March 29, 2008


Otto von Bismarck is not generally thought of as a deep philosopher, humanitarian or hero of representative government. But he did have his moments. For your weekend entertainment, hear are some of his nuggets:

A statesman... must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment.

Be polite; write diplomatically; even in a declaration of war one observes the rules of politeness.

Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied.

People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.

Politics is not an exact science.

Politics is the art of the next best.

Politics is the art of the possible.

Politics ruins the character.

When a man says that he approves something in principal, it means he hasn't the slightest intention of putting it in practice.

When you want to fool the world, tell the truth.

There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America.

Let's hope he's still right about the last one...


March 28, 2008


Mythical critters courtesy of wikipedia.

This is the last day (for now) of a series of posts about the nature of mythology that started last week. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts. As always, there are also links and comments about current events.

One of the most interesting theories of myth and religion I've run across is that of the German classicist Walter Burkert (born 1931). He's sometimes considered to be a structuralist or neo-ritualist (see yesterday and last week). He's written several books of which I'd particularly recommend The Creation of the Sacred. If you're a hard core Helenophile like El Cabrero, you might check out Greek Religion as well.

Here's the short version as I understand it. Myths and religion are as universal among humans as language. Like language, some elements that later became myth and religion may have antecedents in the course of early and even pre-human biological evolution.

Animals have their rituals, and early as well as modern humans have always found that repeated or ritualized actions can reduce anxiety in an unpredictable world.

Most traditional stories involve a dangerous quest that involves seeking a prize and evading dangers. If squirrels could talk, their stories might include the same things.

Many religions involve gestures and acts of submission and deference to more powerful beings, which is a basic behavior on the menu of many animals.

Many stories and rituals involve the idea of sacrificing a part for the whole, which is a common natural event, as when a predator picks out the weakest members of a herd or when a lizard's tail snaps off when grabbed by a bird.

In many cultures, people read signs or omens from the flight of birds or other natural events. At Goat Rope Farm, the hyper-alert goats do the same thing all the time.

Burkert doesn't believe that religion as such is genetic. Rather, as humans emerged into self consciousness, maybe certain legacies of evolution were at play when people created symbolic worlds of meaning to help them deal with the world. How could it be otherwise?

As he put it:

The idea of the supernatural emerges within the landscape of nature. If reality appears dangerous or downright hostile to life, religion calls for something beyond experience to restore the balance.

Final observation...El Cabrero is blessed (or cursed) to frequently observe wild and domesticated animals. I'm not saying we're just like them or vice versa. But we do seem to be part of the same continuum.

NEW FOREIGN POLICY DIRECTIONS for the Middle East is the subject here.

IT'S THE ECONOMY. This editorial kind of sums it up.

MORE ON THE NEW DEAL from SEIU's Andy Stern.

THE LAST WORD. From American Book Review, here is their list of the 100 best last lines from novels. Enjoy!


March 27, 2008


Gustave Dore's illustration of Little Red Riding Hood, courtesy of wikipedia.

The nature of myth is the theme at Goat Rope these days, although you'll also find links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Maybe you've noticed that many myths and folktales follow a sort of pattern. In a typical Appalachian Jack tale, the eponymous hero leaves home to seek his fortune. He finds out about or runs right smack dab into some problem. Along the way, he is tested by a stranger and does the right thing. The stranger then gives Jack some help along the way. He then beats the haint (or king or giant or dragon or witch or whatever), gets the girl and then goes home.

Lots of tales are different but there is usually a pattern.

The Russian scholar Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) collected and traced the patterns in Russian folktales. He found that most were built around a quest pattern and contained certain elements or functions--31 to be exact--and a certain number of stock characters (he came up with seven, including typically the good guy, the bad guy, and the girl). What makes tales vary from each other is more the sequence of elements or functions than differences about characters.

A similar schema could easily explain most of the movies I've seen...

One approach to myth that sees people as basically wired to come up with patterns and narratives is called structuralism. The best known structuralist theorist was Claude Levi-Strauss, who aside from some fieldwork in Brazil was mostly an armchair anthropologist.

Levi-Strauss is as far as I can tell almost impossible to read, but here's the Goat Rope version: people are wired to classify things, often into binary pairs of opposites like night/day, raw/cooked, living/dead, etc. Every society does it, although each does it differently.

The elements of such a system only make sense in the context of the system itself, like a letter only makes sense as part of the alphabet or a playing card only makes sense as part of a full deck or a pawn as part of a chess set. The parts are only understandable as pieces of the whole. One function of myth is to mediate between the pairs of binary oppositions.

Note: I'm probably not getting that right, but what do you expect from a goat herder?

Of all the theories of myth discussed in this series, I find structuralism to be among the most intriguing, although it's as impossible to prove as it is to read. I do think we're wired to think in binary terms even when we shouldn't and we seem pre-packaged for story and metaphor as well.

MORE ON IRAQ. Here's more on the cost, human and financial. Here's a local op-ed on the Iraq mess by Carli Mareneck. And here's coverage on the unraveling of the surge.

NEW PROGRESSIVE BLOG. Check out The Wonk Room.

COAL AND HEALTH. Here's more on the WVU study of health in coal counties.

YES, VIRGINIA, there is a runner's high.


March 26, 2008


Heracles, courtesy of wikipedia.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) is probably the most popular interpreter of myths today. Campbell was the author of The Masks of God, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and many other works. His works also inspired Star Wars creator George Lucas.

Campbell's public following grew by leaps and bounds with PBS's broadcast of The Power of Myth, a series of interviews between Campbell and Bill Moyers. Strongly influenced by Jung, he believed that all myths worldwide shared similar themes and spiritual insights. He sometimes spoke of a "monomyth," such as that of the quest of a hero, as if all humanity was basically watching the same psychic movie.

One problem with that approach is that it selectively picks from many diverse myths and imposes a general interpretation on widely diverse traditions with widely different systems of meaning.

He had a knack for catchy phrases such as this one:

Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.

Sounds good but doesn't hold up too well. Myths are enduring stories repeated over time, whereas dreams are physiological events, most of which are not remembered or retold. Myths provide a world of meaning for those who accept them, whereas most dreams are mental static that have little influence on daily life (although we arguably should pay more attention to them than we do).

The problem with overgeneralizing about myths is that in doing so one creates a more or less artificial construct that loses a lot of particularity. As one of El Cabrero's teachers used to say, you can't unscramble an egg. Instead of lumping all myths together into some gigantic stew, it might be more interesting to look at different traditions in their own terms.


THE TREE ARMY. Here's Bill McKibben on the relevance of New Deal era programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps today.

COAL AND/OR HEALTH. A new study by a WVU researcher finds that residents of the state's coalfields are more likely than other West Virginians to suffer from chronic heart, lung and kidney disease.

SOME DAYS YOU EAT THE BEAR... Here's Dean Baker on the credit crisis and corporate bailouts.

THE WIRE. Here's a critical view of El Cabrero's favorite TV show that talks about all the positive things in Baltimore and other cities that the show ignores.
Point well taken, but can somebody tell the folks at HBO to get that season 5 DVD out soon?

SPIDERS AND SNAKES. New research is studying the question of whether the common fear of snakes and spiders is an evolutionary inheritance or something learned.

LOOK TO THE ANT, THOU SLUGGARD! They invented farming 50 million years ago when we were just a twinkle in a primate's eye.


March 25, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope lately is myth and what it means. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

One of the most popular psychological theories of myth is that of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961). Once a close associate of Freud who was designated as the "crown prince" of psychoanalysis, Jung broke with Freud's theory of the centrality of libido or the sex drive as the major force of human motivation (see discussion of Freud's view of myth yesterday).

While Freud concentrated on the personal unconscious, Jung believed that some aspects of psychic life had an "impersonal" or objective quality that cannot be derived from an individuals past experiences. He believed that this pointed to the existence of a collective unconscious shared by all people. (He also at times dabbled in the notion of a national unconscious for different ethnic groups, which damaged his reputation and brought on accusations of being a Nazi sympathizer.)

The collective unconscious contained certain primordial images or archetypes, an idea he derived from

the repeated observation that, for instance, the myths and fairy-tales of world literature contain definite motifs which crop up everywhere. We meet these same motifs in the fantasies, dreams, deliria, and delusions of individuals living today. These typical images and associations are what I call archetypal ideas.

The archetype was

an irrepresentable, unconscious, pre-existent form that seems to be part of the inherited structure of the psyche and can therefore manifest itself spontaneously anywhere, at any time.

Jung believed that the similarities between various myths are the result of the influence of the collective unconscious. Myths therefore originate in the psyche and allow people to experience the unconscious. He believed that the decline in the centrality of myth in the modern age contributed to the psychological problems of many people:

Among the so-called neurotics of our day there are a good many who in other ages would not have been neurotic--that is, divided against themselves. If they had lived in a period and in a milieu in which man was still linked by myth with the world of the ancestors, and thus with nature truly experienced and not merely seen from the outside, they would have been spared this division within themselves.

While still enjoying great popularity, Jung's ideas are miles away from the drift of modern scientific psychology. Likewise, many scholars of mythology shy away from grand theories which not only over-generalize but also pass over the uniqueness of different mythological traditions.

BOGEYMAN TIME? Here's Jacob Hacker on "socialized medicine."

THE SHADOW SIDE OF BANKING and the need for greater regulation thereof is the subject of Paul Krugman's latest column.


AN OLD ZEN KOAN ASKS "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" This one might.


March 24, 2008


Antigone Leads Oedipus out of Thebes by Charles Francois Jalabert. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Mythology is a perennially fascinating subject. There have been any number of modern interpretations of the meaning of myths. Classical scholar Elizabeth Vandiver divides these into "what" and "why" theories.

"What" theories, which were discussed here last week, try to explain myth in terms of other things, such as expressions of rituals, social solidarity, explanations of natural and historical events, etc. "Why" theories of myths are broader in scope and tend to focus on the universal function of myths for the human mind.

The person who did the most to open that can of worms was none other than Sigmund Freud, who turned to myths in developing his theory of psychoanalysis, specifically the myth of Oedipus as recounted in the Greek tragedian Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus.

To recap that myth, an oracle foretells that Oedipus is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Laius, the father, orders the infant exposed, but unbeknownst to him, a shepherd takes pity and spares the infant, who is raised by another couple elsewhere he believes to be his parents. When he learns of the oracle, he flees his home and kills a belligerent person on the way. Reckon wonder who that guy was?

He becomes tyrant (nonhereditary ruler) of Thebes when he solves the riddle of the Sphinx, a monster terrifying the town. He also gets to marry the Jocasta, widow of the king. When a plague breaks out, Oedipus swears to get to the bottom of it. The blind seer Tiresias says the plague is due to a hidden crime, which turns out to be... When the truth is revealed, Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus blinds himself. (There's a bunch of stuff going on with seeing/not seeing.)

For Freud, the only possible reason why this myth is compelling to modern as well as ancient readers is that it reveals a universal conflict in the human psyche that begins in childhood and has ramifications throughout life. He believed the Oedipus complex was a universal human trait.

Most people today wouldn't go that far, although it seems to fit for some people. Scholars of mythology in particular point out that this kind of mythic theme is far from universal across cultures and the Oedipus myth itself occupied only a minor place in the Greek mythic cycle. For that matter, other myths are at least as compelling as that of Oedipus.

When El Cabrero first discovered Greek tragedy, I was much more impressed by Aeschylus' tragedies of Orestes, who killed his mother to avenge his father's death and had to deal with the wrath of the Furies in the wake of that primal transgression. He didn't even rate a complex. No fair!

Official Goat Rope verdict: myths, like any other kind of story, can convey deep psychological insights, but they are best understood as much as possible in their own terms and as part of the symbolic universe of which they are a part. And not every compelling story reflects a universal truth of human nature.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and even when it isn't it isn't always what Old Sig thought.

SAD MILESTONE. The AP reports that US military deaths in Iraq have reached 4000.

THIS IS NO SHOCK, but good jobs are getting harder for workers at lower education levels to find.

LONGEVITY GAP. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so does the gap in life expectancies across socio-economic lines.

YOU HAVE TO CLICK ON THIS LINK if only to see the freaky mantis shrimp.