Month: April 2015

Review of “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke

It was one of those night skies that I will never forget.  The Milky Way galaxy was spread across the sky in all of its awesome glory.  Never before had I seen such splendor as this.  I felt its pulse, the same as I can feel my own.  The night sky felt alive!

Perseid_and_Milky_WayI remember the moment well.  I was on maneuver in Hohenfels, Germany, and the night was calm and clear.  We were staging to go out into “the box,” as the training area was called, so there was little for us to do that evening but wait.  Given the remoteness of our location, there was virtually no light pollution in the sky, which set the evening’s mood perfectly for a star-filled sky the likes of which I had never seen.  I walked away from the buildings we were living in to find a secluded spot, away from the bustle of my comrades, and laid down upon a bed of grass to watch the night sky.  Many of my friends were busy playing spades or doing their laundry at the automat, but I wanted my peace away from it all.  I wanted to take in this rare moment, and I did.  I spent hours that evening just lying on the ground, watching the stars as they worked their way across the sky. Shooting stars cascaded across the night sky like mystical rain, and in that moment, I realized that the Earth was moving; the moon was more than a luminescent sphere in the sky, rather it was an instrument of perfect symmetry with the Earth, both dancing their waltz around the orbit of our sun.  I envisioned the sun casting its rays of light upon the surface of the moon, and how other planets took their rotational turn around the sun at that same moment.  The universe was moving, and I could feel its movement in my very soul.  I did nothing but watch on in wonder.  I had never taken a moment like this to myself, alone and self absorbed as I was to ponder and contemplate my place on this planet, an intricate system of life that is able to thrive because of oxygen and various other elements contained within its gravitational influence.  The only thing separating me from the vast openness of the universe was our atmosphere, a component to life on this planet that we often take for granted; for without it, we would be nothing but a lump of rock floating through space.  I stared out into the cosmos, enthralled by its complexity. Yet, lying there on the ground like that, observing the universe around me, made everything feel so simple, regardless of the complexity of the universe’s mechanics, if such a paradox could exist.  I was having an Olaf Stapledon moment.  To put it simply — I was awestruck.

One video found on TED by philosopher John Silva suggests that I am not the only one to have had a moment like this.  In fact, he claims that feelings of awestruck lend themselves to our biological advantage as a species for survival.  These moments of awe are what fuel our passion, imagination and will to learn about the universe we live in; they motivate and compel us to live not just in our present moment, but in the future.  While scientists seek to rationalize and explain the universe at large, others seek to explore the universe in their own way.  Their imaginations guide them into the cosmos, allowing those of us willing to listen along for the ride.  One such author is Arthur C. Clarke.  A Science Fiction (SF) writer of legendary status, his works explore the concepts of life beyond our planet and the full spectrum of the universe with such vivid imagery, it is inspiring to read his works.  SF writers who embrace the genre often use the compelling evidence of the scientific community and its discoveries to extend new questions derived from their findings to a new level, one where the imagination is only limited by the capacity of the writer.  Clarke was one of those writers who seemingly transcended what the genre was capable of, taking SF to new levels of the scientific imagination.  One of his short stories only affirms this, “The Star,” written in 1955 and published in The Nine Billion Names of God, an anthology of short stories signifying the best of his works.  While questions of faith and our place in the universe are central to the theme of this short narrative, anyone who picks up this story to read it will be left wondering about more than their relationship with a higher power, but about time and its influence over our lives.

When I finished reading it, I could not help but think back to that moment in Hohenfels, laying there in the dead of the night contemplating my existence.  All sense of time was lost, except for what the perpetual motion of the night sky afforded me.  The moon idly swept across the sky, and it felt as if I could feel the movement of the Earth below me. Actually, it made me feel small and puny, like an insect under a boot. I was not depressed by feeling infinitesimal, but rather I felt like a part of it.  My time and place on this planet are important to me; I am here now, living my life, and I feel I have a sense of self-worth in my daily affairs.  I live as others have lived before me.  I am learning about the world around from the voices of the past, as others have done before.   Reading this story made me realize that watching the night sky as I did that evening is looking upon the infinity of time, no different than any astronomer would do looking upon images through a telescope, such as the deep field image taken from the Hubble.  Astronomers and physicists are uncovering the past of the universe in the same way historians and archaeologists are unearthing our cultural identities.  I feel compelled to ask whether I am indeed a mortal being, or something much more than this, an immortal who will live on through the life that continues beyond me.  My role on this Earth may be a small fragment when compared to the grand scheme of the universe, but I have a role to play in it none-the-less, whatever that role may be.  Only by living will I be able to tell.

The Short Story

In Clarke’s “The Star,” humankind has a similar fascination with the stars, our exploration of them conflicting with our sense of self within the divine order of God’s will.  In fact, this is the central conflict within the story, played out by a protagonist who is a man of the cloth, ordained in the ways of the church, an institution in Clarke’s vision that has learned to embrace science as a means of justifying itself.  This father is not one you would find governing any parish on Earth, rather he is returning from an epic journey to the “Phoenix Nebula,” a cloud of dust born out of the cataclysmic ending of a star, a supernova.  Their original mission was to learn as much as possible about the process a star goes through to become a white dwarf, a body of mass incomparable to anything found on our Earth, and to analyze the aftermath of a supernova.  What they discover as they enter the dusty nebula is something quite unexpected.  By this point in the story, dated around 2500 A.D., we know that humanity has been trekking through the stars using a technology Clarke calls a “Transfinite drive.”  This engine allows us to move throughout the Cosmos in measurements of light years, quite necessary considering the distance to the Phoenix Nebula, which we learn to be over 100 light years away from our solar system.  What they find when they arrive, though, is quite extraordinary:  a planetary system that survived the destructive force of the supernova.  The narrator describes their initial reactions to the planet and what they found there: “The passing fires had seared its rocks and burned away the mantle of frozen gas that must have covered it in the days before the disaster.  We landed, and we found the Vault… Our original purpose was forgotten: this lonely monument, reared with such labor at the greatest possible distance from the doomed sun, could have only one meaning.  A civilization that knew it was about to die had made its last bid for immortality” (Clarke 306).  We learn from this expedition that everything this civilization sought to protect, the “fruits of their genius” were placed in this Vault on the most distant planet away from their unstable sun in the hopes that it would survive and someone would find it.  And, we did.

The weight of this discovery plays heavily on the crew of the ship, as it makes its return voyage back to Earth.  The father on board struggles with his faith in God and His will, having gained knowledge of their demise from interpreting their cultural records stored within the Vault.  Our narrator questions His motives, “This tragedy was unique.  It is one thing for a race to fail and die, as nations and cultures have done on Earth.  But to be destroyed so completely in the full flower of its achievement, leaving no survivors — how could that be reconciled with the mercy of God?” (307).    While it is an important question to ask in terms of our own race and how many of us see God’s influence over our lives, what I find more significant to this is the manner in which they rekindle their existence.  Granted, this terrestrial planet and its life forms cease to exist in a biological sense;  however, they live on in spirit and in mind through the discovery of their Vault.  It is only fitting that the nebula this crew discovers this extinct civilization in is called the “Phoenix Nebula.”  Like the mythical bird of legend, this culture raises out of the ashes of its planet’s ruin at the hands of its rogue star, having preserved remnants of their culture for another exploratory race to uncover.  Like archaeologists, the astronauts unearth the Vault and collect their secrets, secrets that were otherwise meant for immortalizing a race that was faced with its extinction.  This Vault is no different from a time capsule one would bury in the backyard.

Conclusion

I once buried a time capsule with my friends in the backyard.  My friends and I collected our things, action figurines and baseball cards mostly, and buried them in a lunchbox, in the hopes that one day someone from the future would find it.  Ironically, we have long since forgotten where we buried this relic; nevertheless, the concept of the time capsule remains the same in Clarke’s story.  This got me thinking — what would humanity place into its Vault if we learned that our sun was unstable and would nova in the near future?  How would we preserve our race for future beings to discover?  Would we place the National Archives in this Vault, preserving documents of significant importance to our civilization?  Would patents and manuscripts of our technologies be placed therein?  What about the blueprint of our own biological code, the Human Genome Project?  Would this be placed in the Vault, as well?  Or would we loss sight of ourselves, being taken over by the emotional burden of realizing the inevitable demise of our race? (I recall the Lars Van Trier film Melancholia to prove my point here)  I like to think we would keep our “cool” in the face of such peril, for the sake of continuity, just like this race of beings did when their star exploded.  After all, is that not the point of science and our ambition to chronicle our environment and to learn about the universe we live in?  To see to it that future generations are able to expand on this knowledge base, and to learn what it means to exist in the time-space continuum on this little planet we call Earth; one of eight (nine, if you’re still a believer) planets we inhabit in our solar system around the sun; one star that resides within the Milky Way Galaxy; one of many galaxies that make up the overwhelming vastness of the universe, and my description here really does it no justice.

I’m curious to know of my readers: have you ever buried a time capsule?  What did you place in it? 

Works Cited

Clarke, Arthur C. “The Star” (1955).  eFictions. Eds. Joseph Trimmer, Wade Jennings, and Annette Patterson. Boston: Heinle Thomson Learning, Inc., 2002. 303-307. Print.

Image source:  Inaglory, Brocken. “Perseid and the Milky Way.” 12 Aug. 2007. Image. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 06 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

Zombies in our Midst: A Cultural Analysis

 

SinNight of the deadce I recently finished reading Max Brook’s World War Z, I thought I would post back up this essay that I wrote about zombie culture on my blog.  I wrote it a couple of years ago, but took it down for whatever reason.  Since I finished the book, I thought I would repost my thoughts on the topic.  After all, there is no denying the hype that exists around zombies these days.  In fact, whether looking for a book at the library or scanning the shelves at your local movie rental, these monsters seem to be everywhere you turn.   They are certainly not the prettiest things to look at, either.  By their very nature, they are rotten to the bone and keep getting gorier and gorier with every film.  They used to walk stiff-leggedly through the night, searching for brains, but now, they chase their prey down in mob fashion.  Hollywood keeps making it easier for these zombies to overwhelm survivors who haven’t died yet. One minute they’re limping and moaning, the next they’re running and snarling. They just keep getting meaner and meaner. No surprise really. When you stop to look at a list of movie titles available from Wikipedia, the zombie movie, arranged by year, is produced by the droves annually and has been since film production studios were able to produce films, so they need to do something to keep these slow moving mobs interesting. Budgets usually don’t help either. Earlier films managed to make really scary backdrops with hardly anything going for production crews. According to Zombiepedia (yes, such a website exists), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was filmed and produced on as little of a budget as $114,000. Regardless of the budget or theme, the film industry pushes the zombie movie through the production lines, because it is what most people want to see.  They are high in demand.  But why?  What is the fascination? Because we want to live to tell about it, that’s why.

HvZZombie culture is not just limited to the big screen.  In fact, it is invading college campuses all across the nation.  HUMANSVSZOMBIES is an organization devoted to social networking campus-wide events, where users can label themselves as either human survivors or zombie menace, in order to socialize and roleplay zombie apocalypse scenarios in a real-world setting.  I say campus-wide, but what I really meant was worldwide, as the influence of this organization seems to have quite the reach.  The location finder (Googlemaps) they have on their homepage shows their registered users extending even to remote countries like Kyrgyzstan, located in Euroasia.  So what does this glorified game of tag ultimately mean, in terms of the apparent obsession that people have with zombies?

While a game like this may be “fun” to play when it is not exam time, there are others who take the idea of a zombie apocalypse much more seriously.  Guns and Ammo magazine seems to have picked up on the fascination, as they offer an entire series of blog articles on their website titled “Zombie Nation.”  Their tag line: “When you’re helpless against the zombie horde and their blood lust, don’t say we didn’t warn you.  Get your tips, tactics and gear for zombie defense here” (Guns&Ammo).  There’s something disconcerting about a magazine that advocates second amendment rights, but uses a theme like the zombie apocalypse to inform their readers of “responsible” gunmanship.  One of the articles, for example, is about the Kel-Tec shotgun.  Tom Beckstrand, a demonstrator for the “Zombie Nation” column, advertises and promotes this tactical weapon when he states in the video: “If you’re going to carry a shotgun in the zombie apocalypse, this is a good one to have” (0:24, “Ultimate Zombie Shotgun).  He, then, proceeds to unload the 14-round magazine this .12 gauge pump-action shotgun is capable of holding into a series of zombie paper targets. “Alright, that was fourteen rounds of twelve-gauge goodness,” he concludes the video with.  What a safe feeling it brings to know that such tactical weapons are available on the open market.  Just think, weapons like this are being stockpiled and bunkered in American homes right now for the “coming” zombie apocalypse.

But, I digress.  This is more of a by-product with the fascination that surrounds the zombie, not an explanation for its influence over the American mentality.  Interestingly enough, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the governmental agency responsible for the nation’s immunal security, offers some insight into this fascination for the undead when director Dr. Ali Khan is quoted from a CNN interview to illustrate why they are using the zombie apocalypse theme to promote preparedness: “It’s a good metaphor for where you have complete disruption” (qtd. in Greene). He goes on to suggest that the same level of preparation needed for a pandemic or a natural catastrophe would be the same if the world were to be plagued by a zombie infestation.  It’s a step in the direction they want people to think in when it comes to a disaster, where they want people to survive and fend for themselves when the social system in place is disrupted by circumstances beyond anyone’s control.  In every way, they’re promoting survivalism.  In fact, from their Public Health Matters Blog, the CDC states:

When you walk up to a person and start talking about the undead they have all kinds of preparedness ideas, most involving food, water, and other life essentials which just so happen to be the same items that we recommend people put in their disaster kit. So, the old adage really holds true, if you’re prepared for zombies, then you’re prepared for anything (Zombie Nation).

Is this what we find fascinating about them?  Because we would rather be survivors than mindless zombies?  Perhaps watching a zombie film is not about watching a gore-fest, per say, but to see how we could potentially survive such a scenario.  As the quote above states, many people have their own ideas about preparedness when they talk about the undead.  Some believe that the possibility, although highly improbable, exists, so these people toy with the idea and concoct a hypothetical strategy for survival against an imaginary foe.  An exit plan, if you will, for when hell on Earth ensues.  As improbable as they may be, though, zombies are still dangerous — not just to the protagonists in the zombie story, but to the American way of life, in general.  They represent a much larger threat; one that is not detrimental to our physical, bodily condition, but a threat that is more psychologically restrictive.  With the violence our culture is often exposed to, both factual and fictional, most Americans like to think they can handle a zombie single-handedly.  But, when it comes to the zombie horde, closing in and cutting off all avenues of escape, liberties are at stake.  A person trapped cannot help but die an agonizing and terrible death.  To make matters worse, that individual rises again to join their ranks.  To this end, it goes against the very notion of being free and living your life the way you want to.  Is this not something Americans pride themselves with over anything else?  Once an individual turns into a zombie, he or she is no longer capable of their own free will, rather they become a part of the mob that makes up the undead.  This scares Americans.  Perhaps this is why the CDC uses the zombie as a means to encourage people to think for themselves in terms of their own survivability during a disaster.  Most people will listen and act when their civil liberties are at risk.

An article written by Stephen Gertz, then a senior English major for the project “An Exploration of Modern Monsters,” headed by Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan in 1999, addresses something similar about the notion of free will and the zombie, but he draws his conclusions by looking at the root of the zombie’s origins in Haitian Voodooism.  He declares that “by ‘controlling’ another person and eliminating that persons [sic] ability to make choices, let alone engage in conscious thought, the ‘controller’ has reduced that person to the level of an animal and has robbed him of his humanity” (Gertz).  The “controller” that he is referring to here is known as the bokor (evil sorceror) and the houngan (healer) in Haitian Voodoo, both who are capable of zombification through the use of a powder, where the victim is drugged into a zombie-like state, rendering them as “zombi astral” (Jacobi).  Wade Davis talks about this type of zombie in his widely acclaimed book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, an inside look at Haitian Voodoo and the secret societies that exist around it.  When the poison is used by a bokor or a houngan, the soul of the victim is released and becomes trapped.  He writes, “‘In that bottle was the soul of a human being… the control of which is an ominous power.  It is a ghost, or like a dream; it wanders at the command of the one who possesses it. It was a zombi astral captured from the victim by the magic of the bokor'” (Davis 167).  Clearly, an human being is placed into jeopardy when such a poison has the ability to render a person soulless, but this type of zombie that Gertz and Davis describes is more malevolently created by the hands of a witch doctor.  This is not the same zombie — zombi savanne — that returns from the dead (Jacobi); it is not the zombie that George A. Romero reinvented with Night of the Living Dead.  This zombie rises from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living and is controlled by no one but its own urges.

The zombi astral, then, is in every way the literal theft of the human soul from a poisoned victim, and the loss of free will imposed by such an act is undeniable.  But, does the zombi savanne, the undead corpse that returns from the dead to stalk the earth, still fall under the debate about civil liberties and the threat against the American way of life?  It certainly does.  Death, in the present hypothetical context, is not a release from the throes of life, because the individual who dies is doomed to turn into one of them.  This is what makes the zombie so menacing.  It is not enough that one should be ravaged by a mob of flesh-eating monsters, but that the condition is viral and spreads with each attack.  This is where the power of the zombie narrative exists.  This is what makes for compelling stories of survival.

Books like The Zombie Survival Guide, authored by Max Brooks in 2003, are popular for this very reason.   People want to read about ways in which they can survive a zombie apocalypse.  Afterall, who wants to become a zombie?  The AMC original series, The Walking Dead, is in its fifth season now, because most viewers want to know what happens to the survivors.  Their quest for survival and liberation from the oppressive and ever hostile zombie makes for compelling story.  We watch these shows always from the perspective of a survivor, someone whom we are sympathetic with, because we ourselves want to think we can survive such an event, too.  A book like this offers strategies and tips, all hypothetical, of course, that we can consult, much in the way of a Boyscout Handbook.  Afterall, does not the survivor, pitted against all odds against a horde of flesh-eating zombies, appeal to our gun-crazy, survivalistic, free-thinking society?  If anything, it makes for a compelling and dramatic storyline — the more apocalyptic and dire the backdrop, the better.  WWZMax Brook’s World War Z, a collection of testimonials from survivors of the “Zombie War,” which was very entertaining, given all of the different perspectives Brooks offers.  At one point he even shows what the zombie apocalypse looks like from an astronaut’s vantage point on the International Space Station.  Needless to say, it was a well-thought series of stories about a significant event, which Hollywood had to put on the big screen.  It was adapted and released as a film starring Brad Pitt back in 2013, making it the exact type of plot that attracts viewers.  It is post-apocalyptic and barren — a no-man’s land.  This is the direction that Hollywood film-making seems to be taking us, too.

In post-apocalyptic America, the rules change.  It is the wild, wild west all over again.  Lawlessness and zombie menace make life for survivors difficult and rugid, but they are free from the bonds of social restraint, from the bonds of government.  These survivors are where the appeal lies.  They are not limited by rules and regulations.  They do not live the mundane lives, where routine dictates what comes on the dinner table or what we wear when we go to work six days out of the week.  In fact, the more alone they are, the better.  There are no ties or commitments to be made.  It is simply a matter of fending for oneself.  In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for example, three survivors coup themselves up in a retail mall, where they clean out and barricade themselves inside for protection against the zombies that roam the land.  One of the protagonists, Roger, played by Scott Reiniger, is injured at one point in the film, where he is laid up in the storage room they turned into their home. There, he slowly rots from the viral infection that spreads from the attack.  Peter (Ken Foree) watches the heart-wrenching transformation from human to zombie and shots him once he turns.    This is one of the drawbacks that the zombie narrative plays on its survivors; the protagonists are forced to consider and do things that often go against their conscience, their very nature, in order to survive.  At first, they see the zombies as humans — from a distance — until they are up-close and aggressive.  Once they are forced to defend themselves, their demeanor becomes hardened.  They do not sympathize with the dead and are desensitized by the violence around them.  It becomes easier for them to do the harder tasks, like surviving.

There is a certain appeal to the zombie horror movie that people will acknowledge.  Any way you look at them, they make for intriguing but grisly stories.  We see these people placed in horrific environments, where they are forced to fend for their right to live.  Each turn the story takes leaves us predicting who amongst the cast will be killed and how.  As horrible as this may sound, it is something we are used to.  The exposure most Americans have to violence is commonplace, ranging from the sensationalized evening news to prime-time television,  making a topic like the zombie apocalypse an interesting one for some.  Therein lies the truth to the zombie myth in America: it is the by-product of a culture that thrives and profits off of violence.  We like to watch as the human condition is pushed to its limit.  Just looking at how Guns and Ammo‘s “Zombie Nation” column or the CDC’s “Preparedness 101” blog uses zombies to reach out and peek the interests of people is certainty of this.  Culturally, we are saturated in violence, so we long to sympathize with those who survive situations we would not otherwise want to be in.  It is thrilling, in a way: the anxiety that comes with isolation and the inescapability of death.  Some of us, though, would rather survive and live to tell about it than have our will to live taken away from us.

 

Works Cited

“About HVZ.” hVZ: HumansVS Zombies.Gnarwhal Studios, 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis and Magic. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1985. Print.

Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero.  Perf. David Emge, Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross and Scott Reiniger. United Films, 1979. Film.

Gertz, Stephen. “Zombie Symbolism.” An Exploration of Modern Monsters. Ed. Eric Rabkin. University of Michigan, Fall 1999. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Greene, Richard A. “Ready for a Zombie Apocalypse? CDC has Advice.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 19 May. 2011.  Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Jacobi, Keith. “Zombies, Revenants, Vampires, and Reanimated Corpses.” Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience. Ed. Clifton D. Bryant, and Dennis L. Peck.  Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009. 1002-06. SAGE Knowledge. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Poole, Eric R. “Enough Gun for Zombies: Kel-Tec KSG Tactical Pump Shotgun.” Guns and Ammo: Zombie Nation. Intermedia Outdoors, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

“Ultimate Zombie Shotgun: The Kel-tec KSG.” Youtube. GunsAndAmmoMag, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

“Zombie Nation: Move Over Dorothy, Zombies are Taking Over.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public Health Matters Blog.  19 May, 2012.  Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Image Source

Romero, George A.  Night of the Living Dead. 1968. Screenshot. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 14 Jul. 2006. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

“The Humans vs. Zombies Logo.” hVZ: HumansVS Zombies. Gnarwhal Studios, 2010. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

Review of “Knowing the Enemy” by Mary Habeck

Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on TerrorThe world over seems to be in a miserable state at the moment. Watch the news for any given amount of time and you will most certainly hear about Islamic extremists instilling chaos in some part of the world.   One could even argue that Jihad and terror have become buzzwords in the media, but with little wonder considering how groups like Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or al-Qaeda openly claim responsibility for attacks in the name of their religion, attacks such as those in Tunesia, Nigeria or Yemen, for example.  In fact, Tunesia could be considered a place that is volatile to extremism, given the March attacks made toward the Bardo national museum in the capital city of Tunis, to which responsibility is now being claimed by ISIS-inspired militants; Yemen is another hot spot for such activities, what with al-Qaeda fighters freeing hundreds of inmates in an attack on a prison in the port city of Al Mukalla, one New York Times article recently reports; and let us not forget the recent deadly attack made toward a university in Kenya by al-Shabab islamists, where at least 150 people were killed. All of these recent events are but a small fraction when considering the majority of terror-related news that seems to be streamlining the “front pages” of many news outlets in the west.  What does all of this mean, though?  What is a simple man, living a simple life, suppose to make of all this turmoil and carnage?  What is the point to the bloodshed and beheadings that act as trademarks to their systematic design?  It is with questions like these in mind that I take to the book Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror, by Mary Habeck.

Habeck, an associate professor at John Hopkins University, writes an analysis on fundamentalist Islam in her 2006 Yale University Press book, in an effort to make sense of the attacks led by al-Qaeda extremists on the World Trade Center in September, 2001. Her research about jihadist ideology reveals an archaic form of right-wing thinking, where the word of three texts — the Qur’an, the hadith, and sira, which are a series of “sacralized biographies” about the life of the prophet Muhammad, which give insight into his “calling” as a political and spiritual leader — serve as the basis for their fundamentalism. In many ways, the life of Muhammad serves as the “model for the acquisition and use of power,” deeming these sacred texts as the guidelines for “defensive and offensive strategies of Islam at every stage of this global confrontation [known otherwise as jihad] over a very long time” (qtd. in Habeck 138). For example, one way of thinking derived from these texts lies in the concept of jahiliyya (ignorance), in that everyone is ignorant and blind in the world until they become enlightened by Islam, as the state of the Arab world was before Muhammad brought his message unto the people (Habeck 65).

Not everyone agrees with the interpretations these jihadists make of the sacred texts. As a matter of discourse, Habeck makes several references to this, reiterating throughout the book such assurances as:

the jihadist commitment to offensive warfare, their belief in terrorizing entire populations, their views on prisoners of war and booty, and their deliberate targeting of innocents have not found widespread support among the vast majority of the Islamic world (133).

This could be as much as to prevent any liabilities or offense for her scholarship and thesis, as it is to convey the truth of the matter.  For example, many scholars believe that jihadists never give “full interpretive weight” to the circumstances relating to the past, but instead pull loosely from the texts to meet and satisfy their own agenda. This blatant show of abuse towards interpreting these texts implies their desire to manipulate and control their followers, which Habeck believes is “one of the most important aspects of the current conflict, for the struggle over who controls the Qur’an and hadith is, in many ways, the key to the upheaval in the Islamic world” (53). She furthers her argument for this point when she writes, ” For many Muslims who take their religion seriously, the willingness of the jihadis to selectively ignore a thousand years of interpretive work and the traditional exegesis of the people of knowledge is a serious affront to their understanding of Islam” (55). This is creating an internal conflict within the Islamic world, where both fundamentalists and liberally-oriented modernists are claiming the sacred texts to be the “true voice of Islam” (42). The result has turned out to be a bloody conflict, with tensions and animosities running high from every direction.

Regardless the religion, this is generally the reaction made toward fundamentalism by more moderate and intellectually-oriented people in a given society.   Christian fundamentalism has a tendency to have a similar effect — picking and choosing– on many of its believers.  As one blogger from the Huffington Post puts it, “Few [Christian] fundamentalists care about the early church, the Gospels, the Catholic traditions, Augustine, Arian heresies, encyclicals and councils. Rather, they blend Southern Conservatism, bastardized Protestantism, some Pauline doctrine, gross nationalism and a heavy dose of naive anti-intellectualism for a peculiar American strain of bullshit” (McElwee). Whether it is preaching a right-wing agenda through sermon or picketing in protest over gay-rights, Christian fundamentalists seem to only listen to themselves.  As Habeck reminds us in her book, jihadists are no different: they pick and choose what they want to believe, which tends to be the more militant side of Islam (43).

Her argument toward jihadist ideology in a modern sense is not entirely clear, though.  As would be expected of a book covering a topic such as this, her argument attracts a lot of criticism. One reviewer from the website The American Thinker bluntly states that “Habeck’s scholarship is half-baked, meaning literally half done.” He goes on to justify his case: “After making it clear to us that jihadism has deep and historical roots in Islam, Habeck feels compelled to proclaim that jihadists have perverted ‘traditional Islam’ to suit their purposes, have moved contrary to the flow of ‘modern Islam’, and are heterodox in their condemnation of all of those who oppose… But repeating these statements time and again in conclusory fashion does not make it so, and she provides almost no source material or analysis of how the jihadists are in fact heterodox” (Yerushalmi). The book does maintain a repetitive feel at times, especially when considering some of the facts used in several of the chapters to discuss the historical roots of Islam fundamentalism. While the interpretations from such revolutionary thinkers like Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Halim Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) and Sayyid Qutb (1903-1966), to name a few (Habeck 18), are made clear early on in the book, she continually adds these thinkers’ ideals back into her dialogue, drowning out any discourse about the differences existing between modern jihadist groups.  Nevertheless, her book provides many insights into the topic, and I can see how parallels to what is happening in the Middle East exist with the fundamentalism she discusses. In fact, I noticed passages all throughout (see pages 64, 145, 148-149) that seemed to hint at the beginnings of such groups like ISIS, a fundamentalist group that did not rise to power until several years after her book was written.

Given her expertise on the subject, I was curious to know what her take is on the current volatile condition in the Arabian peninsula due to ISIS, so I pulled up an article she co-authored with Thomas Donnelly, a research fellow from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard. There, they analyzed the current administration’s means of dealing with the Middle East thus far (as of January, 2014). They write that given the actions of the administration in their handling of the Benghazi attacks, the enemy is still largely misunderstood. “We still don’t understand the enemy,” she goes on to add, “more fatally… we do not understand the nature of the war.” That we don’t understand the enemy; that these al-Qaeda linked groups only reorganize and start anew once western intervention has packed up and gone home; that the terror network is more globally connected now than it was in the 80s and 90s; that, despite our “ebbing interest” in the region, the Middle East still maintains an interest in the United States, for better or worse: all of these facts weigh heavily on the decisions being made by the Obama administration during this political conundrum. Habeck and Donnelly make an interesting observation that has relevance to today’s understanding for the situation in the Middle East: “In sum, the state system — illegitimate and brittle as it has been — that largely defined the balance of power in the Middle East since World War II is in flux” (Habeck and Donnelly). It would seem that the writing is on the wall, as the proverbial saying goes, but with the Obama administration taking a passive approach to Middle Eastern affairs — furthermore, partnering with nuclear-ambitious Iran to negotiate settlements when America’s most influential ally, Israel, fears for such an act to happen and may take matters into their own hands — there is little that could be done to thwart the shifting balance of power that seems to be happening at the moment. The United States has always acted in some way to keep “the worst from happening in the Middle East” (Habeck and Donnelly), but the restraint shown by the current administration leaves the mildly complacent international community to ponder, “what are we to do now?” Many nations have an interest in the Middle East, for whatever reasons there may be, political or economic, so these nations are left to “reshape the international system to [their] liking” (Habeck and Donnelly).   Whether this is a good move for America and her interests in global affairs, especially since many Middle Eastern players like Saudi Arabia, are at risk of finding more compliant bedmates, only time will tell.

For all my purposes, this book has done a thorough job in answering many of the questions that I have had about the Islamic conflicts that seem to be growing in scale in the Middle East. One thing stands for certain, these jihadists have many enemies and their agenda is grandiose in every means, but it is a real one, a threat to any who think differently from them. They are more than just a small band of violent people who have murdered innocent people, rather they believe that they are “honored participants in a cosmic drama” where the fate of the world will be played out to its ultimate end, victoriously or not (Habeck 163). Habeck, along with many other western scholars (see Samuel Huntington’s article) see a “clash of civilizations” taking place around the world, where an either-or mentality motivates jihadist groups like al-Qaeda to lash out at non-believers and to destroy them (162). How long this will last is hard to say, but if history has shown us anything, it is that totalitarianism seldom lasts for long. The only problem is that history has a tendency of repeating itself.

Works Cited

Habeck, Mary and Thomas Donnelly. “The Unmaking of the Middle East.” the weekly Standard 19.18 (20 Jan. 2014). Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Habeck, Mary. Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

McElwee, Sean. “Five Things Christian Fundamentalists Just Don’t Get.” [Blog]. The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post.com, Inc., 08 Jun. 2015. Web. 11 Apr. 2015.

Yerushalmi, David. “Knowing the Enemy: A Book Review.” The American Thinker. American Thinker, 9 Sep. 2006. Web. 07 Apr. 2015.

Further Reading

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (Summer 1993): 22-49. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

Review of “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner

On 10 December, 1950, William Faulkner delivered his banquet speech before the audiences attending the Nobel Prize Committee at the city hall in Stockholm, Sweden.  One can tell from his address that he is seemingly out of his element, coming from the deep South of Mississippi.  Anyone can listen to his address for free from the Nobel Prize website.  In it, Faulkner addresses an audience fully aware of what post-war political tensions are capable of, what with the Cold War and the powers involved posed as a threat to civilization.  Yet, he talks about modern writers of his time losing touch with their connection to the “human spirit,” something he claims, “which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”  He goes on to add:

He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid… Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands (Faulkner, “Banquet Speech”).

Faulkner writes this because he believes it entirely to be the truth of writing.  This isn’t some thought that he embellishes for the sake of the Nobel Prize Committee, but a philosophy that he has based his writing and life off of. In one instance, it is even recognizable in his earlier work: “Barn Burning,” a short story published in the June 1939 issue of Harper’s Magazine.  In this story, a conflict exists that sets the human spirit at odds with itself.  The struggle between what is morally right and a young man’s obligation to his family reveals the tragedy that exists within this literary piece.

https://i1.wp.com/c27980.r80.cf1.rackcdn.com/easterniowanewsnow.com/150318/barn-burning.jpg

 

The tragedy here is as much an economic one, as it is about a family being torn apart by a boy’s father and his actions.  Would Abner Snopes have burned barns at all if he didn’t have a grudge against the system that keeps him and his family impoverished?  In fact, modern readers may have an easier time recognizing poverty’s role in the awkward position this family is in, rather than a man’s downward spiral because of spite and contempt.  Faulkner captures how poor these people are with descriptive imagery that tells us how cheap and worn their lives have become.  For example, expressions like ” flutter of cheap ribbons” and “drew from the jumbled wagon bed a battered lantern, the other a worn broom” shows us enough of their world through minor details, revealing the root of their problem.  It is poverty and the reactions he receives from those who are not impoverished that poisons the father’s actions.  He sees himself and his family as victims from the plantation owners who use them for menial labor, something that Snopes is begrudging of all throughout the narrative.  Just after arriving at their new (albeit temporary) home, father announces, “‘I reckon I’ll have a word with the man that aims to begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months'”(Faulkner “Barn” 221). Taking his son with him, they both make their way to see Major de Spain, the land owner he’ll be working for.  Sartoris, his son, sees the house of the Major de Spain as a sign of prosperity, a symbol of status and stability, something his life is devoid of; nevertheless, coming to this house gives him a sense of hope.  The negativity and contempt the father feels for his future employer, however, is clearly expressed both during, when he ruins the rug, and after, when he states: “He stood for a moment, planted stiffly on the stiff foot, looking back at the house. ‘ Pretty and white, ain’t it?’ he said.  ‘That’s sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him.  Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it” (222).  This attitude he shows toward people of wealth is what creates friction in the story.

Contrary to statements like these, we learn from particular moments throughout the story that reveal he wasn’t always this way.  The tension in his character lifts at one point even when Snopes takes his sons into town, regardless of being late with the crops, unlike all the other farmers.  Stopping at the blacksmith shop, there is a moment where the reader is given a glimpse into Snopes’s former life: “His father and the smith and a third man squatting on his heels inside the door were talking, about crops and animals; the boy, squatting too in the ammoniac dust and hoof-parings and scales of rust, heard his father tell a long and unhurried story out of the time before the birth of the older brother even when he had been a professional horsetrader.  And then his father came up beside him where he stood before a tattered last year’s circus poster on the other side of the store, gazing rapt and quiet at the scarlet horses…” (Faulkner “Barn” 226).  The fact that he buys cheese for the three of them to eat and idles around a “tall rail fence… upon which men stood and sat” to watch horses trot back and forth in a ring seems out of character for the father up to this point in the narrative (227), quite in contrast to his stern demeanor toward his family witnessed earlier in the story.  Is this a moment into a former life, one that was prosperous and fulfilling, one that he ultimately lost touch with due to familial obligations or other reasons?  What ever this moment is, it is the source for his contempt.  He finds peace reminiscing about the days of his youth in these few moments with his boys.  It seems, though, that this is the source of his inner-turmoil, his regrets, his personal demons and why he takes his revenge out on people who did make it — by burning their barns, ruining their possessions, tarnishing the lives of others as his own life has been tarnished.

While the story seems predominantly about the Mr. Snopes, it is as much about his older son, “Colonel” Sartoris,  a boy who seems to be at conflict with this father’s actions.  The moral conflict rests between the father and the son, no one else.  All throughout the narrative, we get the sense that Sartoris is not happy with their overall situation — moving from house to house because of his father’s actions.  But he fears and respects his father’s motives for toying with fire at the same time: “The element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion” (Faulkner “Barn” 220).  While it is something he understands, there is a desire to reveal what is happening to the authorities, something his father picks up on in the beginning of the story and pulls him off to the side, away from the rest of the family to discuss.  Snopes strikes him with the flat of his hand and tells his son that “‘you got to learn.  You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.  Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would?  Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?'”(220).   But Sartoris says nothing, thinking to himself, “‘If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again'” (220).  His father sees the same fire in his son and connects with him in many ways throughout the story.  The two of them are very much alike in how they respond to their environment: the father burning barns to express his repressed anger for his living conditions, and the son reacting rebelliously to this father’s lack of consideration for the family and for his emotional neglect.  All the other characters in the family are relatively passive and sheepish, settled in their misery with no one to help see their way out of it.  They rely on Snopes to survive, and he drags them into his downward spiral along the way.

Sartoris, his oldest son, is the one character in the story, though, who struggles with his father’s personal vendettas and constantly seeks to alleviate their burdens by convincing his father not to take his aggressions out with fire.  In the final act, where Snopes sets himself upon retribution toward Major de Spain for the high fine price from the ruined rug, Sartoris breaks away from the clutches of his mother and rushes off to the plantation to warn Major de Spain of his father’s intentions.  The act of betrayal towards his own bloodline is finalized when he hears shots ringing off in the distance.  Walking along the road, Sartoris walks away from the situation, liberated and free from the conflict embedded within his conscience.  The bond to his family is severed by his actions, and he never looks back at his family, reminders of the misery and emotional bondage enforced by his father.  Faulkner uses imagery and colors to work this motif throughout his story, too.  Although they are a white family, references to iron-like shades of black are constantly made throughout the story.  His father is often described as “a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made for him, the voice harsh like tine and without heat like tin” (220).  This emotional emptiness on his father’s part is the poison that taints the well; it is the source of his anguish and his personal depression with the world around him.  It is the sickness of his human spirit.

Going back to that moment in Stockholm, Sweden, Faulkner finalizes his thoughts before the audiences of the Nobel prize committee as if he were referring to Sartoris, himself.  He says: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”  Having betrayed his father, the son walks into the night, among the whippoorwills and dark trees around him, and he does not look back.  He is immortalized in this moment of release, having saved his soul from the same moral corruption that haunted his father’s spirit.  His sacrifice is one that liberated, not only himself from the bonds of obligation at the expense of truth and justice, but also of his family.  Even though he walks away from them, he saves them from further punishments that might have came with his father’s neglect.  This can be seen as an act of mercy or of selfishness by the reader.  But in the end, he has learned his lesson in fear and is ready to take on the world before him, much in the same way Faulkner did himself when he sat down to write this story.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. “Banquet Speech” (1950).  Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967. Ed. Horst Frenz.  Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1969. Nobelprize.org. Web. 05 Mar. 2013.

Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning” (1939). Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Ed. Ann B. Dobie. Boston: Heinle Thomson Learning, Inc. (2002): 217-229. Print.

Image source: “Barn Burning in Bellevue.” [Image]. Frompo. Frompo, 2015. Web. 09 Apr. 2015.

The Mystery of Death in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

Photo by James Lafayette. Public domain.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

With it being the 450th celebration to William Shakespeare’s birthday, there’s a lot of hype going around about his life’s work.  Look to any theater playhouse, and you will likely see a lineup for a couple of Shakespearean productions this season.  In fact, I have already seen three this year– Richard III, Hamlet, and The Merchant of Venice.  It has been a great season for me, too, because I want to see every play Shakespeare ever wrote performed live on stage.  Call it a bucket list, if you will.  Film renditions, such as the 1948 Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet or Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest, do not count towards my endeavor to “see them all.”  They must be performed on the stage if I want to check them off my list.  What can I say, it’s a long-term goal.
Every chance I get, I go to the theater for a Shakespearean play.  I have seen quite a few already, too.  Othello, Macbeth, Love’s Labour’s Lost, to name a few.  All of them have lived up to their reputations in every respect.  By far, my favorite has been the tragedy Hamlet, which I saw for the first time this past fall.  I have read Hamlet on several occasions.  In fact, I know the play very well, as I taught its iambic pentameter and its rhyme schemes to undergraduates once upon a time.  What a challenge that was, trying to give students who had never read Shakespeare an introduction to what may be considered his greatest work, in as little as three weeks even.  Regardless, they rose to the challenge and walked away all the better for having done so; at least I hope they did.  There is a lot to take away from a play like Hamlet.  Not only is it a marvelous example for the craftsmanship of an English dramatist during the Elizabethan era, but it also contains a deep message within its lines, one that even applies to today’s readers; but therein lies the challenge, as many modern readers find it difficult to understand the middle English language of Shakespeare’s hand.  Don’t let a lack of understanding for what Shakespeare wrote detour you from the scope of this masterpiece.  There is much to learn from Hamlet and his melancholy if you only learn to read between the lines.  Of course, this takes practice and time.

The Plot

Considered to be one of the most famous tragedies to ever be performed, Hamlet is a tale about revenge.  The young Danish prince, Hamlet, is in mourning for the loss of his father, the king.  In the early acts of the play, the king appears as a vengeful spirit, much in anguish for his demise, and reveals who his murderer is to his son.  Stricken with grief by this revelation, the young Hamlet sets his will to exact his revenge by thwarting his lecherous uncle, Claudius — now the King of Denmark.  The conflict here lies in his affections for the female supporting roles: Gertrude, his mother and Queen of Denmark, innocent of the murderous plot and the young Ophelia, daughter to Polonius, Lord Chamberlain to King Claudius.  Initially, Hamlet acts partially insane to throw off any attempts at deciphering his motives, while he goes about trying to “catch the conscience of the king” (Act II, sc. II).  With events in motion, Hamlet has a visiting theater troop draft a play to fit a version of his father’s death, and learns from Claudius’s reaction that he indeed murdered his own brother, so that he might ascend the throne.  As one might guess, the rest of the story is an utter disaster with nearly everyone in the cast dying, except for Horatio, the loyal servant to Hamlet and his father, the King.

The Message

Deeply embedded under the revenge plot, though, lies a rich philosophical subtext for a topic so timeless, that it beseeches us even today.  In all of its shapes and forms, Hamlet (moreover the author Shakespeare) lays forth a discourse for what it means to be mortal.  “The undiscovered country” is how he refers to death, which fits even in today’s understanding for the topic; for death is the one aspect of life that remains to be truly and wholly understood.  It is not what happens so much to the physical shell of our bodies that he seeks to understand but more so the essence of our lives, the soul.  “Therein lies the rub” (so beautifully put in Act III)– what becomes of the human soul when our mortal bodies wither and die, no longer able to sustain our mental capacities?  Do we simply phase out to nothingness, our life experiences amounting to only what our physical bodies limit us to, or is there a part of us that lives on beyond our mortal means?  It is this question that makes Hamlet the enduring classic one would expect it to be.
The very first scene sets this discourse in motion, where Marcellus and Bernardo, two guards at their post, encounter the ghost of Hamlet’s recently deceased father during the witching hour (midnight).  His unrest, portrayed as supernatural and uncanny, sets the tension for the play.  Horatio, a dear friend to Prince Hamlet, is informed, and he reveals this dire news to the prince.  In Act I, scene IV, Horatio, Marcellus and Hamlet meet his father’s ghost in the courtyard, again during the witching hour, but Hamlet isn’t sure if this ghost is truly his father’s or some evil abomination attempting to trick him.  Curiosity getting the best of him, he steels himself to seeking out the truth, insisting to his companions that the apparition cannot harm his immortal soul, and thus confides in the spirit’s demands.  Here, Hamlet learns why the ghost is left in limbo, unable to transcend to a heavenly state, and he swears to avenge its demise.  With the tension mounting, this scene becomes a very important part of the plot, but it also challenges the viewers’ beliefs from the very beginning, regarding whether or not the human soul really is capable of an outerly state, such as one of that being lost in limbo or one that ascends to a divine state.

Contemplating Life

With the knowledge of his father’s demise at the hands of his uncle, who poisoned him while sleeping, the situation for Hamlet becomes difficult.  He is torn by the grief he has for his father’s death and for his mother’s contemptuous marriage to her husband’s brother.  Clearly, the king’s brother, Claudius, murdered him to usurp his throne.  Wrought by this knowledge and the helplessness he feels for his situation, Hamlet goes to his father’s tomb to seek advice, hoping to learn what he should do.  Mourning is seen as a natural part of life, contrary to what many in the play say to Hamlet for doing so.  The subtext that comes from this part of the play clearly shows Hamlet’s feelings for his father’s loss, but they also do more than reveal his own subjective views; moreover, they add to the discussion about death that seems to be mounting in the play.  This passage becomes one of the most famous soliloquies Shakespeare ever wrote: the beginning to Act III, scene I where Hamlet reasons and debates with himself the notion of suicide and the motivation of life.  The richness and depth of this passage is worth quoting in full, which goes as follows:

Hamlet:  To be, or not to be, — that is the question: —

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? — To die, — To sleep, —

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is hier to, — ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d.  To die, — to sleep; —

To sleep!  perchance to dream: — ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin?  who would fardels bear

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,–

The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns,– puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all (Act III, Sc. I, 1088).

To call death the eternal sleep and to wish it upon ourselves no sooner that it must is the struggle that Hamlet surveys in this soliloquy.  His conclusion is that regardless the miseries we face and are conscious of in life, we are not going to rush off to deal with miseries we know nothing about, for death, even today, is still a mystery.  Our conscience, the way we perceive life, is what keeps us from ending life prematurely, which Shakespeare so eloquently writes as making cowards of us all.  Therein lies a great paradox, being that we are born to die some day but that we endure life and embrace it, often with great fear for death.  This is what it means to be mortal, and coming to terms with this is easier said than done.

Perhaps it is as easy as looking death in the face, as the famous scene from the image above portrays.  To take a skull in the hand and to look upon its visage, to analyze its features, to imagine it with flesh and hair, to see it as a living and breathing person who once laughed and cried and experienced:  all of these things can leave one in a melancholy mood, especially knowing that it could one day be your own skull, but it raises some interesting questions about mortality.  Hamlet has such a moment during Act V, scene I where he happens upon a gravedigger playing flippantly with a skull.  He inquires of the man whose skull it once was, to which he answers a “whoreson mad fellow” it was– Yorick’s, the king’s jester.  Hamlet knew him as a child, and he becomes immediately fascinated by this skull, hence why he grips it and observes it the way he does.  But, his fascination for Yorick’s skull goes beyond having known him at one point when he seeks to compare it to the skulls of great men, like Alexander and Caesar.  Shakespeare writes:

Hamlet: Let me see. [Takes the skull.] — Alas, poor Yorick! — I knew him, Horation; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it.  Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.  Where be your gibes now?  your gambols?  your songs?… Pr’ythee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Horatio:  What’s that, my lord?

Hamlet: Dost thou think Alexander [the Great; inserted by author] looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?

Horatio: E’en so.

Hamlet: And smelt so? pah! [Throws down the skull]

Horatio: E’en so, my lord.

Hamlet: No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus; Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away: O, that that earth which kept the world in awe Should patch a wall to expel the winter’s flaw! — (Act V, Sc. I, 1106-7).

It is one thing for Hamlet to find humor in knowing that the skull he holds in his hand belonged to a jester with whom he played with in court, but to lightheartedly compare that skull and to imagine it being the same for great men like Alexander and Julius Caesar seems to make a mockery of the actions we take in life.  To think that all mortal men return to the earth, regardless of their stature and fame during their lifetime, puts a different spin on the discourse about death seen up to this point in the play.  It suggests that no one is impervious to death; that death humbles the boldest and noblest of people; that we all end up the same in the end — ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Conclusion

The final scene in Hamlet is where the tragedy lies, in that everyone in the cast dies, except for Horatio.  His last lines to Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, and the English Ambassadors who happen upon the final scene, suggest that the story will live on beyond their mortal means.  Hamlet begs him in his final death woes to “tell my story –” and Horatio does just that to the young Fortinbras:  “You from the Polack wars, and you from England, / Are here arriv’d, give order that these bodies / High on a stage be placed to the view; / And let me speak to the yet unknowing world / How these things came about: so shall you / hear” (Act V, Sc. II, 1112).   The act of telling the story of Hamlet and his family takes them from the mortal realm, where the fleshly bodies are no more, into the immortal realm where storytelling and narrative carries them into the future.  After all, am I not writing about Shakespeare even now, some 450 years after his lifetime.  Are you not good reader thinking about Shakespeare at this moment, pondering what you know about him or this play?  Take this notion of memory and put it into a context you can relate to; think of someone who was once dear to you, to someone you were fond of or who you once loved?  Isn’t your memory of them but a kernel of immortality?  Do they not live on through you?  There have been generations of people who have lived and died on this planet, and we know of them and their lives through the memories we share with future generations to come, often in the written word.   Who am I but a mere mortal man, writing about another mortal man who lived beyond his time through his writing.  A dear friend of mine once told me: there are only two things that outlive us in our lifetime– our children and our written ideas.  Even great men become dust in the end, but their greatness lives on in the stories told about them generations later.  Shakespeare is a true testament to this — his plays, written down in the first folios and performed on countless stages over the past four centuries,  will forever be remembered as the greatest works of drama ever to come from the English language.  Is this not immortality?

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.”  The Complete Works. New York: Random House, 1997. 1071-1112.  Print. Image source: Lafayette, James. “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.” 1880-1885.  Wikipedia. Wikipedia, inc., 20 Aug. 2008. Web. 02 Apr. 2015.