Maleficent: the Evolution of Fairy Tale Morality

When we were children, fables often had morality woven into them. The tale of the boy who liked to scare his village by announcing the visit of a wolf … until a REAL wolf showed up, showed us the importance of telling the truth. Many other tales warned us against envy. These were simplistic fables meant for child-like minds. They were magical, but their moralities were in black and white, with little of the complexity of normal human interaction.

But for many generations, I believe we underestimated the ability of children to form more or less sophisticated ideas about morality and about right and wrong. Modern re-tellings of old tales (like Wicked and Maleficent) show us that, sometimes, what seems “evil” is not necessarily so, and what seems “good” is not necessarily so. Good and evil have unfortunately been treated by our culture as Platonic constructs, and this–while perhaps was done with a good intention–has impeded a deeper understanding of morality. Innocent or complicated characters may be vilified unjustly. Sometimes an honest character wears a black cape, or has fangs and horns, and the truly evil ones look respectable.

These new narratives are extremely necessary if fables are to be useful, as originally intended, for moral edification. We see it in the news all the time: the Catholic priests who were supposed to embody holiness and virtue turned out to be a protected caste filled with predators who orchestrated an international conspiracy to silence their victims; the very “respectable” looking politicians or wolves of Wall-Street who are corrupt and narcissistic beyond redemption. They are not all corrupt, and not all priests are predators. On the other hand, in the film Hail Satan! we see that the members of the Satanic Temple, with their activism in recent years, have been “the good guys” in our fight against encroaching theocracy, and have been teaching everyone a valuable civics lesson about the First Amendment. But that is the point. Images that market a certain idea do not constitute the essence of the idea. They are mere images. It is up to individuals to apply critical thinking to the problems and the “facts” presented to them daily–and children who consume these fairy tales, because they are still in their formative years, are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of not applying critical thinking, and of not questioning whether the “good guys” are really good and whether the “bad guys” are really bad.

Like the Epicurean novel A Few Days in Athens, these new fables are teaching us to look at the world in an unbiased manner and to withhold opinions and conclusions until things show themselves to our faculties.

Maleficent was a very magical movie. Angelina Jolie is a gorgeous woman and a talented actress, and she carries the entire plot of the movie with her unquestionable charm. But it also is a fable, and here the moral of the story is a welcome departure from the simplistic, black-and-white, old-fashioned fairy tales.

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Happy Twentieth! In Defense of Eudaimonia

Peace and Safety to all Epicureans, Neo-Epicureans and kindred spirits! Please don’t forget to join our Garden of Epicurus group on Facebook if you’d like to study Epicurean philosophy with others.

On this day, I’d like to defend the concept of eudaimonia. In some Epicurean circles there appears to be a war against this word, and the corresponding word happiness in the insistence that the end is pleasure, as if they were somehow mutually exclusive. The truth is that:

  1. Epicurus himself used the word εὐδαιμονίαν (eudaimonian),
  2. The choice of words by the founders of EP was always very intentional and careful, and
  3. Eudaimonia is a particularly important concept for therapeutic Hellenistic philosophy which relates to the health of the soul.

Concerning my first point, I will cite from the Monadnock translation of the Letter to Menoikos by Peter Saint-Andre, which shows the Greek original next to the English translation. In this epistle–which summarizes the entire ethical doctrine of Epicurus and which should be studied time and again by sincere students–Epicurus opens with an appeal to people of all ages to study philosophy, saying:

 ὁ δὲ λέγων ἢ μήπω τοῦ φιλοσοφεῖν ὑπάρχειν ὥραν ἢ παρεληλυθέναι τὴν ὥραν, ὅμοιός ἐστιν τῷ λέγοντι πρὸς εὐδαιμονίαν ἢ μὴ παρεῖναι τὴν ὥραν ἢ μηκέτι εἶναι.

For it is never too early or too late for the health of the soul. Someone who says that the time to love and practice wisdom has not yet come or has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or has passed.

I highlighted the word εὐδαιμονίαν, eudaimonian, in the original. Again in the same paragraph, he says:

Reflect on what brings happiness (μελετᾶν οὖν χρὴ τὰ ποιοῦντα τὴν εὐδαιμονίαν), because if you have that you have everything, but if not you will do everything to attain it.

Later, Epicurus discusses the natural and necessary desires saying:

that among the necessary desires some are necessary for happiness (πρὸς εὐδαιμονίαν)…

Here he classifies happiness (eudaimonia) together with health and life itself as being among the natural and necessary desires that help to make life worth living.

Notice that he did not choose the word pleasure (hedone) here. Concerning my second point, Epicurus’ sermon against empty words makes plain that the choice of words by the founders of EP was always very intentional and careful. It was never frivolous or unintended, and in fact ancient Epicureans were known for their clear, concise, direct speech, which was a fresh departure from the rhetorical games of many other philosophers. This is one of the opening remarks in Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus:

But first of all, Herodotus, before we begin the investigation of our opinions, we must firmly grasp the ideas that are attached to our words, so that we can refer to them as we proceed. Unless we have a firm grasp of the meaning of each word, we leave everything uncertain, and we go on to infinity using empty words that are devoid of meaning. Thus it is essential that we rely on the first mental image associated with each word, without need of explanation, if we are to have a firm standard to which to refer as we proceed in our study.

Let’s follow this advice with eudaimonia. Concerning my third point, eudaimonia is defined in this manner:

eudemonia is a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare; however, “human flourishing or prosperity” and “blessedness” have been proposed as more accurate translations.

Etymologically, it consists of the words “eu” (“good”) and “daimōn” (“spirit”).

The word eudaimonia reminds me of the expression “being in good spirits”, which implies a cheerful or happy disposition. The Christians appropriated the daimon portion, and today demon has come to mean a supposedly evil spirit, but from the way it was used by ancient philosophers it is clear that “the idea attached to the word” originally was sentient being, animated being, and that the word eu-daimonia (literally, good-spirited-ness) implies existential health.

It denotes the idea not only of being happy, but specifically of having a healthy spirit, of being morally and psychologically healthy–just as having a good body implies not necessary that one is the most beautiful or strongest person, but that one at least enjoys a natural measure of health, of physical well-being. It’s in this sense that the word is closely tied to therapeutic Hellenistic philosophy, which in the words of Epicurus must “heal the soul” just as true medicine must heal the body.

Now, we may argue whether happiness is the best translation for eudaimonia, or whether “healthy spirit” is a better translation. But clearly, this word is distinct from both pleasure, and blessedness (for which the Greek word is makarion). This is not to disparage neither pleasure nor blessedness. Both of these words are also found in the original texts in specific contexts, and deserve to be studied separately. My intention is to rescue this word from any undue connotations, and also to remind students of philosophy that it has been argued that both Schools of pleasure ethics (the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans) were eudaimonic in their ethics, and that eudaimonism and hedonism (properly understood) are not, in any way, mutually contradictory. Here is a passage on Aristippus’ ethics from the book review of Kurt Lampe’s The Birth of Hedonism:

Lampe thinks that Cyrenaics are eudaimonics (believed in happiness as the end, not just pleasure), but most scholars disagree. It’s likely that a variety of views existed within the school regarding the end. One of the key arguments for hedonism (i.e. pleasure as the end) in its inception had to do with how pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. Pleasure is an instance, happiness is a collection of pleasures, and as such happiness is therefore an abstraction, a platonized alternative to the real experience of pleasure. This argument is interesting, and still generates debate and various opinions today.

I hope I have provided enough context for future discussions on these terms, including what Epicurean sources have to say about eudaimonia. While there may exist some controversies related to the word’s meaning and English translation, it has never been controversial to say that Epicureanism is eudaimonic: a philosophy of happiness, friendship, and self-sufficiency.

Further updates:

We were recently made aware in our Spanish group of this introduction to the Epicurean canon, which I believe is worth reading (through google translate or some other translator, if necessary) by any beginning student of Epicurus. When things are explained in a different language, sometimes new perspectives emerge which illuminate some aspect of an investigation. The essay explains the faculty of anticipations by saying that, while sensations tell us that something IS or exists, it does not tell us WHAT it is. For THAT cognitive process, we must rely in a faculty tied to both language and memory. After having been exposed to objects time and again and having understood what those objects are (people, horses, dogs, trees, books), we immediately recognize (anticipate) them when our senses present impressions of them again.

In the video Ancient answers to modern questions, Marc Nelson introduces Epicurus in a TED Talk. our friend Alex reacts:

The video ends fine if you listen to the end, but if not, you could end up believing that Epicurus advocated poverty, or servitude. Just in case you did not watch till the end…

Epicurus did not advocate poverty. Epicurus did not live as a poor man. Epicurus did not die a poor man.

He secured his present and future happiness. He was well known, owned property, had a home, had a school, saved his friends from a famine, lived near a city, left inheritence, wrote many books. He lived “as a god among men”.

Other Epicureans such as Metrodorus, Diógenes of Oenoanda, Lucretius, Torquatus, Philodemus were far from poor.

LIFE IS EASY is a book review of ‪Catherine Wilson’s book The Pleasure Principle: Epicureanism: A Philosophy for Modern Living. This author was also featured in the  Big Think podcast, in an episode titled The Epicurean cure for what ails ya, and has a video-lecture ‪titled How To Be an Epicurean.

‬‪Epicurean Festival in Italy‬

Why I’m Epicurean, not Stoic

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TBT: The Matrix

Keanu Reeves has confirmed that there will be a Matrix 4. The Matrix is not only a film series: it’s also a mythology for our times. It has inspired countless philosophy books and discussions, and one of the films even featured a cameo by philosopher Cornell West. While I don’t subscribe to the view that reality is computerized, I do find the metaphors in the Matrix useful and inspiring–and in recent months, a fellow Epicurean has created a few Epicurean memes that drew inspiration from the Matrix.

Also, these metaphors could not have existed in antiquity. We find reference to Krishna pulling the strings of sentient beings via the three gunas (or tendencies within nature) in the Bhagavad Gita, and the metaphor of the cosmos as an upside-down reflection of the cosmic tree. While these metaphors approach many of the ways in which The Matrix questions reality, we couldn’t have found the metaphor of people and things being computer programs. We couldn’t have found the 1’s and 0’s of the binary language. Ancient people did not have knowledge of genetics, which is the science that established that sentient beings are, in a way, programmed by nature to carry out certain behaviors and develop physically in a certain way. The Matrix uses futuristic and contemporary metaphors, and explores Buddhist and existentialist themes, positing a mythology for millennials.

In the past, I’ve praised The Wachowskis (who produced the Matrix) for their series Sense8, calling it “a hedonist saga”. The Wachowskis cemented their place in pop culture with The Matrix, but they are also responsible for V is for Vendetta–remember those masks that activists wore during the Occupy Wall Street movement? The same ones that the hacktivists from Anonymous have made their own? They–and other cultural memes like “remember, remember the 5th of November“–were made popular among modern audiences by the Wachowskis in V is for Vendetta.

Other films by them include Cloud Atlas–which is a mess of a movie, and as hard to understand as The Matrix–and Jupiter Ascending. JA was less successful (if we trust the reviews), but I thoroughly enjoyed the other-worldly visuals in both of these movies. The Wachowskis’ movies are always a treat to me. They explore complex ideas of parallel lives in different worlds, massive revolts against entrenched powers, history as cyclical, the ways in which people inhabit their bodies, and identity. They explore the universal human nature and experience: how people in very different times, milieus, and cultures have similar reactions, pains, solidarities, and passions.

Enjoy the iconic scene where Morpheus (which is also the name of the god of dreams) gives Neo (the hero) the proverbial choice between the red pill or the blue pill. Do we deal with reality, no matter how ugly, or do we choose to dream?

4 Film Favorites: The Matrix Collection (BD) [Blu-ray]

The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Popular Culture and Philosophy)

Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix Trilogy

Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and the Religion in the Matrix (Smart Pop series)

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Happy Twentieth! On Anticipations and Other Updates

Happy Twentieth of September! Here are some literary updates:

  • Epicurean Preconceptions, by Voula Tsouna, was published in Below is a quote from it. The word enargeia means immediacy, and denotes the quality of an unmediated insight which requires no arguments to establish itself as true.

Broadly speaking, there are two alternatives on the table. According to one, preconceptions derive their enargeia from their unmediated link to aisthēseis, sensations: because of their origin in sensation, they take on, as it were, the self-evidence and trustworthiness of sensation itself. (I call this the ‘Lockean view’.)

According to the other, the self-evidence of preconception lies, not so much in a natural continuity between preconception and sensation, as in the spontaneity of the association between the preconception and the corresponding object as well as the word that denotes that object. For example, as soon as we hear the word ‘horse’, the preconception of a horse comes automatically to mind, and it is precisely in virtue of this association that the preconception captures ‘both the unmediated nature of an experience and its direct connection with reality’. (I call this the ‘Kantian view’.)

Recall that Epicurus and his followers argue for the veridicality of all (sensations) partly by pointing out that they are alogoi, non-rational: the mind plays no role in sensations, whose trustworthiness depends, precisely, on the fact that they are non-rational events involving no interpretation at all (Diogenes Laertius 10.31-2).

Diogenes Laertius (10.33)–cited in the work–introduces preconceptions in this manner:

Before making this judgement, we must at some time or other have known by preconception the shape of a horse or a cow. We should not have given anything a name, if we had not first learnt its form by way of preconception. It follows, then, that preconceptions are clear. The object of a judgement is derived from something previously clear, by reference to which we frame the proposition, e.g. “How do we know that this is a man?”

In section five of the essay, which is about the length of a short book, the author explains the controversy surrounding whether anticipations are ontologically a separate thing, a third entity separate from the word and the thing meant. This controversy is summarized as the three-tiered interpretation (which accepts anticipations as a third, distinct thing and is influenced by the Stoic doctrine of lekta) versus the two-tiered interpretation, which says that only names and name-bearers (objects referred to by names) may exist. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this last interpretation is truer to Epicurean teaching. The anticipations appear to be related to our brain’s pre-cognitive faculty of memorizing meanings and easily recalling them, as if unconsciously. If names are accurate, it’s because the named objects correspond to them, not because meaning somehow asserts itself independently of the named objects. We have no reason whatsoever, in my view, to suppose that they exist as de-contextualized Platonic ideas on their own, or to imagine that they emerge as phenomena in any way independent from the names or the things named. The author says:

Both the implicit denunciation of investigations of ‘mere utterance’ and the Epicurean rejection of dialectic are warnings against concentrating on language but losing connection with reality. And although Epicurus makes clear elsewhere that attending to prolepsis ensures, precisely, that we remain grounded in reality, nevertheless, in the present instance as well as in others, he chooses to highlight only words and things.

Furthermore, the view that meanings exist as separate things from names and things named is a useful nursery for superstitions of all sorts. Ancient Egyptians believed that words (written or spoken) had magical powers, and that a person’s name contained part of their essence. One could curse, influence or enchant a person by the use of their names, which is why the Pharaoh had numerous secret names, and why descendants had to continue repeating the names of their ancestors in the belief that, if the names were forgotten, their souls would no longer be efficient or would “die” on Earth.

This view of meanings as a separate thing from names and things named also lends itself to the superstition that meanings existed apart from, and even prior to, the things that are named–and so we have problems like “in the beginning was the Word“, where a complex cognitive process is believed to have preceded nature itself. The study of nature demonstrates that nature obviously existed prior to language, and that language is an emergent property of social sentient beings. Nature must not only provide a mind that has the ability to think, but also contents for it to think about, prior to the formation of thoughts and words.

For more discussions on anticipations, you may visit this forum page.

Here Lucretius points out that, even if it existed, the centre (of the universe), being a place and hence incorporeal, would not be able to affect bodies in the way the anonymous rivals want it to.

… which seems to get close to the rationale behind the theory of gravity, which posits that it is bodies that attract other bodies towards a center, and that there is no absolute center. This kind of thinking would have likely been on Isaac Newton’s mind when he formulated his own ideas.

Indeed, Farrington … cites Gassendi: “In the seventeenth century it was evident that Epicurus had taught a singularly pure religion, if a defective one. Drawing a distinction between the filial and servile elements in religion, the servile being those concerned with the interchange of services between men and gods, the filial with pure devotion, Gassendi emphasised the fact that it is only the servile elements of religion that are lacking in Epicurus.”

Therefore, according to Gassendi at least, Epicureanism was a religion, a religion of pure devotion once all servile elements had been stripped away.

The belief that epitomes could function as independent vehicles of education, allowing the individual to pursue philosophy is, perhaps again, a surprisingly concession. This independent streak also stands in contrast to the common presentation of the necessity of communal and dialectical practice of ancient philosophy, and this is a contrast that is only sharpened when the background is the Epicurean School, which placed so much value on community, and on the corrective nature of communal life and learning. Again this is a further indication that the Epicurean School was more flexible in its character and outlook than scholars have been previously willing to consider. The old adages which still inform our discussion of the School and its character must be re-examined.

For example, this expressed acknowledgement of independent learning, emancipated from a classroom setting should challenge the unfounded assumption that the Epicureans sought to keep a firm, and intractable control over their students- requiring the continual supervision of an instructor to safeguard against error or misunderstanding.

The Letter to Herodotus was considered the Little Epitome, which was studied initially by students prior to graduating to the more advanced Larger Epitome. It is therefore an appropriate foundation to the understanding of the entire system of Epicurean philosophy, just as the Letter to Menoeceus is an appropriate foundation to the understanding of only its summarized ethics.

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Things to Learn from Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale was a best-selling 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, which was turned into a TV series in recent years. My neighbor and I have been binge-watching episodes of it for months, after it was recommended by a co-worker. I did not read the original novel, but the series is so good that I can’t stop watching. Here are four things to learn from Handmaid’s Tale.

The Bible is Incompatible With the Constitution

Handmaid’s Tale reminds us, time and again, that attempts to re-create the primitive, Bronze-Age social conventions found in the Bible in modern society are not only barbaric, but seditious. They represent an attempt to overthrow legitimate, agreed-upon governance, and we should be compelled to ask where does it end, as the Bible mentions practices like polygamy, slavery, sexual slavery, and the crush of all dissent via the death penalty. Here is what the First Amendment of the US Constitution declares:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

… and here the first four (and, presumably, the most “important”) of the revered Ten Commandments, which directly violate the constitutional guarantees described above:

  1. I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

All four of these commandments violate the establishment clause, which forbids our government from having an established religion. The first one establishes the lordship of a particular god. The second one establishes the manner of worship. The third one forbids free expression, which guarantees the right to blaspheme or to treat the name of the Abrahamic god just like any other word. The fourth one violates the freedom to work and engage in activities that any free citizen may wish to engage in, outside of those allowed in arbitrary Biblical law concerning what one may do on Saturdays. A series like Handmaid’s Tale may help those who believe that laws should be based on the Bible to re-think what they think they know and believe.

The Bible contains awful acts of violence in the name of religion (genocide in order to steal the lands of the Canaanites, the killing of all first-born children in Egypt, the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephthah as a “burnt offering” to Jehovah, etc.), yet many Christians today say they want Bible-based laws and society–and even wish to place monuments to the Ten Commandments prominently on government grounds, as if to say that our government is bound or ruled by them. These arrogant, evil insinuations and attempts at Christian hegemony in the public discourse should be met with hostility and treated as what they are: sedition!

Hell on Earth

Fundamentalists who want to advance a theocratic agenda generally find it useful to turn this world into a hell, so that their afterlife promises seem to give hope to those who stand to suffer as a result of their bullshit.

We see it in Nigeria today, where Boko Haram has successfully convinced dozens of girls to become terrorists–perhaps under threat, or perhaps by making life for women and girls there so miserable that they have no will to live and nothing to look forward to. Boko Haram–whose name means “Books are Forbidden”–is against so-called “Western” education, particularly the education of girls, and has been involved in very high-profile cases of sexual enslavement and human trafficking of girls in Northern Nigeria.

Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

History is told by the victors, but victors don’t stay in power forever and when their power wanes, the opportunity arises to tell the story of those who were vanquished, silenced, and abused. Michel Onfray has done a good job of reminding us that historiography is an act of power.

As a result of centuries of misplaced piety, there haven’t been many attempts to tell the stories of the victims of religious tyranny, particularly as depicted in the Bible. But that is changing: there is a Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, and the novel The Red Tent was made into a movie a few years back. It tells the story of Dinah, the daughter of one of the Biblical patriarchs. The Annotated Skeptic’s Bible has published commentaries on the evil episodes in scripture, but this is not the same as giving a human voice and restoring the humanity of people like Jephthah’s daughter, who was placed in the pyre as a girl by her own father–a necessary step, if we wish to have an honest public assessment of the contents of the Bible.

Handmaid’s Tale imagines many of the evil practices in the Bible happening in a post-apocalyptic future ISIS-like America after theocrats have overthrown the government. In this way, the viewer is helped to put visuals next to Bible verses that are never mentioned in Sunday school. Sexual slavery? Check! Public executions? Check! Theocratic legal code? Check!

The name of the novel is inspired in the bizarre ritual rape of the few remaining fertile women by powerful, moneyed couples, which is based on sexual slave Hagar’s impregnation by Abraham at his wife’s Sarah’s suggestion, and on the description of Jacob having sex with two sister-wives and two sexual slaves in Genesis 30.

The Boiling Frog

According to the Boiling Frog Wikipedia page:

The boiling frog is a fable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of sinister threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly.

Iran in the 60's

The boiling frog metaphor has been used to describe how societies fall into theocracy or authoritarian regimes after having experienced some semblance of freedom. The change happens slowly, gradually, and only over a long span of time does it become evident that change has happened. People have to first get used to a slightly greater degree of surveillance, first in public, then in the workplace, then in more private environments … they then have to slowly get used to laws that tell them what they must do with their bodies, in bed, or when they choose their clothing. Then self-expression is attacked, and once that happens it is clear that citizens are not free, because only the free can be frank.

One only needs to consider the history of Iran during the last half of the 20th Century, before the Islamic Revolution. Women in Iran during the 60’s and 70’s dressed like Westerners, and lived lives relatively free of constant religious policing and harassment. Today, if an Iranian woman does not cover the entirety of their body in public, she will be shamed and insulted.

Are we in the U.S. losing our liberties? Did the so-called “Patriot Act” bring us a few degrees closer to boiling? Does the constant mining of data on us (by Facebook, Google, and other companies, or by the government) constitute a loss of freedom, in addition to privacy? Is there increased surveillance? Clearly, in recent years there has been an increase of laws against abortion in states that would like to see Roe vs. Wade reverted–and the oppressive culture in states that are advancing compulsive motherhood does remind us of Handmaid’s Tale. However it’s not clear if this trend is part of a boiling-frog process, or merely a function of the pendulum swinging to the right, particularly as Christians are emboldened by politicians that cater to their Evangelical base and by a more conservative Supreme Court.

It’s also not likely that theocratic measures would be sustainable over the long term (particularly at the federal level) in a country as diverse as the US, and with about a third of teenagers currently identifying as atheist, agnostic or irreligious. So we should be cautiously hopeful for now.

Plato’s Republic

The Republic of Plato idealizes a regime that would separate mothers from children and where their role in procreation is seen as instrumental to the state, and has the state taking the place of the family in raising the children for the sake of “wisdom”. While the regime at Gilead is a theocracy, and it’s not clear to what extent it mirrors the hell-on-Earth that Plato envisioned, it gives us some idea of how bad Plato’s ideas were in practice and how much of the respect Plato gets is undeserved.

Further Reading:

The Handmaid’s Tale

The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel)

The Red Tent

Jimmy Carter: Losing my religion for equality

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In Solidarity with The Bahamas

The following videos show how the islands of the Bahamas are unrecognizable after hurricane Dorian. Six days after the storm, there were reports that the stench of death was on the streets from so many bodies that were unclaimed and exposed to the elements, and the entire country looked post-apocalyptic. People were desperate to get out of some of the more isolated islands into a place where some semblance of civilization and normalcy was restored. I was reminded of the post-hurricane-Maria reality in Puerto Rico.

The Bahamas’ population grew steadily over the centuries as a result of transfers of large groups of people from the US–from British loyalists after the revolutionary war, to ship-loads of enslaved Black people who revolted against the terrorism of being sold like cattle to work for other human beings. There were many times when Bahamians carried out elaborate rescue missions to free enslaved Blacks from the grip of American capitalists. Migration to Bahamas has historically served as a pressure valve, releasing demographic pressure, taking in the populations that the US would not accommodate as it chose to shape itself and its destiny. And so the two countries have co-evolved together, choosing different demographics and destinies, with The Bahamas becoming the land of freedom and promise when the US would not fulfill its own promise. In this way, the country of The Bahamas is culturally and demographically like a little sister to America. There are even connections with Black Seminoles from Florida, and with Gullah culture. It inherited a similar language and, to a great extent, similar demographics.

Today, The Bahamas needs help, and I hope some of you, my readers, help our neighbors from Bahamas in some way if you have the means.

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TBT: #CirqueDuSoleil’s Alegría

Around the year 1996, I used to go on all-day trips from the University of Puerto Rico campus, where I studied, to walk around the very-walkable, elegant, 500-year-old colonial city of Old San Juan. I’ve always enjoyed the colonial architecture, the pastel colors, and the Mediterranean-like Spanish ambiance of the place. Sometimes I would also go to the nearby posh Condado neighborhood, to visit a few of the stores there that I liked.

Today, I am an author, but back then I would spend the day in bookstores and cafés mostly, as books were like magic carpets to me. I was majoring in French, and so I had access to content in English, Spanish, and French, and–like our late friend Jaako whose final good-bye blog was a very warm and personal, biographical account of how he was addicted to books written a couple of days prior to his death–I’ve always loved the pleasures of learning and reading.

It was during that time that, while visiting a bookstore that I loved in Condado, I noticed that they were frequently playing the Alegría CD by Cirque du Soleil. I was particularly haunted by the hysterical, operatic song Mirko, which I’ve always supposed was used during the most dangerous gymnastic performances in order to keep the audiences emotionally rapt. I asked the book store clerk what was that strange music that they were playing, and immediately bought the CD. The sound was matched by the sickest clowns I had ever seen, which were depicted on the cover. Cirque du Soleil may have set the standard in many ways for circus music, art, and performance, but–at least as far as their musical output–I have not yet heard a collection more magical or more beautiful than Alegría.

After a few months of non-stop exposure to this music, many of my friends–some of whom were art majors and went on to teach art, even art therapy–adopted and learned to love the music as much as I did. For years, we have built memories with it.

In the past, I’ve written about the song Vai Vedrai in relation to the death of Robin Williams. Another waltz in this collection of songs was Valsapena, which was sung in both French and Spanish and contains within it a beautiful fairy tale.

The CD included a tango in Spanish sung by a lady whose native language was obviously not Spanish, but this didn’t matter because she had an enchanting mermaid-like voice and I couldn’t stop listening. Her name was Francesca Gagnon, and she’s likely the reason why there will never be another musical experience like Alegría–which means “joy” in Spanish.

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