John Keats’ “Lamia”, and the Power of Human Imagination

It’s been awhile since I’ve read my collected writings of John Keats.  I admit many of his earlier poems are mediocre, but this only adds to the joy of seeing the development of his prose through the short time that he wrote.  By far Keats’s masterpiece is his poem “Lamia”, where he demonstrates his growth as a poet by taking his time to let the characters breath and roam free through well-paced narrative.

The title character, Lamia, appears to be beyond any consistent description:  “She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue, Vermilion-shaped, golden, green, and blue; Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard, Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d”(Keats, John. “Lamia,” lines 47-50).  Her appearance, both as serpent and woman, is filled with allegorical affirmations of her beauty, but it is a surreal beauty that lacks any real substance.  Akin to a pleasant dream, where the dreamer is engulfed by the euphoria overtaking his sleep, but cannot grasp the images around him because no matter how vivid and enticing they are, they are still simply imaginary.  This is the reality in which Lamia exists, completely dependent on a dreamer’s slumber to give her substance, which in essence is not much of a reality at all.  Even after being turned human by the god Hermes, Lamia’s entire existence rests on having others, namely her lover Lycius, unquestionably recognize her as the human being she is pretending to be.  And she knows that once the spell is broken, so is any claim she has to the material world:

His spirit pass’d beyond its golden bourn

Into a noisy world almost forlorn.

The lady, ever watchful, penetrant,

Saw this with pain, so arguing a want

Of something more, more than her empery

Of joys; and she began to moan and sigh

Because he mused beyond her, knowing well

That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell (lines 32-39).

Lamia exists as a thought, a passion, made real by the mind of the person that holds her image as true, but just as any thought, it can only be sustained for as long as a person is willing to, before it vanishes or is replaced.  Lamia’s existence appears to be just as capricious.

Keats’s Lamia is a creature whose entire interaction with the material world is determined by a person’s faithful acceptance of her human form.  Which is why all it takes to destroy Lamia is for the skeptical Apollonius to refuse to be mystified by her trance, “More, more he gaz’d: his human senses reel: Some hungry spell that loveliness absorbs; There was no recognition in those orbs” (lines 258-260).  And due to Apollonius’ wakeful eyes, Lamia’s fate is sealed, “Than with a frightful scream she vanished” (line 306).  Therefore, through this final exchange, Keats’s supernatural being turns out to be a nonbeing.  The fact that Lamia was endowed with the finest beauty and imagery might serve, in Keats’s view, to enhance man’s spiritual soul, but it does not change the fact that no matter how enticing or soul-fulfilling, Lamia is not material—hence not real.

Much of Keats’ personal convictions can be found in the text.  Where the mysteries and anomalies of life are accepted and revered–as Lamia’s character is revered throughout the poem–but the underlying cause of this experience is not externalized to an outside source, existing beyond the imagination of the individual person that has dreamed up the image.  Rather it is a reflection of man’s deep struggle with the mysteries of life, and his attempt to cope with his inability to sufficiently account for them.  Though despite all of this uncertainty, the unimaginable still has to be understood as being imaginary.

Synod of Whitby, and the History of Dating Easter in Western Christianity

In the 7th century, British Christianity was defined by two differing models of the same religion:  The Church of Iona, founded by St. Columba on the distinctly Irish traditions of Celtic Christianity, and the Church of Canterbury, which followed the guidance of Rome.  Despite being confined to separate regions of the British Isles, the two churches came into direct conflict in a highly unstable region that was prone to usurpation and political strive, called Northumbria.  The issue was a simple one, but immensely divisive for the competing churches, as it concerned the most important Christian traditions: how to properly date Easter.  Both had come up with their own methods to date the feast, and the Christian church in Britain was heading towards crises as the Celtic churches in Northumbria refused to concede to Roman customs.  The dispute ran deeper than a mere quarrel over when it was proper to feast or fast in celebration of the Christian faith, beneath this was a persistent social divide between the conservative mores of a dwindling generation being challenged by a relentless call for modernity from the evermore increasing youth.

Fearing a schism, and perhaps sensing a political opportunity, King Oswiu of Northumbria called a synod (a church council) at Whitby to resolve the conflict.  Both sides were to present their case for Oswiu to consider before passing the final judgment on which practice would be observed in the kingdom.  The Synod of Whitby was a defining moment in the history of British Christianity; its inception lies in a combination of religious and political factors that must be examined in order to gain a concrete understanding of the historical significant, and its role in creating a unified church, and more importantly a unified people.

 

Before the Conflict: the End and Reinstitution of Roman Christianity in Britain

The first decade of the 5th century was the last for the Western half of the Roman Empire.  In Britain this meant that roughly 470 years of Roman authoritative control was over, taking with it any established Romano-British identity that may have been formed by the native inhabitants of the British Isle.  What followed is a remarkable abandonment of Roman customs and traditions, as the native Britons no longer viewed themselves as being part of the Empire.

Amongst the discarded traditions was Christianity, which had been imported to Britain from Rome in the early 3rd century but apparently—outside of the higher Romanized sectors of society—never became fully integrated into the daily lives of the common villagers (hence how the Latin word for villager, paganus, eventually came to mean the pejorative pagan).

The exact process of how Christianity disappeared on the island is a mystery, no doubt a combination of social apathy and Anglo-Saxon raids played a role, but ultimately this period in history is one devoid of concrete records or narrative chronicles and largely left to speculations.  What is known is that from the 5th to 6th century, Britain underwent a drastic process of exogenesis, where its people willingly started to identify with the warrior rulers of the invading Germanic (mostly Saxon and Angle) tribes, who came from across the English Channel, settled, refashioned and integrated the native Britons under their own customs.  Immersed within these customs was the adherence to Germanic tribal religions, their native Heathenism (again a term referencing the uncooperative country villagers that will make its way into the Christian lexicon), which was readily adopted by the British people who dwelled under Anglo-Saxon rule.

The story of Britain’s rechristening under the Roman faith traces back to continental Europe, where in 596 Pope Gregory I saw it as his Christian duty to send missionaries to the island and save the souls of the nonbelievers.  The man he sent was Augustine, a prior of the Church—equivalent to an office administrator—who along with a handful of monks, headed north to make claims in the name of Christ.  The journey was a daunting one. What sort of barbaric peoples awaited the missionaries?  Have these unbaptized Anglo-Saxon any idea of civility?  Will they be able to communicate God’s word to the pagans in their foreign tongue?  Such questions must have been heavy on Augustine’s mind as he crossed the English Channel, making landfall in the Isle of Thanet, and headed towards Canterbury.  Unknowingly to the administrator, his first steps on the British coast would turn out to be the defining moment of English ecclesiastical history.

Upon his arrival, Augustine set up his congregational base in Canterbury within the Kingdom of Kent, where he restored several abandoned churches from the Roman era to conduct services and conversions.  Conversions were slow as the mission was constantly plagued by Augustine’s infuriating habit of getting bogged down in administrative jargon.  Throughout his time in Canterbury, Augustine had regular correspondences with Pope Gregory in which he shows a pattern of indecisiveness in dealing with issues (mostly concerning theft and marriage practices) that even for the most blase of theologians would have seemed palpable.  Gregory himself grew irate with this habit and often responded to Augustine in a patronizing tone, “You know your Bible well enough, just use common sense.”  However much of a nuisance it may have been for the Pope, Augustine’s lack of confidence would be of great consequence for the British Church, and eventually Western Europe:  Setting the precedent of always looking to Rome for guidance.  But any such significance was arcane to the early Christians involved in the mission, as the church itself could have easily fallen into oblivion were it not for the support and protection received from the King of Kent, Aethelberht.

Aethelberht was a pagan, but through possible persuasion by his Christian wife Bertha, he allowed Augustine to preach the Christian faith from Canterbury.  And although he resisted at first, by 601 the heathen king is known to have converted to Christianity (either out of sincere conviction or political motive to establish closer ties with Europe, or both).  Upon the fateful conversion of their king, the people of Kent followed suit and gave the young church the success needed to cement it as a legitimate institution of the land.  Pope Gregory was so pleased by the progresses of the mission that he had Augustine ordained a Bishop, with full authority over all British churches.  The intention was to create a lineage for the church to ensure its lasting presence in the region for generations thereafter, but what it did was undermine the authority of a possible ally Pope Gregory didn’t even know existed, namely that of the forgotten British Christians who had survived the Anglo-Saxon raids.

Unlike that of continental Europe, the existing British church had not had its development influenced by the turbulent political circumstances which had arisen in Europe after the Roman Empire fell.  Instead, the remaining few Christians moved West, away from the invading Germanic tribes settling into the island, and closer towards the influence of the growing Irish Church, whose practices in this era of early Christianity would not have been very dissimilar to their own.  Both sides underwent a process wherein Christian ideology begin to define itself within the context of the individual society of its practitioners, and more and more separate traditions formed in the two churches, completely independent from one another until Pope Gregory I sent his missionaries to the island to introduce Christianity to what he thought was solely a heathen land.  Once contact was established through Augustine’s presence in England, it became clear that the two sides had different views on what constituted true Christianity.  For one thing, the British church made no attempt to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons, and instead chose to retreat away from social life in England altogether; a move Pope Gregory saw as counter to his evangelization efforts.  The original goal of the mission was to take the island for Christianity, but once the existence of the British Church was found out a pressing concern for Gregory and Augustine became to gain the trust of these rogue Christians in order to bring them in line with the Roman style of the faith.  Unfortunately, Augustine himself ruined any such hopes from the first meeting he had with the British priests.

The story goes that prior to the meeting, the British priests decided to test the Roman: “If he stands to greet us, then he is of sound moral character, but if he sits then he is too arrogant in demeanor.” When the meeting came Augustine remained seated throughout, and negotiations between the two churches broke down immediately as a consequence.  Even though the scenario is keeping in character with Augustine’s questionable competence for initiative, there is also a more divisive reason for the growing tension between the two Christian authorities.

The celebration of Easter, the most important feast in the Christian calendar as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, was the issue that grew to be most discordant for the early church.  During the two centuries that the British and Roman Christians existed independently of one another, both sides develop their own method by which to date the feast.  By any means, determining on which day Christians are supposed to observe Easter is a complex matter.  The general system agreed upon by Christian authorities is that it had to fall on a Sunday, on the third week of the first lunar month of the year, but the first full moon could not fall before vernal equinox.  In the early-mid 6th century, Dionysius Exiguus came up with a system that became widely promoted by Rome, and carried by Augustine to Britain in 596.  Although Dionysius’ Easter table was not immediately adopted in Europe (the concept of Papal authority was not yet established), Pope Gregory was determined that the heathen converts adopt the traditions he considered most true to the Christian faith; a move that conflicted with the already present British Church, which dated Easter based on the system established by the Irish Christians, independent of Rome.  When the British refused to abandon their traditional observation of the feast, Gregory grew discontent, and deemed the practices of Celtic Christianity as heretical in nature, and in need of correction.  Unfortunately for Gregory, the British did not submit to his will, and their Irish counterparts were even embarking on an evangelical mission of their own just north of Augustine’s base.

 

Celtic Christianity:  Faith in Isolation

Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire, yet due to the close proximity between Roman Britain and the Irish island cultural influences were inevitable.  How exactly the Irish became Christianized is another of the vast mysteries surrounding this period.  St. Patrick writes in his narrative how he converted to the faith after being kidnapped into slavery, thereby providing one possible means of transmission by which ideas (and religious conversions) could have spread during this time.  Whatever the exact details are the fact remains that after the fall of the Roman Empire Ireland’s spiritual life developed in isolation from the rest of Europe, spawning a seperate form of practices and traditions that can be described as uniquely Celtic in character.

By 600, the Irish church has developed a level of academic scholarship unseen by the European continent at the time.  In isolation Irish monks attained a mastery of Latin grammar, biblical exegesis and the indispensable discipline of chronological computation (a mathematical system by which to determine important dates on the Christian calendar), and revitalized monasticism as the functional structure of the early church.  These achievements gave Irish scholarship a high reputation and soon gave rise to the practice of Peregrinatio, where Irish monks went into self-imposed exile to Britain and Europe, thereby bringing their learning to these regions.  In the context of these cultures, which valued the protection of tribal and clan allegiances, exiles were deemed the worst punishment one could receive short of death because it placed the individual outside the protection of his clan.  Peregrinatio was a way for monks to show devotion to God by taking on the worst punishment for themselves and suffer as Christ had done.  A leading example of this sort of devotion would be personified in the person of St. Columba.

The details of St. Columba’s life and actions are often muddled in hagiography—literally the study of saints, but largely a term used to describe a form of hero worship—by his earliest biographers (as churches held a monopoly on literacy, and thereby history).  What is known is that he was born in Ireland to the powerful Ui Neill clan (often anglicized as O’Neill), and entered the monastery at a young age where he became a monk and subsequently was ordained a priest.  Circa 560, Columba was caught in a scandal over the ownership of a Psalter (Book of Psalms).  Columba had made a copy of the scripture from a manuscript belonging to St. Finnian, with the intent to keep the Psalter for himself.  Finnian charged that allowing Columba to keep the copy devalues the book, and as the source of the original material Finnian should be given ownership of Columba’s copy.  Formal judgment ruled in favor of Finnian but Columba refused to relinquish his book to Finnian, and got his family to defend him on the issue.  In 561, the dispute came to a devastating finish at the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, where Columba’s side emerged victorious.  Although his side had won, the death toll of the battle was so high that a council of clerics threatened to excommunicate Columba for having caused and taken part in the battle.  Columba suggested he would put himself in self-imposed exile (Peregrinatio) as penance, to bring as many souls to heaven as have died from the consequence of his actions.

In 563, Columba founded his monastery in Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  He would spend the next three decades as a scholar, diplomat, and spiritual authority in the region.  From his base in Iona, he established missionaries in North Britain with the sole goal of evangelizing Christianity to the heathen populace and their rulers.  Consequentially, as a member of the ruling Ui Neill clan in Ireland, he served as a vital political liaison between the two islands, even mediating a territorial dispute in 575 between his home clan and the Scottish Kingdom (then known as the Kingdom of Dál Riata).  But, by far, Columba’s greatest significant lies in the legacy he set up in North Britain by founding a system of monasticism with the strictest intention of seeking conversion and spreading Christianity.  The turning point into true dominance for his church will come in the early 7th century, after his death, upon the conversion of the Northumbrian dynasty, thereby providing a political means by which to expend the influence of Iona into mainland Britain.  St. Columba died in Iona in 597, and was buried in the monastery he founded.

 

The Council: Confrontation between Two Ideologies

Throughout the early to mid-7th century, both Iona and Canterbury continued to seek converts to their faith and establish spiritual supremacy over the British people.  Augustine’s church went through some turbulent times after his death in 604, as his successors struggled to keep the Anglo-Saxon rulers and their subjects from reverting to their native Heathenism.  But, after several setbacks in the 610s-630s, the situation stabilized as many incoming rulers saw the political advantages of embracing Christianity in terms of legitimizing their sovereignty to Christian Europe. By 663, Canterbury was an integrate part of Britain’s political scene.  Iona, on its part, embedded itself firmly within the Northumbrian Dynasty, important in maintaining its stronghold over northern Britain.  Although the Roman Church of Canterbury was exercising its authority over a larger population than the Celtic Church of Iona, Iona held sway over the Bretwalda (overlord) of Britain at the time.  Thus, causing the unresolved strives between the two sides over their traditional disagreements, primarily concerning the dating of Easter, to remain at a tense stalemate.

While all these events were occurring, it is important to note there was no such thing as a unified British state.  Britain was composed of various kingdoms, each ruled over by individual kings, where usurpations were common and borders were never decisively established.  Policies were dictated by the most dominate power (a very unstable pattern of governance). In Northumbria, King Oswiu—who ruled as close to a British overlord as would be possible for the times—saw Christianity as an important factor of commonality for his subjects, and took great interest in the development of the church.

King Oswiu was an observer of the Celtic Easter, but was married to Queen Eanfled who feasted according to the Roman tradition.  He found it odd that he feasted while she fasted, and saw the unresolved disparity as a dispute that would prove catastrophic to Britain political/spiritual structure.  He sought to end the debate between the two Churches, and referred that each side present its case to him at Whitby, so he could decide on which resolution would be the best for Britain to follow.

In 664, the Synod of Whitby met, with Bishop Colman of Northumbria defended the Ionan position, while Abbott Wilfrid argued in favor of the Roman practice.  Colman maintained that the Celtic system was the one advocated by St. Columba, who himself was following the tradition of St. John, and as holy men their judgment should not be questioned.  Wilfrid retorted by appealing to St. Peter as the founder of the Roman Church and gatekeeper to heaven.  With respect to St. Columba, it would be of the utmost folly to act counter to the will of St. Peter, and that in light of everything it was only Iona which was resisting Roman custom (Ireland itself had recently accepted the Roman Easter tables).  After the cases were made, Oswiu rose and asked both sides as to whether or not they agreed that St. Peter was pronounced by Christ as the rock on whose model the Church would be built, as both sides affirmed the truth of what he said, King Oswiu proclaimed that between St. Columba and St. Peter he is obliged to side with St. Peter as the ultimate authority of the Christian Church.

Along with settling the dispute over how to date Easter, the decision reached at Whitby also enabled the English Church to become unified, and unite the British wholly back to the European continent (a political move Oswiu must have been aware of prior to making his choice).  The influence of Celtic Christianity did not disappear altogether, instead its imagery and scholarship blended with the English Church, and gave it a uniquely British individuality.  By the end of the 7th century the English Church, presiding from Canterbury, became all about ecclesiastical order and unity, which allowed it to rise and become an indispensable factor in defining the future British state.

 

Further Readings:

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Adamnan. The Life of St. Columba

St. Patrick. The Confession of St. Patrick

W.B. Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse”, or the Labor of Poetry

If ever there was an ode to the labor that goes into composing a decent work of art, W.B. Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse” would be its muse.  In this short poem, Yeats beautifully captures the agony that a poet endures through his struggle to write even one pleasing line, and the worth of the fleeting vindication that follows, allowing the poet to give the reader a rare glimpse into the mental strain that goes into the creation of an artful prose.

The clear message Yeats is eager to convey to the audience is the amount of unappreciated work that goes into composing a good poem, “A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”  Despite the mental anguish a poet will place on himself to create a respectable contribution to his art, he knows that ultimately, once that grand epiphany comes and goes, all the hours of despair that preceded will lose all meaning in comparison to that one finite instant.  The poet exclaims that he would rather work the most physically strenuous forms of manual labor available, because, “to articulate sweet sounds together Is to work harder than all these, and yet Be thought an idler by the noisy set Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen.”  There is resentment in his tone, as the poet reflects on the way men of other professions scoff at his work, and refuse to recognize it as anything more than a profession of play.  The good poet’s talent is the source of his plight, for as his prose improves, the beauty of his work will mask the hardship which begot it.

As a poet, Yeats is aware of the importance of perspective needed to add dimension to a poem’s message.  After the poet has had his say about his profession’s agony, a beautiful woman sitting by proclaims, “To be born woman is to know–Although they do not talk of it at school–That we must labour to be beautiful.”  Like the beauty of the poem, a woman understand the depth of labor necessary to make one’s attraction seem effortless; thus, a true sign of success is one which fails to emit any recognition of the toil that brought it about.  For the goal of all beauty (whether in art or in persons) is for it to be seen as naturally sublime, that is to say, devoid of forceful maneuvering.  This causes the poet to opine:

It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
precedents out of beautiful old books.

Since the fall of Adam, mankind has been cursed to labor over all worthwhile things.  The poet specifically mention lovers, who will idly fret to emulate the the beautiful conceptions set out in “old books,” but also suggests the uselessness of the effort.  Time, the poet reminds us, is a winding act, carrying us along in a cyclical mode of existence.  Bringing the poem to its end on the despondent note, “That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.” Like the happiness of a poet’s brief moment of artistic inspiration, time will fade it away, just as we fade away and grow.

Of course, the earlier allusion to a cyclical time refers to Yeats’s spiritual adherence to various forms of mysticism, which included the idea of cyclical forms of life.  Giving credence to the notion that “Adam’s Curse” is meant as a work of self-reflection for Yeats; letting the reader know that although the composition might seem effortless, the process by which it was created is anything but.  And, perhaps, persuade the public to appreciate the labor that goes into creating such great splendors of art.

ISIS hits Belgium

By now there is a good chance you’ve heard about the recent ISIS attacks in Brussels.  There’s an equally good chance you’ve heard everyone’s solutions to combat these sort of attacks.

The problem is that whenever this kind of attack occurs they always fit so readily into the viewpoints spectators and commentators already held prior to the attack.  If you support multiculturalism, this is a clear indication that we need to do a better job of assimilating foreign cultures in with our own; if you oppose multiculturalism, this is a clear indication that the assimilation of vastly contrasting cultures is not possible.  Do you blame unchecked immigration, or harsh immigration restrictions?  Do you place more blame on Western imperialism, or religious fundamentalism?  Is this a perversion of faith, or a reflection of faith itself?  Wherever you lie on these spectrums of choices, there’s a good chance you were there already prior to hearing about the attack, and this will further serve as evidence for your views.

I don’t know what the right political or social response is to something like this.  I grew up in northern Germany, and in many ways will always identify with the culture of my upbringing no matter where I am, so hearing about an attack like this hits very close to home for me.  My first instinct is to not give in to the temptation of calling for vengeance, and remember that if this is to be called an act of barbarianism, becoming barbarians ourselves will not solve the issue.  At the same time, the call for nuanced reasoning seems hopeless if the dialogue is one-sided, and little chance exists that the other side will abide by such decorum.

Right now, I think the most appropriate response that I can give is to remove my ego from the field.  And to remove those who have died and suffered directly from this attack (and those who have died and suffered from similar attacks hitherto) from the debates that roam in their names.  The victims of these attacks have no part in the political or ideological strives that claim their lives and/or cause their grief.  Regardless of what you believe the underlying cause for all of this is, we can all agree there is one group of people completely innocent here, and that is the civilians whose lives have been lost; in Brussels, as well as across the globe.

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The “Unelectable” Bernie Sanders

I can understand why conservative voters would not support Bernie Sanders.  Principally speaking, the platform of an overt leftwing candidate has no appeal to them, and that’s fine.  I can also understand why centrist Democrats would not support Sanders, if they see his campaign proposals as far too leftist for their preference.  There is nothing wrong with this viewpoint, either. (That’s not to say that I’m a relativist when it comes to politics.  I stand by my convictions and will debate their merits if challenged, but I accept that everyone has as much a right to their political preferences, as I have to mine.)  The issue I have is with the liberal, openly leftwing voters, who say they agree with Sanders on just about everything, but still hold out on supporting his campaign because they have convinced themselves that he is  not “electable” enough as a candidate.

It’s a position that came to be expressed the moment Sanders announced his candidacy.  Something along the lines of, “He seems genuine, and yes, I would love to back him because I agree with him so much, but his politics make him unelectable.”  The issue I see with this is simple.  If you find a candidate that represents what you believe in politically, but don’t support him because you don’t think his politics are “electable”, what are you saying about your own political beliefs, which you admit are identical to his?  Are you saying that people of your political preference could not, or should not, be represented in the process?  No?  Then what?  If we are to call voting a civic duty, your perceived duty as a voter couldn’t possibly be to elect candidates who you think best appeal to other citizens’ palates–at the end of the day your prerogative in the voting process is to vote by your tastes, your interests, your preferences, your conscience, and all else be damned!

Representative democracy rests on the principle that your vote is worth the same as the person in the booth next to you.  To give in to the idea that a candidate you prefer is unelectable prior to entering the booth shows a clear misunderstanding of said principle.  Even if s/he is a longshot in the election, if they are your candidate, why should you be manipulated to support another person you neither agree with, nor believe in?

The current public opinion in the U.S. is that politics is a bought game.  A sham.  A mass delusion resting on the illusion of choice masking nothing but corruption underneath its foundation.  A vital step in correcting a perceived illusion of choice can’t be to then go along with the to make your desired choice a reality.  If Bernie Sanders is not your preferred candidate, no harm no foul.  Vote by your conscience for whomever your preferred candidate is, and have peace of mind by it.  If, however, Sanders is the candidate you most identify with, forget about electability–anyone who qualifies to stand in an election is de facto electable–remember that this is your election, too.  Your primary, your delegates, your vote.  And if you choose to partake in it, it should be in accordance to your convictions, not that of anyone else’s.

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Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Depravity of the Human Animal

The great feats of reason and resourcefulness of mankind is a cherished topic in literature.  Innumerable tales have been written (and will continue to be written) testifying to the way in which our ability to rationalize and contemplate the reality around us definitively separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (indeed, some might even say, gives us dominion over it).  In defiance to this sentiment lies Jonathan Swift’s 1726 adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels, whose title character (Lemuel Gulliver) starts the story as an optimistic representation of human ingenuity, and finishes as a bitter misanthrope, disgusted at the innate depravity of his species.

Gulliver’s Travels is made up of four different voyages taken on by Lemuel Gulliver, an honest, kindhearted English ship’s surgeon, who has a tendency to find himself in fantastical situations and lands every few years.  The adventure most recognizable to the popular audience is probably Gulliver’s first voyage to the land of Lilliput, where the inhabitants stand only six inches high (the memorable depiction to readers is the part of the novel where Gulliver is lying down on the beach, bound down by billions of tiny ropes, as hundreds of miniature people are surrounding him).  The impression of Gulliver in this first story is that of a curious and reasonable man, who genuinely cares about the well-being of all human life he comes into contact with (from the very small inhabitants of Lilliput, to the gigantic natives of Brobdingnag he encounters on his second voyage).  However, a vital turn in the narrative occurs in Gulliver’s fourth and final voyage, when he finds himself stranded on an unknown land inhabited by an extraordinary race of intelligent horses (referred to as Houyhnhnms) who possess a superb capacity to reason (surpassing, in Gulliver’s opinion, even that of the human species he belongs to).  The Houyhnhnms are not the only inhabitants of this unmapped land; there also exist a species of savage humanoid creatures called Yahoos, which are used by the Houyhnhnms in similar fashion to how Gulliver’s society uses barnyard animals.

Gulliver’s immediate reaction towards the Yahoos is to deny that such an obvious brute could be a member of the human species.  Being devoid of this sort of sentiment about human dignity, the more rational Houyhnhnms easily point out to Gulliver the anatomical similarity between himself and the Yahoos, forcing the narrator to reflect:

The beast and I were brought close together, and our countenances diligently compared, both my master [referring to the Houyhnhnm who takes Gulliver into his dwelling partly out of an anthropological curiosity to learn about (what is to him) the “peculiarly reasonable Yahoo”] and servants, who thereupon repeated several times the word Yahoo.  My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal a perfect human figure (pg. 249).

Thus, Gulliver is forced to admit to himself that he does indeed share a biological tie with the savage animals of this undiscovered land.  Yet, this does little to sooth the repugnance he feels towards the Yahoos (of which he now knows himself to be one; no matter how tamed and civilized of a variant):

Although there were few greater lovers of mankind, at the time, than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitivity being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them, the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in this country (pg. 250).

Noteworthy is Gulliver’s mention that “at the time” there existed few greater lovers of mankind, because it foreshadows the shift in sentiment the character will experience towards not just the Yahoos of this land, but the human species as a whole.  However, first one must explore how equally amazing Gulliver must seem to the Houyhnhnms, giving that there only exposure to humans are the Yahoos; whose intellectual capacity Gulliver’s “master” describes as, “the most unteachable of all brutes” (pg. 254).  To the dominant species of Houyhnhnmland, a Yahoo who possessed the ability to reason and communicate [with some struggle Gulliver eventually manages to learn the Houyhnhnm language] is perplexing beyond belief.  This gives hope to Gulliver that he can demonstrate to the noble Houyhnhnms that he is of a different disposition that the brutish Yahoos of their land, as he tries to satisfy his master’s curiosity by offering extensive descriptions of the various facets of civilized human society.  Unfortunately, this does little to dissuade the apparently obvious physical resemblance between himself and the Yahoos in any meaningful way.  The narrator’s Houyhnhnm master even goes so far as to point out the practical imperfection of Gulliver’s human form in comparison to both the savage Yahoos and his own horse-like shape:

He said I differed indeed from other Yahoos, being much more cleanly, and not altogether so deformed, but in point of real advantage he thought I differed for the worse.  That my nails were of no use either to fore or hinder-feet; as to my fore-feet, he could not properly call them by that name, for he never observed me to walk upon them; that they were too soft to bear the ground / He then began to find fault with other parts of my body, the flatness of my face, the prominence of my nose, my eyes placed directly in front, so that I could not look on either side without turning my head; that I was not able to feed myself without lifting one of my fore-feet to my mouth; and therefore nature had placed those joints to answer that necessity (pg. 261-62).

The importance of this exchange on Gulliver’s perception of humanity, and its place within the natural world, cannot be overstated.  Undoubtedly, Gulliver has spent his whole life with the presumption that the human form is the epitome of natural perfection (or, if not complete perfection, as close as any living being could ever hope to get).  Now, under scrutiny of an animal as distinct in form from humanity as any other creature, but whose ability to reason rivals the most educated of the human specimen, Gulliver is faced with the innumerable faults and imperfections of the human body–essentially shattering any inherent exceptionalism the man may have still held for his own species.  [This critique about the human form may have been one motivation for Jonathan Swift, a devout Anglican clergyman, to publish his book under a pseudonym, as it might have blasphemous implications to imply that man is no different/less perfect than any other animal.]  Moreover, the Houyhnhnm is so unimpressed by the human form, that he finds it impossible to imagine such a creature rising to any level of dominance and civility in any possible environment, due partly to the distrust we garner from other animals:

He observed every animal in this country naturally to abhor the Yahoos, whom the weaker avoided and the stronger drove from them.  So that supposing us to have the gift of reason, he could not see how it were possible to cure that natural antipathy which every creature discovered against us (pg. 262).

But more so due to the great cruelty human beings exhibit towards there own kind:

The Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different species of animals; and the reason usually assigned was the odiousness of their own shapes, which all could see in the rest, but not in themselves (pg. 280).

It is therefore established that, without ever even having laid eyes or possessing any prior knowledge of human societies, this Houyhnhnm still managed to deduce through the sheer use of his innate reason, how the deadliest predator to man, is man himself.  Furthermore, he points out to Gulliver that the roots of the conflict amongst the members of the human species are trivial conceits over inconsequential vanities that no other living being would bother quarreling over.

Unlike the human society Gulliver came from, the Houyhnhnms have no concept of politics, religion, art and literature, or tribal affiliations (though, according to Gulliver, there does seem to exist a social hierarchy amongst the Houyhnhnms, akin to a caste system); nor can they contemplate the need for such things.  It is for this reason that Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master remarks that “instead of reason [humans] were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices” (pg. 267).  The human development of government and law to mediate our daily affairs is to the Houyhnhnms further indication human nature is antithetical to proper reasoning faculties:

That our government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence, in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature (pg. 279).

Houyhnhnms live in an anarchistic social structure; there are no formal laws, but there is complete orderliness, maintained by the animals’ unwillingness to be stirred by emotive factors when it comes to evaluating the reality of life.  They have no interest in deceit (lacking a proper word for lying or evil), and while they do express joy, friendship, and hatred, they do so without the indication that there lies any deeper meaning behind their emotions besides a reaction to the workings of the natural world.  Thus, to the Houyhnhnms, the great innovations of human intellect–created to shelter, protect, inspire, and entertain us–are testaments to out depravity; our inability to be satisfied with what nature has given us.  We need a supervising authority, because we cannot trust ourselves to behave orderly.  To Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master, human gluttony is an ideal indication of our shortcomings as a species:

For if [the Houyhnhnm said] you throw among five Yahoos as much food as would be sufficient for fifty, they will, instead of eating peaceably, fall together by the ears, each single one impatient to have all to itself (pg. 280).

My master continuing his discourse said there was nothing that rendered the Yahoos more odious than their undistinguishing appetite to devour every thing that came in their way (pg. 281-82).

The reader must keep in mind that Swift’s novel is written as a satire against the conceit of his own society, thus the prose often takes on a hyperbolic tone whenever Gulliver affirms the reasonableness of the Houyhnhnm species.  The purpose of this is more than likely to further point out the contrasting flaws of the human animal, when forced to look past its self-credited righteousness.

Gulliver’s time spent with the Houyhnhnms causes him to development an intense hatred of not just the Yahoos of this unknown land, but humankind as a whole.  He sees human interests as being predominantly preoccupied with vanities and trivialities, whereas the Houyhnhnms concern themselves with more virtuous pursuits:

As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with the general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions of ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it (pg. 288).

How exactly the Houyhnhnms manage to maintain this level of ultra-stoicism, is left rather vague by the author, but a possible explanation is presented by Gulliver:

It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain, and beyond our knowledge we cannot be either.  So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown amongst the Houyhnhnms (pg. 288).

The Houyhnhnms do not muse or speculate about abstract mental concepts, therefore they possess no means by which to fall prey to ideological quarrels.  This causes Gulliver to pine for the tranquility enjoyed by his hosts, and emulate their behavior for his own betterment.  He has no desire to return to human society, and be surrounded by vain Yahoos (let alone interact with them).  Even the very knowledge of his Yahoo nature stirs in him shame at belong to this repulsive species:

When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo than my own person (pg. 300).

Unfortunately for Gulliver, the Houyhnhnms eventually concluded that the innate nature of the Yahoos renders them an unteachable brute, thus to have him live amongst the Houyhnhnm as an equal would be unimaginable.  However, since Gulliver has demonstrated some capability of reason, he was potentially even more dangerous on account that he might be inclined one day to organize the Yahoos against the Houyhnhnms.  Thus, he was exhorted to leave Houyhnhnmland and return to his own place of origin, which he did–begrudgingly.  Upon his return to England, Gulliver is a shell of the humanist he was at the onset of his first voyage; disgusted at the sight of his own kind, and unable to bring himself to bear the stench and presence of even his own family (who to him are now no different from any other Yahoo), he finds some level of peace conversing to his horses (whose anatomy fondly reminds him of the Houyhnhnms), living his life with the modest goal “to behold my figure in a glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature” (pg. 317).

As mentioned earlier, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s is a work of satire, and should be read as such.  The obvious criticism of human conceit and vanity is the most overt message contained within Gulliver’s final voyage, but what needs to be mentioned is also the apparent lifelessness that comes along with the Houyhnhnms’ dedication to reason.  Devoid of emotional appeals, they do not quarrel, but they also lack imagination, and insight no aesthetic inspiration.  So, to me, the subtler point found hidden in Swift’s prose is that even if the impossible was to be done, and the depravity of human nature could be overcome, and man could learn to be as reasonable as the noble Houyhnhnm, if we remove ourselves of the very facets in life that give us the most meaning and value–despite their contributions to our faults and irrationalities–will we also be giving up the very things that make us human to begin with?

Bibliography

Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver’s Travels, (Signet Classics: NewYork), 1726.  1960 reprint.

The Value of Patriotism: A Rant

This is going to be a rant, brought about partially by the brain-draining ennui of the seemingly never-ending election season.  So bear with me for a second, please.

I believe it is important to own up to one’s ignorance on a topic, hence I have to admit that I don’t understand patriotism.  I can understand the desire individuals might have to closely associate to one group or another for the sake of feeling a greater level of security, or even just to provide some reference of possessing a “greater” identity.  I can also understand how this might develop into a sense of protectiveness towards one’s place of birth, which (after family) is usually the most common form of self-identity for a person.  But what I don’t understand is how acknowledgment of the fact that we are relatively dependent on the communities we reside in, translates into a perpetual need to proclaim the superiority of one’s arbitrary nation of origin over any other.  After all, no one chooses the place he or she–or one’s ancestors–will be born in.  The accomplishments that have been achieved by individuals who happen to reside within the same borders as you were done wholly independent of your existence (and even if you had a direct participation in some grand achievement, would it be fair to attribute your accomplishments to something as random as a place of birth?).

What perplexes me most about patriotic sentiments is the manner in which most people accept its value as a self-evident fact.  “You need to be proud of where you come from”, “My country, good or bad”, “Any man who does not love his land, and the land of his forefathers, is a man who does not love himself.”  The message propagated by all sides is one that denounced all who do not feel the fervor of patriotism as possessing some kind of defect in character.  That if you don’t show an innate defensiveness about your nationality, you are thought of as somehow deprived of a matter that is (for some reason or another) vital to a person’s psychological health.  This I don’t understand.  And simply repeating to me that it’s important to feel pride towards your country of origin is not an argument, it is a demand–worse yet, it is a command.  A call for assimilation, in favor of a value that can not be defended outside of baseless tautologies (i.e. “being patriotic is good, because it is good to be patriotic”).  I pay my taxes.  I follow the laws of the land.  So, why must I stand in union with the rest of you as you shout meaningless slogans, sing eccentric hymns, and salute pieces of cloths as if they were the very fabric holding the universe together?  Why must I prove that I deserve to be a part of this community through such flamboyant means, when I am already doing my all to keep society functioning at the individual level (the only level I have any authority on)?

I am not ashamed of either the country I was born in, nor the one I currently reside and identify with, but neither am I overtly proud.  In truth, I am forced to be neutral on it as a whole, since it holds no uniform identity from coast to coast, from city to city, from person to person.  Perhaps, the patriots are right, and my apathy is causing me to miss out on something spectacular here.  But then again, I can’t really miss that which I’ve never had.