Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Great Flood in Literature: Wrestling with Proteus

Illustration of Hercules wrestling Proteus AKA "The Old Man of the Sea"
There is a figure in Greek mythology called Proteus, a minor sea god with two remarkable powers: shape-shifting and oracular utterance. To get the truth out of him, however, one must first catch him. When anyone attempts to grasp him, he rapidly changes from one form into another in an attempt to evade his captor’s clutches. But if a person is tenacious enough to hold on until Proteus tires and resolves into his true form, the god will render up the truth his captor seeks.

Orally transmitted stories share with this mythical sea god a “protean” character. Handed on by word of mouth, each time a story is told the teller gives it a slightly different form and a different shade of meaning, so that over time many different versions of the same story emerge. The literary author who works from an oral tradition is like the hero who captures Procrustes: first he must wrestle with the many versions of the story, but when he finally confers upon it a fixed form, he is able to make it serve him to convey a particular truth.

Taken out of context, the accounts of a great flood that nearly destroyed all living things bear a striking similarity to one another. But in this blog series, I’ve taken pains to put each story in its proper context, in order to see what meaning each writer found in it. I hope that, having looked at the meaning in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we will now be able to see more clearly what makes the Biblical story of the Great Flood stand out from the others. First, though, it might be good to recap what we have learned about the significance of the Flood as it is presented in the other two poems.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Put on the Armor of Light, on St. Patrick's Day and every day

Illustration from Slate.com
As this article from Slate acknowledges, very few concrete facts about Ireland's patron saint have survived. Much that we think we know is merely legend. Keeping that in mind, did you ever wonder why Saint Patrick is credited with expelling snakes (not wolves, not badgers, not even demons) from the Emerald Isle?

I'm not going to dispute whether holy Padraic literally chased serpentine creatures from Ireland, but you have to admit that on a symbolic level the story is apt. Serpents have a long history in Christian iconography, representing the deceptions of the devil. As an early missionary to the island, the fifth-century monk we know as St Patrick was successful in converting many from their pagan superstitions, and for more than a millennium Ireland was known as one of the most thoroughly Catholic lands upon Earth. Since pagan gods have long been regarded as being inspired by fallen angels, who presented themselves as deities, there could be no more appropriate legend about the Christian monk who persuaded the Irish people to abandon their old beliefs and turn to the One True God, than to have him expel the snakes from Ireland.

Ireland, alas, seems determined to put its Catholic heritage behind it. This article on the site of the Irish broadcasting company, RTE, for instance, seems bent on debunking the idea that there ever were snakes in Ireland for Patrick to expel. It doesn't really matter, though, whether there were any serpentine species native to the island of Ireland, since the legend's power is in the spiritual truth it seeks to convey, rather than literal fact.

St Patrick stood for truth, shedding abroad in the ignorance of pagan hearts the Light of Christ. And today, despite the coming of a new spring, sometimes lately it seems that the world is getting a bit darker every day. When that happens, it's time to put on the armor of light! For Saint Patrick's Day, take a look at this old post, wherein you will find the wonderful prayer known as Saint Patrick's Breastplate: Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Now Arm Yourselves!

If you're already familiar with the hymn based on that prayer, you might like this very different musical rendition of the ancient prayer by that name:

©2016 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Ovid's Metamorphoses: Change is the only constant

Third installment on the Great Flood in Ovid's Metamorphoses

I left the discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by saying (as I often do) that, in literature, context is everything. We can’t really grasp the significance of Ovid’s version of the Great Flood unless we consider it in the context of the poem as a whole. So what is this poem really about? How does the early episode that recounts the Great Flood contribute to the overall meaning, and how does the overall meaning color the significance of the Flood account?

The constancy of change

The title hints at the poem’s meaning. Metamorphoses covers all of history (and prehistory), starting with the creation of the world and ending in Ovid's present day. What might seem, upon a first reading, a rather aimless stitching together of innumerable ancient myths is actually a very careful selection which is tied together by a single commonality: the metamorphoses themselves, one thing being changed into another. Most of these metamorphoses show the gods turning human beings into various non-human things – dolphins, trees, stars, you name it. And why do they do this? In large part, because gods are selfish, possessive – and immortal. When a god desires permanent possession of a mortal person, he (or she) can achieve that permanence only through change – by turning the unfortunate mortal object of his desire into something that can never die. In other words, the key to permanence is change itself.

In ample seas I sail, and depths untry’d before, /This let me further add, that Nature knows /No stedfast station, but, or ebbs, or flows: /Ever in motion; she destroys her old, /And casts new figures in another mold.
In case we have missed this point, in the final segment of the poem, King Numa, the successor of Romulus, the founder of Rome, listens to a long lecture by Pythagoras on the idea that flux (change) is the principle on which the whole cosmos is founded: things change into other things. Living things turn into dead things, the dead things decay (more change), the seasons change, everything changes. (The gods may be immortal, but they change their minds constantly.) Change is the one constant in the universe. Numa absorbs this lesson and returns to Rome, changed by the experience, a wiser man for having listened to Pythagoras. Then one king is changed for another, and so on through history, until Julius Caesar himself is murdered in the Senate and gets changed into a god (also a shooting star).

Friday, October 30, 2015

Rerum Novarum, §1-11: A natural law defense of private ownership

“Man precedes the State, and possesses,  prior to the formation of any State,  the right of providing for  the substance of his body.”

As I start looking at Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII's famous 1891 encyclical, I'll first summarize/paraphrase what the encyclical says, paragraph by paragraph, then analyze the way Pope Leo presents his argument, and finally offer my own commentary on it. The first two focus on what is being said, and the last is my own personal response to it. This is a method I recommend to anyone who wants to give an important work a fair reading -- in fact, it's something  that I have always tried to teach my students: understand first, and withhold judgment until you are sure you really do understand.

This is the whole idea behind the 4-step method of reading with understanding that I’ve propounded elsewhere on this blog. Why start with summary? Because it forces me to boil down the argument to its essential parts — but I don’t want to oversimplify it, so sometimes my “summary” is really more of a paraphrase. I don’t want to skip over any really essential ideas. If you try this yourself, you'll find that putting something (accurately) into your own words is a great exercise, one that forces you to think about what has really been said and also helps you to remember it in detail afterward, as well as come to grips with the claims being made, and their importance. In other words, it helps you to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the material (as an old Anglican collect says we should do with Scripture). So don't rely on my summaries -- they are no substitute for reading the document, but you may find that they help you understand it.

My analysis is intended to help you see how the logic of Leo’s argument fits together — we need to understand not only what he is saying, but also why he is saying it that way, and not some other. Doing this allows us to see how the argument unfolds and avoid skipping over points that may seem insignificant at the time, so that by the time we reach the end we can see how the whole thing hangs together.

The commentary I offer is meant to stir up your own minds, to get you thinking about the implications of what Leo is saying. I think you’ll find that, as we go along, there are lots of ways Rerum Novarum sheds new light on the problems and challenges of our own day, even though the world of 2015 is quite different than that of the 1890s. Much has changed, but human nature remains the same. We still have a lot to learn from this encyclical.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Homer's Tardis: Literature is the best kind of time machine

This guy looks more like a Texas cowboy
than a Connecticut Yankee, if you ask me,
but he got me hooked on time travel.
One of my favorite kinds of speculative fiction is the time travel tale, not the H. G. Wells sort of thing that takes you into a distant, purely speculative future, but the kind that takes a modern person and sends him (or her) into the past. The earliest piece of time travel literature that I can recall reading was an Classics Illustrated version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I read probably at age ten or eleven. (I had already been introduced to King Arthur several years earlier, through a Golden Book storybook based on Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.)

Imagining past lives

Time travel stories allow us to visit the past in our imagination, but we are always conscious that we are visitors, outsiders — and therein lies the limitation of the genre. It is always more interested in commenting on (or even passing judgment on) the past, rather than showing it to us as it had been lived. When I was reading A Connecticut Yankee, I was more interested in the world Twain was ridiculing than I was in the show-off shenanigans of his Yankee. Twain had a beef with the romanticization of the past, which he believed had helped cause the American Civil War, so he wasn't too kind to King Arthur. I found this irritating rather than illuminating.

In my teens, I also read a number of historical novels, mostly about medieval English royalty. I enjoyed the details of historical setting and circumstance, but there again I was aware of the irritating anachronism inherent in the enterprise. I didn’t particularly enjoy the way modern authors seemed to think that twelfth century England was interesting chiefly because of the dynastic struggles of the Plantagenets — I’m sure people living in those days were concerned about such things only insofar as they had a real effect on their daily lives.

Later, I got a very different view of medieval life and concerns, by reading stories actually written in the twelfth century. Now that was (time) tripping! These stories, at first seemed strange to me. I guess I was experiencing first hand the truth of that saying: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” To understand such a story, I had to get inside the mind of a twelfth century reader (or writer) and try to understand not only their day-to-day concerns but also the furniture of their imaginations. To the extent that I succeeded, the literature really did transport me to a world lost in time.

Homer’s epics take me to an even stranger, more primitive world, different from our own in so many ways, and yet his over-sized heroic figures seem to embody universal human traits in a marvelous way. That, I believe, is why they are, in a peculiar way, timeless. As foreign as ancient Mycenaean Greece is to us today, Homer's stories somehow manage both to embody that age perfectly and yet transcend the limitations of history and the particularities of culture. That is a mark of Homer's genius — not every ancient epic manages that kind of transcendence. I can understand the motives of Homer’s Achilles or  Odysseus — or, for that matter Sophocles’ Oedipus — in a way that I can’t really sympathize with Gilgamesh or some other ancient heroes, who seem to lack a truly human dimension.

Touching the past

detail of New York Times photo from archaeological trove in Pylos, Greece
The bronze blade has crumbled, but
the gold hilt remains as bright
as when it was last grasped by
some Mycenaean hero 3,500 years ago.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I’ve also long been fascinated with archaeology, particularly of the ancient Mediterranean world. I first discovered this fascinating field as a seven-year-old, after a traveling encyclopedia salesman gave us the A volume of the World Book Encyclopedia as a sample. (I promptly read it cover to cover, and fell in love with archaeology and, to a lesser extent, anthropology.)  I've since had a number of opportunities to actually walk the streets of the ancient past, in Spain and Italy. Thanks to the painstaking work of archaeologists, I've walked the streets of Pompeii -- lost to the world for nearly two thousand years, and then brought back to light, stunningly preserved -- and descended into the ancient cemetery that lies beneath St Peter's Basilica, imagining the families that picnicked there long ago with the relics of departed loved ones. I love to read about archaeological discoveries that shed new light on the ancient world.

One such recent discovery, described in this recent news story, reminded me that Homer’s epics, wreathed though they were in myth and legend even in his day, nevertheless take place in a world that was still familiar to the poet who described them (although he lived several centuries after the events he described).
Archaeologists digging at Pylos, an ancient city on the southwest coast of Greece, have discovered the rich grave of a warrior who was buried at the dawn of European civilization. 
He lies with a yardlong bronze sword and a remarkable collection of gold rings, precious jewels and beautifully carved seals. Archaeologists expressed astonishment at the richness of the find and its potential for shedding light on the emergence of the Mycenaean civilization, the lost world of Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus and other heroes described in the epics of Homer.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Rerum Novarum in context

political cartoon of workers uniting to form a giant fist
Res novae
Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical Rerum Novarum at the end of the nineteenth century. The previous hundred years had seen a huge upheaval in the way people in the Western world lived and thought. Some changes happened so fast that, even after a hundred years, the world hadn’t yet figured out how to deal adequately with situations that were already a fact of life. One proposed “solution” to the problems of the Western world was set forth in The Communist Manifesto, written by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, but as Pope Leo saw clearly, not only didn’t the Marxist solution fix anything, it only made things worse. That’s the main reason the Holy Father wrote Rerum Novarum, which is perhaps the first papal encyclical that found widespread resonance outside the Catholic Church.

Linguistic context: The title

Before we look more closely at the social, political, and religious context in which this encyclical letter was written, I’d like to say something about its title. The tradition in naming papal encyclicals is to use the first phrase in the text of the Latin original as the title, and then that title gets translated into various modern languages, along with the rest of the text. That works well enough in most cases — Evangelium vitae becomes The Gospel of Life, Veritatis splendor becomes The Splendor of Truth. But this practice doesn’t work very well in the case of this particular encyclical, because the opening phrase is an idiomatic expression that is pure nonsense (and, in this case, very misleading nonsense) when translated literally.

The encyclical's subtitle is
more descriptive than the title.
I first encountered this encyclical in an anthology that I used in my humanities classes at a state university. Although I had never read Rerum Novarum, I was generally familiar with its contents, and was delighted to have an excuse to familiarize myself with it and teach it to my students. But I was shocked to see that the English title given to it in this anthology was “Concerning New Things.” Now, I can imagine someone entirely ignorant of Latin plugging those two words, “rerum novarum,” into something like Babblefish or Google Translate and getting “of new things” as the resulting translation, but I was shocked that such an otherwise well-edited anthology would propose such a woefully bad title for this important document.

Let me explain the idiom, and you’ll see why I was so dismayed. The Romans (those ancient people who invented the Latin tongue) were a very traditional, conservative people. Quite unlike the Greeks, they resisted change and innovation as long as they could, and had little affection for novelty of any kind. New things, in their estimation, were almost never as good as the old things that they had been doing since time immemorial. In fact, new things could cause a lot of trouble, particularly in the political sphere. For this reason, the Roman term for something that would completely upset and overturn the existing order was res novae, literally “new things” (always plural -- apparently the Romans could tolerate a single “new thing,” but became alarmed if it multiplied).

As it happens, Latin itself (Deo gratias!) has also resisted changing much since the days of Cicero and Cato the Younger, so that in “modern” Church Latin res novae means exactly what it has always meant, namely revolution — a most dangerous and destructive force. So in English (and, for that matter, French, Italian, Spanish, German, or Portuguese), you and I may talk about “revolution,” but in Latin it is still res novae. Rerum novarum is simply res novae in the genitive case — a direct translation of that phrase into English would be “of revolution,” not “of new things.”

So you may search in vain for “new things” in Rerum Novarum. Instead, it argues against “a passion for revolutionary change” which, having wrought no end of havoc a century earlier in the political sphere (in France and America), had since spilled over into the economic sphere, where it threatened to do even more harm. Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical in an attempt to stem the destructive tide of revolution, which he saw threatening to destroy society altogether. (If you think he was overreacting, you haven’t read The Communist Manifesto lately.)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...