Tag Archives | Ethics

Middelboe Chronicles, Part 14: Carmen

Moving on from Othello, we come to another (rather different) tale of love, jealousy, and murder with an especially visually beautiful, rotoscoped Carmen (“Operavox,” 1995).

Nietzsche, who began his philosophical career with two encomia to Wagner (The Birth of Tragedy [1872] and Richard Wagner in Bayreuth [1876]), was by the end attacking Wagner and praising Bizet’s Carmen as a healthier alternative (The Case of Wagner [1888]):

Yesterday I heard – would you believe it? – Bizet’s masterpiece, for the twentieth time. … How such a work makes one perfect! One becomes a “masterpiece” oneself. … May I say that the tone of Bizet’s orchestra is almost the only one I can still endure? That other orchestral tone which is now fashion, the Wagnerian, brutal, artificial, and “innocent” at the same time and thus it speaks all at once to the three senses of the modern soul, – how detrimental to me is this Wagnerian orchestral tone! I call it scirocco. I break out into a disagreeable sweat. My good weather is gone.

This music seems perfect to me. It approaches lightly, supplely, politely. It is pleasant, it does not sweat. “What is good is light, whatever is divine moves on tender feet”: first principle of my aesthetics. This music is evil, subtle, fatalistic …. Have more painful tragic accents ever been heard on the stage? And how they are achieved! Without grimaces! Without counterfeit! Without the lie of the great style! …

Bizet’s work also saves; Wagner is not the only “Saviour.” With it one bids farewell to the damp north and to all the fog of the Wagnerian ideal. … [W]hat it has above all else is that which belongs to sub-tropical zones – that dryness of atmosphere, that limpidezza of the air. Here in every respect the climate is altered. Here another kind of sensuality, another kind of sensitiveness and another kind of cheerfulness make their appeal. This music is gay, but not in a French or German way. Its gaiety is African; fate hangs over it, its happiness is short, sudden, without reprieve. I envy Bizet for having had the courage of this sensitiveness, which hitherto in the cultured music of Europe has found no means of expression, – of this southern, tawny, sunburnt sensitiveness. … What a joy the golden afternoon of its happiness is to us! When we look out, with this music in our minds, we wonder whether we have ever seen the sea so calm. And how soothing is this Moorish dancing! How, for once, even our insatiability gets sated by its lascivious melancholy! – And finally love, love translated back into Nature! Not the love of a “cultured girl!” … But love as fate, as a fatality, cynical, innocent, cruel ….

In Nietzschean terms, this is high praise for Bizet (“evil” and “cruel” are not pejorative terms in his vocabulary) – but somewhat undercut by the book’s introduction, where he writes:

I have granted myself some small relief. It is not merely pure malice when I praise Bizet in this essay at the expense of Wagner. Interspersed with many jokes, I bring up a matter that is no joke.

It’s as though Nietzsche is saying, “I’m only half-joking when I praise Bizet as being better than Wagner.”

In any case, unlike Nietzsche I feel no need to choose between Wagner and Bizet. I am greedier than that.


The Logick of Kings (Redux)

KING MILINDA: Reverend Sir, will you discuss with me again?

NAGASENA: If your Majesty will discuss as a scholar, well; but if you will discuss as a king, no.

KING MILINDA: How is it then that scholars discuss?

NAGASENA: When scholars talk a matter over one with another then is there a winding up, an unravelling; one or other is convicted of error , and he then acknowledges his mistake; distinctions are drawn, and contra-distinctions; and yet thereby they are not angered. Thus do scholars, O king, discuss.

KING MILINDA: And how do kings discuss?’

NAGASENA: When a king, your Majesty, discusses a matter, and he advances a point, if any one differ from him on that point, he is apt to fine him, saying: “Inflict such and such a punishment upon that fellow!” Thus, your Majesty, do kings discuss.

Milindapañha (Buddhist text, 1st c. BCE-2nd c. CE)

There is a way of managing an Argument … which is made use of by States and Communities, when they draw up a hundred thousand Disputants on each Side, and convince one another by Dint of Sword. A certain Grand Monarch was so sensible of his Strength in this way of Reasoning, that he writ upon his Great Guns – Ratio ultima Regum, The Logick of Kings ….

When one has to do with a Philosopher of this kind, one should remember the old Gentleman’s Saying, who had been engaged in an Argument with one of the Roman Emperors. Upon his Friends telling him, That he wonder’d he would give up the Question, when he had visibly the Better of the Dispute; I am never asham’d, says he, to be confuted by one who is Master of fifty Legions.

But the most notable way of managing a Controversy, is that which we may call Arguing by Torture …. Men were formerly disputed out of their Doubts, reconciled to Truth by Force of Reason, and won over to Opinions by the Candour, Sense and Ingenuity of those who had the Right on their Side; but this Method of Conviction operated too slowly. Pain was found to be much more enlightening than Reason. Every Scruple was looked upon as Obstinacy, and not to be removed but by several Engines invented for that Purpose. In a Word, the Application of Whips, Racks, Gibbets, Gallies, Dungeons, Fire and Faggot, in a Dispute, may be look’d upon as Popish Refinements upon the old Heathen Logick.

— Joseph Addison, Spectator 239 (4 Dec. 1711)


All the Court Also Laughed Loudly Thereat

Ayn Rand does not seem always to have been hostile to the culture of the Middle Ages. In college she took (according to her transcript) five courses on mediæval European history, four of which seem to have been elective seminars. In We the Living, she writes approvingly (but, from the standpoint of her later philosophy, incongruously) of the novel’s heroine: “From somewhere in the aristocratic Middle Ages, Kira had inherited the conviction that labor and effort were ignoble”; moreover, she chooses as Kira’s heroic symbol the mediæval figure of a Viking (probably under the inspiration partly of Nietzsche, and partly of Fritz Lang’s Siegfried). And a play celebrating Joan of Arc played an important role in the first draft of The Fountainhead.

But at some later point she seems to have decided that mediæval culture was antithetical to her values. In “The Left: Old and New,” she dismisses the Middle Ages as “an era of mysticism, ruled by blind faith and blind obedience”; and in Atlas Shrugged she has Galt assert that “the supernatural doctrines of the Middle Ages … kept men huddling on the mud floors of their hovels, in terror that the devil might steal the soup they had worked eighteen hours to earn.” She did largely except Thomas Aquinas from her condemnation of mediæval culture, but only because she saw his work as the beginning of an Aristotelean revolution that would overthrow mediæval culture and usher in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. (I’ve groused elsewhere about the Randian tendency to downplay the merits of the mediæval period by treating Aquinas as though he were, at least in spirit, a post-mediæval figure.) (Incidentally, I’m not aware that Rand ever discussed the role of Aristoteleanism in the mediæval Islamic world, even though she must have been aware of Rose Wilder Lane’s enthusiastic defense of “Saracen” culture.)

Rand’s followers have likewise denounced mediæval culture as hostile to human reason and human happiness. Thus Leonard Peikoff writes, in The Ominous Parallels:

The dominant moralists had said that man must not seek his ultimate fulfillment on earth; that he must renounce the pleasures of this life, whether as a flesh-mortifying ascetic or as an abstemious toiler, for the sake of God, salvation, and the life to come ….

And in “Religion vs. America,” Peikoff adds:

The Dark Ages were dark on principle. Augustine fought against secular philosophy, science, art; he regarded all of it as an abomination to be swept aside; he cursed science in particular as “the lust of the eyes.”

Similarly, Mary Ann Sures, in “Metaphysics in Marble,” writes:

Medieval mystics regarded man as an evil creature whose body is loathsome because it is material, and whose mind is impotent because it is human. Hating man’s body, they said that pleasure is evil, and virtue consists of renunciation. Hating this earth, they said that it is a prison where man is doomed to pain, misery, calamity. Hating life, they said that death and escape into some other dimension is all that man could – and should – hope for. … Suffering as an ideal or suffering as punishment was all that medieval art offered to its heroes or its sinners here on earth.

Now I will readily grant that these descriptions do capture a significant strand within mediæval culture. St. Jerome, for example, in one of his letters describes the life of a model Christian woman:

Marcella practised fasting, but in moderation. She abstained from eating flesh, and she knew rather the scent of wine than its taste …. She seldom appeared in public and took care to avoid the houses of great ladies, that she might not be forced to look upon what she had once for all renounced. She frequented the basilicas of apostles and martyrs that she might escape from the throng and give herself to private prayer. … Marcella then lived the ascetic life for many years, and found herself old before she bethought herself that she had once been young. She often quoted with approval Plato’s saying that philosophy consists in meditating on death. … Well then, as I was saying, she passed her days and lived always in the thought that she must die. Her very clothing was such as to remind her of the tomb, and she presented herself as a living sacrifice, reasonable and acceptable, unto God. …

But I deny that this strand captures the whole of mediæval attitudes toward life. First, as I have recently discussed (see here and here), the Church’s sole authority in moral and spiritual matters did not go unchallenged during the mediæval period, as many writers and artists among the laity celebrated a more worldly ethic; and second, even thinkers within the Church held more complicated views than the Randians allow.

Take, for instance, Augustine, whom the Randians regard as the presiding genius of mediæval awfulness. He’s an enormously mixed bag philosophically, to be sure; but he is unmistakably an ethical eudaimonist in the lineage of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, and an absolutely crucial influence on Rand’s beloved Aquinas. It’s true that he expresses suspicion of scientific inquiry; but given his role in championing the writings of pagan thinkers like Plato and Cicero, against those Christians who wanted to consign all such products of Greek and Roman culture to the flames, it’s hardly accurate to say that he regarded all of “secular philosophy” as “an abomination to be swept aside.” (And in any case, Augustine’s attempt to discourage scientific inquiry was not successful, as such inquiry persists throughout the Middle Ages.)

Nor did mediæval thinkers as a rule condemn the human mind as “impotent because it is human.” On the contrary, they held that while it is appropriate to take the Church’s teachings on faith (by which the mediævals generally meant not “blind” faith, i.e., faith without evidence, but rather belief on the basis of testimonial evidence rather than either perceptual evidence or rational demonstration), it is still nobler to seek for a rational proof and understanding of the doctrines of faith, where possible. Indeed, this is a central theme of Augustine’s philosophical dialogue On Free Choice of the Will.

Augustine also regards both reason and the senses as efficacious tools of cognition, and praises reason in particular as the faculty that sets us above the lower animals:

There are two kinds of things that are known: the things that the mind perceives through the bodily senses, and the things that it perceives through itself. These philosophers [= the Greek Skeptics] have babbled much against the bodily senses, but they have never been able to call into doubt the most solid perception of true things the mind has through itself, such as … “I know that I’m alive.” … Yet far be it from us to doubt the truths that we have learned through the bodily senses [either]! (On the Trinity 15)

It is clear that many wild animals easily surpass human beings in strength and in other physical abilities. What is it in virtue of which a human being is superior, so that he can command many wild animals, yet none of them commands him? is it not perhaps what we usually call reason or understanding? … How can knowledge in the strict and proper sense be evil, since it is acquired by reason and understanding? … That by which humans are ranked above animals, whatever it is, be it more correctly called “mind” or “spirit” or both … if it dominates and commands the rest of what a human consists in, then that human being is completely in order … Therefore, when reason (or mind or spirit) governs irrational mental impulses, a human being is dominated by the very thing whose dominance is prescribed by the law we have found to be eternal. …

Physical objects are sensed by bodily sense … Reason acquaints us with all the foregoing, as well as with reason itself, and knowledge includes them. … The intelligible structure and truth of number is present to all reasoning beings. Everyone who calculates tries to apprehend it with his own reason and intelligence; some do this with ease, others with difficulty, yet it offers itself equally to all who are capable of grasping it. (On Free Choice of the Will)

When Augustine goes on to identify Truth as superior to human reason, he doesn’t mean that Truth is beyond reason’s ability to grasp; rather, he means (as he clearly explains) that Truth is the standard for reason rather than vice versa. (In other words, like a good Randian he rejects the primacy of consciousness.)

Moreover, Augustine wrote an entire book – Against the Academics – devoted to defending the efficacy of both reason and the senses against skeptical attacks.

Did Augustine regard matter and the material body as intrinsically evil? No, this was a Manichean view that he was at pains to reject. (Plotinus rejected it too, incidentally.) Augustine writes:

There is no need, therefore, that in our sins and vices we accuse the nature of the flesh … for in its own kind and degree the flesh is good …. For he who extols the nature of the soul as the chief good, and condemns the nature of the flesh as if it were evil, assuredly is fleshly both in his love of the soul and hatred of the flesh; for these his feelings arise from human fancy, not from divine truth. (City of God XIV.5)

What is evil is neither the body per se nor the choice of bodily goods per se, but rather the choice of bodily goods when they conflict with goods of a higher order.

And in similar vein Aquinas endorses the pursuit of bodily pleasures, so long as they are pursued in a manner subordinate to reason. While it’s true, for both Augustine and Aquinas, that we cannot find our “ultimate fulfillment on earth,” neither drew the inference that we must therefore “renounce the pleasures of this life.”

Some have maintained …. that all bodily pleasures should be reckoned as bad, and thus that man, being prone to immoderate pleasures, arrives at the mean of virtue by abstaining from pleasure. But they were wrong in holding this opinion. … The temperate man does not shun all pleasures, but those that are immoderate, and contrary to reason. The fact that children and dumb animals seek pleasures, does not prove that all pleasures are evil: because they have from God their natural appetite, which is moved to that which is naturally suitable to them. … Pleasures of the sensitive appetite are not the rule of moral goodness and malice, since food is universally pleasurable to the sensitive appetite both of good and of evil men; but the will of the good man takes pleasure in them in accordance with reason, to which the will of the evil man gives no heed. (Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ IaIIæ 34)

Nor should we look only at theologians like Augustine and Aquinas when examining the “dominant moralists” of the mediæval period. Given the enormous popularity and influence of Andreas Capellanus’s Art of Courtly Love, why shouldn’t he too be regarded as one of the “dominant moralists” of the Middle Ages? That would certainly bring to the fore a far more accommodating view of worldly pleasures than that of Augustine or Aquinas (and one reflected in much mediæval literature).

As for the common people, is it true that they were all huddling in the mud in superstitious terror, as described in Galt’s speech? I’ve previously cited some rather more skeptical and irreverent attitudes among mediæval commoners; and I’ll cite another here , from Chaucer’s enormously popular Canterbury Tales:

Chaucer doesn’t give a shit.

“Masters,” said he, “in churches when I preach,
I take pains to have a haughty speech ….
Then show I forth long boxes in a mass,
crammed full with rags and bones encased in glass –
holy relics, they suppose that they’ve been shown! –
as well as, set in brass, a shoulder-bone
that once was in a holy Jew-man’s sheep.
‘Good men,’ say I, ‘my words in memory keep:
if this bone here be washed in any well,
if cow or calf or sheep or ox should swell
from eating snakes or by a snake being stung,
take water from that well and wash its tongue,
and ’twill be healed anon; and furthermore
of pox and scabs, indeed of every sore,
shall any sheep be healed, that from this well
shall drink a draft; take heed of what I tell. …’
By trickery thus have I won, year by year,
a hundred marks since I’ve been Pardoner.
In pulpit I do stand, in cleric’s gown,
and once the foolish people have sat down
I preach to them as you have heard before,
inflicting on them frauds a hundred more.”

And compare the similarly irreverent, mocking, bawdy spirit of Chaucer’s contemporary, Giovanni Boccaccio, in his epilogue to the Decameron:

Boccaccio also doesn’t give a shit.

There may also be those among you who will say that I have an evil and venomous tongue, because in certain places I write the truth about the friars. But who cares? I can readily forgive you for saying such things, for doubtless you are prompted by the purest of motives, friars being decent fellows, who forsake a life of discomfort for the love of God …. Except for the fact that they all smell a little of the billy-goat, their company would offer the greatest of pleasure.

I will grant you, however, that the things of this world have no stability, but are subject to constant change, and this may well have happened to my tongue. But not long ago, distrusting my own opinion (which in matters concerning myself I trust as little as possible), I was told by a lady, a neighbor of mine, that I had the finest and sweetest tongue in the world ….

That’s right: as a reply to the charge of insufficient reverence toward clerical majesty, Boccaccio, typically, retorts with testimonial evidence of his skill at oral sex. And his book, like Chaucer’s, was wildly popular. (Both wrote in the vernacular rather than in Latin.) Clearly not everyone in the Middle Ages was cowering in superstitious awe of ecclesiastical authority and holy relics, nor did everyone regard the pleasures of the body as evils to be renounced.

As Alixe Bovey notes:

In the past, the Middle Ages was often characterised as the ‘Age of Faith’, but now it is recognised that this moniker conceals the complexity of the medieval religious culture. Christianity was the dominant religion, but not everyone followed the faith with the same intensity: judging from legislation and sermons encouraging lay people to attend church and observe its teachings, many people were lukewarm in the faith, while others were openly or covertly sceptical.

As for the claim that “suffering … was all that medieval art offered” – well, in addition to the examples of mediæval art I posted last time, I’ll close with these:

Oh, the suffering.


Love Ageless and Evergreen

Most versions of the story of Tristan/Tristram and Iseult/Isolde end tragically for the adulterous lovers, but there is at least one exception: a 16th-century Welsh manuscript (possibly reflecting earlier manuscripts now lost, possibly not) in which King Arthur intervenes to adjudicate a compromise, whereby Iseult’s husband Mark/March and her lover Tristan will alternate cohabiting with her in a kind of connubial time-share.

Asked to choose between having Iseult to himself during the time “when leaves are on the trees” (i.e. summer) and the time “when no leaves are on the trees” (i.e. winter), Mark chooses the latter, on the grounds that winter’s longer nights will afford him more opportunities for sex with his unwilling bride – whereupon Iseult triumphantly points out that since some trees are evergreen, there is no time when no leaves are on the trees, and so Mark has just inadvertently consented to her staying with Tristan year-round. (And Arthur concurs, so mote it be.)

Several things strike me about this story.

1. This is, more or less, an example of what might be called a “magic loophole” story. (Less, because in this case magic is not actually involved, though otherwise the style of reasoning is similar.) Another, more typically magical example, also Welsh, is the tale of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who enjoyed magical protection from being killed either by day or by night, either naked or clothed, either indoors or outdoors, either on horseback or on foot – and so he is maneuvered by his wife (he seems to have been very trusting) into standing with one foot on the back of a goat (or, in some versions, a deer) and the other in a tub under an awning, at twilight, wrapped only in a fishnet. (A similar, but non-magical, story, the German fairy-tale “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter,” also involving the fishnet solution, is discussed by Wittgenstein in his 1932-1935 Cambridge lectures. A Masonic ritual also requires the initiate to appear “neither naked nor clad, neither barefoot nor shod” – which apparently turns out to mean wearing a sheet and one shoe.)

To modern readers, the best-known examples of magic-loophole stories are probably Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who cannot be killed by any man of woman born, nor until Birnham Wood marches upon his castle – only to be killed by a man born from Caesarian section, leading an army marching with boughs cut from Birnham Wood (one feels Macbeth would be justified in appealing the dodgy interpretation) – and Tolkien’s Witch-king, who cannot be killed by any man, period, but, it turns out, can be killed by a female human and a male hobbit. For some other examples (by no means a complete list), see the relevant TV Tropes page, particularly the “Folklore” and “Myths and Religion” sections.

2. But the story that this variant Iseult tale most reminds me of is that of Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Here again the tale turns on the parsing of a legal agreement rather than actual magic; and here again it is a woman who offers the decisive legal interpretation – in this case, that Shylock cannot claim his contractually owed pound of flesh from Antonio, since there is no way to obtain it without drawing some of Antonio’s blood as well, and Shylock is owed only flesh, not blood; and so Shylock (like Mark) gets nothing, and Antonio (like Tristan) gets everything.

3. Moreover, the Welsh variant version of the Tristan-Iseult tale represents an interesting turn in the literature of courtly love (not to be confused with Courtney Love). While the “free love” movement, with its criticism of coercive legal marriage as incompatible with genuine romantic attachment, is usually dated to the 19th century (see Hal Sears’ The Sex Radicals), the late mediæval courtly-love movement in literature, with its celebration of adulterous liaisons, was making the same point as early as the 11th century. As C. S. Lewis (of all people) points out in The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition: “Any idealization of sexual love, in a society where marriage is purely utilitarian, must begin by being an idealization of adultery.”

However, in most versions of courtly-love narrative these adulterous liaisons were supposed to remain unconsummated – a concession to the Church’s condemnation of adultery, though obviously not to the Church’s more expansive definition of adultery, namely that “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). On the contrary, the courtly-love literature regarded adulterous liaisons, so long as they were unconsummated, as spiritually ennobling – one of many ways in which ecclesiastical claims to define the requirements of spirituality were routinely challenged in the Middle Ages, contrary to popular visions of mediæval society as completely under the intellectual sway of the Church.

But while unconsummated adulterous relationships were celebrated in this literature, consummated ones, by contrast, were generally portrayed as doomed, and indeed as rightfully doomed. That is what makes the Welsh version of the Iseult legend so striking: both Arthur’s proposed time-share compromise, and Iseult’s final victory in gaining full-time cohabitation with Tristan, push still further the boundaries of the courtly-love tradition’s challenge to ecclesiastical authority on the question of the legitimacy of extramarital love.

4. A further point: following up on my preceding remark about the mediæval Church’s hold on thought being less all-encompassing than is usually thought, I here offer a few further examples.

a. It’s a matter of scholarly debate how often ordinary people attended Church in the Middle Ages; but at any rate the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 felt it necessary to decree that everyone should take communion and go to confession at least once per year.

b. The mediæval scholar Peter of Cornwall (1140-1221) lamented:

There are many people who do not believe that God exists, nor do they think that the human soul lives on after the death of the body. They consider that the universe has always been as it is now and is ruled by chance rather than by Providence. (Quoted in Danny Danziger and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta, p. 203).

c. While Geoffrey Chaucer appears to have been more religiously orthodox than whatever people Peter of Cornwall was complaining about, his Canterbury Tales do display a less-than-reverential attitude toward the clergy. To quote just one instance out of many:

In the old days of King Arthur
of whom the Britons speak great honour,
this land was filled with many a fairy;
the Elf-Queen, with her jolly company,
danced full oft in meadow green and vale,
or so, be you assured, runs the tale:
I speak of many hundred years ago,
for now no man can see elves any more,
for now the great charity and prayers
of limiters [= begging monks] and other holy friars
that overrun every land and every stream
as thick as motes in the sunbeam,
blessing halls, chambers, kitchens, bowers,
cities, towns, castles, high towers,
villages, barns, stables, dairies –
this ensures that there are no fairies,
for there where once was wont to walk an elf,
there walks now the limiter himself
in afternoons and in mornings
and says his matins and his holy things
as he goes about his limitation [= the district within which a limiter was authorised to beg].
Women may go safely up and down:
in every bush and under every tree
there is no other incubus than he
and all that he will do them is dishonour [i.e. by raping them].

d. While the worship of the pre-Christian Greek and Roman gods was sharply proscribed by mediæval ecclesiastical authority (such gods being identified with Satan and his demons), invocation of these gods as beneficent or at least neutral spiritual forces was common in the fields of alchemy and astrology, as Jean Seznec documents in his book The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art. (Despite the title, the book covers the mediæval period too, not just the Renaissance.) The Church’s attitude toward these disciplines was ambivalent; taken too far they could incur charges of witchcraft, but pursued in due measure they could be undertaken by someone as innocuously orthodox as Albertus Magnus, the teacher of Aquinas. (Of course Albertus and Aquinas both played a central role in injecting the suspiciously pagan and/or Islamic doctrines of Aristoteleanism into Christian theology.)

e. Aquinas’s contemporary Siger of Brabant, leader of a movement called Latin Averroism (though how far it followed the actual ideas of Averroës a.k.a. Ibn Rushd remains a matter of dispute), defended the autonomy of philosophy vis-à-vis theology and denied personal immortality. While Siger’s doctrines were condemned by the Church and ridiculed by Aquinas, the pious Dante in his Divine Comedy locates Siger in Paradise rather than in Hell or Purgatory.

f. A 12th-century English labourer, reproached by a churchman for working on a feast day (that of St. Erkenwald), reportedly replied:

You clerics have so much time on your hands that you meddle with what’s none of your business. You lot grow fat and soft with idleness, you don’t have a real job, your life is just a game or a play. You clerics with your everlasting useless dirges despise us, though we are the ones who do all the real work. And then you go and bring in some Erkenwald or other to justify your idleness and to try to stop me doing the job that I need to stay alive. You might just as well tell me I can live without eating as tell me to stop working. Why should I pray alongside drones like you? When we’ve made a bit of money, enough so we can eat – and a bit more too, so we can drink – then we have a holiday, and a good time dancing and singing. You keep your festivals, your mouldy old tunes and your Erkenwald to yourselves. Leave us alone. (Danzinger and Gillingham, p. 204)

The story has an edifying moral: the labourer is instantly struck dead after delivering this diatribe. But whether this precise incident ever occurred, the need to relate it suggests that the labourer’s position was widely shared.

g. As I wrote back in 2003, in criticism of the official Objectivist view of the Middle Ages as “an era of mysticism, ruled by blind faith and blind obedience,” and committed to “[h]ating this earth” as “a prison where man is doomed to pain, misery, calamity,” where “pleasure is evil, and virtue consists of renunciation”:

Once we broaden our focus from the medieval philosophers (who were, after all, mostly monks and priests) to medieval culture generally, including the rich, exuberant, imaginative, secular atmosphere of medieval literature, with its focus on romantic love and heroic adventure, the picture begins to look less dark. … And if you think medieval art is about nothing but crucifixion and self-flagellation, take a look at some of the hauntingly beautiful treasures in France’s Musée du Moyen Age.


SciFi SongFest, Songs 9-10

Has any other pop star written a hostile song about himself from the standpoint of his disgruntled and resentful back-up band?

Of course Bowie makes sure to have his band compliment his talent (“boy, could he play guitar”) and his appearance (“God-given ass”) along with their complaints about being relegated to back-up status (he “became the special man; then we were Ziggy’s band …. So where were the Spiders?”) while he “took it all too far” and was “making love with his ego.” And although the official moral of the song is supposed to be Bowie/Ziggy’s destructive vanity and narcissism, the band’s plotting to “crush his sweet hands” suggests rather that Bowie is casting the Spiders in the role of Nietzsche’s envious Untermenschen. (“Before you they feel petty, and their baseness glows and smoulders against you in invisible revenge,” Nietzsche writes in Zarathustra.) Small wonder that the partnership broke up unhappily soon after. (I love Bowie as an artist; but like many of my favourite artists, he seems to have been a bit of an asshole, especially – though not exclusively – during his early years.)

According to Wikipedia, the name “Spiders from Mars” was inspired by a “UFO sighting, where a stadium crowd thought they had witnessed Martian spacecraft, which turned out to be migrating spiders” – which, yes, is totally a thing:

But of course Nietzsche also uses spiders in Zarathustra as a metaphor for envy-ridden egalitarians. And Ziggy’s own status as either an extraterrestrial, or else a human specially chosen as a spokesman by extraterrestrials (depending on which interview Bowie was giving at the moment), cast Bowie neatly in the role of the “Homo superior” of “Oh You Pretty Things,” even if at other times he suggested that he was merely the harbinger of a development that he expected would surpass him and leave him behind. The song straddles self-aggrandisement and self-mockery – both genuine, I suspect:

9. David Bowie, “Ziggy Stardust” (1972)

A different version:

And continuing the Nietzschean theme of the resentment of the lesser against the greater:

10. Rush, “The Trees” (1978):


Dialectical Utopianism: Who Said This?

There is no such thing as a pocket utopia.

Consider the French aristocracy before the revolution – well fed, well clothed, well housed, well educated – brilliant lives. One could say they lived in a little utopia of their own. But we don’t say that, because we know their lives rested on a base of human misery, peasants toiling in ignorance and suffering. And we think of the French aristocracy as parasites, brutal, stupid, tyrannical.

But now the world is a single economy. Global village, made in Thailand! And we stand on little islands of luxury, while the rest – great oceans of abject misery, bitter war, endless hunger. We say, But they are none of our affair! We have our island. …

What a cheat utopias are, no wonder people hate them. Engineer some fresh start, an island, a new continent, dispossess them, give them a new planet sure! So they don’t have to deal with our history. Ever since More they’ve been doing it: rupture, clean cut, fresh start.

So the utopias in books are pocket utopias too. Ahistorical, static, why should we read them? They don’t speak to us trapped in this world as we are, we look at them in the same way we look at the pretty inside of a paperweight, snow drifting down, so what? It may be nice but we’re stuck here and no one’s going to give us a fresh start, we have to deal with history as it stands, no freer than a wedge in a crack. …

Must redefine utopia. It isn’t the perfect end-product of our wishes, define it so and it deserves the scorn of those who sneer when they hear the word. No. Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever. … Utopia is when our lives matter. …

I grew up in utopia, I did. California when I was a child was a child’s paradise, I was healthy, well fed, well clothed, well housed, I went to school and there were libraries with all the world in them and after school I played in orange groves and in Little League and in the band and down at the beach and every day was an adventure, and when I came home my mother and father created a home as solid as rock, the world seemed solid! And it comes to this, do you understand me – I grew up in utopia.

But I didn’t. Not really. Because while I was growing up in my sunny seaside home much of the world was in misery, hungry, sick, living in cardboard shacks, killed by soldiers or their own police. I had been on an island. In a pocket utopia. It was the childhood of someone born into the aristocracy, and understanding that I understood the memory of my childhood differently; but still I know what it was like, I lived it and I know! And everyone should get to know that, not in the particulars, of course, but in the general outline, in the blessing of a happy childhood, in the lifelong sense of security and health.

So I am going to work for that. And if – if! if someday the whole world reaches utopia, then that dream California will become a precursor, a sign of things to come, and my childhood is redeemed. I may never know which it will be, it might not be clear until after we’re dead, but the future will judge us! They will look back and judge us, as aristocrats’ refuge or emerging utopia, and I want utopia, I want that redemption and so I’m going to stay here and fight for it, because I was there and I lived it and I know.

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