Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XXVII

Thoughts after reading the "Iliad" to prepare a Greece unit for my students:

-Hector is a jerk until he's dead. He even advocates the exposure of Achaean corpses and then has the cheek to turn around and ask Achilles to spare his. He rudely ignores Polydamas' prophecies and fights outside the gate to save his pride knowing full well what it will cost his family and city. After he's dead, he becomes a martyr for the cause.

-Agamemnon has several moments of true leadership to balance out his pettiness. In this way, he's a haunting foil to Achilles: the two men are more alike than they want to acknowledge.

-We see that Achilles is the better man at the funeral games of Patroclos. His lordliness, tact, and generosity there give us a window into Achilles before his fight with Agamemnon and the death of Patroclos consumed him.

-Nestor is a boring, rambling, old man who's better days are far behind him, and yet every Achaean treats him with the upmost respect. And well they should, because Nestor, when he gets to the point, is wiser than the lot of them. A major point of the "Iliad" is that people are owed respect because of their position, regardless of their individual character or abilities. The scene where Achilles gives Nestor a prize at the funeral games since the man is too old to compete is particularly powerful.

-The rage of Achilles stems from his perdicament, not a woman. Achilles has the emotions, apetites, and powers of a god, but is doomed to live in a world of death and to die himself. Notice the image of him laying his "man-killing" hands on Patroclos' chest and grieving that his friend is dead. With all his power and rage, Achilles cannot defeat death.

-The deathlessness of the gods is their own torment.

-Achilles is the hero of the "Iliad" because he experiences a moment of true revelation when he gives the body of Hector back to Priam. Hector dies deceived, both literally and figuratively. I think Homer means for this to disturb us.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Platypus in Autumn

All hail the return of the blessed season!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XXVI

Why pulp? After all, there are so many great books out there, why bother with the low-brow of bygone era? Sure, there's a lot to dislike about pulp, particularly Edwardian pulp: the overt racism, the Social-Darwinism, awkward gender-roles, inconsistent quality of writing, and the endless assertions that "no, no, THIS was my greatest battle" at the outset of each new episode. You could level the same accusations at Homer, but almost 3,000 years of human opinion affirms that Homer is at a completely different level from "Moderately-Helpless Space Babes of mars."

Pulp may have multiple virtues in its own humble way, but I think the one that looms largest is precisely the one that our age lacks: courage. Courage is the ability to do what one thinks is right in spite of fear. After two world wars and the shattering loss of Western cultural confidence in their wake, courage has almost vanished from among our everyday virtues. Sure, it makes good rhetoric during a presidential campaign, but how often do we hear the exhortation as individuals to "be courageous."

Beyond that, our courageous acts are just not that courageous anymore. We protest the actions of a government that allows the greatest amount of free speech in human history and think ourselves moral giants. We march in the streets to protest a war, or immigration restrictions, or social injustice and then pat ourselves on the back knowing full-well that there will be no fire-hoses, no attack dogs, no knight-sticks, and no tear gas. Religious groups publicly decry the erosion morality when their ancestors in the faith were torn apart by lions for far less. All these accusations may be more than fair, but the point is that it costs us so little to speak out in proportion to how much pride we take in doing it. Even this post is about as courageous as ordering a bean burrito with no onions and no red sauce.

Pulp reminds us in direct and plain language that sometimes sticking it to the man comes at a much higher price than spending a pleasant afternoon outside with lots of like-minded people; and that's when we find out what our courage is really worth.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Platypus Fragments Part II

Utnapishtim spoke to his disciple, and his disciple listened to his wisdom; the wisdom of the time before the Flood:

"Did you not hear that the gods sent the Flood to ravage all mankind because they were noisy, oh my disciple? Were you told upon your mother's knee that the world bellowed like a bull and the gods called down the Flood to silence it? The storm riders were let loose to drown their noise, and the depths were opened to silence their bellowing. Seven days it rained, and forty days the tempest raged upon the face of the earth. The gods hid in the highest heavens, and all things upon the earth became as clay. Better a lion than the Flood. Better a bull than the Flood. Better a plague than the Flood. Is that what you were told?"

"There is a truth in these things. For then men were greater than they are now, and they had ears that were open to the call of Wisdom, and houses that were open to the wind. But men grew tired of Wisdom, and they were chilled by the North Wind; so they made noise to drown Wisdom out, and fashioned shutters to hold back every breeze. "

"Who will hold back Wisdom forever, and who will stand firm against every breeze? Bottle the waters and they will break forth with seven times the force, stand against the tempest and it will blow you down!"

Thus Spoke Utnapishtim

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Platypus Fragments

A Fragment from Thus Spoke Utnapishtim:

Now Utnapishtim sat upon his rock and his disciple sat at his feet, and he begged Utnapishtim to tell him of peoples and places, and of all that he had seen since the coming of the Flood. And Utnapishtim smiled and said:

"I can remember the coming of Arius and his sons, for I saw them from my mountain, oh my disciple. Were they not each the image of a god of war; red of hair and skin like new-cast bronze. Each carried a long spear and a well-honed sword at his hip, and they rode on chariots while their men drove the long-horned cattle behind them. Were not these the names of the sons of Arius: Hit, Cadmu, Persis, Ind, and Hy? Do I not know what the sons of Arius did at the great banquet they made on the day that they defeated the people of the two rivers?"

"Know then, oh my disciple, that I saw it all. They made a great banquet upon the plain and each drank from the skull of a prince of Ur. There they slaughtered untold numbers of bulls to the gods of the north: the lady of battles, the lord of battles, and the lord of thunder. And when the meat had been consumed and the wine had been drunk, they fell to quarreling. Then did the sons of Arius cast their father down upon the altar and mingled his smoking flesh with the victims. And Hy drew his sword and smote off the feet of his father, and Ind took his ax and smote off his thighs, and Persis and Cadmu divided his arms and his chest. Then Hit took up a great curved sword and clove the head from his father's body. Now when the deed was done, the sons of Arius came to their senses and their eyes grew dark as they looked down up their shame."

But Hit cried out with a loud voice: "Oh my brothers, what is this thing we have done? Are we not now both the enemies of gods and men?"

"Then each brother took up a piece of his father's body and fled. Thus were the sons of Arius dispersed to the four winds. Know, then, oh my disciple, that the mark of this crime is ever upon the true sons of Arius; that they divide and destroy whatever they come across. Sharp are their knives, but Wisdom's is sharper!"

Thus Spoke Utnapishtim

Monday, September 01, 2008

Historic Platypus

This year, I will be teaching World History I (prehistory to 1500). As such, I've tried to sketch out for the students the three broad phases of man and their most basic worldview. Any attempt to do this sort of thing is problematic at best, but high schoolers need something to start with, something foundational, before the process of deconstruction (and reconstruction?) can be done in college.

The first is ancient (or pagan) man. Ancient man's approach to life was essentially tragic: hope, joy, and love were fleeting at best and the underlying structure of reality was rooted in pain and chaos. The best a person could do was to bear up nobly under the weight of suffering and turn it into some great act or art that gave meaning to existence.

The second is medieval (or monotheistic) man. Medieval man's approach to life was essentially comedic: no matter how bad things get, they will be resolved for good in the end. If we're talking about the European Christians of the middle ages, then it ends with a wedding.

The third is modern man. Modern man's approach to life was essentially domineering or consumerist: man, through science, becoming master of nature and himself/herself so as to order all things to his/her taste. From this seemed to emerge postmodern man. Postmodern man doubted the ability of science and technology to deliver all it promised and turned instead to language and narrative to achieve mastery over self and the environment. Postmodern man's tastes often differed from those of modern man, and indeed claimed to be modern man's great rival, but the end goal was much the same.