Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Kiln Fired or Feet of Clay?

Do You See Heroes with feet of clay, or clay shaped into Heroes?
I just finished re-reading Victor Davis Hansons “The Soul of Battle”, and this morning watched the movie “Patton”, who is the last subject of the three leaders examined in the book(Epaminondas, Sherman & Patton). I surfed around reading a few related articles, and not surprisingly found that several of them were eager to jump on Patton’s theatrical façade, his error’s… his “feet of clay, slapping soldiers and using Nazi’s, were his undoing!”.

I think it interesting that the quote “Heroes with feet of clay” is always some variant of “the hero had feet of clay, and was undone by them”. Now there is a legitimate way of making such notes, of directing students to be careful of hubristic oversight, etc. But the usual intent seems to be of pointing out that "people are flawed, we’re all flawed, and these posers, these puffed up self important SOB’s – well, they’re flawed too! They’re no better than us, and like us they can’t stand up higher than the rest! Not for long!

What I find interesting in that, is that the perspective they don’t see is that these people, these heroes, they DO come from the same stuff as the rest of us, and they manage to form themselves, to mold themselves, to shape themselves into this larger than life Hero who accomplishes what the rest of us can only marvel at. From “mere clay” (which by the way, is the implication they wish us to accept without thought, that we are all only merely people), this person has managed to fashion from the same material common to the rest of us, an Inspired Hero for all time to be astonished by.

How is that so rarely the lesson deemed worth of teaching?

What would be a better use of the clay footer's breath and language, rather than chortling at the heroes’ feet of clay, would be to make an examination of what enables the clay man to fashion his own moist clay into that of the carefuly sculpted and kiln fired clay of the Hero - that would be a lesson worth teaching and learning.

What is it that enables someone to take the features of his life, those features which most of us look back on as isolated scenes and periods that on reflection have led only to where we are; and instead draw such scenes into one force, one synthetic whole that doesn’t just lead to where you are in life at this moment in time, but to see this moment as being part of a unified and continuous whole, one which can be seen not just stretching into the future, but existing complete in the past, present and future - a life unified and whole,destined and Heroic!

That IS Heroic! That is someone who manages to take their common clay, and fire it with the human Spirit into a real life, larger than life Hero. The deeper tragedy is that the rest of us, so awed at their accomplishments, so rarely realize that such heroes were in essence no different from us, that we too could choose to unify and form our lives into a continuous, purposeful whole.

That someone makes errors and has flaws as most of us do, should be nothing to remark over. That someone who has those human inherent errors and flaws and yet still manages to fashion their life into an Heroic Life, an inspiring life, a life worthy of emulating, THAT should impress the hell out of anyone who sees them. It certainly should be what those tasked with teaching others about this Hero, should teach. Not that they were merely human, but that here was someone who was of the same human clay as the rest of us, yet managed to form that material common to us all into a life of heroic proportions.

When such Heroic lives are examined, and when such lessons are taught and taught well, then when trying times do come upon us, it will be through the lessons of Heroes of the past that we of the present will be able to be in some part inspired, inspired with the realization that we too can be worthy of the heroic – in such times generations such as those of the Founders and those of WWII, do stand and form themselves straight and tall to endure and prevail, and fitting prophecies of the end of the world which would have been singularly appropriate to come to pass, are seen to be merely fanciful fears averted once again.

The ever-present End of the World Apocalypse is only ever brought about by small minded, narrow visioned peoples too focused on their uninteresting petty pleasures (see the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Apocalypse means a "lifting of the veil", a revealing the end of the story - and it comes about because such peoples ARE the end of their story, there is no where else for their story to progress towards; by their own actions they write their doom, and the next story prepares to begin from their ashes. Examples of the recent sad socialist sinking of Britannia, or the present waffling of our own times, most definitely should give people pause - we should be worried about an Apocalypse, Life and History won't pause for long, there are far too many more stories waiting to be told.

The Apocalypse, The End, is only averted, the story is only continued or picked up for another season, through the actions of the lives of Heroes formed from human clay, inspired and fired by the wholly Spirit of Truth and Principled Purpose (see Victor Davis Hanson’s “The Soul of Battle”), their deeds and actions are the inspiring stuff needed to rally entire peoples to continue on, to live and tell other tales of their own.

Future times will look back on our times for lessons in one direction or the other – do you have more stories to tell? Do you see your life leading only up to the present, or extending into the future? Will your contribution to history be a life of moist clay or Kiln Fire?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Back to Iraq

This woke me up at 6:30 this morning out of a sound sleep, would't let me alone. So here it is.

On a West Texas highway, David’s telling Josh about his recent breakup
while driving to the airport.

“…And she just dumped me, just like that!” David snapped his fingers with a swift wrist flick towards Josh’s face. “Tore me up, I tell you what.”

Josh had been focused on the highway rushing beneath them, but the movement caught his eye, he turned to face his friend, uniformed body still seated at attention, cap and head swiveling smoothly towards him, eyes intent and locked on David.

“That good enough for you?”

David turned from his driving to face him a moment, his face a little shocked, before turning back to the road “Huh? Good enough for me… what the hell do you mean by that?”

Josh’s gaze hadn’t changed “I mean are you content to let your life just happen like that? Let things occur in it, let it process you like so many sausage links tied off into little sections… maybe cook ‘em up someday, savor the taste, swallow ‘em & shit ‘em out?”

David’s head flicked back towards his friend… shock turned to concern “What the hell Josh?”

“I’m going back to Iraq David. I don’t know if I’m coming back again. I don’t have time to let life just happen and move along… maybe do something with it latter, when I’m older. I think you think you do. But you don’t, it’s just that I realize it and you don’t. You could get killed today driving back home from the airport.”

David’s head flicked back again, a double take, but no words.

“It seems to me that you can let life happen, and go no further with it, or you can take what happens and go deeper… find some meaning there to make the moment of life you have, now, more.” His eyes were intense, drilling his friend. He caught himself and turned smoothly back to face the road. “I been thinking a lot, and it seems to me that the time we get is all we get,” he paused, silence somehow imposed over the blaring radio, “but we don’t have to let that time we get be all we get out of it… you can’t let it just happen without chewing it well, getting every bit of flavor out before swallowing.”

“How are you supposed…”

“Go get it Dave, take it, it’s there waiting for you…use your head, experience it. What happened when she dumped you? What did you think? Did it change you, do you like the change? Could you have done better? Are you going to allow it? Is there something else, some other meaning you can find in it for your life…Live it my friend, don’t just let it happen, ya know? Those are moments that can nourish your soul… or they can just happen and be forgotten” David nodded to the road, “Don’t just let it happen. thas all I’m sayin’ ”

The airport was coming into view, the radio continued to blare on in silence as David turned off on the exit ramp.

There. Now I'm going back to bed.

Friday, February 16, 2007

I am not what I am - unMoored from Above

One of the vilest characters in all of Western Literature is Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello, I think he is also the one we should be most careful of all to learn from. Othello is the story of a solid and good man, a Moorish commander in the employ of Venice to help defend it from the Turks, and how he is undone – defeated not in physical war, but through Spiritual warfare.

As the play opens, we find that Desdemona, the fair daughter of a Venetian senator is in love with Othello, and he with her. Othello has just filled an opening in his leadership ranks with a rear line officer named Michael Cassio, a Florentine; passing over an experienced battle tested officer, Iago, who is Othello's trusted advisor.

Iago is ostensibly offended that he has not been named to the leadership post himself, and he determines to set all against all in order to destroy Othello - at any cost.

Iago sums up his position in Act I, Scene I, speaking to Roderigo (who also has feelings for Desdemona, and whom Iago will also manipulate towards his own ends).

For, sir,
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Iago is saying that if he had the choice, he would not be himself, and behaves as if he weren't - he will pretend otherwise for the moment, but when the time comes he will make plain his intents, and appearances be damned. In the Old Testament, God identifies himself to Moses as "I Am that I Am", and with "I am not what I am" Shakespeare has Iago explicitly and purposefully put himself in opposition to that.

We initially think Iago’s motives 'soundly' of envious revenge at being passed over, but as the play progresses, he allows other motives to flow from his lips as the situation suits, so that we know not which one, if any at all, are his true (true? does it apply to such a one?) motives for destroying the Soul of Othello; and that is precisely his intent. Not to backstab him, or merely to have him think himself a cuckold, but to destroy his Soul, and drip by drip of his poisonous tongue Iago accomplishes this, so that Othello, a man of solid character, upright intent, honorable and virtuous as they come, is removed from himself using his strengths and his values, by way of his trust in his own judgment.

Othello, unassailable by force, is defeated within. As a man of action, his values are what can be seen and touched and demonstrated, as he demonstrates his authority when approached with drawn swords, disarming them with his words and presence alone "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them" and

Hold your hands,
Both you of my inclining and the rest.
Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it
Without a prompter.

Desdemona is Good and True, Chaste and Just - and by his ownwords at the end, we know that he knows it as well. But Iago has turned his impressions of circumstances into a conviction of belief - and without hierarchical beliefs, what has he that is higher? “Good Honest Iago” uses lies, innuendo and a stolen handkerchief from Desdemona, a gift from Othello which was his Mother’s, that he is maneuvered to find in the possession of Cassio, and the facts themselves – physical features without any attempt at seeking a higher and deeper truth from Cassio and Desdemona themselves – are sufficient to convict them in his eyes, and his soul is laid waste.

The good, though mercenary, Moor is to be unmoored from his values by dint of them.

As the heirloom of Othello’s Mother given to his bride is lost and arranged to be falsely found by Iago, the heirloom of the West, the wisdom of Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian literature, is lost and falsely found to be but fable by our Academe. With it the beliefs we have in truth and justice are distrusted and cast aside in favor of a deadening web of facts woven about us and holding our hearts down to the ground.

Othello, knowing the light she is to his own soul, says as he puts fair Desdemona to death “Put out the Light, and then put out the light”, with her death, his.

We in the West have cast off our anchor from the Vertical, and we too are unmoored and while afloat still, sinking all the same.

I've heard many explanations of Othello, but not one that matches where I'm going with this, so be warned, and perhaps I'm far a field, but to me it seems plain - Shakespeare meant Othello to stand for the virtues of the West, and Iago for the 'new Man' of the renaissance, as a warning and a diagnosis of the humanistic learning flourishing in Venice and Florence and the rest of the West. He meant to show that though in physical battle with a miserable enemy (ironically, then as now the Moslem), that enemy was defeatable by force of arms as well as by Nature, as they are in the play - but the true danger to the West lies within the west, among those it trusts the most, its advisors and defenders.

Othello thought his enemy was Cassio, the Florentine – just as we often hear those espousing Values denouncing Machiavelli, the Florentine, as being our enemy; but his true enemy was his closest advisor – as I think our true enemy is our closest and most trusted advisor, the teachings of Academe.

Coleridge had a phrase for describing Iago, 'the motive hunting of motiveless malignancy' the doing of evil for evils sake. But its presented as a quirk of personality, with no source outside its own self. While I agree with his description of the effects of Iago's personality, I think the source of it is traceable to our most trusted adviser, the learning we so prize, the teachings of Academe which are given us as facts and knowledge without rank, spread out flat, lacking any vertical anchor in the Cosmos; a flattened level of values where whim and malice are equally justified and justifiable in the absence of any hierarchy of values; and that may be our deadliest danger of all.

The New Man of the Renaissance makes many appearances in Shakespeare, his tragedies are rife with them in his villains, heroes as well as the everyman. Hamlet himself is a more benign, but equally adrift exponent of the thinking sweeping Europe, best exemplified at the time by Machiavelli. Now Machiavelli today is assumed to be some dark exponent of pursuing evil for powers sake, but that is untrue of him. He had values, and they were Florence, sound government and orderly rule; but they were his values by dint of birth, and extended no further above his plane of ethics than another. He advocated the doing of deeds for the purpose of accomplishing what he saw needed to be done. The purpose itself... could come from anywhere. It was no longer rooted in ethics or religon, Christian or any other for that matter.

There was no secular replacement for the Good and the True forthcoming from the Renaissance - Man, horizontal Man freed from the Vertical, was the measure of all things.

Shakespeare is famous for not seeming to advance an agenda in his plays, he doesn't seek to stand for any conception of the Good and True, he endorces no set of Values over another, but methodically goes about describing the Actual with a more piercing clarity turned upon human nature, its strengths, virtues, frailties and vices - than has been done by any other before or since. To my mind he illustrates the chaos of Valueless Man far better by way of leaving out what is not there, than he ever could have by trying to write them in.

Shakespeare was seeing the first incoming tide of the Renaissance, and along with the undeniable greatness and benefits it promised, he saw equally clearly the rot within it, that of power unchecked by goodness, and he saw the many Iago's inherent within its reach. Iago, MacBeth, Richard III, Henry V are all exemplars of different shades cast from its prism, and of course poor Hamlet the melancholy Dane, probably the only one besides Shakespeare himself who saw its strengths, its evils, and worse, its laying upon the souls of each man, the reigns, the spurs and the spinning compass of the unrooted normative. Man was seeking to acquire near Godlike power, perhaps even approaching the knowledge of the Gods - but what was most horrifying - melancholy-ifying – of all is the vision of attaining all the power of the Gods, while lacking the center and peace of Godlike wisdom.

Without that, what is left? What can be counted on of people, who look to no scale of virtue or justice to steer by? Does “As above, so below” apply, when the notions of above and below are discarded?

Does this give Shakespeare too much credit? Too much prognosticative abilities to see how the West will develop and unfold? Perhaps... but in answer to that, I have to first ask, have you read Shakespeare? Aristotle was probably the last man to comprehend all of mans knowledge and philosophy, but Shakespeare was possibly the first and last to comprehend all of mans soul, its heights and depths and middling’s... and if there is any truth whatsoever to what Harold Bloom claims, that Shakespeare invented the human, I don't see that adding Too and Too together to get Forethought, is all that much beyond him.

But even if this is not what was intended by Shakespeare through his plays in general, and with Othello in particular, one of the values of Poetry is that it not only enables the Poet to transmit his point of view to you in order to more clearly see the Truth as he does, but it also enables the reader, me and you, to apply that same lens to our own times and from our own perspective, to more clearly see the Truth of the world found all around me, and found all around you.

That is the power of Poetry, and why not only what Shakespeare wrote 400+ years ago, but also what Sophocles & Aeschylus wrote 2,500 years ago are still relevant, and still apply to our lives. What they said applies to our lives because what they said can be applied to our lives via our active hearts and minds; Not to mention Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Moses....

Through that lens, to my eye, I see that not can come of knowledge unMoored from above, but a shallow spreading pool of evil, drowning all who persist in lying before it. Like a person who falls asleep and drowns in a bathtub - escaping the tepid waters of death requires the easiest of things, but to awaken and sit up. But the sleep is deep, and the flickering dreams are flashy and distracting, and oh so exciting... don't wake me just yet... just a few more minutes.

I Am what I Am,
I am not what I am,
Put out the Light, and then... put out the light.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lightening Up On The Dark Side - Finding Education in the Oddest of Places

While juggling some heavier balls at the moment, it makes me wonder whether or not lessons of lasting value can only be gleaned from 'deep' material? Is education something that can only happen through approved text books, or time tested classics of literature?

I think Very much - No. Though there is a danger in not ensuring some familiarity with the works of the ages, we'll leave that for later; for the moment, just know that Education - that process of leading you out of bondage, perhaps bondage to constricting beliefs you were either unaware you had, or liberating beliefs you weren't aware existed, is a process that can be encouraged and experienced through any material, event, happening and/or relationship. If you are open to looking for it.

A case in point:

Recently, Deep Thought took to task the story of Star Wars. He thoroughly skins the series of their media hero gloss. Most, if not all, that he notes, is very true. Yoda, Obi Wan, the Rebellion, were all far from perfect, and in many cases thoroughly wrong headed. And the Empire, apart from being more than ok with the thought of wiping out an entire planet to make a point, was far from the evil tyrannical totalitarian dictatorship that we might find in say, Sadam's Iraq, or Hitlers Germany. Next to them, Palpatines Empire could even be seen as a real preferred realpolitik option; I mean, how much different is it than Putin's Russia?

But what educational value if any, can be found in the Star Wars movies? Quite a lot, I think. But where would that educational value be found? Certainly not in the dialog, nor the carefully crafted plot structure. No, its value isn't in its details, and many of its explicit messages I would say are even downright harmful - "Luke, trust in the force Luke, Let go!" all this while he's piloting a super sophisticated, expensive fighter with the lives of millions riding on his judgment and skill. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream is not a terribly valuable message, either a long time ago, or now.

And no, the value of Star Wars doesn't lay in its mythic-poetic structure - though it is there to be sure, that is just the delivery system to transmit its lessons into your awareness whether you (or the writer/director) are aware of it or not. Joseph Campbell has thoroughly fleshed out the hero cycle which he thinks is critical to the development of each of our own psyche's, so I won't attempt to summarize them here.

No, when you shear off all the Fx, the real core of the story has nothing to do with the Empire or the Rebellion, or even of droids, aliens or lightsabre battles. What it really conveys, is the need for individual character and self mastery, as shown through the primary characters of Anakin/Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. The evolution of their characters show in negative and positive lessons, the importance of looking at a situation, ultimately, through your own eyes, and of making your own choices because you see them as being correct. Listen to those you respect, sure, but don't slavishly obey them. Star Wars accomplishes this through its core negative illustrations of:

  • Palpatine’s machinations to seize ultimate political power for the sake of gaining power for powers sake, the desire to do whatever he chooses in order to make the entire universe out there, conform to his wishes - it leaves him twisted & deformed and without even the sense to be concerned over it.

  • Yoda, Obi-Wan, Mace Windu and the Jedi in general, seek to ensure that beliefs they agree with are upheld or imposed, no matter the intermediary ethics involved. They think nothing of casually overpowering other individuals freewill "You don't want death sticks, you want to go home and rethink your life", or attempting to cheat at dice, etc, to accomplish what they deem of value. Their arrogance of humility has led them to become an 'ends justify the means' beuacracy.

  • Anakin's allowing himself to become intoxicated with his own passions and power, letting those passions gain mastery over his will, without exercising his own free will's responsibility of choice over them. He pursues an illegal love, flouting rules he has sworn to uphold, and rather than reexaming his beliefs and perhaps leaving the Jedi order, he seeks instead only to have it both ways. Finally, inevitably, he betrays all that he has claimed to believe in, joining with what he has heretofore considered evil, in order to preserve his wife's life (for his sake, not hers) on the possibility that it may lead to a cure. The 'as they DO, not as they say' lessons of the Jedi, learned too well.

The Star Wars story illustrates the pull of these unbalanced passions upon the soul, and the ways in which they are most easily and seductively encountered. One way is in which those passions are explicitly acknowledged and pursued for their own calculating and lustful sake (Palpatine), those passions which are repressed yet pursued still through 'higher' ulterior motives of 'the ends justify the means' (Jedi), and those passions which if not consciously mastered, will enslave you with their intoxicating heat, and though you might revel in them for awhile, you will ultimately be left dissipated, cold and hollow from their deadening misuse (Anakin/Vader).

Each results in a tyrannical character, either out of calculated greed and power lust to impose your will on others and have them serve you, or through puritanically seeking to impose 'right' behavior on others while denying (to yourself) your own desire to impose your will on them, or through the reckless pursuit of passion for passions sake, which ultimately enslaves you to an outside Master in an attempt to escape responsibility for your own free will.

(By the way, the novelizations of the movies provide some more detail and make clearer what is barely glimpsed or misread in the movies, all at the low cost of reading mostly shallow but fun adventure stories. The novelization of Episode III by Matthew Stover is a cut above the rest (hey, I'm a sucker for anyone that can work quotes from Aeschylus into a story that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). He does a nice job of illustrating how the isolated decisions that the emperor maneuvers Anakin into making, positions them in such a way as to ensure they are shorn of any wider context of Good and Truth and Beauty, so that step by step you see him making 'reasonable' decisions along the path of good intentions straight into the open arms of Hell. A fine example of the need for a thorough understanding of your own values, and not just the rules you might otherwise mistake for them.)

Finally, it is in the resolution of these conflicts through the development, actions and decisions of Luke Skywalker, where the positive lessons are to be found.

Luke is the first of any of them to come face to face with the responsibilities of his own Free Will and the necessity of it being exercised over your own passions. Yoda tries to tell him to deny his passions, to abandon his friends, to do what he knows to be wrong, for a 'higher' purpose. Luke, rejects that - and though he perhaps acts rashly charging into Vaders trap, his reasons for doing so are proper. He is responsible for their being in danger, and he won't evade it.

Luke sees his 'Dark Side' in both its masks of Vice and pretended Virtue, faces up to their existence within himself and finally doesn't attempt to evade their existence, but to choose well in the face of them. It points up the ultimate danger of a little knowledge, in that by seeing the failings of both the Sith and the Jedi and unreflectively thinking those to be the only choices, it will leave the naive jaded, and slowly lead them around to the dark side.

The tale also illustrates that being in-touch with your inner 'force' is not enough in itself to save you. It still requires that you be aware of the choices arrayed before you, to choose wisely from among them, and maintain control of your own passions and calculations in order to do what is right and true, because it is right and true and not for some purportedly higher (and ultimately undermining) purpose.

Luke saw both the errors and failings of both sides, as well as his own failings, and so chose not to deny them, but to recognize them for what they were - and to look for alternatives. In the end, he chose Rightly and triumphed. He saw in his Father (and there is much that your own inner myth maker reads into that one) that “there is good in him, I feel it" and pursued rescuing that goodness because it was good and true. Through sober choice and character (though a whiner at the start, he was raised to work - and the old agricultural ethos carries him through), he eventually manages to harness his passions to his Reason, and in so doing brings balance, back to the force, his family (living and dead), and we assume to the Galaxy as well (Plato’s city-state writ large).

And silly Sci-fi or not, those are lessons worth learning.

(Why the picture? Trying to get the darned Blogger profile to work!)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Over the hill and through the woods and off the cliff we go....

Well, I survived the sacking of the IT Mgr, restructuring of the project from a Visual Studio 2003 web based ASP.Net Portal app to windows forms & Services Oriented architecture in Visual Studio 2005, the change of programming languages from VB to C#, and the death march project schedule & crunch time rollout tasks; but now that the core project is done, I'm not being picked up to stay on for the new development work.

“Hey, can you come in here?”
“What are you working on now?”,
“Testing is all I’ve got left assigned”,
“Your Admin screens tight?”,
“Yep, all are working well & no problems”,
“Cool. Well… The projects rolled out & Ken’s gonna be able to handle the new dev work, so we’re going to let your contract expire next Friday. I just wanted to give you a heads up & some notice, I’ve already contacted your company. Nothing personal. Cool?”
pause… “Yep, that’ll work, thanks.”

Of three contractors, one was to be chosen to stay on as an employee - I wasn't it & so my contract ends 2/10/07.

I suspected, but was hoping that for once I was reading the words in the air wrong. Could have politicted it perhaps... but I really don't want it on those terms... anyway, that's that. It's always a hit, and a relief at the same time - dread and curiosity - what the heck am I going to do now?

Update the resume', dust off the shirt & tie & start interviewing again.

Got to get some more Guiness.