James Joyce's "The Dead"

The awkwardness of miscommunication, the monotony of social routine, and the confluence of life and death - these are all themes present in The Dead, my favorite short story from James Joyce’s Dubliners. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day recently, I thought I would pay tribute to Irish culture by analyzing this little vignette about a disastrous dinner party.

James Joyce circa 1918 looking like every Dublin hipster.

James Joyce circa 1918 looking like every Dublin hipster.

The Dining Dead

In The Dead, two spinster sisters host a gathering every year on January 6th to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany or the manifestation of Christ’s divinity to the Magi. While the event is meant to provide a sense of warmth and togetherness in the dead of winter, all the characters seem to repeat themselves year after year, killing any sense of joy and spontaneity. And although the calendar year is fresh and reborn, the tedium remains. The guests perform the same memorized dance steps and the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy always gives a speech and carves the goose, another gruesome symbol of the pervasiveness of death.

Hell Hath No Furey

At the end of this long evening filled with awkward encounters, Gabriel finds his wife Gretta transfixed by another guest singing in the drawing room. As they leave the party, Gretta remains pensive and withdrawn. Gabriel finds himself enamored with his wife’s wistful mood. He hopes to have a romantic evening once they get back to their hotel room, but she rejects his advances and even bursts into tears. She reveals that the song had reminded her of her first love, a boy named Michael Furey who died waiting outside her house one cold one night.

The Aha Moment

Jealousy overcomes Gabriel, but he comes to an epiphany, realizing that his feelings are not rooted in love, but a desire to control his wife. As he calms down, he understands that he was not her first love and he has no claim over her emotions. After Gretta falls asleep, he feels compassion for Michael Furey and admires his conviction in dying for love. Gabriel now sees that the dead live on the memories of the living and that these two realms constantly intermingle.

Michael and Gabriel

Further marrying the human and divine, both Michael and Gabriel are names of archangels. Archangel Gabriel informed the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Christ. Our protagonist does find his own sense of revelation here, but Archangel Michael is considered to be the most powerful figure in the angelic hierarchy. Here Joyce associates this brave young man with a holy warrior.

Jan van Eyck,  The Annunciation  (detail). 1434-1436. Archangel Gabriel being fly as hell. Also, I want those wings. Do you think they sell them at Party City?

Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation (detail). 1434-1436. Archangel Gabriel being fly as hell. Also, I want those wings. Do you think they sell them at Party City?

As Gabriel drifts off to sleep, he watches the snow fall outside the hotel window, blanketing the entire country, the living as well as the dead, leaving both in a state of paralysis. He understands how numb and emotionless he was and the commonality of this trait. And while Joyce does offer the reader a slice of hope with Gabriel’s revelation and the coming spring, the reader is also left wondering if this epiphany will lead to any real, lasting change.

So, let me know what you think of this story and how are you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Thank you so much! Bye for now.

Three Brief Theories of Time

Time, man. Does it even exist? Well, I think it’s high time that we discuss the fourth dimension. Here, I will delve into three mind-bending theories about the existence of time and the nature of its flow.

First up 一 the theory that time is cyclical. This is the belief that time consists of repeating ages. It’s just like Nietzche’s Eternal Recurrence and that episode of Futurama, The Late Philip J. Fry, when Fry, Bender, and the Professor use a time machine to go to future. They discover that time is a closed loop and they can get back home just by going around again.

Friedrich Nietzsche. Killer mustache, by the way.

Friedrich Nietzsche. Killer mustache, by the way.

Espoused by the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, and several Native American tribes, this ideology depends on the "Big Bounce" theory 一 the belief that the universe has expanded and contracted into the singularity an infinite number of times already and what we call the “Big Bang” is the latest iteration of this much larger pattern. Since the laws of the universe are unlikely to change, the same sequence of events will likely occur every single time.

The next theory is Presentism. Here, neither the future nor the past exists. Only the present moment is truly real. All events and entities that are wholly in the past or wholly in the future are just mental constructs.

Presentism contrasts with the final theory, Eternalism which argues that the flow of time itself is an illusion. The past, present, and future are not only all real here, but they are all happening at once. So, the extinction of the dinosaurs, Da Vinci laying the final strokes on the Mona Lisa, and human beings one day landing on Mars are all happening right now.

Also called the Block Universe theory, this notion presents space-time as an unchanging four-dimensional block. Your sense of the present is just reflecting where you are within the block. While this theory does depend on Determinism rather than Free Will, it does allow for time travel, which could be fun. However, if you do travel to the past, you can’t change it and same thing with the future. It’s just like Oedipus Rex, you can’t change your fate. The universe has a way of course-correcting.

So, let me know what you think of these theories. Do you think any of them are plausible? Do they resonate with you? Thank you so much! Bye for now!

Venus: The Art of Love and Beauty

Ah, the female nude 一 one of art history’s most pervasive themes. While this ancient trope can certainly be problematic given the gender and power dynamics at play, the iconic paintings I will dissect here also illuminate fascinating ideas about metaphor, womanhood, and divine beauty. I will attempt to trace these evolving notions and attitudes across the ages.

Starting with one of the earliest and most famous depictions of the female form 一 The Venus of Willendorf, this Paleolithic idol is likely a representation of a primitive mother goddess. Given the patterned cap that obscures her facial features, scholars agree that she wasn’t meant to depict one woman but broadly symbolize fertility and abundance. Standing at only 4 ½ inches tall, this portable good luck totem was used by brides looking to start a family. Observing this piece with our modern eyes, it is so refreshing to not only see a healthy, realistic depiction of curves but also their connection to a woman’s wealth and status.

T he Venus of Willendorf  - Artist unknown: c. 28,000 BCE – 25,000 BCE.

The Venus of Willendorf - Artist unknown: c. 28,000 BCE – 25,000 BCE.

While The Venus of Willendorf predates the Roman goddess of love, art historians typically use the moniker as a blanket term for the female nude as a protective title that makes it acceptable subject matter. What are you talking about? It’s not improper. I’m just considering the abstract ideal of beauty. This veil of metaphor in association with the goddess is also palpable in Titian’s 1538 masterpiece, The Venus of Urbino.

The Venus of Urbino  - Titian: 1534-1538. Don’t mind me. I’m just beauty and love incarnate.

The Venus of Urbino - Titian: 1534-1538. Don’t mind me. I’m just beauty and love incarnate.

We know that she is a Venus because of one very subtle clue - a myrtle bush in the background. This shrub is typically associated with the goddess. Commissioned by the Duke of Urbino as a wedding gift to his bride, the painting is a celebration of the erotic dimension in marriage. The dog curled up by her feet is a symbol of fidelity. Yes, her figure is soft, fleshy, and idealized here, but she also makes direct eye contact with the viewer, establishing a personal connection.

Olympia  - Édouard Manet: 1863. Like a boss.

Olympia - Édouard Manet: 1863. Like a boss.

Titian’s Venus of Urbino also offers us the birth of the reclining nude, a staple in Western art, one that would reappear hundreds of years later in another celebrated and controversial painting, Manet’s Olympia. This 1863 scene strips away the lush, painterly techniques and veil of mythology found in Titian. This woman is not supposed to be a Venus, but a real woman and a likely prostitute as the name was a  common one for sex workers at the time. Her features are realistic and almost corpse-like. There is no coyness in her gaze, in fact, downright confrontational. Her assertive expression draws the viewer into the painting, placing them in the shoes of one of her clients, therefore automatically implying guilt, as if to say, we all know why you’re here.

Let me know what you think of these paintings, this lineage and what they reveal about desire, the male gaze, and women’s empowerment. Thank you so much!

Alexander Pope's Eloisa To Abelard

In his exquisite 1717 elegy, Eloisa to Abelard, Neoclassical poet Alexander Pope pays tribute a tragic love story from the Middle Ages as he laments the excruciating pain of desire and memory.

Alexander Pope probably dreaming up some of these romantic verses.

Alexander Pope probably dreaming up some of these romantic verses.

Here Pope writes as a real 12th-century Parisian woman named Eloisa. Hailed as a brilliant linguist and logician, she was one of the most educated women of her time. She soon engages in a torrid affair with her teacher, the celebrated theologian Pierre Abelard.

Eloisa and Abelard sneakin’ a little smooch.

Eloisa and Abelard sneakin’ a little smooch.

Furious about this romance, as well as the couple’s secret wedding and pregnancy, Eloisa’s uncle, a high-ranking church official, hired a band of thugs to attack Abelard. He then retreated to monastic life as Eloisa took the veil. Although the couple never saw each other again, they wrote passionate love letters to each other for decades following their initial liaison.  

Abelard wooing his lady. Also, what is up with his feet?

Abelard wooing his lady. Also, what is up with his feet?

Pope’s poem imagines itself as one of the final letters Eloisa sends to Abelard after he implores her to renounce her passion for him and instead focus on God. Heartbroken, Eloisa scolds the philosopher-turned-monk for his cowardice in abandoning her.

Throughout the poem, she vacillates between wistful reverie and regret but claims that forgetting him is simply impossible. She compares their love to the flames of desire and damnation:

Come, Abelard! for what hast thou to dread?
The torch of Venus burns not for the dead.
Nature stands check'd; Religion disapproves;
Ev'n thou art cold—yet Eloisa loves.
Ah hopeless, lasting flames! like those that burn
To light the dead, and warm th' unfruitful urn.

She argues that the dead are not granted the opportunity to love, they must do so now, while they both still live and breathe.

Eloisa curses the flames that still burn, likening them to hellfire - torturous and everlasting. They rage on without even the slightest spark of hope.

Let me know what you think of this poem. Have you read it? Did you enjoy it? In your opinion, is this an accurate or interesting depiction of romantic desire? Thanks so much! Bye for now!

The No-Self Theory

Who are you? I mean who are you really? We as humans often believe there is a stable, autonomous identity at the center of ourselves, but is this truly the case?

According to Buddhist philosophy, our thoughts and feelings really do exist but there is no individual “person” or static soul behind them and if we stop to think about it, it makes sense. You are not the same person you were a year ago, a month ago, even a moment ago. We are constantly learning and evolving. Even on a cellular level, our bodies are continuously dying and renewing themselves.

And what happens when we examine our minds? If we are honest with ourselves, we simply find a collection of transient feelings, sensations, and impressions.

And this rejection of a fixed, cohesive identity is not just found in Buddhism. Enlightenment philosopher David Hume came to this very same conclusion with his famed Bundle Theory. Here the great Scotsman argues that what we call the self is merely a bundle of ephemeral perceptions. He boldly declares, “I always stumble on some particular perception - heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure, but I never catch myself.” Hume reasoned that the human mind with its penchant for patterns and meaning simply cobbled together these fleeting experiences into an illusionary sense of self.

Hume are you? Who, who, who?

Hume are you? Who, who, who?

Given the blunt, unvarnished nature of this idea, many of the Buddha’s early followers mistakenly assumed that he was espousing nihilism, and this could not be farther from the truth. In reality, he posited that our true identity is actually rather broad in meaning and scope.

To help us understand, let us imagine waves upon the ocean. We typically identify ourselves with the small, individual waves as they crest and fall, ebb and flow.  This pervasive sense of individuality, of me and mine, can often give rise to clinging, jealousy, fear, and other poisons of the mind.

However, once you begin to identify with the boundless, infinite ocean of consciousness, with all of creation, you no longer drown in petty emotions and hangups. You see them for what they are - plays of form, like briny swells as they splash and crash. You recognize that the boundary between “you” and all of existence is merely an illusion and a wave of peace washes over you. Yes, this is a lot to take in and consider, but it is according to Buddhists, it is liberation, nirvana, ultimate understanding.  

So, let me know what you think of this idea.  Does it resonate with you? How does this fit in with your own world view? Thank you so much. Bye for now!

Plato's Ladder of Love

I thought I would begin this blog and video series with the philosophy of love and beauty as described in Plato’s Symposium.

Here Socrates makes an impassioned speech in favor romantic love or Eros in the voice of one of his teachers, the priestess Diotima. He goes into great detail explaining one of her seminal philosophies, the ladder of love. More than just the inspiration for a tender ballad by the 1950s doo-wop group, the Flamingos, the ladder of love illustrates the ascent of the human lover from pure lust to the contemplation of divine beauty itself. Referred to here as the Form of Beauty, this mental state is described as “an everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor goes, which neither flowers nor fades.”

According to the priestess, in order to gain access to this heavenly realm, one must first actively engage with five ascending aspects or levels of love. As a side note, Mary Magdalene also describes an eerily similar ascent of the soul in the Gospel of Mary, if you are interested.

So, the first rung on Diotima’s ladder is a love for one particular body. Here, she essentially describes puppy love. It is the first awakening of desire and attraction. However, she does not discount this lust, arguing that it is the catalyst, gateway to the divine, and entirely necessary step in the soul’s evolutionary process.

Following the desire for an individual’s physique, the second rung centers upon the realization that many bodies are beautiful. It is at this stage that we develop our “types,” including specific facial features, hair colors, and body types. We come to see that many people possess this type of beauty.

Making the monumental leap from the purely physical to the emotional, the third rung on the ladder is the love of beautiful souls. In this phase, the lover awakens to the moral beauty in a person and begins to desire a deep spiritual connection. While physical desire may still be at play here, it is not the be all and end all, but simply one aspect of a multi-dimensional bond. Again, Plato did not wish us to abandon our lovers but abandon the limited scope we see them in. It is from this rung on the ladder that we witness the seeds of Platonic love and the cult of the 11th-century troubadours.

First rising to prominence in the royal courts of France, these lyrical poets would often pen wildly romantic verses for their lady loves. However, they would never engage in romantic or sexual relationships with these women. Instead, they resided in the realm of idealized infatuation, the intoxicating first blushes of a romance before reality sets in. Believing this to be the best stage of love, the troubadours refused to taint this perfect image with something flawed and real.

Ascending even further on the ladder, the fourth rung on the ladder comprises a love of beautiful laws and institutions. Here, the lover develops a passion for democracy and a society rooted in justice and equality as well as in community in a legal and societal sense.

The fifth rung expresses a desire for the beauty of knowledge and philosophical wisdom that helped inform and create the beautiful laws, souls, and bodies of earlier stages.

Once the lover has achieved this lofty realm of thought, they can then begin to comprehend the final stage, this all-encompassing sea of beauty, a love for all of creation. According to Diotima, the Form of Beauty is the origin of our being. Our souls remember and sometimes ache for our spiritual home, this pure love and bliss. This is why we are drawn to beauty and begin our ascent in the first place.

One way to think about the ladder is to imagine it as the human body with the chakras or energy centers mirroring the rungs. With the lower chakras dealing with earthly pleasure, the middle ones dealing with feelings of connection, and the top ones assigned to the divine, let us stand tall and embrace all versions of our love.

Or perhaps another way is to see the rungs is like the notes of a musical scale composing a sublime symphony.

Here the Ladder of Love offers us a possible road map to the divine while arguing that desire is the driving force behind it all. It teaches us that romantic love is a glimpse of eternal splendor.

Treat each other well! Lots of love to all!