Sunday, January 26, 2014

Notes on Storytelling and Epic of Gilgamesh

  • The mind's sensitivity to the meaning of life is impaired by fixed notions or perspectives on what it means to be human.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh opens with the convention of a frame -- a prologue that sets off the story of Gilgamesh's life. By referring to Gilgamesh's own act of writing, the narrator attempts to convince us that Gilgamesh was real and by calling the reader’s attention to the act of telling, the narrator reminds us that the truth of a story might lie in the very fact of it being a story. The frame blurs the distinction between Gilgamesh's world, or the world of the tale, and the reader’s world.
  •  Praising Gilgamesh's accomplishments, the narrator invites us to survey the city of Uruk: "Look at it still today.... Touch the threshold, it is ancient.... Climb upon the wall of Uruk.” The narrator asks the reader to imagine what they are about to hear.
  • Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man. Gilgamesh is a hero. He is beautiful, courageous, and terrifying. His desires, attributes, and accomplishments make him a representation of the ideals of the people of ancient Mesopotamia.
  •  Gilgamesh is also mortal: he must experience the death of others and die himself. This tells the reader that if someone who is more than human—someone who is an ideal—can reconcile with death then the reader, a human, can.   
  • The gods create Enkidu as a match for Gilgamesh, a second self: "`Let them contend together and leave Uruk in quiet." The plan works in several ways. First, Enkidu prevents Gilgamesh from entering the house of a bride and bridegroom; they fight and then they embrace as friends. Second, Enkidu and Gilgamesh undertake a journey into the forest to confront the terrible Humbaba.
  • While everlasting life is not his destiny, he tells Enkidu. "I will set up my name in the place where the names of famous men are written." Thus Gilgamesh turns his attention away from small personal desires to desires that benefit rather than harm Uruk.
  •  Enkidu teaches Gilgamesh what it means to be human; he teaches him the meaning of love and compassion, the meaning of loss and of growing older, the meaning of mortality.
  •  From its beginnings, Enkidu's story raises many questions on the nature of man. Created of clay and water and dropped into the wilderness, Enkidu is "innocent of mankind," knowing "nothing of cultivated land."
  • He lives in joy with the beasts until a trapper sees that Enkidu is destroying the traps and helping the beasts escape. The trapper needs to tame Enkidu just as the people of Uruk need to tame Gilgamesh, or to redirect his desires.
  • Civilization is less a thing than a process, the transformation of the primitive. Without the primitive, civilization would cease to exist. The Epic of Gilgamesh helps us see past the conventional classifications of "civilized" and "primitive" so that we might recall what each of us gains and loses in developing from one state of being to another.
  • Enkidu is seduced by the harlot and then rejected by the beasts. Recognizing the corruption in himself, civilized man corrupts primitive man to weaken him and make him one of his own. Yet for Enkidu as for human beings in general, sexual desire leads to domesticity, or love.
  • Ultimately, Enkidu's journey out of the wilderness and his adventure with Gilgamesh lead to his death, and, looking back in his sickness, Enkidu curses the walls of the city. Yet Shamash, the Sun God, reminds Enkidu that he would have never met Gilgamesh if he stayed in the wilderness and that Enkidu will be mourned by the people of Uruk and Gilgamesh.
  • Gilgamesh goes on a search for everlasting life. Two-thirds god, he is able to go farther than any ordinary human being.
  • Beside the sea, Gilgamesh meets Siduri, "the woman of the vine, the maker of wine," who reminds him of the meaningfulness of being human, "As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”
  • Utnapishtim reveals the mystery of his own possession of everlasting life. He tells Gilgamesh the story of the flood, of the time when the gods, unable to sleep for the uproar raised by mankind, agreed to destroy mankind, and would have succeeded had not Ea, one of man's creators, instructed Utnapishtim to build a boat and "take up into [it] the seed of all living creatures." The story is familiar not only because it anticipates Noah's story in the book of Genesis, but because it is the story of life, the story of destruction and renewal.
  • A serpent rises up and snatches away the plant that gives immortal life; immediately it sloughs its skin and returns to the well. This story is familiar, not only because we recognize this snake as a precursor of the more sinister one that appears in the Garden of Eden, but because we comprehend it as a symbol. The snake’s sloughing of its skin represents nature's pattern of regeneration.

Notes on Myth of Sisyphus and the Absurd

  • In philosophy, "the Absurd" refers to the conflict between (a) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and (b) the human inability to find any.
  • Finding inherent meaning will ultimately fail because the sheer amount of information as well as the vast realm of the unknown make certainty impossible.
  • There is a conflict between what we seek from the universe and what the universe has to offer.
  • Some absurdists state that one should embrace the absurd condition of humankind while conversely continuing to explore and search for meaning.
  • As a philosophy, absurdism thus also explores the fundamental nature of the Absurd and how individuals, once becoming conscious of the Absurd, should respond to it.

Atheistic  Existentialism
There is such a thing as meaning or value:
There is inherent meaning in the universe:
Yes, but the individual must come to the knowledge of God
Maybe, man will never know.
The pursuit of meaning may have meaning in itself:
No, meaning can only be constructed, not pursued.
The individual's construction of any type of meaning is possible:
Yes, thus the goal of existentialism.
Yes, thus the goal of existentialism, though this meaning must incorporate God.
Yes, though it must be personal and face the Absurd; moreover, there is no way to verify whether one's constructed meaning conforms to any inherent meaning
No, because there is no meaning to create.
There is resolution to the individual's desire to seek meaning:
Yes, the creation of one's own meaning.
Yes, the creation of one's own meaning involving God.
Maybe the creation of one's own meaning, but not with regard to the inherent meaning of the universe (if one exists).

  • The absurd nature of Sisyphus lies not only in his torture through hopeless labor but in his passionate nature as well. Sisyphus scorned the gods, hated death and was extremely passionate about life.
  • In climbing the hill, Sisyphus symbolizes each individual. Arms outstretched, he works against time and space so that he can achieve his goal.
  • According to Camus, one's freedom – and the opportunity to give life meaning – lies in the recognition of absurdity.
  • For Camus, suicide is a "confession" that life is not worth living; it is a choice that implicitly declares that life is "too much." Suicide offers the most basic "way out" of absurdity: the immediate termination of the self and its place in the universe.
  • If the absurd experience is truly the realization that the universe is fundamentally devoid of absolutes, then we as individuals are truly free, to define absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively.
  • It is our reach towards our goals, the experiences we gain, the courage it takes to face the absurd and stand tall in front of it – these are the things that matter. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Notes on Terrorism

Terror in Antiquity: 1st -14th Century AD
The earliest known organization that exhibited aspects of a modern terrorist organization was the Zealots of Judea.

Early Origins of Terrorism: 14th -18th Century
Use of the word "terrorism" began in 1795 in reference to the Reign of Terror initiated by the Revolutionary government.

Terrorism in the 20th and 21st Century
Nationalism intensified during the early 20th century throughout the world.
The "total war" practices of all combatants of WWII provided further justification for the "everybody does it" view of the use of terror and violations of the law of war.

Terrorism in the 20th and 21st Century
Successful campaigns for independence from colonial rule occurred throughout the world, and many employed terrorism as a supporting tactic.

The age of modern terrorism might be said to have begun in 1968 when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked an El Al airliner en route from Tel Aviv to Rome.
The largest act of international terrorism was the September 11 attacks .  Other major terrorist attacks have also occurred in New Delhi (Indian Parliament attacked); Bali car bomb attack; London subway bombings; Madrid train bombings and the most recent attacks in Mumbai (hotels, train station and a Jewish outreach center). The operational and strategic epicenter of Islamic terrorism is now mostly centered in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The United States Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”

The United Nations produced the following definition of terrorism in 1992; "An anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby - in contrast to assassination - the direct targets of violence are not the main targets."

The British Government definition of terrorism from 1974 is "...the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public, or any section of the public, in fear."

The strategy of terrorists is to commit acts of violence that draws the attention of the local populace, the government, and the world to their cause. The terrorists plan their attack to obtain the greatest publicity, choosing targets that symbolize what they oppose.

Psychological Profile of a Terrorist

  1. Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
  2. Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change.
  3. Identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting.
  4. Feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
  5. Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.
  6. Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
  7. Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.

Studies have been made wherein thoughts of death were induced by subliminally presenting people death-related stimuli or by inserting a delay-and-distraction task between a reminder of death.

This subliminal prompting induces people to psychologically defend themselves against death in ways that bear little surface relationship to the problem of death.

These include clinging to their cultural identities, working hard to live up to their culture's values and going to great lengths to defend those values.

Conversely, the investigators have shown that getting people to consciously contemplate their mortality increases their intention to engage in life-enhancing behaviors, such as exercise.

A set of studies were conducted in the United States, Iran and Israel. In all three countries, people who were subtly reminded of their mortality—and thus primed to cling more strongly to their group identities—were more likely to support violence against the out group. Iranians were more likely to support suicide bombing against Westerners. Americans were more likely to advocate military force to battle Islamic extremists, even if it meant killing thousands of civilians. Israelis were more likely to condone violence against Palestinians.

In a more global sense, a fear of cultural annihilation may help fuel terrorist sentiments. In “How Globalization Spurs Terrorism: The Lopsided Benefits of One World and Why That Fuels Violence,” the book argues that rapid globalization has forced disparate cultures into contact with one another and is threatening the domination or disappearance of some groups—a cultural version of “survival of the fittest.”

Notes on The Kabuliwallah, Caste System, and the Other

When social, cultural, or literary critics use the term ‘the Other’ they are thinking about the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group. By declaring someone ‘Other,’ persons tend to stress what makes them dissimilar from or opposite of another, and this carries over into the way they represent others, especially through stereotypical images.

The Other refers, or attempts to refer, to that which is other than the initial concept being considered. The Constitutive Other often denotes a person Other than one's self; hence, the Other is identified as "different"; thus the spelling is often capitalized.

A person's definition of the 'Other' is part of what defines or even constitutes the self (in both a psychological and philosophical sense) and other phenomena and cultural units. It has been used in social science to understand the processes by which societies and groups exclude 'Others' whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society.

The concept of 'otherness' is also integral to the comprehending of a person, as people construct roles for themselves in relation to an 'other' as part of a process of reaction that is not necessarily related to stigmatization or condemnation.

Othering is imperative to national identities, where practices of admittance and segregation can form and sustain boundaries and national character. Othering helps distinguish between home and away, the uncertain or certain. It often involves the demonization and dehumanization of groups, which further justifies attempts to civilize and exploit these 'inferior' others.

The self (how a person sees himself or herself) requires the Other to define itself (I know who I am because I am not you).

Kabuliwallahs are foreign dried-fruit vendors, who are generally in the lower sections of the caste system, therefore looked down upon in the Indian society in the late 19th century.

The caste system in India was created and developed over time to create "balance" in society. It was very relevant during the extensive time period of the British rule over India for over 200 years, until Gandhi broke it in 1947.

For the "kabuliwala" is of the lowest class, while the family is of a much higher class, technically not allowing him to even talk to the family.

The caste system created socioeconomic boundaries, for it did not allow poor men in the lower class to associate with people of higher classes. The people of the higher classes were more economically sound and prosperous, therefore not allowing them to interact with people of the lower caste.

The Indian caste system is an example of Othering within members of a society.

Rabindranath Tagore recognized the principle of ‘othering’ but sought unity in diversity saying in his essay, The Religion of Man, “whatever name our logic may give to the truth of human unity, the fact can never be ignored that we have our greatest delight when we realize ourselves in others, and this is the definition of love.”

Notes on Assembly Line and the Chinese Migrant Worker

Assembly Line

An assembly line is a manufacturing process (most of the time called a progressive assembly) in which parts (usually interchangeable parts) are added as the semi-finished assembly moves from work station to work station where the parts are added in sequence until the final assembly is produced.

Before the Industrial Revolution, most manufactured products were made individually by hand.

Division of labor was practiced in China where state run monopolies mass-produced metal agricultural implements, china and armor and weapons centuries before it appeared in Europe on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

Sociological work has explored the social alienation and boredom that many workers feel because of the repetition of doing the same specialized task all day long.

Chinese Migrant Workers

Over the last two decades, China's social structure has undergone significant changes. This is fueled by the rapid economic growth as manufacturers flock to China for its cheap and large labor force.

Some 260 million Chinese farmers have left their villages and to work in cities as factory workers

Despite their contribution to China's economic miracle, the social status of these migrant workers remains low.

The hukou system -- or household registration system that divides the population into two distinct categories of the urban and the rural -- makes things harder for the migrants, who don't enjoy the same access to healthcare and education as other city residents. They are often discriminated against in terms of salary and treatment.

Research done on factory migrant workers suggested that 58.5% of those surveyed suffered from depression, 17% from anxiety and 4.6% had considered the idea of suicide.

The majority of those surveyed, half of whom were under 30, bore a heavy financial and emotional burden as they left behind aging parents or young children.

Migrant workers felt guilty for being unable to care for parents or young children, at the same time, felt pressure to provide for their families.

A similar research was done five years ago on the mental health of sex workers in the Guangdong region, most worked at factories before turning to prostitution.

In 2010, the issue mental health of Chinese migrant workers made international headlines after a spate of worker suicides at Foxconn, a large electronic manufacturer that assembles many Apple products.

A study of Foxconn migrant workers revealed that loneliness and a sense of isolation were the most likely reasons that drove the workers to jump off factory and dormitory roofs.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Notes on Divine Comedy, Canto V, and Canto XXXIV

The Divine Comedy (Italian: Divina Commedia) is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between c. 1308 and his death in 1321.

The poem's imaginative and allegorical vision of the afterlife is a culmination of the medieval world-view as it had developed in the Western Church.

It is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.

On the surface, the poem describes Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; but at a deeper level, it represents allegorically the soul's journey towards God.

At this deeper level, Dante draws on medieval Christian theology and philosophy, especially Thomistic philosophy and the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.

The Divine Comedy is composed of 14,233 lines that are divided into three canticas (Ital. pl. cantiche)—Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise)—each consisting of 33 cantos (Ital. pl. canti).

The poem is written in the first person, and tells of Dante's journey through the three realms of the dead, lasting from the night before Good Friday to the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300.

The Roman poet Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory; Beatrice, Dante's ideal woman, guides him through Heaven. Beatrice was a Florentine woman whom he had met in childhood and admired from afar in the mode of the then-fashionable courtly love tradition.

The structure of the three realms follows a common numerical pattern of 9 plus 1, for a total of 10: 9 circles of the Inferno, followed by Lucifer contained at its bottom; 9 rings of Mount Purgatory, followed by the Garden of Eden crowning its summit; and the 9 celestial bodies of Paradiso, followed by the Empyrean containing the very essence of God. Within each group of 9, 7 elements correspond to a specific moral scheme, subdivided into three subcategories, while 2 others of greater particularity are added to total nine.

In central Italy, a political struggle was happening between Guelphs and Ghibellines. Florence's Guelphs split into factions around 1300: the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. Dante was among the White Guelphs who were exiled in 1302 as the pope of Dante’s time supported the Black Guelphs.

Dante was exiled for the rest of his life. The experience influenced many parts of Divine Comedy, from prophecies of Dante's exile to Dante's views of politics, to the eternal damnation of some of his opponents.

The Divine Comedy can be described simply as an allegory: Each canto, and the episodes therein, can contain many alternative meanings.

The structure of the poem, likewise, is quite complex, with mathematical and numerological patterns arching throughout the work, particularly threes and nines, which are related to the Trinity.
Inferno opens on the evening of Good Friday in the year 1300. Traveling through a dark wood, Dante Alighieri has lost his path and now wanders fearfully through the forest. The sun shines down on a mountain above him, and he attempts to climb up to it but finds his way blocked by three beasts—a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf.

Frightened and helpless, Dante returns to the dark wood. Here he encounters the ghost of Virgil, the great Roman poet, who has come to guide Dante back to his path, to the top of the mountain. Virgil says that their path will take them through Hell and that they will eventually reach Heaven, where Dante’s beloved Beatrice awaits.

Virgil leads Dante through the gates of Hell, marked by the haunting inscription “abandon all hope, you who enter here.”

Allegorically, Dante’s story represents not only his own life but also what Dante the poet perceived to be the universal Christian quest for God. Dante’s situation is meant to represent that of the whole human race.

The only character besides Dante to appear all the way through Inferno, Virgil’s ghost is generally taken by critics to represent human reason, which guides and protects the individual (represented by Dante/Everyman) through the world of sin.

Inferno’s moments of spectacular imagery and symbolic power of the different types of sin and their corresponding punishment serve to illuminate the perfection of God’s justice. Hell exists to punish sin, and the suitability of Hell’s specific punishments testifies to the divine perfection that all sin violates.

Dante’s exploration of evil probes neither the causes of evil, nor the psychology of evil, nor the earthly consequences of bad behavior. Inferno is not a philosophical text; its intention is not to think critically about evil but rather to teach and reinforce the relevant Christian doctrines.

Dante places much emphasis in his poem on the notion of immortality through storytelling, everlasting life through legend and literary legacy. Dante presents storytelling as a vehicle for multiple legacies: that of the story’s subject as well as that of the storyteller. While the plot of a story may preserve the living memory of its protagonist, the story’s style and skill may serve the greater glory of its author.

Canto V

Dante and Virgil now descend into the Second Circle of Hell, smaller in size than the First Circle but greater in punishment. They see the monster Minos, who stands at the front of an endless line of sinners, assigning them to their torments. The sinners confess their sins to Minos, who then wraps his great tail around himself a certain number of times, indicating the number of the circle to which the soul must go.

In the Second Circle of Hell, Dante and his companion Virgil find people who were overcome by lust. They are punished by being blown violently back and forth by strong winds, preventing them to find peace and rest. Strong winds symbolize the restlessness of a person who is led by desire for fleshly pleasures. Again, Dante sees many notable people from history and mythology including Cleopatra, Tristan, Helen of Troy and others who were adulterous during their lifetime.

Dante draws the character of Minos (the son of Zeus and Europa) from Greek mythology. By placing pagan gods and monsters in an otherwise Christian model of the afterlife. This tendency reflects Dante’s attempt to show Christianity as a supreme moral order. By subsuming pagan gods into the Christian conception of Hell, he privileges Christian thought as the authoritative system

The punishment corresponds in grotesque aptness to the sins themselves. Thus, the Lustful, those who were obsessed with the stimulation of the flesh in life, now have their nerves unceasingly stimulated by the storm. Also, they are in the dark—the conditions in which acts of lust generally take place. Finally, because they failed to restrain the internal tempests of their emotions, external storms now bludgeon their bodies.

The moral structure of inferno gives us insight into the relative gravity of different sins in Dante's mind. Carnal sins are relatively unimportant, and lust (which is so closely linked with love, to which Dante is not immune) is viewed with a great deal of compassion.

In the second circle, the there are more women than men. In medieval Christian thought, lust was often closely associated with women. A priest who felt himself tempted by the flesh might commonly associate the object of his desire with the desire itself: if men are tempted, women are seductresses.

The historical identities of Francesca and her lover are well known. Francesca da Rimini was married around 1275 to Gianciotto Malatesta of Rimini for political reasons. She unfortunately fell in love with her husband's younger brother Paolo ­ and he with her. When her husband discovered their adultery, probably in 1285, he killed them both. Dante was then around 20 years old, and must have been profoundly saddened by the tragic affair.


Dante was awed by the sight of Lucifer, a gigantic figure who dwarfed the giant Nimrod. He had three heads and bat-like wings ­ they were the cause of the freezing wind. His six eyes wept and the tears mixed with the blood of the sinners he was grinding between his teeth: the three were Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius. Judas was in the front mouth, and was clawed as well as bitten.

Virgil told Dante that night had come, and it was time to leave. He picked Dante up and climbed down Lucifer's body and made their way through a cavern. Dante saw the sky through an opening in the cavern, and finally they emerged to see the stars.

The four rings of the ninth circle are Caina (traitors to kin), Antenora (traitors to party), Ptolomea (traitors to guests), and Judecca (traitors to benefactors).

Lucifer's three faces make a perverted trinity, echoing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Judas Iscariot was the apostle who betrayed Christ: in the legend, he identified Christ for his enemies by kissing him, for thirty pieces of silver. Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longus assassinated Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and both committed suicide two years later.

Dante emerges when it is night, before dawn on Easter Sunday. In symbolic holy time, he has been "dead" for the time after the crucifixion and before Christ rose, and now he rises with Christ.