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Sappho of Lesbos

English: Marble bust of the ancient Greek poet...

Marble bust of the ancient Greek poet Sappho. From Smyrna (Izmir), Turkey. Roman copy of a Hellenistic original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sappho (610-580 BCE) was a Greek lyric poetess, born of a noble family on the island of Lesbos. She wrote within the context of the cult of Aphrodite and the veneration of the Muses. Because it was unusual for women to write, she is one of the few known women poets of the Greek archaic period.

Only 8th and 9th century copies and fragments or her work and one complete address to Aphrodite remain, along with more fragments obtained from papyrus discoveries since 1898 and as recent as 2004.¹

Sappho was married and wrote verse and songs for weddings, usually performed by young girls. She also arranged poetic gatherings where she and other women composed and read poetry, as was the custom of women of good standing in Lesbos. From this she developed several close relationships.

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-call...

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription “Sappho Eresia” ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her extant work reveals no clear evidence of physical intimacy with these women. She was exalted in antiquity, appearing on a list of the 9 best lyric poets and often called “the 10th Muse.”

But politics changed, as they always do, and other ancient figures caricaturized her and the entire island of Lesbos as a center for lesbianism. As such, she went into temporary exile in Sicily, later returning to Mytilene, the place of her family home on Lesbos.

She is often cited today as an inspiration for lesbian love. Speaking about herself and her associates, she once wrote:

I think that someone will remember us in another time.

¹ See A Brief History of Ancient Greece, Oxford 2009, pp. 93-95.

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On the Web:

  • “Sappho (Σαπφώ) was born in the seventh century BC, in the island of Lesbos. Her love of women reflects a deeper love for civilization.”


Science Fiction (Sci-Fi)

Science Fiction (sci-fi) is a genre of literature, TV and film sometimes trivialized by art snobs and the literary establishment.

Critics say science fiction characters are wooden, two-dimensional “cardboard cutouts” rarely developed in the manner of, say, a Holden Caufield (J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye) or a Hagar Shipley (Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel).

Some sci-fi writers accept this criticism, saying the medium began as an exploration into the human imagination rather than as a commentary on the human condition. But H. G. Wells, George Orwell and more recent authors like Frank Herbert (Dune), Ursula Le Guin (The Dispossessed), Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five) and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s intense rendering of Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey have helped to change the face of sci-fi. In fact, William Shatner, who plays Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, says that a good science fiction story must be grounded in distinct human experiences.

Gonzo Bonzo adds:

If you’re looking for some good science fiction focused on characters, you’d better read some of the novels from Robert Silverberg. Dying Inside, which is about a telepath in an early 70’s NYC, who’s losing his power, or Man in a Maze talks about the first astronaut ever to meet alien lifeforms, who comes back being unable to hide his feeling and emotions to his fellow humans, and who chose to exile on giant maze. Book of Skulls is also a good example of human centered SciFi, with very complex and multi-dimensional characters.

In more recent efforts authors like Jeff Vandermeer, Vernor Vinge (with his wonderful Rainbows End), Paul J.McAuley, Iain M.Banks, China Miéville or Ian R.McLeod are good examples of what SciFi is these days. » Source

Deutsch: Science fiction: Start- und Landeplat...

Science fiction: Start- und Landeplattform in der Stratosphäre, Zeitungsillustration von 1953 Svenska: Science fiction: Start- och landningsplattform i stratosfären, tidnings-illustration från 1953 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite condescension from some literati who think they know best, sci-fi finds itself in a unique position to explore unconventional ideas that the worldly wise regard as ludicrous and unworthy of attention.

An historical example of a truly great sci-fi visionary is Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519). Leonardo worked as a military engineer and inventor in Italy. He was venerated in France as a genius and some of his more imaginative sketches depicted flying machines, robots, a tank and submarines. But Da Vinci kept many of these innovative sketches secret, probably to avoid ridicule.

Sci-fi may still encounter a similar kind of prejudice, but the runaway success of J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek film and the recent hype around Star Wars: The Force Awakens indicates that the so-called “cultured” and “cultivated” out there may just be jealous.

And who can say – other than for themselves – what’s treasure or trash?

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William Shakespeare

Jimmie – shakespeare resources2

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English playwright and poet born in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare worked as an actor in London, where he began to compose sonnets.

With the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company of players to become known as the King’s Men, Shakespeare leased the first Globe Theatre, erected in 1598. The first Globe burnt down in 1613 but Shakespeare and his troupe had already been performing at a new Globe Theatre.

The genius of his work, written mostly for the Globe, was recognized by Queen Elizabeth and her extensive court. So, unlike some ignored geniuses, Shakespeare enjoyed great success and considerable wealth in his lifetime.

Shakespeare's Globe, London (rebuilt 1997)

Shakespeare’s Globe, London (rebuilt 1997) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, many forget that his plays were written to be seen, not read.

If theatre going isn’t a practical choice, a good alternative is the BBC television series (VHS/DVD) of Shakespeare’s plays. This production boasts authentic costumes, on-location castles and the players’ ancestrally inherited accents to help bring the mystical bard’s works to life.

It has been suggested that Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever, not only in the English language, but in any language. Some feminists contend this idea, suggesting that writers like Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson are equal if not superior to Shakespeare’s wit and wisdom. And others maintain that, if Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had not written in German, he might have rivaled Shakespeare’s literary throne.

Sir John Gilbert's 1849 painting: The Plays of...

Sir John Gilbert’s 1849 painting: The Plays of William Shakespeare, containing scenes and characters from several of William Shakespeare’s plays. Since the artist died in 1897, this work is now in the public domain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I converted to Catholicism I visited an Anglican Church (the Church of my baptism). An Anglican minister preaching about the Biblical Book of Job said that it was “like Shakespeare.” The way he said it seemed to imply that Shakespeare was better literature than the Bible. Many might disagree, and popularity is not necessarily an indicator of absolute value, but from 1986 to 1993 Shakespeare ranked third in the Top 10 Authorities cited in academic journals of the Arts and Humanities, with the Bible at 5th place.¹

¹ Institute for Scientific Information as cited in The Globe and Mail, Toronto: Southam, February 11, 1993. I’m not sure if those stats include Religious Studies and Theology. And I would be willing to bet that worldwide readership of the Bible is far stronger than that of Shakespeare. So these stats might be a good indicator of how persuasive statistics can be, depending on the selection, interpretation and presentation of data.

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1911 Italian-French film

1911 Italian-French film (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shylock is a Jewish money-lender in William Shakespeare‘s play The Merchant of Venice.

Shylock ruthlessly insists on receiving a previously agreed on “pound of flesh” from the character Antonio, whose expected fortunes have vanished. This forced Antonio to default on the loan he received from Shylock.

Some critics suggest that Shakespeare paints a dangerous, anti-Semitic picture. Others defend Shakespeare, citing Shylock’s cutting speech as evidence that he presents not a one-dimensional but, rather, a complex human character:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?..If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?

Later, Shylock is outwitted by Portia disguised as a lawyer. After unsuccessfully appealing to Shylock’s humanity, Portia insists that he be allowed to remove Antonio’s flesh on the condition that not one drop of blood is carved from his body. “This bond doth give thee here not a jot of blood” (Act 4 Scene 1).

Realizing he has been outsmarted, Shylock lightens up and the potentially grisly tale ends happily.

Portia and Shylock

Portia and Shylock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fact that Portia is a woman points to Shakespeare’s progressiveness in refuting sex-role stereotypes. But again, many do not see Shakespeare as a progressive when it comes to the Jewish situation in Elizabethan England.

Shakespeare’s play reflected the anti-semitic tradition. The title page of the Quarto indicates that the play was sometimes known as The Jew of Venice in its day, which suggests that it was seen as similar to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. One interpretation of the play’s structure is that Shakespeare meant to contrast the mercy of the main Christian characters with the vengeful Shylock, who lacks the religious grace to comprehend mercy. Similarly, it is possible that Shakespeare meant Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity to be a “happy ending” for the character, as it ‘redeems’ Shylock both from his unbelief and his specific sin of wanting to kill Antonio. This reading of the play would certainly fit with the anti-semitic trends present in Elizabethan England.¹

Polski: Kopia zaginionego obrazu Maurycego Got...

Polski: Kopia zaginionego obrazu Maurycego Gottlieba “Shylock i Jessica” z 1887 roku. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Instead of branding Shakespeare as antisemitic, one could argue that, had he portrayed Jews as we see them today, the play would have failed and no positive message whatsoever would have gotten out (because nobody would have gone to see it).

This point brings to mind the whole idea of activism in context, as opposed to idealist activism. Activism in context is a bit by bit, progressive stance. It nudges things forward only as far as the activist believes the audience will be receptive to and, hopefully, act upon.

On the other hand, idealist activism would be more in line with the life of Jesus Christ—and we know what happened to him. Basically, Christ was killed for trying to help people get into heaven. However, idealist activism does have its place. It is necessary to point out long range goals. But contextual activism is also necessary, I would argue. Otherwise, not too much would change for the better.

At any rate, contemporary revisionists who harshly judge those who lived in past centuries seem oblivious to the debate between contextual and idealist activism. They take a hard line. Shakespeare is antisemitic. End of story (for them). Myself, I’m not convinced a true genius like Shakespeare was all that simple.²


² See, for instance, Here we see a very different Shakespeare—one educated in, appreciative of and influenced by Jewish religious texts.

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Steppenwolf is a Canadian rock band popular in the 1960s and early 1970s, credited with being the first heavy metal band because the single, “Born to be Wild,” included in its lyrics the phrase heavy metal thunder.

Hesse, Hermann: Der Steppenwolf. Berlin: S. Fi...

Hesse, Hermann: Der Steppenwolf. Berlin: S. Fischer 1927, 289 Seiten. Erstausgabe (Wilpert/Gühring² 155) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other hits include “Magic Carpet Ride,” which describes a sort of psychedelic mysticism, and a slow moving song called “The Pusher” that seems to condone marijuana use but condemns heavier, addictive drugs, such as heroine. In the “The Pusher” addicts are described as “walkin round with tombstones in their eyes.”

The band still tours and has sold 25 million records worldwide. Steppenwolf’s music has been used in about 50 movies.

Steppenwolf is also an introspective novel by Hermann Hesse that explores the Jungian idea of the shadow, and to which the rock band most likely owes its name.


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Rabindranath Tagore

English: Rabindranath Tagore with Mahatma Gand...

Rabindranath Tagore with Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi at Santiniketan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was an Indian renaissance man born in Calcutta, W. Bengal. Tagore is known throughout India and the world for his paintings, folk songs, verse, short stories, plays and novels.

In 1901 Tagore founded an open-air school at Santiniketan, West Bengal. Sometimes referred to as the ‘asram’ at Santiniketan, Tagore’s school integrates Eastern and Western approaches to education and has flowered into Visva-Bharati university, which offers a diverse curriculum in the arts, sciences and humanities while hosting students from abroad. The school is recognized by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, which funds qualified international students, particularly for graduate studies at the M.A. and Ph.D. levels.¹

In 1913 Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In his Presentation Speech Harald Hjärne, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, said

Amra Kunja by Paul Ancheta (Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan. Bolpur, Birbhum, West Bengal, India)

Amra Kunja by Paul Ancheta (Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan. Bolpur, Birbhum, West Bengal, India) via Flickr

Tagore’s Gitanjali: Song Offerings (1912), a collection of religious poems, was the one of his works that especially arrested the attention of the selecting critics.²

Tagore’s worldly acclaim and social impact didn’t stop there. Knighted in 1915, he shocked India and the British Empire by resigning his knighthood in 1919 in protest over the British colonial presence in India. And he continues to inspire creative people of all ages.³

¹ As a Canadian, I was eligible. It was great to not have to worry about money for two years, and just study in such a unique environment (MC) .

² See

³ See, for example, this great video made for a school project:



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Utopia [Gk: not a place] is a word coined by St. Thomas More in 1516, in a book by the same title. Utopia depicts an ideal society created on a fictional island in the Atlantic ocean. More’s friend Erasmus helped him edit the work.

The Oxford English Dictionary looks back to 1551 with:

1551 (title), A fruteful and pleasaunt Worke of the beste state of a publyque weale, and of the newe yle called Utopia; written in Latine by Syr Thomas More knyght [publ. 1516], and translated into Englyshe by Raphe Robynson.

The word was later used by the French writer François Rabelais (c. 1494-1553) for the name of an ideal island. And many others followed suit.¹

Ari Moore adds: “A similar and equally interesting term is “eutopia,” meaning, “a good place.”²



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