Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Note of Thanks and New Year’s Comments and Resolutions



First and foremost, thank you very much for visiting my site and all the best for the New Year! Around this time pretty much every year I look back to the events of the year, mostly in my personal life, and I relive and evaluate how things have gone and my most memorable deeds and moments (if any).

And I must say 2008 has been an excellent year for me. The most outstanding event is the birth of my son Arameis and pretty much nothing can beat that! And it is interesting how things shift when suddenly a new member appears on the scene. It is both emotionally fulfilling and draining, a cause for joy and stress, the yin and yang of my life really.

As to my accomplishments and upcoming Resolutions for the New Year, there is the following to say and observe. Around mid-year I started this blog and it has been a tremendous and wonderful experience and a constant (healthy?) obsession of mine. Thank you for visiting and commenting on my blog! I really appreciate each and every comment, which always makes my day! As a matter of fact, I have also found some very interesting blogs so keep posting there; I’m always curious to drop by.

What are my New Year's Resolutions then? The usual actually. Lose some weight, do more exercise, blah- blah… I haven’t been very consistent in those areas. However, I’m also curious to learn more about history and philosophy, and to grow at least an inch spiritually this coming year. Oh and maybe take up smoking or some other destructive act.

Every New Year is a promise filled with hope. Let's hope that the dreams that fell short in the previous year may become a reality in the coming one. The whole excitement and sense of adventure lies in its gradual increase. To get a step closer to … while the three dots can be filled with one's own wishes.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Magic of Childhood and Bergman's “Fanny and Alexander”

Poster of Ingmar Bergman's movie "Fanny and Alexander"

Although I agree with the general consensus that Bergman was one of the greatest directors of all time, I must say that in recent years, I have gotten disenchanted with his works.

When I was a teenager I devoured all his works, and even the lesser ones were heavenly to me. Yet nowadays, I find his unwavering and relentless pessimism rather unnerving, and his works do not struck a chord within me. They seem like lifeless abstractions about human weakness and futility. Perhaps as a growing adolescent I was more attuned to such messages, whereas today they fall on deaf ears. I do not subscribe to simple inescapable wretchedness and believe that life is, if anything, an opportunity, or a stage to bring out one's own convictions.

Despite all this apparent lack of respect for Bergman, I must say that Fanny and Alexander is undoubtedly a masterpiece. It is not only the culmination of all his previous body of work; it is, in fact, groundbreaking and a step further into the realm of modern cinema. (There is a subtle hint of a surreal and ghostly Lynchean world there.) It basically shows that, whatever you, or I, for that matter, may think or say of Bergman, he is still a genius.

The story resonated with me both on an intellectual and emotional level. The movie, which was awarded Oscars and has been praised worldwide, is in its 188 minutes unfortunately only a truncated version of the 312 minutes of the original TV version. And yes, I did get a sense that something was missing. It was not necessarily essential for the general comprehension or development, but it felt like skipping dessert.

Why am I so fond of this particular movie of his? Partly it might be nostalgia, but his message actually resonates with who I am now, building a bridge to who I was in my idolizing Bergman years.

It is a family epic at first glance, but it is actually about both the marvels and horrors of childhood. Childhood has its magical aspects, where one believes in the reality of ghosts and spirits and one's ability to conjure up impossible feats and even miracles; at the same time, it is a fertile breeding ground for fear and superstition. It is this ambiguous world that the movie enters incredibly and skillfully.

It is a fantasy that brings out both the best and worst in humankind; yet surprisingly, for Bergman, despite occasional grim and desolate tones, the movie overall is uplifting and does not destroy the ideals, but reanimates them. With this in mind it might explain why he started shooting the pillow-fighting scene first, perhaps as a reminder that it is childhood and magic that ought to be praised over the pessimistic and hopeless world created by adults.

Believing in magic may be a double-edged sword, but it is a way of blending the world of fantasy, the “little world” of the arts, theater, movies, literature with the exasperating and cruel real world outside. It is the very same equilibrium that fascinated me, and I can understand why Bergman chose to retire after his last official, paradoxically both least and most realistic work. It ends so beautifully and when all is said (and done), there is really nothing else to add.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Columbus' Secret Journal and the Sugarcane Incident

Christopher Columbus and his sailors taking possession of indigenous islands

Christopher Columbus, the “Admiral of the Seas,” was not expected to return from his voyages, according to the monarchs. But during his most famous voyage in August 1492, there was an interesting episode in his life, where he found both love and sugar cane.

The crew needed wine and water and so Columbus decided to stop at Gomera in the Canary Islands, which would be last port of call before crossing the Atlantic. The Islands were already under Spanish control since 1483 and the Governor of the Island was Beatrice de Bobadilla. After meeting her he decided to stay longer than planned; he remained in Gomera for a month.

This same woman was to be feared because she was described as cruel, ambitious, a thief and a nymphomaniac and had been nicknamed as the “Lady of the Gallows” and the “Lady of the Knife.” In fact, she had even ruined Fernando el Catolico who, despite his unwavering faith in religion and vows of chastity, could not resist her charms. Despite it all, and despite the fact that Columbus was already married to a woman by the same name and had had a child with her, he became romantically involved with the beautiful but cruel Governor.

As he was leaving, she made him an offering, a symbol for their “sweet love,” cuttings of sugar cane, which became the first to reach the New World. If you find this story interesting, please do not hesitate to read my fictional account of these events below written from the point of view of Columbus himself.

Sugarcane

From the secret “Greek” journal:

Gomera, August 1492

The waves have been silent. For several days I have not perceived their soft lulling murmurs despite sitting on deck straining my ears, pen in hand. All this time their voices have been guiding me along leading me safe and sound across the most dangerous routes and savage lands. Were it not for their guidance I would have been lost and engulfed in the open jaws of the immense endless ocean. I trust in these voices as I trust in Polaris, the guiding north-star, and have complete unerring faith in the Hand of our Creator who moves and gives life to all beings under the brightly illuminated at times furiously somber wide sky.

My crew has grown weary and is ill-equipped for the remainder of this long and upcoming dangerous journey. Their lack of stamina is worrisome to me. Two of my seamen raise suspicions in my mind. The rudder of the Pinta has come loose, being broken and unshipped. 

After some discussion and deliberation I, the High Admiral of the Sea, have decided to embark on the first firm land that we shall come across, it being Gomera. My inaugurations have been unfruitful, and I have been forced to make my own decision. May it not be a grave error and may the Hand of the Creator shelter us from any evil that might befall us!

*****

Land has come in sight. We are moving towards it. We will need to provide ourselves with food and wine; this fact is reflected on the meager sun-burnt faces of my sailors. We will stop for only a few days, after which we shall sail on to fulfill our royal and god-given mission. Never can setting foot on firm land fill me with the thrill of being in flux and moving on water. Water is my abode, my wandering hungry soul; land is the provision of the body.

*****

The island is called Gomera and it appears to be a terrestrial version of paradise. Its shape resembles a peeled half of an orange. At first, I was worried about possible surprise attacks of its people. Parts of the island were shrouded in cloud and swirling mist, and we would have been extremely vulnerable considering that most of us had not drunken or eaten and had been marked by weakness. However, the people of Gomera were quite hospitable and like many natives they dress in most unusual yet simple ways. Some of them wear large colorful handkerchiefs around their waist, garments that seem to have been made of goat skins. They are also prone to have necklaces of wood, bone and shells hanging from their necks.

To our greatest surprise they are of white race and its men are tall and muscular; I have come across many an inhabitant with blond hair. They also have a rudimentary knowledge of different languages, such as French, Spanish and Portuguese. They replenished us with foodstuff and sweetened water; their fruits, bananas, figs and peaches filled our empty and growling stomachs, and we all slept content and dreamed of the ocean.

*****

The Gomeran people talk amongst each other a most strange but oddly beautiful language the likes of which I have never heard before. It sounds as if two birds are having a lengthy conversation. They must have picked up these unusual sounds and whistles in imitation of some of the many species of birds they have in their nearby luscious green jungle. This birdsong strikes me as most interesting and one day I shall like to learn it.

*****

Today I am ought to meet the principal governess of the island, Dona Beatriz de Bobadilla of Castilla. I have heard rumors about her on the old continent and shall like to verify with my own eyes and ears how much truth is conveyed in them. One of the supposed anecdotes connects her to Fernando, the Catholic, a devout man who has pledged to the vows of chastity. No woman on earth could make him break this oath, but it is purported that Beatriz has ensnared and entangled him to such a degree that for a moment he has forgotten himself and his vows and has engaged in illicit behavior. I am excited about meeting her face to face. Our departure has been postponed by a few days.

*****

With anticipation and a thrilling sensation within I was led into the protected and fortified San Sebastian Tower, the official residence of the governing Dona Beatriz. As I was being led to her quarters it occurred to me that it might have been an unusual perhaps irrelevant coincidence but my wife carried the same name.

I was waiting in the hallway, when she was announced by one of her elegantly dressed muscular slaves. She walked with grace her long thin nose slightly upturned and with a nonchalant air she greeted me. However, in her penetrating brown eyes I thought to detect a welcoming glimmer. She reached out her soft pomaded hand, and I took it and kissed it gently.

What great news to have someone from the continent. Columbus was your name, is it right?”

I nodded. She took a seat at a richly decorated table and offered me to sit opposite of her.

We do get visitors every now and then but they are all such a bore so I hardly feel any lack when they finally leave. You are not a bore, Señor, am I in the right?”

I consider myself an adventurer, and not a tradesman.”

Well-responded. Yes, tradesmen are the worst. They take advantage of our hospitality yet at the same time they wish to make commerce with us. We don’t need their trades or wares; we have everything we want on the island.”

And may I compliment you on it. It is such a heavenly piece on earth.”

And you should know, I suppose, it coming from the mouth of a world traveler.”

Well, in all modesty, the world is God’s endless creation. There is many a thing that still needs discovering.”

Such as a Westerly route to India?”

Thenceforth, you are acquainted with my mission?”

You are regarded as a courageous man in some circles; in others, a mere fool.”

And which circle do you subscribe to, if I may ask.”

She smiled, and there was a strange glow in her eyes as her small sensual mouth stated, “That remains to be seen. I don’t trust first impressions. I need to get to know you better to make a judgment on this matter.”

Her words, both in tone and content felt like sharp knives. I had been told that Dona Beatriz was regarded as witty, sharp-tongued, sensual and beautiful. Now I verified those epithets with my very own eyes.

Gomera is indeed a beautiful place, were it not for its inhabitants. They are a plague.”

How is that so?”

My husband’s death, assassination to be exact, in recent years has led me to become more cautious and reclusive. These primitives are fierce and at any moment given the opportunity will stab you in the back. I had to take drastic measures to secure peace.”

She paused as one of the servants brought fresh cut fruit and filled our chalices to the brim with sweetened palm juice. She watched him intently and only as he left did she continue, “I had to send my most trusted men to cut off their hands and feet so that I shall not be betrayed again. Ignorant heathens such as them understand only the language of violence.”

A heavy hand does wonders to primitive people.”

She nodded somewhat absent-mindedly and added a reflective “Indeed”.

Your Grace I would like to thank you for your wondrous hospitality…”

She appeared to start from her thoughts. “Why, you shall not bid your leave as of yet because I shall not grant it. Stay for dinner, I beseech you, there is no entertainment here, and my men are dull as an old kitchen knife. My ears are burning to hear all about your travels, and I shall tell you a tale or two of my own adventures, if it shall please you.” 
 
*****

By her side time flew like a heedless flying ship. The more time I spent with her, the more I felt I was bound to her and how much poorer would I feel once I shall leave her side. I had thought it impossible that my body and soul should yearn for her physical presence the same way they longed for the soothing sounds of the ocean. She engulfs me, surrounds me, envelopes me in the sweetest and the most unforgettable of all perfumes. Now as I am writing this alone in the spacious ornamented room she has chosen for me, my hand still quivers from our encounter moments ago; I need to find the warm pulsating center within her.

*****

My crew is getting restless; they have been idle for too long. They crave adventure again; they want to embark on another voyage filled with adventures after having stuffed their bellies and rested their bodies. But the ocean although only footsteps away from here has grown dumb to me. So let my crew wail and cry, my thirst is not yet quenched.

+++++

Gomera, Thursday, 6 September, 1492

It has been a month and my duty never ceases its calling. O sweetest of all creatures, o wonderful Beatriz you who have showed me and given birth to the utmost wonders of life I shall have to leave you now with greatest sorrow and regret. But I give you my word as an honorable god-fearing man, as the captain of ships, the high Admiral of the Sea that I shall board again on your precious promised land. I will even cheat death to be in your scented arms again.

Whether as a talisman or as a reminder of the sweetest times of my entire life, she gave me a special gift that I shall carry with me at all times: cuttings of sugarcane.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Norms, Normalcy and going against the Norm

Poster of movie with Gene Kelly happily "Singing in the Rain"

What is sanity? We all intuitively know what it is, but how can we explain what sanity means? It's a difficult question. As a legal term it simply means having “normal” or “sound” powers of mind. But what does one consider normal and, moreover, who decides it?

It's probably easier to look at the matter “negatively,” to try to explain sanity by giving examples of what it is not, hence to define it as the negation of insanity.

Yet there we run into various operational problems. What I consider sane may be different from your point of view. And it is not just on an individual basis. In fact, our whole society may deem certain acts as insane, while it may be only a question of cultural difference. For example, when I was in Italy I was surprised to run into a person walking on his own and suddenly bursting into loud song. I found it rather odd and a thought immediately crossed my mind: This person must be insane.

But when I looked around to see other people's reaction, I was surprised that nobody paid him any attention, as if it were a normal kind of behavior. And in fact, it must be for them. I suppose in their culture, it is seen as perfectly normal to burst into singing whenever you feel like it. So we can say that what is normal is the “norm” of that particular place. It does come down to traditions and customs and an underlying often implicit set of rules and standards.

If normalcy, or the norm, is defined by society, can we then suppose that society could err? I mean could we consider a case where the other person, the one we have labeled as insane be actually the really sane one and all of us in grave error?

That takes us back to Plato's famous “cave allegory”: People were chained inside a cave and were following flickering shadows on the wall, taking them for reality. Then, one of them managed to escape and found out that there is actually a “real” world outside of the cave! So he returned to tell the others of his overwhelming revolutionary discovery, but to his surprise he was ridiculed, made fun of and declared insane.

Looking at the history of imprisonment and insanity, it is a fact that many people have been put into hospitals and declared insane for reasons such as not believing in God or having different, more liberal ideas about sexuality. It is then quite possible as Fromm states in “The Sane Society” that the error could actually be on society's side. The same way as one person can err at times, a whole society of millions of people could be equally wrong, and the eye-opening event could be caused by somebody we have hastily and blindly labeled as insane.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rebellion and Existentialism

The taking of the Bastille in the French Revolution

It seems to me that existentialism is inherently connected with rebellion. Looking at some of its founders, we can note a certain pattern. There are revolutionaries like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who each in their own different way attempted to upturn the accepted moral standards and conventions and replace them with more immediate, personal beliefs and convictions.

The focus of existentialism is indeed individual existence itself. But it is one where you are, as Sartre would say, “condemned to be free” and “thrown into the world”, when you are wandering the long and wide road of life without a road-map or point of destination, except perhaps the inevitable event of one's upcoming death.

However, as you are in the midst of fear and angst you would like to hold onto anything that comes your way and gives you any kind of stability. People will offer you “road-maps for the soul” or they will try to fill you up with promises of heaven and the afterlife to give you some kind of security, some kind of grip on the absurdity and brutality that you are faced and grapple with on a daily basis.

Sure, faith does play a role in existentialism because reason seems incapable of fully answering the principal existential questions that are on the tip of your tongue. But it does not simply consist of embracing an appealing-looking faith; it involves struggle, suffering, endless-seeming battles and the ever-present and constant voice of doubt in your head. Faith is something one must earn over time and to have the scars to prove it.

But in the midst of this philosophical movement, there is an invitation for rebellion. Camus changed the famous slogan by Descartes from “I think, therefore I am” into “I rebel, therefore we exist.” Rebel against what? It goes back to the revolutionaries of old, a call to fight against all that is imposed upon us (against our will), to fight against ignorance, against bigotry, yet most importantly, against one's own deep-seated smug indifference.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Religion and the Sound of Laughter

Engraving of laughing Buddha
Marriage of Cana with Jesus

The problem with laughter, at least from the point of view of various religions, is its implication of disrespect. Laughter can be used as a tool to ridicule or mock authority, and it poses a specific threat since authority or the “truths” embodied by the authority figure would not be taken seriously.

There are different kinds of laughter, but each is seen as either un-serious or related to pleasure, two things that religion throughout history has not been very fond of. Satires, for example, have many political implications as an implicit critique and a source of discredit towards authority figures. By focusing on the weaknesses or absurd traits of leaders, those people in charge may lose their status and respect in the eyes of the public, or what is even considered a worse effect, those leaders would not be able to instill fear anymore.

Plato was against laughter as it diverged from the path towards truth and knowledge, and he saw comedies as harmful to the soul and religious sentiments. In fact, Plato did not accept any art that did not contain a certain kind of model for morality. Monasteries are built on silence and reflection, and the sound of laughter would be a disruption of serenity and austerity and a sign of irreverence, a fact that was stunningly demonstrated in the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. It was only through serious reflection and meditation that one could attain the truth or have a connection with the spiritual realm.

Despite a common feature among religions to focus on obedience and relentless study of scriptures and doctrines, there is the strange incidence of the “flower sermon” in Zen Buddhism. The Buddha is said to have held up a flower to convey and transmit a secret truth that cannot be learned or taught in the traditional way with sermons or lectures.

The “unspoken truth” was embodied in an enigmatic smile, and a main tenet of Zen is that truth must be passed on from the master to the student. Of course, there is no lack of discipline and soul searching, but it is a strange case where a smile, though not laughter, is acknowledged as a mediator of truth. There are various Buddhist traditions that also give laughter credit and emphasis, as the future Buddha, Maitreya, is often represented as a merry and jolly, Santa Claus-type figure.

Yet what about Jesus? Traditionally, the focus has been on his serious and dedicated nature on the quest for God's truth. His sermons are mainly told in parables and are meant as lectures for his followers, while he has revealed or proven his higher powers through the use of miracles, whether walking on water or raising the dead.

However, there is a particular instance, one of his “early miracles”, where we can sense a certain kind of playfulness within the nature of Jesus. He attends the wedding at Cana and there is concern that there might not be sufficient wine. Wine, along with song, dance and laughter, is a celebration of life and of the ensuing marriage between the couple. The fact that Jesus is there, and in the movie Last Temptation of Christ we actually see him dance, shows that he was not adverse to fun and pleasure.

What strikes me even more is that he actually contributes and adds to the general joy by turning a supply of water into wine. Wine is stripped away from its religious significance, as opposed to the blood of Christ during the Last Supper, and is the medium for more joy and laughter. This is the Jesus that is often ignored, who, by using a miracle, adds to the general festivities and merriment instead of denouncing or criticizing it as a sign of disrespect towards God.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Misanthropes: Hating Humanity and Loving it

Roman army stabbing and slaying a man
Pierre Bruegel's darkclad Misanthrope ignoring pleas of farmer

Misanthropes are a group of people who feel hatred and / or distrust for their fellow humans. And it is with good reason if we look back into atrocities committed in the past, or even the horrible acts of the present, ranging from warfare and murder to rape. It is not that difficult for misanthropes to make their case and defend their views.

Some people hate misanthropes and as such add to the whole chain of hatred. I personally must say I like them; although I am not a misanthrope myself, I can see where they are coming from.

It boils down to how we see and define human nature. We can be like Rousseau and claim that human nature is pure and good and that it is only through contact with filthy corrupt society that we get inverted. Yet we all know that we are not little angels and in fact, society is made up of individuals who lip-sync and go along for the ride.

Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, has a more pessimistic view of humanity. According to him, we need constant guidance, and laws are there to protect us from doing harm to others. Without laws and moral consequence, all would disintegrate, and we would be robbing and looting everyone else. Something similar like that happens in times of emergency, radical social change, revolution or when your favorite soccer or hockey team loses an important match.

Human nature to Freud is a complicated matter too. We have the id, the pleasure principle, which is merely looking for satisfaction and gratifying desires regardless of its outcome or consequence. We have a sex drive, our libido, and a death drive, the desire for ending life, but also the thrill of destruction. The latter Nietzsche sees actually as beneficial for humanity and a stepping stone towards his desired Übermensch.

All this may be a reason for idealists to reach for an immaterial soul, which is trapped in the body or the sins of the flesh. There seems to be an eternal conflict then between good and evil, and we are caught in the middle. There are bountiful good human acts, but many of them get drowned in acts of evil.

I am obviously not going into details about humanity's capacity of causing pain and destruction. We also mistreat animals and our environment. We do not even value ourselves and become self-destructive in many cases. The misanthrope epidemic might be rising.

All in all, I do not think that misanthropes are evil loners or psychopaths. Quite the contrary. They are disillusioned and disappointed with how things have turned out and how they are going. It's Bob Dylan singing that he used to care but things have changed. I really hope Socrates and Jesus are right when they claim that evil stems from ignorance and that we simply don't know what we're doing.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Some Ramifications of Pascal's Wager

Photo of two dice with the sum of 7
Statue of Blaise Pascal thinking and reading

Pascal's Wager seems intriguing and convincing, doesn't it? And it comes from somebody who really knows what he is talking about, being a master of probability theory himself. It's a very simple but essential and relevant supposition.


Let's assume there is a God and an afterlife. Then if we are right, we won't be disappointed. We will have backed the "right horse," so-to-speak, and are in heavenly bliss, eating fruits from the trees and being surrounded by voluptuous goddesses. 

What if we are wrong though? What would happen if we erred and there is no God or paradise, and it was all just fabricated lies and fiction? Well, so what? We will be dead and won't feel a thing. So who cares if there's nothing after death. Nothing will happen to us. We will be sleeping safe, sound and dreamless in our tombs.

Yet if we assume there is no God, and it turns out that there actually is; that would be the worst case scenario. We would have to burn in hell for eternity! It's not just a few hours, days or years! This is serious business: It's going to be for all time! So you see Pascal has a point there.

However, there are a few problems with this theory. First of all, if people believe in God only for the sake of convenience and to try to save their own hinds (which probably a lot of people do anyhow), then God would see through it and the faith of these people would lack both substance and weight. 

A second point could be the fact that Christians just got it wrong, and maybe we will be coming face to face with Allah or Krishna instead. There is no absolute guarantee that the Christian religion is indeed the true one, no matter what the Bible or local priest may say on this matter.

The third, and perhaps most important, point is the fact that we would choose to lead a life of ignorance, not one based on our own active discoveries and truths. We would not make our own inquiries, while taking half-examined given truths as granted. It would undermine philosophy, which is there to ask serious and hard questions about our existence, our role in life and our purpose in the universe. These things cannot be taken lightly.

But what I like most about Pascal is his emphasis on feeling and intuition over reason and logic. I believe, along with various existentialist philosophers, that we all need to have faith in something and that human life cannot be explained with science only. We are more complex than that and our capacity to feel, have compassion, create art and philosophy is what our humanity is really based on.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

“Girl, Interrupted” as an illustration of Nietzschean philosophy

Bad girl Angelina Jolie in movie "Girl Interrupted"
Winona Ryder looking concerned in movie "Girl Interrupted"

The movie Girl, Interrupted starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie is about the psychological confusions and troubles of a young woman in the whirlwind of the rapidly changing society of the 60s. The movie touches on important themes such as sanity versus insanity and a growing sense of feminism.
The movie is directed by James Mangold, who has had quite a good share of films over the past two decades, notably the psychological thriller Identity and the Johnny Cash biography Walk the Line. However, this movie has been criticized because its protagonist Susanna Kaysen, diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, lacks will power and direction and seems more like a spectator than an actual character in the movie. This criticism is somewhat valid since the person both on- and off-screen that robs her claim for attention is the “sociopath” Lisa Rowe, played brilliantly by a young and deliciously evil Angelina Jolie.

That's also where the movie's strength lies, which is slightly undermined by what seems to me an anticlimactic and implausible ending. Lisa is the ultimate rebel. She is a “lifer” as she says but her strengths are her cleverness and her brutal honesty. She controls and manipulates all the other girls in the ward, including some of the nurses, and she manages to escape from the asylum from time to time, however always ending up back there.

To me she is the prototype not only of a strong woman in an oppressed and coy society, but also as a Nietzschean symbol of strength and will power. First of all, she does not abide by the rules set by others, whether it is society or the mental institute. That's all “slave morality” to her and she, as a “noble” à la Nietzsche creates her own rules and morality. There is a scene where she screams that all the others are merely powerless victims and that she is the only one who is really free.

In fact, she uses her physical beauty and sexual magnetism to obtain what she wants. She gives advice to the other patients including sexual advice to some of the nurses. And she gives everyone their daily dose of truth, regardless of whether they can handle it or not.

It is true that she comes off as cold-hearted and unemotional, especially when she “pushes the buttons” of an ex-patient Daisy, who then commits suicide. At the sight of Daisy's hanging corpse Lisa simply remarks “What an idiot” and that she had it coming anyhow; she was only waiting for an excuse and all Lisa did was to give her that excuse by facing her with the unwanted truth. Then she simply grabs into the pocket of a dead and dangling Daisy and takes her money.

I think Nietzsche would have indeed liked her. She is not hindered by compassion or pity; she is above the “common rabble.” She is, as she states herself, the only really free person, free of hypocrisy or social contrivance and that's why she is kept imprisoned because society cannot handle her. 

Like her male counterpart R. P. McMurphy from One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, electro-shocks and threats do not stop her from being who she is or her way of thinking. The fools and victims are all the others who label her as a sociopath because deep inside, they are all afraid of her, both as a dangerous, sexually liberated woman and as an even more dangerous embodiment of a controversial philosophy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bloggers Unite for Refugees: On the Kindness of Strangers


Refugees are people in need. It takes a lot of courage to leave behind your home and family to enter an unknown world of many challenges. Refugees leave their countries because back home they are denied basic human rights. They leave it because of famine and the devastation of war.

Often when they arrive in the other country, they do not have much money, nor access to food and lack knowledge of the language spoken in their host country. Yet none of this stops them because it is darkness and despair that has led them out of their home country to look elsewhere for better opportunities for themselves and their children.

During such times, help is what matters most. It is a transition of confusion and adapting to new surroundings. It is a moment when kindness of strangers is what matters most, and any help is very much appreciated.

I believe we should open our arms and hearts to these people without homes. They are not responsible for times of war, for the blindness and wickedness of governments around the world. They simply should have a right to live their own life, enjoy liberties that we take for granted on a daily basis. And they will cherish forever the memory of all those people who have helped them in times of need and distress. 



Sunday, November 9, 2008

History and Cult of Cats in Egypt

Sleeping cat wrapped up in balnket on a bed
Statue of a sitting cat

Cats were highly appreciated in Ancient Egypt. At first for economic reasons, as they protected the harvest from rats, especially during seasons of drought. Over time, they became sacred animals and gained cult status among the ancient Egyptians. For example, Bast, or alternatively known as Bastet or Basht, was the goddess of beauty, protection and pleasure and was depicted with the body of a woman and the head of a cat. She was also the protector of the “Head of State Commander-in-Chief” Pharaoh.

Cats were said to be endowed with supernatural powers. It might be their graceful movements, the way they sit patiently, immobile at the threshold of the door or on top of a window sill. Or perhaps their magnetic eyes that seem to look into the hidden depths of your soul. Egyptians were afraid of their scrutiny and believed that cats could control and manipulate human behavior with their piercing hypnotic eyes.

When one of their cats happened to die, it was a time of serious mourning. Egyptians would shave their eyebrows as a symbol of their pain and affliction and head to a solemn funeral where the cat would often be embalmed.

As to the laws, they were quite strict when it came to cats. In fact, not even Pharaoh himself could hurt any cats! To kill a cat was the most hideous act an Egyptian could think of. If anybody killed a cat, even by accident, that person was immediately condemned to death. In case of fire, the first one to be saved was the cat and humans only thereafter.

There is, in fact, an interesting anecdote of a Persian king who took advantage of the Egyptian sentiment. This king decided to take an Egyptian city by filling it with cats. Egyptian soldiers felt paralyzed; they could not fight in fear of accidentally hurting a cat, and so the Persian army simply occupied the city without any resistance.

Cats still are magnetic creatures. I can watch them for hours and be fascinated with how they do as they please regardless of what the owners may think of them. In fact, they are their own masters and most of them still expect you to serve them like in the old days of Egypt. 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nietzsche, Christianity and Jesus – An Unholy Triangle?


A serious and thinking Nietzsche profile

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of all times, is most famous for his statement that “God is dead” (Gott ist tot) and his theory about the “Übermensch” – a kind of superior almost god-like human being. He most vigorously attacks Christian religion in his book The Antichrist. However, when it comes to Jesus there seems to be a certain hesitation or ambivalence on Nietzsche's part to condemn him fully; one cannot shake off the feeling that in his writing there is some admiration implicit for Jesus as a groundbreaking rebellious figure. 

I believe that the English translation of “Antichrist” is actually misleading. This term is often equated with the diabolical opposite or arch-nemesis of Jesus himself. However, “Christ” in German also refers to Christians in general, so the “Anti-Christian” would be a more suitable title in my view. What Nietzsche does attack with furor and vengeance is the Christian tradition, not so much the philosophy that Jesus proposed or stood for.

According to Nietzsche, from the onset and spread of Christianity there was manipulation and dishonesty at work. The Apostles were weak and spineless creatures who probably did not really get what Jesus was all about, and they even changed some of his teachings to fit their own ambitious agenda.

Christianity, in Nietzsche's view, became a favorite religion among the poor and the oppressed who felt resentment towards the elite, the higher noble and educated classes. They followed what the German philosopher calls a “slave morality.” They simply do as they are told and infect others with weakness and lies, the biggest of which is the "deceit" of and about the heavenly afterlife.

To Nietzsche this proposition of salvation in the other world is simply false and even vicious because Christians wanted to control masses and to some extent bring down the noble classes to their level. The Christian faith is anti-nature and anti-life since it prohibits exactly what makes us most human. The body is not a prison to the soul; in fact, Nietzsche valued very highly the natural impulses that we have, especially our passions.

Nietzsche says that we should be like artists creating and modeling our own morality and that any strong emotion, be it anger, hatred, love, is in itself good and commendable. Christians who believe that sexual impulses are bad or try to discipline themselves with reason are “sick” and “broken” people; they lack will of power and confidence and will never amount to much.

Furthermore, Nietzsche sees Christianity as an infection that spreads and weakens people. The doctrine that all are equal is false and harmful, in his view. It cripples those with ambitious drives and limits their course of actions. In order to become a superior person, it is necessary to both create and destroy, to give and take life.

Where does Jesus fit in all this? In fact, Jesus was a very strong and determined person who fought against dogmatic high priests, the Roman guards and who tried to defeat them with a life-affirming philosophy. He was one of the few people who was fearless and intended to pave the way for many others to follow him, not only through his teaching but by his way of life.

The obsession of Jesus with the “Kingdom of God” was something that Nietzsche resented, but we should keep in mind that Jesus might have been alluding to the power within each of us and not a separate place for the afterlife since he actually says that this kingdom is within us. As such, it would conform to this drive for power and perfection that Nietzsche is so fascinated with.

Say what you may about Christianity as a religion or tradition, Jesus is, without doubt, an exceptional figure. He is accepted as a prophet in Islam; he was said to be imbued with Buddha Nature, and he was a social revolutionary who fought for the common people and for freedom from repression. He rejected slave morality by creating his own and paved a narrow path for the few who really understand his message. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “Jesus taken serious by the many, Jesus taken joyous by a few.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Is Ignorance really Bliss?

Poster of the boxer movie "Rocky"
Painting of young Russian woman
Mostly when we talk about ignorance, it has a negative connotation. Despite the saying that “ignorance is bliss,” in the end, what we are alluding to is a kind of concealment or indifference. It is a person who does not pay attention to what goes on around them or in the world and, as such, leads lives within an illusory protective shell. Ignorance can be equated with a lack of knowledge and is in direct juxtaposition to the other saying that “knowledge is power.”

It is interesting to consider the verb “to ignore” here. In this case, the person becomes more active and basically chooses not to see or refuses to take into account certain facts or people. However, the original meaning of ignore was more closely related to the French understanding of the word. In French “ignorer” means the absence of information, not knowing or being unaware, and is less willful and directive as in the English sense of the same verb.

But how does ignorance influence one's life, and is it a recommended action to undertake? Ignorance does definitely limit one's options. When we have knowledge, we are aware of alternate plans and decisions, but not knowing about them means those other viable options are out of our sight and, as a result, do not exist. 

Yet the problem goes much deeper and is much more complex than that. There are many educated people who in my mind are actually ignorant. Knowledge does give you an edge over others, but when it comes to problem-solving, we have to be able to use it wisely. 

Certain models can assist us and help us out. By that I include using religious figures or even certain fictional situations to base our own actions on. The famous phrase of “What would Jesus do” implies a certain knowledge of his life, teaching and philosophy, which could be applied creatively to one's present problem.

In fact, the more we read the more access we have to possible modes of action. This is the moment when we can draw on literary figures, and we can act, or, in some cases, choose not to act like them. We can avoid the mistakes and pitfalls of Anna Karenina and be able to dodge many problems, or we can choose the path of David Copperfield in life overcoming misery and working hard to fulfill our dreams. 

Even Hillary Clinton could not refrain from using the all-known example of Rocky when describing her feisty campaign. And everyone understood what she meant, as Rocky has become a symbol for the underdog as well as the never-tiring fighter. All those fictional characters can serve as a moral lesson and can help or inspire us in times of pain and distress.

I do believe that in our scientific world we have neglected many social, psychological, and interpersonal aspects of life. It is good to have technical, mathematical, legal, or medical knowledge, yet Arts and Humanities should not be undervalued and should be appreciated for the knowledge and foundation they provide to each individual's life.

If we feed and fill our soul or mind with knowledge and models to follow, then our world becomes vaster. Ignorance is not an excuse anymore. Everyone has access to knowledge and information one way or another. 

The Internet is a useful tool to learn about issues, to provide us with knowledge and possible solutions. Dusty and neglected books on your shelves and in your library are waiting to share their precious experiences with you. And one thing we can be sure of: Ignorance is deceptive and, in fact, the exact opposite of bliss.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

How a Baby Can Change your Life: A Recent Father’s Perspective

Sleeping baby boy wrapped up with ink footprints at his side

To Arameis Shahyar, the little hairy guy

It's a phrase I have heard many times out of the mouth of proud and gleaming fathers: “Having a child is the most important event in my life.” Last Thursday, I had this experience for the first time, when around 7 pm my son appeared on the world's stage, and I will try to put it all into words, to the best of my ability.

During the C-section in the operating room I was too preoccupied with various issues and worried about the health of my baby and my wife that I honestly could not tell there and then whether it was one of the best or worst experiences, especially seeing my wife all cut open the way she was. I had my digital camera at hand but too nervous and shaky to be able to handle electronic equipment effectively. I got a photo of my son's first contact with the world, one of his legs.

One of my colleagues and another fellow father had told me that when his son was born he had experienced the longest and probably most tormenting minute of silence in his life. When the baby finally cried he said he was greatly relieved; a heavy weight had been lifted from his anguished heart. Fortunately, in our case, I was exempted from such a heavy trial, and our son cried right away, his welcoming shout, his first enunciation and sign of life, a piercing heart-warming wail.

It took me a while to grasp the full complexity of the situation. It was my son I was facing and coming eye to eye with, a breathing being that had been hidden for over eight months in the warmth of my wife's belly. Tolstoy described some of those doubts and feelings in Anna Karenina through the eyes of a troubled and confused Levin: 

But the baby? Whence, why, who was he?... He could not get used to the idea. It seemed to him something extraneous, superfluous, to which he could not accustom himself.

It takes time to digest the experience. Here suddenly there is a creature and people present it to you, waving it in front of your face and telling you that this is your son. But how is that possible; where did it really come from? Flesh of my flesh, family, somebody who shares my genes and looks like me? This is really terrifying, and I am not able to comprehend it just yet, probably never will, so we call it the mystery or miracle of life.

Now many fathers claim children are part of one's personal success story. I doubt it simply because we cannot take much credit for it. Most of the pain and difficulty, the birth pangs are on the wife's part. We men are spectators who try their best to give a hand. Yet there is something that shifts and changes within you and makes you look at everything with different eyes once the baby is born.

My idea of success has endured some alterations over the past few days. Money and fame have somewhat gone to the background. One's focus rather changes, and it comes down to seeking success in the light of the new events, being able to take care of one's child, to become a responsible father. Everything that seemed important yesterday is getting blurry, while new challenges and hopes reveal themselves on the distant horizon. 

In a strange sense, time has seemed to stop as well. I felt that I was moving toward certain goals, but now I am living immobile in the present moment. I enjoy watching my son, talking to him and seeing how he responds to my voice, how it often calms him and how he pricks his ears and moves his eyes at the familiar voice he used to hear from the muffled inside of the womb. The fact that one day he might tell me that he loves me would be a feeling of pride and inexplicable joy.

Anyhow, life has become different, has changed me within the limited period of a few days prolonging into the wide unknown future. There is one thing LSD and having a child have in common: Once you cross the threshold, there is no way back. Nothing remains the same and everything will change, your perspective, your life, even your fears and dreams.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

12 Angry Men and the Justice System

Scene of Twelve Angry Men with all jury members staring at the camera
Just recently I indulged in watching this classic film again, the debut of renowned director Sydney Lumet. I had seen it some years ago, and I remembered being impressed; the same sensation prevailed on my second viewing. I think it is one of the best examples not only about how the justice system works or rather should work, not only about standing up against the majority and voicing your personal opinion, but it also portrays a quest for certainty in a dubious world that can only offer partial clues and answers.

The film is shot in a minimalistic manner, and most of the action takes place in a confined stifling room where 12 jurors fight over a unanimous decision. For some of them justice is a game. One of the jurors wants to get his jury duty over with so that he can watch an upcoming baseball game that same evening. Others simply use the opportunity to take out and dump their own prejudices on the poor boy on trial.

The boy who comes from a poor family and neighborhood has allegedly killed his own father. The evidence seems to be completely against him; there are testimonies that he has been heard threatening his father, and he has been seen running down the stairs shortly afterward. His alibi does not hold either; he cannot even remember the title or the actors of the movie he claims to have seen in the movie theater the night of the murder.

But then there are some discrepancies. What seemed to be a simple case is suddenly fraught with doubt. One of the jurors keeps punching holes into what seemed solid evidence and approved testimonies. Are the witnesses reliable or do they simply seek attention? Are the jurors free from prejudice or do they use the trial to attack the lower class youth that they believe have gone astray and are good for nothing? One of the jurors might even use the occasion to symbolically punish his own son who has not talked to him for a long time.

Either way, the movie opens up many more questions that are left hanging and unanswered but are vital for the American justice system. Can jurors be objective? Do they really consider the evidence or do they only see what suits them best? There is an undeniable burden of responsibility on their decisions something that must never be taken lightly.

The great feat of this movie is that we are left guessing. At the end, we still do not know whether the boy is guilty or not, but we do agree after listening to all the discussions and the evidence presented that there does seem to be room for reasonable doubt.

An interesting question would be this: Is it better to let a guilty man get away at the expense of killing an innocent person? Should we give people the "benefit of the doubt"? Let the 12 men discuss the issues carefully and elaborately and see what their verdict is. It's not a game; after all, a person's life is at stake here.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How Stoicism can change your Life

Fortuna card showing the wheels of fortune

What does “being stoic” really mean? Is it someone who is indifferent, bold and courageous, and unaffected by pain and emotions? Is such a person impassive, almost robotic when faced with pleasure, pain and suffering?

As a philosophy, Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium (333 – 262 BC) who used to teach at a painted colonnade called “Stoa” in Athens. It has been developed over the coming centuries by Greeks and Romans and has had an important effect on Christianity. Unlike many other movements of the time, it was practiced across social lines and boundaries, where slaves such as Epictetus (50-138 AD) and emperors like Marcus Aurelius (121-180) equally embraced this current of thought.

What are the main premises of their philosophy? One can divide them into two related assumptions about the world. Stoics believed in absolute determinism. Hence, everything that happens is and was meant to occur, and we have little, if no, influence on the outcome of events. The notions of Fate and Destiny are the two terms we use nowadays to explain this rather fatalistic view.

However, it is important to note that the Stoics believed that underneath horrible events and tragedies in life, there was a living and divine being in charge of it all. This was called the “Logos,” which was ruled by reason. The “Logos” is a rational plan meant for the benefit of each person, even though at first sight, we might believe it to be a disaster. A person that you have relied on most of your life suddenly passes away, and you feel shocked, lonely, and at a loss. It is a tragic event. But Stoics claim that it was meant to happen and that it was a “good” event in disguise because now you have to learn to be more independent and stand on your own feet.

A second concept is that one should control and even eliminate strong emotions and attachments similar to the Buddhist view. We all have to die and everything has its own end. When we over-evaluate things or people, when we have a strong attachment towards them, their loss will cause us much more unhappiness and perturbation. In other words, we cannot control or change our environment, the outside world, but we can learn how to deal with our own internal mental world.

What are the consequences, dangers and benefits of the Stoic movement then? Each time period had their own reasons for following this school. To the Romans it was appealing because it gave them the necessary courage for battle. There was en even blind faith in the fact that all is planned out and that if you were meant to die in the next battle, it was how it should be. It could not be dodged or avoided. On the other hand, it appealed to the Roman temper since they frowned upon being swayed or led astray by emotions, something they considered a feminine trait. The ideal was to have a clear head in times of distress and suffering so that one never lost control of oneself or the situation.

The Christians were more interested in the fact that one should devote their whole life to a higher purpose, God and the spreading of Christian ideals and virtues. As a result, there were a high number of martyrs during this period. For them, life on earth was only a temporary state and one of little significance compared to the never-ending afterlife in heaven. They endured torture, persecution, even horrible death with a sense of calm and an evident lack of fear.

There are, nonetheless, many dangers implicit in this view. It can create radicalism or a fundamental conviction in one's beliefs. I have always been a fan of doubt because it gives a glimpse that things are not always what we believe them to be. Doubts in moderate degrees I consider healthy and beneficial, and they can protect us from falling into fallacies. To die for a higher noble cause frightens me, especially when it comes to religious fundamentalism, whether it is the Crusades or modern-day terrorist attacks.

Another drawback is that some erroneously believe that accepting and surrendering to fate and destiny implies passivity or even laziness. Some might say, it doesn't matter whether I am proactive or simply remain idle in my life, destiny will happen anyway. There could also be a certain dangerous recklessness. I can drive home drunk and if I am meant to die, that's how it was meant to happen. These thoughts, in my opinion, do not represent Stoicism, but they are rather an escape from life, responsibility or one's duties.

To me, stoicism is a life-empowering positive philosophy for various reasons. First of all, it provides us with faith in times of distress. As we say, “everything happens for a reason,” it gives us support to come to terms with many tragic events and losses in our lives. The belief in an essentially “good” universe, God, Lord Krishna, Allah with a concrete plan for our growth helps us deal with the myriad difficulties we encounter in life.

Some might say that we are just fooling ourselves - and that might be true. Yet there is always a possibility that it is not make-believe or a foolish assumption and that there is a spiritual entity with good and beneficial intentions and that life is, as Buddhists and Christians claim, an illusion, Maya, or a “test” for moral virtue and fortitude.

How many times have we been paralyzed in the face of fear of rejection or simply have doubted our own abilities? Many times we find ourselves tangled up in negative thoughts that cripple us, that make us immobile. So many chances and life opportunities pass us by for that very same reason. Stoicism can teach us to become more courageous and confident in our approach to life by getting a grip on our emotions.

By not attaching ourselves to things, to events and beings, we can also protect ourselves. It does not mean that we do not love them or that we have no feelings for them. There is a silent acceptance that nothing lasts forever and that one day we will have to say good-bye to this cherished being or state of life. Yet throughout our lives, it is our own personal reaction to events that we can learn to control.

Some are thrown into deep depression; others toy with thoughts of suicide, while other more stoically-minded people accept it with their whole being, learn and grow from it and move on. Stoicism does not mean an escape from reality; it means facing the truth while not letting it wrestle us to the ground.

That is, I think, the strongest and most empowering contribution of stoicism to our lives, confronting adverse events, accepting pain and suffering with our heads held high and our hearts rooted in deep convictions. It may not be for everyone, but many can use it to improve their lives and to be prepared for everything else life, fate, or destiny has in store for us.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Telenovelas and Soap Operas: Junk Food or Food for Thought?

Drawing of star-shaped chocolate on a stick


Soap operas have been a popular form of TV entertainment since the 50s when the tube took over the households of many homes around the world. Although they started in the US, Latin countries did not take long to follow suit: Cuba began with their own brand of soap operas, which in the Latin world are called tele-novelas. Before the advent of television, both radio and foto-novelas were quite popular with the public. Yet the concept of having an audiovisual form of storytelling took over the Latin continent by storm.

What is the main difference between tele-novelas and soap operas then? First, they differ in length. American soap operas can last forever; shows like General Hospital started in 1963 and to my knowledge continue even today. They usually employ open narratives with no clearly set concepts except the location in this particular case: the setting is a hospital and the actors, of course, go through wholesale changes after each decade I would assume. I followed that show for the amount of a few months, and I must say that one should always be very careful with these programs; they are indeed addictive as hell, and I am glad I got off it cold turkey and without scratches and bruises.

On the other hand, the tele-novela is more limited and focused in its concept. They are as the term implies “novels for television," while the term soap opera comes from previous radio broadcasts that used to advertise soap products.

Usually the script of a tele-novela should have a clear outline and the average running time for a program is about six months, with a maximum of another additional term, so one year before they are taken off the air. Of course this depends on the ratings, and some shows are canceled prematurely, but there are very few if any shows that last as long as their American soap opera counterparts.

Although most of the stories are now original and expressly written for television, there has always been the temptation of remakes. There can be often up to three versions of the same tele-novela in the span of a few decades. Literary sources have also served as inspiration; for example, there was recently a modernized account of the Count of Monte Cristo, which had reasonable success in Mexico.

Why use remakes? Is it because the writers are just lazy? Is that the reason why we constantly see remakes of Hollywood movies? It actually follows a simple and logical premise: if movies have been successful in the past and have been proven to work with previous audiences, then we might safely assume that they will continue to attract crowds. It comes down to business sense and the manufacture of popular products. All they might do is add a new spin to it, modernize it and people will flock to these programs. Tried, tested and true with a faithful fan base.

Yet it works only so long, while not every product is suitable for all audiences. A recent remake in Mexico of Desperate Housewives was a huge flop. The reason was probably that the Mexican audience could not relate to the glamorous lifestyle or the particular sense of humor and although the show in its original was successful, the Latin remake just did not convince the public; it just did not translate nor sit well with the Mexican public.

Tele-novelas are often more than simple shows to the public; people have the need to identify with the characters, their economic standards, their language, the situations, the plot, the location, and the themes. Fairy tale stories of a poor woman winning over the love of a rich man, the age-old “Sabrina formula” if you will, is very popular in Mexican tele-novelas. And since their society is more conservative due to a strong Catholic following, the tele-novelas often need to reflect that stance to get an audience.

However, nowadays some Latin countries have become more aware of the power of tele-novelas as a means of educating people. More and more in its Brazilian and Colombian brands, tele-novelas have focused on more relevant and urging social and political issues, such as corruption, tolerance, discrimination, and even organ donation.

In Venezuela a group of women protested against the intended ending of a tele-novela in which the wife was to forgive her unfaithful husband. The screenwriter was harassed until he changed the script and had the wife ask instead for a divorce in the final episode. This clearly demonstrates a shift in the views of the television public and that some sexist norms are not accepted any more.

In Mexico too there have been more and more attempts to include a more realistic portrayal of society, as they started to include topics like abortion or child and sexual abuse in some of their programs. In addition, many people are tired of the predictable formula and are looking for originality.

This is the reason why Ugly Betty, originally a sitcom from Colombia has enjoyed great success in Mexico and the States, simply because the protagonist is not your typical beautiful character, but quite the opposite. It is a refreshing stance to not have your usual pretty well-dressed protagonists who always look good; whether they have just woken up, are serving a jail sentence or have just been shot at or kidnapped, their hair and make-up is always in place.

But it is an undeniable fact that tele-novelas have had their success worldwide. Mexico alone produces more than 3000 hours of tele-novelas totaling $250 million US equaling the cost of making Titanic. Yet they must be getting substantial benefits to spend so much money; it is astonishing that their tele-novelas have been dubbed in more than 50 languages and that Televisa, a major TV network, is looking to enter the large and growing Chinese market by flooding them with mandarin-dubbed Mexican tele-novelas.

It is true that for some people tele-novelas and soap operas are stories to identify with, to talk and marvel about, to use as an escape from harsh reality, from work, from stress, yet apart from its entertainment value, if used properly, it can also serve as a form of education for many.

It may be like “churros,” a popular Mexican type of junk food, cheap and not good for your health, lacking vitamins and minerals and filing you up for only a little while. But it can also serve as food for thought as we analyze its particular stance and reflection on society and social issues, which provide us then with valuable insight and knowledge.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Historical Outlook on Mankind: Angels or Beasts?

Lisa and Bart Simpson with angel and devil shades

During the Middle Ages, it was assumed that the earth was the center of the universe. As such, the earth was a copy or mirror image of the heavenly realm and humans were seen as angels; they were created in God's image.

In those times, people felt that they were special, given the fact that God had made them Lords over His creation, and they were seen as inherently good. The notion of sin had not fully caught on yet and came with some of the radical Christian saints such as St. Jerome and in certain degrees with St. Augustine.

Humanism tried to shed some of the religious lingo, yet put humanity at the center of its philosophy. Humans were glorified: Leonardo da Vinci and other painters looked to give a more faithful representation of the “perfect” human body; Shakespeare began to delve into the intricate psychologies and the individual differences between one person and another.

Individualism was on the rise and human relationships grew in importance. At its core, humans possessed reason, something that set them apart from all other living beings on the Planet and which made them almost equal to God Himself.

This view continued even with Descartes, who claimed that animals were mere machines and did not have a soul because they lacked both language and consciousness. One of the precursors of romanticism Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in the goodness of mankind. To the question of why some people are evil, he claimed that it was all because of society that corrupts us and turns innocent angels into manipulating impostors. If children were brought up in a less restrictive manner and did not witness and imitate the hypocrisy and vice of society, they would develop according to their natural state, and be inherently good.

Not all philosophers and thinkers agreed with this assumption though. Thomas Hobbes thought that humans needed rules and laws that would ensure harmony and respect among each other. These laws should be checked and enforced by a ruler or dictator. If mankind was left without proper government, they would turn into beasts and loot and kill each other because they are driven by egocentric impulses, looking for personal benefit and gain.

Somewhat later, Freud had also a rather pessimistic outlook on mankind. He claimed that our personality contains three parts - id, ego and superego - and that the major part, where dark and aggressive impulses reside can be found in the id, the unconscious. These are the strong driving forces that the ego and superego try to oppose to the best of their abilities. If not handled carefully, it could turn into neurosis. However, in the deeper recesses of our self, we are inherently evil and do not obey morality nor do we shy away from acts of brutality and aggression.

Throughout history, we have witnessed horrible acts committed by mankind. Science explains that a combination of genetic make-up and an aggressive environment or traumatic childhood are most likely factors that can turn people into cruel monsters or assassins. We label those cold-blooded assassins as mentally ill because any normal human being would feel horror or remorse about such acts.

Nonetheless, given specific circumstances, times of distress or war, any human being can shed their ethical standards and can turn from an angel into a beast within a matter of seconds. I believe we are born with both aspects, that we are capable of committing any atrocious acts, so it takes immense effort and skill to keep the beast within us deep asleep.