Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death: A Review & Critique

Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress presents the hypothesis that humanity’s move from a forager/hunter-gatherer existence into agricultural societies–and from there modernity–was the first step in our decline as a species. The further we progressed towards modern life, and away from our forager origins, the more we stepped away from our natural state, where we were happier, healthier, and more in tune with our environment, and became the sad, sickly, fragile creatures we are today.

First things first, there are several parts of the book I found interesting, such as the distinction between life span vs. life expectancy to show that our prehistoric ancestors lived much more fruitful and full lives than many of us are keen to believe. I’m also someone who’s not opposed to the notion that the sharp increase in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and general listlessness seen in modern society is in no small part aggravated by (if not caused by) the luxuries we have adopted in our daily lives (social media being an obvious example of a contributor to this malaise). However, all in all, I don’t think Ryan makes a convincing case for the underlying issues he raises, and there are several holes throughout his one-sided narrative.

Ryan relies heavily on the self-reported happiness of current-day forager societies, and uses that to infer that prehistoric man must have been equally satisfied with his existence. But as anthropologists are quick to point out, foragers today are not prehistoric, and shouldn’t be though of as such, in that they live in the current world same as we do. The conditions of their environment are not necessarily equivalent to those of prehistoric man, and their demeanor and customs have undergone as long of a development and adaptation as that of societies living in industrialize cities. Meaning that short of a time machine, we can’t simply infer the case that the behavior of current-day foragers/hunter-gatherers (Ryan used the two terms as synonyms) is a reflection of prehistoric humans. At best, we can try to piece together narratives that seem plausible in light of available evidence, but in the hands of someone like Ryan these ultimately become unfalsifiable just-so stories, as he has a proclivity to dismiss any opposing views to his as stemming from people being indoctrinated into the neo-Hobbesian view of human nature that demands for modern life to be seen as a point of progress in human development. Thus, any pushback one might give can be readily set aside as just mere squabble from the brainwashed.

Ryan wants to make the case that the selfishness, tribalism, and aggressive tendencies that are seen as innate parts of human nature are actually just things conditioned in us by modernity, and that such traits are entirely absent in forager communities, which he takes to mean that man’s natural disposition is one of harmony, humility, and peace with its environment and fellow man. However, in one part of the book he also states that forager communities will early one engage in customs like banter and roasting of members who show greater talents as a means of keeping their egos in check and instill in them a sense of humility. Ryan never contends with (or seems to realize) the fact that if such behavioral conditioning is needed then it calls into question his hypothesis that humility is the natural disposition of even the foragers he wants to uphold as the hallmark for us all to strive for. It simply implies that they partake in a level of social conditioning to ensure a harmonious society, same as we do when we teach children to share and empathize with those around them, whether we do it around the camp fire or in the daycare centers.

Ryan also engages in a set of conjectures when he appeals to the peaceful bonobos as evidence that man (as a fellow member of the great ape family) is also a pacifist species when allowed to remain close to his natural (forager) state of being. What Ryan fails to address is that we are as closely related to the common chimpanzee as we are to bonobos, and the former—despite having never developed agriculture that set them down the treacherous path of modernity—is still famously tribal, aggressive, and warlike in its demeanor. And that’s not to mention other great apes, like gorillas, which are hierarchical and routinely commit infanticide, and orangutans, whose males often mate via forced copulation of females (aka rape). In light of all this, the peacefulness of the bonobos seems to be the exception in the great ape family rather than the rule.

A final point of neglect that stuck out is that, while Ryan was quick to draw a comparison between humans and our evolutionary cousin the bonobo to support his narrative, he never says a word about our evolutionary forager sibling, the Neanderthal, who was displaced (by one means or another) by our supposedly pacifist prehistoric ancestors. While I’m sure there are ways to make this caveat fit his narrative, the fact that Ryan doesn’t even bother to try gives the impression that he would rather we simply ignore it as a data point in history so he doesn’t have to think about it, and hopes we do the same.

As I said before, I’m actually quite open to the idea that modernity has come with drawbacks that society is failing to deal with (the mental health crisis of the last few decades being a prime example), and I’m even open to the notion that there are lessons we can learn from prehistoric humans about life, happiness, leisure, and purpose. But I don’t think Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death does much to add to that important topic of conversation, and in many ways stands in the way of it, as it’s a topic that appears to be too far out of the author’s wheelhouse to deal with.  

Friedrich Nietzsche on “What is Religious?”

In Part Three of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche gives a detailed synopsis of his perception on the prominence of religiosity in human consciousness.

It is noteworthy that Nietzsche is unique amongst atheist thinkers—past and present—in that he never bothers to argue against the existence of deities, but simply asserts the nonexistence of gods as a given fact about reality (a reader might suspect that the philosopher would consider anything more as too generous of a move towards the religious mindset and its supernatural tenets).

To Nietzsche, gods (in all their varying forms and quantities) exist solely as elaborate conceptions of the human mind. Hence, the philosopher approaches the topic of religion from an entirely psychological standpoint, treating the occurrence of faith as an obvious neurosis plaguing the mind of man.

He states: “Wherever on earth the religious neurosis has appeared we find it tied to three dangerous dietary demands: solitude, fasting, and sexual abstinence.”[1]

Nietzsche views such manifestations of the religious spirit as indicative of its desire to both control and undermine the base nature of man; i.e., to rob man of his very humanity. He sees this as a reflection of religion’s unrealistic (in the sense of being anti-realistic) and inherently irrational temperament, making it futile for a person to try to decipher the cause and effect of its various supercilious decrees:

Among its most regular symptoms, among both savage and tame peoples, we also find the most sudden, most extravagant voluptuousness which then, just as suddenly, changes into a penitential spasm and denial of the world and will—both perhaps to be interpreted as masked epilepsy?[2]

Nietzsche recognizes how the idea of God serves as a testament to the creative capabilities of the human mind, but also paradoxically sees it as a catalyst of its ultimate deprecation—a “spasm and denial of the world” whose inevitable progress is bound to deprive mankind of his reasoning intellect, adding, “no other type has yet been surrounded by such a lavish growth of nonsense and superstition.”[3]

An apt criticism one could make of Nietzsche is that his polemics against religion seem to be largely centered on Abrahamic monotheism (particularly Christianity) with little regard given to the vastly divergent expressions of theistic godliness found throughout non-Western cultures. As far as Nietzsche’s major writings are concerned, this is not an unfair criticism, and it leads to two possible assumptions: the first being that Nietzsche may not have been familiar with non-Abrahamic faiths, and therefore is in no position to offer any viable commentary on them. While this is the simplest answer, it is also the more dubious.

In his younger writings Nietzsche actually does show a familiarity with Hindu theology (indicating that he had at least read the Upanishads[4]), as well as other variants of Dharmic spirituality.[5] A more plausible answer is that Nietzsche is doing what any good marketing professor would advise their intro-level students to do when selling an idea: know your audience. Nietzsche is writing in a predominately Christian country, to a predominately Christian readership; thus, one can see how spiraling off into protracted diatribes against ideas the majority of Nietzsche’s readership already rejects (there is no need to convince Christians that Hinduism/Buddhism/ Islam, etc, is false; they’re already convince of that), can appear like an unproductive effort for a philosopher who is looking to reform the values of his society—which in Nietzsche’s case happens to be largely Abrahamic (and more specifically Christian). Due to these reasons, Christianity receives the full brunt of Nietzsche anti-theistic polemics, because in his opinion it serves as the clearest embodiment of what he resents about religion as a whole:

From the start, the Christian faith is a sacrifice: a sacrifice of freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit; at the same time, enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation.[6]

To Nietzsche, Christianity symbolizes the decay of true moral values away from a positive affirmation of life through one’s personal innovation and will to power, and the embrace of a pitying death-cult that seeks to devalue the individual to a perpetual state of self-deprecation at the whims of a concocted, eternal higher power. The philosopher refers to this as the slave revolt of morality, because it illustrates the practitioner’s unrelenting wish to take on the lowly attributes of the common slave and demand that his weaknesses be seen as graceful virtues. And the dominance of this mentality in the consciousness of man Nietzsche traces to the rise of the Christian faith. Nietzsche emphasizes his point by adding, “Never yet and nowhere has there been an equal boldness in inversion, anything as horrible, questioning, and questionable as this formula: it promises a revaluation of all the values of antiquity.”[7]

He characterizes the rise of Christianity, and its slave morality, as a revolt against the earthly power which held dominance over it in its infancy, “it is the Oriental slave who revolted himself in the way on Rome and its noble and frivolous tolerance.”[8] One might want to challenge Nietzsche on his reference to Rome as a “tolerant” power, as much of its early dealings with Christianity (and many other groups) conveys the Empire’s high level of intolerance towards its subjects. But, I suspect, Nietzsche would counter this challenge by affirming that Rome’s often claimed harsh treatment of Christians stemmed from the faith’s inability to view itself as anything other than the meek, the victimized. Nietzsche maintains that to the Christian it is not the suppression of religious expression that infuriates its pious congregates, but the free expression of it, because such a state robs it of its ability to take on the perpetual role of the victim:

It has always been not faith but the freedom from faith, that half-stoical and smiling unconcern with the seriousness of faith, that enraged slaves in their master—against their masters. “Enlightenment” enrages: for the slave wants the unconditional; he understands only what is tyrannical, in morals, too; he loves as he hates, without nuance, to the depths, to the point of pain, of sickness—his abundant concealed suffering is enrages against the noble taste that seems to deny suffering (Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Religious,” section 46).

Although there may be something to be said about the seemingly inherent nature of Christianity to everlastingly cast itself in the role of the downtrodden outcast in an antagonistic world (after all, it cannot be forgotten that this is the same religion that at its most prominent and most powerful in the middle ages, still managed to continuously conjure up a never ending list of enemies in need of combating for the feeble and defenseless mother church), it is also undeniable that Nietzsche is heavily romanticizing ancient Roman values, simply to create a negative contrast against what he sees as the less virtuous Christian morals.

Ancient Rome, though capable of great pluralism in its multicultural Empire, was also capable of much cruelty against its subjects and anyone who dared show a semblance of discontent with its customs and practices. This is far from what we might call an enlightened society (though it is entirely possible that Nietzsche would agree that it may be far from what “we” call enlightened, but that this sentiment of ours merely stems from our passive acceptance of the slave morality, which seeks to undermine the virtue of strength in favor of submission, under the guise of egalitarianism).

Nietzsche’s primary contention with religion is that in contemporary society true religiosity is unfeasible, even among those who refer to themselves as religious.

It is unmistakable that people no longer refer to the divine to guide their lives’ affairs; not in any literal sense anyway. Pious devotion once implied a certain degree of sacrifice on the part of the practitioner, but this devotion today has been reinterpreted by adherents to conveniently avoid them any bodily discomfort. Take for instance the following Bible passage:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off, and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.[11]

Very few people—and no sane person—living today would even bother trying to adhere to the mandate prescribed above, because it demands of the person to willingly partake in an act of self-mutilation—self-amputation—for purposes that have no spiritual bearing on his existence. Modern man cannot accept the value of this archaic decree, thus he must find ways to rationalize its seemingly clear implications away, without having to abandon the theological foundation on which the directive stands. Thereby, the whole matter becomes an elaborate metaphor to the believer. Why?—Because to be told to accept it as anything more would prevent her/him from being able to remain thoroughly satisfied in her/his superficial piety towards the divine. It is an example of preserving the emotional sentiment of one’s religious traditions, without having to commit to any of the clearly stated demands that modernity has rendered irrational. As Nietzsche characterized it:

This is what I found to be causes for the decline of European theism, on the basis of a great many conversations, asking and listening. It seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in the process of growing powerfully—but the theistic satisfaction it refuses with deep suspicion.[12]

The contemporary shift to the vagueness of religious expression, the spiritual but not religious outlook, is to Nietzsche an indication of an intellectual retreat. Full confidence in the will of God is no longer an assailable aspiration, as indicated by the tendency to turn every uncomfortable divine command into some kind of broad metaphor or another.

People have reached a point at which the self, the I, occupies the role of the commander, the decider, the judge of values, a move that Nietzsche characterizes as antithetical to the Christian faith, because if man recognizes his role as the interpreter (not to mention the creator) of moral values, no need remains for divine guidance from above.

Nietzsche credits the advent of philosophy as a catalyst to the thinking person’s move away from the theistic mindset, even if the full implications of his actions are not readily apparent to the philosopher:

Modern philosophy, being an epistemological skepticism, is, covertly or overtly, anti-Christian—although, to say this for the benefit of more refined ears, by no means anti-religious.[13]

The early philosopher sought to use his reasoning to get closer to his deity, but Nietzsche argues that this very desire to probe deeper within ones theology for more substance on the religious question, betrays an overt dissatisfaction with the theistic explanation that was on offer. In other words, this sincerely pro-religious curiosity to ground one’s spiritual beliefs in something substantive resulted in the death of sincere religious belief, as man gradually began to discover that there wasn’t much substance for the divine to rest on. Nietzsche goes on to postulate that devout belief in God, and all things godly, will continue to decline, causing mankind to leave matters of the pious behind as a relic of our species’ infancy, though the basic longing for external values may remain:

Perhaps the day will come when the most solemn concepts which have caused the most fights and suffering,, the concept “God” and “sin,” will seem no more important to us than a child’s toy and a child’s pain seem to an old man—and perhaps “the old man” will then be in need of another toy and another pain—still child enough, and eternal child![14]

Nietzsche recognizes how nowadays religious expression has evolved to more of a cultural identification as much as a point of genuine belief. To these individuals, religion holds no real relevance in their lives, partly because they understand that religion holds no real relevance in assessing reality. What results, however, is not so much a disdain for religious matters, but a personal indifference towards its presence:

They are not enemies of religious customs; when participation in such customs is required in certain cases, by the state, for example, they do what is required, as one does so many things—with a patient and modest seriousness and without much curiosity and discomfort: they simply live too much apart and outside to feel any need for any pro and con in such matters.[15]

In other words, religion becomes a non-issue to the individual. At most s/he feels a sense of obligation to partake in the customs and celebrations of the once-devout society, but now it has been diluted to the point that one cannot even be bothered to evaluate any deep meaning behind the rituals (either favorably or unfavorably)—the whole debate is essentially meaningless to the average observer.

Nietzsche has little patience for the apathetic nonbeliever; or the sophisticated philosopher who knows better but chooses to indulge the masses with the musings about the seriousness of supernatural claims, because it allows him to “treat the religious man as an inferior and lower type that he has outgrown, leaving it behind, beneath him.”[16] (This makes the religious philosopher the most condescending of all nonbelievers.) Nietzsche has no interest to differentiate between the various expressions of religious faith; it is the religious mindset as a whole, in all its forms, that he opposes so vehemently:

It is the profoundly, suspicious fear of an incurable pessimism that forces whole millennia to bury their teeth in and cling to a religious interpretation of existence: the fear of that instinct which senses that one might get hold of the truth too soon, before man has become strong enough, artist enough.[17]

The idea here is that there exist those who know better than to cling to the promises of religion, but refuse to divorce the supernatural framework as an invalid interpretation of reality. They are like artists who use their talents to falsify reality to the observers by making the images they create more enjoyable to the naïve eye. Deep down, these individuals have long ago reached the conclusion that the version of reality they are promoting is flawed and baseless, but they continue to cheer on the masses they view to be too puerile in their reasoning to accept the truth about the nonexistence of gods, and the falsehood of religion:

Piety, the “life of God,” seen in this way, would appear as the subtlest and final offspring of the fear of truth, as an artist’s worship and intoxication before the most consistent of all falsifications, as the will to the inversion of truth, to untruth at any price. It may be that until now there has been no more potent means for beautifying man himself than piety: it can turn man into so much art, surface, play of colors, graciousness that his sight no longer makes one suffer.[18]

Nietzsche’s position is that man is no longer invested in the factual validity of religious claims, but only in the emotional satisfaction gained from them. It’s not about developing an accurate assessment of reality; it is about making life easier to cope with for the individual who thinks his existence (and his mistakes and failures) unbearable if it is not all ordained by some divine cosmic plan or another.

The specific decrees set out by religious scripture and traditions are meaningless to the religious person, since s/he will never tire of performing the mental gymnastics necessary to reevaluate and “metaphor-ize” any and every passage that s/he—as a rational, modern specimen of the human species—feels personally uncomfortable with.

The dietary restrictions, the sexual and anti-sexual demands, the call to bodily harm and sacrifice, have all become negligible trivialities to the religious person of today. What it really boils down to is the personal satisfaction gained from one’s religious experience—making it solely an internal pursuit, pretending to be externally based.

Nietzsche sees this fully reflected in the ease by which political players utilize the sensibility of religion to cement their self-serving authority over a pious populace, readily willing to ignore the hypocrisy of their leaders, and submit obediently to what is seen “as a bond that unites rulers and subjects and betrays and delivers the consciousness of the latter, that which is most concealed and intimate and would like to elude obedience, to the former.”[19]

The submission to a king-like figure comes easy to those who recognize an eternal higher power that will govern over them for all of existence, causing Nietzsche to speculate how consenting to earthly rulers claiming to be representatives of heaven gives people “the instruction and opportunity to prepare themselves for future ruling and obeying,”[20] in their coming kingdom of God.

Although Nietzsche appears to be suggesting how it would be best for people to abandon and move away from the religious instinct, he also grants the reality that for most people this is an impossible request:

To ordinary human beings finally—the vast majority who exist for service and the general advantage, and who may exist only for that—religion gives an inestimable contentment with their situation and type, manifold peace of the heart, an ennobling of obedience, one further happiness and sorrow with their peers and something transfiguring and beautifying, something of a justification for the whole everyday character, the whole lowliness, the whole half-brutish poverty of their souls.[21]

The concoction of a higher power that stands above all of humanity, is for Nietzsche a means by which those who lack the innovation, creativity, and confidence to elevate themselves as individuals, compensate for their inability to stand on their own and affirm their allegiance to this one and only life. It is an escape from their own ineptitude as individuals, a psychological prop that allows them to lower everything down to their level of destitute:

Perhaps nothing in Christianity and Buddhism is as venerable as their art of teaching even the lowliest how to place themselves through piety in an illusory higher order of things and thus to maintain their contentment with the real order, in which their life is hard enough—and precisely this hardness is necessary.[22]

The act of turning the downtrodden and meek into the noble and ideal is the means through which this mindset gained dominance in the contemporary conscience of man, because it finally gave a means by which the plebeian masses (who make up the majority of the human species) could shame their stronger counterparts into lowering their own standards in the name of empathy for those who not only embody suffering, but seek to preserve it as the highest of virtues:

They agree with those who suffer life like a sickness and would like to make sure that every other feeling about life should be considered false and should become impossible.[23]

As Nietzsche sees it, those who postulate and desire to gain access into paradise after death, are by definition proclaiming their despondency with this life. Thus, the religious tendency to extend hope to those who are suffering in life is also paradoxical a move that perpetuates it by not seeking to eradicate any source of suffering, but instead preserving it as a symbol of heavenly grace; heralding sufferers not as individuals being afflicted with a malady, but as blessed by the Almighty, who will reward their suffering in an unimaginable, yet-to-come, reality.

For Nietzsche, this is a deplorable view of one’s own existence, as it not only asks the individual to deny the reality of his state, but become content with his displeasure and pain as a necessary fulfillment of a higher will, making him forevermore dependent on an external authority for the hope of solace and happiness. As the philosopher summarized it, “the sovereign religions we have had so far are among the chief causes that have kept the type “man” on a lower rung—they have preserved too much of what ought to perish.”[24] All in the name of a God, who (if you agree with Nietzsche) is nothing more than a self-delusional extension of the believers who have created him so they can sheepishly submit to Him.

Therefore, to Friedrich Nietzsche the answer to “what is religious?” is best characterizes as the ultimate denial of reality, the deprecating wish to be a slave, and the negation of life.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, “What is Religious,” (1886) section 47.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nietzsche, “Letter to Freiherr Karl von Gersdorff,” Naumberg, April 7, 1866.

[5] References to Buddhist imagery are made throughout Human, All-Too-HumanThe Gay Science, and The Antichrist.

[6] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 46.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, section 48.

[10] Ibid, section 50.

[11] Matthew, 5:29-30.

[12] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), section 53.

[13] Ibid, section 54.

[14] Ibid, section 57.

[15] Ibid, section 58.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, section 59.

[18] Ibid, section 59.

[19] Ibid, section 61.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid, section 62.

[24] Ibid.

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 stand up 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!



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.