Discovering James Hogg

It should be a crime how little appreciated James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinnersis (1824) is in Gothic literature.

James Hogg’s novel is a unique take on the subject of the material and spiritual world, in that it offers the reader both perspectives through two rivaling narratives of a single event. The first, “The Editor’s Narrative,” gives a strictly materialistic view of the seemingly supernatural events and characters. Unlike the second narrative (titled “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner”, and told from the point of view of the main character Robert Wringhim Cowan), the Editor’s suspiciously does not give much focus to Hogg’s devil-character, Gil-Martin. Instead, the few scenes in which Robert is shown conversing with the yet-unnamed character, any unnatural occurrence observed are immediately brushed off and rationalized by the secondary characters, “It is a fantasy of our disturbed imaginations, therefore let us compose ourselves till we investigate this matter farther.”[1] This serves to set a mood in this part of Hogg’s novel, where the prose recognizes the presence of something perplexing in the atmosphere, but is unable to acknowledge the extraordinary source behind it. This has the effect of suggesting to the reader that it makes no difference whether or not one chooses to believe that demonic forces are among us (and the Editor giving the first account appears not to), as our inability to perceive the supernatural has no binding effect on its ability to manipulate this world.

Although, the devil-character, Gil-Martin, is admittedly incomprehensible in his demeanor and appearance to the characters that observe him,[2] there is no indication in the narrative that he has any restrictions on his ability to freely interact with those around him; moreover it can be deduced that because he apparently transcends any physical form (this will become clearer in the second narrative), his existence is in no way shaped or bound by the material world. Thus, rather than being merely a religious concept, residing solely within the minds of convinced believers, Hogg’s devil is an agent operating entirely independent of our limited sensory and mental faculties.

The second narrative, structured as the personal memoir of Robert Wringhim Cowan as he unknowingly becomes an agent of Gil-Martin, gives a much more satisfying account of the devil, simply because Robert has no apprehensions about identifying his experiences with the spiritual realm. This is shown by his first encounter with Gil-Martin, whom he initially perceives to be his personal angel because of their uncanny resemblance[3]; this tendency of Robert to identify everything he encounters with his Christian faith serves as a major tool by which the devil comes to manipulate the young man’s actions. 

At one point, Gil-Martin himself explains the peculiarity of his changing facial features later to Robert, “If I contemplate a man’s features seriously, mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character.”[4] The basic message Hogg is telling the reader here is that the devil has no true face of his own, meaning that at any given moment he could take the form of anyone, and essentially be everywhere. Attaining someone’s likeness also gives Gil-Martin the ability to know that person’s mind, possess his thoughts and secrets, implying that the metamorphosis is entirely emotion driven, and inaccessible to rationality.

Gil-Martin is completely aware that he is an anomaly to observers, and in devilish fashion toys and winks on occasion to suspicious laypeople as an affirmation to how, indeed, you are seeing me as a wholly unnatural part of this natural world, and try as you may, you are incapable of explaining me by any empirically logical standard. An example of this is shown in his coy salute to Mrs. Calvert and Mrs. Logan,[5] both of whom are completely ignorant of his true identity, but nevertheless sense something irregular about the faux-man. All of this points to the notion that Gil-Martin as an entity, is in no way dependent on anyone’s belief in his person for survival, because he knows that he exists independent of any mind’s perception of him; he is his own mind. 

He even occasionally gives hints to Robert as to his demonic identity, such as his explanation, “I have no parents save one, whom I do not acknowledge,”[6] an obvious reference to Lucifer’s fall from God’s grace. Here, Gil-Martin could simply be relying on the fact that even a person as spiritually inclined as Robert will not possess the ability to cope with the logical conclusion of his statement, and will instead rationalize it and then conform it with his already presupposed religious convictions. But it also reflects on his nonchalant attitude towards keeping his demonic character hidden. Certainly when it comes to Robert, Gil-Martin uses the young man’s strong Calvinist faith in predestination to corrupt his mind, and get him to surrender his free will, but at no point is it insinuated that the devil needs Robert to believe him to be a man in order to carry out his sinister plot (and at times Robert seems to question this very notion). If anything, it is Robert who thoroughly goes mad by surrendering his identity to this devious doppelganger that is gaining more and more control of his mental and physical recesses: “But the most singular instance of this wonderful man’s power over my mind was, that he had as complete influence over me by day as by night.”[7]

To James Hogg, the devil is a real agent operating in the material world. Although, Gil-Martin’s face is defined by the individual observer, his identity is clearly not. One can even argue that besides giving him a means to enter the thoughts of those whose features he adopts, Gil-Martin’s metamorphosis also acts as a way to disarm those he seeks to manipulate by letting them believe that they themselves are the dominant personality between the two (since, after all, he is adopting their face), blinding them to the reality that the devil is subduing their very person.

Hogg’s devil-character is implied to be everywhere, manipulating people at any given times, his presence has no bearing on whether or not his influence is recognized as demonic or not, the end result will ultimately still be the same (as can be seen by the unexplainable political fight stirred up in the Editor’s narrative, and the ease by which Robert can be rhetorically swayed to commit one sin after another; both examples credited directly or indirectly back to Gil-Martin as the causal source).

Standing as a precursor to later Gothic novels to follow in the same century, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinners is certainly a dark genre read well worth looking into to get a feel for the earlier incarnation of the transition from Romantic to Gothic literature, and the various literary elements explored therein.


[1] Hogg, James.  The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, p. 110.

[2] Hogg, p. 107, and p. 109.

[3] Hogg, p. 133.

[4] Hogg, p. 137.

[5] Hogg, p. 108.

[6] Hogg, P. 141.

[7] Hogg, p. 144.

The Intellectual Value of Comic Books

Although the previous two decades saw a great surge in the respectability afforded to comic book characters adapted brilliantly to cinema screens, I don’t think the same level of appreciation carried over to the colorful, panel-style pages that all these characters originate from. What I mean is, while moviegoers might have cheered on at the sight of the Avengers, I predict very few people cared enough to go out and read up on the multitude of Avengers comics in publication since the mid-20th Century. I would argue the same probably holds true for many of the other top comics-to-cinema franchises.

Some movie historians point to the success of the 1978 Superman movie, or Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, as the beginning of the mainstream acceptance of comic book adaptations, but I’m not too sure it’s reasonable to cast such a far-reaching net. Movie genres, I believe, come in arcs and trends, and I don’t think the recent rise the comic book movie is anymore linked to the success of the two aforementioned movies than the rise of popularity of action movies throughout the 1980s and 1990s in general.

I’d argue that the precursor to the current comic book movies craze started just at the close of the 20th Century, with a movie called Blade.

For readers too young to remember 1998 too well, the first Blade movie was a humongous hit at the time of its release. Despite most moviegoers probably not being aware that they were in fact watching a comic book movie, Blade set the stage for Marvel’s superhero film adaptations that continue to this day. Moreover, it shifted the zeitgeist away from comic book movies needing to have an air of lightheartedness and child-friendly whimsy, and showed that you can have superheroes be dark, serious, and directed in a way where it looks as if they’re grounded in a reality that could plausibly overlap with our own (Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy would utilize a similar formula when adapting the caped crusader to the big screen in 2005’s Batman Begins).

Nevertheless, the theatrical success of Blade the movie, didn’t elevate the Blade comic book in the wider audience. Nor did the mainstream embrace of the subsequent comic book movies that enjoyed massive commercial success uplift most of it’s printed character counterparts to an equal footing with their cinematic namesakes’ successes.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not making some nerd-elitist “we true fans liked it before it was cool,” and in fact I’d argue that some comic book characters like Thor and Iron Man are not just adaptations, but superior works of storytelling in their big screen form than they ever were on the printed page.

What I am saying is that, despite the mainstream acceptance and success of movies based on comic book characters, and the widespread enjoyment the public gets out of the stories being told therein, comic books themselves are still not afforded the intellectual respect of being viewed as something beyond children’s entertainment, regardless of the maturity or complexity of the actual story being told within the drawn panels. Furthermore, if a comic book does reach a point where it is mature enough, raw enough, complex enough that it does crossover into the domain of being legitimate adult-approved entertainment, it immediately gets rebranded from mere “comic book” status up to the more reputable sounding category of a “Graphic Novel.”

So, there were some conversations about graphic novels… – Idaho Commission  for Libraries

Arguable the differentiation between what counts as a comic book, and what counts a graphic novel, could very well have its place. However the truth remains that, while a lot of people are willing to defend the intellectual worth of graphic novels like Watchmen, Maus, or Sin City, not too many bother to standup for the literary value of the common comic book; often this includes those of us who grew up enjoying comic books. And I would argue this seemingly minor oversight causes us to ignore a major contributor to a child’s introductory development to the world of literature, which can and does give rise to a lifelong appreciation of storytelling as a whole. Stories that can, and ought to, still be enjoyed well into adulthood.

Personally, comic books were a gateway into appreciating the written word at a young age, and laid the groundwork for understanding the importance of syntax structure when communicating one’s ideas through prose.  Now, I certainly didn’t realize as a kid, as all I did was enjoy the stories I followed in the printed panels, but the seed was planted for me to have a foundation to grasp the classics of literature once I was mature enough to engage them firsthand. Nowadays, I am surrounded by the greats (and some not-so-greats) of the literary world on my bookshelves, but I still feel no shame in openly indulging in the cheap, department store comic I bought along with my morning snickers bar. 

To me, comic books are a form of literature. Like all literature, some of it is good and some of it is bad; some of it is fascinating, and some of it is corny; some of it is engaging, and some of it is dull. But to dismiss the entire genre, so critical in shaping a one’s early sense of imagination and reading comprehension, just seems like a betrayal to the very foundations that introduced us to the world of literature to begin with.

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy

Years back, I had originally given up on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy halfway through Book Two because the main character, Quentin Coldwater, is such an insufferable, self-absorbed piece of shit that the thought of being trapped in his head for another book and a half seemed unbearable at the time. But the Covid quarantine got me to revisit the trilogy from the start again, and while my first impression of Quentin remains unchanged for that first half of the trilogy, the character’s development by the end of Book Two does actually soften me to his flaws and failures, to the point that I found myself fully emphasizing with him by Book Three as the hero of the story the narrative seemed so eager to convince me that he is not. Perhaps it was a clever ploy of reverse psychology, or subverting expectations on the part of the author, but whatever it was, it worked perfectly in the grand scheme of the narrative as a whole.

Throughout the books, we see Quentin be a lousy friend (practically dropping all his past contacts once he gets to Brakebills), a dishonest boyfriend, and a bit of a glory-hog whose concerns lie less with the safety of those around him, then fulfilling his own interest in coming out on top of the adventure he thinks he needs so he can escape the monotony of his life. But it’s in the aftermath of having experienced all of this (roughly at the closing of Book Two) that we get to see a shift in his perspective. Which retroactively makes a lot of sense, on account that he would need to experience the consequences of his hubris before being able to set out on a genuine journey of growth and finally learn from his mistakes. As a character, it wouldn’t make sense for him to have either the knowledge or experience to understand how to deal with the situations around him maturely, nor would it have been realistic or relatable. In fact, I’m pretty sure that had Book One started out with a character that was mature, reserved, amicable, and fully resourceful right from the start, I probably would have complained that such a trope is too boring and lacked any real character depth to bother with (being a nitpicky critic comes so easy to us in the audience, doesn’t it?)

Some worthwhile reads payoff eventually is the lesson here, and deserve to be carried through to the end. And having gotten to the end of The Magicians trilogy, I see why the author wrote Quentin as such a little shit at the beginning of the story, and why it was even necessary to do so, regardless of how much it irked me at the time of reading on the first go at it.

007 James Bond: A Quick Reflection

Ian Fleming’s 007 James Bond spy novels earn their place in the mystery genre for setting up an archetype that’s been recreated and rebranded across genres and generations. As well as for creating a character whose name transcends recognition beyond just its source material.

As far as the writing goes, Fleming obviously was fond of writing on topics he personally had an interest, and elaborating on said topics in as much extensively long-winded detail as possible. Seriously, paragraph after paragraph is written, stretching across a multitude of pages, going over card game rules, drink selections, and food preferences. After reading a James Bond novel I can give you a better recollection of Bond’s breakfast than I can of my own. In a way, I suppose it makes sense that a spy’s head would force the reader to focus on even the most mundane of details as a means of training oneself to register all facts about one’s surroundings. However, it is also forgivable if a reader tires of the elaborate and intricate descriptions of every glass of orange juice, suitcase, and burnt toast crumb between all the more interesting espionage action scenes.

James Bond in the books is also very much a character of the mid-20th century. Hence, his widespread display of casual chauvinism and colonial-minded racism in service of Queen and Country are inherent traits that don’t get softened in the course of the novels, as the film version does through the decades and into the turn of the century.

Although not the best written spy fiction, the 007 series is definitely worth a read even if only to get a historical glimpse at the origins of a character that’s become a cultural icon, and which will undoubtedly continue to evolve on the silver screen as the times demand it.

The secret to James Bond's timeless appeal - SlashGear

Dexter Morgan: Character Portrayal in Books vs. TV

File:Dexter Logo.svg - Wikimedia Commons

It’s been several years now since Dexter aired it’s series finale on Showtime. Along with most of the viewership, I feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction with how the show decided to end things (more on that later), but at the time it also left me wondering how the story might have progressed if a set of creative forces had taken its reins and run with it. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to wonder too much, as there existed a whole series of books that had inspired the TV show just waiting for me to explore, and contrast with its small screen counterpart.

Fair warning for those still binging on Netflix, there are bound to be spoilers below, and now that you’ve been alerted of it [in bold font, no less!], please don’t send me emails complaining about it. Cool? Cool.

If you’ve watched all eight seasons of the Dexter TV show, and then read all 8 books in the Dexter crime thriller series by Jeff Lindsay, you’ll have noticed some key differences in how the two mediums portray the personality and life events of its eponymous main character, Dexter Morgan.

I’m someone who happens to believe that changes to characters and narratives should not be reflexively dismissed as a negative. It is simply a fact that certain means by which a story can be structured within the confines of a book, does not always translate well onto the screen, and vice versa. Writers often have to make adjustments to allow for pacing, as well as the diverse means by which audiences consume either medium, in order to weave together a consistent and coherent plot. To put it simply: sometimes what reads well on paper, doesn’t always work too great when watched on a TV set (or any other screen). And audiences need to be mindful of this when comparing the differences between the two.

With that aside, these are the major difference that jumped out at me between Dexter, as portrayed in the pages of the books, and the TV series inspired by it, as well as the impact these differences hold for the overall narratives for either medium:

  • In the TV show, Dexter goes through a clear character arc where we see his psychopathic nature soften as he starts to identify with the individuals in his life, and humanizes as a result of his interactions with them (at least when comparing Season 1 Dexter, with Season 8 Dexter). In the books, no such arc happens. His outlook is the same in the last book (Dexter is Dead) as it is in the first book (Darkly Dreaming Dexter), that is to say, book Dexter remains as narcissistic and egocentric as he always was through every major life event. Personally, I think this difference works best for each medium. When it comes to books, you can still sympathize with a psychopathic protagonist if the story is written from his point of view, and he’s charmingly humorous about his monstrous behavior to boot. We’re just more forgiving because we experience the first-person account with him from inside his head, and had fun doing it, no matter how “bad” of a person he objectively is. Without a doubt, this wouldn’t work the same on a TV Show, or would be very tricky to pull off properly. Viewers want to know that the story they’re watching is progressing forward, and obvious character growth is a key way to portray that progression, otherwise you risk leaving the audience feeling cheated at getting invested in a character who seemingly has remained unaffected by anything that’s happened to them in the course of all major plot points you spent with them [I’m looking at you, Season 8 Jaime Lannister].
  • In the TV show, the Dark Passenger is just a metaphor Dexter uses to personify his homicidal urges, and in no way supernatural; in contrast, the books take a whole different angle on this whole concept. Book 3 of the series (Dexter in the Dark), makes it clear that the source of all psychopathic tendencies in the world has a supernatural origin, and descends from an ancient sacrificial deity named Moloch. Rather than being a manifestation of his darker urges, Dexter’s Dark Passenger is explained to be an entity existing separate from his own psyche, and is in no ambiguous terms presented as stemming from this supernatural source. It was a weak and nonsensical plot device that divided the fan base when Book 3 first came out, and for that reason gets downplayed in subsequent books. Nevertheless, it’s still there in the subtext and remains weak and nonsensical all throughout the book series’ run, whenever it is referenced again. For those wondering if there is an element of the story the TV show handles better than the books, I would say its interpretation of the Dark Passenger is an obvious winner in that regard. Not only is it more consistent with the tone of the greater narrative at play, it also serves as a better overall characterization of Dexter’s character, as the ultimate responsibility of his nature is still understood to be him at its core, and not the results of some convoluted spiritual influence at the hands of some ancient deity craving for a regular dose of human blood, or whatever.
  • Finally, the finale conclusions are very different. The last book in the series is titled Dexter is Dead, and although a bit of a spoiler in name alone, I found it to be a satisfying enough finish to the character, and recommend it as an overall entertaining read (though you do need to have also read at least the preceding book to understand many of the circumstances and references made throughout the narrative). In contrast, when it comes to the show’s finale, I defy anybody to defend that horrible last episode to me. I won’t go into too much of the details for those who can handle any and all spoilers except ones regarding a series’ closing scenes, but I’ll give a warning that I personally found the show’s finale to be an incoherent mess that spits in the face of all logic and any viewers who stuck around with it to the end (no, I’m not bitter–you’re bitter!). The final book in comparison is a much more fitting conclusion to the narrative, and has no stupid lumberjacks in sight.

I’m sure there are many other differences one could choose to go over, especially regarding secondary character developments (let’s just say, the books are not too kind with how they treat Detective James Doakes; I mean, he survives throughout the run of the books, but it sure ain’t a good life), but I wanted to primarily keep the focus on the character of Dexter himself. Also, maybe low-key intrigue some of the people I know reading this to read up on a few of the books, so I can finally have someone to discuss them with. Hey, a self-centered, narcissistic bookwork can dream, right?

Pin by esky :) on memes | Dexter morgan, Dexter, Michael c hall

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm”

The Conqueror Worm (Audio Reading) - YouTube

Few writers manage to personify the pangs of life as well as Edgar Allan Poe.  While many of the Romantics-themed writers of his day focused on encapsulating what they perceived as the quasi-transcendence of life and nature, and the beauty beheld by it, Poe set his sights past the glitter, and sought to present the (at the time) oft-neglected darker themes surrounding human existence.  More than mere pessimism though, his writing betrays a delicate understanding in the balance that exists between beauty and the grotesque, joy and pain, light and dark, life and death.

By artistic extension, the theme of helpless inevitability regarding the dynamic between life and death defines a great deal of the macabre tone Edgar Allan Poe creates in his prose.  Death has a special place in Poe’s work, and often takes center stage as the primary character underlying the plot of the narrative; always in the role of an unspoken, absolutist sovereign whose authority has no equal.  “The Conqueror Worm” is not the first (nor the last) poem in which Poe explores the persona of Death as the sole sovereign before which all life and imagined existence must ultimately bow, but it is a key work illustrating the poet’s deeper understanding of the phenomenons relation to life, and the human experience of it.

Lo! ’t is a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

The described scene is one in which even angels, servants of God and guardians of man, must humble themselves to the role of mere spectators before the play of life; the outcome of who’s plot they have no say over, and can do little but cry at the sight of the tragedy for the actors on stage.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Wo!

The characters of the play are mimes, in the form of God–symbolizing man, said to have been made in the image of God–trapped in a continuous roundelay, chasing intangible matters they have no hope of catching, but cannot help but go after like puppets being pulled by their strings.

That motley drama—oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

This path man is set to repeat, brings him nothing but despair and hopelessness, as he is doomed to always return to the same scene in his plot.  A fate so dire that even if he recognized the vicious circle he’s in, he’d still be bound to carry on acting through the futility of his existence.  However, although neither man nor divine intervention can free him from his plight, a bittersweet recourse does emerge to finally cut the puppet strings forcing him through his acts.

But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

In the end, while man obediently gives chase to the phantoms keeping him trapped as an actor in the play of life, Death emerges from out of the scene to devour the actor, and finish the play for good.

Death’s intrusion in man’s scene is fatalistic, in that it signals the drawing of the curtains, and the end of his life:

Out—out are the lights—out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,

But it also signals the end to his grief, by being able to finally conquer the root that is keeping man chained to his relentless despair.  In that view, Death is not the villain in the play called life: he is the hero, in the tragedy called Man.

While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

 

Bibliography

Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

Exploring William Blake

In his poem “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, William Blake describes the scene of innocent sheep being diligently watched over by a sweet shepherd.  The obvious message is the absolute sense of tranquility that is found by the herd from having a benign celestial father alertly protecting them.  But, as is with much of Blake’s writing, there is also a sense of a sinister totalitarianism being exercised by the benign shepherd.  He asserts guard over his sheep from “morn to evening,” “following his sheep all the day,” and, “his tongue shall be filled with praise.”  The Shepherd’s benefit from this relationship appears to be a self-aggrandizing one, basking in the sheep’s dependence on him.  The sheep, for their part, blissfully bask in innocent ignorance, enjoying the peace of mind grated to them through the shepherd’s protection.  Though the poem diverts the reader’s attention from sensing anything menacing with the strategic usage of gentle words like sweet, praise, innocent, tender, and peace, the dire message here can be read as indeed one of solace for both the sheep and shepherd, but also of a particularly menacing variant, reminiscent of captive victims who have learned to identify with their captors (Stockholm Syndrome).

In contrast to “The Shepherd,” Blake’s poem in Songs of Experience titled “The Angel,” approaches the same theme from a different standpoint.  Here, a maiden is being guarded over by a benign angel, similar to how the sheep were watched over by the shepherd, except unlike the sheep the maiden is filled with anguish rather than bliss.  The telling piece in the poem is that the angel is by no means a brute, but a concerned protector, yet the maiden seems to resent his presence anyway.  Whereas “The Shepherd” is comparable to a child yearning for the fawning of an overbearing parent, “The Angel” is that child maturing into adulthood, and desperately yearning for independence from her parents’ authority.  When the angel does flee the situation and the maiden is left alone, she “dried [her] tears, and arm’d [her] fears,” and upon the angel’s return she states, “I was arm’d, he came in vain,” because through her maturity she has made the conscious decision in her advanced years to—if need be violently—break free from the self-deprecating condition the angel’s preoccupation with her has created.

In line with the underlying anticlerical message evident in much of William Blake’s work, both “The Shepherd” and “The Angel” can be read as subtle, but stern, condemnations against church establishment.  “The Shepherd” illustrates the churches relation towards the youth of their flock, instilling within them a herd-like obedience towards its own authority and at the same time teaching them to praise this same authority.  It is fitting that “The Shepherd” is in the Songs of Innocence collection, since it appeals to the time in people’s lives before they are capable of reflecting on a situation and figuring out on their own what decisions are best for them.  It is the sort of innocence, which according to Blake, can be easily corrupted by organized religion and lead men further away from the truth of God in favor of expanding its own power; crushing creativity for the sake of conformist obedience.  Mention must also be given that the poem is written in third person, meaning that the true thoughts of the sheep are ultimately closed off to us, and the entire narrative serves as a representation of the oblivious public that gives cover to a harmful system because it itself is incapable of noticing that the dependence the shepherd had trained in his sheep is a form of mental submission, rather than sincere devotion.  On that same note, “The Angel,” from the Experience, shows a first person narrative, giving a personal account into the loathing and grief experienced by a creative mind craving to be free from an overbearing guardian.  Whereas, the young sheep sought the guidance of the shepherd because their reasoning skills were not developed enough to know better, the aging maiden’s experienced rationale had rebelled against her guardian.

Just as the church in Blake’s view seeks to do what it thinks is best for the salvation of man’s soul, “The Shepherd” and “The Angel,” demonstrate the irony of how the imposition of guarded and conditional deliverance can only be perceived as virtual imprisonment, and will–contrary to its own goals–impose a token brand of cerebral tyranny.

The Tower of Babel: An Alternative Perspective

When people speak of a need for their faith in God/s, they almost always come around to expressing how–though they’ll readily grant that organized religion, as an institution, may at times fall short of the ideal–the faith and grace of the Almighty still resonates in the hearts of all mankind (whether they acknowledge His omnipresence or not), and serves as the one true guiding force by which we may hope to find solidarity; through which we can strive to attain peace of mind, and (ultimately) peace on Earth, as surely as we are to find it in the coming hereafter.

When looked through the scope of the narrative found in the Book of Genesis, important events like man’s banishment from Eden, and the subsequent Great Flood meant to purge the world from the sinfulness that man had spawned in the world thereafter, are further reassurances of the need man has for God’s eternal presence in his life, without which he is doomed to be lost to both personal solace and eternal salvation.  Moreover, if we dwell further into the Christian perspective, it is in the figure of Jesus Christ–wherein God became man, and died at the hands of man, for the sake of absolving said man of his sin so that he may once more gain eternal life in Heaven at the side of his Creator–where we find the long awaited mending of the rift between man and his spiritual soul, and bring peace between the physical and metaphysical realms.

Given all of the above, the Tower of Babel stands as a rarely explored peculiarity to the common narrative.  The story of the Tower begins in the first verse of Chapter 11, in the Book of Genesis (this is after the banishment from Eden, and after the Great Flood had already taken place):

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.

2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

The whole earth was of one language, and presumably of a common understanding, as evident by the fact men journeyed and lived in some sort of union.  Though subtle, the placement of this story at this point of the Book is very significant in its relation to the theological underpinnings explored at the beginning of this post.  The story continues:

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.

So united was man in his pursuits, he begins to set the stepping stones for architecture and human innovation by improving on common building techniques.  A symbolic act indicating the advent of greater civilization meant to sustain a decently sized population.

4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

The common theological perspective is that this verse signifies how, rather than a symbol of man’s ingenuity, the Tower is a symbol of man’s pride.  The emphasis being on the hubris of mere men wanting to make a name for themselves by reaching the realm of God by earthly means, rather than spiritual ones, thereby making mockery of the very concept of salvation through the grace of God.  This reasoning is satisfying to many faithful, but rings hollow on a number of accounts.  The first of which being that nowhere in the verse is there any reference to God, his grace, subverting his grace, or even wanting to reach Heaven to reside there against the wishes of God.  At it’s most basic interpretation, what the verse does demonstrate is a wish to push human innovation beyond its limitations, to surpass our natural inhibitions and master it to our advantage.  And if this is a grave sin, then one might as well deduce all modern technological achievements to be sinful (and if you’re reading this post, by means of some technological device, one can safely assume you are not of this opinion).  Furthermore, such speculation is rendered moot by the subsequent verses, wherein God clearly states his reasons for disapproving of man’s construction of the Tower:

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.

6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

The construction of the Tower isn’t the problem for God.  His concern is the implication it holds concerning man’s collective potential to rise higher than his nature (where nothing “they plan to do will be impossible to them”).  There’s no mention of man’s pride–his hubris, if you will–nor is it even hinted that God’s concerns rest in anything other than his own self-interest, as he only identifies two contentions he holds with man’s construction of the Tower: 1. They are doing it as one people, 2. the construction of the Tower symbolizes man’s power to be limitless.  Now, God’s solution to this problem is a simple one.  Since 2 stems directly from 1, he sets out to undo 1:

7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

Bible scholars will easily identify the Tower of Babel as being a clear example of an etiological myth, meaning a myth/story/legend meant to explain the origin of a phenomenon (i.e. think of the tale of how man received the gift of fire after Prometheus stole it from the Olympians).  In this case, the phenomenon being explained through the legend of the Tower of Babel is the origin of the diversification of languages.  Acknowledging this, from a philosophical/theological perspective, the actions of God as a character in the narrative are far more interesting of an indication of the dynamic between man and the Divine.  Because, for those who take this narrative seriously, God’s actions are not just responsible for the diversification of man’s languages, but also man’s segregation into different tribes, many of which undoubtedly grew to become opposing tribes, which inevitably led to these tribes waging war on one another on account of these differences.  Therefore, as the instigator of the tribalism among men, God can be credited as the direct catalyst of the warfare that came about as a result from said tribalism.  That is, if one takes the narrative seriously.  For those with a more scholarly interest in the subject, the greater plot implications between the characters are still equally intriguing.

Thus, to summarize the whole plot:  In a world following man’s banishment from paradise, following the Great Flood–a world just about all theologians and the faithful identify as being fallen and plagued by sin–humanity managed to surpass these great odds stacked against it and unite as one people, and coexist in such unity that it not only survived, but thrived in the harsh environment on the basis of its ingenuity alone.  According to the Bible itself, this great human unity did not need an appeal to the Divine to be achieved, nor did it require a blood sacrifice on the part of the Creator to bring peace and solace to the hearts of man.  And, amazingly, it was not man’s sins that halted this progress.  Nor was it man’s inherent wickedness that tore at the base of this serenity.  It was God, Himself.  Why?  In accordance to the story it can be simply put as God being afraid of man.

As heretical at it might sound, this underlying fear of man’s potential is not an uncommon theme throughout ancient mythology (when stories like the Tower of Babel would have been crafted).  The lineage of the Greek pantheon is a direct testament to this very concept.  The Titans were deposed by the very Olympians they had spawned, just as the Titans themselves had deposed the ancient gods that preceded them.  Given this tradition of cyclical deicide, it is not a farfetched interpretation to read the constant demand the Olympian gods place on being revered and worshipped by mankind not as a testament of their strength, but as a revelation of the fear that their own creation–man–will one day follow in the same traditions that all the higher beings in their history have done, and depose the makers that made them.

Aristotle could never rationally fathom way any god would be concerned with the daily happenings of a lower order of beings like mankind, and proposed a deity that took a laissez-faire approach towards human endeavors.  But perhaps Aristotle was not thinking creatively enough.  For what are gods without worship?  How many gods throughout the ages have met their fate in the graveyard of mythology simply because man stopped minding them any attention?  From this perspective, the prospect of man turning both inward to his own strength and ingenuity, as well as to that of his fellow man, is antithetical to the interests (and downright survival) of any halfway competent God.  And the God of the Book of Genesis is no exception to this, as shown by His own conduct in story of the Tower of Babel.

Dale Carnegie Was Wrong

If you’ve ever taken a Communications or Business class, or sat in on any sort of marketing/networking seminar, there is a very good chance that Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was listed among the recommended readings on the syllabus.

In the book, Carnegie sets out to give a list of very basic advice on how to successfully interact with people, and increase your own potential by doing so.  The advice given seems very reasonable in a broad sense, and can be summed up in terms of being genuine and polite towards others, approaching everyone with a positive attitude, and reaping the personal satisfaction and interpersonal accolades that come from it.  All this is well and good, and I’ll be the first to tell people that if you wish for others to like you, not behaving like a complete dick towards them will go a long way in accomplishing this goal.  Moreover, if Carnegie’s book(s) help anyone achieve a mental state that makes them feel more empowered and confident in how s/he communicates and carries her/himself (not to mention, increases the person’s overall happiness), I have no qualms with that aspect of his method.

However, all that being said, it would be dishonest if I did not mention how there is something that always irked me about Carnegie’s writing, in particular this one book.  I think my problems with the self-help author are best summarized at the very beginning of Chapter One of Part Three titled, “You Can’t Win An Argument.”  In it, Carnegie tells the story of an event that occurred when an acquaintance he was having a conversation with mistakes an obvious quotation from Hamlet as being from the Bible.  Carnegie, aware of the error, corrects the man, and looks to his accompanying friend (an expert on the subject) to back him up in the correction.  Surprisingly, the friend sides with the gentleman who is in error, later telling Carnegie he did so because to correct the man would not accomplish anything positive.  Carnegie happily agrees with this reasoning, and advises readers to take it to heart that you should not correct such obvious mistakes made by others on account that it would make you argumentative, and being argumentative will not make people like you.  Presumably, the proper thing to do when confronted with such a situation is to be accommodating and refrain from saying anything that is not agreeable.

I take issue with this line of thinking.  Not because I see a great merit in being argumentative with people, but because I see something disturbingly manipulative in this tactic of communication, which I believe to be a problem at the core of much of the self-help market.  Carnegie asks us what good there is to stand firm and prove to the mistaken man that he is wrong, pointing to the desire to be held in high-esteem as the main priority.  But why should being liked be of a greater priority in this situation than being honest?  If it’s because it will be personally beneficial for you to always be seen in agreeable terms by those around you in case you need to call on them for favors down the road, then you are not looking to make real friends or honestly communicate with people at all; your purported interests lie in simply using people for your personal interests.  Because if this is not the case, and the stated goal is to form genuine relationships with people, then you should (as politely and lovingly as you can) seek to uphold a standard of honesty with those around you.  This includes being honest when you know that an acquaintance has made a minor mistake, such as mistaking the source of a quote.

I have made silly mistakes and the occasional faux pas on many occasions (and will undoubtedly make many more to come).  Sometimes, those around me correct said mistakes; other times, no correction is made and my ignorance remains unchecked until I happen to come across the truth of the matter first-hand.  Every time it happens, I felt like an idiot, and, yes, slightly resentful that my ignorance was in full view to the public.  But you know what definitely never happened again?  A repetition of that same display of ignorance on my part, on that same subject I was previously so wrong about.

I believe this is something Carnegie fails to address in his work.  And the reason this is a problem is that books like How to Win Friends & Influence People present themselves as being based on the principle that the fundamental way to succeed in getting what you want from others is to first be mindful of the wants and desires of other people.  In terms of building empathy, this is a principle I can truly get behind.  What I can’t get behind is the idea that pandering to the ignorance of those we wish to like us is something an honest person should strive for.  What I outright reject is the idea that communication skills ought to be built on chess-level moves of strategy and tactic, wherein the goal is to say just the right buzzwords to manipulate a desired outcome.

And no, despite what some self-appointed “straight-talkers” with a public platform wish to promote, standing up for what is true should not require you to disregard sensitivity towards others’ dignities and give you a license to be a total asshole in how you communicate with people under the guise of honesty.  To be honest is to simply be sincere with what you know to be true, and I believe making friends on the basis of such sincerity is a better approach, then looking to avoid making enemies by kissing the ass of anyone who might seem influential enough to give you a leg up in life simply for being their Yes-Man.