Friday, December 29, 2006

Reading Drama

Dirty Hands is probably my favorite Jean-Paul Sartre play. However, I can't imagine a staged production of the play being any good at all. Scenes go on much longer than they need to. The negotiations between Hoederer, Karsky, and the Prince about the makeup of a joint governing body make for rivoting reading, but I can't imagine it as anything but completely dull when performed on stage. It's a good read with tension and drama, but I think it would make a lousy show.

So how do we evaluate this or any drama? Is a play only as good as its actual performance, or is it to be measured by the words on the page? Or is there a platonic, idealized conception of the production, an imagined production which can never be realized, for which plays are truly evaluated?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Sartre's "The Flies"

From the moment Zeus is referred to as the god of flies and death, The Flies is full of mood. A mood of guilt, repentance, remorse, and fear, yes, but moreso a mood of sickness, rottenness, tragedy, and doom. The people live their lives in fear and guilt--but that does not make their lives empty. It makes them doomed. The set contributes to the sweltering sense of doom: Act I features a statue of Zeus, Act II, scene i features a giant boulder that holds the dead back, Act II, scene ii features a different statue of Zeus, and Act III features a statue of Apollo. Perhaps with some more time I'll analyze the meaning of the shift in dominant set.

And within this mood of doom, in which the oppressive flies take on an identity of meaning to themselves, Sartre explores his big themes: God, man, freedom, fear, and the Cosmos.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Thick Skin of a Vegetarian

I've long since stopped being surprised at the hostility with which people respond to vegetarians. Meat-eaters usually treat vegetarians and vegetarianism with anger or with mocking. I can't help but see this as defensiveness. People don't come to the question of whether it is right or wrong to eat animals objectively; most people are heavy meat-eaters before they consider that it may be ethically wrong. Therefore arguments tend toward justification of desired behavior, not toward legitimate debate.

That said, here are two of the more stupid arguments I've heard in favor of animal consumption. I assure you these are not Straw Man arguments; I have seen people use these types of arguments.

It is instinct for humans to eat meat.
This is simply not the case--unless you are out in the woods, catching and killing animals with your bare hands, and eating their flesh.

What we eat is almost entirely social; we eat the foods that society provides for us as acceptable options. Most people don't kill what they eat; they simply purchase it. Society tells us that meat is an acceptable option, so we eat it. Indeed, many people only eat meat that has been processed to the point that it no longer resembles the animal it came from; for many, there is no connection whatsoever between a piece of meat and an animal.

You don't believe that animal consumption for humans is social and not instinctual? Consider these two related points. In American society, people primarily eat birds, cows, and pigs. There are other animals that could be consumed (and to a much lesser extent than those animals are consumed), but primarily that is what we eat. That is partly socialization--these are the animals (that admittedly through convenience) are found acceptable to eat. Furthermore, if animal consumption is "instinct," you better be careful around your pets. Your instinct just might force you to kill and eat your cat or dog! Of course, that's silly. We don't eat our pets; some people are horrified to learn that dogs might be eaten in other cultures. We have made a CHOICE about particular animals. We are ABLE to make a choice about particular animals.

My cat is a prisoner of her biology; she must eat meat to live a healthy, thriving life. Humans are, of course, prisoners of their biology in many ways. One way we are not prisoners is regarding animal consumption; our bodies don't need it, we don't have a natural "instinct" to eat it, and our bodies may be healthier without it.

But people kill plants to eat them! What's so different? You don't care about killing plants, why do you care about killing animals?
It is undeniable that organic beings need to consume the products of other organic beings for survival.

However, if you can't see a moral difference between and animal and a plant, you are really not worth my time.

A chimpanzee has 99.9% of human DNA. Other animals have personalities and desires. Cows, chickens, and pigs have personalities and relationships. It is beyond preposterous to suggest a moral equivalence between a creature with a brain and a tomato.

Addendum: after seeing the "But we eat plants!" argument again, I've realized it's a version of the Slippery Slope Logical Fallacy. Slippery Slope implies we don't have the ability to set clear, logical lines. But we already set lines between humans and animals. We (irrationally) set lines between some animals and others. Is it so illogical to set the line between animals and plants? To me, that seems like the most logical place to put the line.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Amateur Theologian: Did people eat meat before the Fall?

As you read this, keep in mind that I don't know Hebrew; my specialty is making meaning(s) of the English language.

At the creation of the world in the book of Genesis, God gives man dominion over the earth and all the animals. He says in 1:26 "let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth" and in 1:28 "have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

Interestingly, in 1:29, God says "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food." I find it interesting that even after giving man "dominion" over the animals, God specifies that man can have the plants for food.

Now, I'm not going to pretend this is clear enough to give a message that it is either acceptable or not acceptable to eat meat before the Fall. However, many people do justify eating meat by pointing to God giving dominion over the animals to man. I see this as justification of desired behavior; there is no specific mention that man can or should eat the beasts he has dominion over. In fact, God explicitly tells people they have the plants to eat. Again in 2:9, "And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food..." And then before prohibiting man from eating from one particular tree, God says in 2:16, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden." Again, God explicitly tells people they can eat the plants He created, but there is no explicit mention of whether the animals are available for food.

So before the Fall, there is no mention that people eat animals. I find this absense striking. God commanded man to have dominion over the animals, AND God explicitly commanded man to eat plants. With such explicit mention of dominion over animals AND explicit mention of what people are supposed to eat, it seems like a loud silence on animal consumption. It would seem perfectly within context to mention eating animals at this spot, but it doesn't happen. Based on the translation of Genesis I am reading, it is a reasonable interpretation to suggest that people did not eat animals before the Fall. Even after the Fall, God talks about man eating from the ground (3:17), plants of the field (3:18), and bread (3:19) without mentioning eating animals. Only in 3:20, where God makes Adam and Eve "garments of skins" is ther even a clear suggestion that animals are being killed for the benefit of humans.

At least worth pondering. I for one don't think it's ridiculous to suggest that maybe people didn't eat animals and that animal consumption is part of man's fallen nature.

Possible Flurries adds another point: in Christian theology, there was no death before the Fall. So could people "kill" animals to eat them? That's different from eating the "fruit" of plants.

(Addendum: I said I'd comment on the plays I read, but I didn't want to write a new post for this one. Let's keep my Amateur Theologian question at the top for a few days. So here's the comment: notice how in Sartre's No Exit, the door opens and they could leave...but they don't.)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Peter Shaffer's "Equus"

I first encountered the play through this article from The Onion. For some reason, I thought it was going to be a play in the grand tradition of Absurdist Theater (probably "avant-garde" led me to that assumption). It's not. It has a linear narrative (with flashbacks) and makes perfect sense. The only thing that makes it "avant-garde" is the production itself (Shaffer includes many production directions and notes).

Themes? Oh, it has themes. Big, knock you over the head and onto your ass themes. Yet even though the themes are very overt, there's an authenticity to their explicit presentation. The ideas are clear and straight-forward, but Shaffer doesn't treat you like you're dumb (unlike the people responsible for this, who inexplicably made a bad movie worse and repeatedly tried to bonk our eyes out with the supposed theme).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Monday, December 04, 2006

Why I am a pacifist

Today I heard a story on NPR about soldiers and post-traumatic stress disorder. Two soldiers were interviewed to talk about the utter contempt they had for soldiers who claimed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They had the same experiences and they weren't suffering, so they couldn't understand how somebody else could be. One soldier talked about how he couldn't wait to get back to Iraq, noting that he had "fun" the last time he was there. Most people, he said, get up in the morning, go to work, come home, and think about how there has to be something more. These people, the soldier said, put in a movie and that gets their hearts pumping. But we, said the soldier, are actually doing it, we're not the ones watching. The soldiers thought most of those claiming post-traumatic stress disorder were faking it because they were scared to go back.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Values Difference: the South and Me

I have biases against the South. I do not have bigotry against southerners, but I do have different values than what are traditionally considered Southern values.

I associate the South with a few things that I don't particularly care for.

Christian fundamentalism
A Christian myself, I do not like fundamentalist Christianity. I disagree with most of the principles of fundamentalist Christianity.

1. Theologically. I do not accept "Sola Scriptura," I do not accept a literal interpretation of Genesis, and I do not believe "This is my body" and "This is my blood" to be symbolic.
2. Socially. I like gay people. I also like non-christians, Catholics, and feminists.
3. Intellectually. I accept evolution.
4. Politically. In general, Christian fundamentalists hold political views that are not my own. Among other things, I'm a strong advocate of separation of church and state.

I associate the South with racial oppression, injustice, and inequality. The South should not be the scapegoat for the entire nation's history on race, but the South does have a pretty ugly history that includes slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and a great deal of racism and violence.

Should I consider this to be the past, history, no longer relevent? I don't think so. Robert Byrd was a member of the KKK and he filibustered Civil Rights legislation, but he continually gets re-elected in West Virginia (I realize West Virginia has a complicated history that may or may not make it part of "the South"). Strom Thurmond was a segregationist presidential candidate, but he was elected to congress in South Carolina into the 1990s. Trent Lott said that the U.S. would have been better off had it elected the segregationist Thurmond, and he still easily gets re-elected in Mississippi. This is just a guess, but if a U.S. Senate candidate in a non-Southern state had a history as a member of the KKK, a history as a supporter of segregation, or suggested the U.S. would be better off had a segregationist been elected president, his/her political career would probably be over. And many southerners continue to take pride in the Confederate flag: it is displayed at the South Carolina statehouse grounds, it is part of Mississippi's state flag, and in several southern states you can get a license plate featuring the confederate flag. I am not convinced by arguments that this is a celebration of "heritage" or "history" separate from a history that includes terrible (and official) racial oppression.

These are two central areas in which my values are at odds with southern values, or at least what I associate with southern values.

A Doll's House

I've made a vow to read 25 plays and 200 poems before reading any fiction (the exception is during snippets of waiting time), and I'll try to comment on every play I read.

Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House makes me feel bad for being a husband. It's also a masterfully written drama.

If I ever write an academic book, it might be on suicide in literature. It seems to come up fairly frequently in literature with various meanings. Some of my academic work has involved suicide in literature (in a grad school class on the Holocaust I focused two papers on suicide in the Holocaust, there's a failed suicide attempt in The Magus that I talk about in my thesis on John Fowles, I teach Hamlet, yada yada yada. Then again, suicide is such a prevalent theme in a lot of canonical literature that every English prof could probably say taht his/her academic work involves suicide in literature.