May 09, 2009

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 116


May 08, 2009

Pity and fear

Aristotle, medieval European style. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Aside from links and comments about current events, Goat Rope lately has been looking at Aristotle's view of art, literature, tragedy and poetry as expressed in his Poetics.

The ancient Athenians took tragedy seriously. Such performances were usually given during the spring festival of the god Dionysus and, like so much else in Greek life, they were a contest. All citizens were supposed to attend the performances (and got paid to do so) and vote on the winner. The contest consisted of a series of three more or less related tragedies and a lighter and cruder satyr play (named for the goatlike companions of the god). Three tragedians competed for top honors.

Attending was both a patriotic and religious duty. They took tragedy so seriously that when they voted special taxes on rich citizens, these were sometimes given a choice of paying for a new trireme (fighting ship) or a new tragic performance. Can you imagine a society today that viewed art as being as important as warfare?

Aristotle believed that a good tragedy should have a powerful cleansing effect or katharsis on those who watched it. He said

Tragedy is a representation of action that is worthy of serious attention, complete in itself and of some magnitude - bringing about by means of pity and fear the purging of such emotions.

Debate rages today about what he meant by katharsis. Some see it as something like a religious initiation, while others believe he derived the term from Greek medical practices and viewed it as having a cleansing effect on the psyche just as other treatments might have on the body. Ditto pity and fear. One possible interpretation is that we feel pity for the suffering of the protagonist and fear in recognizing that the same kind of thing might happen to us in a similar situation.

I don't necessarily think that's the only function of tragedy or way to view it. Nietzsche believed that the beauty of such art made it possible for those who viewed it to say yes to life in spite of all its horrors. The best tragedies also warn against hubris and excess--if only we paid attention.

Pity, fear and katharsis may not be the last word on tragedy. Still, I'll never forget the way it felt when I first really read the works of tragedians such as Aeschylus and Sophocles. It might not have been exactly that, but it was close.

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY? The US lags behind other highly developed nations in providing paid leave for new moms.

UNEMPLOYMENT. The Obama administration has proposed more help for unemployed workers, including a proposal that would allow them to receive job training while also receiving benefits.

CHICKEN LITTLE AGAIN. While some business groups continue to view the Employee Free Choice Act as a sign of the apocalypse, several US states already have similar laws on the books and the sun apparently continues to rise over them.



May 07, 2009

Tragic flaws and all that

This man had tragic flaws which led to his undoing.

It's kind of easy to tell one of Shakespeare's comedies from one of his tragedies. In the former most everyone gets married, while in the latter, most everyone is dead on the stage.

It's a little harder to define what makes a Greek tragedy what it is. It's easier to say what it's not. Good guy beats bad guy, gets girl would not be a tragic formula. Nor would bad guy wins after all. Nor would good guy gets blasted by the cosmos for no apparent reason.

Aristotle, who is not the last word on the subject but was one of the first, had several ideas about what made one. Good aristocrat the he was, he believed that the main characters should be people of high status and usually well known from myth and tradition. He blamed Euripides for bringing common people to the state. Second, he believed one should involve some change of fortune, usually for the worse. He especially liked it if there was a major reversal and if late in the game there came some major recognition.

Conflicts in a tragedy should not pit conventional enemies or indifferent people against each other; he thought it was more powerful if rather the conflicts occurred within the same family or between people who had some kind of connection, even if they protagonists didn't realize it until it was too late.

The tragic hero in his book should be neither a perfect person nor a complete jerk. Rather,

There remains, then the character between these two extremes--that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous--a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.

To sum up his version of a good tragedy,

A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue...The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character such as we have described, or better rather than worse.

The tragic hero, in other words, should be like most of us, except on a grander scale. The subject of tragedy should not be a retelling of something that definitely happened but rather should show what could happen given certain circumstances; hence its power. Often it's not about good versus evil but rather competing and conflicting goods and ills in which people are caught up in a long chain of events.

As I've said before here, a Greek tragedy is a different kind of story than an action movie. But however mythological the themes may be, the tragic is often closer to real life.

GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS. Here's another look at the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, where they have another way of keeping score.

IT'S ON. The struggle for health care reform, that is. One critical piece of real reform is a public insurance option.

STILL TICKING. Pete Seeger turned 90 Sunday and is still singing, albeit not as loud.



May 06, 2009

Art or propaganda?

Plato (left) and Aristotle in a detail from Raphael's The School of Athens. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Goat Rope has been spending time lately with the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, especially with his theories about literature, poetry and tragedy.

The contrast between Aristotle and his teacher Plato is often pretty striking and that is particularly the case with regard to what we would call literature and what they would call poetry.

Aristotle felt at home in the world of matter and the senses while Plato did not. Humans had their place in the natural order of things and art had its origin in human nature.

In his Republic, Plato argued, with the voice of Socrates, that poetry had a great power to do good or ill. He believed that works of art should be carefully controlled, sanitized and censored in the interests of public morality and social order. Needless to say, tyrannical regimes, closed societies and authoritarian movements throughout history have agreed.

(I think Socrates wasn't such a good influence on him after all.)

Aristotle's Poetics, on the other hand, isn't all that interested in art as propaganda. He views it as something important for its own sake and instead focuses on what made a particular kind of literary work great.

I think Aristotle won that one. With maybe a few exceptions, works of propaganda make lousy literature. They're not usually even all that effective as propaganda.

JOBS. The NY Times reports what may be the beginning of good news about the economy.

HEALTH ED. Researchers suggest the poor health of many West Virginians is related to low educational attainment.

GETTING SERIOUS. Here's a look at the far right's first 100 days.

APPALACHIA. Here's a call for turning the nation's sacrifice zone into a sacred zone.

BABY NAMES have bubbles too.

BEING BULLIED as a child can lead to serious psychological effects, according to this research.


May 05, 2009

What is concealed and what is revealed

Albert Greiner as Oedipus in an 1896 version. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

A few years back, El Cabrero went on a jag of reading bizarre works of literary theory. One little volume that was kind of fun was Mythologies by Roland Barthes. In it, the author attempted to explain the inner semiotic meaning of things like fast cars, professional wrestling and even strip tease.

He argued that what gave the latter its power (at the time anyhow) was what was concealed rather than what was revealed. I guess I'll take his word for it.

It does often seem to be the case that things left to the imagination have greater power than things explicitly shown. In Greek tragedy, for example, all kinds of nasty things happen. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes, Agamemnon is butchered in a bath tub, Pentheus is torn to pieces by a group of frenzied women led by his mother.

But one difference between ancient tragedy and modern gory movies is that this kind of action takes place offstage. But this doesn't diminish the effect; if anything, it increases it.

Aristotle believed that tragedy should produce a powerful and cleansing emotional reaction in the viewer (it works for the reader too) by producing both pity and fear. But it wasn't necessary to show everything to do this:

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids.

Some things are perhaps best left to the imagination. It occurs to El Cabrero that the makers of slasher movies have neglected their Aristotle.

THE STATES AND THE STIMULUS. A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research warns that spending cuts at the state and local level could blunt the stimulus impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

WORKERS OF THE US, REUNITE? Here's an article on the possible re-unification of the AFLCIO and Change to Win labor federations.

FIGHTING THE NEW DEAL. Here's a book review of Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan.


May 04, 2009

The world in a grain of sand

El Cabrero sometimes teaches a night class in sociology somewhere comfortably off the campus of Marshall University. The most recent semester, now in finals week, I taught Deviance and Social Control.

Mostly I do it to get to use the library, wherein I can find all kinds of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore with which to regale the Gentle Reader.

I often find myself bringing works of literature and poetry to class because these can often get to the heart of the matter more quickly and clearly than reams of statistics. In the last few weeks of this class, I've brought in or referred to works by William Blake, Shakespeare, Herman Hesse, Herman Melville, and others.

William Blake's poem London, for example, speaks volumes about his time (and ours) in four short stanzas.

Aristotle noted the power of poetry for this kind of thing 2,400 years ago. In the Poetics, he discusses the difference between poetry and history. In modern terms, what he called poetry would include novels, plays and other works of literature, whereas history would include most kinds of nonfiction. He puts it this way

The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. [emphasis added]

SINKING LIKE A ROCK. Stagnant or falling wages can make the recession worse, according to Paul Krugman.

WHICH GOSPEL IS THIS IN? A Pew survey found that regular churchgoers were more likely to support torture than those who were less observant.

THE FIRST GARDEN continues to attract attention.

SPEAKING OF FOOD, the ancestor of the current swine flu now sweeping parts of the world has been traced to US factory farms.

ANIMAL UPDATES. Fish may feel pain in ways similar to us, according to a recent experiment. And while we're at it, animals that are capable of voice mimicry also seem to be capable of keeping a beat.