The Use of Veils in The Earthquake in Chile and Lieutenant Gustl

I find both short stories to make considerable use of metaphorical veils, both to hide or to justify acts of morality. These interact with the catastrophes that shape each story, possibly strengthening, creating and altering these veils. I will go through some of the veils that I think are most influential to each story and how they link to catastrophe as well as descent of morality, which I think is an important theme that both stories share.

I would say that the initial state of morality in both stories is nothing to be proud of. In The Earthquake in Chile, one can analyze morality in two levels, first in the eyes of the protagonists, Jeronimo and Josepha, as well as the society of Santiago. In the eyes of society, their immoral treatment of Josepha, such as throwing her in prison right after she gives birth, is veiled by their strict laws forbidding adultery. These laws act as justification for Josepha’s execution and obscure the inhumanity lying beneath. In the case of the lovers, they fully realize the immorality of their actions, but by secretly consummating their love, by veiling their affair, they manage to escape lawful retribution. However, this veil fails when Josepha gives birth, thus setting in motion the in medias res conflict. So here we can see veils being used both as methods of obscuring, or justifying immorality and hiding it, and that the hiding veil is weaker than the justifying veil.

In Lieutenant Gustl, I think the veil is much more obvious. His true thoughts, which are expressed , are veiled by the privacy of his mind. No one can discern what he is thinking, except the readers, so this allows him to get away with many opinions that one would consider immoral. He considers beating up people who get in his way and lusts for women he spots around the concert hall, among other things. Therefore, it is seen that here, the veil serves to hide his immorality. Where it does falter is through his incident with his baker, where he lets too much aggression through and loses his honor as a result. Again, we can see that veils used to hide immorality are susceptible to failure.

Now the catastrophes in both stories shake things up considerably, and that they themselves can also be veiled, not in the mind of the characters, but in the mind of the reader. I feel that point of view is essential to understanding the catastrophes that happen in each story. First of all, the earthquake in Santiago, in the eyes of the two lovers, can be seen as a blessing because it saves their lives and their romance. After they reunite, they retreat into a valley, celebrating instead of mourning. An earthquake is undeniably a great tragedy, but considering that Jeronimo and Josefa are protagonists, through their eyes, we see the catastrophe being veiled by triumph. The opposite effect happens in the church massacre. In the eyes of the mob, the massacre has a rectifying effect, acting as retribution for the two lovers’ sins. If the story were told in the view of a person who has lost everything due to the earthquake, then obviously Jeronimo and Josepha’s death, among others, would lose much of its tragedy under the veil of vengeance.

A similar thing happens in Lieutenant Gustl. Since we are literally looking through his eyes and thoughts, his point of view is extremely biased. He treats his encounter with the baker as a great blow to his honor, and through his interior monologue, what would have been seen as just a minor incident in the eyes of others, is now a profound catastrophe. It even overshadows the catastrophe of the baker’s death, which, if one were to liberate the point of view into a more omniscient form, would be undeniably a tragic event. However, under the veil of Gustl’s impending suicide and shattered honor, this becomes a catharsis, a liberation, much like the earthquake was for Jeronimo and Josepha, but on a more interior scale. Here, one catastrophe veils another. The catastrophe of the baker’s death is obscured by the resolution of Gustl’s confrontation with the baker, and we as the audience are profoundly tricked into believing that a single threat in retaliation to Gustl’s insults. Both of these stories veil our natural compassion and morality for humanity as a whole by providing catastrophes that solve the problems of the protagonist through an influx of tragedy, forcing us to make moral decisions. More often than not, we tend to choose the protagonist, be it a hero or an anti-hero.

Lastly, I would like to point out how the catastrophes create veils not only for the audience, but their perception of the characters’ fates as well as the characters themselves, ultimately degrading their morality. In The Earthquake in Chile, a veil is creating through the surprising unity that the disaster has engendered among the surviving people. They cooperate with one another, and Jeronimo and Josepha seem safe. This, however, is followed by the massacre at the church, foretold by Dona Elvira. Here, the veil is temporal, presenting a state that one assumes will last, but which quickly dissolves into its exact opposite. This extreme juxtaposition can only create uneasiness. In the massacre itself, the earthquake is used as a justification, a veil that hides the brutality of the mob under the presumption that God is unhappy with them for allowing the sin of adultery to bloom. This is an extreme version of the earlier veil that justified Josepha’s execution, as the immorality hiding behind the justification is much more severe and brutal, thus providing a tragic ending.

In the case of Lieutenant Gustl, I find several similarities. Not only does the catastrophe of the confrontation with the baker warp the audience’s perception of the baker’s death, but also Gustl’s reaction. He celebrates instead of mourns, providing a severe juxtaposition, triumph against sorrow. This time however, sorrow is the outward force while triumph is the veiled force. Nonetheless, the distinction remains; Gustl’s elation at another man’s death, simply because he insulted his honor, is disturbing, and even more so when he feigns sadness and boasts at his success. Here, the hiding veil is ironclad, and the fact that he finds catharsis in the baker’s death indicates that his morality has degraded even further. Even though the ending of this story may seem like a triumph for the protagonist, considering these aspects, it is very much a tragedy.

I believe this is the format I want to use if I write my essay on this topic, so hopefully this makes logical and coherent sense.

Darwin’s The Descent of Man: Discriminatory Evolution

While most people would agree that Darwin’s theory of evolution revolutionized modern biology, this does not mean that all aspects of his work was boundary-pushing. Darwin, in The Descent of Man, attempts to use the concept of sexual selection, a “less vigorous” form of natural selection that acts on one gender as they struggle against each other to mate with the other gender to demonstrate that the human male is biologically more modified and thus superior to the female. Admittedly, this is not surprising for his time, as feminism had not yet gained much traction, but it does hold several interesting implications.

To begin, where does sexual selection fit into Darwin’s theory of evolution? It is included in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as a companion to natural selection, but clearly takes on a subsidiary role based on the selection we have of this publication as Darwin goes into far further detail regarding natural selection. It shares similarities to natural selection in that it involves a struggle that leaves certain members of a species better able to reproduce. Males with more outstanding physical traits, such as strength, prominent features including horns and antlers, or colorful plumage, are able to fight off competition and attract better females earlier. Although failure in this struggle does not include death, it follows the same principles of natural selection in that it preserves these traits among the male offspring, albeit through the selection of the female rather than the impartial hand of nature.

While this is relatively accurate when referring to animal species, it is in The Descent of Man that Darwin applies this to the human species that he stumbles in his brilliance. He initially links personality traits to these “secondary sexual characteristics” that appear in male animals, claiming that men are not only stronger, taller and heavier, but also braver, more creative and more energetic. Both natural selection and sexual selection among animals only preserve physical attributes, so the fact that men and women possess physically differences can be chalked up to the biological effects of sexual selection. But bravery and creativity are nowhere near as quantifiable as physical attributes and are not solely confined to the male gender. While a peacock will always have its extravagant plumage and a peahen will not, a man can be cowardly while a woman can be brave. Therefore, physical and mental attributes cannot coexist as products of sexual selection.

However, this is only the beginning. Darwin makes a further claim that men innately possess superior mental capability compared to women. As a person living in the 21st century, I obviously find this to be very discriminatory, but aside from that, I do want to investigate the methods in which Darwin applies his 19th century prejudice. Firstly, the superior mental faculties of men involve the ability for reason, imagination or ‘deep-thought’ (this faculty in particular seems so arbitrary for me and so surprising coming from such a mind as Darwin), and Darwin is quick to applaud the “genius” of man while emphasizing its non-existence in woman. He admits that she possesses greater intuition, perception and imitation, but these, sadly, come from a “lower state of civilisation” (269), and do not belong in the stratosphere that men’s mental strengths occupy. Is there any concrete evidence that reason and imagination is the result of greater modification than is intuition and perception. Which of these attributes is more useful for survival? Secondly, this mental superiority exists because men experience struggle to a greater degree than women and are thus more exposed to the effects of natural and sexual selection. He presumes that in a savage state, men had to hunt, protect their families and attain enough status to win a wife. The invention of weapons requires the so-called higher mental faculties; the men who invented and used such weapons would be less likely to die and more likely to impress the tribe and thus win a better wife, therefore men who possess these higher mental faculties will be selected for preservation. However, Darwin fails to take into account the role of women in society, be it savage or civilized; perhaps he thinks so little of it that he believes it is not even worth mentioning. For example, doesn’t caring for a child, the stereotypical feminine role, also require the presumably male-dominated faculties of observation, reason and invention? Or is it a mindless task, unable to expose women to any meaningful process of selection? These are questions that I believe are important today, now that the issue of gender roles has opened up and their previous rigidity has loosened.

Finally (this post has almost reached essay length), if Darwin can assert a mental inequality to the issue of gender, then it can certainly be applied to race and culture as well. Instead of stating that the lack of prominent women figures in history is due to their inability to pursue male-dominated arts and largely patriarchal societal structure, one can simply say that men are more modified. Likewise, instead of attributing the differences in cultural habits and technology among different nations across the world to social/political/economic forces, one can claim that certain races have been more modified, more exposed to the evolutionary processes and further along the tree-diagram. As strange and deluded as it might seem nowadays, the idea of social-Darwinism was not unpopular in late-19th century and early 20th century Europe, if I recall correctly. Therefore, this has really put into perspective how this idea acquired its name, as I can definitely see similar methods and assumptions made both in the issue of nation/race/culture and gender.


Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality: Is Progress Worth It?

In his Discourse in Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes the stage in society known as nascent man to be the “golden mean” (115) between primitive and civilized humans, portraying it as the “happiest epoch” of human history. But what about nascent man makes him happier than all others, if we look at the seemingly endless luxuries that our 21st century Western society now enjoys, be it electricity, computers, cars, jewelry etc? I would say that Rousseau’s argument isn’t based around the idea that nascent man is always happier, but that nascent man can easily obtain happiness in ways that civilized humans can only dream of.

One of the major differences between nascent man and civilized man, in my opinion, has to be the concepts of needs. Nascent man possesses a few simple needs whereas civilized man possesses many complex needs. What do I mean by that? I will start by explaining the difference in needs between nascent and civilized man. First, Rousseau claims that commodities acquired over time by a gradually civilizing society “[degenerate] into actual needs” (113), and make people “unhappy in losing them” (113) without making them happy when they possess them. Civilized man, as he acquires commodities, gradually integrates them into his life as necessities, and once they have become necessities, he searches for more. He “is always active” (136) so that inevitably, one way or another, one or more of these needs will not be met, and will cause him grief that an “indolent savage” (136) will not be able to comprehend. Modern computers fit this description surprisingly accurately, as they are seen as necessary instead of beneficial by many of us here in North America today. Our ability to access the Internet using these devices is taken for granted now, so much that we won’t be very pleased at all if we lose it. And simply owning one device isn’t enough, we have to own a cell phone, a tablet, a smart-watch, and who knows what in the future.  Nascent man is “limited in [his] needs” (113), Rousseau states that they need only basic requirements for life and a mere consideration for others (169) instead of dependence, and that they acquire pleasure from “blowing into a bad flute” (169), whereas we would only experience irritation. They need very little in their lives, and thus they need very little to be happy. There is something to be said for this lifestyle, where happiness comes from sources that we have long since eclipsed.

As civilized humans acquire more and more needs, these needs grow more and more complex. Rousseau introduces metallurgy as more complex than hunting and gathering, as it requires others to supply its practitioners with food (117). Even for such a basic craft, we see interdependence beginning to blossom. Without work that requires  “the collaboration of several hands” (116), people are free and happy. They can both profit and acquire happiness from their work. However, we have greatly surpassed this stage, as now commodities are the byproduct of innumerable steps. Returning to the idea of computers; one needs to manufacture the individual components, assemble them, sell them, ship them, supply customer support, and even hire people to oversee the transitions between these steps. Each step features thousands upon thousands of people that go about their jobs with little knowledge of the end product. They can no longer directly profit from their labor, nor can they take happiness from it; this is only remedied through salary.  We no longer fulfill most of our needs ourselves, but rely on others through the use of currency. This has the ramification of placing our well-being and the fulfillment of our needs into based on the hands of others. We need to have faith that our food isn’t poisoned, our medicine actually works and our bank account isn’t sabotaged, and even then, there is still a case for worrying.

If we can pursue a way of life that allows us to obtain happiness from simpler commodities, as seen from Rousseau’s account of a Native American chief selecting a wool blanket from the various other “civilized” gifts that he was presented, why do we choose to live with an increasing “multitude of new wants” (119)? Why do we relentlessly pursue progress if it simply demands more progress and requires more and more complex systems of interaction in order to achieve the same goals that a so-called “savage” wandering around the forest can so easily fulfill. This is something that truly makes me question what purpose this excessive desire for “self-improvement” (88) has for humanity as a whole.