out to Karna and entreats him to join his brothers and simply forget all of the wrongs done to him. Karna refuses, and I don't blame him: without Kunti acknowledging the impact of her actions or the Pandavas questioning their hereditary privilege, what reason does Karna have to join them? In contrast, after defeating Killmonger, T'Challa takes him to see his first Wakandan sunset, something he'd dreamed of as a child left in America.

T'Challa then offers to heal him so that he live the rest of his days in Wakanda. To me, these gestures are far more meaningful than Kunti's, as T'Challa honestly acknowledges Killmonger's grievances. This also makes T'Challa a more appealing character than Arjuna, who never shows Karna any sort of mercy. In the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna does question his society's warrior orthodoxy in the way T'Challa questions the ways of his Wakandan ancestors. However, Arjuna's concerns are ultimately satisfied and he reverts to his prior perspective. T'Challa is forever changed and sets about reforming his society. Killmonger, on the other hand, cannot bring himself to change. He is not capable of responding to T'Challa's offer. Anger has consumed him and he lets himself die rather than contemplate any other way of living.

That part of the film haunts me. What if Killmonger had chosen instead to transcend his anger, go with T'Challa, and embrace his heritage as N'Jadaka? What could the two of them have built together? What could we do if we all acknowledge our anger, admit to our injustices, and then rebuild as one? What would that be like? If Killmonger had just let go of his anger and hate, they could have built a new Wakanda together. Now, all they have is a sunset.

That's all for now. Until the next time, take care.

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