Big Plays, Big Ideas Mid-Term Essay

Tania Allen

BLS 340 – Big Plays, Big Ideas

November 4, 2010

Mid-Term Essay

I asked my aunt, who works with the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, what she had to say about the depiction of women in the plays we have read thus far this year. She summed up each play from her decidedly feminist point of view, ending her comments with “What a wild conglomeration of plays, there is no through line in these at all!”  At first glance, it seems she may indeed have a point, for the seven plays, Oedipus Rex, Lysistrata, Everyman, Othello, The Misanthrope, Woyzeck and Miss Julie, each have rather different stories, each explore different themes.  Some look at the class struggle, some look at relationships, love, trust, redemption; all of these are touched upon, but not by every play, certainly not enough to call them a common thread. It is the women, though, that ties the plays together, their presence in the plays and their role as characters. Each play portrays women in very different ways, from the comically powerful Lysistrata to Marie, who is seen as weak and doomed, to Iocaste and Desdemona, both of whom are devoted wives but their lives end in tragedy. In each of them however the women themselves are significant; without their presence the plays would lose all meaning.

The tragedy Oedipus Rex, written by the Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, shows us a single female character – Iocaste – as it tells the story of a man who is doomed to follow a path set out for him by prophesy. Iocaste made a great sacrifice in giving up her only child in an effort to safe her husband’s life, only to lose him anyway. She remarries Oedipus, has more children by him, only to discover in his quest to cure the plague being visited upon his city that he is the son she abandoned. Her grief is twofold then; she not only married her own son, but her sacrifice had been in vain for Oedipus was the one who killed his father anyway without knowing the truth of his birth.

Iocaste is depicted as a woman who is at the mercy of outside forces, as she is unable to escape the prophecy by any means. In her interactions with Oedipus we see that she is a devoted wife, patient and observant until it becomes clear she has born“double fruit from her marriage/ a husband by her husband, children by her child” (Oedipus Rex Exodos163-4). When she learns that horrifying truth, and when Oedipus seems determined not to rest until he learns it as well, she commits suicide, unable to live with what she has done. Iocaste is both the reason Oedipus lives, for she gave birth to him, but also the reason for his self-inflicted blindness and exile; she is in this way a focal character of the play despite having a rather small part in it.

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is dominated by female characters, one in particular being the title character. In this play, a Greek comedy, the women are sick and tired of being left alone by their men. Lysistrata, shown to be shrewd, bold and opinionated throughout the play, presents a plan to the women of several nations which she is certain will bring an end to the warring. Her two-pronged proposition is that the women withhold sex from their men, so that “they’ll soon make a truce” (Lysistrata 191-2), while the older women of Athens bar the men from entering the treasury and thus keeping them from funding their wars. The comedic approach to the play may make it seems as though the women are not taken seriously, but in the end the men beg for someone to “arrange a peace for us – any way you like!” (Lysistrata 1313)

The eponymous leader of the women is painted as a woman who is wiser than she might be given credit for. Clearly the women all look to her in admiration, for each of them agrees to the oath to abstain from their husbands and lovers amorous intentions. When the Athenians and the Spartans finally seek a truce, they appeal to the woman who describes herself as having “a mind”, “native wit” and “decent schooling” (Lysistrata 1363-65) despite being only a woman.  Lysistrata is powerful and wise enough to have brought about a truce between two warring nations, and without her, the story of this comedy simply wouldn’t exist.

Everyman, whose author is unknown, may at first seem to not have male or female characters (except for the title character Everyman of course) but Good Deeds and Knowledge are revealed to be attributed to feminine presences. It’s interesting to note that the two aspects of life represented by Good Deeds and Knowledge are the ones that best prepare Everyman for his end; they are the aspects that help him to come to grips with Death, with Good Deeds the only one who will stand by him in the end.  As Good Deeds says, “I will not forsake the in deed/Thou shalt find me a good friend in need” (Everyman 853-4).  In this way we can see that even in this play which seems to have no obvious connection to the others in respect to the portrayal and depiction of women, the feminine is crucial to the resolution of Everyman’s plight, and therefore crucial to the play itself.

Written by master playwright William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice shows us a pair of notable women: Desdemona and Emilia. Desdemona is the devoted wife of the title character, and is shown throughout the play to be a loving wife even as her husband begins to doubt her fidelity.  Emilia is the wife of Iago, who blindly does his bidding, aiding him in wreaking havoc in Othello’s life and his marriage.

Although from the very beginning Othello is warned about his stolen bride, “She has deceived her father, and may thee,” (Othello 1.1.290), it is clear that she loves him and is devoted to him despite her own father’s concerns. Throughout the play, even as Othello begins to show jealousy of Cassio’s assumed courtship of his wife, Desdemona remains faithful and quite confused by her husband’s increasingly angry state. Even when accused by Othello of deceit and adultery, she maintains her love for him, declaring the sins he accuses her of having “are loves I bear to you” (Othello 5.2.40), and further defends her devotion “I never did/Offend you in my life” (Othello 5.2.58-9).

Emilia is Iago’s wife, who he treats poorly from the beginning, and eventually kills when she realizes he has used her in his machinations and betrays him to Othello, the Governor Montano, and the nobleman Gratiano. She becomes the lady’s-maid to Desdemona, and we quickly see that she tolerates Iago’s insults, as it was considered unseemly for a wife to argue with her husband. Indeed, when she finds Desdemona’s handkerchief she gives it to her “wayward husband” (Othello 3.3.291) instead of returning it to the Moor’s wife because she wishes “nothing but to please his fantasy” (Othello 3.3.297).  She clearly does not know anything about Iago’s chicanery, for she has no idea what causes Othello’s foul demeanor “Pray heaven it be State matters, as you think” (Othello 3.4.156-7).  In fact when she discovers that the Moor has killed his wife because of Iago’s dishonesty she turns against him “You told a lie, an odious damned lie” (Othello 5.2.176), and for that she herself is killed.

Both women hold important roles in Shakespeare’s play, for without their presence it would be much more difficult for the playwright to get his point across. Indeed, if one considers that the underlying theme is the risks of allowing rumors to infect your beliefs, it is clear that without the presence of the two women the story would lack the emotional associations they provide, making it more difficult to convey the message.  Without Desdemona to love Othello, Iago would have a harder time inciting jealousy in the Moor. Without Emilia to do her husband’s will for the sake of duty, he would not have the tools with which to ensure his plan succeeds. As with Oedipus Rex’s Iocaste and Lysistrata’s title character, and even with Everyman’s personifications of Good Deeds and Knowledge, without these women existing, the play would lack meaning.

 The Misanthrope, written by French Playwright Molière, shows us a trio of notable women: Celimene, Arsinoe, and Eliante. Each of the women are part of the nobility presented in the play, but each behaves as a sort of caricature of the types of people one might find in such a society. Celimene is the apparent love interest of Alceste, though the two of them couldn’t be more unalike.  Alceste is forthright to a fault, while Celimene is the epitome of a harpy. She delights in gossip and in insulting others behind their backs, as is apparent by Eliante’s comment “The conversation takes its usual turn/and all our dear friend’ ears will shortly burn” (Misanthrope 2.137-8). Arsinoe, a friend of Celimene’s later speaks to her about a visit with some “virtuous folk” who had many things to say about her, not the least of which regarded her “dashing ways” and her “notorious coquetry” (Misanthrope 3.112-4), further characterizing Celimene as a selfish woman. Celimene counters with the recounting of a conversation she had regarding Arsinoe’s “affectation” of “virtue” “prudery” (Misanthrope 3.149-51), accusing her own friend of being a hypocrite.  This behavior further exposes Celimene for a careless and selfish woman, one who, unlike the women in previously discussed works, cares little for anyone but herself. Arsinoe, for her part, seems to be very concerned with society’s perception of herself, yet she does not, if we are to believe Celimene’s accusations, live according to the image she projects to her peers.

Eliante is Celimene’s cousin, and stands as a sort of middle ground between she and Arsinoe. Where Celimene is brash and careless in her speech and behavior, and Arsinoe behaves differently in private than she pretends to be in public, Eliante seems to be the only genuine personality among the women of the play. She behaves calmly, believes in “frankness” (Misanthrope 4.59) and finds a “noble side” to Alceste’s ardent “honesty” (Misanthrope 4.33-4) – and in fact admits to being willing to “play the role of substitute” (Misanthrope 4.68) if Celimene casts Alceste aside. Eliante is the most noble of the noblewomen depicted in the play, neither the coquettish gossip that Celimene is shown to be, nor the hypocritical prude that Arsinoe purports herself to be.  The play would not be the same without any of them, however. Each is necessary to the story in order to expose both sides (in Celimene and Arsinoe) as well as the better way to behave (in Eliante).

Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck is another play in which there is only one main female presence, that of Marie. We are never told if marie and Franz Woyzeck are married or if they simply have a child out of wedlock, but it is clear that they have a relationship. However, Marie is unfaithful, even if only emotionally. She knows what she is doing is wrong “What a bitch I am” (Woyzeck 4), but we are led to believe (though the play was found unfinished and we can only guess at the proper order of the incomplete scenes) that she continues her tryst anyway. Eventually we see Marie reading the bible, and each passage she flips to alludes to her falsehood and adultery. Marie is the catalyst for Franz’s insanity, for as he realizes, or at least believes that Marie has been unfaithful, he loses all sense of right and wrong. Again, without Marie’s presence in the play, we would lose an emotional connection to the characters. It wouldn’t be as profound for Woyzeck to kill another man; nor would it be as powerful an image if Marie had been an unabashed adulteress. Seeing that she is tortured by her actions makes the ending that much more significant.

Miss Julie, written by Swedish playwright August Strindberg, has very few characters, two of which are women; Miss Julie and Kristen. Miss Julie is flirtatious, and in that way she is not unlike Celimene. She is young, not quite exposed to the world she lives in, and acts in a manner that gets tongues wagging about her.  She is the ingénue, seeking experience in things she only fantasizes about. As Jean says about her early in the play “Miss Julie’s too high-and-mighty in some ways, and not enough in others” (Miss Julie p593). We see continued evidence of this naiveté throughout the play in her interactions with Jean and with Kristen, even to the very end.

Kristen, on the other hand, is down to earth and sensible, not too unlike Eliante. She, like Jean, is a servant, and believes there is no time for the foolishness that people of Miss Julie’s station have the time for. She tells Jean ‘You’ve got obligations too, and you’d better start thinking about them,” meaning that she expects him to marry her and take care of her sooner than later, and he needs to put a stop to his “ideas” (Miss Julie 603), and focus on more practical matters.

Because of the nature of this play, it’s obvious there wouldn’t be much of a play without the characters of Miss Julie and Kristen. But even if the play was altered to involve only male characters, it would be lacking without the presence of the two women. The interactions between men  – in general – are not the same as between women or between the sexes. The relationships are what draw the reader into this drama, and without the women, those relationships wouldn’t be present.

The plays we have examined explore many different themes; some touch on fidelity and adultery, others explore love and jealousy, still others probe class relations. Each of them however shares a common thread: the women involved in the play are crucial to conveying the message the playwrights have endeavored to reveal to the reader. From Iocaste, Desdemona, Emilia, Marie and Miss Julie, whose exits from the play are marked by their deaths, to Lysistrata, Celimene, Arsinoe, Eliante, Kristen and even the anthropomorphized Good Deeds and Knowledge, the women of these plays occupy roles without which the stories would seem far-fetched. Contrary to what my aunt said, it’s clear that while there is no obvious theme running through each of the plays, the importance of the female characters in them serves as the string connecting each to the others.

Works Cited

Aristophanes. “Lysistrata.” Trans. Charles T. Murphy. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 114-30. Print.

Buchner, Georg. “Woyzeck.” Trans. Henry J. Schmidt. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 532-41. Print.

Klaus, Carl H., Miriam Gilbert, and Bradford S. Field. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.

Moliere. “The Misanthrope.” Trans. Richard Wilbur. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 406-26. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice.” Ed. Alvin Kernan. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 290-332. Print.

Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex.” Trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003. 52-70. Print.

Strindberg, August. “Miss Julie.” Trans. Elizabeth Sprigge. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 592-606. Print.

Unknown. “Everyman.” Ed. Kate Franks. Stages of Drama: Classical to Contemporary Theater. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 186-96. Print.

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Visions of the Creation: Final Essay

Tania Allen

BLS 300 – Visions of the Creation

Claude Tate

August 5, 2010

Vision of Humanity

Human beings like things to be explained; they like to feel like they understand the world around them. Because of this, we have myths, created by cultures all over the world to explain the unexplainable.  Many of these myths describe how humanity came to exist in the first place. Myths of this nature deal with some very basic concepts, and form the basis of a vision of humanity. Creation myths attempt to explain why man exists and what man’s purpose is. In the last century or so, science has also attempted to explain the unexplainable, though doing so under the guise of hypotheses and facts rather than belief. In each instance however, the goal is the same: to explain how we came to exist, why we continue to exist, and what we should be doing while we’re here. The question we ask ourselves is: do the various visions with all their differences still speak to a common answer regarding mankind’s place and purpose?

There have been many cultures throughout the known history of our planet, and each of those cultures has had their own vision of humanity, their own concept of how mankind came to exist and what mankind’s purpose should be. Some of those visions were strikingly similar, such as the visions of the African tribal religions, the Indian religions, the visions of the North American tribes, and of the East Asian and Pacific Islands cultures. In these cases we found that man’s place was as part of Nature, perhaps unique in it but still with a need to live in harmony with it.  Others, such as the Mesopotamian, Christian/Hebrew, and the South American Indian cultures are also similar in the way they express their visions, where mankind is a special creation, superior to the Natural world, and his purpose is to serve God’s will.

With these very noticeable differences, is it possible to say that there is a common vision through all the world’s cultures and religions? It is true there seem to be two very distinct types of visions, visions which seem to be split between the simple, more tribal cultures and the more complex city-state type of civilizations. But there are similarities even between the two that I feel support the idea that a common vision can be found. One of these ideas is that mankind is special in some way. The creation myths in the majority of the areas we have examined describe mankind’s creation as being a separate event from that of the rest of the world. This supports the notion that according to most if not all of the religions of the world, mankind’s place is unique among the rest of the natural world.  Along with this, there is common ground in the existence of a separation between the Divine in whatever form it takes and mankind. Even in the Indian religions, where it is mankind’s goal to reunite with the Divine, and in the visions of Plato and the Stoics, mankind is separated from the Divine, though not in the same was as is seen in the Christian ‘fall’.

There might seem to be fewer similarities when it comes to mankind’s role or purpose in the world, but even though the details may be different, I think the majority of the visions express a need to learn and establish proper connections. In some visions, such as the Near East, the Indian religions and the South American civilizations, the learning must be done in order to appease the Divine; in other visions, such as the African, North American, and Pacific Island and Australian religions, the learning simply helps mankind live in this world. All of these visions, as expressed through their myths, still focus on the connections required to live a proper life; connections with each other, with the natural world, and with the Divine. The need for balance is a stronger connection, and can be seen throughout most of the cultures we have examined, from the Hebrew and Christian concept of good and evil, to the Indian visions which seek balance and harmony in order to reconnect with the Divine, to the Chinese and Japanese thought of Yin and Yang or In and Yo, and even in the African and North American view that mankind must live in harmony with the natural world.

These details support a common vision between the world’s many religions; everything else is details. A religious vision of mankind’s place and role in this world is therefore as a unique creation of the Divine, a creature who must simply work to find balance and knowledge within himself, among his community and in the natural world.

Science tells us similar things regarding our place and purpose in the world. Science tells us that we are not special in creation, though we are likely unique. It tells us that we are connected to all things, and that it is important that we find and strengthen those connections where we can, and that we not try to assert our will, our dominance on the natural world; when we do that, bad things happen.  The vision of science proposes a need for learning, for harmony and balance, and that we all came from the same ‘stuff’ of creation. This vision is not too terribly dissimilar from the vision of the world’s many religions, and not dissimilar from the common visions between them.

If mankind can come to accept that belief and fact are not mutually exclusive, then I believe that the time will come that these two visions can be reconciled. In such a vision, belief and fact would have their own place within the sacred reality, and mankind would have the ability to form its own individual vision from a pool of common ideas. In such a vision it would not matter if one believed that the world and all existence were created by a Divine being, a Sacred Fire, or a sudden explosion. In such a vision mankind would know that he must use all the tools available to him in order to create harmony and balance in all aspects of his life.

Visions of the Creation: Essay 3

Tania Allen

BLS 300 – Visions of the Creation

Claude Tate

July 29, 2010

Vision of the Americas

In most of the regions we have studied thus far, we have found that there is an overall vision within each that describes how the cultures in that region answer the questions that are the focus of human identity, that tell us how that regions cultures viewed their own role, their purpose. In the Americas however, there is a definite divergence between the tribal bands of North America and the city-states found in South America. Within each sub-region, the views are rather the same, but the differences between the two are striking and prevent an overall vision for the Americas. In comparing these two different visions to other regions we have examined, we find that the South American vision remains quite different from those of East Asia, the Pacific Islands and of Africa, while the North American view has several common facets with those areas.

The views of the two types of cultures evident in North and South America see the world differently, and so their visions of humanity, as seen in their creation myths, differ quite a bit. For the tribal bands of North America, the focus is on living harmoniously with the natural world and in the idea that man is not all-knowing and all-powerful and must be taught lessons by the rest of the creatures in the world. We see this in most of the stories in fact, but one that expresses it strikingly is the Eskimo story “The Creation” (Sproul 220-229). In this story the first man is taught how to live by a character named Raven, everything from what to eat and drink, how to clothe himself, how to raise his family, how to make tools and weapons; all these things were taught to man by Raven, which expresses the necessity for mankind to learn from the rest of creation the proper way to live in this life.  The Hopi story “The Emergence” (Sproul 268-284) is another example of mankind’s need to be taught, and of the necessity of harmony, both with the land and within one’s community. This story speaks of a man called Lavaihoya, who convinced the people that they were different than the animals, and different from each other, causing a division that the myth asserts should not be there.

In contrast to this vision where mankind is not superior and all-knowing, where man must live in harmony with the rest of the Divine’s creations, the creation myths of the South American city-states depict a vision where mankind’s role in the world is appeasing God, his place superior to the rest of creation. The Inca story “Ordering the World” (Sproul 301-305) tells of how the Inca people were made great by their Creator, the Sun. Their Creator lifted them above all things, gave them a purpose. It tells us that he sent his son and daughter to Earth to teach men “to adore him and acknowledge him as their god; to obey his laws and precepts as every reasonable creature must do” (Sproul 302).   We see evidence of this role of mankind also in the Popul Vuh (Sproul 287-298), the creation myth of the Quiché Maya people. In this story the Creator tries several times to create mankind, but each incarnation displeases him so he destroys them and tries again. The final incarnation of mankind at first “did not sustain nor maintain” (Sproul 296) their Creator but in time they appeal to him, and this pleases him. Again there is the idea that mankind’s role here is to appease the Creator and that their lives are to be spent in that effort.

Looking back at the North American vision, where mankind is focused on living life in harmony with the natural world, it is easy to see a similarity with the African tribal myths. In both regions, the people were focused on living simple lives, where their role was only to live in harmony with the land they lived on. The stories of both regions are similar in that, though in the African myths the teaching was done more often by the Divine rather than the creatures of the world. Harmony with the natural world was also important in the visions seen in East Asia, seen in the principles of Yin and Yang in China and In and Yo in Japan.  In the excerpt “Creation out of Chaos” (Sproul 199-200) describes a vision much like that of the North American tribes, one in which there must be balance, and in which mankind is strongly tied to the natural world. Though the content of the stories is again different, the creation myths seen in the Pacific islands have a similar vision to that of North America.  Again, mankind is very much a part of the natural world, not something greater than it. The Walumba creation story “The Origin of the Aborigines” (Sproul 315-320) tells of how the people came to be, and like the North American mythologies there is a distinct focus on the environment, on teaching mankind how to live in harmony with it. The Hawaiian chant “The Kumulipo” (Sproul 358-368) is further evidence of the similarity to the North American myths in that mankind is not given precedence in the story. Mankind is no more important than anything else in creation in these regions.

There are not so many similarities between the South American vision and the visions of Africa, East Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Among the South American people the importance was placed on mankind, and his role was to serve God’s will. This vision is not found in those regions. However the South American vision does place an emphasis on order, on each thing having a role and a purpose, and this is not unlike visions seen in Africa, East Asia, and the Pacific Islands.  This is really the only common vision evident however between those regions and the peoples of South America, and is certainly not a strong enough argument for a common vision between them.

The tribes of North American and South America have very different lives. In the North, the tribes were small, nomadic bands whose livelihood depended on being able to work in harmony with the land. Their creation myths, such as the Eskimo tale “The Creation” and the Hopi story ‘The Emergence”, reflect this.  Likewise, the South American tribes’ creation myths reflected their experiences, where the environment required them to form larger city states, forcing a social order that is echoed in their myths, such as the Inca’s “Ordering the World” and the Quiché Maya’s “Popul Vuh”. It shouldn’t be surprising to find that the myths of other regions more closely resemble the myths of North America in the vision of humanity that they describe, one in which mankind must live in harmony with the rest of creation, and where while he may be a special creation of God, that does not place him above other creations.

Visions of the Creation: Essay 2

Tania Allen

BLS 300 – Visions of the Creation

Claude Tate

July 19, 2010

Visions of India

In our search for a unified vision of reality in the regional religions of India, we find there are several common threads in the beliefs which define mankind’s place and purpose in the world. Although their stories of how the world is created differ – in some ways greatly – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism all share some very basic ideas, ideas which shape and define mankind’s place and role in the world. Some of these basic ideas are similar (though not identical) to ideas we have seen in other regions of the world, such as the Christian and Gnostic mythologies of the Near East and the Platonic and Stoic beliefs found in European philosophies.

One of the most basic ideas in the Indian sacred reality is the concept of karma. Karma can be described as the positive and negative actions that form the destiny of the soul. In general, doing good things leads to a better life, while doing bad things leads to a less pleasant one. Each of the major religions of India views this idea differently. The Hindu see karma as the accumulation of one’s actions, both good and bad; the Buddhists have a similar idea, though they eliminate the individual soul from the equation; Jainist teachings also see it as accumulation, but hold that all karma weighs the soul down and needs to be shed; The Sikh see karma as the Five Evils which keep mankind from rejoining God, and which must be escaped. While each faith views the concept differently the basic idea is the same: what we do affects our existence not only in this life but in any future lives. In each of these visions karma describes mankind’s path and perhaps even his role in the world. By providing a framework by which man can measure the quality of his actions, karma guides him to see what actions will lead him closer to the expected goal of existence.

Reincarnation is another key concept in the sacred reality in the region of India. In the Hindu belief structure this is called Samsara, the cycle of birth, life and death, and is intertwined with karma.  The Sikhs see a similar cyclical nature to existence as well, though karma is viewed differently.  Both the Buddhists and the Jainists have a similar belief in repeating cycles, though they differ somewhat from the Hindu vision of rebirth of the soul.  The mechanics of reincarnation may differ from vision to vision, but at its core the idea is the same: the soul continues in a cycle of existence and destruction until achieving the ultimate goal, whether that goal is the soul’s rejoining with Brahman as in Hinduism, Buddhism’s ascendance into Nirvana, the Jainists reaching Isatprogbhara, or the Sikh belief of being reabsorbed by the True Name. Reincarnation provides a purpose for mankind’s existence, proof that man’s presence in the universe isn’t some sort of cosmic hiccup. Man exists to seek and eventually to reach a goal.

Karma and reincarnation are two concepts that show common threads within the sacred realities of the religions of India.  These common threads are strong evidence of a single vision in India, than mankind has a role – to tread the path set before him – and a purpose – to reach an ultimate goal. However, there are also instances of commonality between India’s sacred reality and the sacred realities of Europe and the Near East.

One example of this is the presence of free will. In India, one’s karma contributes to their destiny, but the Divine (if it is present at all) does not determine one’s karma; our actions alone determine that. Karma is indeed evidence of mankind’s free will, just as Adam and Eve’s ejection from the Garden of Eden is evidence of mankind’s free will in the Christian sacred reality. Even in Europe we see evidence of free will; we see this especially in Plato’s vision which tells us that man can be tempted by ‘sensual desires’. This echoes the parts of the Indian vision that tells us we are weighed down by our actions, and must choose wisely to attain our true nature. The idea that mankind is able to make bad decisions, decisions that would go against what the Divine would consider good behavior, speaks to man’s freedom.

Another common thread found between the sacred realities of these different regions is the idea of salvation. Though many might argue that salvation doesn’t exist in the Indian mythologies, I would say that it does. Salvation is not achieved in the same manner as we find in Christian mythology certainly, where man is saved by God’s design; however through karma and the transmigration of the soul to whatever the ultimate goal is in the various faiths, mankind attains salvation eventually, even though it may take several lifetimes. The Gnostic reality is similar to this, in which mankind is ‘saved’ by coming to understand the true nature of reality. In Europe, salvation is achieved in Plato’s vision by attaining harmony through seeing knowledge and wisdom, and even in the Stoic’s vision by simply following the only reasonable path. Salvation provides mankind a purpose in all regions, though the path to it and explanation of it might differ.

One can even find commonalities in the concept of the soul, though these tend to be less cohesive even within a region.  Jainist teachings, for instance speak of the soul consisting of “consciousness and knowing”. This idea is not dissimilar from Plato’s assertion that the core of the soul is knowledge. A human’s soul is complex in Jainist belief, comprised of many parts, which is also similar to Platonic teachings.  Hindu and Buddhist belief also conceptualizes the soul, though each does so differently. The Buddhist assertion is that the soul is impermanent from cycle to cycle, while Hindu teachings maintain the soul as an individual through every lifetime. The presence of a soul in whatever form however, a soul that is complex and multifaceted in ways not unlike the Divine Beings found in most of the mythologies, lifts man above the rest of creation.

These teachings serve to illuminate the ‘differentness’ of man, separating mankind from the rest of creation. Mankind is special because he has a complex soul, an ultimate goal, and free will. These concepts exist not only in the spiritual reality of India, but also in the regions of the Near East and Europe. The approaches are often different, as we have seen in Europe through Plato and the Stoics, but the idea is very much the same. Mankind’s presence in creation is not a mistake. Mankind’s purpose is not simply to exist.  Mankind has a goal, and in general has the freedom to approach that goal along any path he chooses. This is true not just within the region of India, but across the world in the European and Near Eastern regions as well.

Visions of the Creation: Essay 1

Tania Allen

BLS 300 – Visions of the Creation

Claude Tate

July 9, 2010

Visions of Africa and the Near East

The study of mythology is not like the study of traditional literature, in that mythology speaks about the life and culture of an entire people, the reasons for their behavior and customs; it addresses those age-old questions such as “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “What is our purpose in life?”  These questions regard themes greater than ourselves, what can be called a sacred reality, whereas literature typically only addresses a small window of the greater whole that is human comprehension. In order to better understand a particular culture we look to their myths. In order to better understand how a particular culture views their sacred reality or how they address those fundamental questions, we look to their myths regarding the creation of the world and all things in it.

Some of the oldest cultures from which we have examples of creation myths are those of Africa. The tribes in Africa lived (and to some extent still live) very simple lives. Their societies were small, not much more than large family units; they were predominantly agrarian villages who focused on farming and raising animals for food. From these cultures we have some of the simplest creation myths, such as the Hottentot’s “The Supreme Being” which describes “the first Khoikhoib, from whom all the Khoikhoi tribes took their origin” (Sproul 34). In this brief tale we are told of the great things that this first man did, of the gifts he provides mankind with, that he lives in “beautiful heaven”.  In this tale, Tsui||goab is the Divine Being, he is God, and his gifts to the people show that they are special, raised above the rest of the natural world because he was once one of them.

In the Hottentot story, we are shown that mankind and God are connected, that mankind is raised above the rest of the natural world, and that God does not live among mankind even though they are his people. Other creation myths of the African tribal religions contain these same details, such as the Barotse tale “God Retreats to the Sky”.  In this tale the Supreme Being is Nyambi, who “made all things” (Sproul 35), and mankind is begun from the one creations that was different from the others, Kamonu. Nyambi grows angry with Komonu when he forgets his place among the natural world, begins hunting God’s other creations instead of working the land, and this eventually drives God away. Again we see mankind, in the figure of Kamonu, who is a special creation of God, Nyambi, and that God is once again separated from mankind, this time by the actions of man.

Both the Hottentot and Barotse stories show a sacred reality in which mankind is considered something higher than the natural world, and where God is not present and not part of everyday life. A third tale that describes this vision is the story “The Separation of God from Man” from the Krachi peoples of Togo. In this story, all of creation existed in harmony once. Wulbari, the Divine Being in this case, and mankind lived together, but in time mankind “annoyed” Wulbari and he left to a place “Where one can admire him but not reach him” (Sproul 75).  Once more we see a people who were favored by the divine, where God and man were once very close but mankind’s behavior caused a separation between them, and now mankind must live alone.

In each of these stories, as well as others, we see evidence of similarities in the African tribal religions’ answers to the questions of “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” and “What is our purpose?” Their myths speak of a vision which tells them they as a people are a special creation of God, one that is part of the natural world yet held above it, who works within the natural world, tending it as a shepherd tends his flock; it also describes a vision where God exists but is unreachable.

Where the African vision keeps mankind very grounded in the natural world despite being considered a special creation, the visions of the Near East seem to assert mankind’s own divine nature, and separates man from the rest of the natural world. Even the Egyptian nations’ sacred reality indicates the divinity of  mankind, though their vision is different from the rest of the Near East visions in that there remains a relationship with the natural world that is not apparent in most other Near East cultures.

One the most well known visions of the creation in the Near East is the Christian mythology of Genesis 1:2-4 (Sproul 122). In this vision God creates the natural world, beginning with a watery earth, and the heavens above. Then he creates landmasses, and creatures to inhabit it. Finally, God creates man “in his own image” (Sproul 124), which not only symbolize the idea that mankind is something higher than the rest of the world as in the African visions, but is in fact divine. God gave man “dominion” over the natural world, and tells him to “subdue it” (Sproul 124). This part of the Christian mythology certainly answers the questions “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” The answers to those questions in the Christian vision are “We are God’s Children.” and “We are here to do God’s will.”

Another common vision in the Near Eastern is the duality of good and evil which injects morality in the mythologies of the Near Eastern visions. This is seen in the Christian mythology in the personage of Satan, but is more explicitly expressed in the Gnostic Tale “The Creation According to Mani.”   This myth of creation describes existence as a constant battle between the forces of good and evil. In this story, mankind is created by Darkness, but in the image of the diving Light, while the flora and fauna of the natural world are created by the emissions of Darkness and its Daughters.  This vision too asserts mankind’s divinity, because mankind in the Gnostic view is created of the Light, even though it is created by the Darkness. The battle between good and evil tells us that mankind’s place is to do the work of the Light, to ascend, not to fall into Darkness’ grasp.

We see evidence of the divinity of man also in the readings from the Islamic faith, especially in the reading “The Koran, Sura XVI – The Bee”. In this myth depicting the creation of the world, once again we are told that God created mankind, and that in God’s eyes mankind is held above the rest of the world of his creation.  All things, including the animals of the lands, the rain, the winds, and the plants, God created “by his behest” for mankind to use; all things are gifts given to mankind, yet even with those gifts mankind is expected to “give thanks” (Sproul 153). The Islamic culture still sees mankind as created as a special creature, with a divine element and purpose to oversee the rest of the natural world.

So in the Near Eastern sacred realities we see evidence that mankind is not only considered above the natural world but is considered divine, carrying within them a tiny piece of God. In being a special creation of God, mankind is expected to obey God’s will, as both the Koran and the Bible mythologies show. In the Near Eastern mythologies there is also a commonality in the existence of a duality, of good and evil, and that mankind must struggle to please god by resisting the temptations of evil. These things are common to most of the mythologies of this region.

There are some common visions between the Near East and African views. The idea that God is separate from mankind at all exists in both regions’ mythologies, as is the idea of mankind being a special creation of God, created with a purpose rather than as a part of the whole of the world. The differences – things such as the divinity of man, the imagery of good and evil warring against one another, and  man’s dominion over the natural world as are seen in Near Eastern mythologies, and the importance of the natural world as is seen in African mythologies – do not preclude there being common threads that link both of these visions. Their stories may have changed, but the core details remained the same. Those changes came about because of the changes in the world the cultures existed in, reflecting the lives of the people that developed their mythologies. It is therefore clear to me that while regional differences do exist, the core belief of the importance of man has not changed, which serves as a link between the two region’s sacred realities.

Life, Death and Meaning: The Last Lecture

A Tigger or an Eeyore

Tania Allen

BLS 360 – Life, Death and Meaning

Randy Pauch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, with a PhD in computer science, who was known for his work in the virtual reality field. He addressed an audience at Carnegie Mellon on September 18, 2007 to deliver his Last Lecture. This was not an uncommon thing, as the university had already continued a tradition of professors offering a final lecture, what they then called their “Journeys” series of lectures. This lecture, we would find, was different.

Pauch’s Last Lecture was entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”, but what we learn at the end was the intention was in fact to teach people how to live their lives, how to have happy and meaningful lives – specifically Pauch’s children, but the lesson applies to all people. Though he was dying of terminal cancer, Pauch did not want to focus on his disease, and did not seem to focus on directly expressing the legacy he would leave behind. Of course he touched on that a few times, but mostly his lecture focused on leaving a legacy in a more general sense, as something all people should strive for, and in doing so offered suggestions as to how to leave a lasting legacy.

Some of the lessons Pauch offers through his Last Lecture are fairly simple in concept, but carry great meaning. He advises his audience to ‘never lose the childlike wonder’ in the world, to always ‘help others’, to ‘show gratitude’ when it is due, to always ‘find the best in everybody’. He was a strong advocate in realizing childhood dreams and in helping others do the same. This was his outlook on life, but it’s important to note that these things are what Pauch felt made a life meaningful. The lecture was not objective, it was focused on him, on what he learned, and on what he wanted others to take away from the lecture; it was also, as we later learn, not really for the audience at Carnegie Mellon at all, but for his children.

Being an educator clearly came natural to him, because it gave him the opportunity to always help others, and to find the best in them. The projects he undertook, such as working at Disney’s Imagineering Studios, and developing projects like his Building Virtual Worlds course, the Entertainment Technology Center master’s program, and the Alice software project, were aimed at encouraging his students to learn without realizing they were learning, which becomes the core of the entire lecture. Pauch calls this the ‘head fake’, or indirect learning.

David Schmidtz said something in his essay The Meanings of Life; “People who know they are terminally ill often seem to live life more meaningfully. Though dying, they somehow are more alive.”[1]  This one statement certainly describes Randy Pauch and the outlook he shows in his Last Lecture.  He describes himself as ‘a Tigger’ – “I don’t know how to not have fun” Pauch says. His advice to his audience is to decide “if you’re a Tigger or an Eeyore.” What he doesn’t say, but perhaps implies, is that living a meaningful life involves being a Tigger, and not an Eeyore. Pauch exhibits what Schmidtz says about the terminally ill. He simply is more alive than the rest of us.

In a television special with Diane Sawyer[2], Pauch says of his lecture “Don’t tell people how to live their lives. Just tell them stories, and they’ll figure out how the stories apply to them.” This is the “head fake” Pauch talks about throughout the lecture.  His Last Lecture appears on the surface to be little more than a series of stories, anecdotes about his life, and the lessons he learned from them.  Under that veneer however it is a lesson, a very important one. Pauch uses his Last Lecture to impart a lesson to his audience, and in the end to anyone who would later view the video or read the book. Randy Pauch’s lesson to us all is how to live a life that is meaningful, by always striving to realize childhood dreams, helping others to do the same, by showing gratitude when it’s deserved, by seeking to find the best in others no matter how long it takes, by realizing that the walls that separate us from our dreams are there not to stop us, but to allow us to show how badly we want them.


[1] “The Meanings of Life” David Schmidtz 96

[2] “Randy Pausch ABC Special about the “Last Lecture”, April 2008” Diane Sawyer,  Randy & Jai Pauch

Contemporary Short Stories: Flannery O’Connor

Tania Allen

BLS 320 – Contemporary Short Stories

Susannah Link

April 29, 2010

Finding Meaning in the Unreasonable

Most readers have experienced a story in which there is a moral. Aesop’s Fables, for instance, are filled with them, as are the Bible’s Parables. It’s very easy to determine the meaning of those types of stories, and to express that meaning to someone else without their having to read the story as well. Flannery O’Connor says in her essay Writing Short Stories, meaning in fiction – specifically short fiction – is not “abstract” but “experienced” (968). That is to say the reader should not expect a neatly described theme from a work of fiction, especially a short story; unlike a fable, contemporary short fiction does not necessarily set out a defined moral.  Instead the meaning is something the reader experiences through the process of reading the story, through their own reactions and interpretations. O’Connor uses seemingly unreasonable elements in her short stories which she herself likens to parables (Charters 622) to bring into focus the meaning she writes into them, meaning which is so knitted into the story that it cannot be described.

One of the most vivid examples of her use of the unreasonable is found in her short story A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is a great deal of unreasonableness in this story, from the manner in which Bailey’s mother behaves to the sudden and shocking murders of her entire family. Perhaps the most shocking and therefore most meaningful example of the unreasonable is found in the strange conversation the Misfit and she have before he finally kills her as well. What makes this moment so shocking isn’t that the Misfit kills her; by this point in the story it is understood that he and his cronies had no intention of letting any of them live. What makes the moment shocking is the sudden clarity of thought we see in the Grandmother, and the rattled reaction of the Misfit. She exclaims “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (O’Connor 659) and touches the Misfit, prompting him to shoot her not once, in the cold manner the rest of her family are killed, but three times, indicating an emotional response.  Her realization in that moment, when she is faced with her own certain death, is certainly an unreasonable thought but it prompts the reader to see the meaning within the story, that in the Christian belief every person is connected through “bonds of kinship” (O’Connor 974).

What is interesting and wonderful about the way O’Connor uses the disconcerting elements in this story is how they serve only to frame the single moment in which the Grandmother finds that perfect clarity in which she seems to understand her true place in the world. The violence, while it is shocking, is needed to provide contrast to the peaceful gesture of touching the Misfit’s shoulder, to draw it out in the reader’s mind. Only that contrast can draw the reader to the conclusion O’Connor wants them to understand, therefore only that unreasonable action – the violence – could bring the meaning to life.

Most readers will also consider Julian’s behavior in O’Connor’s story Everything That Rises Must Converge, including his fantasies about befriending well-to-do Negroes, having his mother cared for by a Negro doctor, and bringing home a Negroid woman as his intended wife, all with the intention of shocking his elderly and quite prejudiced mother somewhat unreasonable.  Wayne C. Booth, in his essay A Rhetorical Reading of O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, rightly describes Julian’s behavior as “nasty” and “malevolent” despite his apparent desire to improve the world he lives in (986). It is clear that while Julian believes himself to be a good, honest and reasonable person, his intentions are less-than-good, less-than-honorable and certainly unreasonable for any normal person. O’Connor’s own words call him “savage” and “irritated” (624); she depicts him aggressively throughout the story, though Julian in his own mind believes himself above the rest of humanity, hissing to his mother that “[t]rue culture is in the mind” (626). He believes that because he is educated, he is cultured and refined, despite O’Connor portraying him as anything but.

Many readers would certainly consider his mother’s behaviors and attitudes unreasonable, especially her bigotry and her hypocrisy as it is seen in the interaction with the Negro woman and her son on the bus ride, at least readers of this day and age. But Booth describes Julian’s mother as “innocent” (985). Certainly, the reader could imagine her as simply too old and stuck in her ways to see the change in the world around her, which would in fact evoke a sort of innocence in the character of the mother. She believes, contrary to Julian’s insistence, that culture is “in the heart .. and in how you do things” (O’Connor 626). This dissonance between Julian’s image of his mother and the way she looks at herself allows the reader to examine the story as more than a plot.  Because the characters are so different in their minds than in ‘reality’, the reader must begin to consider their thoughts and actions for themselves.

When Julian witnesses his mother’s stroke, the reader likely imagines he feels remorse and grief, believing that he caused it, even when it is equally as likely that the confrontation with the Negro mother knocking her down is the cause. Contrasted with the prior evidence however this horrific event – horrific on a lesser scale perhaps than the murders in A Good Man is Hard to Find but horrific nonetheless – reflects the terrible “cost” needed to return Julian to “reality” (O’Connor 974). Without it, Julian would not learn the lessons he needs to learn to become the person he wants to be, the person he deludes himself into believing he is, and neither can the reader find those lessons which form the interwoven meaning in the story.

The unreasonable elements of Everything That Rises Must Converge – Julian’s treatment of his mother, her bigotry and hypocrisy, the absurdity of their views of the world around them, the death of Julian’s mother and his sudden realization of her loss – guide the reader to realize the meaning O’Connor wove into the story, expressing the sinfulness of mankind as it retreats into the secular world. This is done by again framing those elements of the story which highlight that condition, creating a story which is a parable, with a moral meaning but not one that is neatly encapsulated in a single statement.

In both stories, the reader is guided to understanding the author’s meaning written into the work, not by direct means but rather by providing a framework by which they are able to come to that meaning naturally. O’Connor uses some very shocking details which might to the casual reader seem unnecessary but which are in fact critical to the stories they are a part of. Without the violence in A Good Man is Hard to Find or the viciousness and bigotry in Everything That Rises Must Converge, the details that form the single thread which spells out the author’s intended meaning are lost in the plot, and do not seem to have any particular purpose. Without the use of the unreasonable in her stories, Flannery O’Connor could not have expressed the meaning in the parables she wrote, because the details which provide that meaning would be without contrast and would not carry the importance they should carry.

Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C. “A Rhetorical Reading of O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”.” Charters 984-987

Charters, Ann, Ed. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Charters 623-634. Print.

—. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Charters 648-659. Print.

—. “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable.” Charters 972-975. Print.

—. “Writing Short Stories.” Charters 967-972. Print.

“parable.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 4 May 2010
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