Tag Archives: morality

“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 1 – Overview

PrometheusUnbound

By the time I was halfway through reading this again (I had read it a couple times in college), I realized that there was no way I could just write a single post about this work. It is just too complex. So, I am going to write a short series of posts on it. This is the first and I will update it with links to the subsequent posts after I get them written.

In his preface to the play, Shelley states that he drew inspiration from the lost drama of the same name by Aeschylus. Shelley uses the Prometheus myth to represent Satan as opposition to tyranny (symbolized by God/Jupiter) and as the champion of humankind.

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

Throughout the play, Shelley asserts that love is the ultimate human emotion which will ultimately lead to the defeat of fear, tyranny, and oppression. Love is the energy which permeates everything in the world, and the highest goal of art is the expression of this universal love which will ultimately deliver humanity to freedom.

Shelley, in his preface, seems as defiant as Prometheus and Satan. He asserts that he would rather burn in Hell than bow artistically to Christian law.

For my part I had rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon than go to Heaven with Paley and Malthus. But it is a mistake to suppose that I dedicate my poetical compositions solely to the direct enforcement of reform, or that I consider them in any degree as containing a reasoned system on the theory of human life. Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse. My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.

In my subsequent post, I will look closer at specific passages which in my opinion represent some of the key issues in this drama. As I mentioned, this is a very dense and complex work, and I will not be able to cover everything, but I will do my best to hit some of the main aspects.

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“Love America and March for Peace” by Umberto Eco

UmbertoEco

Image Source: The Guardian

 

This essay is included in Turning Back the Clock and for me highlights the issue of people’s tendency to see complex issues as clear and simple. There is a new paradigm where individuals are expected to support one side or the other, regardless of any grey area that may exist. Examples: If you do not support the US war on terror, then you are an ISIS sympathizer. If you support Israel, then you are a fascist that supports the oppression of Palestine. If you do not condemn the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, then you are obviously a racist. This is all a manifestation of what I personally like to call the “football team” mentality. People pick a team or side and support their “team” regardless of what they or the opposing side does. Nowhere is this clearer than in politics nowadays. Support for political parties is more polarized than it’s ever been.

As Eco points out, this mentality leads to deeper social divides.

At the heart of these painful but not yet bloody rifts, you hear statements every day that lead inevitably to racism, of the type “All those against the war are allies of Saddam,” but also “All those who think the use of force is justified are Nazis.” Shall we try to think about this?

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 32)

It seems that individuals love to label other groups as “Nazis” to emphasize that these opposing groups are crossing some moral boundary. The problem that I see in doing this is that it diminishes the memory of the atrocities that were actually perpetrated by the Nazis. For example, after a recent Supreme Court decision overturning a ban on gay marriage, the City Council here in Asheville displayed a rainbow flag to show support. Opponents of marriage equality immediately condemned the members of City Council and called them Nazis because they acted without their approval. Personally, I see no correlation between City Council’s hanging of a banner and the crimes committed in Nazi Germany.

This is all connected to the “with us or against us” mentality, where any opposition or questioning is immediately condemned.

These few observations are sufficient, I hope, to suggest that the situation in which we find ourselves, precisely because of the gravity, does not admit of clear-cut divisions or condemnations of the kind “If that’s what you think, then you are the enemy.” This too is fundamentalism. You can love the United States, as a tradition, as a people, as a culture, and with deep respect due to those who won on the field the rank of the world’s most powerful country. You can be deeply touched by the injury America suffered in 2001, but without denying the need to warn Americans that their government is making a mistake and that they should see our position not as a betrayal but as frank dissent. Not warning them means trampling on the right to dissent—the exact opposite of what we learned, after years of dictatorship, from our liberators of 1945.

(ibid: pp. 35 – 36)

I hope that this trend of vilifying those whose opinions differ changes soon. It’s very destructive and prevents human progress, and progress is essential. If we are not moving forward as a society, then we are most likely moving backwards.

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“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

This falls into the category of classic Poe stories. I’ve read it several times, but it had been quite a few years since I last read it. Reading it this time, I discovered some interesting things.

The story opens with juxtaposition between the common and the supernatural. This sets a tension between the two views of reality: the actual and the perceived.

For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not — and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

The next thing that struck me was the name of the black cat: Pluto. Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld who is also a judge of the dead. This is important since the narration is presented as a confession for the narrator’s sins.

Pluto — this was the cat’s name — was my favorite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets.

The narrator describes his slip into alcoholism. This leads to a degradation of character until he reaches the point where he is fascinated with engaging in evil for evil’s sake. He essentially revels in doing that which he knows is wrong. This is the ultimate manifestation of sin, rebelling against what is good in spite of knowing better. It is intent that constitutes an evil or sinful act.

And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself — to offer violence to its own nature — to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only

After first gouging the cat’s eye and then later hanging it in dual acts of cruelty, the narrator gets another cat to try to ease his guilt. The new cat only serves as a reminder of his cruel acts and it is implied that the animal is the resurrected version of the first cat. As his perception of the animal shifts, he sees the animal differently, as the second cat becomes a symbol of judgment for his actions.

This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil — and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own — yes, even in this felon’s cell, I am almost ashamed to own — that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimæras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees — degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful — it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name — and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared — it was now, I say, the image of a hideous — of a ghastly thing — of the GALLOWS! — oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime — of Agony and of Death!

He then attempts to kill the resurrected cat with an axe, his wife attempts to stop him. He then turns on her and in a drunken rage, kills her with the axe. He seals the body in a wall in the basement and is content that the cat is gone.

The ending is a masterpiece in both horror and short fiction. In an act of hubris, while the authorities are investigating the wife’s disappearance, the narrator taps on the wall where his dead wife is entombed, which solicits a screeching howl from within. The officers open the wall to uncover the god of the underworld sitting in macabre judgment.

Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!

This is a great piece about morality and can be interpreted in an number of ways: as a treatise against alcohol abuse; as a piece addressing animal abuse; as a statement against domestic violence; or as a warning against hubris or engaging in cruel behavior for the sake of folly. The story works on so many levels for me, and of course, it is perfect to read during the Halloween season.

Cheers!

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Black Widow: Issue #2

BlackWidow_02

This issue worked for me on several levels. First, it focuses on a single “assignment” making it work well as a stand-alone comic. Secondly, it builds on some of the larger themes that the writer seeks to establish regarding the Black Widow. Finally, the story is written in a non-linear manner, almost like the weaving of a web, where the strands of the story connect and cross each other until it all comes together at the end.

Early in the tale, Natasha muses about ethics.

Finding your own jobs means you get to exercise your own ethics. But ethics isn’t a science. Which is to say… you do your best… but that doesn’t make you right.

This got me thinking. As a society, we like to think of ethics as some ideal which should guide us. But when you think about it, ethics is a very grey area. It’s open for interpretation. What is considered ethical in one country may be abhorrent in another. Ethics is defined as the “moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior.” Those principles often mean different things to disparate groups and individuals.

Throughout her assignment, Natasha makes a series of mistakes. When she finally returns to her apartment, a stray cat she has been feeding is pawing at her window seeking entrance. Natasha says aloud, both to the cat and to herself:

I can’t let you in. I’m sorry! That’s one mistake I won’t make twice.

I sense here that at one point in her past, Natasha let a person into her life and that there were consequences for doing so. There is something that haunts her memory, a mistake for which she must atone. But whatever it is shrouded in the web of secrecy that she has spun about her.

So far, this series is holding my interest. Expect a post on Issue #3 soon.

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Creepy: Issue #13

Creepy_13A couple of weeks ago, when I went to the local comic store to pick up my copy of The X-Files Season 10: Issue 4, I spotted this comic on the rack. I had one of those childhood flashbacks. When I was young, I loved the old horror comics: Creepy, Eerie, Tales from the Crypt, Weird Worlds, etc. I bought and read these obsessively, much to the chagrin of my parents. But the comics served as my “gateway drug” to reading. I firmly believe that were it not for these comics, I would not be the avid reader I am today. Anyway, since it was almost October and I was feeling nostalgic, I purchased the issue and saved it until this morning.

The magazine is a compilation of short illustrated horror tales. The artwork is excellent and the stories are very well written. The comic also includes a graphic rendering of Bram Stoker’s short story, The Squaw. What I found most fascinating, though, is that all the tales are instilled with a sense of morality, although the stories themselves are twisted and grotesque. The characters suffer horrific consequences as a result of immoral actions: incest, greed, selfishness, arrogance, and so forth. It almost felt like values were being taught in a way that would appeal to a younger audience, likely those who do not want to hear some old windbag preaching about right and wrong. I couldn’t help but wonder if the original horror comics I read as a child were similar and whether seeds of morality were planted in my mind at that young age. It was so long ago that I honestly can’t remember (please don’t ask me how long – ha ha).

I have to say that overall I was pleasantly surprised. My expectations were not very high, since this is essentially the resurrection of an old publication. Usually, I’m not impressed with remakes and such. But it is very good and I have to admit that my interest in the magazine has been piqued. I noticed they also revived Eerie. I may pick up a copy of that on my next trip to the comic store.

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“The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

MinistersBlackVeilYesterday I told my daughter what I was doing as far as blog posts for the month of October. She quickly suggested that I write a post about The Minister’s Black Veil. She said it wasn’t exactly horror, per se, but it was definitely creepy in a psychological sense. The fact that my daughter would suggest Hawthorne made me a proud father indeed, and the fact that the story she suggested was one that I was unfamiliar with solidified this as the choice for my next post.

It was no surprise that this is a very symbolic tale. In fact, the subtitle is “A Parable,” which implies that there is a moral lesson to be learned and that lesson is likely represented symbolically in the story. To briefly summarize the story, it is a tale about one Reverend Hooper, a minister in a puritanical town, who makes the decision to wear a black veil for the rest of his life, without providing a reason to any of the townsfolk. The townsfolk are horrified by the veil, which they view as a “symbol of a fearful secret between him and them.”

The veil separates Hooper from the rest of humanity. It represents a wall behind which he is trapped, a prisoner within himself. He can never truly connect with another person because there is always a part of him that is hidden, some dark aspect of the self which can never be shown.

All through life the piece of crape had hung between him and the world: it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman’s love, and kept him in that saddest of prisons, his own heart…

Hawthorne is essentially asserting that we all have dark secrets, aspects of ourselves of which we are ashamed, afraid, or disgusted. We harbor thoughts and memories of things that make us sad or fill us with anger and remorse. As a result, no one can really know another person completely. There will always be thoughts or feelings that are not expressed, which remain hidden behind the veil.

“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”

Reverend Hooper claims that a time will come “when all of us shall cast aside our veils.” But this will never happen as long as we harbor prejudices against others and hide our thoughts. Humanity as a whole must attain a level of acceptance where we realize that we are all the same, that we all have our dark secrets and our inner fears. Once we can accept that about ourselves and others, we can start to open up and hopefully shed our veils.

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