Table of contents

Guess who’s coming to dinner

As for that show, it was ‘Desdemona!’, the feminist musical version of the world-famous love story, slightly altered for the modern American taste (everybody lives). Hit songs from the show included ‘Oh, Tell, Othello, Oh, Tell’, & ‘Iago, My Best Friend’ & the foot-stomping finale, ‘Here’s the Handkerchief!’
Donald Westlake, What’s the worst that could happen?, chp.18

Othello is Shakespeare’s story about the entwined destiny of Platonic love & commercial republics. It ends badly, as idealism would… Desdemona sees in her mind what Othello is from his stories of his life. He sees in her infinite sympathy – the Virgin personified – the justification of suffering. Nobility is justly rewarded in their marriage. Their differences do not matter in a commercial republic…

Herewith the liberal answer. A white girl of aristocratic pedigree – art gallery mother, journalist father – brings home a black man of impressive achievements. He is a doctor, not a warrior – America is about health, not glory. The Venice-Cyprus sequence is now San Francisco-Africa. Black & white share the Catholic faith, but neither seems to think God important; the friend-of-the-family Irish Cardinal acquiesces. These people seem to think racial prejudice is the problem.

The man’s name is Prentice, which points out learning & craft; the parents’ names, Matthew & Christina, John & Mary. The girl is called Joey. The women dominate the story. They do not achieve progress. They announce it has come. Venice was ruled by men, because commerce depended on empire, empire on war. America is ruled by women, the chief beneficiaries of technological progress, who frown on foreign wars. Science, of whom men are not better stewards than women, prevents war.

The boy humiliates his black father, who is skeptical of interracial marriage. He affirms liberalism: No child owes his parents anything: Parents, rather, are slaves to their children. This implies, no laws are venerable, & there is no God. When Moses brought the Jews out of Egyptian slavery, they abandoned divine rule even before the divine laws were given them – so a generation was killed in the desert – only children could inherit the Promised Land. So this boy tells his father to die, for the sake of interracial marriage.

Though slaves, black men in America admired & learned the white men’s civilization. Now free, the son shows his father’s labor was his own undoing. To be free is not citizenship or even wealth, but abandoning one’s own. The girl’s father maligns his countrymen – an hundred million racists… They must all die, be replaced by better people, & forgotten. Progress is ruthless. He teaches the young man, the father’s opinion is immaterial.

How did liberalism come to be? Where will it come to rest? Apparently, there will then be no racism; & people will be able to fall in love without political entanglements. That is the end of tragedy & the end of the family. Like Othello conquered his race, Prentice is going to Africa to bring modern medicine there. Surely, he will later teach Africans to abandon their families as well.

Game of Thrones iv.1-2

The work of chaos

The destruction of the Lannisters follows from here. In some sense, the fate of the kingdom is decided by the Starks. When honor is gone, all principles of association, all grounds of agreement, all reasons to trust are shown to be illusions. Men’s reputations no longer make sense of the men. Briefly, the lions turn on each other & Lannister self-destructs.

Their lack of self-awareness is astounding, because they cannot be said to be blinded by decency. Perhaps the great reach of the conventions is such that the Lannisters really believed family would curb the individual passions which the fight for power unleashes. Perhaps the strong deceive themselves by their strength.

The far greater suffering in the North than the South is supposed to teach that the age of honor has come to an end. It may not be going too far, saying that each suffers as they can. The evil on display continuously is a show of blindness to everything choiceworthy for human beings. That is why it is so often said that despotism is preferable to civil war. Human freedom turns out not to be human nor liberating.

The rise of the power in the East, as opposed to the West is supposed to show that it is easier to give justice to slaves – they ask for far less & are inclined to suffer far more to receive it. They are excessively grateful, let us say. The army of slaves is supposed to show that despotism is always implied by art, including in war

The new arrangements, in certain ways more reasonable than honor, which proved to be so easily betrayed, & therefore so little aware of itself, are going to be in a decisive way lower than the old. Not only are slaves inferior to free men, but free men come to kneel at the sound of talk of gods. All claims to justice not destroyed by corruption are destroyed by religion.

The first story showed the collapse of a social state based on the honor of the few. It would seem wars started for honor brought down that kind of kingship. The second story showed the collapse of dishonorable rule in that crumbling social state. The third story showed the impossibility of returning to the honor-bound rule of the few. The fourth story only shows the destruction of the dishonorable.

The problem of what dragons do & are endures, however. They not only connect ancient past & a possible, less terrifying future, but they connect also with sharpest steel. They stand for the power of the origins, including the possibility of beginning anew, & the possibility that the best is past & can never come back.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2/2

On the possible justice of war

Let’s pick this subject up again. I think it’s quite obvious, the title suggests that Captain America himself is the Winter Soldier – his enemy, a ruthless killer who has made everything done for the sake of peace impossible. You might think that a winter soldier is a serious or sober soldier, as opposed to a summer soldier… It turns out, he’s brainwashed – he is a tool in the hands of the masters of war.

Any sensible person could tell you, there is no master of war. War would not allow it… But there may be people who act as if they were, because they lack sense. Anyway, if war is a part of politics, does not the government take responsibility for it? If the government cannot do good by war, at least to ourselves, why fight wars? How do you justify the inhumanity required of soldiers?

It seems pretty obvious that good intentions or the dream of world peace cannot justify the terrible things we have seen. Captain America’s crisis is a part of the crisis of the West, the self-destruction of civilization in the Great War, which prophesied that the new wars would be fought by scientific tyrannies always talking about virtue & justice. Every evil in our world is justified, apparently, by the United Nations or by Democracy. Eventually, it will have always been worth it…

The Captain thinks of quitting the army. He could finally learn what he’s always loved & protected, without ever having experienced. But is the private life what he wants? If he goes away, he’s obviously not brainwashed. If he stays, he’s always fighting for something strange to him. If he wants to serve, he must make sure he’s fighting for a good cause. But war is so secret & so full of evil – who can you trust?

The Captain’s awakening in the new age suggests that something in World War II was not really resolved: The war was won, but peace never returned, in a certain sense, world annihilation always looming at the horizon. Scientific warfare & world politics became so sophisticated that no one can see what’s what. You have to trust your president. Then how can you explain failure without blaming everyone in charge?

The Captain again shows the American citizen’s perspective: He cannot really take orders, nor give them. This crisis is the crisis of justice. You always have to take a chance on trusting people – the alternative is the evil he fights, a kind of science that acquires power by taking humanity out of the picture. If realism means breaking eggs to make an omelette, where’s the omelette? & is that all there is to life?

Captain America: The winter soldier 1/2

On the man who serves the public

The obvious fact about this new story is that it’s a conspiracy theory. This is a conspiracy to achieve scientific order, which requires the destruction of any political freedom. The reasoning seems to be, science does not offer any reason to tolerate the obvious evil in man. If science is an unmitigated good, then something better than freedom is possible – a way of being as powerful & flawless as the laws of science. From this perspective, evil is not the only weakness, but the ability to choose or purport to do something, where evil originates.

This is a kind of defense of democracy – this imagined conspiracy is shown to lose to democratic heroes, who are willing to sacrifice, & call on others to sacrifice, even if they cannot guarantee that democracy will deliver a good, lasting order. The suggestion is, so long as democracy recognizes its enemies, it can defend itself. But democracy can hardly defend itself from conspiracies.

Why should Captain America be such a liberal? Early on, he suggests, there is a lot in the world that’s better than it was in 1945. At least for Americans. Then disaster strikes, & scientific progress starts looking as fearful as when planes were flown into buildings on 9/11. Maybe that’s what is looked like after Pearl Harbor, as well. Whether Captain America should be hopeful is questionable.

Conspiracy theory seems to have become necessary because the political organization is so complicated, because of science, that no one can understand it. Do you find it difficult to find anything public or common about life? Do you feel you could do something great, but are denied? Join a conspiracy. There’s the secret: There is no justice, only private interests tyrannizing in secret.

How to answer that? Surely, there are conspiracy nuts, but there is also quite some corruption. Could we say honestly that civilized nations are always vulnerable to terrorism? That politicians cannot guarantee safety? How does that justify the humiliation of old people & children in airports? Why are people being lied to about their safety? Why does the government act like everyone is possibly a terrorist? Maybe if you get a bit angry because of all these things, the story might seem more serious…

But what if the government is afraid of what the citizens might do? What if politicians are afraid to call for sacrifices? What if conspiracy theory is just embedded in the theory of government we all spontaneously teach: Individual rights above all, & let’s fear & fight whoever might threaten what’s ours, severally – everyone, really? Maybe only someone who is above all corruption can tell us to stick together & shame conspiracy theorists into silence.

One of the better Marvel stories, less spectacular & more serious about heroes

Noah 2/2

On the problem of evil for human life

The evil of the race of Cain is connected to eating animals – therefore blood – therefore life. But also to the idea that man could be at home in the world, making do with a world God abandoned. Meat eating suggests cannibalism. The evil of Cain killing Abel is primordial, but not something that the angels knew. Maybe you have to hope for better to be able to show mercy.

When night falls upon the race of Cain, horrible crimes are committed. How could acting improperly toward the rest of creation compare with these things? What could make Aronofsky’s Noah love the part of the world bereft of human beings much more than the rest? Maybe man is bent around action, & human action is mostly making things & tending to the things that make up the world in which we live – a basic sense of justice or the goodness of human powers emerges when we act, if action is guided by the obvious.

The miracles Aronofsky’s Noah sees & performs suggest wonder in face of life, whose beginnings always recall God. The problem of a silent God is that it leaves man clueless about ends. Noah reasons, we are born & we die, so we must be meant to die. How are they meant to live? In service to mere life? Aronofsky shows both that Noah’s love of nature is a hatred of man & that piety for nature ignores that the world is not a peaceful garden.

But these are the errors – what are the causes of the errors? Aronofsky suggests Noah as a child saw human striving as evil. In the Bible, human disobedience always announces human striving, the evil that was always possible. In this story, human evil emerges as independence from God & inhumanity to man.

Aronofsky’s Noah wants to destroy mankind because he thinks all striving is evil. No life is possible without it, however, so the rest of creation could not live either. The fruit in the garden, the eating of which banished man from the garden, is a beating heart for Aronofsky’s Noah – all eating is sinful – & his only solution is to enslave man to creation, as if it could ennoble man. Or else death.

The crimes of the race of Cain so disgust Noah that he finally lets them all die in the flood. He can take no woman from among them for his boys. The Bible wisely wived Noah’s three sons – ‘be fruitful & multiply’ does not concern man’s evil or obedience to God. Noah’s Aronofsky, without God, is responsible for the humans. He has to do evil & forget about evil to even be able to live, unlike God.

Noah 1/2

On the problem of thinking of a silent creator

Maybe people in the story refer to the Creator because they do not know God. Maybe all they know is – there was a beginning. This they know from tales. Why would these stories emerge or survive? Because the things humans come to know are made of something else & they add up as parts of a visible whole, but the whole is not obviously made. Something unseen is implied in the wholeness of the whole.

To think of God at this remove creates two problems Aronofsky cannot solve. First, human powers are connected to divine powers through fallen angels. These, like Prometheus in the Greek stories, are fire-givers & teachers of the arts. Genesis says that Cain invented the city & his race the arts, but Aronofsky puts this on the angels, who say they were moved by pity. Obviously, they lacked wisdom: Like Prometheus, they face an ungrateful mankind & are punished. But the punisher is man, whose powers are the devil. Unless man is necessity itself, this seems unlikely: The powers are in accord with necessity.

This brings up the second problem – our world, the whole. Aronofsky tries to reconcile the modern science of nature with the Bible. This is impossible: God expresses no good opinion of the heavens which Aronofsky’s Noah calls beautiful. God never says that the world is a home for the human being, which Aronofsky’s Noah, who makes use of Darwinian evolution, asserts. Man’s homelessness is connected to his disobedience, which was the original sin.

It does not seem obvious that Aronofsky’s Noah should think the world better than man & the destruction of man good, as also the saving – or recreating – of creation. He claims water purifies, but in fact, water uncreates creation. But what was the purpose of creation? Why should there be a creator? Answering this question settles the question, is man of higher rank than the world or is man merely a part of the world, maybe the worst part?

God asserts the goodness of creation, but is not similarly emphatic about each part of the whole. This does not occur to Aronofsky, except inasmuch as he connects evil to man. Aronofsky’s Noah shows the problem of our science – it understands the world as if man was not busy understanding it. Taken as a story of the beginning, whether physics or biology, it mutilates the human being. Humanity apparently only makes sense in light of God.

Aronofksy shows this, if God does not speak to human beings, the power of reason is radically undermined. Consequently, man cannot be good. Justice – obedience is merely acquiescing in mortality. To say that this is stupid strikes me as accurate.

Aronofsky’s story about uncreating creation, & why evil thrives

300: Rise of an Empire 4/4

Some notes on Themistokles

Plutarch says Themistokles was not high-born. To compensate for his low birth, which made his status as citizen seem unpromising, he provoked other youths, well-born youths, to wrestling matches. Wrestling was part of the Greek education. Thus, he would win what otherwise would not even be a contest. Might is right? Well, no. Getting people angry is convincing them to fight for what they think is theirs – they have already accepted, implicitly, that it can be attacked, that it must be defended – that it can be contested – though they do not know it, they are learning that what is their own, & by what right, is questionable.

Call this philosophy in reverse, or muscular philosophy. If you want to see just how far this questioning goes, even in haste, consider: Wrestling matches do produce incontestable winners & losers. Assumptions about nobility & social class do not – they aim to decide things in advance of any contest. The strength of the body is a matter of fact, people might say, but nobility a matter of opinion. Themistokles could rise because of the Athenian – the Greek – opinion: Striving – war – is noble.

Plutarch denies that Themistokles, like Perikles later, heard the philosopher Anaxagoras, whom we’ll call the father of Enlightenment – the first man to teach politicians that reducing every question to advantage or gain or what’s good for you is the key to success. Themistokles, however, is that much the natural politician, that even in his boyhood he practiced the political accusations & apologies where judgment about right & horse-sense are tested. Music he did not love.

It astounds us to think that Themistokles was a very greedy & petty man – after all, had he lived in our times, World War II would have been far easier to fight. He alone managed to deceive the Athenians, by sound reasoning & foresight, into preparing for war & alone he saved Athens.

Yes, Themistokles was Mr. Democrat. Why? Maybe he had no choice, maybe it suited his temper. He loved being honored & was always looking for ways to improve Athens, unencumbered by a sense of shame or a pious regard for justice. His great vulgarity alone might today earn him the title genius.

One way to see the greatness of the things Themistokles did is this, that the future was incredibly unpredictable after his rule, whereas he alone had seen that the victory at Marathon was the beginning of the war, not the end. Another way is this, Themistokles is a model for modern democratic politicians, because he saw great danger without fear & looked for solutions by his best judgment, not by what some prophet or scientist can be made to say.

300: Rise of an Empire 3/4

Further notes on Athens

The people feared to have their tombs & ancestors destroyed by the Persians; & in abandoning the city, they left many old men there to die, who could not move. Needless to say, this sacrifice did not win them respect or help from the allied Greeks nor from the Persians; Themistokles resolved to have the ostracized citizens recalled, especially his greatest rival, Aristides the Just, who was more necessary to his city now than ever.

Necessity again was led by Themistokles, who persuaded the Persians to corner the Greeks, by a stratagem, so that they could not abandon the alliance & Athens. Or else there might have been no fight, or at least no chance of victory. Themistokles persuaded Aristides to summon the allies to battle, whose reputation was nearly transcendent, & who agreed & was successful.

The Athenians shone: At Artemisium, they learned better how to fight & how little they had to fear the Persians. At Salamis, they learned all the good a fleet does, & only at the end of her history did Athens unlearn that lesson, so that we can say that every necessity was Themistoklean for Athens. Yet this great fighting city had been free for all of one generation, having thrown out its tyrants.

War was the engine of democracy, & led to prosperity. In the new Athens, many citizens made a living from the city by serving in various offices – all this was paid for by the allies, who thought it easier to pay for defense than to man their own fleets, & knew they would need defending from Persians even in the future. So the democracy came to depend on the empire, such that military exploits were never far from the Athenians’ minds, even though they were not a race of warriors.

Now, for Themistokles’ war, money was necessary, which was paid to the crews of the ships – or else they would not have sailed – by the Areopagus, the most aristocratic institution of old Athens, who therefore became powerful again against the democracy after the victory, only to be again undone by the rise of democracy.

& also Aristides. The people who had basely ostracized him feared he might join the Persians & persuade many not to fight the barbarians. Instead, he nobly added his reputation for justice to Themistokles’ plans: He everywhere made alliances & oaths hold fast when fear & anger would have broken them. Aristides was requested by the Greek cities to determine what they should pay to Athens for the common Greek defense; Aristides agreed to steal this treasury from holy Delos to Athens; Aristides refused to make Athens master by burning the allied fleet at Themistokles’ instigation.


300: Rise of an Empire 2/4

Some notes on political crises

The origin of civilization is a political crisis. The burning of Athens makes Athens anew, but Themistokles belongs to old Athens, where already the democratic revolution had started. It is natural that the Spartans should fight the Persians, & on land, because the Spartans defend themselves & pray to their gods before battle & look for divine guidance in oracles more than anyone else. One could say, the gods they believe in are not Xerxes & the Persian gods.

But the cause of the wars & the most impressive fact about the war is the naval war fought by Themistokles, who reduced Athens to her navy, which he commanded, after the Athenians had fought at Marathon. The story hides the truth about Marathon: Miltiades was the great hero that day, savior of Athens, & father to a great political dynasty. In truth, Themistokles did not kill Darius. All this obfuscation means is, Themistokles shows us the future of Athens, which is also why the infamous end of Themistokles is concealed.

This future explains the meaning of freedom: Freedom is freedom from the gods & oracles, from divine laws & from the sacred limits on the city. That is why Themistokles says, he has no family. This is why he feels no compunction about breaking laws, tantamount to treason.

The new world brought into being by Themistokles is more sophisticated than the Persian: He knows empire must be godless. The men must fight for their city, but the very means of fighting transform the city – the navy, which is both defense & offense, both war & commerce, ever in motion. With Themistokles, there is no way back, but man must look for what the Persians looked: Man must reason about the cosmos to find what is good for him, without any thought to his ancestors or his mortality.

This may be a terrible curse. Athens, though a splendor, & the monument to the philosophers, nevertheless crumbled & was defeated by the Spartans, half-barbarian though they were. The Athenians used the Spartans successfully to achieve greatness, repeatedly profiting from the Spartan piety which kept Sparta from completely destroying Athens. But Athens could no longer replace Sparta than she could maintain an empire of freedom, rather enslaving everything she protected.

The promise of freedom brought forth by Themistokles is seen in the father dying & his son taking his place in the fight. The dying father frees the son to achieve for himself. Vengeance or justice is merely the prologue to this drama. Free men will not be free to choose to fight when once they are victorious. & the greatest fighters will not be rulers, nor receive the honor due to heroes.

300: Rise of an Empire 1/4

Some notes on empire

The other story was the story of the Spartans, now it’s the Athenians who take center stage. They are a younger race, far more civilized & less warlike. Behold the rise of democracy in the mind of the greatest statesman. Themistokles was the man who conceived of the navy & the commercial empire it would protect & create. This led to citizenship for the sailors, even more radical than the citizenship awarded the infantry who replaced the heroes.

This is the birth of civilization, the peculiar mix of refinement of the arts & sciences & political freedom. Behold Athens, burnt & rebuilt in victory, with a new port & the walls that protected it, the source of the great Athenian prosperity, strangely importing & exporting revolution at once. Strangest of all things is Themistokles’ offer of freedom, which is nothing very impressive, clearly no reason to die, though perhaps some kind of reason for killing one’s enemies.

Maybe the best way to understand freedom is to think of it as essentially revolutionary. Themistokles is not a lover of laws, nor any kind of man renowned for justice & piety. His greatness encloses within it democracy: A new empire, an empire of freedom. Reckless Themistokles kills Darius, the great Persian king whose splendid armies terrified all other Greeks, when alone the Athenian men fought.

This story interprets Herodotus, who tells us that Xerxes surely knew he was mortal, crying as he saw his great army, because in an hundred years they would all be dead. But he also thought himself a god, we are told, so that he whipped the sea, also a goddess, when she destroyed his ships. Themistokles is the opposite: He built something that did not die & did not presume to punish the sea, but obeyed it.

The story of empire is the story of Xerxes, who must connect loss, vengeance, & evil. His failure to save his father’s life leads him to an impious desire to outdo his father by becoming immortal. Xerxes becomes a statue, let’s say. All his advisers are slaughtered. A god has no helpers. But the power of this god is war. Xerxes is a god of the Persian, whose armies conquer, but he is universal, bent on world conquest. This is hubris, the opposite of moderation, which is not limited by the times or science. Empire implies, earth is home.

The limit he faces is Themistokles, who also dreams of war-born empire. The distinction between a woman-general & a man-god, in one way, is female duplicity; in the other, unprincipled, mad need to kill. Xerxes is inactive, thinking he has conquered. The end of the world is the end of politics.

The sequel to the only really successful film about the Ancient Greeks.