Saturday, July 4, 2015

Freedom: We love it, but what is it?

Liberty has long been the emblem of our country,
but do we even understand what true freedom is?

Today is July 4, when we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence and all the things that we enjoy by virtue of being Americans — the chief of these being freedom. What do we mean by freedom, though? Lately, it seems that one man's freedom is another man's oppression. As soon as this question occurred to me, I was reminded of The One Minute Philosopher: Quick Answers to Help you Banish Confusion, Resolve Controversies, and Explain Yourself Better to Others by Montague Brown (published by Sophia Institute Press).  In this book, on facing pages, Brown defines a common term and another term that is often confused with it (such as “patriotism” and “nationalism”), with the intention of showing not only what each term means precisely but also of distinguishing between them. Even though the discussion of each term is fairly brief (a single page), Brown manages to bring to light many interesting shades of meaning that illuminate how truly distinct (sometimes even opposite) the two apparently synonymous terms really are.

Sadly, I no longer own this book (I inadvertently got rid of it when I sold off several hundred books I had in storage), but the very memory of it got me to thinking about what we mean when we talk about freedom and its synonyms, liberty and independence. It seems to me that as we engage in the on-going national debate about this idea, freedom, which is so integral to our national identity, we need to know what we are really talking about.

The American ideal of freedom

The right to speak freely in the public forum is especially vital to avoid tyranny.
The right to speak freely in the public forum
is a vital safeguard against tyranny.
Of late, the idea of American freedom has become blurred, and it seems the American flag, symbolizing the unity of the nation, has been displaced by other emblems -- the rainbow banner, the Stars and Bars, and other contentious emblems. Can we still claim to hold a shared understanding of the freedom we all claim to cherish? When I think of “freedom” in the context of being an American, some of the images that spring to my mind are Norman Rockwell’s famous illustrations of “The Four Freedoms.” The idea of these “four essential freedoms” had its origin in a State of the Union address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. Nearly a year before Pearl Harbor was attacked, Roosevelt was trying to convince the American people that the United States should help to defend Europe against the spread of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, and he held up these “four essential freedoms” to stir up enthusiasm for this effort. A couple of years later, after the U.S. had, in fact, become embroiled in the European war (as well as war against Japan), the iconic illustrations of illustrator Norman Rockwell revived the idea that these four “freedoms” are essential to the American way of life.

Today when I look at these “four essential freedoms” defined by Roosevelt and movingly illustrated by Rockwell, I see that they are not all cut from the same cloth; there seem to be two different ideas about freedom at work here. First there are the freedom of religion and freedom of speech — these I'll call the “freedom to” — freedom to speak, freedom to worship (or not) as we choose. These are essential rights that were not only endorsed by the signers of the Declaration of Independence but also enshrined in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, as essential to a free society, safeguards against the kind of tyranny which first caused the American colonies to declare independence from the British monarchy.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Don't Shoot the Elephant or You'll Kill Education

blind men and elephant public sculpture India
The Asian parable of the blind men and the elephant
is as potent as Plato's myth of the cave.
I don’t usually touch on hot button issues on this blog, preferring instead to focus on perennial wisdom that can benefit us all. To my mind, too much bloggery deals with narrow, sectarian rants (of the right and the left), radiating heat but very little light. I prefer to try to preserve a space in which we can put cant aside and try to contemplate truth, as it can be seen refracted and reflected in literature, history, philosophy, art, and the other liberal arts. You see, I have this funny idea that if we all look toward the light, from whatever direction our perspective may take, we can all be illuminated and, in that way, united, even if we disagree about the things we see. Perhaps we will even recognize the limitations of our own personal perceptions, like the proverbial blind men who each grasped a different part of the elephant. Individually they had their own (equally limited and erroneous) ideas about what they were touching, but when they combined their perceptions, they realized that what they collectively beheld was much greater, more magnificent and wondrous, than what anyone of them individually suspected. (If you aren’t familiar with this parable, read it here. It is every bit as potent as Plato’s myth of the cave.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Tradition, Truth and the Literary Epic

Homer by JW-Jeong on
Were Homer's epics inspired
by ancient tales of Gilgamesh?
Yesterday, by a piece of serendipity, I discovered that there's a revised edition of Charles Rowan Beye’s Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil, which now contains a chapter on Gilgamesh. I want it! I read the earlier edition years ago when I was in graduate school at the University of Dallas, and it made an indelible impression on me, as well as my teaching. The key idea I took away from it was an understanding of what it means to be “literary.” I mention this now because it has a bearing on my reading of the flood accounts I’ve been discussing, particularly the ones in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Metamorphoses.

What does it mean to be “literary”?

As the original edition of Beye’s book points out, Homer’s epics are regarded as marking the beginning of the Western literary tradition because they were the first great stories in fixed, written form to survive and influence later poets. Scholars agree that Homer was drawing on a long oral tradition of myths and legend. Because they had no literary predecessors, neither of Homer’s great epics is “literary” in the sense of making allusion to a previous written tradition. Or at least, that’s what I would have said before I read the Epic of Gilgamesh. Now it seems pretty clear to me that Homer must have been familiar with some version of that earlier, Mesopotamian epic. And Greek scholar Charles Rowan Beye seems to agree. In commenting on the second edition of his book on ancient epic, he says:
The important addition in this 2006 book is the chapter on the Gilgamesh poems.  I spent a considerable time gathering the results of the latest research in order to present a full account of these Sumerian-Akkadian texts.  There is no doubt in my mind although it cannot be proven other than by inference that they had real influence on the Iliad and Odyssey texts.  This connection means that students and teachers of so-called western literature have to enlarge the canon certainly to include these narratives.  Literature can no longer be said to begin with Homer.  
However, we can never know to what extent Homer expected his readers to be familiar with Gilgamesh, or to recognize the way in which he (apparently) appropriated some of its themes and tropes for his own poems, so perhaps Homer’s epics really are not “literary” in the narrow, specialized sense in which I am using that term. I believe it’s likely that Homer would have expected his readers to be familiar, not with Gilgamesh, but with the many Greek heroes who appear in his poems — their character, their milieux, their deeds — as depicted in myriad stories passed down from (even more) ancient times in the oral tradition.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Zooming in on Ovid's flood

Second installment on the Great Flood in Ovid's Metamorphoses

Fresco of poet Ovid
Ovid artfully wove telling details into his poem.
It is up to us to notice them, if we would
understand the poem.
(If you haven't read the first installment, find it here.)

I take frequent walks along the shore of the lake on which I live, a practice that probably serves my mental and spiritual health even more than it helps me keep physically fit. As my feet wander along the seawall, I let my thoughts wander, too, even while I keep my eyes trained on the world around me. Sometimes I gaze out over the water to see the far shore and sometimes I stoop to look at the tiny wildflowers blooming under foot. In fact, I would say it’s the looking, as much as it is the walking, that I relish. I take my camera with me when I walk, and its zoom feature gets quite a workout — zooming out to capture the panorama, zooming back in to snap a tiny blossom being sipped by an even tinier insect.

Not everyone seems to appreciate the value of a leisurely ramble. When I see others out walking (which doesn’t happen as frequently as you might expect), usually they are looking neither at the landscape as a whole nor at the particular beauties it contains — the exercisers remain intent on keeping their heart-rate pumping along at the prescribed rate, while the multi-taskers talk constantly on their phones while they wait for their dogs to “do their business,” so they can rush back home and do more important things. They are all too busy to notice the things that my camera and I see.

Reading, like so much of life, is all about seeing what is to be seen — not only what is visible in a cursory glance, but also patterns that lie beneath the surface to give meaning to the words, not to mention all sorts of little hints and clues “hidden in plain sight,” which provide an extra level of enjoyment and meaning to the attentive reader. When we read, if we would read well, we should be mindful of both the wider landscape and the tiny, particular beauties. A really adept reader is one who has mastered the arts of “zooming in” and “zooming out,” and who knows when to do which.

When I looked at Utnapishtim’s account of the great flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh, I began with a panoramic view of the poem and then zoomed in to see how Utnapishtim’s story fitted into the larger story of Gilgamesh. Ovid’s Metamorphoses requires a different technique, I believe. The poem is what Aristotle would call an episodic story, a string of discrete event with no real temporal or causal connection. There is neither a clear plot nor an indentifiable protagonist. The story of the great flood that destroys (almost) all mankind is merely one tale of transformation amongst many others. Therefore, I propose first to zoom in to look at the flood episode, and then will slowly to widen the focus to see what meaningful connections can be found between this episode and the rest of the poem.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Metamorphoses: Putting Ovid's flood in context

blank billboard w/ "you are here" in center
Without context, we can't tell where we are,
or what we're looking at.
Recently, we took a close look at the account of the Great Flood that appears in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and found that, although it superficially resembles a similar account found in the Bible, its meaning was shaped by its context in the story. Context is always crucial for understanding anything — if see a circle drawn on a page, without seeing it in relation to something else, you can’t tell if it’s mean to represent a ping pong ball, the Earth, or a freckle. The same is true when we are reading — you can’t understand what a story is intended to mean if you don’t know something about who is telling it, to whom he’s telling it, and in what circumstances or for what purpose. So as we now consider the Great Flood account in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, once again context will be crucial if we want to see what Ovid was getting at.

Before we look at the context of the Flood account within the larger poem, then, we need to consider the rhetorical context, that is, who wrote it, when, and for whom, as well as the kind of thing it is.

A poem without peer

Let’s start with the last first: what kind of writing is The Metamorphoses? It’s a long poem that knits together many stories from Graeco-Roman mythology, and sets them in order, roughly, from the creation of the world up to the poet’s present day. All of the myths woven into this larger whole were selected because they are stories of literal transformation (metamorphosis) — people being changed into things, and (less frequently) things into people, at the whim of some god or other.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Can the Epic of Gilgamesh still speak to us?

The real test of literature is whether it continues to speak to us, after generations or even millennia. We’ve almost finished our examination of the Epic of Gilgamesh and its account of the Great Flood. All that’s left is to ask what enduring truths, if any, we find in this poem. Is this poem simply an archaeological curiosity, or does it still have something to offer modern readers?

Disney's dream of having
himself cryonically preserved
was overruled by his survivors --
his remains were cremated.
At first glance, it might seem not. The world that gave rise to this poem is very remote from us, not only in time but in culture. Its human figures seem barbaric and its callous and capricious gods are inscrutable — even Utnapishtim does not  try to explain their actions. But when we consider enduring truths, we have to move past cultural differences, which can be distracting. As a whole, it seems to me, the poem is about learning to accept our human limitations, something that can be especially difficult for a man like Gilgamesh, who excels ordinary mortals in so many ways. He has power, wealth, wisdom, beauty, strength in abundance, making him believe that he can (and should be able to) grasp at immortality as well.

Our modern world may not have the kind of super-powerful kings that dominated the ancient Near East, but that is not to say that we don’t have plenty of rich, powerful people who try to exercise godlike power over us “mere mortals.” Are those who use their wealth to limit population in parts of the world that they deem over-populated (Africa, Asia, Latin America) so very different from the Mesopotamian gods who decided that humankind had become too populous and needed to be destroyed by a flood? The daily news seems to be full of stories of the rich and famous who feel free to seduce innocents and crush the weak, much as Gilgamesh before Enkidu humanized him. So it would seem that the problems posed in the Epic of Gilgamesh are still with us.


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