Tag Archives: social criticism

“The Crucifix, Its Uses and Customs” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco discusses whether it is appropriate to display religious iconography, specifically the crucifix, in institutions of public education. I found this to be particularly interesting, given that there seems to be a growing tension between religion and state institutions in the US. Heated debates have erupted over the inclusion of texts in schools, or the display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings, and there does not seem to be any abatement in this tension.

Eco uses examples from his home country of Italy to make his point.

In Italian universities there are no crucifixes in the lecture halls, but many students are members of Catholic groups like Communione e Liberazione. However, at least two generations of Italians spent their youth in classrooms where the crucifix was hung between portraits of the king and Mussolini, and out of every thirty students in every class some became atheists, others fought with the resistance, and others again—the majority, I believe—voted for the Republic. All anecdotal evidence, if you will, but of historical importance, and this tells us that the presence of religious symbols in schools does not affect the spiritual development of the students.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 274 – 275)

Eco makes a great point here. The exposure of young people to religious iconography and doctrine in no way ensures that those individuals will internalize the ideas, and conversely, the lack of these symbols does not mean that individuals will not develop along spiritual pathways. But what Eco adds later in the essay, which to me is the key point, is that tolerance of others is what must be taken into consideration in this issue, and that in a diverse society, if religious topics are to be taught in school, they should be inclusive of all religions.

School curricula of the future must be based not on the concealment of diversity but on teaching the techniques that lead youngsters to understand and accept it. For some time now people have been saying it would be nice, along with religious instruction (and not as an alternative for those who aren’t Catholics), if schools devoted at least one hour a week to the history of all religions, so that Catholic kids might understand what the Koran says or what Buddhists think, and so that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (and even Catholics) might understand how the Bible came into being and what it says.

(ibid: p. 276)

I agree with Eco. Personally, I enjoy reading religious texts from diverse traditions and faiths. The idea that one tradition has a monopoly on the truth has led to centuries of warfare and hatred. I feel that every spiritual or religious text has valid insights to share.

Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles. Have a great day and keep on reading interesting stuff.

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Thoughts on “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft

This is a great short story to read for Halloween. In fact, some of the events in the story take place on Halloween.

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandaemoniac cachinnation which filled the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down.

Essentially, this is a tale about the crossbreeding of a human with a creature from another dimension of existence, the result of which was the birth of something that could no longer be classified as human.

“Inbreeding?” Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. “Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal! But what thing—what cursed shapeless influence on or off this three-dimensional earth—was Wilbur Whateley’s father? Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912, when the talk of queer earth noises reached clear to Arkham—What walked on the mountains that May-Night? What Roodmas fastened itself on the world in half-human flesh and blood?”

When attempting to describe beings or forms of consciousness that exist beyond our realm of reality, one must rely on symbols because the ineffable nature of these manifestations cannot be captured using the limited means of communication with which humans rely. Communication with divine beings are therefore non-verbal by nature. What Lovecraft does in this tale is express the ineffable sounds produced by a being from another dimension, which cannot be comprehended or duplicated by beings in our plane of existence.

Without warning came those deep, cracked, raucous vocal sounds which will never leave the memory of the stricken group who heard them. Not from any human throat were they born, for the organs of man can yield no such acoustic perversions. Rather would one have said they came from the pit itself, had not their source been so unmistakably the altar-stone on the peak. It is almost erroneous to call them sounds at all, since so much of their ghastly, infra-bass timbre spoke to dim seats of consciousness and terror far subtler than the ear; yet one must do so, since their form was indisputably though vaguely that of half-articulated words. They were loud—loud as the rumblings of the thunder above which they echoed—yet did they come from no visible being. And because imagination might suggest a conjectural source in the world of non-visible beings, the huddled crowd at the mountain’s base huddled still closer, and winced as if in expectation of a blow.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so I will end the post here. I’ll conclude by saying this is a very creepy story which also has some interesting social criticism woven in, as well as occult references to texts and mythologies. But most importantly, it is extremely well-written and can be enjoyed by anyone who likes to curl up with an eerie tale at this time of the year.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading.

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“Dracula” by Bram Stoker: Exploring the Vampire Archetype

The vampire is a powerful archetype and one that is manifest in our modern society—that being that lives in darkness, feeds of the life-force of others, and is motivated by selfishness and the baser animalistic instincts. This archetype is fully explored in Bram Stoker’s classic horror story, Dracula.

There are such beings as vampires; some of us have evidence that they exist. Even had we not the proof of our own unhappy experience, the teachings and records of the past give proof enough for sane peoples.

(p. 227)

I suspect we have all had experiences with individuals who embody the vampire archetype. They are the ones who drain us when we are around them, with whom we must always keep up our guards, and who seem to thrive on the fear and pain of others.

The nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once. He is only stronger; and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil.

(p. 228)

Vampiric individuals do not feel remorse when they inflict pain or suffering on another. On the contrary, they feel empowered. It is a lack of empathy that allows these people to sting again and again, each time feeling more emboldened by feeding on the sense of power experienced over the domination of another person.

One of the best ways to understand the vampire archetype is to contrast it with its opposite.

Well, you know what we have to contend against; but we, too, are not without strength. We have on our side power of combination—a power denied to the vampire kind; we have our sources of science; we are free to act and think; and the hours of the day and the night are ours equally. In fact, so far as our powers extend, they are unfettered, and we are free to use them. We have self-devotion in a cause, and an end to achieve which is not a selfish one. These things are much.

(p. 229)

This paragraph describes the characteristics of individuals who are not vampiric in nature. They are thoughtful and motivated by science and logic. They are free from their baser desires and can therefore act in the best interest of themselves and of those around them. They are balanced (symbolized by the equal parts of night and day), and they are selfless and devoted to causes which further humanity, as opposed to striving solely after personal gain.

While the drinking of blood and transformation into an animal are well-understood symbols of the vampire archetype, another aspect worth noting is the ability to turn into mist.

He can come in mist which he create—the noble ship’s captain proved him of this; but, from what we know, the distance he can make this mist is limited, and it can only be round himself. He come on moonlight rays as elemental dust—

(p. 230)

Here, mist becomes a symbol of obfuscation. When we find ourselves in close proximity to the vampire archetype, our humanity begins to become obscured, our thoughts unclear. Our minds are in essence affected by the presence of a toxic individual. Thankfully, our minds are also affected when we are close to a positive and nurturing person. But we should always be aware of the subtle changes in our personalities that result from our associations with others.

There are many expressions of the vampire archetype in our modern culture: the news, social media, advertising, politics, all sucking our life-blood and draining us of our humanity, driving us to embrace our lower instincts and discard our empathy for others. The good news is, once you learn to recognize the vampire, you don’t need garlic to protect yourself; logic, compassion, and when necessary, distance, are all sufficient to ward off the vampire’s effects.

Thanks for stopping by, and stay safe.

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Thoughts on “In a Disused Graveyard” by Robert Frost

Source:Wikipedia

The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never any more the dead.

The verses in it say and say:
‘The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.’

So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?

It would be easy to be clever
And tell the stones: Men hate to die
And have stopped dying now forever.
I think they would believe the lie.

I find this poem fascinating on several levels. First, the imagery speaks to me. I have always found graveyards strangely provocative yet comforting. There is a sense of quiet and stillness that somehow soothes my spirit. It also reminds me that Death is the great equalizer, that we all must succumb to the Reaper regardless of status, wealth, power, etc. And it also reminds me that it is important to live each moment of life to the fullest.

The rest of what I find fascinating about this poem are the levels of meaning and the social criticism which Frost weaves in.

We see from the first stanza that the graveyard Frost is describing is no longer used. It is by itself in a rural area and does not appear to be associated with any church or town, and has become but a curiosity for tourists, day hikers looking for a destination. One gets the impression that no one has been buried there for many years.

To me, this speaks of how modern society approaches death as compared with our ancestors. We now inter the dead in manicured memorial gardens, or in hallowed grounds, as opposed to a location close to a homestead. Or even worse, we send or deceased relatives off to some facility where they are industrially incinerated, and the remains are returned in an aesthetically pleasing urn for display on the mantle.

We have denied that death is part of the natural process. In the past, when we accepted death as the natural culmination to life, we would return the dead to the earth close to the home to which there was connection. And this loss, this shift away from our acceptance of death is what Frost sees reflected in the weathered stones of an abandoned graveyard that no longer sees the return of the dead to the earth.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. May you have a blessed day.

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“The Roots of Europe” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco provides a brief summary of how Christian Europe assimilated ideas and traditions from ancient and pagan cultures.

In our current society, the adoption of elements from other cultures is now deemed “cultural appropriation” and is definitely something that is frowned upon. But historically, this has not been the case, as Eco points out, and in the past ideas and traditions were shared and incorporated, the result of which was the blossoming of ideas and persistence of traditions.

Europe has assimilated Greco-Roman culture in law, philosophy, and popular beliefs. Often with a certain nonchalance, Christianity absorbed pagan myths and rituals and forms of polytheism that linger on in popular devotion. It wasn’t only the Renaissance that stocked up on Venuses and Apollos as it embarked on the discovery of the ancient world with its ruins and manuscripts. The Christian Middle Ages built its theology on Aristotle’s thinking, rediscovered by the Arabs, and while it knew nothing of Plato, it knew a lot about Neoplatonism, which had a huge influence on the Fathers of the Church. Nor could we conceive of Augustine, the greatest Christian thinker, without the absorption of Platonic ideas. The very notion of empire, which lies at the roots of a thousand years of struggle among European states, and between states and the Church, is Roman in origin. Christian Europe elected Latin as the language of holy ritual, of religious thinking, of law, and of university debate.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 270)

Personally, I am OK with exploring ideas and traditions from other cultures, and incorporating those that resonate with me on a spiritual and intellectual level. But I will credit those other cultures and give them the respect and acknowledgement they deserve. And this is a very important thing to keep in mind. I believe it is acceptable to learn from other cultures and to incorporate elements for the advancement of humanity as a whole, but it is not permissible to steal from another culture as a way of diminishing or damaging that culture. Cultures are living organisms that benefit from diversity. Respect and consideration are critical, though. And if you are ever in doubt, best err on the side of caution.

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Thank You, John Lewis

I was sad to hear that the great John Lewis passed away on July 17, 2020. In a time when we are still actively struggling for the rights of black Americans, it was an inspiration to look to him and acknowledge the difference one person can make. He will be sorely missed during these trying times.

I would like to go back and share links to the reviews of his graphic novel series March, which he co-wrote. The books are outstanding and I highly recommend them if you have not read them before. I’m tempted to read them again.

Rest in peace, John, and thank you for your service.

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Thoughts on “Beauty Queens, Fundamentalists, and Lepers” by Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. In the essay, Eco employs his wit to address issues of globalization, and how the media contributes to the negative aspects of globalization.

I am one of those who think that out of every ten phenomena of globalization, at least five may have a positive outcome but if globalization does have a negative aspect, it is the violent imposition of Western models on underdeveloped countries to induce consumption and raise hope that such countries cannot fulfill. If I show you beauty queens in swimsuits, it’s because I want to promote the sale of Western beach wear, maybe sewn by hungry children in Hong Kong. The clothing will be bought in Nigeria by those who aren’t dying of hunger (if these people have money to spend, they are making it at the expense of those dying of hunger) and who actively help Westerners exploit the poor and keep them in precolonial condition.

(pp. 261 – 262)

The Covid-19 pandemic has made us all painfully aware of how fragile the globalized consumerist economic model truly is. Our insatiable craving for cheap goods to fill some void within us has killed local manufacturing and the result is that when things fall apart, as they eventually will, we are left without the infrastructure and ability to provide for ourselves. This is evident in the barren shelves which are reminiscent of a dystopian sci-fi film.

I have no idea what our post-coronavirus world will look like, but I am quite certain that it will be very different from what we have become accustomed to.

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Earth Day 2020: Thoughts on Rolling Stone, Issue 1338 – April 2020

I drafted this post several days ago, but held off on posting until Earth Day. I figured that this would be the appropriate time to share my thoughts.

It had been quite a while since I read an issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Throughout a good portion of my younger years, Rolling Stone was a staple of my regular reading, allowing me to stay current on arts and music, as well as politics and social issues. But I kind of fell out of it. I would see issues at newsstands, and be intrigued, but declined picking up a copy. Recently, my wife brought home the latest issue of RS, a special issue dedicated to the current climate crisis, a subject I am passionate about. I began reading and got drawn in. The publication still has its journalistic integrity, intelligent writers, and progressive stance that inspired me in my youth.

The articles in this issue evoked a range of emotions in me from anger and frustration to hope and inspiration. As infuriating as the corruption and greed is that fuels the current crisis, there is also an amazing amount of courage and innovation out there, spearheaded by energetic groups and individuals who refuse to succumb to the forces unwilling to relinquish their grip on global power.

Not surprising, one of the articles focuses on Greta Thunberg, a young woman whose passion, courage, and dedication is a huge inspiration for me. But I confess, I was shocked and disgusted by the level of hatred directed towards her, which truly underscores how challenging this cause is.

Outside of the Parliament building, Greta tells me she doesn’t worry about her safety despite Trump and others speaking cruelly about her on social media. (According to her mother, locals have shoved excrement into the family mailbox.) Later in February, she would march in Bristol, England, and be met by social media posts suggesting she deserved to be sexually assaulted.

(p. 42)

Greta’s determination leads me to something Jeff Goodell said in his article. We cannot allow our personal despair to suck us into the quagmire of inaction. We all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to help in this crisis.

When you look at images of the bush fires in Australia or the cracking ice shelves in Antarctica, it’s easy to think that it’s too late to do anything about the climate crisis — that we are, for all intents and purposes, fucked. And it’s true, it’s too late for 182 people who died from exposure to extreme heat in Phoenix in 2018, or for 1,900 people in northern India who were swept away in extreme floods in 2019, or the 4 million people who die each year around the world from particulate air pollution caused by our dependence on fossil fuels. And the way things are going, it’s probably too late for the glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro, for large portions of the Great Barrier Reef, and for the city of Miami Beach as we know it.

But the lesson of this is not that we’re fucked, but that we have to fight harder for what is left. Too Late-ism only plays into the hands of Big Oil and Big Coal and all the inactivists who want to drag out the transition to clean energy as long as possible. Too Late-ism also misses the big important truth that, buried deep in the politics and emotion of the climate crisis, you can see the birth of something new emerging. “The climate crisis isn’t an ‘event’ or an ‘issue,’ ” says futurist Alex Steffen, author of Snap Forward, an upcoming book about climate strategy for the real world. “It’s an era, and it’s just beginning.”

(p. 39)

As I watch the global response to COVID-19, I can’t help but think that this is the kind of response we need to the climate crisis. And yes, there will be deniers just like there are COVID-19 deniers protesting that they have the rights to congregate in spite of the risk doing so poses to others. And yes, we cannot depend on governments to address this challenge. Just like the COVID crisis, we need businesses and individuals to come forward and lead the way, because our political structure is way too dysfunctional to foment any substantial change.

I’d like to close with one last thought. Since we all need to do our part, I’m going to assert that if you are not making personal changes and sacrifices in your lifestyle that are difficult and uncomfortable, then you are probably not doing enough. Filling out online petitions while sipping a Starbucks latte from a disposable cup, or driving your gas-powered car to a demonstration is not going to create the level of change needed. Decide what you are comfortable doing, and then do more.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on keeping on.

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Thoughts on “The Taking of Jerusalem: An Eyewitness Report” by Umberto Eco

Painting by Émile Signol

So it is no secret that I am a huge fan of Umberto Eco’s work, and this short piece is a fine example of why. It is a piece of brilliant satire intended to demonstrate the absurdity of news commentary, particularly in regard to war coverage. The piece is written from the perspective of a war correspondent covering the taking of Jerusalem during the Crusades.

Typical of a news reporter, the reporter is always looking to get into the heart of the conflict.

My informants tell me that the attack is more interesting on the northwestern front, at Herod’s Gate. I will hop on a mule and try to get to the other side of the walls. And now, back to the studio,

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 255)

The correspondent then gives a play-by-play account, reminiscent of sports commentary. I have often noted that coverage of conflicts, as well as politics, often seem like sports narrative.

From my new position I have a clear view of Godfrey of Bouillon directing the final assault from the top of a tower. The first Christians are on the top of the walls. They are Luthold and Engelbert of Tournai, I’m told, Godfrey and the others follow them, the Moors are falling under their blows, others are leaping from the walls. Herod’s Gate is down—unless it was opened by our men already inside. The men of the Christian Alliance have entered the city on foot and horseback!

(ibid: p. 256)

Toward the end of the piece, Eco makes his most important point, in my opinion. We like to believe that the end of a conflict is the end of the war; this is not true in far too many cases. Sadly, the termination of a conflict is only the beginning of a longer war, that of ideals fueled by resentment and hatred of the other faction.

A monk I spoke to this morning pointed out that this massacre amounts to a defeat. If we are to establish a Christian realm in these lands, we ought to be able to count on the acceptance of the Muslim inhabitants and the tolerance of the neighboring kingdoms. But the slaughter has raised a wall of hatred between Moors and Christians that will endure for years, perhaps centuries. The conquest of Jerusalem is not the end but the beginning—of a very long war.

(ibid: pp. 258 – 259)

We still have this war mentality that permeates so much of our culture: war on crime, war on poverty, war on hunger, war on coronavirus, on and on. Our political debates are battles, this side vs. the other. Everything is broken down to my team against yours (which team are you?). If we are to survive as a species, we need to collectively change this attitude. Us and them no longer works. It has to be we, and that will only be achieved through cooperation and support.

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“Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte: A Polemic Against the Patriarchy

This is one of those books that I had been meaning to read for a long time. I bought a used copy many years ago, and have finally gotten around to reading it.

Emily Bronte published this book in 1847, and it provides a harsh view of patriarchal authority which sadly still resonates today as we continue to grapple with issues of gender inequality and the abuse of women.

After Catherine is forced to wed her cousin, Linton, we are presented with a horrific image of Linton’s plan to seize everything that was once Catherine’s, as well as physical and psychological abuse inflicted upon Catherine by Heathcliff, Linton’s father.

“He’s in the court,” he replied, “talking to Dr. Kenneth; who says uncle is dying, truly, at last. I’m glad, for I shall be master of the Grange after him. Catherine always spoke of it as her house. It isn’t hers! It’s mine: papa says everything she has is mine. All her nice books are mine; she offered to give me them, and her pretty birds, and her pony Minny, if I would get the key of her room, and let her out; but I told her she had nothing to give, they were all mine. And then she cried, and took a little picture from her neck, and said I should not have that; two pictures in a gold case, on one side her mother, and on the other, uncle, when they were young. That was yesterday—I said they were mine, too; and tried to get them from her. The spiteful thing wouldn’t let me: she pushed me off, and hurt me. I shrieked out—that frightens her—she heard papa coming, and she broke the hinges and divided the case, and gave me her mother’s portrait; the other she attempted to hide: but papa asked what was the matter, and I explained it. He took the one I had away, and ordered her to resign hers to me; she refused, and he—he struck her down, and wrenched it off the chain, and crushed it with his foot.”

(pp. 204 – 205)

The physical abuse is clear, but the psychological abuse is presented symbolically through the image of the locket. Heathcliff demands that Catherine give Linton the picture of her father as a symbolic gesture of her giving up all connections to her familial past and essentially becoming the property of her husband. She is not only required to relinquish all tangible property, but she must let go of her soul, of who she is, and thereby become nothing but a piece of human property, which can be done with as her husband chooses. When Catherine attempts to resist, the crushing of the locket represents the domination of patriarchal authority over her, stamping out all connections to her former self.

After Linton dies, Heathcliff takes possession of everything that once belonged to Catherine and her family. At one point, Catherine wants to use a small plot of land to create a garden. Heathcliff’s response demonstrates the patriarchal belief that a woman has no rights to any property.

“You shouldn’t grudge a few yards of earth for me to ornament, when you have taken all my land!”

“Your land, insolent slut! You never had any,” said Heathcliff.

“And my money,” she continued; returning his angry glare, and meantime biting a piece of crust, the remnant of her breakfast.

(p. 234)

While this book shows that we have come a long way, it also reminds us that we still have a ways to go. There is still gross gender inequality, as well as disparity between socio-economic classes. But as long as strong voices such as Emily Bronte’s speak out against inequality, we can continue to move forward as a society.

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