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Thoughts on “Sandman: The Dream Hunters” by Neil Gaiman

This book feels like an adaptation of a Japanese fairy tale, but as artist P. Craig Russell points out in the Afterward, it was all a creation of Gaiman’s imagination, so well executed that even Russell believed it was a traditional Japanese tale when working on the illustrations.

The story is about a fox who falls in love with a monk, and while it is not possible for them to consummate their love, their feelings for each other cause each of them to make sacrifices for the other. It is a wonderful and moving story, and one can read it without knowing the background mythology of the Sandman. So without spoiling the story for those who want to read it, I figured I’d share a few passages that stood out for me.

The monk unfolded his token to show it to them, and it was then that he knew for certain he was dreaming, for he could read the characters on the paper he carried. They were simple characters and they described one who transmuted things from formlessness and shapelessness into that-which-was-not-real, but without which the real world would have no meaning.

(p. 72)

This is the way in which art is created, particularly stories and poetry. The mind taps into the vast sea of the subconscious and draws from the wellspring of inspiration. As the story takes shape and becomes an expression of the collective consciousness, it evolves into something that is not “real,” but expresses what is real about the human experience. In other words, stories provide life with meaning. A world without stories would be meaningless.

I serve the king of dreams … and I do his bidding. But you are correct … once I was a poet … and like all poets … I spent too long in the kingdom of dreams.

(p. 79)

I totally relate to this passage. As someone who has written poetry, I know that, for me, poetic inspiration comes from going deep into my subconscious, to draw on the symbols and metaphors that express that which is impossible to convey through plain language. But, there is a risk of spending too long in the realm of inspiration. One can become ungrounded, and that can lead to its own set of personal difficulties.

But dreams are strange things. And none of us but the king of all night’s dreaming can say if they are true or not, nor of what they are able to tell any of us about the times that are still to come.

(p. 125)

Dreams are strange things, but what would life be without them? Our dreams and stories and creative expressions are what define us.

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Thoughts on “Troilus and Cressida” by William Shakespeare

This is a very strange play, and I can understand why it is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” I found it difficult to connect with any one character, and it was not clear who the tragic hero was. Hector dies, but he was not nearly as prideful as Achilles. Only thing close to a tragic flaw that Hector has is he refused to listen to the women who prophesized that something bad would happen to him if he went to fight. Troilus is betrayed by Cressida who gives herself to Diomedes, but they all live. Patroclus dies, but it is almost like a sidenote. Anyway, in spite of all the structural issues, there are some interesting themes that are worth considering.

There is some debate in the play about the contrast between fortune and free will. Early in the play, Nestor embraces the concept of free will over fortune.

In the reproof of chance
Lies the true proof of men: the sea being smooth,
How many shallow bauble boats dare sail
Upon her patient breast, making their way
With those of nobler bulk!
But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
The gentle Thetis, and anon behold
The strong-ribb’d bark through liquid mountains cut,
Bounding between the two moist elements,
Like Perseus’ horse: where’s then the saucy boat
Whose weak untimber’d sides but even now
Co-rivall’d greatness? Either to harbour fled,
Or made a toast for Neptune. Even so
Doth valour’s show and valour’s worth divide
In storms of fortune; for in her ray and brightness
The herd hath more annoyance by the breeze
Than by the tiger; but when the splitting wind
Makes flexible the knees of knotted oaks,
And flies fled under shade, why, then the thing of courage
As roused with rage with rage doth sympathize,
And with an accent tuned in selfsame key
Retorts to chiding fortune.

(Act I: scene iii)

In contrast, Ulysses asserts that fortune plays an important role in human events.

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!

(Act I: scene iii)

Pride seems to be another of the key themes in this play, and Achilles is the embodiment of pride. At one point, Ajax and Agamemnon discuss the pride of Achilles, and how it feeds upon itself.

Ajax: Why should a man be proud? How doth pride grow? I know not what pride is.

Agamemnon: Your mind is the clearer, Ajax, and your virtues the fairer. He that is proud eats up himself: pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed, devours the deed in the praise.

Ajax: I do hate a proud man, as I hate the engendering of toads.

(Act II: scene iii)

In Act V, we see a very bleak assessment of humanity. Thersites comes to the conclusion that men are motivated by two things: war and sex. It is almost a premonition of Freud’s concept of eros and thanatos, that sex and death are the primary drives in human nature.

Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them.

(Act V: scene ii)

This is not my favorite Shakespeare play, but it is not the worst either, in my opinion. While there are some obvious problems with the play, there is enough thought-provoking material there to warrant a read. I am curious, though, whether it would come across better when performed on stage. I will have to keep an eye out for a stage production, and then see for myself.

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Thoughts on “American Gods: My Ainsel” by Neil Gaiman: Issue 01

This series has been on a long hiatus, but is finally back. While the artwork is not the best, the writing and the storyline are both excellent. But then again, I have not read anything by Neil Gaiman that I did not like.

There are a couple passages in this issue that are worth mentioning.

The really dangerous people believe that they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do.

I agree 100%. The pages of history are filled with stories of self-righteous fanatics who committed heinous acts because they were somehow convinced that they were doing the right thing. And this continues to this day. Any social or political issue that is contentious will have people convinced that they are on the right side of the argument, and will use that belief to justify their behaviors and actions.

There’s our bookstore. What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.

I am grateful that I live in a city that boasts several very good bookstores, and I try to support them as much as my finances allow. But just knowing they are there, being able to go in, peruse the aisles, get a coffee, is important to me. There is just something about a bookstore that fosters a connection, for me anyway. I feel that when I am in a bookstore, I am surrounded by kindred spirits.

Anyway, not much more to share about this. Hope you have an inspiring day, and get thee to your local bookstore soon.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 39” by Lao Tzu

From of old there are not lacking things that have attained Oneness.
The sky attained Oneness and became clear;
The earth attained Oneness and became calm;
The spirits attained Oneness and became charged with mystical powers;
The fountains attained Oneness and became full;
The ten thousand creatures attained Oneness and became reproductive;
Barons and princes attained Oneness and became sovereign rulers of the world.
All of them are what they are by virtue of Oneness.

If the sky were not clear, it would be likely to fall to pieces;
If the earth were not calm, it would be likely to burst into bits;
If the spirits were not charged with mystical powers, they would be likely to cease from being;
If the fountains were not full, they would be likely to dry up;
If the ten thousand creatures were not reproductive, they would be likely to come to extinction;
If the barons and princes were not the sovereign rulers, they would be likely to stumble and fall.

Truly, humility is the root from which greatness springs,
And the high must be built upon the foundation of the low.

That is why barons and princes style themselves “The Helpless One,” “The Little One,” and “The Worthless One.”
Perhaps they too realize their dependence on the lowly.

Truly, too much honour means no honour.
It is not wise to shine like jade and resound like stone-chimes.

I found this passage to be challenging, but after reading it a couple times, I think I finally understand the essence.

Nothing can attain its fullness or true nature unless it is aligned with the One, or the divine source of all being. Essentially, this means everything must exist in balance with itself and the world around it. To be in balance is to accept your dependence upon other people and upon nature in general. Regardless of how great or powerful a person or thing may appear, it is always dependent upon other things to support it. A mountain could not reach the skies without a firm foundation on the earth. Likewise, elevated individuals could not reach their heights without the support of the people around them.

In Western culture, especially here in the United States, importance is placed on the individual, and the rights of the individual. This, in my opinion, has contributed to the social issues that we are grappling with. Eventually, we must learn to live in balance and think of ourselves as one with the people around us, or we will dry up like the fountain that is not full.

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“Paracelsus: Selected Writings”

Reading metaphysical texts from the Renaissance period is challenging, and the challenge is often compounded when the text is alchemical and symbolic in nature. For this reason, I approached this text with a little trepidation. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it much more accessible than I had expected.

In order to better understand the text, some basic biographical information may be helpful.

Paracelsus (1493/4 – 24 September 1541), born Theophrastus von Hohenheim (full name Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), was a Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer of the German Renaissance.

He was a pioneer in several aspects of the “medical revolution” of the Renaissance, emphasizing the value of observation in combination with received wisdom. He is credited as the “father of toxicology”.

He also had a substantial impact as a prophet or diviner, his “Prognostications” being studied by Rosicrucians in the 1700s. Paracelsianism is the early modern medical movement inspired by the study of his works.

(Source: Wikipedia)

I won’t spend a whole lot of time discussing Paracelsus’ medical writings from this book. But I will mention that he seemed to practice a form of holistic healing, treating the body and the spirit at the same time to promote optimal results. This is an idea which I personally embrace. I think spiritual and emotional unease manifests in physical ailment, and vice versa. Anyway, that is all I want to say regarding the medical aspects of this text.

The alchemical selections in this book I found fascinating. Paracelsus explains alchemy as the symbolic purification of the human soul.

Man must bring everything to perfection. This work of bringing things to their perfection is called “alchemy.” And he is an alchemist who carries what nature grows for the use of man to its destined end.

(pp. 92 – 3)

For the Great Physician created the ore but did not carry it to its perfect state; He has charged the miners with the task of refining it. In the same way He enjoined the physician to purify man’s body . . . from which purification man emerges as indestructible as gold.

(p. 94)

Paracelsus believed that the next phase of human evolution would include an embrace of the mystical arts. He saw the next generation of humanity as one that would embrace spirituality and turn away from worldly trappings.

Know that man makes great discoveries concerning future and hidden things, which are despised and scoffed at by the ignorant who do not realize what nature can accomplish by virtue of her spirit . . . Thus, the uncertain arts are in such a state that a new generation must come, full of prophetic and sibylline spirit, which will awaken and direct the skills and arts.

(p. 132 – 3)

He then goes on to assert that God’s power is hidden within nature, and that it is in nature where humans must search for divine power.

For God has given His power to the herbs, put it in stones, concealed it in seeds; we should take it from them, we should seek it in them. The angels possess wisdom in themselves, but man does not. For him wisdom lies in nature, in nature he must seek it. His harvest is stored up in nature. Through nature God’s power is revealed to man, through nature he enters into his Father’s heritage, in wisdom and in the arts.

(p. 164)

Finally, in the era of Twitter and social media, where people are wont to write whatever they want with little or no thought, Paracelsus reminds us of the divine power of the written word.

The Scripture says: the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life . . . That is to say, the spirit which bears nothing but the truth in itself. If a man adheres solely to the truth in his writings, it is not mere letters that he writes; it is the spirit that he sets down in its truth, the spirit that is invisible in itself and that must come to us through the written or spoken word . . . But if a man does not write the truth, he writes lies; and the letter that is a lie kills. Therefore let any desirous of writing be careful to keep always to the truth, that he may kill no one. For to kill is forbidden under the penalty of forfeiting eternal life.

(pp. 165 – 6)

I realize that this book is not for everyone. But if you are interested in the metaphysical, it is worth reading. You can certainly see the influence Paracelsus had on later thinkers in the area of mysticism.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 38” by Lao Tzu

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades

High Virtue is non-virtuous;
Therefore it has Virtue.
Low Virtue never frees itself from virtuousness;
Therefore it has no Virtue.

High Virtue makes no fuss and has no private ends to serve:
Low Virtue not only fusses but has private ends to serve.

High humanity fusses but has no private ends to serve:
High morality not only fusses but has private ends to serve.
High ceremony fusses but finds no response;
Then it tries to enforce itself with rolled-up sleeves.

Failing Tao, man resorts to Virtue.
Failing Virtue, man resorts to humanity.
Failing humanity, man resorts to morality.
Failing morality, man resorts to ceremony.
Now, ceremony is the merest husk of faith and loyalty;
It is the beginning of all confusion and disorder.

As to foreknowledge, it is only the flower of Tao,
And the beginning of folly.

Therefore, the full-grown man sets his heart upon the substance rather than the husk;
Upon the fruit rather than the flower.
Truly, he prefers what is within to what is without.

This is an extremely challenging passage, and I can only interpret it based upon other mystic/occult ideologies with which I am somewhat familiar. Specifically, I see this as a parallel with the concept of emanation as put forth by Plotinus.

Emanationism is an idea in the cosmology or cosmogony of certain religious or philosophical systems. Emanation, from the Latin emanare meaning “to flow from” or “to pour forth or out of”, is the mode by which all things are derived from the first reality, or principle. All things are derived from the first reality or perfect God by steps of degradation to lesser degrees of the first reality or God, and at every step the emanating beings are less pure, less perfect, less divine.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So in emanationism, the Divine One is in the center of all existence, and then there are series of emanations moving away from the source, each being less divine than the previous. I see Lao Tzu’s example as being similar: the Tao is the divine center, and all other virtuous forms that emanate out are less and less like the Tao, until we get to the point where there is nothing but a shell of what was once the Tao.

If this is the case, we can use this hierarchy as a map to get back to the Tao, or center. If we begin by practicing ceremony, we may attain morality. If we continue living moral lives, then we may reach humanity. Once humanity is incorporated, we can work towards gaining Virtue. Finally, as we reach the state of High Virtue, we can step across the threshold to the Tao.

This is some very heady stuff, and I again emphasize that this is only my interpretation. For me, it makes sense, but I am open. If you have other insights into this passage, I would love to hear them. Feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Blessings, and thanks for stopping by.

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“Hayduke Lives!” by Edward Abbey

This book was difficult to find. I had been keeping an eye out for it for a while, since I am a fan of Edward Abbey and particularly enjoyed The Monkey Wrench Gang, of which Hayduke Lives! is the sequel (published posthumously in 1990). I eventually found a copy at Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, SC, a cool used and antiquarian bookstore. Anyway, I bought the book and finally got around to reading it.

While I do not think the book is as good as The Monkey Wrench Gang, nor as good as Desert Solitaire, it is decent and worth the read. Basically, the old gang from the first book teams up again to save the environment from the evil government-backed corporate interests seeking to destroy the pristine wilderness for the quick extraction of resources.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how little has changed in the 27 years since it was published. People still believe the lies that raping the environment will create jobs, and that jobs are more important than protecting the planet.

…”good folks of southern Utah and the Arizona Strip, listen to me. I’ll only take a minute, just like everybody else I’ll speak my little piece and let you go. [Crowd resumes seats.] Thank you. Now we heard a lot today, especially in the last ten minutes, from those good neighbors of ourn, Mr. and Mrs. Kathy Smith [laughter] about how dangerous this nuclear industry is. Uranium is poison, they say. Well I want to tell you folks something different: that uranium smells like money to me. [Cheers!] It smells like jobs to me. [More cheers!] Hundreds of jobs right here in Hardrock and Landfill County and and just across the line in northern Arizona. Hundreds? I mean thousands of jobs. [Thunderous applause!]

(p. 22)

Abbey appears to be very critical of the news media. At one point, one of the characters asserts that the only intelligent part of a newspaper is the Letters column.

When looking for wit, wisdom, knowledge or intelligence in a newspaper, any newspaper, your only hope is the Letters column.

(p. 99)

Sadly, though, this is no longer true. With the proliferation of social media and online commenting, comments and letters have sunk to a new low. People now use online commenting to spew vitriol based upon pre-established beliefs about biased news articles. It seems that every day it becomes more and more difficult to find thoughtful and unbiased information regarding world events. It’s kind of sad.

As the book progresses, Abbey paints a bleaker, misanthropic view of humanity. It appears that he acknowledges the good of individuals, but sees the whole of humanity as petty, mean-spirited, and just outright dangerous.

“People are no damn good,” agreed Seldom. “Take ‘em one at a time, they’re all right. Even families. But bunch ‘em up, herd ‘em together, get ‘em organized and well fed and branded and ear-notched and moving out, then they’re the meanest ugliest greediest stupidest dangerest breed of beast in the whole goldang solar system far as I know.”

(p. 228)

Without giving away the story or spoiling anything, I will say that the gang is seeking to stop a machine called GOLIATH, which is a giant earth mover used in strip mining. Symbolically, I see the machine as representing America as controlled by massive corporations, a mindless machine whose only purpose is to acquire and consume in an endless cycle until nothing is left. Abbey implies that it is only through radical action and anarchy that our country has any chance of defeating the leviathan of greed that dominates our world.

He waited, frowning into the gloom, looking two miles west at the glinting strobe light of the Super-G.E.M. He heard no roar of motors. GOLIATH had paused. Was down, waiting. Waiting for him, Hayduke, George Washington Hayduke, father of his country. Not the America that was – keep it like it was? – but the America that will be. That will be like it was. Forward to anarchy. Don’t tread on me. Death before dishonor. Live free or fucking die. Etc., etc.

(p. 274)

Edward Abbey’s earlier works inspired the Earth First! movement, so it was interesting to read Abbey’s commentaries on the movement which were woven into this book. In fact, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman makes a cameo character appearance in the text.

Abbey once stated that “If wilderness is outlawed, only outlaws can save wilderness.” Our planet is still in peril and there is a lot of work to be done on the environmental front. I encourage everyone to do their own small part.

If you want to learn a little more about Edward Abbey, here is a good article on Wilderness.net:

Edward Abbey: Freedom Begins Between the Ears

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