Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Analyzing ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ using Joseph Campbell’s idea of ‘The Hero’s Journey’

Jamal Malik, the boy protagonist of "Slumdog Millionaire," is a mythic hero. The structure of the hero's journey, developed by mythologian Joseph Campbell in "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" in 1949, can be mapped onto Jamal's story in the award-winning 2008 British film. Because "Slumdog Millionaire's" narrative is not linear, this mapping requires some creative license. The following pages will briefly describe Campbell's identified stages of "separation," "initiation," and "return," and then use these stages of the hero's journey to analyze Jamal's journey in "Slumdog Millionaire."

Stages in the Hero's Journey

Separation is the stage in which the hero departs the mundane world of his birth. This is characterized by his first awareness of his divinely ordained vocation or the "Call to Adventure"; his initial "Refusal of the Call"; the "Supernatural Aid" that arrives after he sets out on the journey; his passage through a guarded place during the "Crossing of the First Threshold"; and his descent into darkness in the "Belly of the Whale", to borrow a phrase from a Biblical scene.

Initiation is the stage in which the hero faces his tests and labors. He sets out on the dangerous "Road of Trials"; has a life-changing "Meeting with the Goddess" or a mother-sister-wife figure; comes to the Oedipal awareness of "Woman as the Temptress"; manages to arrive at "Atonement with the Father"; undergoes "Apotheosis," his own deification, enlightenment, or self-recognition as a hero; and receives "The Ultimate Boon," his reward or blessing.

Return is the stage in which the hero brings what he has gained back to the place he came from. He initially expresses "Refusal of the Return"; then there is a "Magic Flight" by which he escapes or is sent home; because it is hard to come home again, he may need to be saved by "Rescue from Without"; he goes through the "Crossing of the Return Threshold"; he becomes "Master of the Two Worlds", referring to the human world of his birth and the divine world of his ordeals; and finally he acquires the "Freedom to Live."

Mapping the Hero's Journey onto 'Slumdog Millionaire'

The immediate challenge in using these stages to analyze "Slumdog Millionaire" is that the film has an unusual chronology. Joseph Campbell intended the stages of the Hero's Journey to describe stories with more or less linear chronologies, but "Slumdog Millionaire" is told in flashbacks inside of flashbacks. The story opens after Jamal Malik has already been arrested on suspicion of fraud, having only one more question to answer on a game show to win 20 million rupees. The police interrogation causes him to recount his thought process throughout the previous game show questions, and those flashbacks, in turn, prompt him to recall vivid memories of his childhood during which he learned the answers to the "trivia" he knows today. There are likely multiple ways of applying the stages of the Hero's Journey to Jamal's adventure; the following is one suggested analysis.

Jamal's appearance on the game show can be seen as his stage of "Separation." This is the occasion on which he separates himself from his upbringing in poverty and anonymity and distinguishes himself as someone destined for greatness. His "Call to Adventure" is his flash of insight to wrangle an appearance on the show, hoping only that his beloved Latika may be watching. "This first stage of the mythological journey – which we have designated the 'call to adventure' – signifies," Campbell writes, "that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown." His "Refusal of the Call" is his conviction that he does not especially desire money, fame, or greatness. His forms of "Supernatural Aid" are the correct answers he receives from the audience and the computer after requesting his first two so-called "lifelines" on the game show. His "Crossing of the First Threshold" occurs when the game show host, the guardian of the prize, makes a desperate, failed attempt to undermine Jamal by feeding him a wrong answer. His descent into the "Belly of the Whale" occurs when he is arrested and tortured prior to answering the last question. In one sense, Jamal is only one question away from the end of his journey. In another sense, his journey has just begun, at least for the film's viewers, because the movie opens here at this chronological point.

Jamal's stage of "Initiation" is his entire childhood. His "Road of Trials" begins while he is still a young boy, witnessing the violent death of his mother in a riot between two religious groups. Campbell says this stage of the journey is about "the dangerous aspect of the gods"; indeed, Jamal later acknowledges that "If there were no Rama and Allah, I would still have a mother." Immediately after his mother's death, Jamal has his first "Meeting with the Goddess" through his encounter of a similarly orphaned little girl, the ever-desired Latika.

Joseph Campbell says of the goddess: "She is the paragon of all paragons of beauty, the reply to all desire, the bliss-bestowing goal of every hero's earthly and unearthly quest. She is mother, sister, mistress, bride." Jamal loses track of Latika and years later, as a young adult, rescues her from a brothel, only to witness his brother subsequently rape her. This is his awareness of "Woman as the Temptress". Campbell describes this stage as Oedipal conflict, which is certainly what the orphaned Jamal experiences when his older brother (his father figure) rapes the girl they have grown up with as a sister (his mother substitute) and whom Jamal presumably desires for himself as a wife. "Atonement with the Father" occurs when Jamal tracks down his brother to seek a degree of reconnection and reconciliation, although he is mainly hoping to find Latika again. "For if it is impossible to trust the terrifying father-face," Campbell writes, "then one's faith must be centered elsewhere [on the goddess]...and with that reliance for support, one endures the crisis – only to find, in the end, that the father and mother reflect each other, and are in essence the same."

Indeed, in this film, the brother and the desired woman are "in essence the same" to the extent that the brother is secretly keeping the woman prisoner. To find one will be to find the other. "The problem of the hero going to meet the father," Campbell adds, "is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being." In other words, it is only through the hero's vulnerability to his father's tyranny that he can begin to see through life's suffering and into the heart of the divine source. Jamal's moment of "Apotheosis," his recognition of his own heroic nature, arguably occurs when he brazenly enters the house where Latika is imprisoned by abusive men. It is here that he discovers she enjoys watching a certain game show, and he subsequently resolves to appear on the show so that she might catch a glimpse of him on the television. His "Ultimate Boon" is, of course, when he answers the final game show question correctly and becomes an extremely wealthy man. Jamal does not know the answer to the question; he picks randomly from four options, speaking confidently as if he knows. "Where the usual hero would face a test," Campbell writes, "the elect encounters no delaying obstacle and makes no mistake."

The film ends before we can witness Jamal's stage of Return and Reintegration to his everyday life. In fact, the slum where he grew up has been razed for new construction, and the people have scattered. But Jamal returns, in a sense, by his appearance on the television screens of poor people throughout the city who cheer for him as one of their own. He gives them a moment of happiness and a hope, however remote, for their own redemption from poverty. Jamal's "Refusal of the Return" occurs before he has realized his status as a hero. His "Magic Flight" is his entire narrative flashback through which he tells his life story to the police – a way of communicating the knowledge earned from his trials to the people back at home.

He needs a "Rescue from Without," arguably the assassination of his brother by gang members, which removes him as a threat. His "Crossing of the Return Threshold" is the moment when he unexpectedly hears Latika's disembodied voice over a cellular phone connection within the unearthly setting of the game show. It is, as Campbell says, a moment when it is made clear that "the two kingdoms [the divine and the human] are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know." Jamal answers the final question and becomes the "Master of the Two Worlds": at once, a slumdog millionaire, a survivor of great suffering and a passionate lover. He has resolved his own spiritual emptiness and obtained the "Freedom to Live."

Campbell describes this condition as the ability to contextualize one's own life so that one accepts the fact that "every creature lives on the death of another" without becoming mired in guilt or in denial of guilt. Jamal and Latika have the chance to live because of the death of Jamal's brother and because of the prize money. The matter is not under their control. No hero's journey ever is. "It is," in the final words of the film, "written."

Image: Latika is portrayed in the film by actor Freida Pinto. Drawing by Tucker Lieberman, based on a movie still.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network in late 2008 soon after the movie was released. It was cited on someone's personal "School blog" in January 2010 and included in the course packet for El Paso Community College's Fall 2010 core course "Research Writing and Literary Analysis" (English 1302). Kal Bashir is mapping the Hero's Journey onto many films, including Slumdog Millionaire, in a video uploaded to YouTube in November 2010.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Harriet Beecher Stowe's reflections on Christianity and the lives of Jesus and Mary

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born to a Protestant family in Connecticut in 1811.  Her seven brothers became ministers, and this fervently religious setting directed her course as a prolific writer

In 1896, the year of her death, the publisher Houghton, Mifflin and Co. released her writings in a multi-volume set.  The fifteenth volume consists of Religious Studies, Sketches and Poems, much of which – according to the publisher's introductory note – was derived from her early work The Mayflower.  This volume gives the reader a good overview of Stowe's explicitly theological writings.

Stowe has special feelings for the Old Testament because it served as the Bible to the Jew known as Jesus, but this does not imply that she has much affection for Judaism as a religion.  Her general characterization of Jews is that in ancient times they betrayed Jesus and that in modern times they continue to predict the coming of the Messiah while missing the critical fact that the Messiah already came.  As for Catholics, she appreciates that they revere Mary more than most Protestants do, but she has no truck with what she sees as "Popish" fanaticism.  She reminisces about the "unbroken stillness" of her uncle's "Puritan Sabbath," but does not spend words on the condemnation of vice that is usually tagged as Puritanism. 

In sum, her religious sensibility is her own. She takes what she likes from other varieties of religious thought as she understands them, and comfortably leaves the rest behind.

She has no doubt that Jesus is the one true Messiah the entire world has waited for.  For Alcibiades, Socrates, and Virgil, Jesus would have been their longed-for presence, she is certain.  She goes on:  "He was the 'Star' of Balaam, the 'Benefactor' of the Chaldee astrologers, the 'Saviour' predicted by the Persian Zoroaster...He belonged not to any nation, but to the world..." 

The book paints a vivid, literal picture of Jesus and Mary in their time.  Stowe imagines that Mary treated the knowledge of her lineage from King David as "the one hoarded gem of her poverty and neglect - like a crown jewel concealed in the humble cottage of an exiled queen."  Once her son Jesus realized his vocation in adulthood, his words, though issued sparingly, seemed that much more "concentrated and sparkling like diamonds that had been slowly crystallizing in those years of silence".  Finally, the crucifixion: "The rough hand of a brutal soldier has seized his robe to tear it from him.  Another with stalwart arm is boring the holes, gazing upward the while with a face of stupid unconcern.  There on the ground lie the hammer and the nails..."  With language like this, the narratives of these divine characters are brought nearly to life.

By contrast, Stowe's pronouncements about virtue are so generalized as to be ineffective.  They are so unspecific that one could read the entire collection and not realize that she had an opinion about slavery.  (Her most famous book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was originally published as a serial novel in an abolitionist newspaper in the early 1850s and remains popular today.)  Indeed, race relations are never mentioned in this collection, nor are any other issues that might be of culture-bound concern and therefore of historical interest.  Instead Stowe makes vague suggestions along the lines of "avoid[ing] harsh judgments, and harsh speech, and the making known to others our annoyance".  What she expects the reader to take away in the form of practical advice is a little unclear. 

Generally, she's interested in the problem of facing death.  Many people in the nineteenth century died young, stricken by sudden, mysterious illness.  In her view, it was the task of religion to offer some comfort.

The book is capped with some spiritual verse.  The primary value of these lines is the historical fact that they were penned by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Those who genuinely are excited when "cross" is rhymed with "All else is but dross" or who seek the insight that "In the frozen buds of every winter / Sleep the blossoms of a future flower" will enjoy the poems for their intrinsic literary value.  Others might find the verse forced in form and tired in content.

If there is any belief in this volume of Stowe's early work that might be perceived as edgy, it is her association of Jesus with the divine feminine.  Because Jesus had no mortal father, she writes, "there was in Jesus more of the pure feminine element than in any other man.  It was the feminine element exalted and taken in union with divinity."  Some pages later she claims that "His mode was more that of a mother than a father."  Her ideas about gender would go on to inform her later work, as addressed by Prof. Gayle Kimball in The Religious Ideas of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Originally posted to Helium Network on July 26, 2012.

Image: Harriet Beecher Stowe. Wikimedia Commons, originally from Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Two critiques of Sam Harris's 'Free Will'

Sam Harris's book Free Will is a brief synopsis of the question of whether humans have free will. We feel that we are making decisions, but we also know that we are at least partly determined by natural causes. On a pool table full of billiard balls hitting other billiard balls, the path of each ball is predetermined, and no ball moves of its own free will. We do not like to think of ourselves in that way, yet this is the implication of saying that all action is initiated by the physical brain, which is itself acted upon by other physical influences. Harris leans toward the side of saying there is no free will.

Sam Harris's book will not be summarized here. Instead, we will look at two critiques.

Free Will: Sam Harris Has It (Wrong) by Barry L. Linetsky (2013)

Linetsky says that "modern philosophy" is "dangerous" to its "victim[s]," as those philosophers who "reject reality" may cause "detachment" and "confusion." (Why specifically modern philosophy, I cannot say.)

Linetsky champions free will by saying, "we know it to be obvious by means of introspection," and that to deny it is "ludicrous and beyond rational comprehension." Everything from a small act of paying attention to being able to take personal responsibility for one's actions requires free will. He points out that Harris accepts the existence of the universe and human consciousness by saying that they are obvious to us. So why, he asks rhetorically, doesn't Harris accept the existence of free will on the same basis? He also suggests that if there is no free will, then people have no control over anything they think; this, for some reason, means they cannot have certainty about any of their conclusions, and that Harris's argument is therefore "invalid."

This line of argument by Linetsky is not persuasive. Just because we assume the existence of some things (at least provisionally) does not mean we should decisively and permanently accept the existence of everything. Also, to the extent that certainty is a feeling that arises when we are confronted by evidence or logic that seems persuasive to us, there is no reason that the lack of free will should deprive us of this feeling. It is simply that our feeling of certainty would be determined, along with the thoughts and experiences that bring it about. Furthermore, in either a determined or a free universe, whether Harris feels certain about his own conclusion has nothing to do with whether his argument is logically valid.

Linetsky goes on to say that if our careful deliberation about our many choices – significant and insignificant – is just an illusion, because the outcome of our thought process is already determined, and we are "self-deluded about all of these things all of the time," then we can have no true learning, knowledge, or understanding. The deterministic view must be rejected on the basis, it seems, that this idea is unpleasant.

Pleasant or no, that has nothing to do with whether it is true. Maybe abandoning belief in our own free will does not reveal learning, knowledge, and understanding to be impossible, but rather provides an opportunity for us to redefine what they are. Today there is much investigation into "artificial intelligence." If it is possible (at least in theory) to program a robot to learn, know, and understand, perhaps our own thought and experience is rightly understood along the same lines. This may seem terrible, but it is only redefining and reinterpreting the meaning of human intelligence. What we originally thought about our own intelligence might turn out to have been an illusion. This does not mean that there is no such thing as intelligence.

Linetsky does bring some important insights to the debate. He says it prejudices the investigation to emphasize neuroscientific observation of physical brain activity and to de-emphasize behavioral observations of decision-making in real-life contexts. Moreover, just because the origins of thought are dark and mysterious and that the chain of events stretches back indefinitely far into the past does not enable us to assume that the germ of "free will" can never be found. Linetsky comes down too strong on these points, however. He says that a person's behavior is itself "sufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of free will." (It is not; the explanation of the person's behavior is the very question at issue.) He also tries to dodge the question of the infinite regress of causes by saying that "free will" is contained in the moment of decision and that the unmanageably long list of causes predating that moment can be waved away. (They cannot; the question of whether the moment of decision is truly "free" hangs on whether it was controlled by other influences.)

Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris by Kurt Keefner (2012)

Keefner's line of critique is more persuasive. He observes that Harris divides the human mind into neurological consciousness and neurological unconsciousness. Harris claims that we identify our sense of self with our consciousness, as opposed to our unconsciousness. In focusing on the brain, as Keefner critiques him, Harris seems to entirely neglect the role of the rest of the body. More pointedly, Harris seems to take a purist view that consciousness can be separated from unconsciousness, when there is no such firm dividing line.

Keefner writes: "The quality of consciousness as such does not exist by itself any more than the roundness of a ball exists apart from the try to understand the roundness of a ball apart from what the ball is made of, its weight, its rigidity or bounciness, etc., would be a serious error."

Consciousness is thus a way we describe something else that is real, but it does not have reality by itself. Consciousness should not be reified – it should not be understood to have more reality than it does. Consciousness is not a "freestanding entity," but the "activity of an integrated entity."

Keefner describes four "levels of functioning": "non-conscious" (e.g. physical vital signs and perception), "unconscious" (e.g. "knowing how to speak our own language"), "preconscious" (e.g. "remembering my sister's name when I'm not thinking about her"), and "conscious" (e.g. "thinking about free will"). These levels of functioning form a "nested hierarchy," such that, when one acts consciously, one also acts preconsciously, unconsciously, and non-consciously. "Physiologically we have to talk about separate processes, but philosophically, the right approach is to own the whole package and feel yourself permeate all of your processes rather than dividing the self up."

He pinpoints a problematic passage in Harris’s book: "Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors." He rebuts this definition of a free being as one with “no unconscious processes at all within it, a completely pure consciousness all the way down.”

He says:

This is a terrible straw man. There is no reason why unconscious forces could not shape part of our mental lives while we consciously exercise some kind of decisive control…True, there are unconscious processes within us, but they are us. The atoms or neurons we are made of don’t cause us to be conscious. Our atoms and neurons are conscious. Our atoms and neurons make choices. It’s not that individual atoms and neurons are conscious and make choices, but in the right organization, i.e. me, they become a whole that is conscious and does make choices.

He concludes that Harris's "philosophical case collapses" because there is no clean divide between unconscious and conscious processes and therefore the conscious ones cannot be purely controlled by the unconscious ones. He also provides a compelling critique of the particular neurological experiments that Harris chose as examples, explaining why they do not demonstrate what Harris says they demonstrate.

Image: Taken in Zaragoza, España, 2012 and uploaded by 'Juanedc' to Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Writers on reading: Quotes about the importance of books

Readers may enjoy having quotations about the meaning of books to motivate, inspire or elucidate their reading experience. Quotations can naturally be used on gift inscriptions, in private journals or perhaps to decorate a reading room. Avid readers are likely to pick up their own favorite passages during their own literary adventures. For those who would like suggestions, the following items are offered.

Refusing discontent and desperation

"We must not be willing to suffer through quiet lives of discontent."
- Stephen Butler Murray, "Deliverance Where the Streets Have No Name," printed in "Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog" (2003)

While this line is not explicitly about books, it was doubly influenced by literature. In the first place, it is a modification of Henry David Thoreau's line, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation." In the second place, it is an interpretation of the lyrics in a rock song by U2, "And when I go there / I go there with you / (It's all I can do)." The statement thus demonstrates how one may form an idea from what one reads and then use one's literary skills to express it.

Literature gives a voice to angst, whether mild discontent (ennui, perhaps) or sharper forms of desperation. In naming the displeasure and dissatisfaction, and in calling them out, literature not only provides a way to cope with disappointment but can even prompt someone to find more meaningful ways to live that make life seem more rewarding and more heroic.

Similarly, the scientist Richard P. Feynman said in a lecture in 1963, "Throughout all the ages, men have been trying to fathom the meaning of life. They realize that if some direction or some meaning could be given to the whole thing, to our actions, then great human forces would be unleashed."

Penetrating the sanctuary of the heart

"...she felt briefly penetrated, as if the bright winged thing had actually made it to the sanctuary of her heart..."
- Thomas Pynchon, "The Crying of Lot 49" (1966)

In Thomas Pynchon's novel "The Crying of Lot 49," a character named Oedipa ponders a play called "The Courier's Tragedy." This play, allegedly from the 17th century, does not really exist; it is a fictional creation within the novel's world. Specifically, Oedipa wonders why a director of a performance of this play, Randolph Driblette, inserted two additional lines. It appears to be important information, or perhaps a code. Oedipa asks Driblette about it, but he declines to answer and then commits suicide, so Oedipa understands that she will not have the chance to learn the truth from him directly.

In referring to the unknown treasured parcel of information as a "bright winged thing," Pynchon may have been alluding to Edith Wharton's use of the phrase in "The Writing of Fiction" (1925):

"It is true that the gist of the matter always escapes, since it nests, the elusive bright-winged thing, in that mysterious fourth-dimensional world which is the artist's inmost sanctuary and on the threshold of which enquiry perforce must halt; but though that world is inaccessible, the creations emanating from it reveal something of its laws and processes."

Wherever that phrase comes from - "bright, wingéd thing" earlier appeared in the poem "To a Dead Bird" in "The Nests at Washington" (1864) by John James Piatt and Sarah M. Bryan Piatt - the other arresting part of Pynchon's line is that this birdlike idea may have briefly "made it to the sanctuary of her heart." This evokes centuries-old Christian imagery of the dove of the Holy Spirit descending on people. It is about the glimpse of truth and beauty that people reach through literary analysis.

Banned books

"The blissful feeling of being alone with the forbidden book, in a room with no telescreen, had not worn off."
- George Orwell, "1984" (first published in 1949)

In "1984," the government is so oppressive that it is able to read people's minds and executes them for what it calls "thoughtcrime." The "telescreen" is a two-way television screen planted ubiquitously to monitor people's activities at all hours of the day.

When the hero of the novel finally manages to get his hands on a heretical book that exposes and challenges the views of the government, his "blissful feeling" at having an opportunity to read something of political relevance, especially when he believes he is not being monitored, is a feeling that is more powerful than his chronic malnutrition. He wants books more than he wants food. The opportunity for critical thinking in safety and privacy is essential to his consciousness of his own humanity.

Those of us who are fortunate to have the freedom to read books may remember that not everyone shares the same freedom. Our enjoyment of a book may increase simply by reminding ourselves that we are fortunate to read it.

Imagine a library of unread books

"Read books are far less valuable than unread ones."
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb, "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable" (2007)

This point made it onto the first page of Taleb's book. Book collectors are often asked whether they "have read all those books" on their shelves. Taleb argues that "no" is a respectable answer, as there is generally no need to retain a book whose information one has already absorbed.

The novelist Isabel Allende told the Boston Globe:

"Every Jan. 7 I clear out all the books I've read in the past year and take them to a hospice. I already have five boxes full in the car, and I'm not done. The only books I have are some novels that I will never be able to get again, which are mostly in Spanish, signed books, and first editions. My husband has a collection of classics in beautiful leather covers, but I don't think he's read any of them."

Taleb's pithy expression of the value of an unread book is inspiring for people who keep books that they intend to read someday.

Find your own gems

Writers are keenly aware of the value of reading, as they themselves have learned to write from reading the books of others and have been influenced and inspired by other writers. Thus, many books contain explicit references to the importance of reading. As you embark on your literary adventures, keep a lookout for different perspectives on why reading is important.

Image: "Ex libris" personalized bookplate. Image by: Zbigniew Lubicz-Miszewski © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Atheist documentary ‘The God Who Wasn’t There’ broadly decries all religion

The documentary "The God Who Wasn't There" (Beyond Belief Media, 2005) attempts to demonstrate that Jesus never existed. Although the film's research and presentation is rough around the edges in many respects, it does contain some leads on the historical evidence for Jesus that will be of interest to the serious student.

Interpreting Jesus as a myth, not a historical person

Writer, director and narrator Brian Flemming questions a curious stretch of several decades between the death of Jesus (around 33 C.E.) and the Gospel of Mark (written after 70 C.E.). "Most of what we know about [Jesus in] this period," Flemming explains, comes from a man named Paul who traveled, evangelized and wrote several documents about the budding religion which "represent almost all we have about the history of Christianity during this decades-long gap."

"If Jesus was a human who had recently lived, nobody told Paul," Flemming quips. He says that Paul neglects to mention many significant details of the life of Jesus, including his parents, his ministry, his miracles and his trials. Paul does mention the cross, the resurrection and the ascension, but "even these Paul never places on Earth. Just like the other savior gods of the time, Paul's Christ Jesus died, rose and ascended all in the mythical realm." Flemming concludes that "Paul doesn't believe that Jesus was ever a human being. He's not even aware of the idea."

The film offers illuminating and tantalizingly brief interviews with historian Richard Carrier, who notes that "allegorical literature was extremely common" in that era and says that Mark the Evangelist was writing symbolism, and with the late professor of folklore Alan Dundes, who points out that some Christian movements disapproved of the religion's mythic elements and preferred to dismiss some tales as apocrypha rather than admit them into the canon. Dundes seems not to believe that this was ever a viable strategy, given his warning, "If you take away the folklore from the Bible, you don't have a heck of a lot left."

Dundes offers a riveting analysis of the literary characteristics of the hero, taken from a book he edited called "The Study of Folklore." The upshot is that Jesus embodies 19 of 22 typical biographical elements of a mythic hero (where Oedipus has a perfect score, and Hercules, Zeus and Robin Hood score not far below Jesus). These elements include being born of a virgin, enjoying an unremarkable childhood, ascending to a throne and issuing laws, then being forced out and suffering a mysterious death at the top of a hill. In a similar vein, interviewee Robert M. Pride, author of "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man" cites the mythical resurrections of gods including "Mithras, Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Tammuz," where "nobody thinks these characters are anything other than mythical, and their stories are so just seems like special pleading to say, 'Oh, in this one case [of Jesus], it really happened.'"

The screen flashes two quotes from the church father Justin Martyr who acknowledged the similarity of Jesus to other popular gods, and simply insisted that the earlier gods were fictions propounded by Satan and that Jesus was the best version of the myth.

Text rolls across the screen claiming that similar characters' births occurred on Dec. 25, heralded by stars and attended by Eastern Magi; that they healed the sick, cast out demons, and turned water into wine; that they rode donkeys and were betrayed for 30 pieces of silver; that they descended to hell, ascended to heaven, and offered bread and wine that represented their flesh and blood.

What goes wrong with the film's analysis

Aside from this intriguing information, however, the film has little to offer.

None of the Christians interviewed by Flemming are knowledgeable or articulate about these parallel myths. He selects only young, hapless Christians-on-the-street outside a Billy Graham rally; an apology from an odd proponent of a literalist belief about the Rapture; and an administrator of a Christian school who seems knowledgeable but wasn't given a chance to finish his sentences. The atheists or secularists in this film, by contrast, are scholars who were allowed to talk about their fields.

The interview with the school administrator is particularly embarrassing to the filmmaker. Soberly weathering the rapid-fire questions and non-sequitur interruptions, the administrator's answers were coherent and unoffensive, and he comes off as a sympathetic figure. He seems not to have understood that he was going to be in an atheist documentary, having agreed only to be interviewed on "the education of children," and he walks off the camera. Cue applause for him.

The Christian school in question was selected only because Flemming himself attended it as a child. He said he grew up fearful that he would go to hell because he harbored religious doubts. The entire film, then, can be easily interpreted as a sort of personal therapy for him. In the last scene, he jumps in the chapel and declares with a sort of junior-high glee, "I deny the Holy Spirit!" It is tempting to applaud for him, too, except for the viewer's suspicion of having been somehow "used" by him as an unwitting voyeur for this rather personal moment.

Much of the film looks cobbled together. There is a six-minute string of clips from old movies about the life of Jesus, abridged and fast-forwarded until it looks farcical. There are another four minutes of exceedingly violent clips from Mel Gibson's box-office mega-hit "The Passion of the Christ" accompanied by an analysis showing that nearly all of the film's 109 minutes contain depictions of violence. The filmmaker provides weirdly militaristic clips of "U.S. Christian Soldiers" from 1982 and virtual "Force Ministries" from 2002, plus a photo montage from Abu Ghraib. Other setups are nonsensical, such as juxtaposing healthy young Christians who look happy to discuss their religion with portraits of clearly psychotic killers Charles Manson and Dena Schlosser, and a still photo of the burning Branch Dravidian compound in Waco, Texas in which perished dozens of cult members are tastelessly referred to as "crispy fans" of Jesus.

Facing the question posed by a tiny fringe Christian group that insists that God hates gay people, Flemming does not attempt to disagree. Rather, he cites Leviticus and the Gospel of Luke and concurs with the hate group's Biblical reading, complaining only: "The real question is why moderate Christians don't agree with God, because when it comes to his rules, God is not a moderate." He goes so far as to say: "The Inquisition was not a perversion of Christian doctrine; the Inquisition was an expression of Christian doctrine." If Christians accept that the Bible is wrong on certain points, then, Flemming says, they are left with theologically undesirable positions such as:

"Jesus was only sort of the son of God? He only sort of rose from the dead? Your eternal soul is at stake but you shouldn't make a big deal out of it? Moderate Christianity makes no sense. Is it any wonder that so many people choose Christian leaders who actually have the courage of their convictions?"

This sort of baiting and goading of moderate Christians, who are pursuing such innocuous and noble goals as the integration of faith and modernity and the reconciliation of the virtue of personal discipline with the freedom of liberal democracy, is not helpful. One may believe that the project of moderate religion is ultimately psychologically impossible or logically untenable and that the best solution is atheism, but this does not mean that moderate religion is not respectable, honorable, personally worthwhile for some people, and a positive contribution toward world peace.

Most significantly, Flemming's rejection of moderate Christianity contradicts his own thesis at the beginning of the documentary where he advocates for a mythological understanding of religion. Many people who agree that Jesus is an allegory happen to identify as Christians rather than as atheists. By tarring them as "moderates" lacking in "courage" and making "no sense," Flemming implicitly compliments and therefore emboldens religious fundamentalists, alienates potential allies who just so happen to call themselves Christians, and demonstrates refusal to intellectually explore religious views that may be strikingly similar to his own atheist view.

Image: Bertel Thorvaldsen's sculpture of Christ. Copenhagen Cathedral. Image by Gunnar Bach Pedersen © public domain Wikimedia Commons.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Sept. 20, 2010.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

‘Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’ calls for reforming attitudes on sex

Uta Ranke-Heinemann is a Catholic theologian who, in 1969, became the first woman ever to qualify as a university lecturer in Catholic Theology at the University of Essen in West Germany. She rather immediately lost her chair "for interpreting Mary's Virgin Birth theologically and not biologically," as her biography puts it. Nonetheless, she became chair of the History of Religion at the same university in 1987. The next year, her book "Eunuchen für das Himmelreich" was published in German, and it was translated into English as "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven" by Peter Heinegg in 1990.

The book argues that the Catholic Church through two millennia has distorted teachings about sexuality to serve a sexist agenda. While the indictment may make some people uncomfortable or angry, the author presents a forceful argument for her position.


The idea that Mary remained a biological virgin even after giving birth to Jesus - that is, that she had a hymen that was somehow not ruptured during childbirth - derives from the second-century Proto-Gospel of James, she says. A canonical scripture of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) said to prophesy Jesus's birth underwent a third-century mistranslation from Hebrew to Greek that changed "girl" to "virgin". In the late fourth century, Pope Siricius excommunicated people for believing otherwise, including Jovinian and Bishop Bonosus of Sardica. In the 13th century, King Louis IX of France advocated slaughtering any Jews who denied the Virgin Birth. To the present day, the author writes, the Pope insists on the Virgin Birth.

Where Jesus encourages people to become "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven," as reported in a famous verse in the Gospel of Matthew, it is, she says, "naturally to be understood metaphorically." It is not a recommendation of self-castration, nor even celibacy; rather, in context, it's about "renouncing adultery," including remarriage following divorce. Jesus asks his male disciples to limit themselves to one female partner, and they object to this limitation. Jesus's insistence on the importance of becoming a "eunuch" simply means faithfulness to one woman, not abstinence. "In reality," Ranke-Heinemann says, "all apostles were married." Judaism endorsed marriage and procreation and discouraged lifelong celibacy. Insofar as Jesus is described as obedient to his Jewish parents, he, too, was likely married.

The Christian reverence for virginity came later, as Christians emulated certain pagan cults that advocated virginity to avoid the accusation from pagans that Christianity was immoral. The Gnostics - a pan-religious school of spiritual thought and belief around the time Christianity was beginning - prized virginity. Because people idealized virginity, and not because there was any real evidence for a Virgin Birth, they decided that Mary must have always been and always remained a virgin.

The theologian Augustine, late in his life, was an anti-sensualist. "Augustine's conversion to Christianity, from love of pleasure to hatred of it, took place by classifying women as stimulants and ignoring them as partners," Ranke-Heinemann explains.

Furthermore, women have been ignored and denied not only as life companions but as spiritual beings. As one example, the Apostle Paul praised a woman named Junia, who was assumed to be a woman throughout the late Middle Ages, at which point Junia magically transformed into a masculine "Junias." Women were forbidden from singing in church, and so high voices were supplied by boys and castrati - thus dramatically affecting the lives of those men, too, who were castrated to fill a need that existed only because women were deemed ineligible to fulfill it.

Practical impacts

Ranke-Heinemann also complains about the effects of such theology on women's lives. Over the centuries, in some cases, newlyweds were expected to remain celibate for the first three nights ("Tobias nights"), which she interprets as roughly analogous to God Himself invoking the jus primae noctis (the right of a medieval lord to have sex with his serfs). From the beginning of Christianity, Church leaders opposed abortion, and they developed a doctrine that abortion is impermissible even in the rare case when it would be essential to save the life of the mother, either in pregnancy or during delivery, and even in cases where the fetus will die anyway. Ranke-Heinemann calls this "a classical case of following the letter and not the spirit of a commandment." She also cites the ritual of "churching" a woman - that is, ritually purifying her after childbirth, until which time she is not permitted to enter the church building - as a potentially embarrassing requirement that continued up to the 1960s.

At times, the Church denied marriage to people with illnesses, disabilities or anything deemed a significant deformity. Since, in the Church's opinion, they oughtn't reproduce, they had no business marrying or having sex, either. Elderly people sometimes faced the same discrimination, as well as any man who lacked functioning testicles (marriage was prohibited to eunuchs from 1587 to 1977).

Ranke-Heinemann eloquently expresses the importance of allowing people to authentically express their sexuality:

"Sexuality is not something that a person simply has along with many other things, but a fundamental way of being in all things, and hence something without which his or her other existential acts and relations cannot actually be thought and realized."

Restrictions on sexuality also affect the lives of priests. Ranke-Heinemann also points out that, for a long time, priests were not required to be celibate. Pope Siricius complained in 385 that ordained priests should stop sleeping with their wives. Since 1139, priests have been barred from marrying at all. Priests themselves do not necessarily like this requirement. Ranke-Heinemann cites a poll of candidates for the priesthood in 1976 in which a majority felt that the celibacy requirement should be eliminated or at least re-examined. Priestly, celibacy requirements have undoubtedly doomed many relationships; she goes into detail about just one, the medieval couple Abelard and Heloise.

A controversial attitude

The author calls sex discrimination in the Catholic Church "apartheid" and delivers the strident comment that "the claim that Christianity meant liberation for women is as false as it is long-lived." She says that Vatican II was "wrongly described as a step forward in sexual morality" and identifies the "true danger" as the phenomenon that

"married people are slowly turning their backs on the celibate monastic church because they are sick and tired of such nonsensical, incompetent, patronizing treatment, and would like to have sex for motives that obviously transcend the imagination of clerical celibates."

The Church's problem, she says, is a "pleasure-hating celibate contempt for marriage and a maniacal cult of virginity."

A worthwhile book

Whether you agree or disagree with Uta Ranke-Heinemann's interpretations of Biblical and Church history - or whether you reserve judgment, perhaps because you are not Catholic and prefer to leave it as an internal Catholic matter - this book provides an important viewpoint that deserves to be heard. The author is a scholarly expert, having devoted her life to studying this subject matter; she appears to be motivated by improving life for Catholic women; and she paid a personal price for speaking her truth to power.

Originally posted to Helium Network on March 11, 2014.

Portrait of a Woman, c. 1508-1510. Painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). © public domain Wikimedia Commons.

An unknown masterpiece of medieval Hindu tales introduced to English readers

In 1917, while studying at the Central Library in Kensington, London, to make a thorough inventory of Richard Francis Burton's writings, the independent scholar Norman Mosley Penzer stumbled across a strange and haunting collection of stories. It was eleventh-century Indian literature known as the Katha Sarit Sagara, or the Ocean of Story, written around 1070 by Somadeva, the court poet for Kashmir. It was translated from the Sanskrit into English by Charles Henry Tawney (1837-1922) – a linguist of Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, and Persian who had studied at Cambridge and gone to India in 1865 – and printed by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in a small series called Bibliotheca Indica (1880-1884).

Penzer would go on to release his own annotated reprint of Tawney's work in the 1920s. The story of his effort is documented in the book itself, in contemporary reviews, and in his preserved personal correspondence.

The Ocean of Story is a large collection of spiritual allegories involving divine agents and magic. It encompasses everything between birth and death, including romance, trickery, swift horses, menacing lions, and the pursuit of enlightenment. As the Morning Post wrote on Aug. 10, 1926, "it is of the same order as the Arabian Nights, the Decameron, and the Canterbury Tales, stories strung together like a necklace of beads, a convention beloved by the Middle Ages..." Of particular interest to the European audience was the myth of the "poison-damsel," that is, women with poisonous blood sent to assassinate enemies.

Penzer recognized that the passage he encountered "must belong to a work of the highest importance...I felt instinctively that this odd part of an unknown Indian work was to be of the utmost importance to me personally," even though "I could lay no claim whatever to Oriental scholarship." He temporarily switched his research focus away from Burton to learn more about the Ocean of Story.

Penzer first wrote to Tawney on July 26, 1919 to pitch the idea of a multi-volume reprint of his translation that would be enhanced by some updated notes on history and context. Tawney responded immediately with encouragement, but made clear – in letters on July 28 and Aug. 4 – that, at age 81, facing eviction from his house, he would not be able to participate intellectually or financially. His only advice was that Penzer use a horizontal line over a vowel to indicate its "long" nature in Sanskrit, rather than the "acute accent" mark that Tawney regretted using in his earlier work. "I shall always retain a feeling that you have paid me an undeserved compliment," he closed.

It took some effort for Penzer to find a willing publisher. This he found in the proprietor of Chas. J. Sawyer books in London (a business that operated from 1894 until 2012). In his "Retrospect" in Vol. IX, Penzer recalled Sawyer as saying that, although he had never before heard of the Ocean of Story, he sensed it to be "an unknown masterpiece" that he would be pleased to back financially.

The work was sold on a subscription basis; its ten volumes were released serially. The publisher asked 18 guineas up front for the full set, although it seems that the asking price dropped over time. The advertising brochure said that "each volume consists of approximately 350 pages…The binding is black buckram, with gold medallions on the front cover and back, with a gold ribbon marker and top edges gilt," and that it would look pleasing alongside Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights. The print run was limited to 1500 sets.

In 1923, Penzer published his Annotated Bibliography of Sir Richard Francis Burton. In his entry for Burton's adaptation of "Vikram and the Vampire," he found reason to insert an extended mention of the Ocean of Story, although it was generally otherwise unrelated to Burton's work.

The next year, in 1924, the first volume of the new Ocean of Story was released. Tawney did not live to see it.

The work did not merely reprint Tawney's translation. Penzer added extensive notes and comments, and forewords were written for volumes I through IX, respectively, by Sir Richard Carnac Temple, Sir George A. Grierson, M. Gaster, F. W. Thomas, E. Denison Ross, A. R. Wright, Maurice Bloomfield, W. R. Halliday, and Sir Atul Chatterjee. The tenth volume contained the appendices and index.

When Grierson wrote to Penzer on Aug. 6, 1924 expressing his interest in writing a foreword for the second volume, he explained that he would require three weeks to complete the task due to his poor eyesight. The same affliction plagued other elderly scholars. Bloomfield was originally invited to write his foreword for the sixth volume, but he wrote to Penzer on June 4, 1926 explaining that he could no longer read small print, "and with that taboo goes a glimmering of anything like investigation." Agreeing to a postponement, he mailed his completed foreword to Penzer on Oct. 31, 1926, and it was included in the seventh volume.

The collection received a great deal of attention in the popular newspapers and the literary press. The Times Literary Supplement gushed on Aug. 14, 1924:  "Of Mr Penzer's notes and appendices, no praise can be excessive." The same publication later reviewed Volumes II and III under the headline "The Hindu Nights," drawing a comparison with the better-known Arabian Nights. The Liverpool Post wrote on Jan. 16, 1927 that Tawney "never indulges in cheap Orientalism, nor does he try to Westernise these stories...His language...translates us into another world."

Halliday came to Penzer's attention when he reviewed Volumes I and II of the Ocean of Story for the journal Folk-Lore, particularly as his reviews chiefly complained of factual inaccuracies. Halliday's review of Volume III was rather more complimentary, accompanied by the disclaimer that "I feel that I owe Mr. Penzer amends, particularly as he has heaped coals of fire upon my head by allowing me to write a Foreword to volume VIII."

At the end of the ninth volume, Penzer wrote a "Terminal Essay" in which he extended appreciation to the others involved in his project. "My idea of inviting a different scholar to write a Foreword to each volume has proved a great success, and my work is now enriched by nine excellent Essays, each dealing with the great collection from a different angle," he wrote.

In October 1924, the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society attempted a brief list of examples of the contents of the Ocean of Story:  "...deisul or circunambulation, the chastity index motif, the external soul motif, the Garuda Bird, the Paisachi language, the Ghandharva form of marriage, communicating by signs, the entrapped suitor motif, and the magical articles motif." The Spectator explained on Nov. 20, 1926 that "there had been a great intermixture of cultures by the time of Somadeva. There are tales which are obviously derived from the pre-Aryan civilisation of India; there are Greek, Mongolian, and Arabic influences."

"Mr. Penzer's wide knowledge of the literary sources," said the Manchester Guardian on Aug. 19, 1926, "has enabled him to quote a larger number of analogous tales from other countries, and his references range from Ancient Egypt to the Norse; but he has not yet had an opportunity to grapple thoroughly with the problem."

After Tawney's death, Penzer remained in touch with his family members. On Jan. 5, 1928, Penzer received a letter from one of Tawney's children in King's Pride, Camberley: "I got your very kind letter this morning and I liked so very much what you said about Father and thank you very much for thinking it and saying it...One of his last regrets was his book had not been appreciated...but as you say perhaps he does know."

On the back of a postcard with one penny of pre-printed postage, Penzer wrote: "Finished the 'Ocean of Story' on Saturday, Jan. 21st 1928 at 9.52 A.M."  He kept the postcard. The tenth and final volume containing the index was published that February.

Penzer died in 1960. At some point, his personal correspondence and newspaper clippings related to the Ocean of Story came into the possession of Chas. J. Sawyer Booksellers. On Mar. 27, 1972, Sawyer sold the collection of "Orientalia Penzer, Miscellanea relating to Ocean of Story" for 50 pounds to a private collector in the United States. This was Morris Harold Saffron, a physician with a historical interest in medieval medicine, whose English translation of the work of the twelfth-century Maurus of Salerno had just been published two months previously. Saffron had studied at Columbia University in New York City, and today the Penzer miscellanea are under the curation of Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Originally posted to Helium Network, Jan. 24, 2013.

Image: Entrance to the Golden Temple, Amritsar, India, c. 1907, by Herbert Ponting (1870-1935) © The Commons. No known copyright restrictions. Flickr.

‘The dead are everywhere but the ground’: The vision of ‘Fugitive Pieces’

Anne Michaels' novel "Fugitive Pieces" is a beautiful and haunting treatment of one person's view of the world. The story follows the fictional character, Jakob, as he grows from a young Holocaust survivor into a mature intellectual. Michaels delivers the poetry of life and death as emoted by a person who has gone through severe trauma.

The book is filled with passages like this:

"The shadow-past is shaped by everything that never happened. Invisible, it melts the present like rain through karst. A biography of longing. It steers us like magnetism, a spirit torque. This is how one becomes undone by a smell, a word, a place, the photo of a mountain of shoes. By love that closes its mouth before calling a name."

Some readers are uncomfortable with such an abstract literary treatment, given that the real history of the genocide is all too concrete for Holocaust survivors. Indeed, those looking for a novel replete with historical details about the war will not find it here. This story, instead, follows a boy who is spirited away from the war-torn area and grows up in a relatively safe, idyllic area, raised by a scholar who teaches him to see the world through the lens of geology and Greek. He would be happy, if not for his traumatic memories.

Jakob is blissfully ignorant of parts of the war that continue to rage elsewhere. "While Athos," he says, referring to his savior, guardian, and tutor, "taught me about anabatic and katabatic winds, Arctic smoke, and the Spectre of the Bröcken, I didn't know that Jews were being hanged from their thumbs in public squares." Jakob is isolated from such terrible international news. To him, the war still consists of the violence he saw in his family's home, when they were stormed by surprise and he saw his mother's sewing box of buttons spill onto the floor, an image that stands in for the unspeakable violence that must have followed. Only as an adult does he realize the full extent of the horrors that continued to affect others.

The memory of his murdered family follows him. Over and over, wherever he goes, he feels their presence, particularly that of his sister. As he puts it, "the spirit in the body is like wine in a glass; when it spills, it seeps into air and earth and light," and therefore "the dead are everywhere but the ground." In his adulthood, the memory of his sister becomes an obsession. It interferes with his marriage. He wants to be happy, but he cannot forget the past. His loyalties are torn between the living and the dead.

This novel is well worth savoring for its unique voice and perspective.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Dec. 8, 2012.

Photograph: A river near a cave in Pottersville, New York. The rock suggests an interesting geological history. Photo by Tucker Lieberman.

When 19th and 20th century writers paid to print their own books

What is known today as “self-publishing” was known throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century as “private printing.” This meant that an author, or an author’s family member, paid someone who owned a printing press to produce a booklet of the author’s work. The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers defines the term “privately printed” as a self-funded publication that was “meant for private circulation, not public sale.”

In nineteenth-century England, privately printed books tended to be produced “at the expense of the authors or of the families most concerned, and distributed exclusively among friends,” usually with fewer than 100 copies and without indices, according to Edward Porritt in an article published in the New York Times on April 22, 1899. Porritt claimed that, as of his writing at the turn of the twentieth century, this convention was changing so that “almost all” memoirs and personal papers were going through traditional editors and publishers (although sometimes not until the subject’s death).

Porritt hailed this as a helpful development for academics. He cited frustrating examples of important books such as Harriet Grote’s "Life of Sir William Molesworth" (1866), which, despite the light it shed on “English politics and party history of the epoch-making period it covers,” was privately printed and did not arrive at the British Museum Library “until about 1894.”

“The idea at bottom of this old-fashioned exclusiveness,” Porritt wrote, “was apparently that with these papers and letters, even when they dealt with the highest affairs of State, the world at large had no concern.” He explained that the move toward traditional publishing was prompted by “the development of the newspaper press” as well as increasing interest in public affairs, in democracy in England, and in writing in general. Furthermore, he said, authors found that someone was generally willing to cover the publication expenses, given the demand for the memoirs of important people on the part of public library patrons.

Books produced in small numbers are, by definition, instantly rare, but this does not mean that they are always valuable to booksellers. Their value would be partly defined by their subject material and their physical condition, according to Jeremy M. Norman’s essay “What is a Rare Book?”

Sometimes groups reprinted copies of an existing work for their own use. "The Rubáiyát" was a work of Persian poetry originally written in the eleventh or twelfth century by Omar Khayyam and was first translated into English in the nineteenth century. In 1907, the Omar Khayyam Club of America privately printed it for their own use, facilitated by the Rosemary Press of Needham, Mass.

Sometimes a privately printed work went on to be accepted by traditional publishers. When D. H. Lawrence’s novel "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" was rejected by publishers in England and the United States due to its sexual content, he paid for one thousand copies to be printed by Tipografia Giuntina in Italy in 1928. Lawrence sold all the copies, yet traditional publishers were still unwilling to print the book until 1960. Today it is considered a classic. A copy of the first edition from 1928, signed by the author, is on the market in 2014 with an asking price of $18,500 USD.

Often, the term “privately printed” implied some level of sexual content or other type of forbidden material, as was the case with "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" and also with books about homosexuality such as John Addington Symonds’ "A Problem in Modern Ethics" (1896). Some publications, like the Panurge Press books which dealt primarily with sexual material in the early twentieth century, stamped "privately printed" clearly and proudly, advertising the books as limited editions "for private collectors of erotica." The term likely had some appeal for people who knew what they wanted to buy.

Some writers had to self-publish their work, not because social convention or the law objected to the content, but simply because publishers did not find it marketable. Gillian Sutherland’s article “Women Writers and the Nineteenth-century Marketplace” in The Cambridge Quarterly indicates that the demand for poetry in England began to slow in the 1820s. Thus the writer Alice Meynell, dually hampered by being a poet who was female, privately printed her book of poetry in 1896.

The term “privately printed” was occasionally used later in the twentieth century; one example is by a scholar who used the term to refer to Ruth Johnson’s "Patchwork: Early Pioneer, Indian, and Faith Promoting Latter-day Saint Stories" (1973). By this time, however, the terms “vanity press” or, more neutrally, “self-publishing” were beginning to be used instead, especially to refer to larger quantities of printed books that authors paid to produce and then attempted to sell themselves, usually unsuccessfully.

Today, writers debate the value of self-publishing in an ever-changing marketplace influenced by new technologies. Regardless of the varying opinions about whether self-publishing is a good choice, it is something that many writers have done throughout the years. Readers should be aware that copies of historical literature marked as "privately printed" are usually rare, may or may not have been printed at earlier or later dates by traditional publishers, and may or may not be valuable.

Originally posted Feb. 10, 2013 to Helium Network.

The flaws in the 'New Cosmological Argument'

Richard M. Gale and Alexander R. Pruss’s paper “A New Cosmological Argument,” published in Cambridge University’s Religious Studies journal in 1999, sought to prove the existence of God. It failed to seal the lid on this question.

The first seven premises of the argument discuss whether the world needs an explanation. The rest asks what sort of God could explain the world. If the first part of the argument is found to be fallacious, then it will be unnecessary to argue about what kind of God there isn’t. Therefore, this deconstruction will only analyze the first part of the argument.

The principle of sufficient reason

This new cosmological argument hangs on the Principle of Sufficient Reason. A “strong” version of this principle (S-PSR) holds that every proposition (meaning everything there is) has an explanation. Many are disinclined to make this assumption, so the authors propose a supposedly more palatable “weak” version. The Weak Principle of Sufficient Reason (W-PSR) insists on the mere possibility of any given proposition having an explanation. If a particular fact is found not to have an explanation in this world (the “actual world”), one is only bound to acknowledge that there is some “possible world” out there in which the same fact has an explanation.

Gale and Pruss write that atheists would be “unreasonable” not to grant this allegedly “weak” hypothesis. They are wrong. The hypothesis is imperialist in its scope, and many of its bones can be picked. To list a few of them briefly: the world is probably not equivalent with descriptions of it, facts change over time, and some propositions are probabilities, not certainties. What, for that matter, does it even mean for a proposition to have an “explanation”? Must an explanation be a scientific cause, or can it be a subjective interpretation, as when someone “explains” a poem?

Let the reader temporarily accept, nonetheless – for the sake of argument – W-PSR. This is not because the reader should be bullied into fearing oneself an unreasonable atheist for failing to swallow this hypothesis, but because it needs to be provisionally accepted before the reader can turn the page.

Necessary and contingent facts

The next concept the reader must accept is the distinction between “necessary” and “contingent” facts. This is a standard concept in philosophy. Some people find it intuitive, while others believe it is an invalid distinction. Regardless, understanding what is meant by this concept is essential to understanding Gale and Pruss’s argument.

Their argument refers to the “Big Conjunctive Fact,” defined as all the facts that make up a given world. A sub-set of this enormous, amalgamated fact is the “Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact,” which includes all the contingent facts and none of the necessary facts. This sub-set consists of all the facts that make a given world unique.

What kind of proposition needs an explanation?

The big problem with Gale and Pruss’s argument is its inconsistent use of the symbol “p”, which stands for a given proposition. Their Premise 4 begins, “If p is in the actual world’s Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact, then...” and concludes that it’s possible that p could have an explanation (according to W-PSR). Yet their Premise 2 says that “p is the actual world’s Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact.” How can both uses of the symbol “p” be correct? How can they simultaneously define “p” as being contained within the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact (i.e. “p” is some small proposition, like “Martha feels sad today”) and as being the entire Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact (everything that makes a world unique)?

The tiny word “in” makes a huge difference. The authors’ attempt to use Premise 2 in a “modus ponens”-style argument to affirm the antecedent of Premise 4 is invalid. Premise 2, even if true, does not mean that the antecedent of Premise 4 is true, because these propositions are not the same.

The rest of the New Cosmological Argument uses the working definition of “p” as “the actual world’s Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact.” The authors believe they have proved that it’s at least possible that the whole world, in all its specificity, has an explanation. But the modus ponens was invalid.

The “weak” principle of sufficient reason, revisited

The authors warned the readers they’d be “unreasonable” not to accept W-PSR, the allegedly “weak” version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. This formulation turns out to be quite strong indeed, with all sorts of strange side effects.

W-PSR implies that at least one necessary fact provides explanatory power for what makes each world unique. This does not make sense. If only one necessary fact explains all contingent facts – and if the necessary fact’s explanatory power is itself necessary – how can Gale and Pruss account for the differences between possible worlds? (This is a general problem with the distinction between “necessary” and “contingent” facts: it’s not clear how “necessary” facts in the watershed of all possible worlds eventually move downstream and degrade into separate rivers of “contingent” facts.)

Recall that W-PSR was deemed “weak” because it allows that any given fact might not actually have an explanation. With the addition of the idea that the explanation, at first deemed merely possible, is indeed a necessary fact, the authors slide into a position that maintains that the actual world contains an explanation for everything – by definition!

In the discussion following their eighth premise, they say that there must be one single explanation that “explain[s] each and every contingent proposition in this Fact, as well as the Conjunction as a whole.” In other words, the grand concatenated explanation not only covers every little contingent fact separately, but explains why this particular set of contingent facts (numbering roughly, oh, a googolplex or so), and not some different set, holds true.

Toward the end of the paper, Gale and Pruss acknowledge that atheists might accuse W-PSR of assuming the very thing it should be proving. They allege, however, that atheists only do this as a “dogmatic” power-play after they realize they’ve lost this particular argument. Additionally, in describing someone who “consent[s] to a proposition that he does not understand,” they use a normally unprintable seven-letter Yiddish word that rhymes with “duck.” This is unfair. Recall that, in this discussion, the interlocutor provisionally granted the hypothesis only for the sake of argument to see where it would lead, like turning the page of a book. That the argument hangs itself on a fatal typo in Premises 2 and 4 and in an inherent problem with the necessary/contingent distinction is not the result of atheist dogma.

The authors say that W-PSR doesn’t beg the question because “the existence of God is not an immediate consequence of it”; it requires some “deductive powers” to get there. This, too, is unfair. At the beginning of this article, it was shown that there are good reasons for someone to think that W-PSR is expressed unclearly and is not fully understandable as-is. Gale and Pruss’s rules of play threaten insult either way the reader leans: one is deemed Yiddishe derrière for gullibly accepting a premise without fully understanding it and is pronounced “unreasonable” for being skeptical of a new premise that is groomed to look decent on its face.

After the reader complies by provisionally accepting W-PSR but comes to realize its deeper consequences, a third insult is indirectly levied against him: he can no longer claim that W-PSR begs the question, because he lacked the brains (“deductive powers”) to see it immediately. One might retort that this fault should be laid at Gale and Pruss’s feet, since their formulation of W-PSR left loose ends for others to tie, only after which was it clear that W-PSR begs the question. And even if a particular reader is foolish, what does this have to do with proving whether W-PSR eats its own tail?

Given the fatal flaws described at the beginning of this “new cosmological argument,” it is difficult to proceed further with the additional components of the argument, especially as they are also unclear and objectionable. In short, this argument is not a successful proof that God exists and accounts for the world. Onward, skeptics.

Originally posted to Helium Network on July 4, 2013.

Image based on Michelangelo's "Creation of the Sun and Moon" (c. 1512). Digitally altered by T. Lieberman.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Put down your dagger and be nice to eunuchs!

In Defense of Eunuchs is a Byzantine work of rhetoric written in Greek. It responds to the slander that was often hurled at eunuchs (castrated men). The author, Theophylact, wrote it in honor of his brother, Demetrius, who had been castrated by their father so he could enter imperial service. The length of the work is comparable to a magazine essay (to use an anachronism), but the format is primarily a dialogue.

Theophylact was born in the mid-eleventh century, became Archbishop of Ohrid in 1090, and wrote this work in the early twelfth century. The Orthodox archbishopric was under the authority of the Church in Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine empire. Today, the city of Ohrid (pronounced okh-REED) is in the modern-day Republic of Macedonia, near the borders of Albania and Greece.

Theophylact is believed to have written In Defense of Eunuchs after both he and the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus traveled to the Greek city of Thessalonica, about 250 km southeast of Ohrid. Two imperial visits were known to have occured between late 1105 through early 1107, so the work could be reasonably dated any time after 1105. This information is explained in Victor T. Cheney's work A Brief History of Castration, based on the French-language work of Paul Gautier, Theophylacte D'Achrida Discours, Traites, Poesies. Cheney loosely translated the entire work into English based on Gautier's French translation. He calls it "The Justification of Eunuchism." (For classical purists, this kind of derivative translation might be considered a twice-warmed leftover, but one needs knowledge of Greek or French to avoid relying on this translation.) All quotations below are from Cheney.

The work opens with a poem and a brief introduction in which Theophylact dedicates the work as a "gift" to his brother and briefly sums up some of the work's main points. What follows is a dialogue he claims to have reconstituted from something he heard in Thessalonica.

The first speaker (believed to be Stephan, a military commander, revealed as an ascetic Christian) briefly levels the accusations against eunuchs that were typical of the era. He says that "eunuchs are the stingiest and most selfish of mortals" and adds "liberty, ambition, jealousy, love of pettiness, pretense, meanness, and undue sensitivity" to their list of vices. Palace eunuchs who serve in the women's quarters will become sexually involved with the women, leading to an "ungodly situation." To highlight the threat to Christian virtue, he references the Sidonian goddess Astarte, who was said to have been born from the remains of a castrated god. On the other hand, eunuchs who are singers, whether in the theater or the Church, are drunken jokers who are sexually active with men. In either case, they are, finally, seen as "bad omens."

The debate pauses briefly to allow the author Theophylact to illustrate the facial expressions of the two men. The accuser is "quiet" but "concentrated," intent "on binding the eunuch in chains" rhetorically. The defendant, himself a eunuch (believed to be Simon the Sanctified, a monk from Mount Athos), smiles politely and launches a lengthy, spirited comeback. Twice he asks the accuser to lay down his rhetorical "dagger."

The eunuch says that his accuser must be referring to foreign eunuchs in Persian harems, and surely it is unfair to attribute the same vices to Christian eunuchs in the Byzantine empire like himself. He name-drops eunuch ecclesiastics: the Archbishop of Thessalonica and the Bishops of Pydna, Petra, Edesse, and Bulgaria, all of whom, he said, "were voluntarily castrated to counter their own passions." He distinguishes these holy eunuchs from those "profligate" ones whose castration is motivated by the idea of consequence-free sex; the latter are not defended by him. Some early Gnostic "heretics" were profligate, leading the Church Fathers to oppose castration, but most contemporary eunuchs are motivated by "purity and piety," so the Church accordingly became more accepting by the twelfth century.

The eunuch notes that the accuser is a celibate ascetic. If the accuser considers his own sex organs to be "superfluous," why would it be blameworthy for another man to choose to remove his own superfluous organs, as one might remove a "sixth finger"? And if the accuser chooses to become thin and pale through fasting, altering his own natural constitution, why is the eunuch's altered body seen as more unnatural?

The eunuch says that "the Bible equates eunuchism with holiness: a eunuch as a servant of God," citing the examples of Daniel and his companions, Nehemiah, and Ebedmelech. Of the scriptures in general, he says that "I honor and worship them as life-giving rules. But I do not consent to be their prisoner." He prefers to "leap over" the old Hebrew laws "in an act of faith." While quoting scripture numerous times, he also makes arguments that appeal to human nature and common sense. Once, for emphasis, he mentions the names of Miltiades and Koroibos, who were ancient, pre-Christian, Greek representatives of dummies.

He says the fourth-century Emperor Constantine was given the honorific "The Great" because he favored eunuchs, overturning past precedents against eunuchs. In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian I criminalized the act of castration but continued to employ eunuchs. The speaker points out that this position is contradictory. He uses the metaphor of a false gold coin that makes the sound of copper when it is struck, implicitly declaring that the worthlessness of the emperor's decision should be apparent to all. "Either abolish castration and never use eunuchs," he apostrophized the long-dead emperor, "or transfer them to the highest posts and favor castration."

On a purely logical basis, the eunuch's strongest argument lies in his claim (if true) that the proportion of eunuchs who are evildoers is smaller than the proportion of non-eunuch men who are evildoers. Furthermore, he says, villainous men express a higher degree of evil than do villainous eunuchs. In other words, men are more likely to commit greater acts of evil than are eunuchs. If this claim is true, then, logically, castration actually reduces the amount of evil in the world. Its average effect on human behavior should be verifiable by "examin[ing] a number of priests from one or two churches, drawing on both your side and mine." It is unfair to condemn all eunuchs based on anecdotes of a few wicked ones who may be statistical anomalies.

Similarly, if church singers are blamed for stirring base passions with innovative melodies and harmonies, it should be recalled that this musical innovation was introduced by male composers, not by the eunuch performers.

The speaker does not express it quite so succinctly. This argument becomes an occasion for colorful speech, such as the repetition of the accusations that a eunuch's evil is "like the produce of an exhausted earth, which lacks good quality and taste" and that imperial bureaucrats "behave like young lions who roar and terrify other animals."

He believes his strongest argument – which he saves for last – is that eunuchs do not suffer from sexually-transmitted diseases because they have taken an irrevocable step that prevents them from sinning in a moment of weakness. They choose this life of purity, and they choose to alter their bodies to "reflect" their free choice. "You have said that many eunuchs are unchaste. This shows that the continent ones are chaste by will," he avers.

Inquiring if he should continue, his accuser is given an opportunity to speak again, and he responds: "That is enough for now." The two men embrace and kiss, and the eunuch triumphantly lifts up his young nephew who had listened closely the whole time.

To close the dialogue, the author, Theophylact, speaks once more in his own voice, as he had done at the very beginning. He indicates only his concern in remembering everything that had been said, since, especially in his old age, "I am not Simonides or Hippias, sages of great memory." What he finally recorded in this treatise he refers to as "merchandise" from his trip to Thessalonica.

A hundred types of transgression - or more

It is often claimed that, all over the world, certain acts are seen as clear-cut examples of moral wrongdoing, regardless of the cultural background of the one who is asked to judge them. Everyone opposes the unprovoked killing of other people. Everyone is offended by lying and stealing. Everyone, that is, except psychopaths. These things are wrong by definition. Furthermore, acts that suggest character traits such as disloyalty and greed also tend to receive widespread disapproval.

Yet, even if there is agreement about which actions are wrong, this does not entail that all wrong actions are equally wrong. "Anthropologists have found," Lance Morrow wrote in his book Evil: An Investigation, "that when they ask people to describe the most evil act they can imagine, different cultures may produce different answers." Americans and Europeans are likely to mention violence against children, while Japanese may mention greed and corruption in politics. This raises the question of whether there is a workable scale.

The American forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone, interviewed by Max Miller in 2010, explained his 22-step "scale of evil": "...the first one was 'not evil,' just justified homicide. Number two was crimes of passion, all the way up to 22 where there was usually a serial killer subjecting victims to prolonged torture. So, that's about as bad as it gets." (Here, he represents what Morrow suggested might be a culturally specific orientation toward this question.)

Stone's "scale of evil" focuses on ranking different types of murder, so it might not succeed at explaining evil generally. On the middle range of his scale of evil – somewhere between a justifiable or readily understandable near-accident and, on the other extreme, the callous scheming of a rogue loner – there are examples of the sort of criminal motives that should concern everyone. This includes people who live with day-to-day anger that eventually boils over; people who kill those who seem to threaten their power or to block them from doing what they want to do; people who repeatedly deceive others without remorse; and people whose crimes are sexually driven. This sort of evil is banal, to use Hannah Arendt's well-known term. It is more dangerous because it is more common, and therefore its destructive capacity is less likely to be recognized.

Stone's list gives the impression that a "psychopathic" mind is always more evil than a non-psychopathic mind. This may be true almost by definition, as Robert D. Hare's 1999 book on psychopaths is titled Without Conscience. If conscience refers to the ability to distinguish "right" from "wrong," and if psychopaths lack conscience, then psychopaths will inevitably choose to harm others without a sense of remorse – and therefore, it would be fair to call such people "evil," if indeed anyone may be called evil.

Because evil depends at least in part on a person's intentions (in addition to usually considering the actual consequences), any attempt to rank wrongdoing on a scale should consider whether the perpetrator has a conscience in the first place. Barbara Wootton worried in Social Science and Social Pathology that psychopathic motives are so inscrutable to normal people that "the psychopath may well prove to be the thin end of the wedge which will ultimately shatter the whole idea of moral responsibility," to which the philosopher Mary Midgley responded reassuringly in her essay Wickedness that "all conceptual schemes run into difficulties and paradoxes when they are used for awkward and unusual cases." Just because a scale is imperfect does not mean that it cannot be developed and used at all, on Midgley's view.

In 2009, the Australian government's Bureau of Statistics produced a list of 155 types of crime, ordered according to degrees of seriousness. Traffic offenses are at the bottom. Next comes prostitution, alcohol, gambling, trespassing, rioting, and drug use, followed by animal cruelty, incitement to hatred, and breaches of judge's orders, and then by environmental and public health violations. The top half of the list, indicating the most severe crimes, includes theft, fraud, bribery, weapons charges, drug dealing, sexual assault, vehicular homicide and murder. The list does not have legal standing, but it is intended as a tool to analyze crime. It is significant that "murder" is considered a more severe crime than "attempted murder" (here, as in most places). If "evil," as opposed to crime, is understood primarily as a matter of a person's intentions, then there should be no difference in severity between evil that has been accomplished and evil that has been merely attempted.

American forensic psychiatrist Michael Weiner has an ongoing Internet-based survey called The Depravity Project that investigates "whether any of the items under study – 26 specific intents, actions, and attitudes – can achieve consensus as to whether or not the public considers it reflective of depravity." Participants are asked "to rate whether the item is 'especially,' 'somewhat,' or 'not' depraved." In the survey's first decade, it received over 10,000 responses. The goal is to allow words like "evil," "heinous," and "depraved" to be used in a more objective fashion in courtrooms so that they reflect the nature of the crime rather than assumptions about the perpetrator as a human being.

When a religious approach is taken, the question of what is most evil is often aligned with someone's belief about what offends their God. The Catholic Church maintains two categories of sin: "mortal sins" that lead to Hell if they remain unconfessed and the less serious "venial sins."

The Inferno, a poem written by Dante in the early fourteenth century, assumed a Catholic vision of the seven deadly sins and implicitly suggested that sins could be ranked. As Dante's characters approach Hell, they first encounter dead souls who, while alive, could not quite make up their minds to be good. The crimes worsen as the characters penetrate deeper into Hell. In the First Circle, they see good people who had the misfortune to be born before the Messiah could save them. The Second through Fifth Circles contain the souls of people who were intemperate with sex, money, possessions, or in general had a bad attitude. The Sixth and Seventh Circles include religious heretics, violent people, and those who otherwise offended God. The Eighth and Ninth Circles are reserved for those who committed fraud and disloyalty.

Do people really distinguish degrees and kinds of evil? "Is evil," Morrow asked, "a great dark forest that we behold, or is it thousands of individual sprouts of wickedness, which we sort out the way a forester would differentiate among maple, spruce, oak, birch, pine, cedar, elm, hickory, hornbeam, ash, palm, gingko, acacia, fig, and so on?" And if people do not already distinguish types of evil, ought they try to do so?

It is not obvious that it is even possible to objectively rank types of evil. With its emotional and religious overtones, and with its reliance on understanding someone else's motives, the very idea of "evil" may be too personal and too blurry to pin down in a ranking chart. But even if the schema can never be completed satisfactorily, it may still be a useful exercise for anyone wishing to understand more about how different people and institutions personally interpret the severity of moral wrongs.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 6, 2013.