Tag Archives: Genesis

Thoughts on “The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman

This is the final book of Grossman’s trilogy, and he manages to maintain the power and intensity of the previous books. While part of me wishes the saga would continue, this really is the right place to stop.

I took a couple pages of notes while reading, so I could ramble on about this, but since brevity is the soul of wit, I’ll keep this post short and focused. I’ll focus on how the book corresponds to the biblical books of Genesis and Revelation.

So there are two big themes in this book: the creation of a world, and the destruction of a world. These are also the themes that are the focuses of Genesis and Revelation, respectively. In addition, Grossman also weaves in the symbolism of the death and rebirth of a god, which connects the two central themes and hearkens to Frazer’s work, The Golden Bough.

Quentin comes into possession of an ancient spell, and it takes him a while to decipher it. But once he does, he realizes it is a spell to create a small world, essentially speaking a world into being. This is the magick of God in Genesis, but on a smaller scale. Yet even though this is on a smaller scale, Quentin is taking a step toward becoming godlike through his ability to create.

This was a spell that created something. It was a spell for making a land.

He actually laughed out loud when he thought of it. It was too funny—too insane. But now that he saw it he couldn’t un-see it. He could follow it like a story that wound crookedly through the various sections and paragraphs and subclauses of the spell like a thread of DNA. This thing was intended to make a little world.

(p. 249)

Contrasting Quentin’s creation of a new world, we see the apocalyptic end to another world, with imagery and direct references to Revelation.

The chaos itself was momentarily, unfairly beautiful. The thrashing sun, the spinning, looping moon. Fillory half light and half shadow, dotted with flashes of fire, lava and flame and magical strikes from magical beings. Ignorant armies clashing by night.

It’s like Revelation, she thought. It’s Revelation, and I’m the Scarlet Woman.

(p. 339)

But the deeper mysticism here is that dying worlds can be reborn, but this cosmic rebirth requires the ultimate sacrifice: the death of a god. This is the mythology that Frazer explores in his masterwork, and Grossman makes reference to this mythology as the world of Fillory is about to die.

It was the oldest story there was, the deepest of all the deeper magicks. Fillory didn’t have to die, it could be renewed and live again, but there was a price, and the price was holy blood. It was the same in all mythologies: for a dying land to be reborn, its god must die for it. There was power in that divine paradox, the death of an immortal, enough power to restart the stopped heart of a world.

(pp. 377 – 378)

And with the death of the old god, the world is renewed, ushering in the new age.

“… Things are different now. It’s a new age.”

(p. 394)

These books have definitely earned their place in the upper echelon of the fantasy genre. I suspect that I may read them again someday, hence they now have a prominent spot on my bookshelf. In the meantime, I’ll indulge myself by watching the TV adaptation of the trilogy.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff!

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Thoughts on “Othello” by William Shakespeare: Iago as the Serpent

It was a while since I last read this play. If I’m going to be honest (a theme that is prevalent in Othello), I never found this play to be as great as the other tragedies with which it is ranked. I always found it difficult to empathize with Othello as a tragic character. He forms his opinions and takes action based upon hearsay and circumstantial evidence (at best). But that said, of all the times I have read this play and seen it performed, I got the most out of this reading.

I took a lot of notes while reading, and considered some of the obvious things to write about: interracial marriage, black and white as they relate to good and evil, truth and honesty, envy and jealousy. But I decided I would focus on something different, specifically, the connection between Iago and the serpent in the Garden of Eden myth.

Near the end of the play, Othello sees Desdemona as the symbol of Eve, who he believes to be the downfall of man.

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars.
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

(Act V, scene ii)

What Othello fails to realize is that lies and deception are the root cause of the proverbial fall of man from grace, and lies and deception are embodied in Iago. It is later in the scene, after Desdemona’s death, that Iago’s wife Emily exposes Iago’s lies.

You told a lie, an odious, damnèd lie!
Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie!

(Act V, scene ii)

Toward the conclusion of the play, the final connection between Iago and the serpent in Eden is solidified.

LODOVICO

Where is that viper? Bring the villain forth.

OTHELLO

I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable.—
If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.

(Act V, scene ii)

Othello is looking down to see Iago’s feet, since in the biblical story, God punishes the serpent by removing its legs and making it slither on the ground.

And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

(Genesis 3:14)

While this is still not in my list of top Shakespeare plays, I have gained a new level of appreciation for it. If anyone knows of a good film version, let me know. The performances I have seen have been weak. Possibly watching a solid production would sway my opinion on this play.

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Literary References in “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”

WrathOfKhan

I recently attended a convention, and while I was there I happened upon a copy of the script to “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.” The book also includes nice glossy photos from the film. Since this is by far my favorite of all the Star Trek movies, I could not pass up buying the script and closely reading the text that I had so often seen played out on the screen.

There are three main literary texts that figure prominently in “Wrath of Khan,” and those are pointed out to the viewer early in the film.

ANGLE – CHEKOV’S POV

Lethal-looking old swords on one wall, a bookshelf; CAMERA PANS by 20th Century volumes; MOBY DICK, KING LEAR, THE HOLY BIBLE – and a seat belt dangling with the name on it – BOTANY BAY.

(p. 18)

The references to the Bible are very clear in the text. Project Genesis is the creation of life out of nothing and implies that humans have attained god-like powers. There is also a sense that this is somehow connected to the proverbial fall. In fact, the Genesis cave is described as Edenic.

A huge cavern. Kirk is actually standing in the middle of it. Space extends vastly above and below his point of view. Like Eden, lush growth everywhere, waterfalls, and a cobalt blue sky high, high above where a round orb glows sending light and warmth downward. There is a path from where Kirk stands down to the lower level where Bones, and the others are waiting and calling to him. Mist and haze waft gently across the cavern.

(p. 80)

In the film, Kirk exhibits characteristics of King Lear. He is aged; his emotions cloud his judgment; and he struggles to figure out his relationship with his now adult child. This is most poignantly expressed in a dialog between Kirk and Carol Marcus, Kirk’s former lover and the mother of his son.

CAROL: Actually, he’s a lot like you in many ways. Please. Tell me what you’re feeling.

KIRK: There’s a man out there I haven’t seen in fifteen years who’s trying to kill me. You show me a son that’d be happy to help him. My son. My life that could have been and wasn’t. And what am I feeling? Old – worn out.

(p. 79)

Of the three books that are most referenced in the film, Moby Dick is the primary. Khan is the embodiment of Ahab, obsessed with enacting his vengeance upon Kirk and the Enterprise, which symbolize the great white whale. Additionally, Khan’s helmsman, Joachim, symbolizes Starbuck, a voice of reason contrasted against Khan’s insatiable need for revenge.

KHAN: Helmsman?

JOACHIM: Sir, may I speak? We’re all with you, sir, but consider this. We are free, we have a ship and the means to go where we will. We have escaped permanent exile on Ceti Alpha Five. You have proved your superior intellect and defeated the plans of Admiral Kirk. You do not need to defeat him again.

KHAN: He tasks me! He tasks me! And I shall have him. I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.

(p. 41)

There is a scene in the nebula where the Enterprise and the Reliant are engaged in battle, and the Enterprise is depicted as rising like a great whale, strengthening the connection to Melville’s novel.

Reliant motionless in the f.g. amid occasional flashes. Now, behind Reliant and from below, like a great whale rising from the depths, Enterprise rises vertically, slowly passing the unsuspecting enemy. When Enterprise is above, behind and quite close:

(p. 94)

Finally, as Khan is in the throes of death, he quotes Moby Dick as he takes one last stab at his adversary.

KHAN: No . . . You can’t get away . . . From hell’s heart I stab at thee . . .
(amid the pain)
For hate’s sake . . . I spit my last breath at thee!

(p. 102)

This film proves an important point: It is not special effects and lavish CGI that make a great film, it’s the writing and the storytelling. “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” is a masterpiece in storytelling and that’s why it still holds up today. I suspect I will be pulling my DVD copy off the shelf in the very near future and watching the film yet again.

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“The Book of J” by Harold Bloom

BookOfJThis is a book that has been on my shelf waiting for me to read for quite a long time. I picked it up when I was in college. Harold Bloom had come to speak at the campus and I knew I would have the opportunity to meet him before his lecture. I was familiar with the book and the concept was very interesting, so I bought a copy and had him sign it for me. (Yes, I’m one of those book-dorks who loves autographed copies.) Anyway, I finally got around to reading it and I’m glad I did.

Essentially, the Book of J is a construct of passages extracted from the first three books of the Torah, or the Old Testament for Christian readers (Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers). Scholars seem to be in agreement that the early biblical texts were written by several different people, then combined and redacted to create a unified text. In this book, Bloom argues that one of the unknown authors, whom he refers to as J, was a woman and referred to god as Yahweh. In addition, he goes on to assert that the intention of J as a writer was not to create a religious or historical text, but that she was in fact writing a literary story of comic irony, comparable to Shakespeare or Chaucer.

The book is split into three parts. The first part contains Bloom’s introductory sections—background information, thesis, history, and so forth. The second section is the reconstructed Book of J, the text translated by David Rosenberg. The third section is Bloom’s analysis of the text.

Bloom begins by asserting that J was a woman writer who wrote for a female audience. He also stresses that “Yahweh, in the Book of J, is a literary character, just as Hamlet is.” (p. 12) He continues by placing J in the same category as Shakespeare, claiming that they are both universal authors, hence their works are prone to contradictory interpretations. Bloom then praises J’s work as being so powerful that three major religions were founded based upon her writing.

J mixes everything available to her and produces a work so comprehensive and so universal that the entire Hebrew Bible, Greek New Testament, and Arabic Koran could be founded upon it. (p. 18)

Shortly before presenting J’s text, Bloom encourages readers to let go of their preconceived notions of the text and approach it from a literary and not a religious perspective.

Perhaps the largest obstacle to our reading J as J is that we cannot cease thinking of the Book of J as the heart of the composite work the Torah, or five books of Moses, and so as the central element in those even more composite works the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, with its Old testament/New Testament structure… To read the Book of J, we need to begin by scrubbing away the varnish that keeps us from seeing that the Redactor and previous revisionists could not obliterate the original work of the J writer. That varnish is called by many names: belief, scholarship, history, literary criticism, what have you. (p. 47)

J’s book begins with the creation of Adam in the Garden and ends with the death of Moses in Moab. Throughout her text, Yahweh appears as a fickle, unstable god, who cannot help acting upon whims. In addition, the women characters always appear stronger than the male counterparts, which is something Bloom points out as support for his argument that J was a woman writing for a female audience. In fact, I would personally take it a step further and assert that J viewed women to be on the same level of divinity as Yahweh, as demonstrated by Hava’s (Eve) claim that she possesses the creative life-giving power of god.

Now the man knew Hava, his wife, in the flesh; she conceived Cain: “I have created a man as Yahweh has,” she said when he was born. (p. 63)

I want to look at one more passage from J’s book, which is a great example of both Yahweh’s fickle character and the strength of the women in the book. In this passage, Yahweh decides to kill Moses for no apparent reason (except that maybe because Moses had not yet had his son circumcised), which in and of itself is bizarre. Why kill your main prophet and the person who is leading your chosen ones? But what is most telling about the passage is that it is Moses’ wife who intervenes and saves Moses. I get the impression that J was expressing that Zipporah, being a strong woman, was on equal footing with Yahweh. She is, in any case, certainly stronger than Moses.

On the way, at a night lodging, Yahweh met him—and was ready to kill him. Zipporah took a flinty stone, cutting her son’s foreskin; touched it between Moses’ legs: “Because you are my blood bridegroom.” He withdrew from him. “A blood bridegroom,” she said, “marked by this circumcision.” (p. 144)

Bloom has a lot of great commentary following the Book of J, and it is much too in-depth to go into within the confines of this blog post. I’ll just mention as bullet points a few of the concepts that struck me as interesting and which you may want to think about:

  • There was no proverbial “fall” and hence no split. J expresses a unity between body and soul, as well as between man and nature.
  • Yahweh did a better job creating the first woman than he did creating the first man.
  • Man was banished from the Garden to prevent his ascension to god-status.
  • Sodom was destroyed not because of sin, but because the people there showed contempt for Yahweh as well as contempt for others. Sin was not a concept for J.

“By normative standards, Jewish or Christian, J’s portrayal of Yahweh is blasphemy.” (p. 280) She portrays Yahweh as a character with defects and flaws, which makes him a realistic literary character and one to whom we can relate. After reading this book, I will never read the Torah texts the same way again.

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Male/Female Duality in “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare

TwelfthNightThis was my first time reading Twelfth Night and I loved it. It was very funny and enjoyable to read. Since Twelfth Night is January 5 and concludes the twelve days of Christmas, it seemed like the right time of the year to read this.

Anyone familiar with this play knows that transvestism and homosexuality figure prominently. Viola is dressed as a man most of the play and although she loves the Duke, she inspires the love of Olivia. The Duke, although he professes his love for Olivia, seems to have at least some interest in Cesario (who is actually Viola in drag). Then there is something going on between Sebastian (Viola’s brother) and Antonio, who is a sea captain who saved Sebastian after he was shipwrecked. And if all this wasn’t crazy enough, Sir Andrew is also in love with Olivia, and Maria (who is Olivia’s attending woman and just happens to be in love with Olivia’s uncle) tricks Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, into thinking Olivia loves him and wants him to come to her cross-gartered and wearing yellow stockings. All this combined sets the stage for some great scenes and some witty dialog.

The dialog is filled with sexual innuendos and double entendres. One of my favorites is when the Duke is addressing Viola in drag and tells her how her voice is like a woman’s because of “his” young age, but in words that imply that he has a very small penis which could be mistaken for female genitalia.

… Diana’s lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman’s part.

(Act I: scene iv)

The homosexual and transvestite aspects of this play could certainly be explored more, but I found something that for me was much more intriguing, that of a male/female duality. This is something that has fascinated me for a long time—the idea that the human archetype, or Platonic form, encompasses both the masculine and the feminine. In fact, one of the most thought-provoking passages from the Book of Genesis is when god creates the first “man” who is both male and female, just as the godhead appears as a dyad which is both male and female.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

(Genesis: Chapter 1, verse 26-27, King James Version)

Now let’s look at Shakespeare’s text. When the Duke sees Viola and Sebastian together, he states:

One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,
A natural perspective that is and is not!

(Act V: scene i)

There is an implied duality here, where male and female are as one. It reminds me of Carl Jung’s concept of the animus and anima, how the human consciousness has two aspects, a masculine and a feminine.

Shortly afterwards, an allusion is made to the symbolic division of the masculine and feminine.

How have you made division of yourself?
An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin
Than these two creatures.

(Act V: scene i)

This is a clear reference to the biblical myth of Adam and Eve. According to Jewish kabbalistic ideology, the original Adam (called Adam Kadmon) was the archetype for humans and was essentially godlike, containing both the masculine and the feminine. But then the unity was split and this division ultimately led to the fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden. By incorporating the metaphor of the apple, Shakespeare reinforces the connection between Viola and Sebastian and Adam and Eve.

The genius of Shakespeare is that his work can continue to be interpreted in myriad ways. Do I think that Shakespeare consciously made these allusions to Jewish and Platonic mysticism? I would have to say that he probably didn’t. But, he clearly tapped into something greater than himself that inspired his words, words that continue to inspire today.

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