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.

William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake is a fascinating character in the world of literature.  A deeply spiritual man, whose writings seek to promote what he saw as the ideals of Christian virtue, but equally antagonistic towards all churches and established expressions of religion.  It is this sort of irony that is raised repeatedly in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), which explores ideas of traditional theology and ethical logic, to uncover what the poet thought to be the true spark of man’s divine spirit.

Anyone looking to seriously discuss the doctrine of Contraries set forth in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, must first grasp the rhetorical, and perhaps more importantly, the theological implications that come along with realizing that notions such as good and evil are not and cannot be described as antitheses of one another.  Plate 3 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, firmly calls on the reader to reflect on how s/he could honestly be able to fully comprehend positive components (such as attraction, reason, and love), unless there exist negative contraries (in this case, repulsion, energy, and hate) that must be known and understood to truly see the goodness of its opposites.  If these negatives (i.e. Evil) are absent, then there is no rational way to detect the positives (i.e. Good), thus gaining an understanding of evil is detrimental in recognizing good.  Plate 3 goes on to imply that Evil is the driving force of knowledge; it is the active factor that through its guiding principle, energy, focuses the senses of the passive recipient, Good, and allows its guiding principle, reason, to judge a given situation.  Blake finishes by affirming, “Good is Heaven.  Evil is Hell”, a clear attempt to distinguish between the two concepts.  But, while it is certainly true that the existence of Heaven is not contingent on there also being a Hell, any description associating Heaven with Good will lose all meaning in the absence of Hell.  If Heaven is the sole transcended plane, then to label it Good (or anything else for that matter) is an arbitrary description, akin to saying that Color is Heaven.  In such a case, what would anything outside Heaven be, non-Color, but what would that describe?—Nothing, which is precisely why it is vital for us to be able to articulately conceive of the Evil of Hell, so that we may understand the Good of Heaven.

It must be kept in mind that in Blake’s spiritualist view, these traditionally divine and damned settings are considered to be more psychologically real, than physical representations of actual places (as the churches teach).  Thus, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, are dependent on one another to ensure the promulgation of both entities in human consciousness.  A fact that is acknowledged and plainly stated by Blake, and (in his view) secretly acknowledged but never stated by the churches.  In plate 4, the voice of the Devil is presented in the form of a rational argument (even though reason is a component of Good), articulating Blake’s stance that although transcendent experience is real, any attribute we give to it is limited by the imagination of our minds, thereby making this real entity imaginary when we aim to analyze and categorize it rationally.  Resulting in irony, because whereas reason is supposed to be a principle of Good, it becomes entrenched by our energetic drive to grasp it (energy being the principle of Evil), which ultimately takes us further away from the divine truth but also gives us our only possible insight to divinity.  Meaning that, unlike what the church or organized religion teaches us, our physical and mental cravings are neither sin nor salvation, but manifestations of one transcendent property incapable of being dissevered.  Our projection outward towards the heavens is in truth just a reflection inward—where Heaven truly resides—towards our soul.

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

John Keats | Poetry Foundation

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

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

His spirit pass’d beyond its golden bourn

Into a noisy world almost forlorn.

The lady, ever watchful, penetrant,

Saw this with pain, so arguing a want

Of something more, more than her empery

Of joys; and she began to moan and sigh

Because he mused beyond her, knowing well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gullivers-Travels-Drawing-Etching-IAFOR - The IAFOR International  Conference on the Social Sciences – Hawaii (IICSSHawaii)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The City in the Sea”


Much of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry tends to personify Death as the final, and therefore, most powerful of entities conceivable.  In “The City in the Sea,” a young Poe dreams up a dwelling for Death to reign as sovereign, and illustrates the trademark gothic imagery that will come to identify the poet’s literary career.

Poe gives clear and detailed descriptions of this city of Death:

Lo!  Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city lying alone

Far down within the dim West,

Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best

Have gone to their eternal rest.

The second to last line above is the most intriguing, as it suggests that the moral character of a person is of no importance in determining one’s future destination in Death’s lonely kingdom.  This contrasts sharply with Western conception of an afterlife that claims to take into account one’s moral standing.  Adding to this is the suggestion that Death is not just a transitional figure between realities (as commonly believed), but an eternal presence for the souls who pass into his city; Poe’s Death is all-encompassing in his reign, and like Hades, disinterested in our mortal nuances, as seen by the images that accompany his city:

There shrines and palaces and towers

(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)

Resemble nothing in ours.

Around, by lifting winds forgot,

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

Death’s dwelling is of no comparison to anything we can conceive of, for ours is a world of motion, his of eerie calm.  And despite the fact that both good and bad reside within his place of sovereignty, his city is one of gloom for all:

No rays from the holy heaven come down

On the long night-time of that town;

But light from out of the lurid sea

Streams up the turrets silently–

Gleams up the pinnacles far and free–

Up domes–up spires–up kingly halls–

Up fanes–up Babylon-like walls–

Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers

Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers–

Up many and many a marvelous shrine

Whose wretched friezes intertwine

The viol, the violet, and the vine.

Death city is one of elegance, and glamor, but ultimately it lies cold in sight.  The sun does not shine on its inhabitants, and the lights that do breach the city walls come as a haunting reminder of that beyond the melancholy shores, lies a livelier place.  The structures are impressive, but they are empty in tone, serving as no substitute to the artistic touch that the warmth of a living soul can create.

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

This is the second time that Poe has bothered to pen these lines to emphasis how even the seemingly unbound sea lies restrained by the city’s lifeless hold.

So blend the turrets and shadows there

That all seem pendulous in air,

While from a proud tower in the town

Death looks gigantically down.

While all else in the city murks into one endless sea of melancholy, Death stands clearly visible to his subjects.  He is the true constant keeping all else still–the inescapable Lord of his domain.

There open fanes and gaping graves

Yawn level with luminous waves

But not the riches there that lie

In each idol’s diamond eye–

Not the gaily-jewelled dead

Tempt the waters from their bed;

Poe’s intent is to subtly impress onto the reader the horror of timelessness that accompanies this city.  It is more imposing than the force of gravity, for at least gravity allows its subjects the privilege of feeling the passing of time through its affects.   Also, by taking away the value of finite existence, all the petty values that give our minds rest are deprived from our very being.  To exist in such a state is not to exist at all.

For no ripples curl, alas!

Along that wilderness of glass–

No swellings tell that winds may be

Upon some far-off happier sea–

No heavings hint that winds have been

On seas less hideously serene.

To move with no feeling of motion, to breathe with no sensation of breath, is a sentence worse than physical torment could ever be.  In such a realm, one would eager wish to endure all the flames of Hell, just so one can know to have felt something again.  What are we as living beings in this world, if we are forbidden from feeling the world around us?–Nothing!  Nothing, but empty phantasms.  Forced serenity is the most dehumanizing form of torture to a lively mind.

But lo, a stir in the air!

The wave–there is motion there!

As if the towers had thrust aside,

In slightly sinking, the dull tide–

As if their tops had feebly given

A void within the filmy Heaven.

Besides the shift in imagery, a reader should take note of the prose Poe uses in this half of the stanza.  It is the towers which appear to hold the ultimate power over the forces of nature, and all else.  But the towers are inseparable from the city, which is inseparable from its sovereign and creator, Death.  Therefore, Death’s dominion extends further beyond the gates of his city–possibly even above that of “filmy Heaven”?  For if all souls are subject to Death’s domain, what purpose lies there for Heaven, at all?

The waves have now a redder glow–

The hours are breathing faint and low–

A shift in imagery is still occurring, as Poe is continuing to introduce the concept of motion into this once motionless world.  However, even though the first six lines of the stanza are ambiguous about the malevolence of the changing scenery, the two that follow above end any positive impressions the reader may have forged about the coming events.  (At no time are reddening seas, and faint breathing a sign of benignity.)

And when, amid no earthly moans,

Down, down that town shall settle hence,

Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,

Shall do it reverence.

Hell has risen on earth, out of the same melancholy sea.  But what took Hell a thousand thrones to rule, Death did with just one.  For that, even the Devil must pay his respects to his ominous superior, whose authority not even beneficent Heaven can reprimand.


Poe, Edgar Allan.  “The City in the Sea,” 1831.

Alfred Tennyson’s “The Poet’s Song”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson | Poetry Foundation

It has always somewhat saddened me how, whenever I casually inquire a group of minds as to the authorship of the lines, “Tis better to have lost and loved, Then never to have loved at all,” the most likely response (at least, in my experience) is to attribute the words to William Shakespeare, or even Charles Dickens.  Although his influence within the realm of British poetry and the common anglophone vernacular are enough to place Alfred Tennyson’s name amongst the giants of what makes up early modern literature, the fact remains that the man is relatively unknown to the layperson who more than likely has made use of one or more of his charming phrasings.

Tennyson’s poetic talents were best displayed through his idylls, which intimately capture the world through the senses of the subject narrating the simple, yet engaging, prose.  Tennyson excelled when he wrote candidly of the world he observed around him, often without resorting to the great emotionalism of the Romantics he admired, preferring instead to employ a reserved tone to inspire the feeling he wished his writing to convey to the reader.  His lesser discussed prose, “The Poet’s Song,” is a perfect illustration of Tennyson’s artistic approach.

The rain had fallen, the Poet arose,

He pass’d by the town and out of the street,

A light wind blew from the gates of the sun,

And waves of shadow went over the wheat,

And he sat him down in a lonely place,

And chanted a melody loud and sweet,

That made the wild-swan pause in her cloud,

And the lark drop down at his feet.

Tennyson’s opening lines work to convey the movement’s of the poet in tune with the harmony of nature; hence, the explicit indication of the poet’s scant interaction with the urban world he passes by, in contrast to the vivid details given about the natural world he observes.  The reason for this distinction suggest that the poet is by virtue of his character more in touch with the underlying order of life, rather than the artificial constructs that compose metropolitan living.  His chanting of a melody into this tranquil world further symbolizes his interest to gain a oneness with its features, so much so that it awes the creatures who come to hear it.  The poem goes on to state:

The swallow stopt as he hunted the bee,

The snake slipt under a spray,

The wild hawk stood with the down on his beak,

And stared, with his foot on the prey,

There is a subtle shift in the tone here (carried on from the last two lines of the previous stanza).  Whereas the poem began indicating the desired unity of the poet with the natural world, this same unity is now causing an obvious break in the normal flow of this natural order.  Thus, although the poet is harmonized with the natural world, he nevertheless is distinct from its actual cycle.

And the nightingale thought, “I have sung many songs,

But never a one so gay,

For he sings of what the world will be

When the years have died away.

The poet’s role within the natural order is to capture the moment for the posterity of those who will yet be born to enjoy the times.  He is an observer to it, but ultimately also the source that defines it.  The sweet song of the nightingale, passing and unrecorded by time, do not compare to the gravity of the poet’s song, which serves as the reference–the very embodiment of the era of the days, and world he observes.  So much so that, once the years have died away, the poet’s prose will come to simply be the moment for those who look back on it from the perspective of what will by then be a changed world.

Tennyson’s “A Poet’s Song,” is a testament to the first person who chose to sing his words rather than state them.  And the reason why such song’s still remain with us to this day, rather than having been lost to time.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within a Dream”: An Analysis


It is not a hyperbole to say that the final year of Edgar Allan Poe’s life also produced some of the darkest and most sensitive work composed by the poet.  Reading through “A Dream Within a Dream” one is almost inclined to believe that the man understood that his days were coming to an end.  The prose is always reflective, laced with a somber dose of melancholy; yet, filled with unavoidable regret and frustration.  Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the prevailing anger of the hopeless writer at the various circumstances that have brought him to his lowly point.

The poem begins like a dying man’s final plea for understanding from a life that has granted him so much torment during his time within its clutches:

Take this kiss upon the brow!

And, in parting from you now,

Thus much let me avow–

You are not wrong, who deem

That my days have been a dream;

The poet appears to be prepared to say his farewell through these opening lines, but also offer a last elucidation into his troubled mind.  The last two lines may read as a concession to the frivolous pursuits of one’s past interests, but if read with the line that precedes it the message takes on a much more affirmative tone than a reader might expect from a shame induced defense.  The man understands that it is too late to bother with vacuous humility about one’s misdeeds, and instead opts to simply give his closing testament of his dire state of mind–offer his own epitaph, if you will.

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?

The question asked is much more complex than its simple framing might suggest.  When a man reaches a point in which his past desires,  dreams, and ambitions are no longer feasible goals for him to pursue, should it matter by what means or length these hopes have left, since they are presently nothing more but mere memories anyway?  Is it not true how this will eventually be the fate of all our current pursuits and hopes?  And if so, is there any use in pursuing one’s hopes to begin with?  Or as Poe puts it:

All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream.

Every matter we dedicate ourselves to will some day decay to nothing more but a faint memory–a dream within a dream.  Although it seems apparent when stated in such terms, the actual prose of this first stanza of the poem presents the blatant fatalism of its message in a much subtler tone.  The sort a dying man might present to ease the misfortunes that have haunted his life.

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand–

Now, the reader is given a clearer description of the poet’s current circumstance.  The usage of “roar” and “surf-tormented” brings up images of anguish, but the poet’s allusion to an unruly sea as the source implies that the troubles of his life are ultimately pangs that life has thrust upon him (and not the result of self-inflicted foolishness).  The last two lines here are important, for they reference the poet’s still vivid recollection of past valuables amidst his gloomy memories.  But rather than give him solace, these few redeeming moments are the most painful of all to bear:

How few! yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep–while I weep!

Edgar Allan Poe is a man whose life is filled with more tragedies than his writings could ever express.  Having lost his parents, his wife, seen much of his literary career dismissed to the margins by his colleagues, reduced to the state of an impoverished drunk, he now stands crying in isolation, trying to hold on to the tiniest of golden moments he can recall in life, but finding himself powerless in capturing them for any meaningful comfort:

O God! can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Whereas the poet began his prose in collective reflection, the endeavor appears to have been too much for his fragile mind, as he now tries to plea with the phantoms of his past.  The desperation in these final gasps reveals much about the writer’s final mental state.  Far from being ready to make peace with his life’s torments and losses, and despite his previous insistence how his hope has flown away, his self-pity still prevents him from giving into the apathy he seems at times to crave.  This is evident by how he finishes his prose by repeating his once exclamatory statement, as a hopeful question for mercy from some undisclosed fate:

Is  all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

For someone like Edgar Allan Poe, who at this point in his life had nothing more to hold onto but his dreams–his fading memories–nothing would have been more desirable than the reassurance that this sole valuable of his was more than a mere intangible thought.  But given how the poet’s life ended within the same year that this poem was published, I am skeptical as to whether he ever managed to truly convince himself of this dying wish.

George Orwell’s 1984 and Perfect Hoplessness

All-Knowing State: 2015 Isn't Very Different from Orwell's 1984

I believe that George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the most important pieces of social commentary of the 20th Century.  Unlike other dystopian novels, 1984 is unique in its narrative of hopelessness and despair, by virtue of the author’s refusal to grant his protagonist a final means of escape.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is an earlier novel that follows a similar theme of the lone individual trying to hold on, both physically and mentally, against a totalitarian power that is seeking to subdue his will.  But, even though some might view the fate of Huxley’s protagonist John as tragic, in comparison to the fate of Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, Brave New World actually concludes on a moment of defiance by the individual against the oppressive system–a faint murmur of hope in human dignity is still salvaged.  Orwell’s 1984, leaves no room for such salvation.

To me, this message was not apparent the first time I read the book, not until I finished it all the way through.  Witnessing the glimmers of defiance Winston shows throughout his interrogation, convinced me that somehow, by some means, he would be able to combat against his oppressors and triumph over them in the end.  This feeling was intensified to its peak when Winston, feebly, abandoning all care for argument or rationale, lashes out at the source of his misery, “I don’t know–I don’t care.  Somehow you will fail.  Something will defeat you.  Life will defeat you” (p.269). The retort of a man that has been taken to breaking point, but is still trying to push forward for the sake of something–anything–better, than what is presently staring him in the face.  The novel implies that even Winston’s interrogator was fleetingly taken aback at the sudden burst of indignation, causing him to launch into an array of verbal battery battery against the defiant prisoner:

“Do you see any evidence that this is happening?  Or any reason why it should?”

“No.  I believe it.  I know that you will fail.  There is something in the universe–I don’t know, some spirit, some principle–that you will never overcome.”

“Do you believe in God, Winston?”


“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”

“I don’t know.  The spirit of Man.”

“And do you consider yourself a man?”


“If you are man, Winston, you are the last man.  Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors.  Do you understand that you are alone?  You are outside history, you are nonexistent / And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?”

“Yes, I consider myself superior” (p. 269-270)

What I love about this scene is the sheer insubordination show by the wholly helpless Winston.  The resolve to forgo all pretense of humility, and openly declare his superiority to the authority that is eager to rob him of his humanity.  Unfortunately, without wanting to give too much detail away, the enthusiasm raised in this dialogue disappears as quickly as it comes.  The world Orwell has created is perfectly hopeless, one in which the future can only be accurately described as, “a boot stamping on a human face–forever” (p. 267).  But none of this can truly sink in to the reader, even through all the torture and pain and anguish, not until the haunting final four words are read.


[All quotations used from the following citation]

Orwell, George.  1984.  “Part Three: III,” (Signet Classic: New York), 1949, 1977 reprint.