Christopher Columbus

Value. That’s what I found the most interesting about this book. Although i’ve always had this fairly basic idea of the contrast between the new world explorers and the natives of the new world, this book is so full of the concept of value, and questions concerning value that you could, y’know, write an essay on it or something. When Columbus gets to the new world he is surprised to find that the natives are willing to hand over something that could be worth a lot of money in exchange for trinkets. Why is he surprised? Different systems assign different values in whatever way they please: worth is completely relative. I know this is no revelation, but to see it (read it) in action was fascinating. One asks which system is more ridiculous, monetary value in small gold coins or monetary value in things that are ornamental, or, useful. But it really has nothing to do with which is more ridiculous because  it’s entirely based on perception.

When it comes to Columbus and his view of the natives his values get even more convoluted. He values these natives for their use to him and their ability to be converted to Christianity. But like the rest of the book there is and undercurrent of idealism. In this case it is concerning monsters. Columbus writes “I have not found the human monsters we expected” which is great, but I got the feeling that in many ways Columbus wanted to find monsters, or wanted the local people to be monsters. It would add to the romance, the adventurism of his story. In this expedition he really wanted something foreign and different, and in a way no hostilities at the beginning may have come across as a bit of a letdown. When Columbus and his sailors meet the Caribs, the cannibals, the letters really play up their atrociousness and their monstrosity, writing about all the horrendous things they do and such. I think these types of things were largely written for the comfortable white “audience” that waited in Spain, so they could say “Ooh look at that, there’s monsters over there, how foreign and romantic.”

The funny thing is that not much has changed. Humans still like to see those who are actually very similar to them as monsters and something non-human. It makes it easier to control them, kill them, or other nasty things. That’s how wars start.

Columbus himself reminded me greatly of Medea. He’s smooth talking in a whiny sort of way, and his letters are like a phsycological study of human self justification. Again, it comes back to value. “Value me” says Columbus. “Value what i’ve done” Hmm.

There was line about one island that spoke of native people with tails. It is never spoke of again. What the heck! I want to here more about that.

Oh yes, and God is still here, shaping peoples destinies and such. I’m starting to think this guys is more trouble than he’s worth.




Beowulf: Gratuitous monsters

After I have finished diligently reading my texts and sit down to write this blog, I usually feel obligated to create some sort of commentary on the profound subtext. I feel the need to talk about what this REALLY means and why some character is a metaphor for the complexities of life etcetera etcetera. I mean, that is one of the main points of ArtsOne after all, and I like doing it. But sooner or later I have to admit my inner 10 year old self still has just as much power as my university self when it comes to thinking about literature.

The point is, Beowulf is gratuitously cool. I think later i’d like to talk about how such a classic, now cliched type of story attracts our attention, but for now i’d like to talk about whale beasts! And underwater battles! And dragons! And sword fights! Maybe I identified with this style of descriptive poetry, maybe I am a sucker for this type of  imagery. Whatever it is, the idea of a hero diving under the water on a stormy ocean to kill nine (NINE!) sea monsters still makes me want to find a stick and run around the forest killing imaginary foes.

This leads me to some more respectable ruminations. Beowulf is proud and confident. He eschews weapons for bare hands. He is the original hero. Again, we see a hero getting rewards and fame using his brute strength. But there is an intersting contrast between him and Hrothgar. Hrothgar is an old man who can’t defend his kingdom. He is helpless in the face of challenge. And yet he is still portrayed as a “good king.” It is not strength that makes him good, but wisdom and kindness. If I had to pick a theme for this tale, i’d say it centres around ideas of young and old, and how we carry ourselves as time passes. The poet seems to place more value on the feelings of pride and bravery than pure strength in itself, and while he recognizes that Beowulf is strong, he spends more time on his heroic nature than is actual physical nature.

And there is depth here, without a doubt. Often old Hrothgar will take half a page at the end of a battle or before a feast to reflect on the danger of having too much power, the fragile nature of life, and other such ideas. All his premonitions and predictions come true, and although they were nice, I was sometimes left wondering what they were meant to accomplish in the broader storyline. Beowulf dies, and some wars will probably happen. People will continue to get power and then die. Is this story just a cool story with monsters? Are we MEANT to take more from it? I’m not sure.

God is still around too. Everything Beowulf does is aided by (one) God, and made possible by God. It seems we’ll never shake this God fellow.

See you tomorrow!


Oedipus Rex: Arrogance is Blindness

These short, twisted, tragic plays really are brilliant. First Medea, then Oedipus The King. After a meandering doctrine such as Plato’s, I sometimes feel like I get just as much (albeit very differently) from Sophocles, in less than 100 pages.

Although Oedipus Rex is it’s own distinct play, i’ve started to notice a number of similar themes running through the Greek tragedies. I suppose this is not too surprising, considering the way in which all these playwrights had convened under similar laws and times. However it’s still interesting to note recurring ideas. They all seem to gain a more worldy significance. Anyway, a prominent one is the dramatic shift from greatness to pitiful shame and general awfulness. Just like Medea or Jason, Oedipus begins as a self regarding person, in this case a king, with a history of pride and power. (killing a whole caravan because one fellow hit him with a staff.) He presents himself as caring about his citizens and willing to do anything for their well-being. When blamed for a murder, however, he is quick to put fault on anyone else. Even though he doesn’t know his crime, he runs on the assumption that he cannot, could not ever be wrong. It must be somebody else.

Like Medea, and like a vast amount of other stories, there is also some clever commentary on the state of mankind. There is a line on page 215 that I read over more than once. “What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance rules our lives… better to live ate random.” This connotes to the cliche, modern day saying of “things happen”, but something about this play being written in the 400’s BC gives it some added weight. This develops into what was my favorite part of the play: grappling with the idea of fate and destiny. Part of the play seems to be saying you can’t escape it. Despite out best intentions, fate will play out just as it has been prophesized. But there is something a bit more subtle that is even more interesting. I may be misled, but the ideas of fate and ones own actions, ones free will, seem to be blended together in what I feel is an important way. Oedipus is given choices, and his arrogance drives him to make the “wrong” decisions. These decisions lead to utter ruin. Is Sophocles saying that our arrogance is what, in the end makes us blind? When Oedipus stabbed his eyes out at the end, I think Sophocles was simply making a metaphor real, making sure we really got it. I think Sophocles is saying that arrogance and power can make one “blind.”


Republic: Part 2

During the second part of Republic, I always had the Nietzche quote in the back of my mind, the one that says Plato is scared of the human reality and therefore hides behind is mathematical logic. I think Nietzche was on to something. Although I still find Platos arguments as unagreeable as when I read the first half, there are a few new things that i’ve noticed, and things that stuck with me. There were times it seemed Plato was slipping up. There were even certain things I found myself agreeing with.

I’ll begin with the things I don’t agree with. I earmarked page 134 as a “dangerous” page. Here Plato brings together his ideas on selective breeding. What is really curious to me is this: Plato previously states that he wants his citizens educated, and to be knowledgable about how the city works. The idea is once they understand the philosophy, they’ll see why things have to be done and they’ll accept that it is for the greater good. And yet, Socrates/Plato proposes to keep the selective breeding secret from the people. So does Plato not have faith in his own philosophy? Sometimes his class system seems to go against his idea of a whole harmonious entity.On the same page he also condones infanticide, and that tends to send up some red flags as well. He goes on to critizise the education system, and I think some of his criticisms are valid. At one point, however, he states that education isn’t about giving a person sight, but instead directing where they look. This is interesting and I think most people today, in our society at least, would believe the opposite.

When it comes to Plato’s criticism of democracy, I actually found myself agreeing with a lot of it. Although HIS doctrine is just as likely to fail, the flaws he points out are legitimate, I think. He predicts huge gaps between the rich and poor. Todays society is proof that this can occur. It seems that in his system, one gets to the “top one percent” through wisdom, skill, and physical competence. That sounds better right? Hmm…. Well, the wisdom and skill part is fair enough I suppose, but at the same time that was the idea behind the free 1st world democracies, and I don’t think Plato would like those.

The definition of a tyrant was interesting because it was very human. Tyranny is associated with flattering others to get something or hanging out with people who flatter you. Someone with a tyrannical nature “lives his whole life as either a master to one man or a slave to another, never getting a taste of true freedom or friendship.” I’m sometimes guilty of hanging out with people because they tell me i’m great, and i’ve also been very kind to people who I thought could get me somewhere. But i still think this statement is one of Socrates wiser ones.

There is one other thing Plato and I can agree on. I believe that if mankind didn’t have as many choices to make they would probably be happier.

See you tomorrow!