A Cry for Help — July 12, 2017

A Cry for Help

I was a Christian school prodigy

My parents had high hopes for me

But they all didn’t see

The little bit of sadness in me

Except less like a little and more like a lot

And less like sadness and more like madness

And less like madness and more like hyper saneness

I drink friendship to numb the pain

Alcohol gives my life meaning

I can beat Sartre at his own game

And I’m more post-post-modern than Foster Wallace

I can outwit you in the language games

And I do more art therapy than Wittgenstein

I happily caress the head of the snake while it devours me

And I really don’t want to drink any more tea

And I really don’t want to cry any more tears

And I really don’t want to feel any more fears

I wish Satan would get the fuck out my face

I really want the pain to let me be

I can’t figure out why spacetime is infinite

I can’t figure out why people say that God is love when God is fear

Why doesn’t Nick Bostrom have the answers yet?

Why am I still ordering from a human at McDonald’s?

Donnie Darko’s not crazy

But odds are you are

Foucault said definitions of madness are a primary tool of social control

But he was controlled by his own narcissism

A beautiful mind is a tragic affair

When no one can love you and no one can care

I’m sick of wanting to die but lacking the courage

I’m sick of wanting to live because life has too much purpose

I could take some pills but I’ll regret that tomorrow

I could stay sober today but I’ll regret that tomorrow

This is a cry for help

From everyone with a broken heart

This is a cry for help from Hannah Baker

In a world of assholes

This is a cry for help but it will go unheard

This is a cry for help but I pray to God you don’t hear it

This is the truth but it’s ugly

And I hope it comes and shatters your décor

 

 

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Overcoming Egocentrism: The Cognitive Bias at the Heart of Unethical Behavior — September 11, 2016

Overcoming Egocentrism: The Cognitive Bias at the Heart of Unethical Behavior

“Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.”

In this one honest expression of introspection, DFW strikes at the heart of the interaction between perception and ethics. Simply put, we have special access to our own suffering and happiness. This means, by default, we are much more concerned with our own suffering. Unfortunately, placing a greater emphasis on one’s own suffering is a cognitive bias. It is an error in reasoning.

If I have the same capacity to suffer as George, then his suffering is just as important as mine, regardless of how I feel about the matter. Unfortunately, this ethical principle is hidden to us as a result of how we perceive the world. I cannot feel the pain George feels when he is stabbed in the leg. As a result, he is much more concerned with making the pain stop than I am.

This error in reasoning has had, and will continue to have, a disastrous impact on conscious experience. While humans are incredibly motivated to maximize their own happiness and minimize their own suffering, they are insufficiently motivated to do the same for other beings capable of suffering.

Thus, when we inappropriately spend our time, effort, energy, and resources by failing to minimize the net suffering of sentient beings, and thus act unethically, we do so because of an error in reasoning. My perception tells me that my pain is more important than yours, and I act accordingly. However, failing to overcome this cognitive bias results in unnecessary suffering. If this increase in suffering fails to impact me directly, I may find it trivial. However, from an objective perspective, it is anything but. Therefore, in order to act ethically, we must overcome our default setting of being more concerned with our own suffering than that of other sentient beings.

Why is Suffering Bad? —

Why is Suffering Bad?

Nearly anyone who has had an experience wherein they endured a significant amount of suffering would describe this experience, at a minimum, as subjectively “bad” or undesirable, at least during the period of time when the suffering was taking place. Some take this observation, that people, and more broadly sentient beings, seem to dislike painful experiences, and fashion it into an ethical belief system where the primary goal is to reduce suffering. The ethical belief system I am referring to is, of course, utilitarianism.

So, is the move from “I do not like this painful experience” to “This painful experience is bad, in some meaningful, objective sense” a valid one?

At first glance, it might appear that it is not. It would seem that many counterexamples refute the above argument, which I will refer to as the argument for the “badness” of suffering. The argument for the “badness” of suffering is in the form: “I do not like S, therefore S is bad.” In more general terms, it can be constructed as follows: “Sentient beings do not like S, therefore S is bad.”

So what about something like exercise or eating vegetables? I do not like either of these things, but it doesn’t seem to follow that exercise and vegetables are “bad” and that I should donate to non-profit organizations committed to reducing the amount of exercise and vegetable consumption in the world. In fact, the general sentiment is that exercise and vegetable consumption are actually “good” things.

So what’s going on here? Why do we feel that, intuitively, pain is bad because we do not like it, but the same reasoning does not extend to exercise and vegetable consumption? And if the same reasoning does not extend to these things, should we abandon the belief that suffering is “bad” since the only reason we have for believing this is that we dislike it?

There are several reasonable responses which indicate that we should not abandon the belief that suffering is “bad,” even if the only reason we have for believing so is that we dislike it. One explanation is that, while almost, if not everyone, dislikes significant amounts of pain, some people actually seem to enjoy exercise and vegetable consumption. In other words, my dislike of these two things is not a universal sentiment in the same way that the dislike of severe pain is. Maybe I cannot say that “I do not like S, therefore S is bad,” but it is logical to say that “If all sentient beings do not like S, then S is bad.” If a utilitarian wishes to take this route, she must re-word the argument for the “badness” of suffering as follows:

  1. If all sentient beings dislike something, then it is bad.
  2. All sentient beings dislike experiencing high levels of suffering.
  3. Therefore, experiencing high levels of suffering is bad.

Another explanation, which is very much connected to the first, is that when people self-report “enjoying” exercise or vegetable consumption, it is likely that they are including the post-activity effects in their calculation. In other words, the value of exercise could be modeled as follows:

Value of Exercise = Pain Endured While Exercising (Negative Value) + Pleasure Resulting from Post-Workout Endorphins (Positive Value) + Pleasure Resulting from Better Self Image (Positive Value) + Pleasure Resulting from a Higher Level of Self-Confidence (Positive Value) + Pleasure Resulting from Involvement in a Workout Community (Positive Value).

A similar calculation could be done for vegetable consumption, where eating the vegetables, as opposed to a delicious steak, can be considered a negative, but it can be outweighed by all the positive health and ethical benefits. However, this does not mean that the act of exercising, in and of itself, and the act of eating vegetables, in and of itself, is “good.” It simply means that in the long-run engaging in these activities is likely to be a net-positive for the individual who is exercising or consuming vegetables. However, if I could imagine a world in which I received all the benefits of exercising but did not have to exercise, it seems that I would never feel inclined to exercise. Moreover, it seems that I would be justified in claiming that exercise is “bad” since it would no longer be a net-positive for me.

If people kept this in mind, and limited their evaluation of exercise and vegetable consumption to only the activity itself, it seems that they would consider these activities “bad” in the same way that most people consider extreme suffering “bad.” Thus, neither exercise nor vegetable consumption counts as a legitimate counter-example to the argument that if sentient beings dislike something, then it is “bad.” This is because, if an individual were to not take into account the post-activity positive benefits of exercise in her calculation, then she would say that exercise is bad because it brings pain and nothing else. The argument would be: “I do not like exercising because it is painful and nothing else, and therefore exercising is bad.” This seems valid in the same way that “I do not like extreme suffering because it is painful and nothing else, and therefore extreme suffering is bad” is valid. Conversely, if she were to take into account the post-activity positive benefits of exercise in her calculation, she would say that exercise is good because it results in a greater amount of pleasure than pain, even though the exercise itself was painful. However, in this case, she is not saying that the “full” experience of exercise is both good and unenjoyable, which is what she must be saying in order for exercise to count as a counter-example. Rather, she is saying that the “full” experience of exercise is good only so long as it is enjoyable or beneficial to her. In other words, if the “full” experience of exercise ceased to be overall enjoyable or beneficial, in the long run, it seems she would be justified in dismissing exercise as “bad” and ceasing to partake in this activity.

Therefore, it would seem that there are no obvious, intuitive counter-examples to the claim that “If all sentient beings dislike S, then S is bad.” But even if there are no obvious instances of something that is both disliked by all sentient beings and “good,” does it follow that extreme suffering is always bad? To recap, our argument is as follows:

  1. If all sentient beings dislike something, then it is bad.
  2. All sentient beings dislike experiencing high levels of suffering.
  3. Therefore, experiencing high levels of suffering is bad.

If it is the case that there is no thing that is both disliked by all sentient beings and “good” then Premise 1 seems true. But what about a less obvious counter-example like being selfless or sacrificing for the greater good. This appears to be a better counter-example than exercising. If we use the same form as the argument for the “badness” of suffering we get the following:

  1. If all sentient beings dislike something, then it is bad.
  2. All sentient beings dislike sacrificing for the greater good.

3.  Therefore, sacrificing for the greater good is bad.

Here, using the same logic as we used in the argument for the badness of suffering, we appear to get an absurd conclusion: it is bad to sacrifice for the greater good. In a qualified sense, though, sacrificing for the greater good is bad. It is bad in the sense that it is sub-optimal. The optimal state of affairs is for the greater good to be achieved without you having to sacrifice. With this in mind, we can improve the argument for the badness of suffering. The improved version is as follows:

  1. If all sentient beings dislike something, then it is sub-optimal.
  2. All sentient beings dislike experiencing high levels of suffering.
  3. Therefore, experiencing high levels of suffering is sub-optimal.

Since there does not appear to be any legitimate counter-example to Premise 1, it is true. Premise 2 seems intuitively true. There are people who hurt themselves and people who ramble on about the goodness of trials and tribulations. Still, it would seem that those who hurt themselves are doing so either to avoid some greater pain or because they find pleasure in the activity, and those who romanticize suffering do so because they are currently experiencing some amount of pleasure which they believe to be sufficient compensation for the suffering. Moreover, if the suffering threshold is raised high enough, such as to the level of starvation or torture, it is unlikely that anyone will honestly claim to like this experience. The Conclusion follows by way of a Modus Ponens and therefore the argument for the badness of suffering is valid. We are justified in saying that experiencing high levels of suffering is sub-optimal.

Dank AF Philosphy Articles for Human Clusters of Subatomic Particles: Nick Bostrom’s “Infinite Ethics” — September 19, 2017

Dank AF Philosphy Articles for Human Clusters of Subatomic Particles: Nick Bostrom’s “Infinite Ethics”

Most people think their lives matter because they can make the world at least a little bit better. Like if I help the old lady cross the street, that’s a good thing. And if I wasn’t around, then nobody would have helped her, which would be tragic. Moral of the story: I’m a nice guy and my life has meaning so fuck nihilists and The Big Lebowski sucks.

‘Chill it with the delusions of grandeur’, says Nick Bostrom. Clearly, you aren’t up-to-date with science. If you were, you’d know there’s some crazy multiverse shit being taken seriously rn. Ideas like Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (which Bostrom doesn’t think implies ‘the relevant kind of infinity’) and the eternal inflationary model of the universe have led cosmologists and others to believe that there could be an infinite number of happy and sad people out there in the multiverse.

As you can probably tell, this could be a serious problem for ethicists, especially consequentialists. If there’s an infinite amount of suffering and an infinite amount of pleasure, it would seem that I can’t increase the value of the universe. So should we give up and mope around or create another Holocaust because none of it matters? Bostrom’s best guess: probz not.

His argument is long and involves a good deal of high-level math, but the basic idea: if aggregative consequentialism implies that it’s always morally indifferent what we do, then aggregative consequentialism sucks and we have to let go of it because that’s too big of a bullet for anyone to bite.  So a consequentialist can do some fancy footwork to save aggregative consequentialism from what he calls the ‘infinitarian paralysis’ (so she can continue to be a run-of-the-mill utilitarian) or she can cry uncle and become a deontologist (or some mixture of both or neither).

One idea for saving aggregative consequentialism is Bostrom’s ‘causal approach’, which advocates maximizing ‘the expected goodness of the causal consequences of our acts’ instead of trying to increase the value of the entire cosmos. Alternatively, we could just work under the assumption that the world is finite (in which case my actions would have a non-negligible impact on the value of the cosmos) since even current cosmological evidence suggests this has a non-zero chance of being the case. Or, we could think of YOU as the aggregate of all your infinite copies out there in the multiverse. Or, we could do some sort of ‘combination therapy’.

However, even if we can save ethics, the multiverse hypothesis creates some serious existential issues, especially for the ethically inclined. Coping with insignificance is difficult, but coping with non-importance is a whole new ballgame.

‘When we gaze at the starry sky at night and try to think of humanity from a “cosmic point of view”, we feel small. Human history, with all its earnest strivings, triumphs, and tragedies can remind us of a colony of ants, laboring frantically to rearrange the needles

of their little ephemeral stack.’

existentialistinthesheets

On How an Artwork Can Be Valuable — August 5, 2017
Should We Set Aside Classical Music and Contemplate a Series of Sophisticated Mathematical Equations? An Examination of the Value of Music Qua Music — July 2, 2017
All You Need is Love? —

All You Need is Love?

In the ancient tradition, love rivals rage and the lust for honor as the most extensively discussed and powerful of the human emotions. Love’s central position in ancient literature can largely be explained by rational choice theory, a social science principle particularly influential in economics which holds that “individuals make prudent and logical decisions that provide them with the greatest benefit or satisfaction and that are in their highest self-interest” (Investopedia). Love, at first appearance, provides great benefit in the form of emotional and sexual satisfaction. Consequently, it plays a large role in human activity, which is reflected in ancient literature. Virgil, in The Aeneid, explores the irony of the pursuit of love for the purpose of self-interest and personal benefit. Through the tragic love affair between Aeneas and the Carthaginian queen Dido, Virgil describes love as a poison, capable of being toxic not only to emotional self-interest, but also to virtuous character and the fulfillment of divine decree.

Virgil subtly presents the idea that humans are maximizers, beings who tend to abide by rational choice theory and pursue that which provides them with the greatest benefit. Humans tend to pursue a course of action that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Rather than presenting this theme in a well-developed manner, Virgil hints at it almost accidentally. If true, this lends credence to rational choice theory, as Virgil incorporated it simply in the act of creating a believable world. There are several instances where characters in The Aeneid seem to act in a way that confirms the hypothesis of rational choice theory. In his prayer to Apollo, Aeneas pleas:

“Grant us weary men some walls of our own, some sons,

a city that will last…” (3:103-104).

Here, Aeneas presents his desire to escape the weariness and painfulness of travel, uncertainty, and hardships. This sentiment, which is no doubt shared by his men, reflects a desire to minimize the pain associated with their current adventures. Despite this natural human desire for pleasure maximization, Aeneas proves he is willing to experience pain for a more noble pursuit, the founding of Lavinium. This heroic trait is what differentiates Aeneas from the rest. Still, he does express a desire for this heroic quest to be filled with as little pain as possible. Juno is another example of a pleasure maximizer, although she is not a human character. She attempts to inflict pain on the Trojans to prevent the downfall of her beloved Carthage, an event which would certainly cause her pain, and to experience the pleasure that results from seeking vengeance on the Trojans after Paris gave the golden apple to Venus. The most extensive and tragic discussion of human rational choice, however, is found in the context of love. Dido and Aeneas, in their love for each other, find the promise of emotional and sexual satisfaction and, despite the possible consequences, choose to indulge their desires.

Virgil portrays the love between Dido and Aeneas as the result of rational choice, yet explores the irony of this situation due to the tragic, painful circumstances that result. Even after Cupid poisons Dido by breathing his “secret fire into her,” she appears to be in need of persuasion that engaging in the love affair with Aeneas is her best option (1:820). This is what Anna provides in the beginning of Book 4. Anna appeals to Dido’s self-interest, arguing that indulging her desires will bring about joy through children, unnamed gifts presumably in the form of emotional satisfaction, and greater glory to Carthage (4:41-63). This self-interest argument, combined with Cupid’s secret fire, convinces Dido to pursue an intimate relationship with Aeneas. Virgil does not detail Aeneas’s reasons for engaging in the relationship, though his motivates can reasonably be assumed to involve a desire to pursue the pleasantness that accompanies a relationship based on love. Therefore, both Aeneas and Dido appear to engage in the love affair for the reason of self-interest and pleasure. The issue with love, however, is that it will inevitably come to an end as a result of death or extenuating circumstances. For Aeneas and Dido, the extenuating circumstance is that Aeneas must leave for Latium to fulfill his duty. In this interrupted love story, Virgil describes the tyranny and tragedy of love. It convinces its tormentors that failing to engage in love is a mistake, a miscalculation of self-interest. Dido is said to experience this torment in what Virgil describes as “the pain of love” (4:1). As long as she fails to engage in love, it provides her with “no peace, no rest for her body” (4:7). Once she does engage in the intimate relationship with Aeneas, however, there are serious ramifications for her emotional well-being. After discovering Aeneas’s plans to leave Carthage, she is crushed. As a result of love, she is “driven by madness, beaten down by anguish” (4:594). This anguish ultimately leads to Dido’s suicide. Thus, the “pain of love” can cause harm to an individual whether they engage in love or not. Loneliness and a desire for the promises of love can haunt an individual if they do not engage in love. However, if they do engage in it, tragic heartbreak can result. Therefore, love preys on its victims regardless of their response to it. Virgil seems to be providing evidence which would support the conclusion that desire, specifically in the form of love, is potentially incompatible with emotional well-being.

In addition to being ironically harmful to emotional self-interest, love is potentially dangerous in its ability to discourage virtuous behavior. Love, the tyrant, proves detrimental to Dido in another important way. Before making the choice to engage in the love affair, Dido boldly proclaims:

“I pray that the earth gape down enough to take me down

Or the almighty Father blast me with one bolt to the shades…

Before I dishonor you, my conscience, break your laws” (4:31-34).

Despite this proclamation, however, Dido does engage in an intimate relationship with a man other than her deceased husband. As a result, she breaks the laws of her conscience and brings dishonor upon herself. She attempts to hide her shame but, eventually, proves unsuccessful. Moreover, she neglects her kingdom. Engaging in unvirtuous behavior as the result of love is not an activity exclusive to Dido, however. Aeneas, the symbol of Roman virtue, participates in unvirtuous, or potentially unvirtuous, activity due to the influence of love. Firstly, Aeneas’s actions contribute to Dido’s suffering and her unjust fate. In addition, Aeneas claims that if he was not being controlled by the will of the gods, he would stay with Dido. This would necessarily mean he would not be fulfilling his duty by founding Lavinium. Assuming virtue is found in fulfilling one’s duty, this would mean that love is discouraging Aeneas to engage in virtuous behavior. It is possible that he makes this assertion for the sole purpose of bringing solace to Dido and would not actually prioritize this course of action that would undermine his duty and the will of the Fates. Regardless, it would appear that Aeneas chooses to engage in a love affair for the purpose of self-interest with the knowledge that it could cause serious damage to Dido upon his departure. This makes Aeneas’s actions, spurred on by love, short-sighted at best and unjust at worst.

Love is undoubtedly a powerful emotion. Not only that, it is incredibly alluring with confident promises of pleasure and personal satisfaction. Considering the human tendency to act in accordance with rational choice theory, it is unsurprising that characters such as Dido and Aeneas struggle to avoid the tyranny of love. Despite the pleasant promises, however, Virgil reflects on the darker side of love. Specifically, he argues that it can prove detrimental to a person’s subjective state of well-being and can lead to unvirtuous behavior with negative consequences for an individual as well as her kingdom. Lastly, love can distract an individual from fulfilling the decrees of Fate and the gods as it almost does with Aeneas.  

Works Cited

“Rational Choice Theory Definition.” Investopedia. Investopedia, LLC. 14 Feb. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

On the Relative Meaninglessness of a Finite Human Existence in this World —
Inside the Mind of an Addict: Exploring Self-Destructive Behavior through Horror —

Inside the Mind of an Addict: Exploring Self-Destructive Behavior through Horror

The United States of America has a complicated relationship with addictive substances. Alcohol and drug use have been condemned, as they were during the Prohibition era, as well as glorified, as evidenced in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Regardless of the majority view, however, addictive substances have enjoyed a prevalent role in America’s popular culture for quite some time. Music, television shows, movies, and even phrases have become saturated with content related to alcohol and drug use. Particularly relevant during the time when Martin was writing “Sandkings” was the discovery in the early 1970s that “around 20 percent of the [Vietnam War] soldiers self-identified as [heroin] addicts” (Spiegel). This American cultural fascination with addictive substances and their impact on the human psyche can inform a reading of George R. R. Martin’s “Sandkings.” In this work, Martin utilizes many of the conventions of horror fiction, namely a disruptive manifestation of evil, illogical actions, and a lack of closure, in order to construct a comparison between the appalling actions of Simon Kress and the stereotypical downfall of an individual plagued by addiction.

Beiderwell and Wheeler note that one of the main conventions of horror fiction is the existence of “vampires, zombies, aliens, demons, ghosts, serial killers, or some other monstrous incarnations of evil” which “disrupt the tranquility of the real world” (66). In this regard, “Sandkings” disrupts a convention for the purpose of greater insight. While the sandkings could be considered the incarnation of evil in the story, Simon Kress better fulfills this role. This is due to the fact that the evil behavior of the sandkings is a result of their evil treatment by Kress. Since the behavior of the sandkings is largely determined by their owner, the true origin and incarnation of evil in the story is Simon Kress, not the sandkings. This is a significant disruption. Vampires, zombies, and demons all represent an external evil that functions to harm another. In contrast, Simon wreaks havoc on his own life; he is his own evil. This is the first insight which lends credence to the view that Martin characterizes Kress in a way that is analogous to an addict. Addicts are notorious for wreaking havoc on their own lives.

Beiderwell and Wheeler argue that “Whereas conventions reassure, disruptions challenge and upset” (47). Kress’s identity as the manifestation of evil is a challenging disruption of the horror genre. By causing the audience to evaluate whether or not the evil in their lives is in fact internal, Martin is encouraging his audience to reconsider their status as innocent beings with little agency in their own futures. He forces his audience to be uncomfortably self-reflective. While Kress is, in one sense, unrealistic and foreign due to his one-dimensional moral depravity, he is also a familiar character in that he embodies several normal human characteristics. He has a pronounced dislike for the mundane, he enjoys novelty, he wants to be entertained, he wants power, he does not listen to people that are well-informed, and he hurts other people because of his selfishness. Martin is advocating the view that un-tempered by traditional virtues, this combination of human characteristics can have seriously negative consequences. Specifically, assuming Kress is an allegorical representation of destructive addictive behavior, Martin is asserting that great evil can come from addiction-plagued humans.

If Kress’s ability to destroy his own life was the only piece of evidence to support the conclusion that his debauchery is an analogy for addiction, the hypothesis would remain questionable at best. However, this is not the case. First of all, Kress is characterized as a wealthy businessman who is as repulsed by mundanity as he is obsessed with novelty. When Kress is searching for a new pet, the narrator notes that “… Strange Waters offered nothing more exotic than piranha, glowsharks, and spider-squids. Kress had all those; he wanted something new” (Martin 89). This desire to escape a boring, painful existence and pursue novel pleasures is indicative of a drug or alcohol addict. In addition, the way Kress’s pets are described makes them sound like drugs. He is unsatisfied by the pets he currently has, and is searching for more exotic and dangerous ones that will satisfy his ever-increasing pleasure appetite. In this sense, Wo functions as a drug dealer. She introduces and provides Kress with a new product which she convinces him will be satisfying. During the sales pitch, Kress complains that the sandkings are nothing more than “an oversized ant farm” to which she responds “They fight wars” (Martin 91). Taken analogously, this represents the addict’s desire for a novel drug with additional benefits that are distinct from the benefits of other drugs. Moreover, Wo gives Kress advice on how to use the sandkings so as to ensure his safety. In a sense, she is warning him not to abuse the drug she is providing. Kress ignores her warnings and abuses the sandkings anyway. His starvation tactics and forced wars with increasingly large animals represent an increase in the dosage of the dangerous drug.  As a result of the drug abuse, his personality begins to be twisted. By gazing at his addictions, he finds that his face has become “all wrong, all twisted. His cheeks were bloated and piggish, his smile was a crooked leer. He looked impossibly malevolent” (Martin 101).

Eventually, as is symbolized by the shattering of the sandkings encasement, Kress is unable to maintain control over his addictions and they grow with a startling rapidity, taking control of his peace, sense of control, house, and acquaintances. At this point, Kress realizes the extent of the problem. He buys skinthins, poison pellets, and illegally strong pesticide. This could represent any number of methods addicts use to rid themselves of an addiction or addictions. This could mean attending AA meetings, disposing of the drugs, checking into rehab, or cutting ties with the drug community. However, this endeavor proves ultimately unsuccessful as the sandkings eat the poison pellets and prove too numerous to be defeated by the pesticide. Kress even seeks the help of experts, though they are unable to rid him of his addiction. Eventually, the notion that Kress’s identity is independent from his addictions is brought into question. After feeding the sandkings human bodies, the narrator remarks, “As he fled, he was filled with a deep sense of contentment… He suspected it was not his own” (Martin 113).   Later, he feels full despite not eating all day. In the last line of the novelette it is revealed that the orange sandkings all have Kress’s face on them. This demonstrates that Kress and his addictions have become inseparable. Not only has he lost his independence, he has devolved into nothing more than an appetite. The last piece of evidence comparing Simon Kress to an addict is found in the desert scene. This scene resembles a detox period. In his journey through the desert, Kress feels weakness, desire for salvation, fear, thirst, and he hallucinates. He even blames his drug dealer, Wo and Shade, for all he is experiencing. In the end, though, Kress’s addictions prove stronger than he and it is implied that they destroy him.

With Simon Kress’s actions established as highly similar to those of an addict, it is important to explore how George R.R. Martin used conventions of horror fiction to highlight this comparison and create meaning in his work. The second main horror convention addressed in “Sandkings” is “purposeful illogic” (Beiderwell and Wheeler 67). This convention describes the frequent incidents in horror fiction where characters act in a frustratingly illogical manner. The main character who acts in such a way is Kress, whose blatant disobedience of Wo results in a dangerous mistreatment of the sandkings. For example, after learning that Kress has been starving his sandkings, Wo says: “There is no need to starve them. Let them war in their own time for their own reasons” (Martin 96). Kress goes on to ignore this advice, justifying himself by claiming to be their master and god. Kress’s illogical actions are compatible with an addiction reading of “Sandkings.” Despite the knowledge that abusing addictive substances is harmful, individuals tortured by addiction continue to do so. In the story of her own life, an addicted soul scripts herself to act in a purposefully illogical manner due to the tyranny of the addiction. This convention demonstrates that the slippery-slope, nightmarish quality of horror fiction is replicated in the life of an addict. However, there is one large difference. An addict’s life is real whereas a horror fiction plot is not. Martin seems to be advising against substance abuse if the nightmarish quality and lack of control that characterize a horror plot seem unappealing.

The final convention of horror that must be addressed is the lack of closure. Beiderwell and Wheeler refer to this as a “resistance to solutions” (67). At the end of the novelette, after a journey through the desert, Kress is caught by the orange sandkings despite his hope that he will be saved. Martin writes, “They caught him easily… He struggled, but it was useless. Small as they were, each of them had four arms and Kress had only two” (120). In typical horror fashion, “Sandkings” provides no closure or peaceful solution. After all, a main goal of the horror genre is to disrupt reality and an ending with solutions would detract from that purpose. If Kress’s life is taken to be an analogy for the life of an addict, Martin is suggesting a rather bleak idea. He is suggesting that a life of hedonism and addiction will inevitably result in destruction. An addict cannot escape from her addiction.

In “Sandkings,” George R.R. Martin uses and disrupts horror conventions in order to depict Simon Kress’s destructive journey as an artistic expression of addiction. Ultimately, Martin disrupts normalcy and forces the reader to engage in self-reflection. The reader is forced to question whether evil is internal or external, whether there is in fact an escape from addiction, and whether people are motivated exclusively by their appetites.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Beiderwell, Bruce, and Jeffrey Wheeler. The Literary Experience. Boston: Wadsworth, 2008. Print.

Martin, George R.R. “Sandkings.” The Literary Experience. Ed. Bruce Beiderwell and Jeffrey Wheeler. Boston: Wadsworth, 2008. 88-121. Print.

Spiegel, Alex. “What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits.” NPR. National Public Radio, 2 January 2012. Web. 31 January 2016.

 

Cosmic Indifference in Romeo and Juliet —

Cosmic Indifference in Romeo and Juliet

It has often been assumed that happiness is ‘the good’ and suffering its opposite. Hidden in this assumption is the belief that pain and suffering are loathsome, evil things. This is a belief that, coupled with the realities of the world, has troubled humans from the very beginning. The realization that the world is full of evil is a troubling one. It becomes truly terrifying for a given individual, though, when the suffering is seen as purposeless and the forces, whatever they may be, which determine ultimate reality are either indifferent toward, or else actively fighting against, said individual’s well-being and desires. This terrifying reality violently confronts the characters in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this tragedy, Shakespeare depicts a world in which the agencies of Fate and Fortune dwarf that of the protagonists. The result: a play whose tragic outcome is primarily caused by the forces beyond human control which appear to be indifferent to the suffering of Romeo and Juliet. Using his characters as case studies, Shakespeare explores different responses, and their respective merits, to the bleak reality of indifferent cosmic forces and, ultimately, hints at the possible benevolence of said cosmic force(s).

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare describes a world in which Fate and Fortune, rather than human agency, are ultimately responsible for the events that transpire during the play. To be sure, neither Romeo nor Juliet is depicted as completely virtuous or wholly innocent. This has led some critics to argue that Romeo and Juliet, being “in the throes of young love,” have “come to ruin because of their intemperance” (Kottman 1). This reading is not completely without merit, nor is it without textual support. Romeo is essentially characterized as an embodiment of the passion of young love. The first time the audience is introduced to Romeo, he is sulking over unrequited love. This passionate engagement with love, and the female characters who inspire the sentiment in him, is a constant for Romeo throughout the play, though his passion is redirected in the midst of the tragedy. This personality trait leads Cosmic Indifference in Romeo and Juliet

Romeo’s well-informed, close friend Mercutio to describe Romeo quite simply as “a lover” (1.4.17). His passion is evidenced more clearly, though more indirectly, in his bold, romantic claims such as: “I am no pilot; yet, wert thou as far / As that vast shore washed with the farthest sea, / I should adventure for such merchandise” (2.2.87-89). This passion is by no means one-sided, however. Juliet’s passion, if not equal to that of Romeo, certainly rivals it. One of the clearest indications of this is her description of Romeo as the god of her idolatry (2.2.120). Friar Lawrence, who is well acquainted with the young lovers, sees their passion and warns them that “These violent delights have violent ends…” (2.6.9). While not completely unsupported by the text, viewing the tragic outcome of this play as being primarily caused by the intemperate passion of two young lovers requires ignoring a good deal of textual evidence that points toward Fate and Fortune as the real culprits. Moreover, it absolves the cosmic forces of their responsibility and entails missing out on the real tragedy of the play: “The tragedy is that fate as cosmic and social circumstance works against them [Romeo and Juliet] and does not allow them to prosper” (Waters 11).

With this bold claim made, that Fate and Fortune are the primary agents responsible for the demise of Romeo and Juliet, it is now necessary to defend it. First off, ‘negative’ arguments can be made. This type of argument requires demonstrating that the hypothesis which claims Romeo and Juliet’s downfall is caused by their own intemperance is an insufficient explanation. For example, the question arises: Is Romeo responsible for his sensitivity and near, if not full-on, obsession with love? If not, it appears unreasonable to blame him for his own demise. In other words, if Romeo acts passionately as a result of Fate, rather than his own free will, the blame appears to rest squarely on Fate rather than on Romeo. It seems plausible that Fate, or even Fortune (chance), manipulates Romeo’s personality, from the outset of his existence, so as to bring about its own ends. However, this argument would essentially be a dismissal of human free will and a subsequent adoption of hard determinism. While hard determinism is a philosophical stance that is taken, it does not seem to be Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare certainly emphasizes the role of Fate as well as chance, but he does not do so to such an extent that he completely excludes human free will and moral responsibility. Consequently, this argument fails since the goal of this essay is to determine Shakespeare’s intent in the play.   

There remains another, more plausible, ‘negative’ argument. Juliet’s actions, including her passion, seem to be influenced by concrete external circumstance in the form of an oppressive social reality. As such, insofar as social circumstance can be considered the result of Fate, her passion toward Romeo is significantly formed by Fate. It would be unfair, based on the text, to claim that Juliet is not genuinely interested in Romeo. However, it cannot be ignored that her relationship with Romeo offers the promise of an additional benefit: partial freedom from Veronese patriarchy and an escape from the oppression and unhappiness she fears will accompany an unwanted arranged marriage. Despite Capulet’s claim, early on in the play, that he will not force Juliet to marry someone without her consent (1.2.16-17), he later acts in opposition to this promise by insisting that she marry Paris. With this in mind, it becomes difficult to blame Juliet for her passionate pursuit of Romeo. It would appear that external circumstance has offered her two undesirable fates: she can choose unhappiness and forfeit her autonomy in an arranged marriage or she can cling to the happiness she finds with Romeo, though this will eventually result in her suicide.

The last ‘negative’ argument which attempts to undermine the strength of the hypothesis that the unchecked passion of the young lovers is the true cause of their tragic end, and, thus, to indirectly argue for Fate and Fortune as the true cause of their demise, is a rather simple one. The argument is as follows: many individuals have been seduced by the promises of passion. Despite this, most young lovers do not end their lives in suicide. This is either because their passion is not as intense as that of Romeo and Juliet, or else because external circumstance has functioned in conjunction with their passion to bring about their demise. In the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, the latter situation appears to be an accurate description of Shakespeare’s plot.

While these ‘negative’ arguments certainly have weight, the more compelling arguments which support the view that Fate and Fortune are the true causes of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic end are ‘positive’ in nature. ‘Positive’ arguments, in this context, are those that point toward specific passages in the play which claim, either explicitly or implicitly, that Fate and Fortune (forces outside human control) are ultimately responsible for Romeo and Juliet’s ruin. Passages which point to this conclusion are numerous and are found consistently throughout the play. In the prologue, the Chorus claims that Romeo and Juliet are “A pair of star-crossed lovers” who will end up taking their own lives (1.Prologue.6). The Chorus presents the suicides of both Romeo and Juliet as inevitable and attributes their ruin to the workings of the stars, not their own free will or intemperance. This is also seen in Romeo’s fear that, “Some consequence yet hanging in the stars / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night’s revels…” (1.4.114-16). Again, it is the stars, which “symbolize fate as external circumstances both cosmic and social” that determine the course of events (Waters 7). Toward the end of the play, in Romeo’s final monologue, he declares that his suicide is an attempt to “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars” (5.3.111). The imagery of a yoke makes it seem as if Romeo is little more than a helpless creature forced to do the bidding of his master, in this case Fate. For Romeo to arrive at this conclusion seems fairly convenient, however. His actions have contributed to the suffering, and in some cases death, of himself, his lover, his lover’s cousin, his lover’s nurse, his lover’s parents, his own parents, his good friends, and the Prince of Verona. As such, it is psychologically soothing for Romeo to be able to blame this suffering on forces beyond his control. With such a vested interest in the answer, how can the reader trust Romeo to answer this question in an objective and trustworthy manner? The answer: she cannot. Still, it would appear that Shakespeare has provided the reader with enough evidence, independent of Romeo’s testimony, which points to the conclusion that the combined agency of Fate and Fortune is much greater than that of impotent humans. First off, the impartial chorus claims that Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed and death-marked. This is a more objective, and seemingly more trustworthy, testimony. Moreover, even when the characters act in accordance with their good intentions, such as when Friar Lawrence weds the young lovers in an attempt to reconcile the Montagues and Capulets and when Romeo attempts to break up the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt, their good intentions result in tragic outcomes. In two lines, Friar Lawrence sums up the play as well as the respective agencies of cosmic forces and humans quite nicely: “A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents” (5.3.158-59).

Fate is not the only cosmic force working to bring about the tragic end of Romeo and Juliet. Chance, often described as Fortune or the doings of the goddess Fortuna, also plays an integral role in their demise. Ruth Nevo, for example, argues that “The plot of Romeo and Juliet stresses the accidental” (1). She goes on to substantiate this claim with evidence from the play. She cites, “The fortuitous meeting of Romeo and Benvolio with Capulet’s illiterate messenger bearing the invitations he cannot decipher, the chance encounter between Romeo and Tybalt at a most unpropitious moment,” and “the outbreak of the plague which quarantines Friar John” as prime examples of this (Nevo 1). It must be noted that Chance, if it can be personified, is not concerned with the well-being of the play’s characters despite initially appearing to be. The chance encounter between Romeo/Benvolio and Capulet’s illiterate messenger results in Romeo attending the Capulet party which results in him falling in love with Juliet and being lifted of the melancholy that resulted from Rosaline’s unrequited love. Ultimately, though, the combination of chance instances contributes to the demise of Romeo and Juliet and the suffering of those they come in contact with.

With these two realities established: that cosmic forces outside of human control are primarily responsible for the play’s ending and these forces appear, at best, to be indifferent to human suffering, Romeo and Juliet can be seen as a tragedy that explores how to respond to such an unfortunate state of affairs. Shakespeare primarily explores this issue through the characters of Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse, and Friar Lawrence. A few solutions are offered. In general terms, there are two types of solutions: passive and aggressive. There are really only two passive solutions to a tragic, unavoidable fate: stoic acceptance/resignation and lament. None of the characters seem to take the first option, though Romeo and Juliet are certainly fond of the second, at least initially. For example, Juliet invites Friar Lawrence to “Come weep with me, past hope, past care, past help” (4.1.46). As a result of their laments and tears, both are accused of being over-indulgent in their self-pity and of weeping excessively. When it comes to aggressive solutions, there are more options. The most common aggressive solutions in Romeo and Juliet are praying to the cosmic forces, scheming in attempt to thwart Fate, drinking alcohol, cursing the stars, and rebelling against Fate in the act of suicide. However, none of these solutions, save for suicide, allow the sufferer to escape their suffering during the tragedy. The cosmic forces do not answer Romeo when he asks for “he that hath the steerage” of his course to direct his sail (1.4.119-20). The schemes of Friar Lawrence, who desires to bring about the happy marriage of Romeo and Juliet, are frustrated by Fate and Fortune, and Romeo and Juliet end up dead. The Nurse drinks aqua vitae (4.5.19) and Romeo denies the stars (5.1.25). In the end, though, all of these attempts to avoid the tragic ruin brought about by cosmic forces indifferent to human suffering are unsuccessful. These are all attempts to win a losing match, a thing that cannot be done. The only solution that truly remedies the suffering is suicide. Ironically, “the ‘inauspicious stars’… use their deaths for its own ends” (Waters 7). Even the act of rebelling against Fate is used by Fate for its own ends.

At the end of the tragedy, Shakespeare casts doubt on the prevailing assumption that Fate and Fortune are indifferent to the suffering of humans. He does this by ending the tragedy with the reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets. This ending was foretold in the Prologue where the Chorus declares that Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers, “bury their parents strife” with their death (1.Prologue.8). Still, the ending is intentionally unsatisfactory for the reader as well as for the remaining emotionally invested characters. As Kottman puts it, “The objective outcome—civic peace—stands removed from the heart of our real dramatic investment. We did not really care whether Capulet and Montague could be reconciled to one another; indeed, for Capulet and Montague the ‘glooming peace this morning with it brings’ is not worth the price” (2). It may be that in the long run, the civic peace will result in the greatest possible happiness for the city. It may be that the cosmic forces truly are concerned with the well-being of humanity. However, save for a brief glimmer of hope at the end of Romeo and Juliet, this is not the case. For the most part the Montagues and Capulets depicted in the tragedy are forced to endure unredeemed suffering.

In Romeo and Juliet, Fate and Fortune have the ultimate say in the outcome of events. In contrast, humans are essentially impotent. This distribution of agency is not necessarily unfortunate for humans. However, Shakespeare describes a world in which the powerful cosmic forces appear indifferent to the suffering of Romeo and Juliet. This leaves the characters in an incredibly tragic situation, a situation in which there is no higher power acting to remedy their suffering and promote their flourishing. Shakespeare explores possible responses to this bleak reality. In the end, suicide is the chosen path for both Romeo and Juliet. While suicide ends the suffering, not even this act of existential rebellion proves successful in thwarting the tragic outcomes determined by Fate and Fortune. As the tragedy comes to a close, Shakespeare ends on an ambiguous note. Civic peace is attained, though the costs are quite high. Are the costs so high that the cosmic forces cannot reasonably be seen as benevolent? Shakespeare does not provide a conclusive answer to this tough question, though the structure of the tragedy hints at cosmic indifference if not malice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Kottman, Paul A. “Defying the Stars: Tragic Love as the Struggle for Freedom in Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 63.1 (Spring 2012) 1-38.

Nevo, Ruth. “Tragic Form in Romeo and Juliet.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 9.2 (Spring 1969): 241-258. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 87. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011. Print.

Waters, D. Douglas. “Fate and Fortune in Romeo and Juliet.” Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 74-90. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michael L. LaBlanc. Vol. 76. Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Unconventional Plots and the Moral Responsibility Justification for Truth Pursuit —

Unconventional Plots and the Moral Responsibility Justification for Truth Pursuit

Plot is created to resemble the human experience. Humans commonly face difficulties which, after some period of time, come to a decisive moment and are eventually resolved. As a result, many stories in literature and film are modeled after this basic, widespread experience. These stories typically imply that humans are strong creatures capable of overcoming challenges and finding satisfaction in the resolution of said challenges. Intentional deviations in plot structure, however, can be especially effective in communicating unconventional messages. Both Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Christopher Nolan’s Memento take advantage of this. Both works use plot structures that allow the audience to feel a strong connection with the protagonist and both make the discovery of the protagonist’s story a central function of the plot. Still, these two works differ in their primary goal for the audience. While Memento wants the audience to seek to understand the story, Oedipus Rex prefers that the audience analyze Oedipus’ self-inflicted downfall and place a value judgment on his pursuit of truth. Ultimately though, both works ask the same question, “Is the truth worth discovering?”

In Oedipus Rex, the plot is structured in such a way that the information the audience receives regarding the story of Oedipus’ early years is from the point of view of Oedipus. In this way, when Oedipus learns new information about his past that sheds light on his present, the audience does as well. This helps the audience better connect with Oedipus and discover along with him. However, the relationship between plot and significance in this work is more complex. In both a modern context and in the time of Sophocles, the story of Oedipus was fairly well known. While Sophocles did make some alterations to the Homeric narrative, the essential components of the story including Oedipus’ murder of his father and marriage to his mother remain intact (Encyclopædia Britannica). Thus, the audience of Oedipus Rex is able to evaluate Oedipus’ actions with this information in mind. In essence, due to the plot structure combined with the audience’s background knowledge of the story, Sophocles is able to forcefully ask the question: “Is the truth worth discovering and is Oedipus’ relentless pursuit of the truth beneficial?” Moreover, since Sophocles forges a connection between Oedipus and the reader, Sophocles is forcing the reader to answer this question not in an abstract sense, but in a personal one. The question for the reader becomes, “Is my pursuit of truth a reasonable one, and should I persist in it?” Sophocles does not leave this question completely open-ended, however.

The storyline of Oedipus Rex attempts to assess the value of truth pursuit, albeit in a somewhat conflicted manner. In the beginning of the play, Oedipus’ pursuit of the truth appears virtuous and justified. When the Priest of Zeus implores Oedipus to deliver Thebes from the plague that is causing the suffering of its inhabitants, it is revealed that Oedipus has already sent Creon to seek out an “answer of the God” (Sophocles 264). This proactive decision made by Oedipus demonstrates that he has a deep concern for his people. Oedipus laments, “…but my heart at once / Groans for the city, and for myself, and you” (Sophocles 263). More than that though, Oedipus has a deep concern for the truth and is willing to pursue it with all his energy and resources because he believes it will contribute to the happiness of his kingdom. Oedipus even has compelling evidence from his own experience to demonstrate this connection between truth and happiness. Oedipus’ love for the truth is what enabled him to solve the riddle of the Sphinx and rid Thebes of its previous source of suffering. For this reason, Oedipus proclaims that in his pursuit of truth he will “have it all to light again” (Sophocles 266). Oedipus uses the image of light to imply that truth is the opposite of darkness. Thus, the light of truth is beautiful and good.

As the play progresses, however, the goodness of truth is called into question. The blind prophet Tiresias gives the first indication that Oedipus’ truth pursuit may not be the best course of action. Oedipus rebukes Tiresias for refusing to reveal the truth. He accuses Tiresias of betraying Thebes and contributing to its destruction. Tiresias defends himself saying, “I will not bring remorse upon myself / And upon you. Why do you search these matters? / Vain, vain! I will not tell you” (Sophocles 272). In sharp contrast to Oedipus, Tiresias depicts Oedipus’ pursuit of truth as a vain endeavor that will only result in remorse. Interestingly enough, Tiresias does goes on to describe himself as free because he has in himself “the strength of truth” (Sophocles 272). Due to these seemingly inconsistent comments, it is unclear how much value Tiresias places on the truth. Nonetheless, Tiresias is not the only character to question the value of Oedipus’ pursuit. When Oedipus insists that he must discover the truth despite the increasing amount of evidence which indicates that he has murdered his own father, Jacosta exclaims, “For Heaven’s sake, if you care for your own life, / Don’t seek it! I am sick, and that’s enough!” (Sophocles 293). Despite these warnings, Oedipus persists in his investigation until the horrible truth is discovered: he has indeed murdered his father and married his mother. Unsurprisingly, this leads to an incredible amount of pain for both Oedipus and Jacosta. Jacosta’s suicide as well as Oedipus’ self-inflicted blindness and banishment all result from Oedipus’ relentless pursuit of truth. If the truth is this unpleasant and there are such negative consequences when it is investigated, is the truth really worth discovering? If the truth is that no mortal is happy until “He pass Life’s goal,” would it not be preferable to avoid discovering this truth and instead pretend that happiness can be found in this life (Sophocles 307)? Sophocles’ answer to these questions is not entirely clear. Still, it would seem that Sophocles’ narrative argues that the truth is in fact worth pursuing. According to Creon, the message from the God states that if Laius’ murderer is discovered and punished, Thebes will be redeemed and the plague will disappear. Thus, while Oedipus’ pursuit of the truth leads to the suffering of a few people, it also creates happiness for the many. Therefore, at least from a utilitarian perspective, Oedipus’ investigation is a moral one and can be justified as such.           

As with Oedipus Rex, the plot of Memento is principally concerned with discovering the truth about the story of the protagonist’s life. Also similar to Oedipus Rex is the fact that Memento’s plot is structured in such a way that the viewer feels a certain connection with the protagonist, Leonard Shelby. The fractured and often confusing plot that is presented to the audience of Memento is meant to give the audience an idea of what it is like to view the world through the lens of anterograde amnesia, in all its mystery and distortion. This is further evidenced by the fact that the viewer is never given any indication of how much time has elapsed between the assault of Leonard’s wife and the beginning of the black and white plot. This experience of time would be identical to that of Leonard, whose inability to make new memories after the incident would render him incapable of discerning the amount of time that has passed since the incident. In a moment of audible self-reflection, Leonard remarks, “I don’t even know how long she’s been gone… How can I heal if I can’t feel time?” (Memento). This creative plot device enables the viewer to feel a connection with Leonard, and his journey becomes the viewer’s journey as in Oedipus.

There is one major difference between the plot setup in these two works, however. In Oedipus Rex, the reader is expected to have some understanding of the story, and can focus her energy on Oedipus’ motives and whether or not he should be partaking in his quest to uncover the truth. In Memento, the convoluted plot persuades the viewer that her most important goal is to discern the difficult-to-understand story. Memento is a classic example of a reflexive plot, one in which the story is “the very thing we are forced to think about, to reflect upon” (Beiderwell and Wheeler 207). Unlike in Oedipus, there is not much doubt about whether or not this is a justified pursuit. It seems natural and good for the viewer to struggle to discern the true story presented in Memento much as Leonard feels it is natural and good for him to discover his wife’s murderer and exact vengeance. When Natalie questions Leonard about the value of his pursuit, he confidently remarks that, “My wife deserves vengeance, and it doesn’t make any difference whether I know about it” (Memento). The twist comes at the end of the plot, an action near the middle of the story, when it is revealed that Leonard has already killed his wife’s assailant and has willfully distorted the evidence so that he can find another John G to track down and kill. In a morally questionable move, Leonard distorts the truth and is sacrificing John Gs so that his life can retain purpose, so that his life is not trivia. Leonard wants to avoid Sammy’s fate. According to Leonard, “Sammy had no drive. No reason to make it work” (Memento). In contrast, Leonard allows himself to live the dream with “A dead wife to pine for and a sense of purpose” to his life (Memento). In an abstract sense, Memento is presenting an existential nihilist worldview in which the discovery of truth correlates with a loss of meaning in one’s life. However, Memento provides a solution to this bleak scenario. The viewer, through self-deception, can convince herself that life has meaning and, thus, escape the depressing absurdity that is the true human “story.” This is the decision Leonard chooses to make each time he tampers with the evidence in order to begin the pursuit of another John G. Leonard pulls the twelve pages out of the police report and frames Teddy as the murderer in order to create new mysteries to solve. This isn’t the only time Leonard uses self-deception in order to increase his own happiness, at least according to Teddy. Leonard deliberately puts the “Remember Sammy Jankis” tattoo on his hand, the location where he is most likely to see it, in order to condition himself to believe that Sammy was the one who killed his wife by injecting her with too much insulin. In reality, Sammy and Leonard are one and it is Leonard who injects his wife with too much insulin. By actively distorting his memories, Lenny protects himself from the disturbing truth that he unintentionally killed his own wife. Teddy attempts to persuade Leonard of the truth saying, “I don’t know. Your wife surviving the assault. Her not believing your condition. The torment and…and pain and anguish tearing her up inside. The insulin… Well, I guess I can only make you remember the things you want to be true” (Memento). Leonard is thus able to avoid the effects of the terrible truths he has uncovered in a way Oedipus is unable to do. While Leonard, through an active avoidance of the truth, is able to avoid negative effects for himself, he creates problems for others, namely Jimmy Grantz, Teddy, and any future John Gs. If Leonard would have written the “I’ve done it” tattoo after killing the real culprit, he could have saved the lives of two men. In an opposite manner, Oedipus bears the consequences that result from his discovery of the truth, but he spares Thebes from the plague. According to these two pieces of evidence, uncovering the truth may be harmful to oneself, but it may also be the morally responsible pursuit. For example, a prince who shelters himself from the evils of the world will be happy as long as he does not discover the truth about the story of the world. Considering he is in a position to help others, though, this would be a morally irresponsible decision and would be hard to justify.

Memento has another interesting argument for the lack of value in the pursuit of truth. When the viewer re-watches Memento after fully understanding Leonard’s story, the movie becomes dull. It is the mystery of not knowing and the desire to know that makes watching Memento a pleasant viewing experience. As Leonard puts it, in a flashback conversation with his wife, “… the pleasure of a book is in wanting to know what happens next” (Memento). When the mystery and wonder that accompany an insufficient understanding of the story disappear, the pleasantness of the viewing experience disappears along with it. This understanding of Memento’s plot lends credence to the view that even if the truth is not as terrible as an existential nihilist worldview would posit, the discovery of truth is not to be preferred simply because it eliminates the feelings of wonder and mystery that are such a source of pleasure for inquisitive human beings. Potentially, the truth could be so wonderful that it gives the truth seeker enough pleasure to offset the loss of pleasure that results from the demystification of the human story. Neither Memento nor Oedipus Rex give any indication of this though. The other way the pursuit of truth can be justified is if it is the more moral decision. Even though the pursuit of truth results in a decrease in personal pleasure for Oedipus, it appears to be the best decision since it is the morally responsible one. Conversely, Leonard’s self-deceptive escape from truth is portrayed as the worse decision since it is morally irresponsible, resulting in unnecessary deaths.

Ultimately, the plots of both Oedipus Rex and Memento prove successful. Both force the audience to feel connected with the protagonists as they embark on a journey to discover the truth about their lives. Both protagonists discover the truth to be unpleasant. Due to the connection established between the audience and the protagonists, the audience of each work is forced to grapple with the question of whether truth is worth discovering if it is discovered at the detriment of one’s personal happiness. Finally, both works appear to resolve this question by arguing that truth discovery is worthwhile since it benefits others and, thus, is a morally responsible decision.

 

Works Cited

Beiderwell, Bruce, and Jeffrey Wheeler. The Literary Experience. Boston: Wadsworth, 2008. Print.

Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano. 2000. Screenplay. <http://www.pages.drexel.edu/~ina22/splaylib/Screenplay-Memento.HTM&gt;.

“Oedipus. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 13 Feb. 2016. <http://www.britannica.com/topic/Oedipus-Greek-mythology>.

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. The Literary Experience. Ed. Bruce Beiderwell and Jeffrey Wheeler. Boston: Wadsworth, 2008. 261-307. Print.

Divine Justification of Female Disobedience in Medea and Antigone —

Divine Justification of Female Disobedience in Medea and Antigone

Euripides and Sophocles play an important and unique role in the genre of Greek tragedy. Medea and Antigone are exceptions to the male-centered climate of ancient Greece, as demonstrated by the playwrights’ focus on female protagonists. Although the female-centered narrative was still very much the exception, these plays mark a literary shift from the earlier Homeric period whose depiction of well-developed female characters was almost exclusively limited to goddesses. Considering the limitations placed on women in ancient Greece and the fact that Euripides and Sophocles are embarking on early explorations of the well-developed female character, it appears inevitable that themes such as gender power dynamics and the legitimacy of female disobedience will surface. Antigone claims to be a protectress of divine law while Medea becomes the divine, ultimately working to prove the necessity of divine justification for female assertion of power in a society which placed severe limits on the role of women. Despite this commonality of divine justification for female disobedience, the different approaches to disobedience embodied by Antigone and Medea portray Antigone as a more sympathetic, progressive character while Medea becomes a controversial heroic figure.

In the ancient Greek world of Medea and Antigone, the social climate oppressed the female populace and placed strict limitations on its exercise of power. In Sophocles’ Antigone, the two main voices of this social reality are Creon and Ismene. During a heated discussion with Antigone regarding her blatant disregard for his decree, Creon proudly asserts:

“There’s no room for pride, not in a slave,

not with the lord and master standing by” (Sophocles 534-535).

Creon, in many of his statements, comes across as an insecure character afraid of political dissention and emasculation. Here, he compensates for this insecurity by explicitly stating, and possibly exaggerating, the social position of women. He compares women to slaves, claiming they have no right to pride considering they are ruled by their masters, men, who are “standing by.” This comparison is in many ways accurate, however, as women were given limited political freedoms and were generally unable to assert their power over men. Ismene, Antigone’s sister, provides the traditional female response, one Creon would consider proper. When Antigone alerts Ismene of her plan to bury Polynices’ body, Ismene protests:

“… we must be sensible. Remember we are women,

we’re not born to contend with men…” (Sophocles 74-75).

She goes on to say:

“I’m forced, I have no choice–I must obey

the ones who stand in power. Why rush to extremes?

It’s madness, madness” (Sophocles 79-81).

Ismene is an important, and intriguing, messenger of social values in ancient Greece due to her identity as a woman. Her traditional perspective represents an internalized male societal view. She views the act of contending with men as foolish and extreme, and goes as far as describing it as “madness.”  She does not even see disobedience as a possibility, insisting that she “must obey.” Medea further expounds upon the plight of women. She laments that:

“Of all things that live and have intelligence,

we women are the most wretched creatures” (Euripides 240-241).

Medea is commenting on the wretchedness of female social oppression in Athens, not the quality of woman’s nature. As evidence of the wretched position women are placed in, Medea cites the dowry, the mastery men gain over women’s bodies, the lack of control regarding divorce, the inability to leave the home, and the under-acknowledged dangers of childbirth (Euripides 242-262). Medea is lamenting the fact that in ancient Greece, women were controlled by either their father or their husband and, consequently, were unable to assert their independence or power according to the law.

Lacking societal or political validation, Antigone finds justification for her disobedience of Creon by aligning herself with divine decree. This justification is two-fold: it provides a public rationalization as well as a private courage to audaciously defy Creon’s civic law. In defense of her plan to bury Polynices’ body, Antigone tells Ismene:

“Do as you like, dishonor the laws

the gods hold in honor” (Sophocles 91-92).

When confronted by Creon and facing punishment, Antigone continues to insist that she is justified in her actions. She boldly claims:

“Nor did I think your edict had such force

that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods,

the great unwritten, unshakable traditions.

They are alive, not just today or yesterday:

They live forever…” (Sophocles 503-507).

In defending herself against the accusations of both Ismene and Creon, Antigone claims that burying Polynices’ body was a just act in accordance with “the great, unshakable” laws of the gods. Creon challenges the effectiveness of this argument, claiming that it is “intolerable” to believe that “the gods could have the slightest concern for that corpse” (Sophocles 319-320). His reasoning is that Polynices was a traitor coming to the city with the intent of burning down the gods’ temples. However, Creon’s rebuttal is undoubtedly tied to his desire to assert his power, discourage any traitors, and justify his decision to punish Antigone. Haemon, Tiresias, and the leader of the chorus all argue that Antigone is correct in her conviction that burial of the dead is a divine decree. Eventually, Creon is convinced, fearing the “disasters sent by the gods” which are threatened if he does not free Antigone (Sophocles 1227). The divine justification functions not only publically, but also in the private life of Antigone. Antigone is a complicated character and her motivations are equally complex. It would appear that her strong convictions in burying Polynices result from a belief that it is a virtuous act which upholds divine law. Not only that, it enables her brother to find peace in the afterlife. She must be convinced of this in order to commit such a bold crime, one which would lead to her death. This does not appear to be Antigone’s only motivation, however. At different times, desire for glory, an infatuation with death, and the desire for martyrdom in the face of a miserable existence seem to influence her. In the end, Antigone appeals to divine law to justify her act of civil disobedience, a necessary appeal considering the social constraints placed on women.

Medea asserts her power in a similar manner of divinely justified disobedience, although she takes the phenomenon a step further by embodying the divine. Creon initially decrees that Medea must be exiled and never return. However, through clever persuasion, she is able to convince Creon to allow her to stay one more day. Creon reluctantly decrees:

“Now, if you must stay,

stay one day, for you will not do any

of the terrible things I so fear” (Euripides 379-381).

Despite Creon’s lawful forbidding of Medea to do any “terrible things,” she delivers a poisoned dress to the princess, Jason’s new wife, killing both the princess and Creon. In addition, she murders her own children. These disobedient acts result from Medea’s unswerving conviction that Jason acted unjustly toward her and, as a consequence, must be punished. These acts of female power are justified by Euripides as acts committed by a female goddess figure. As the play progresses, Medea becomes an increasingly divine character. She describes herself as being “born from a good father and from the Sun” (Euripides 435-436). She is the granddaughter of the Sun god, Helios. The most striking evidence of her divine embodiment is found toward the end of the play where she towers over Jason in a position of power and victory. According to Paul Moliken, “Euripides in particular often ended his plays by having a god or other divine character appear via the machine and straighten out a situation that was too confused or terrible for mortals to solve themselves” (p. 69). By placing Medea in this position, he is boldly claiming her identification with the divine. In this sense, Medea’s acts of power and disobedience are justified by her divine self. She needs no external justification, for her divine identity is sufficient. To the extent that Medea is portrayed as divine, she is less relatable and less progressive as a female character as compared to Antigone. Antigone, as a mortal character, is more sympathetic and relatable, as her acts of disobedience are less controversial and more virtuous than those of Medea. In addition, Sophocles’ Antigone is more progressive as it is a better example of female assertion of power. In Homer’s epics, goddesses such as Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite demonstrated power and disobedience. However, a mortal female character, such as Antigone, who asserted power and acted disobediently was unprecedented.

Although they certainly differ in their disobedience, both Antigone and Medea appeal to the only power greater than male-dominated society, the gods, in order to justify their uncharacteristic assertion of female power. Whereas Antigone claims to protect divine law, Medea becomes divine, thus justifying their respective acts of female power and disobedience.

Works Cited

Euripides. Medea. Trans. J. E. Thomas. Clayton: Prestwick House, 2005. Print.

Moliken, Paul. “Conventions of Greek Drama.” Afterword. Medea. Clayton: Prestwick House, 2005. 69. Print.

Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1984. Print