Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a French semiologist, best known for his book Mythologies (1957). Barthes argued that most of what we assume to be natural could be products of history and culture. More specifically, linguistic and artistic representations play a crucial role in the naturalization of arbitrary and morally ambiguous historical events.
By way of example, politically active gay persons usually challenge the following argument:
Homosexuality is ethically bad because it is unnatural, and heterosexuality is ethically good because it is natural.
Critics will say that, according to this line of reasoning, a deadly rattlesnake could be good for children because it is natural. And this seems a valid critique of this kind of argument. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the joys or horrors of homosexuality, to challenge it with this type of reasoning is philosophically weak.
Barthes also makes a distinction between readerly and writerly text, outlined well at Wikipedia:
A text that makes no requirement of the reader to “write” or “produce” their own meanings. The reader may passively locate “ready-made” meaning. Barthes writes that these sorts of texts are “controlled by the principle of non-contradiction” (156), that is, they do not disturb the “common sense,” or “Doxa,” of the surrounding culture. The “readerly texts,” moreover, “are products [that] make up the enormous mass of our literature” (5). Within this category, there is a spectrum of “replete literature,” which comprises “any classic (readerly) texts” that work “like a cupboard where meanings are shelved, stacked, [and] safeguarded” (200).
A text that aspires to the proper goal of literature and criticism: “… to make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text” (4). Writerly texts and ways of reading constitute, in short, an active rather than passive way of interacting with a culture and its texts. A culture and its texts, Barthes writes, should never be accepted in their given forms and traditions. As opposed to the “readerly texts” as “product,” the “writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages” (5). Thus reading becomes for Barthes “not a parasitical act, the reactive complement of a writing,” but rather a “form of work”¹
However, this distinction seems spurious, for readers are always interpreting and creating as they take in a text, regardless of if being a so-called “classic” text or an “avante-garde” text. In fact, avant garde texts usually emerge within some new kind of clique or arts group that can be just as “bourgeois” as traditional groups. This was made abundantly clear whenever I attended a Cultural Studies class in university, which usually reeked with the snobbery of style exuded by some students living on their wealthy parents’ credit cards.
¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland_Barthes#Key_terms. See more on this distinction here: http://www.arts.uwaterloo.ca/~raha/700_701_web/BarthesLO/readerly.html
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In that work the character Dr. Pangloss is a mouthpiece for the Leibnizian view. Pangloss clings to his rosy philosophical outlook despite undergoing horrendous personal sufferings.
Votaire, himself, had his fair share of suffering. He was imprisoned in the Bastille for speaking out against a French nobleman who’d insulted him. And his imprisonment came after he was beaten up by the nobleman’s servants and denied compensation.
In 1726, Voltaire responded to an insult from the young French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan, whose servants beat him a few days later. Since Voltaire was seeking compensation, and was even willing to fight in a duel, the aristocratic Rohan family obtained a royal lettre de cachet, an often arbitrary penal decree signed by the French King (Louis XV, in the time of Voltaire) that was often bought by members of the wealthy nobility to dispose of undesirables. This warrant caused Voltaire to be imprisoned in the Bastille without a trial and without an opportunity to defend himself. Fearing an indefinite prison sentence, Voltaire suggested that he be exiled to England as an alternative punishment, which the French authorities accepted. This incident marked the beginning of Voltaire’s attempts to reform the French judicial system.¹
This no doubt set the scene for Voltaire’s Candide, and many other works which advocated fair play and the betterment of society, to include freedom of speech and religion.
Candide was banned by the authorities for being blasphemous. But Voltaire’s sharp wit and clever insights couldn’t be resisted by Enlightenment thinkers. The book was secretly circulated and extremely popular. Voltaire’s fresh approach influenced many other authors, and Candide is now recognized as a classic of Western literature.
As often happens, if a petty, jealous or fearful authority tries to hold back a great personality, this usually spurs the creative soul on to even greater heights of achievement—which, ironically, supports Leibniz’s position.
The American conductor Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for an operetta based on Voltaire’s work. Also called Candide, it opened on Broadway in 1956 to lacklustre reviews.
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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic 1886 novella written by the Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson. The tale illustrates what later would be described by psychiatrists as sociopathy (or psychopathy).
In the novella the once honorable and philanthropic Dr. Jekyll becomes absorbed with the problem of good and evil. To gain esoteric knowledge he divides his nature by drinking a concoction. This transforms him into the purely evil Mr. Hyde, with moments of reverting to the sunnier side of Dr. Jekyll. He desperately tries an antidote but eventually the dark side overtakes his personality. He finally commits suicide in what he believes is his last humane act.
We’ve probably all encountered a person or two (male or female) who reminds us a bit of Dr. Jekyll. They can seem quite intelligent by forwarding clever (if morally twisted and self-serving) rationalizations of their harmful behavior.¹ Or they may use fancy, pretentious language to try to cover up their abuses and to elevate themselves in the eyes of others. But once one gets wise to their upsetting combination of half-truths, outright lies and betrayal, one might never want to deal with such a person again.
¹ God fearing people do not call that “intelligence” but evil, which at bottom is just stupid.
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Euripides (480-406 BCE) was a Greek dramatist, born in Athens. As a youth he was an athlete, winning prizes at Eleusinian and Thesean gymnastic events. After studying philosophy under Anaxagoras (along with his friend Socrates), rhetoric under Prodicus and dabbling in painting, Euripides realized that literature was his forté.
Euripides is identified with theatrical innovations that have profoundly influenced drama down to modern times, especially in the representation of traditional, mythical heroes as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. This new approach led him to pioneer developments that later writers adapted to comedy, some of which are characteristic of romance. Yet he also became “the most tragic of poets”,[nb 1] focusing on the inner lives and motives of his characters in a way previously unknown.¹
He wrote some 80 dramas, out of which 19 remain. Medea, Electra, and Trojan Women were performed during his lifetime but his work became increasingly popular after his death. The Bacchae, for instance, was performed in Athens only after he had died.
Euripides is also relevant to contemporary psychiatry and, in particular, depth psychology. His play Heracles (416 BCE) most effectively personifies Madness as the daughter of Heaven and Night, sent to drive Heracles insane:
Madness has mounted her chariot
Groans and tears accompany her
She plies the lash, hell-bent for murder
rage gleaming from her eyes
A Gorgon of the night, and around her
Bristle the hissing heads of a hundred snakes²
Fully versed in the myths and legends that permeated his culture, he was also aware of the Sophists and the early scientists and philosophers like Anaxagoras.³ So Euripides didn’t buy into but, rather, satirized the popular religion of his day. He did believe in the idea of divine providence but was skeptical of many of the religious beliefs and practices that dominated the ancient Greek world.
Put simply, he preferred to find his own answers to questions concerning ultimate truth. As such, he’s been called ’the poet of the Greek enlightenment,’ among a variety of other things by his detractors and admirers.4
² Euripides, cited in Eric Flaum and David Pandy, The Encyclopedia of Mythology: Gods, Heroes, and Legends of the Greeks and Romans, Philadelphia, Courage Books, 1993, p. 99.
³ Peter Burian ” Euripides ” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Ed. Michael Gagarin. © Oxford University Press 2010. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. Toronto Public Library. 25 May 2012 http://www.oxford-greecerome.com/entry?entry=t294.e458
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T. S. Eliot (Thomas Stearns Eliot 1888-1965) was a British poet and writer born in St. Louis, USA. He studied at Harvard and Paris and after a year at Oxford decided to remain in the UK, as advised by Ezra Pound. He held teaching and banking jobs before being hired as the director of Faber Books.
His first book of poetry, “Prufrock and Other Observations” (1917) was published with Pound’s backing. Bertrand Russel introduced it to the Bloomsbury Circle. Next came “The Waste Land” (1922) and “The Hollow Men” (1925). Perhaps no one quite knows the meaning of this latter poem, which ends with a bleak vision of the world ending “not with a bang but a whimper.” A cold and morbid view, it nonetheless carries a somewhat disjointed sense of fascination.
Later works by Eliot portray warmer, Christian themes. By the time of “Ash Wednesday,” he had joined the so-called ‘Anglo-Catholic’ Church in England, finding new spiritual meaning to fill a former void. “Ash Wednesday” portrays the ideal human as a humble servant of the divine instead of a disturbed or disillusioned seeker suspended in a chilling fantasy.
Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.
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Frankenstein (Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus) is Mary Shelley‘s novel of 1818 in which a Baron Frankenstein creates a horrible monster by reassembling and electrifying body parts from exhumed cadavers. The monster is never called ‘Frankenstein’ in the book but the idea stuck.
Apparently Mary Shelley, the wife of the poet Percy Shelley, awoke one morning after dreaming of the unwritten novel. She quickly wrote the plot and opening pages. The story has been set to several films, the most notable starring Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931).
Ultimately Frankenstein is a tragedy as the monster eventually destroys its creator. Symbolically, the Frankenstein monster represents anyone who, for all intents and purposes, seems ‘dead,’ callous and uncaring.
Like all archetypal images, however, we’d do well to remember that, in most cases, they represent aspects of real people. As such most people are far more complicated, valuable, and redeemable than a mere caricature. They may seem to be totally evil, but in some instances they can still behave ethically. In a few instances of psychopathology (and evil), however, some individuals appear to become totally engulfed by archetypal forces (or demons).
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Hubris (Greek: hybris) This term, often used in literary criticism, denotes haughtiness, arrogance or overconfidence usually resulting in some sort of personal disaster.
The term has a complex history in ancient Greek culture. And the idea crops up in the Old Testament Proverbs, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”¹
In the 20th and 21st centuries the idea of hubris has been explained through the psychological concept of the unconscious. For instance, most of us have probably heard of the idea that some criminals, at some level, want to get caught.
So they leave obvious clues or do things that appear hard to understand (like a wealthy Hollywood celebrity shoplifting in a store that has security cameras, or an important politician tweeting profane things).
However, they do this unconsciously, so the theory goes, because they actually want to face their unresolved issues and come back to their true selves and feelings. And getting caught in a silly, shameful thing is a surefire way of being humbled and brought back to oneself.
Theological explanations concerning why bad things happen to people, even seemingly good people, usually refer to God testing, strengthening or purifying us for everlasting life in heaven.
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Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was a former bookseller and antiquary, born in Württemberg, who became an influential writer and friend of the Swiss psychiartrist Carl Jung.
Hesse’s themes are mostly about his understanding of psychological and spiritual development, outlining how intertwining individual paths play off against and influence one another.
His novels Steppenwolf and Demian deal with Jung’s idea of the shadow. Narcissus and Goldmund contrasts the creative free spirit with the structured cleric. Siddhartha is based on the life of the Buddha. The Glass Bead Game portrays a game in which parallel themes from mathematics, the arts and philosophy creatively connect.
The Chilean diplomat Miguel Serrano says that he, Carl Jung and Hermann Hesse belonged to an “inner circle” of Gnostic-style knowers.¹ If Serrano is implying, as seems to be the case, that only three people would belong to an exclusive “inner circle,” this would indicate a kind of underdeveloped, self-aggrandized mysticism. Surely the ordinary person can be just as, if not more, mystically inclined than these public men of letters.
Hesse, being German, had to deal with the Nazi scourge in one way or another. His initial approach was to detach himself from politics, but it’s clear that he was against the Nazis. His third wife was, in fact, Jewish. And he spoke out against the dark regime long before he married her. Hesse’s publications came to be banned by the Nazis.²
He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.
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Passed over for a promotion in the Venetian army, Iago gets insanely jealous of anyone with anything and plots and schemes his chilling revenge through lies and treachery.
Through his deceits he exemplifies intelligent evil at its worst.
After manipulatively tricking Othello into murdering his wife, Desdemona, Iago is finally discovered and, in the compelling BBC TV production of the play, goes to his grisly fate cackling with maniacal glee. Iago is content with the knowledge that his hideous revenge has been secured, despite his captor Lodovico’s decree, The time, the place, the torture,—O, enforce it!
The Bard adds:
It is interesting that, while we learn about Iago’s “fate,” we do not actually see him punished (on stage, that is) which Shakespeare could have easily arranged (given the number of fights and deaths in the play). So, in one sense, evil incarnate goes unpunished before our eyes. The question, of course, remains–why?? » See in context
Ari Moore adds:
I disagree that Iago was “evil” – there are numerous allusions in the play to his being impotent, ferociously intimidated by what he believed was Othello’s superior sexual prowess. I don’t know if that makes him “evil” so much as misguided and unable to deal with life in a healthy way. » See in context
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