Hemlock and Crucifixion

Rhetoric is dying a slow, painful death. In this world where literalism reigns, the use of words to elicit an illicit truth deeper than the factual is no longer recognized. We see it both in the humorless antics of the New Atheists and in the ravings of the Fundamentalists. Writers have always known—serious writers at least—that truth is so much more than an objective ticking off of what really happened. The post-modernists may seem insufferable at times, but they have taught us that true objectivity is false, a mythic holdover from imperialistic thought processes that believed here, in this single mind, bias does not exist. We all have biases. Except me, of course. Rhetoric again.

I do not get many comments on this blog. Usually it takes someone to disagree with my ramblings to gussy up the energy to dispute what I write. I try not to distort facts, but facts are rare commodities these days. George Orwell is not really dead, I mused as I stood by his gravestone in Sutton Courtenay. Should someone deny that I was there how should I prove it in this day of Photoshop and pixelated truth? And that wasn’t even his real name.

When I regularly taught, students would ask me what I believed. What I believe, I would respond, is not important. I am teaching a subject, a field of study. When is the last time you asked your chemistry professor what she believed? Would it matter? Of course, thoughts, I’m told, are only chemical reactions that lead to electrical charges. Miniature storms inside our skulls. Literally. Rhetoric folds its hands across its metaphorical chest and lays quietly, awaiting the pall.

Socrates had his method. He ended up an enemy of the state. Jesus told parables. He also ended up an enemy of the state. Rhetoric, make no mistake, is a dangerous game to play. The hearer, or the reader, hears or reads what s/he wants to hear or read. And in a literal world, people would rather not have to read too deeply, for truth, it is believed, lies plainly upon the surface. There used to be a word for such a surface reading, but should I write it here I would be guilty of using rhetoric. And rhetoric awaits the delivery of the flowers but few are the black-garbed mourners. It is best not to disturb the dead.

Photo credit: Eric Gaba, Wikicommons

Photo credit: Eric Gaba, Wikicommons

Old Myth

The Greek gods are in the ascendant again. They seldom disappear completely, but the big movie studios have rediscovered the special effects boon that only gods can deliver. When I first began to teach my Mythology course at Montclair State University, the Clash of the Titans remake and Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief were both released just as the class was getting underway. It seemed like interest had been lost since the original Clash of the Titans back in 1981 when I was still a student. Special effects then meant Ray Harryhausen. Now they are measured in terabytes and whatever is larger than that. So Immortals was released recently, but I haven’t seen it yet. Picking up on the sometimes forgotten hero Theseus, the Athenian answer to Hercules, the movie promises to bring the divine into the theater.

In the spate of movies showing gods, America is not yet ready for a movie featuring Yahweh. Oh, certainly there have been films where the god of Israel has loomed very large behind the scenes, but with a prohibition of making images—no paparazzi need apply—it seems unlikely that we’ll see a special effects extravaganza featuring the Almighty. Besides, few Americans have reconciled themselves with the mythic nature of many Bible stories. As politicians and televangelists insist, these stories are fact, not entertainment. GCI Yahweh always stops at the somewhat comic George Burns or Morgan Freeman figures. Charleton Heston, where have you gone? Yahweh of the Bible is a gun-toting, hard-talking, pestilence-slinging, American-style deity. And action is where it counts.

Critics say Immortals suffers on the side of story-line at the expense of gore and action. A factor that is often overlooked, however, is mythology’s inherent mutability. “The Classics,” as we grandly call them, do not derive from a super-Scripture of literalist myths. Each writer told his (less often, her) story in his (her) own way. Although there were those who took such stories literally, as Socrates will silently confess, I suspect not a few knew these were stories told to make a point. There is no right way to tell a myth. From Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts to Disney’s Hercules to Singh’s Immortals, mythology transcends the mere mortals telling it. This is the greatest shame of the modern world—we have traded the beauty of myth for a paltry handful of literalism approaches to religion. And the literary (and cinematic) world is much the poorer for it.

Theseus looking for immortality