A Reflection on Joyce and His Works

James Joyce, Genius and Literary Pirate Extraordinaire

James Joyce, Genius and Literary Pirate Extraordinaire

James Joyce is one of the few writers who I can stand to re-read, ranking up there with the likes of Shakespeare and Tolkien. I didn’t read him until my senior year of college, which is a shame, I suppose, but the cliche rings true here: better late than never. In fact on second thought, in my case, it’s probably better late than sooner since Joyce is such a complex and esoteric writer that a strong background in literary analysis and literature studies in general prove to be invaluable tools when digging into his texts (well, until Finnegans Wake).  His life was riddled with passion, pain, heartache, betrayal, political angst, blindness, and a whole spectrum of other human experiences, and it is for this reason that his works are at once so life-affirming for some and so outright infuriating for others. Some people love brutally honest depictions of life; others would rather not think about it. But Joyce is relentless–he forces us to think about it.

Below are some thoughts on Joyce’s four most famous works: the short story anthology Dubliners, the novel-cum-lecture, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the massive (and massively influential) novel Ulysses, and the mysterious, seemingly insoluble conundrum that is Finnegans Wake.

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Dubliners, an unyielding portrayal of hopes and paralysis

'Dubliners', an unyielding portrayal of hopes and paralysis

Dubliners is probably Joyce’s most accessible work. Utilizing the impressionistic style of writing that was so popular with Joyce’s contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad, Jim set out to depict the people and the city that he paradoxically loved and loathed. What he ended up with was a series of stories that all portray a menacing, ubiquitous paralysis: all of the principle characters encounter some type of obstacle that they seem more than capable of overcoming but ultimately do not. Why? Because they second-guess themselves, give into guilt, give into their low self-esteems, allow themselves to be conquered by a vice; the list goes on. So, while Dubliners isn’t exactly a love letter to Dublin and her people, it does give us a pretty clear idea of what a society looks like in the midst of a cultural and societal depression. Why are Joyce’s Dubliners so depressed and thus paralyzed? Imperialist oppression. It doesn’t just affect the politicians or the people who keep up with current events, but instead it affects everyone in that society, if only indirectly. The city Joyce depicts for us in each of Dubliners‘ short stories is packed with good intentions but too rife with negative feelings for these good intentions to ever amount to anything.

Dubliners includes several short stories that have since come to be enormously popular in their own right, though perhaps none more so than “The Dead”. Superficially, this story depicts the experiences of Gabriel Conroy at a party his aging old maid aunts throw on the Feast of the Epiphany. But beneath its surface, the story subtly illustrates the many ways in which real-life Dubliners–indeed, everybody–become broken and paralyzed. At the end of the story, for instance, after Gabriel’s wife has imparted to him an intensely romantic and tragic love story from her youth, he realizes that their relationship is in fact without love, at least without passionate love. But rather than going to console his crying wife as she confronts her bitter memories, Gabriel walks over to the window and watches the snow fall on the distant gravestones. He sees the problem (lack of love in his marriage), sees the solution (consoling his wife), but remains paralyzed, choosing instead to fixate, not coincidentally, on graves–markers of death. This is quite deservedly one of the most popular moments in the history of short fiction and is a powerfully poignant conclusion to an anthology that depicts the overarching depression and paralysis that pervaded the streets of Joyce’s Dublin.

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The cover features a picture of Joyce as a young man; fitting since Stephen Dedalus is his literary alter-ego

The cover features a picture of Joyce as a young man; fitting since Stephen Dedalus is his literary alter-ego

Ah, Jim. You were maybe a little too ambitious with your first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ideas are effective in a narrative, but lectures are not.

From the outset, you can tell that this novel is not like many others you’ve read:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

This is not, in fact, utter gibberish, but instead an early memory of the main character’s, Stephen Dedalus: it is the beginning to a story his father used to tell him. So from the first sentence, we’re thrust into the mind of the protagonist. I’m not sure that we can safely say that Joyce was the first author to psychologize his characters, but he was definitely one of the first authors to employ the stream-of-consciousness writing technique. In this way, we don’t just get Stephen’s memories, but we also get a steady flow of his thoughts, though these thoughts may at times be broken or confusing. But then again, do we actually think in complete sentences? No, and to argue otherwise is silly. Proper syntax and grammar are merely conventions that we humans place on our writing and speaking in order to achieve a more sound cognitive understand of the expressed thoughts and ideas. No one thinks, “What will I do today? Ah yes, I’ll go to the store and get an oil change before returning home and making dinner.” Rather, it would look in writing something like this: “What to do today? Store. Oil change. Then home. Make dinner.” By making use of this technique, we get a much more realistic depiction of Stephen than we would have if the narrative had .

Unfortunately, Joyce at times uses Portrait as a soap-box to stand on and lecture to us–via Stephen, of course–about aesthetics. Passages drone on about Joyce’s views on art, specifically poetry. He does make an interesting note on epiphanies and their relationship to artists, but this is a boon we receive only after having gone through the laborious process of listening to the incessant and wholly out-of-place rambling. What Joyce forgets is that Portrait is a novel, not an essay. The “novel aspects” of the narrative are superb and inventive; the diatribe on aesthetics is not.

It’s funny that I should criticize so harshly the “lecture” parts of this novel, for Joyce actually reduced them profoundly from his first draft, a seemingly different book altogether called Stephen Hero. This first draft you can buy, and I actually have, but only as a collector of Joycean texts and not as an admirer of the lectures. Sorry, Jim, but I like my novels to depict ideas and philosophies only when it’s relevant to the story, not whenever you get on a kick. Fortunately for us, someone must have told Joyce this about Portrait, for his next novel–his masterwork–is a dense and wonderfully complex tome that does nothing more than depict humanity, leaving the lectures by the wayside. Gloria in excelsis Deo.

[Incidentally, I wrote a paper in college on how Portrait is a hybrid memoir-novel in that Joyce uses several people and experiences from his own life in his depiction of Stephen’s life; in this way, we can see Stephen as Joyce’s literary alter-ego. Along with the novel’s usage of stream-of-consciousness, this aspect owes much to Joyce’s literary legacy.]

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Notice the Joycean spectacles and fedora atop the sideways title

Notice the Joycean spectacles and fedora atop the sideways title

You can always tell a book will be timeless when it’s got a story all of its own:

Joyce first tried shopping the colossal Ulysses manuscript around Paris in 1920, but was turned down by nearly everybody. Then 1922 came along and an adventurous young entrepreneur named Sylvia Beach–who owned a little bookshop called Shakespeare and Co., which attracted the likes of young Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and even our anti-Semitic poet-at-large, Ezra Pound–managed to have it published by taking the manuscript to some printers in Dijon, “the capital of the French printing press,” according to Joyce.

The book was exported to Britain and the U.S., but was seized by customs at New York and Folkestone. Thence all copies were literally burned due to its ostensible obscenity–after all, when “Part 11” of the novel was published in the Little Review in 1920, two writers were prosecuted and even fingerprinted just for writing favorable reviews of the excerpt. From that point on, Ulysses was considered obscene and therefore unfit for American readers.

It wasn’t until 1933, when the Honorable John M. Woolsey, a U.S. District Judge, managed to pick up a copy of Ulysses and actually read it (something the American censors before him had failed to do–they were only going on hear-say), that the ban was officially overturned and Joyce’s masterpiece was allowed to be published in the U.S.

This actually plays a big part in the history of U.S. law since it was the first “liberalization” of the censorship law. Were it not for Judge Woolsey’s decision, we might not have Henry Miller‘s Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn (and we would therefore also not have that great episode of Seinfeld, “The Library”), or much of anything from D.H. Lawrence.

And that’s just the story of the novel’s publishing.

Perhaps the reason censors have always had such a hard time with Ulysses is the fact that it is a no-holds-barred depiction of life, complete with hunger (both stomached and sexual), eating, being jealous of just about everybody, the plethora of feelings on both sides of an extramarital affair, an extramarital affair, and–perhaps most damning–the depiction of how and why we alienate one another.

There is young Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s literary alter-ego and the hero from A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man , who is gloomy, angry with the British rule of his country, who feels both indifference and hate for himself at the death of his mother (who supposedly died after he refused to kneel and pray by her bedside), who is alienated by his boisterous and spend-thrift father (and who is therefore looking for a worthy father-figure) and also his jovial but uber-aggressive friend and roommate, Malachi “Buck” Mulligan, and by just about everyone else he comes in contact with. He spends a lot of his time in the novel thinking about his existence, existence in general, his family, his attempts to be a poet, and the servile state of Ireland. Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique was definitely perfected by the time he got to writing Stephen’s part of the novel.

Then there is the ostensible hero of the novel, Leopold Bloom, the son of a deceased but still guilt-inducing Jewish father, the husband of a beautiful–and apparently oversexed (and not by him)–wife, and the father to a young but distant daughter and a dead son, who died while still a young boy. At the point of the novel (which takes place on one day, 16 June 1904), Bloom is no longer a Jew, having converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, Molly. His marriage is in fact something of a joke about Dublin since he is so quiet, neat, mild-mannered and a little effeminate and she is a social and probably adulterous  singer who is popular with all sorts of men (and women, it seems) throughout Ireland. But his Jewish ancestry (in an excruciatingly anti-Semitic country) and laughable marriage are just the start of Bloom’s alienation: he always seems to be the odd-man-out, and his peers make no efforts to prevent this. Perhaps this is why, when seeing how negligent and insensitive young Stephen’s father is, that he decides to step in and look after the young man for a while (which nicely fulfills one of Stephen’s needs, too). As he goes about Dublin that day, thinking about life, having an affair of his own (albeit literarily–he only conducts the affair through letters, and freaks out when his recipient suggests a meeting; and the nom-de-plum for our quiet, mild-mannered, and slightly effeminate hero? Henry Flower), he shows us who and what we humans really are–how we think about things, how we do things, and why. I think this is what most gets under the skin of those who have problems with this novel.

The novel takes its title from Homer‘s ancient epic hero, who is by all means forward, aggressive, and uber-masculine–all the things that Leopold Bloom aka Henry Flower is not. And yet, while Bloom lacks the personality of Ulysses aka Odysseus, he most definitely shares the epic hero’s status as an “everyman.” Ulysses/Odysseus is everything men aspire to be; Leopold Bloom/Henry Flower is everything we actually are, whether we’d like to believe it or not.

And women? How do they fit into Ulysses? On the one hand, you could just say that they are depicted negatively, as many have before, since the main female character conducts an extramarital affair behind her husband’s back and the majority of other women in the novel are badgering old shrews. But Joyce does something at the end of his masterpiece that frankly throws a monkey wrench into the works of that line of thinking: he concludes the novel with a 45-page stream-of-conscious rant conducted not by Bloom or even Stephen but Molly, Bloom’s supposedly unfaithful wife. In this extremely dense section of the novel (there is absolutely no expository narrative here telling us what is going on outside Molly’s head–we only get her reactions), we come to understand that Molly sought out her affair only because she suspected her husband of having an affair first, or at least of falling out of love with her (the real reason, we learn from Bloom, is his fear of making–and losing–another child like his deceased young son, Rudy). We also see how vulnerable she is, how much she hates having to deal with the aforementioned old shrews and all of the drooling, salacious men who can’t look her in the face because they’re too busy looking about ten inches south. And as Molly’s thoughts come to their climax–just as she’s falling asleep–she remembers how and why she fell in love with Leopold, how he proposed, and how sensitive and romantic he is and always has been.

So in a sense, by giving us the varying perspectives of young Stephen, middle-aged Bloom, and on-the-cusp-of-middle-aged Molly, Joyce gives us not so much a depiction of just an “everyman,” but of an “everyhuman.” We see the inner-workings of our minds and the reasons for our motives.

Honestly–what more could we ever possibly ask from a novel?

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'Finngegans Wake': Get your Guinness out before starting to read

'Finngegans Wake': Get your Guinness out before starting to read

And at last we come to Finnegans Wake–and no, that lack of an apostrophe in Finnegans is not a typo. Go ahead and take a look at this etext version of the book. Go ahead–just humor me.

Welcome back. Take some tylenol or drink a Guinness to help calm your nerves.

I do not mean to sound as though I do not like this book. Quite to the contrary, I very much love this book, or at least I love the idea of loving this book. On the whole I’ve probably only read forty pages or so of its entirety, particularly the famous “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section, but the majority of it is completely incomprehensible to the lay reader, indeed, even to the educated reader. Unless you are fluent in a multitude of languages from around the globe, you are going to miss out on any “meaning”. And yet, I’m not sure that “meaning” in this case is restricted to what the words themselves signify, but rather what the usage of words signifies. Certainly, you can read the book and bend the text here and there to work out Joyce’s depiction of the cyclical nature of existence, but you get this same depiction when you look at the usage of the words. Take, for example, the first sentence of the novel:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Now take a look at the book’s last sentences:

End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given ! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

The absence of the capital “R” in the opening sentence and period at the end of the last sentence was by no means a mistake. Joyce was, after all, a meticulous editor of his own work. Let’s take a look what happens when we rearrange the above quotes so that the first sentence is placed after the last sentence:

End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given ! A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

The first sentence of the novel is in fact the conclusion to its last sentence. It is, in short cyclical. Every beginning leads to an end and every end leads to a beginning. Just as water runs through the River Liffey, then out to the sea, is evaporated into the clouds, and rained back down into the Liffey, so is life itself cyclical: we are born, we live, we die, we decompose into the earth, the earth brings forth new plants, these plants are eaten by herbivores, humans eat herbivores, grow strong, and then give life to new humans. (Vegetarians are no exception to this chain, by the way, for they simply cut out the herbivore section and directly eat the plants.)

The frustrating thing for many readers of the Wake is that Joyce doesn’t come right out and give us this idea. Rather, he makes us work for it. We cannot even read the book coventionally, for if we were, we just come upon words that look as though they were spelled by a three year old. When you come upon these words (i.e., “mememormee”), pronounce them aloud. “Mememormee” starts to sound an awful lot like “Me memormy,” which itself sounds an awful lot like an Irishman with a heavy dialect might say, “My memory.” Take, even the real word “Liffey”: doesn’t that sound remarkably close to “Livia”, Anna Livia Plurabelle’s middle name, who is herself a physical embodiment of the river? These word puzzles are on every page, so Joyce (and Samuel Beckett, who was Joyce’s secretary and seeing-eye writer during the creation of the Wake since Joyce was nearly blind by the time it was finished) gives us plenty to look at, pronounce, and try to figure out.

The professor of the Joyce Honors Seminar I took in college instructed us to drink at least two Guinnesses before attempting to read the Wake, and honestly, you need to be a little relaxed in order to distance your mind from any conventional reading or analysis your non-Guinnessed brain would otherwise try to apply to the book. You need to forget everything that your English teachers told you about understanding literature because in the Wake, Joyce lays down an entirely new set of rules. There is no plot and no traditional character development, but there is meaning on every page, and humor, too, though these are cloaked with portmanteau words from an estimated sixty to seventy world languages (click here for more info) and with “re-spellings” of words to reflect more realistic dialectical pronunciations. And yet, we read Finnegans Wake for the same reasons we read all literature: to embark on a journey of understanding. The only difference is that Joyce makes us solve 628 pages of verbal conundrums along the way.

[A quick note on the lack of an apostrophe in the title: even though there is an apostrophe in the title of the song that gives the Wake its title, Joyce removed it so that instead of being one man’s wake, we have the constant wake of multiple Finnegans; in this way, Finnegans Wake is about an entire world of constantly dying and reviving Finnegans–that is, us.]

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The reason why Joyce is such a pervasive part of literary history is not merely because his writing style and use of the stream-of-consciousness technique happened to influence generations of writers, nor is it because he gives us an unflinching depiction of the human condition. Certainly, he is guilty of these crimes against literary tradition, but above all else, Joyce forces us to think; he requires us to be alert at all times during our reading and eschew traditional methods of literary analysis when he sees fit. But once we’ve completed a Joycean journey of cognitive peril, we receive boons greater than any we’ll ever receive upon completing other works. We get understanding, we get honesty, we get love. In short, we get life.

Pontius Pilate portrayed by…David Bowie?! and Other Thoughts on Pilate

Bowie pulls off a very believable portrayal of Pilate as a bureaucrat, not the epitome of evil

Bowie pulls off a very believable portrayal of Pilate as a bureaucrat, not the epitome of evil

Yes, it’s true. And here’s the best part of the surprise: he‘s terrific! Though he’s only on-screen for a few minutes towards the end of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), his portrayal of Pontius Pilate is resoundingly effective. He doesn’t play Pilate as the epitome of evil that some depictions paint him as, but instead as a busy bureaucrat who holds nothing personal against Jesus but is instead just doing what he needs to in order to maintain peace in his province. As he points out to Jesus soon before the crucifixion,

“You’re just another of these religious revolutionaries making difficulties. You take the people into the desert, you talk about God, love, mercy and the new kingdom, but you’re just the same as the Zealots. You all promise glory and bring death. There’s a new Messiah every week and a new one dies every week and Rome continues.”

For Christians to condemn Pilate or see him as “evil” is completely illogical, anyway, for had he inexplicably become sympathetic to Jesus’ cause, what would he have done? Not crucified him? Where would the Christian religion be then? Without a crucifixion, there would be no reason to celebrate Christ’s triumph over his humanity and, on the grander scale, death. In order to maintain an historically viable sense of what was going on in Jerusalem circa 32 A.D., we must understand that Pilate was merely a bureaucrat with a job to do. End of story.

Bowie’s delivery is appropriately level-headed and aloof. Even the words above, which can be read out of context as annoyance or frustration on Pilate’s part, are spoken in a very calm and reserved manner. He is, after all, a good Roman who is well versed in civilized manners and who practices the proper Roman modes of communication (“Don’t look in the air. Look at me. Answer me,” he says to Jesus early on in the scene). There is no hint of anger or vengeance in Bowie’s voice or demeanor, and so his portrayal is spot-on. Brief as it is, his performance is among the best in the film.

He is so good, in fact, that while my friend Maggie and I were watching the film, we didn’t even realize it was Bowie in the role. We merely commented to each other about how well portrayed Pilate is. Only after doing some research on the cast for my reflection on the movie did I realize who he was. Who would have thought that Ziggy Stardust would have ever been a perfect Pilate? Well, Scorsese, I guess. But all the same: Bravo, Bowie!

Reflection: ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’

Mary (Verna Bloom), Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), Jesus (Willem Defoe), and Judas (Harvey Keitel)

Mary (Verna Bloom), Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), Jesus (Willem Defoe), and Judas (Harvey Keitel)

[Preface: This reflection will not cover the technical aspects of the film since in a discussion of a film so packed with ideas as this is, things like acting, set direction, costumes, etc. become moot points. Suffice it to say, this is a Scorsese picture, which means it is executed professionally and believably. The only incredulity becomes an issue is at the end, when Harvey Keitel’s Brooklyn accent inexplicably emerges in the midst of his “Old Judas” voice; but again, that’s just small potatoes compared to the bigger pictures here.]

Before the first scene of Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ even appears before our eyes, we are given a quote by Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of the book on which this film is based, that discusses his own personal struggle between matters of the flesh and matters of the spirit. We then get the following statement:

This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.

To be fair, it does owe a lot to the Gospels. We get depictions of several famous scenes right out of the New Testament, such as Jesus’ struggle with Satan in the desert and his performances of miracles like curing the blind, raising Lazarus from the dead, etc. Even so, these events are mere scaffolding for the larger goal of the film, namely to depict Jesus’ struggle with his dual human and divine natures.

There is a scene early in the film in which Jesus (Willem Defoe) meets with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) in the brothel in which she works. There is some sort of romantic past between them that we never discover the true nature of, though we can be sure it never elevated to a sexual level, for Mary assures him that if he were to stay with her, he would “remain a virgin.” In this scene, however, we see Jesus struggling to not give into his desires to do more than remain with Mary; he is angry, apologetic, and ultimately solemn. Wrestling with sin is a common occurrence for Jesus, and this struggle is depicted quite lucidly. Scorsese reminds us early and often of Jesus’ dual human and divine natures; certainly, having the desires of a young man but the purity of God would be enough to cause even the most holy man to wage a war against himself.

Defoe and Scorses during the production of the film

Defoe and Scorses during the production of the film

Much of the middle section of the film does not deviate much from the Gospels; this is Jesus’ time as a rabbi (the word means “teacher,” after all) and miracle-worker. This is when we see him walk into the desert and struggle with Satan’s various temptations; this is when we see him  scold the crowd tormenting Mary Magdalene for being the ones to cast the first stone; this is when we see him cure a man’s blindness by rubbing a mixture of spit and dirt on the man’s eyes; this is when we see him call Lazarus back from death and forth from the tomb; and this is when we see him walk into the Temple in Jerusalem and destroy the money-changers’ stalls for daring to earn a profit in a house of God. Still, even amidst all of this adherence to the strict interpretations of the Gospels, there is the occasional scene in which we see Jesus struggle with his dual human and divine natures. He confides to Judas (Harvey Keitel), for instance, that when he saw the crowd torturing Mary Magdalene, he only wanted to kill them, but that when he opened his mouth, all he could talk about was love. He understands that he has a special gift, but he doesn’t quite yet understand why. Much later in the film, after Jesus has come to terms with his fate, he cries to God during his famous visit to Gethsemane, “Why Crucifixion? Is there no other way?” At this point, he still doesn’t quite understand his purpose.

Perhaps the greatest controversy arises from the closing segment of the film. Just as the Gospels say, we see Jesus betrayed by Judas, meet with Pontius Pilate (David Bowie [!]), beaten by soldiers, and eventually crucified on Golgotha. It is at this point, however, when he cries out to God, asking why he’s been abandoned, that the narrative deviates from the Gospels: a little girl appears on the screen, claiming she is Jesus’ guardian angel who has been sent by God to take him down from the cross, which she soon after does. Jesus and this supposed angel walk off while the crowd of people still look on at the crosses as though nothing has changed. The following sequence shows us Jesus marrying Magdalene, having a child with her, and going through the pain of watching her die. The angel explains that all women are a version of “Mary,” and soon after she takes him to Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who he marries and starts a family with. The sequence continues to progress at rapid pace, and soon we see Jesus in old age; as he is lying on his death bed, he is suddenly confronted by the older selves of his disciples. Judas comes in last, calling him a traitor and revealing that the supposed guardian angel is in fact Satan, who has managed to tempt Jesus into a life away from his purpose. With the Jewish Rebellion raging around him, Jesus crawls to Golgotha and begs God to put him back on the cross; he now realizes his purpose: he has been sent to sacrifice himself. Soon after this supplication, we cut to Jesus back on the cross. Though bleeding and broken, he smiles and cries, “It is accomplished! It is accomplished.” And indeed it is: Jesus has struggled with Satan and the dual natures of himself one last time and has emerged victorious, now able to fulfill his sacrificial purpose.

Jesus (Defoe) as a father in an imagined future in which he doesn't fulfill his sacrificial purpose

Jesus (Defoe) as a father in an imagined future in which he doesn't fulfill his sacrificial purpose

I can understand why this last segment of the film has garnered so much controversey. It is, strictly speaking, heretical, but only as heretical as, say, Monty Python‘s The Life of Brian or Salmon Rushdie‘s The Satanic Verses. Contrary to what the religious authorities in all doctrines want you to believe, “heresy” is not evil; rather, it simply means “non-canonical.” Heretical works are only guilty of depicting circumstances differently than the traditional beliefs of a given faith. The Last Temptation of Christ is in no way, shape, or form blasphemous, which means against God or a set of gods. There is nothing in this film that degrades Jesus or God or any other deity for that matter. If people are upset that Jesus struggles with (among other things) his urges to consummate his relationship with Mary Magdalene, then they are forgetting a key aspect of the New Testament’s description of Christ: his humanity. It is only human, after all, to lust. It’s quite something else to have the will-power to forgo that lust.

Jesus_Cross

Jesus (Defoe) accomplishes his sacrificial purpose

The Last Temptation of Christ gives us a story that, despite outward appearances, has much to offer for the entire human race, not merely a small portion of it. Regardless of which religion (if any) you proscribe to, you cannot deny the importance of the messages this film delivers, namely the need for unconditional love for those around you–and the human race at large–and the nobility of self-sacrifice for a greater cause. These are traits that are common to all religions, cultures, and time periods, and ones that I’m sure will continue to be depicted when our great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren pass away. Once you look beyond the hype and close-minded condemnations by various authoritarian institutions, you will see that The Last Temptation of Christ is in fact an intensely religious depiction of the eternal spiritual conflict that we all struggle with throughout our lives.

We are only human, after all.

On Wikipedia

As a rule, teachers and professors tend to demonize Wikipedia. I guess this is somewhat justified since we don’t want our kids flocking to the site to copy and paste information for a research project (side-note: we can always tell when students copy and paste; we have our ways of revealing this information). But in reality, while e-graffiti is splattered throughout the site, the majority of the information–an overwhelming majority, in fact–is actually factual. Just because anybody can edit some of the articles doesn’t automatically make the information any less valid. [I should note, however, that certain articles, such as that on Barack Obama, are on “article probation,” which means they are watched very closely and that public editors may be banned for making “disruptive edits” So you see, there is a certain level of credibility at Wikipedia.]

What teachers and professors should do is use Wikipedia as a teaching tool. I can imagine, for instance, an English assignment in a Great Expectations unit in which the teacher instructs the class to read through the article on Charles Dickens, discuss the main points, and evaluate the information’s veracity.  Ah, critical thinking. Should Wikipedia be used as a  source for research assignments? I’m still going to have to say no; with assignments that require valid research, you don’t want to run the risk of including information that may be misguided, biased, or flat-out wrong, which is a small but nevertheless real risk you run with the majority of Wikipedia articles out there.  And anyway, students need to learn to use resources like electronic databases and–yes,  shocking as it is–books. On the other hand, if you’re just looking for some quick information for informal purposes, say you want to know where James Joyce was born or what exactly The Juliet Letters is, then Wikipedia is your best bet. It’s fast and [almost completely] reliable information.

Plus, it’s super easy to hyperlink to. Viva la Wikipedia!

Reflection: ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’

Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and Anne (Natalie Portman) prepare to meet King Henry VIII

Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and Anne (Natalie Portman) prepare to meet King Henry VIII; if only the rest of the film could be as vibrant as their dresses

Justin Chadwick‘s The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) opens with three little children playing in a golden field, their parents close at hand discussing the futures of the girls–meaning, of course, who they will marry. We recognize from the parents’ dialogue that the children are the Boleyn kids, Anne, Mary, and George; thus we know immediately that this tale is going to be sordid and end quite unhappily. After all, Anne Boleyn, though she did give birth to one of the most famous monarchs in history, is best remembered for losing her head at the request of her husband, King Henry VIII. And so, Chadwick’s film–like the novel it was adapted from–has the difficult task of accurately depicting the sordid stories of Anne and Mary Boleyn and Henry VIII without exploiting the more repugnant aspects of history and sinking to the depths of melodrama.

Overall, Chadwick completes this task competently. There are times when melodrama starts to rear its ugly head, but these moments are fortunately fleeting. There is some good acting in the film, particularly by Kristin Scott Thomas as Elizabeth Boleyn and Eric Bana as Henry VIII. Neither of these actors once bow to sappiness, though their roles ostensibly call for it often. There is also a certain on-screen chemistry between Scarlett Johansson (as Mary Boleyn) and Natalie Portman (as the infamous Anne Boleyn) that allows the actresses to believably clash or embrace, depending on the situation. The dialogue might be silly and a bit anachronistic at times, but at least Johansson and Portman feel like sisters; this is a necessity the film needs to pull off, and it does so wonderfully.  I will say, however, that Portman’s acting does at times seem artificial and overdone, which is upsetting because she used to seem so natural in her roles as a young girl (i.e., Leon: the Professional) before she was corrupted by the likes of George Lucas and His Amazing Technicolor Special Effects Prequels. Hopefully this is just a phase she is going through and will soon snap out of it and return to her roots as a natural actress.

Eric Bana as King Henry VIII

Eric Bana as King Henry VIII

The set and costume design is standard for Tudor-England pieces: dark, looming castles, enough puffy shirts to give Jerry Seinfeld a nightmare, and lots of codpieces. But unlike Shekhar Kapur‘s magnificent Elizabeth (1998), The Other Boleyn Girl does not offer much vibrancy in its color schemes, so unless the scene happens to be outdoors in the country (which we are treated to at least a couple of times), we are bombarded with utterly drab grays and greens. Had we just a bit more variety of color, the film might have been a bit more engaging and memorable.

The plot more or less follows the overall historical story arc of Henry and the Boleyn girls, though there are several moments of poetic license. Take, for instance, the love that is apparently shared by Henry and Mary: at first, Mary is disgusted by the new role as His Majesty’s Mistress, particularly because she’s just recently been married, but after she and Henry have sex a couple of times, she’s suddenly madly in love with him. Frankly, knowing what I do about Henry, it’s safe to say that he got around, but I find it hard to believe that he was that good. Also, while it is historically accurate that Anne and her brother George (Jim Sturgess) were technically executed for allegedly committing incest, I tend to not believe the accusation; it reeks of the types of political lies that rampaged through royal courts of the time. More than likely the charge was fabricated in order to give Henry an excuse to be rid of Anne, who could apparently not bear him a son (though she did give him a daughter who was probably more successful than any son would have been). Even so, the film becomes almost cringe-worthy in a scene in which Anne and George actually attempt to have sex in hopes of impregnating Anne with a boy, thus giving Henry a reason to keep her around. Thankfully, they do not go through with the ordeal. This would have been an entirely different film if they had.

The Other Boleyn Girl is not the extravagant, sordid tale I look for in narratives about the Tudors. It is a good film, but not a great one. Had he even slightly tweaked some of the acting,  set and costume designs, and some of the more incredulous elements of the plot, Chadwick would have had an engaging and memorable film. Instead, we have a somewhat drab and superficial account of the Boleyn-Tudor saga with some traces of good acting and silly if nevertheless enjoyable dialogue. I was quite taken, however, by the ending of the film: like in its opening sequence, we see three children running through a field of golden grass. We know that these are not Anne, Mary, and George this time, though, for Mary and her new husband are walking close at hand. The last shot freezes upon one of the children, a particularly radiantly red-haired little girl who is named, we are told by the caption, Elizabeth. If Chadwick had stuck closer to poignant moments like these and steered clear of the more insidious and melodramatic elements of the plot, The Other Boleyn Girl just may have been a masterpiece; and while it is far from being complete codswallop, it is also far from being great.

The Girl Who Would Be Queen

The Girl Who Would Be Queen

Reflection: ‘Elizabeth’

Blanchett as the Girl Who Would Be Queen

Blanchett as the Girl Who Would Be Queen

The first thing we see in Shekhar Kapur‘s Elizabeth (1998) is the burning of three “Protestant heretics” in the name of Queen Mary, Elizabeth‘s fervently Catholic sister. Their heads have been shaved–to the point that their scalps are bleeding–and they are desperately crying out to their God for salvation and a quick death, which the fire will most undoubtedly not give them. It is a brutal beginning to the film, but it sets the necessary tense, dark tone for the narrative and provides us with a good depiction of just how nasty and aggressive tensions were between the Catholics and Protestants in England shortly after Henry VIII‘s death. This is the social climate into which Elizabeth, an unabashed Protestant, ascends the throne.

And people think President Obama has it rough.

Before she is even crowned, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is in fact arrested for her Protestantism by the  order of her sister, Mary I (Kathy Burke); after all, things between Our Lady Liz and the infamous “Bloody Mary” were anything but cordial. As Mary so bluntly puts it, the daughter of “that whore Anne Boleyn” will never be Queen.  So much for foresight.  We must remember that Old King Henry annulled his marriage to Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Elizabeth’s mother, the infamous Anne Boleyn, so Mary’s deep-seated hatred for the Other-Other Boleyn Girl and her progeny is at least understandable. Mary is also furious with Elizabeth because she has apparently been the center of a Protestant plot to overthrow the Catholic Queen, though if this truth extends any further than the mouths of Mary’s advisers, Elizabeth certainly had nothing to do with it and had no knowledge of what was happening. At least, this Elizabeth doesn’t. To be sure, when we first see her in the film, she is  frolicking about with her hand-maidens and the dashing Robert Dudley, Lord of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes). A bright and upbeat moment like  this in a film like Elizabeth can only survive so  long, and indeed, not two minutes into her frolic,  Elizabeth is  arrested. Her walk to the Tower is depicted in an appropriately terrifying fashion: all the light and color from the previous scene is gone and is instead replaced by darkness and shadows; her happy maidens have been replaced by a desperate crowd, many of whom lay on the side of the road begging for help even as they are beaten by the soldiers escorting Elizabeth. Playtime is over, and Kapur makes no bones about depicting this. Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne was not the fairytale dream that little girls fantasize about but rather a waking nightmare, rife with murder and broken families, and the film remains brutally faithful to this.

Elizabeth is led through the labyrinthine Tower of London to her cell

Elizabeth is led through the labyrinthine Tower of London to her cell

Shortly after entering the Tower, Elizabeth is interrogated by a group of men. This is a key scene in the film for it foreshadows Elizabeth’s life after her sister dies and she is crowned Queen surrounded by men trying to get something out of her. Elizabeth truly was the center of a man’s world, as she reminds us so keenly in Judi Dench‘s portrayal of her in Shakespeare in Love: “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.” The rest of the film is spent depicting Elizabeth’s adjustment to this new “profession” as she transforms from the somewhat naive girl that frolics in the fields to the hardened Queen who orders secret assassinations of political rivals and swears off a life of love and happiness in order to secure her power. It does not exactly play out like a tragedy, though we can be fairly certain by the end of the film that the happy maiden is dead and the Virgin Queen has taken her place.

Among the many stellar technical aspects of this film is the acting. There are  no unbelievable or melodramatic portrayals here, and certainly, melodrama could easily be evoked in a story filled with broken families, assassination attempts, and lost love. I cannot imagine another actress doing as much justice or bringing as much credibility to the role of young Elizabeth as Cate Blanchett does here. Observe, for instance, the scene in which she practices in a mirror what she  will say to an assembly of Bishops who all seemingly want to see her out of power: breathlessly and in a near-panic, she stumbles over her words and even growls at the mirror at one point. We see a vulnerability here that would otherwise be overlooked by a less practiced actress. Elizabeth, after all, was only human, and Blanchett does a marvelous job of bringing that humanity to the screen.

Also of note is Richard Attenborough, whose portrayal of William Cecil reveals a man who is at once sympathetic to Elizabeth’s various emotions and yet firmly grounded in what he believes is best for his country. For instance, despite the fact that he sees that Elizabeth is hopelessly in love with Robert Dudley, he attempts to steer her away from him–even coldly, at times–in order to get her to marry a foreign monarch like Henri, Duc d’Anjou (Vincent Cassel) to cement her seat on the throne. In the end, we see he has both Elizabeth’s and the country’s best interests at heart, most likely because he doesn’t differentiate between the two:  Elizabeth is England. Attenborough makes Cecil walk the thin line between sympathy for Elizabeth and love of country effortlessly, and though he is at times antagonistic to the passion and romance in the narrative, we never truly dislike him because he feels like a grandfather, and grandfathers almost always know best. Certainly, had Cecil not been by Elizabeth’s side to ward off Dudley, we might not have ended up with the Virgin Queen, and oh, what a different world we would live in if that were the case.

William Cecil (Attenborough) walks a fine line in 'Elizabeth'

William Cecil (Attenborough) walks a fine line in 'Elizabeth'

Despite a good show of performances from the entire cast, the actor who truly steals the show is Geoffrey Rush as Francis Walsingham. The real-life Walsingham is remembered as being the “spymaster” of the Elizabethan court, for he conducted espionage for the Queen which undoubtedly led to the deaths of several of Elizabeth’s political enemies. In the film, Walsingham goes as far as to take Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant), a direct antagonist of Elizabeth and her Protestant court, to bed and leave her mysteriously dead the next morning. Unfortunately, this is not how it happened in real life, but Rush brings such credibility to his role as the spymaster that we believe without question that it could have happened. He depicts Walsingham as being a dark, untrustworthy character who constantly profiles the people around him in order to sort out his allies from those he’ll have to murder. When we watch Rush speak to others on-screen, we can almost see the wheels turning in his head as his character decides whether a person could be useful or be a hindrance. We frequently see him lurking in the shadows or in the background, keeping a perceptive eye on those who could bring an end to Elizabeth’s power–and by extension, his own. Rush doesn’t allow us to trust Walsingham, but he does at least make us happy that Walsingham is on Elizabeth’s side.

Geoffrey Rush steals the show as the sinister--but necessary--Walsingham

Geoffrey Rush steals the show as the sinister--but necessary--Walsingham

The only problems I found with the acting come from two otherwise terrific actors: John Gielgud and Joseph Fiennes. Gielgud does a splendid job depicting Pope Pius V, the pope who officially excommunicated the “heretical” Elizabeth from the [Catholic] Church, but we see far too little of him–quite unfortunate since this was his last film. Fiennes’ role, on the other hand, is overshadowed by his other 1998 role: William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love (which also features Queen Elizabeth as well as Fiennes and Rush). I could not help but  see Dudley and think, “What’s Will doing frolicking in the fields with Elizabeth?” This problem  arises, I think, from the fact that he plays Dudley almost exactly as he plays Shakespeare: desperately melancholic and heartbroken. But even this may not be Fiennes’ fault since both the Dudley character and the Shakespeare character are written  to be that way; after all, how many ways can one portray melancholy and heartbreak?

[As  a side-note on the acting: look for Daniel Craig as John Ballard, the man who the Pope sends to try to remove Elizabeth by force; even in 1998 Craig was a secret agent man.]

Also of interest in this film is its visual aspect. Kapur, an Indian director, dresses the Elizabethan characters and sets–usually so drab and depressing, which may not be entirely accurate despite the somber atmosphere that pervaded those times–in bright colors, particularly reds and oranges, which are certainly characteristic of his native country. Regardless of the English-Indian culture clash, the color schemes work and add much flavor to the film. Indeed, with such dark subject matter spread ubiquitously throughout the rest of the film, it may have been a tad too gloomy without Kapur’s masterful use of the vibrant colors.

William Shakespeare--I mean, Lord Dudley--and Elizabeth share a moment on a wonderously decorated barge

William Shakespeare--I mean, Lord Dudley--and Elizabeth share a moment on a wonderously decorated barge

Elizabeth concludes much as it begins: with the shearing of hair and a religious declaration. This time around, however, Elizabeth is bobbing her hair not because she is being forced to, but because she is choosing to: she is assuming the role of the Virgin Queen. When last we see her, she looks much like she does in the “Darnley Portrait“, complete with the white make-up and highly ornamental headdress (though with Cate Blanchett’s much prettier face). Surprisingly, Kapur chose the “Introitus” movement from Mozart’s Requiem to accompany this scene, but the anachronism works, for we are, after all, watching the death of the young, naive, and romantic Elizabeth and the rebirth of the “heavenly” (at least in appearance) Virgin Queen. It is a poignant and spiritual ending to a film so saturated in religious fervor and opinions.

The Virgin Queen ushers in the Golden Age

The Virgin Queen ushers in the Golden Age

Some critics have attacked this film for being “anti-Catholic,” but I don’t think that’s really Kapur’s fault, for the film’s subject ultimately was anti-Catholic in real-life, at least doctrinely speaking. Rest assured that this film sets out to do nothing more than historically depict the extreme lengths that one of the world’s greatest leaders had to resort to in order to protect the best interests of her country. And without a doubt, Elizabeth achieves its goal.

Romanticism: The Movement That Gave Us Spontaneous Combustion

Whenever I talk about Romanticism to people who aren’t as geekish as me when it comes to literature, they tend to think I’m referring to some movement started by Danielle Steele. “Why would you take a course called ‘Romantic Literature and Culture’–I thought you hated romance novels!” It’s a sad state of affairs when a highly impassioned and influential aesthetic movement is completely overshadowed by a silly genre rife with hack writers, thanks to an unfortunate similarity in naming. Oh well; if nothing else, clearing this misunderstanding up allows me to do what I love–blather on about literature.

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Romanticism–at least Romantic literature–has its roots in writers like William Blake, William Wordsworth, and the ever opium-loving Sam Coleridge, who were all writing from a point of view in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that contradicted the scientific rationalization of the world so piously upheld by the philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment. These so-called Englightened thinkers saw nature as knowable and therefore controllable; Romantics, on the other hand, saw nature as wild, untambeable, and overwhelmingly sublime. Along similar lines, the Romantics upheld individual imagination and powerful emotions, which contrasts directly with the Enlightenment’s firm advocacy of reason; after all, imagination and emotions are anything but reasonable. And so, we get poems like William Blake’s “London,” in which we get descriptions of woeful chimney sweeps and blind, suffering infants that arouse powerful feelings of pity; we get William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” in which the poet ruminates on the sublime qualities of nature as he looks upon the abandoned, decaying church; and we get Sam Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” in which the poet discusses the comforting qualities of nature and his hyperbolic hopes that his son will live a life connected to nature. We also get, I should note, Mary Shelley‘s deliciously Romantic novel, Frankenstein (1818), in which the titular doctor is constantly portrayed as being quite intellectual, but also quite sensitive and even somewhat wild.

The European Romantic movement was paralleled by an American Romantic movement, which in many ways influenced and was influenced by its adherents across the sea. There is the wonderfully bizarre early American novel, Wieland (1798), in which the main character becomes a member of a fanatical and bloody religious cult and murders his wife and children under the influence of a demonic ventriloquist; the novel even features spontaneous combustion, anticipating the spontaneous combustion of drummers in This Is Spinal Tap by about 120 years. While this predates the Romantic era in Europe by a few years, it nevertheless exemplifies the Romantic movement’s overt evocation of emotions and descriptions of wild and untameable nature (surely, the poor man in the story would not spontaneously combust if he could control it…). Of particular note is that the novel predominantly evokes horror, which would in turn later become a topic of great interest for Romantic authors such as Mary Shelley just a couple decades later. Another profoundly Romantic American novel–more famous, perhaps, than any other Romantic work–is Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which the crazed Captain Ahab fanatically seeks out the titular giant white whale. To be sure, the monstrous whale is a symbol for the sublime–and dangerous–qualities of nature. Imagine, for example, that you are on a ship at sea and see a giant sperm whale charging you; wouldn’t you suddenly feel small and pitifully insignficant? Certainly, most readers of Moby-Dick have and will; the novel’s terrifying depictions of awe-inspiring nature (via the whale) have no doubt led to the cause of its massive and continued appeal.

Romanticism had a profound effect on the literature and culture of the Western world even after its disappearance from mainstream thought and practice. Take, for example, the fervent, almost melodramatic emotions that run amok throughout all of the principle characters in DickensGreat Expectations and Tolkien‘s depictions of nature as being wild, untameable, and sublime in the Lord of the Rings. Readers today tend to see Romantic writing as “cheesy” and “trite,” especially when you have guys like Coleridge hyperbolizing left and right (“But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze / By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags / Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds…”). Then again, this Romantic style of writing has only become trite because it has been copied by a plethora of imitators over the last 150 years, a sure sign of its lasting effect. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine literature after the mid-19th century without the impassioned Romantic movement; surely, literature would have become very boring, indeed.

I, for one, will gladly take spontaneous combustion over anything “rational” any day.

Reflection: ‘Apocalypto’

Seven and Jaguar Paw share a tender moment at the beginning of the film
Seven and Jaguar Paw share a tender moment beside the fire

Mel Gibson‘s Apocalypto should be taught in comparative mythology classes–there are archetypes everywhere. There’s the hero figure; the maternal wife figure; the wise elder figure; a descent into hell; and a rescue from without, among others. According to Gibson himself, he set out to reinvigorate the action-adventure genre. What he ended up with, however, was a brilliant mythic narrative.

This is not to say that the film is not an action-adventure film, for in fact it is an exceptional action-adventure film, including one of the best chases I can remember. It triumphs over even the most exciting car chases because it maintains a towering level of suspense and yet is bare-bones: a man is running from other men in the middle of a steamy jungle rife with poisonous snakes, deadly jaguars, and roaring waterfalls. How does it come to this point? Through a familiar–though far from cliched–story.

A young warrior named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) lives with his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and little boy, Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez), along with his father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), and a variety of others in a peaceful Mayan village somewhere in the jungle on the Yucatan Peninsula. Their homes are raided one morning by a band of Holcane warriors led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trajillo). Jaguar Paw manages to sneak his wife and son to a nearby chasm, which he lowers them into before returning to the village to help fight off the attack. He is eventually subdued by Zero Wolf and made to watch as his father’s neck is slit by a particularly nasty Holcane warrior named Middle Eye (Gerardo Teracena). Before dying, Flint Sky offers Jaguar Paw words of wisdom that see him through to the end of the film: “My son…don’t be afraid.”

Jaguar Paw runs to protect his village
Jaguar Paw runs to protect his village

The rest of the narrative leading up the chase involves Jaguar Paw and the remaining villagers (minus Seven and Turtles Run, who are safe though abandoned in the chasm) being taken to a large Mayan city where some are to be sold into slavery while others are to be sacrificed on an altar atop a Mayan pyramid. En route to the city, the travelers encounter yet another mythic archetype: an oracle. In this case, the oracle is a little girl who is apparently sick with some kind of disease. She says to the Holcane warriors, in an appropriately mystical fashion:

You fear me? So you should. All you who are vile. Would you like to know how you will die? The sacred time is near. Beware the blackness of day. Beware the man who brings the jaguar. Behold him reborn from mud and earth. For the one he takes you to will cancel the sky, and scratch out the earth. Scratch you out. And end your world. He’s with us now. Day will be like night. And the man jaguar will lead you to your end.

We, of course, know exactly who “the man who brings the jaguar” is.

Not surprisingly, Jaguar Paw is chosen to be sacrificed atop the pyramid, and so is covered with blue paint (a nice incidental visual connection to the blue-faced rebels in Gibson’s Braveheart). However, our hero is archetpyically saved by a solar eclipse, which the priest sees as a good sign from the god Kukulkan. The surviving warriors who were to be sacrificed are led to an amphitheater where they are released in pairs and shot at by the Holcane warriors with arrows, javelins, and stones for sport. One thing leads to another, and Jaguar Paw eventually kills the “finisher” (the warrior in charge of finishing off the victims who are hit by the projectiles) who happens to be Cut Rock (Ricardo Diaz Mendoza), Zero Wolf’s son. Thus ensues the chase.

HumanSacrifice
Warriors are sacrificed atop the pyramid before the massive crowd

I mentioned earlier that Flint Sky’s dying words were, “My son…don’t be afraid.” Fear is a motif that runs fluidly throughout this narrative. We see it in the beginning of the film on the faces of runaway refugees who are ostensibly fleeing from the Holcane warriors; we see it on the faces of the warriors about to be sacrificed to Kukulkan; we see it in the massive crowd of people gathered before the mighty temple, people who are all fearful of the gods due to a devastating plague that has destroyed their crops and an inexplicable sickness that is killing off their population. We do not see it on Jaguar Paw’s face, not even when he is about to be sacrificed; we don’t see it on his face while he’s defending the village from the raiders; we don’t see it on his face during the arduous and painful trek to the city; in fact, the only time we do see Jaguar Paw afraid is when his family or close friends are in danger. Not once do we see him afraid for his own life. Why? Because he is a good epic hero who follows the words of wisdom from the wise man figure (in this case, his father).

At the start of the chase, Jaguar Paw tumbles into an open pit of rotting bodies, which would serve no clear purpose unless we were looking at the narrative archetypically; surrounded by death, the hero has unmistakably taken a symbolic tumble into hell. Joseph Campbell refers to situations like this as “the belly of the whale,” in which the hero is thrust from the known world, passing a “magical threshold” and “would appear to have died” . While the pit of corpses may not necessarily be described as “magical,” it can nevertheless be described as separate from the known world that one expects to see, and in any case, with the surviving raiders close behind him, it does appear that Jaguar Paw is about to die. But he doesn’t, as we really know he won’t, and he disappears into the jungle, where he encounters even more archetypes.

In a panicked attempt to hide from the pursuing Holcane warriors, Jaguar Paw climbs into a tree which is inhabited by–what else?–a black jaguar. The next thing we know, he is being chased by both the Holcane warriors and the jaguar. Fortunately for Jaguar Paw, theis jaguar attacks and kills one of the Holcane warriors. But wait–why does this sound strangely familiar? Ah yes, as the diseased Oracle Girl prophesied: “Beware the man who brings the jaguar.” Prophesies–standard in mythic narratives like Apocalypto–are coming true. It isn’t too long before this scene that “day [is] like night” during the solar eclipse.

HolcaneWarriorChase
The Holcane Warriors, led by Zero Wolf (far right) chase Jaguar Paw

The chase eventually leads Jaguar Paw and the Holcane warriors to a river that is tumbling down via a waterfall. In mythic narratives from the Greek myths of heroes crossing the River Styx to James Joyce‘s multilingual (and multi-headache inducing) Finnegans Wake, rivers are archetypal thresholds between two different “worlds,” generally between an old life and a new one. In this case, we see Jaguar Paw transition from the “old life” as the hunted to the “new life” as the hunter. As he proudly proclaims to Zero Wolf and the other Holcane hunters after fearlessly jumping off the waterfall, the jungle on the other side of the river is his jungle. He’s known it since childhood, so even though the hunters are still chasing him, he is now in an environment in which he can hunt them. Certainly, as he soon after emerges from a nearby pit of mud looking like what Anthony Lane calls, “…the first man on earth, hatching out of a myth,” Jaguar Paw is without a doubt an archetypal visage of a primeval hunter, camouflaged with mud and ready to sneak up on his prey. And don’t forget the Oracle Girl’s prophecy: “Behold him reborn from mud and earth.” Reborn, indeed.

At one point during the chase, Zero Wolf says that Jaguar Paw runs because he’s afraid, but we know differently. His top priority, of course, is returning to his hidden wife and son, who embark on their own mini-heroes’ journey of sorts within the confines of the chasm while Jaguar Paw undergoes his road of trials. Ensuring their safety is his ultimate goal and because we know this, the chase is exasperatingly effective. Were he simply running for his life, it would be infinitely more difficult to engage with him or hope for his survival. But because we know he’s racing to return to Seven and Turtles Run, we are so engaged with his flight that we feel his sweat dripping down our backs and feel our pulses beating as hard as his. Archetypically speaking, Seven and Turtles Run are the maternal wife and son figures common to mythic narratives; they are the progeny of other mother and son figures like Penelope and Telemachus from the Odyssey and the Madonna and Child from Christian symbology. This makes Jaguar Paw’s race home all the more urgent, which is a good thing since we aren’t given much of a chance to engage with them otherwise thanks to sparse screen time and dialogue. But because they are recognizable archetypes–symbols that speak to some part of our unconscious selves–we dearly fear for them and thus feel the almost unbearable suspense caused by the chase.

At the close of the chase, Jaguar Paw and the two surviving Holcane hunters wind up on a beach. Our hero collapses to his knees on the sand, and though their quarry is unmoving and right in front of them, the hunters do not acknowledge him but instead follow his gaze out in the sea. Through a brilliant display of camera work, the angle moves without cutting from its depiction of the three characters staring out at the sea to a point of view shot over Jaguar Paw’s shoulder, where we see what is apparently Christopher Columbus and his crew as they come to the Yucatan shore during Columbus’ fourth voyage. This archetypal sequence is unquestionably what Joseph Campbell calls “the rescue from without,” a segment common in mythic narratives where the hero is allowed to return to his everyday life–in this case, his life with his wife and son–with some outside help. From the Mayan point of view, you can’t get more outside than Christopher Columbus. The two remaining Holcane hunters bypass Jaguar Paw, which allows him to sneak back to the chasm, where he finds his wife and son–and the baby that Seven has just delivered. Now that’s a story to recount to your child later on in life: “What happened on the day you were born? Ah yes, I was running from a band of vengeful Holcane hunters and killed most of them but was able to sneak away when some white guys landed on shore.”

Jaguar Paw, exhausted and beaten, looks out to sea with the two surviving Holcane Warriors behind him doing the same
Jaguar Paw, exhausted and beaten, looks out to sea with the two surviving Holcane warriors behind him doing the same

With its masterful use of a variety of traditional archetypes throughout its gripping mythic narrative, Apocalypto realizes Gibson’s wish to reinvigorate the action-adventure genre. We care about the protagonist and his family because they symbolically represent parts of ourselves and the people we love, despite the fact that they may talk and look like Mayans. If action-adventure films are headed in this direction and away from the Fast and Furious types, I am going to be one happy camper.

On the Monomyth

Joseph Campbell‘s work, specifically his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, argues that there is a single, overarching narrative pattern which he calls the “monomyth” (or “hero’s journey”) that connects stories as varied as those of Perseus and Jesus Christ. While I think the pattern most certainly applies to many mythic narratives, it does not apply to all of them. Rather, it only applies to those featuring a somewhat naive hero who must go through a series of trials in order to learn something about himself and ultimately make the world a better place to live in. It doesn’t apply to mythic narratives such as Homer‘s Iliad or Odyssey, both of which come from Ancient Greece, the time and place most commonly associated with mythic stories. In those epics, we have heroes like Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus who are all at the top of their games; they have already gone on their own respective journeys and are heroes at the start of the narratives. None of them learn anything about themselves throughout the storyline and in fact remain quite static in terms of their characterization: stubborn Achilles at the beginning of the Iliad is still stubborn Achilles at its conclusion. To say that the monomyth applies to all myths is a gross generalization.

While the monomyth pattern does seem to work exceptionally well when applied to the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, Buddha, Christ, and others, there are also instances when Campbell’s pattern only partially applies. Take, for instance, the myth of Perseus: the young hero certainly does hear a call to adventure, finds love with a “goddess” (Andromeda), finds his ultimate boon (Medusa‘s head), experiences a magic flight, and returns with the freedom to live happily and peacefully. However, he does not surpass any material temptations from a woman, does not undergo any sort of apotheosis, does not refuse to return, and experiences no rescue from without. In this case, the monomyth pattern has a strong presence but is ultimately incomplete.

What I propose is this: it is safe to say that each of the seventeen steps of the monomyth do feature in various mythic narratives often enough for them to be considered archetypal, so we should view the monomyth as merely a collection of archetypes that can occur in myths, sometimes together, sometimes not. We can, for example, see the appearance of “Supernatural Aid” in the Odyssey whenever Athena shows up, but don’t have to give ourselves headaches trying to make the rest of Homer’s epic conform to Campbell’s pattern. Similarly, we can confidently say that the Perseus myth features the Meeting with the Goddess but not the Refusal to Return. While it is quite ridiculous to say that the monomyth applies to all mythic narratives, it is quite reasonable to say that it applies to some of them some of the time.

In Brief: On Tragic Heroes

Traditionally, a tragic hero is defined as a protagonist whose character contains a tragic flaw which eventually leads to some type of downfall. For example, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet is exceedingly impulsive and doesn’t think things through, which eventually leads to his hot-tempered suicide at the end of Act V; if he wasn’t so impulsive, he would think the situation through more thoroughly or would at least consult his old mentor, Friar Lawrence. But instead, he acts heatedly and without clear thought and drinks down a vile of poison, dying just moments before Juliet awakens from her feigned death. Tragic heroes like Romeo still pop up in our literary mediums today–books, plays, movies, and so on.  We have Sweeney Todd, who becomes so blinded by his bloody quest for vengence that he unknowingly murders his wife; there is Anakin Skywalker from the Star Wars prequels, who is so obsessed with preventing the death of his loved ones that he becomes power-hungry for the ability to prevent death and ends up falling to evil; you can even consider Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series a tragic hero since he–if only in back-story–falls under the sway of Voldemort due to his resentment for being made a social outcast by people like James Potter. These tragic heroes–from Romeo to Anakin Skywalker–show us that we all have our faults and–more importantly–the ability to let these faults ruin us. While we may not experience the melodrama or fantasy these ill-fated characters encounter, we too are guilty of the same faults and ultimately, the same tragic endings.

The Ancient Greeks saw the viewing of tragedies like Oedipus Rex as not just vital but as part of a man’s civic duty; they saw watching tragedies as important as we see voting. Why? The answer is quite simple–they felt tragic heroes provide the audience with instructions on how to live your life, or more precisely, how not to live your life. Do not, for example, let yourself become heated and impulsive; do not become blinded by vengence; do not become hungry for power; do not let resentment get the better of you; and so on. By living your life in contrast to someone like, say, Oedipus, you in turn are making yourself a decent and well-balanced citizen. Our contemporary society does not hold this view, and indeed, our output of tragedy is significantly less than that of the Ancient Greeks; sadly, we would rather produce mindless blockbusters like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which offer about as much instruction as a soda can. We are not so far above the Ancient Greeks that we don’t need instruction on how to be good people; in fact, this is one of the things I feel our society needs the most. We are just as human as the Ancient Greeks, after all, which means we have just as many faults. By watching (or reading about) tragic heroes, we can learn how to keep these faults in check and in turn function as decent, well-balanced members of our society.