The Terror of History: Lectures 16-19 (Witchcraft, Part 1)

Witchcraft is difficult to define. At first it was viewed as nonsense, but by the 16th century, it was a solid part of Europe. Both Catholics and Protestants believed in it!  While witchcraft can be found in most cultures, it looks very different in other cultures than it did in  Europe during the middle ages because the belief that Satan was at the root of it.

In the earliest forms of religion, magic, formulas and spells were very important. When people realized that magic isn’t particularly effective in ordering the world, the idea of surrendering to God’s control became all important. In a lot of ways, however, European witchcraft looked a lot like the earliest forms of religion. (Of course, even today, religion has magical elements. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be religious have superstitions: a lucky shirt for interviews, a special pen for writing something brilliant… What are these but "magical" attempts to control the world around us?)

Witchcraft relies on the belief that magic exists and that there are two opposing forces in the world. The understanding was adopted from the dualistic philosophy of Manichaeism. The sharp split between good and evil is a Western phenomenon. You don’t find it in the east.

Historians disagree on the origins of witchcraft. Some claim it was simply a political ploy or the result of the imagination, but no one knows for sure. What we know about witchcraft comes from hostile sources – those who were in opposition to it at the time.

In the 1920s, Margaret Murray argued that witchcraft was the remains of vegetation rituals from pre-Christian times. Her ideas were dismissed, but are being revisited, today. Carlo Ginzburg has shown conclusively that agrarian cults still existed in rural areas in Europe during the 16th century. Good witches would fight against the evil spirits that threatened to destroy their crops. When Inquisitors came across these people, they identified them as infidels and claimed their practice was devil worship. The peasants would deny these charges, but under intense investigation, they would eventually admit to whatever accusations the inquisitors made.

During the middle ages, magic, religion and science all merged into one another. A religious figure could use highly charged religious language to describe his scientific work, and someone with a belief in magic could describe religion in magical terms. Scientists often used magic in their experiments. It was the process of secularization that finally established firm boundaries.

The Protestant Reformation worked to get rid of magic and superstition in Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation led to the stricter monitoring of practices that were found to be unacceptable. The Scientific Revolution defined the world in numerical terms and embraced Cartesianism. All of these movements led to the demise of alchemy, astrology and hermeticism.

The Protestant Reformation made everyone uncertain. Can you imagine how it would be if for over 1000 years, generation after generation had looked to Catholicism as truth and suddenly, the truth is called into question? The Protestant movement brought it into question, and the Catholic Church responded to by becoming even more strict. Practices that had long been ignored or considered insignificant prior to the Protestant movement became targets of persecution.

There were continuous religious wars between the Protestants and Catholics and the winner of those wars got to impose his particular brand of religion. Religious tolerance was not widely practiced. If there were people you didn’t want fighting against you, accuse them of witchcraft. In Catholic countries, it was Protestants that were accused of witchcraft. In Protestant countries, it was the Catholics.

As many as 80,000 to 100,000 people (mostly elderly women) were killed as witches. Most were from rural areas where the social structure was breaking down. Almost everyone in rural Europe used to eek out a living. Now there was a sharp division between well-to-do peasants (farmers) and those that had been marginalized. Poverty, which had once been viewed as dignified, was now devalued.

In the olden days, a beggar could knock on the door of a home and expect to receive some money or food, but by the late 15th century, this was no longer true. Beggars were often turned away instead of given food. Very often, the beggar would curse at the person who turned them away. If you had been cursed at by a beggar, and shortly thereafter your baby died in childbirth (which happened all the time back then), you could blame it on the beggar and declare him or her (usually an elderly her) "witch".

War and all of the instability in the region led to a surplus of older women. (If you were 40, you were old!) Women were most likely to practice folk medicine and this practice was closely related to the witch craze. Also, with the modern era came the institutionalization for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized: prisons, insane asylums, etc. These institutions led to the repression of social misfits. According to Michel Foucault, the persecution of witchcraft is similar: it was yet another institution for the discipline and punishment of the marginalized.

That people no longer saw poverty as dignified was directly related to the rise of capitalism. The growth of new economic systems in Europe were so fraught with tension that witchcraft became an easy scapegoat. The discovery of the New World and the awareness of new peoples never known before, was also forcing Europeans to rethink their world. People began identifying themselves as separate from "the other".

New, sophisticated methods of persecution and criminal inquiry were now under control of the state. The Inquisition was the most formidable. Public executions and burnings became an essential part of the "theatricality of power": they were reminders of the power of the state and they had extraordinary popular support. One of the reasons for this support was that it allowed a condemned person to re-enter the body politic. Do something bad, profess your sin, die for it, and then you are forgiven.

Jean Delumeau argued that the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern period marked an intense, widespread sense of fear in Western Europe. Changes in religion, economics, politics and the social structure, as well as the birth pangs of modernity created a kind of collective pathology. This fear was most present in the lower classes as well as some of the middle class who perceived the changes as a threat to their well-being. Unsurprisingly, there was an upsurge of bandits, vagrants, scam artists and others that added to the insecurity. A social violence existed that mostly affected the bottom rungs of society.

By persecuting witches, the State created a distraction from the popular discontent. Anger about the wars, the heavy taxation, the crime, etc. was directed away from the failings of the state to Jews, lepers, Muslims, old women, etc. Don’t blame the State, blame the witches. This scapegoating strengthened the state supported institutions and the coercive mechanisms of the nation-state. And as mentioned before, these coercive mechanisms had widespread popular support.

Also mentioned previously, the Western form of witchcraft is very different from what exists in other cultures thanks to the role of Satan. The concept of the devil in Western culture comes from Manichaeism (Persian dualism), not from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the devil has an ambivalent role. In Job, for instance, the devil just does what God asks of him. Beliefs in the devil didn’t develop until early Christianity and the Middle Ages. By the late 15th century, the devil had come to play an enhanced role in the lives of most Europeans and was linked with a wide range of activities.

In the ancient world, when the pastoral lifestyle took over the previous hunter/gatherer lifestyle as well as the earliest agrarian movements, a dramatic change in religious worship occurred. In order to affect change, the pastoral peoples got rid of the fertility goddess cults and replaced them with a male-centered patriarchy. This change was most obvious in Judaism, but can also be seen in Greek mythology. It led to a dramatic shift in the treatment of women.

The two main traditions that Western civilization is founded upon, Judaism and Greek, are seriously misogynistic traditions where women are horribly mistreated. Most of the great classical works show women as evil, weak, and easily deceived, as well as being capable of leading man into temptation. There are some exceptions to these representations, but not many. The reality is that the place of women was inferior to that of men. Western Society was a phallocracy. This was most evident in Athens, the cradle of democracy, which most definitely was not democratic when it came to women.

Early Christianity allowed women some power, but this didn’t last long. By the Middle Ages, even upper class women had only two alternatives: marriage or the monastery. Monastic life allowed women to be at least somewhat independent of men, but the religious hierarchy placed male rule over that of female rule. Women were strictly subordinated to men.

For a brief period in the 12th century, women gained a modicum of power through courtly love. But this was only for upper class women. Lower class women worked endlessly and were often abused. They had few property rights and no political rights whatsoever. Also, the idea of courtly love was condemned by the Church.

The conditions of women worsened considerably during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. The number of widowed and single women rose in proportion to the number of men because of the wars. Women living alone at the edge of rural areas, engaging in healing, herbalism and folk medicine became common. Women in the lower classes who had no ties to men became easy targets for persecution. In the absence of Jews, they made ideal scapegoats.

Men got to determine the boundaries of sexual behavior because, as Ruiz puts it, men can’t fake it. If you can’t get it up, it must be a curse. An older sexually active woman is the ultimate transgression. Cursing, blasphemy, behaving lewdly gets women accused of witchcraft. Also, old women had long been associated with the "evil eye". This was a certain look that was considered to be similar to a curse – if an older woman gave you the evil eye, you were cursed. The evil eye became associated with Satan, and women were accused of witchcraft because of it.

Waiting for Armageddon

Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I have lived around End Times theology and theories all my life.  Many a lunch break was spent discussing what would happen during the rapture in middle school and high school.  Everyone wanted to be rapture ready because being left behind was unthinkable.

I inherited the mentality from my friends, not my family.  And that was before all the Left Behind books became popular.  As each voyeuristic episode grew more destructive and violent, more people were hooked, and more people started writing their own versions.  (We lived across the street from a semi-popular “left behind” novelist.)  Apparently, millions of Americans love the idea of horrible harm coming to those who do not think as they do.  A compassionate Jesus? Who needs him if you are waiting for Armageddon?

Waiting for Armageddon, a documentary by Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, and Franco Sacchi, explores the people who believe that Armageddon is around the corner and that Israel will be the site of Christ’s second coming.  It begins by stating that more than 50 million Americans believe that the Bible lays out the future of humankind in precise detail.   Among these, many believe that Christ will return to lead a final holy war in the land of Israel.  The show claims that 20 million Americans believe Jesus will return in their life time.  And remember the Pew statistics I quoted the other day?  41% of Americans believe Jesus will return before 2050.

According to many who believe in Biblical prophecy, the world will be destroyed in a chain of miraculous events:

  1. The Rapture – believers are snatched up by Jesus
  2. The Tribulation – seven years of war, violence, and destruction for those left behind
  3. Armageddon – the final epic battle between good and evil
  4. The Millennium – the return of the believers to a paradise on earth where there no longer is any evil

First comes  “The Rapture” which is based on Thessalonians 4:17: “We will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

The Rapture comes from the Greek word harpazo which means to snatch up or take up.  When Christ returns in the clouds, he will snatch up believers with him.  This will happen in an instant.  Suddenly, the 50 million or more believers will be gone – whisked out of their offices, homes or wherever it is they happen to be.  One minute they are here.  The next, poof!  Gone.  They will be snatched out of their cars, leaving them unmanned on the road which will cause accidents.  It will completely terrorize those who are left behind.

Second comes “The Tribulation”, based on Matthew 24:21: “Then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world.”   Those who chose not to believe in God before “the Rapture” will be left to suffer the seven year tribulation.  75% of the earth will be wiped out.  Ecological disasters, meteors hitting the earth, episodes like 9/11 happening every day, 1/3 of the waters will turn to blood.  Five to six years into “The Tribulation”, half of the world will be dead.  Violence and wars will radically increase. This is the time period when God finishes his judgment and discipline of Israel.

There is a belief that during this time, there will be enough Jews to create a nation.  Supposedly, 144,000 Jews will convert and evangelize. The Jews who do not convert, will perish. The temple will be rebuilt. (The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine. Leviticus 25:23.)  Thousands of Americans who believe in End Times make pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year to visit the Islamic mosque that used to be the temple.  This can be problematic because both evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Jews hope for the destruction of the mosque in order that the  temple can be built again.  Jews because they believe it is their right.  American evangelists because it points to Armageddon.  In fact, many Americans interviewed in the documentary dream of something absolutely horrible happening to destroy the mosque (like an earthquake or nuclear boms) so the temple can be rebuilt. Very few are interested in peaceful negotiations.  It’s no wonder things are so contentious.

American evangelical fundamentalists explain Islam as a world dominating religion. Believers are required to take over the world for Allah. Yet, throughout history, it could be argued that Islam has been far more tolerant of Jews than Christianity.  And get real – it’ not as though the fundamentalists love the Jews.  They fully expect them to convert or be destroyed by the wrath of God.  It would seem that the God of Christianity wants Christians to take over the world for God more than does Allah want the Muslims to take over the world for Islam.  It’s a projection – cast the finger out there at “those people”, when the finger should really be pointed at yourself.

But that’s the nature of fundamentalism.   You have to have something to point the finger at so that you don’t have to look too closely at yourself.  In the 1970s, the “evil ones” were Red China and the Communist Block of Russia.  But with the fall of Russia and the end of the cold war, the evangelicals have had to find new “evil ones” so have shifted their focus to Islam. There must be an evil “them” in order to have a righteous “us”.  Doesn’t matter who it is.

Apocalyptic literature was never meant as a script for those in power.  It was written for those persecuted by those in power.  In the hands of the powerful, it is no longer inspirational, but rather a self-fulfilling prophecy of violence and destruction. For example, John Hagee called for a strike on Iran because of what he understands as Biblical prophecy.  Yet, no where does the Bible claim that WWIII is part of God’s plan.

Armageddon is the third stage in the chain of events.  “Their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, and their eyes will rot in their sockets.”  Zechariah 14:12.

I’d never heard this before, but mysticism is of genuine concern for many evangelicals because they claim it has led to an interpretation of the Bible that isn’t literal.  Yet, mysticism has been around a lot longer than has fundamentalism and has always been the common link between world religions.  According to Huston Smith, fundamentalism didn’t come into being until the 19th century.  Far from creating bridges, fundamentalism creates deep divides by claiming that it’s way is the only way to Truth.

Anyway, the story goes that the Jews will sign a peace treaty with their Arab neighbors that turns out to be false.  This treaty allows the antichrist to move into the temple and declare himself God.  This will be when the Jews realize he is not the promised Messiah and this will lead to Armageddon, the epic end-time battle.

The Millennium is the fourth stage in the chain of events.  “And they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Revelation 20:4.  Christ is going to trash the planet, but he’s going to clean it up for the millennium.  No EPA necessary.

All of this would simply be amusing if there weren’t so many powerful political personalities who believe it.  These people are organized and are making their way into every part of politics, both local and national.  It’s so bad that many evangelicals who don’t share these particular End Times theories are concerned by the power of those who do.

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Now that we are on the other side of my son’s graduation, I can work through my thoughts on Yann Martel’s latest book.  To be honest, however, I really don’t know what to think of Beatrice and Virgil.  I absolutely loved Life of Pi – the story has stuck with me for years.  Maybe that will be true of Beatrice and Virgil, too, but I don’t know that I want it to stick with me.

Maybe that’s what Martel was going for.  Obviously, he wants to evoke some extremely uncomfortable emotion within us and then just leave us there.  As far as I can tell, we are taken into Hell and that’s where we remain.

At the beginning of the book, the main character, Henry, is wanting to publish a flip book.  One side is an essay, the other side fiction.  It is an attempt to present the holocaust in a new way.   The two will merge into one another showing that there really is no ending or beginning.  The ending of the essay morphs into the beginning of the fictional story.  And the ending of the fictional story morphs into the beginning of the essay.  Unsurprisingly, his publishers don’t like it because they don’t think they can sell that sort of ambiguity.  They want something much more definite.  Something with a point so that they can market the book as being about something in specific.  It’s too difficult to market something that merges into itself and never has an actual beginning or end.

I watched a documentary about a woman who had been one of Dr. Mengele’s twins.  She had discovered the power of forgiveness and was able to forgive the Nazis.  But when it came to the Palestinians, forgiveness was a little more difficult to come by – especially when she was sitting face to face with several who were blaming her race for afflicting great harm on them.

That’s kind of the way it goes, isn’t it?  We’re horrified with what we see “out there” and are unwilling to point the finger back at ourselves.  We can feel good about forgiving those we believe have hurt us.  It gives us power.  But of what use is this power if we can’t likewise forgive those who hold us accountable for their pain?  When we say we forgive, what exactly does that mean?  That we get to feel superior?  Personally, I think forgiveness is meant to humble us.  Not make us feel superior to other human beings.

What I kept thinking the entire time I was reading Beatrice and Virgil, since it was about two stuffed animals who symbolize the Holocaust, is that the vast majority of us, despite our feelings of outrage against what happened to the Jews, are inadvertently creating unfathomable horrors against animals by our demand for cheap animal products.  In the name of efficiency, the Food Industry not only drives our demand, it does the unthinkable in order to meet it.  If most of us were to face the reality of how poultry, pork, fish and beef have become so incredibly inexpensive, I can’t help but think the demand would drop immediately.  Nobody would be OK with how horribly these animals are treated just so we can have cheap food at dinner.  The only reason we allow it is because we intentionally look the other way. And even if horrible things are happening to these animals, they don’t really matter, anyway.

Beatrice and Virgil are  are characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Virgil is an actual Roman Poet that Dante greatly admired and possibly thought of as a mentor.  Dante used Virgil as the guide through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.   Beatrice was Dante’s great unrequited love.  He revered her in the deepest sense but marriages were arranged in his society so he could not be with her.  She also died very young.  In Divine Comedy, Dante is reunited with her and it is Beatrice that shows him around Paradise.

Martel turns them into a donkey and a howler monkey.  He says he came up with the names because in Divine Comedy, Dante has lost his way morally.  He is confused, he is lost, he is falling into sin and he wants to come back to the straight way.  The only way to come back to the straight way is by traveling through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.   Just as Dante’s guides are Virgil and Beatrice, they are Henry’s (and our)  guides through the Holocaust .

One reviewer said she had to go take a shower after completing it because it made her feel dirty.  I totally understand what she is talking about.  I felt dirty after reading the book because it made humanity seem like some sort of horrible, tainted horror that can offer no way out.

Beatrice and Virgil were characters who had been created by a taxidermist.  They weren’t “real”.  And they were the only characters that were remotely likable.  I didn’t like Henry or his wife at all.  The taxidermist was at least fascinating, but I didn’t like him, either.   It’s been 25 years since I read Divine Comedy, but I vaguely recall Dante being somewhat likable.

I also didn’t particularly appreciate the ending, probably because I didn’t get it.  I guess it represented the Inferno.  But hadn’t “heaven” essentially been created by the creator of that Inferno?  Perhaps that was the significance of trying to create the flip book with one part merging into the other so that there is no obvious beginning or end?  No definitive line between fact and fiction?

Maybe if I read it a second time, it would make better sense?  But  I have no desire to put myself through that again!

Sula by Toni Morrison

The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Sula was sometime back in the 1990s.  I enjoyed the story and was completely affected by it, but I’m not sure I understood it.  Like Beloved, I think it hit me at some primal level. Just a few months after I read Sula, we went to London and made a side trip to Bath which houses the Roman temple to Sulis Minerva.  I always kind of wondered if Morrison had connected Sula with Sulis.  I highly doubt it, but after reading the book a second time, there is definitely a connection.

Sulis, also known as Sul and sometimes Sula, was a Celtic goddess.  The thing about Celts is that they were extremely independent people.  They had built a shrine to Sulis over a spring which they considered to be life giving.  It didn’t happen often, but occasionally, the Romans adopted the Celtic deities, which they did in the case of Sulis.  You have to wonder about the politics behind that.  Sulis was a local goddess as were all Celtic gods. ( No “corporate” gods for the Celts!)  She was considered to be a life giving mother goddess. 

The Romans invade and bring their patriarchal society along with them. They connect Sulis  with Minerva, the virgin goddess closely associated with the Greek Goddess Athena.  According to J.J. Bachofen, Athena was perverted by a patriarchal society and essentially became the patriarch of Athens, despite once having mother goddess standing.  No doubt, the Romans were able to gain some control over the Celts by tempering the Celtic local goddess with their virgin, patriarchal, “corporate” goddess.  The Romans were an extremely patriarchal culture.  (Christianity inherited its patriarchy from the Romans.)

I think Morrison’s Sula represents a sort of feminine divinity/feminine energy.  She turns everything about the patriarchal society in which she lives upside down.  Nothing is as it seems.  People personify her as evil and with that personification, are able to become more loving toward one another.   That’s why a patriarchal Christianity needs an evil “other”/devil.  It’s a container that allows individuals to feel good about themselves and ignore the not so nice things they do.

SPOILER WARNING!!!

I’m not sure I can make total sense of this, but let me try and give two “for instances” from the book to explain what I mean.  First of all, there is Eva who is Sula’s grandmother.  She has a son she adores called Plum.  He comes home from the war addicted to heroin and Eva takes it upon herself to kill him.  She does this entirely out of love.  She can’t stand the thought of him being overtaken by the addiction.  So what does this say about love?  On the one hand, it is life giving.  On the other, it can be smothering to the point of death.  Love isn’t all good.  It has its dark side.  It can become quite costly when possessive.  But as long as an action is done with love, then it is not an evil action, right?  Or at least, so it seems to the individual who commits the act.  Evil is “out there”.  Not “in me”.   Second, there is Teapot (I think that’s the little boys name).  He’s the malnourished, ill cared for son of a negligent mother.  But, when he falls down Sula’s steps and breaks a bone (which doctors say is thanks to malnourishment more than the fall), the mother blames Sula for his fall.  And this is enough for her to start taking care of her child. By demonizing Sula, she is able to change the story about herself and view herself as “good”.

Even though Sula is childless, in a sense, she is life giving simply by being willing to take on the personification of evil for the community.  She’s sort of ego-less in that  she doesn’t assume the images the community demands of its citizens, nor does she try and altar the image they create for her.  Sula is concerned only with being her own person – being who she is rather than being what others expect of her. That way, if she’s lonely, then her loneliness is hers.  It’s not a second-hand loneliness like Nel’s.  Nel is lonely because she allowed her friendship with Sula to be usurped by her relationship with her husband, Jude, who really only married her because he couldn’t get the “white” job he wanted.  Marrying Nel was a way for Jude to feel “manly”.  Sula has an affair with him because she comes from a line of women who think nothing of sleeping with men.  It’s nothing to her.  But it’s everything to Nel who accuses Sula of having taken her husband away.   Yet, Sula didn’t kill him.  She didn’t literally take him away.  Nel’s husband left on his own accord.  Why blame the female and not the man?

I know – I’m all over the place.  I apologize.  But I have to go back to Nel.  Sula and Nel are considered to be one person when they are children.  They make up a whole.  Nel comes from a family who has taken on the patriarchal norms.  Everything is orderly and needs to have meaning.  Sula comes from a much more chaotic family with a matriarch, Eva, at it’s head.  Things are ever-changing in Sula’s world so fixed meaning is much more difficult to come by. These two girls compliment one another.  Nel makes sense of things when Sula can’t.  And Sula gives life for Nel that she wouldn’t otherwise have.  Yet, despite Nel’s recognition that Sula is life giving, she still blames Sula for various events in their childhood, which allows her to see herself as “good”.

Take Sula chopping off her finger, for instance.  Sula did this specifically to protect Nel.  Nel had been avoiding a bunch of rowdy Irish boys for weeks.  Sula finally suggests they take their normal route and not avoid the boys.  They meet up with the boys and Sula, very calmly, pulls out her knife and cuts off the end of her finger.  She tells them that if she can do this to herself, just think what she’ll do to them.  It works.  They back off. 

You can’t predict what Sula is going to do.  Nel sees this as crazy.  But is it crazy?  Sula knows that the boys will harm Nel if the girls act as expected (fearfully).  But Sula doesn’t bow down to their expectation.  She confronts the masculine energy with her own chaotic feminine energy and the masculine energy has to make way for it because it can’t make sense of it.

At the end of the book, when Nel confronts Sula about having slept with Jude, Sula asks why she would have ended a friendship just because she slept with Jude.  She suggests that maybe Nel has it wrong and that it was Sula who was the good one.

In the end, Nel realizes that it wasn’t Jude she was missing.  It was Sula, who was there, all along.  That gives me goosepimples.  Not because I think this was some sort of lesbian relationship.  I didn’t read it that way at all.   What I think Nel recognizes is that the feminine energy she possesses, that Sula represents, was available to her all along, as it is to all women.  We voluntarily give it up for the sake of compliance, like Nel’s mother flashing her smile at the white conductor which Nel instinctively reacted against, as did all of the black soldiers on the train.  If you comply, you are as good as dead.

I asked the other day, “What’s so wrong with just being human?  If something makes us sad or makes living difficult for a period of time, is it because we lack the appropriate belief in God?  Or is it simply because we are human?”  I said I didn’t know where I was going with that.  But I think Sula directly answers it.  Creating ideas about God is a way to make sense of God – to create meaning.  That’s OK.  But we have to be willing to balance our need for meaning with an acceptance of the inherent chaotic nature of life.  We have to be willing to balance the masculine with the feminine.

There is so much to this book.  I think I’d have to read it 50 times, at least, to get everything out of it!  I understand it way better this time around than I did the first time.   I’m sure I’ll understand it even better the next time.  Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic book!

The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

I watched the Devil’s Advocate several time many years ago and recently found it at Half Price Bookstore for $2.98 so watched it again tonight after not having seen it in quite some time. I didn’t think I’d still like it but I was wrong! I absolutely LOVE The Devil’s Advocate! It’s important to understand “The Devil” as a metaphor, however, otherwise the film will seem completely hokey.

Al Pacino (the devil) is John Milton. John Milton was the author of Paradise Lost, one of my all-time favorite epic poems although I’m not sure I’ve read it since high school. Paradise Lost was my first true understanding of God and Devil as metaphor. It was a completely life changing book for me – especially the idea that the only reason Satan is so annoying to God is that he’s power hungry and overly ambitious in his desire to obtain that power.  (“It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”)

Whenever we sacrifice honesty, justice, compassion, wisdom or love for the sake of our ambitions, we are playing the devil’s advocate.

Fantastic movie. Definitely one of my all-time favorites and very fun to try and make out all of the various art within the film. I’d give it a “10″ but Keanu Reaves accent is just way too bad to give it a perfect score.

The movie is based on a novel by Andrew Neiderman who just recently wrote a musical version of The Devil’s Advocate which is being developed by The Rival Theater Company.  That would be interesting to see!

Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom is another movie I found at my local library. I enjoyed the movie but it was definitely disturbing. Leo Marks, who wrote the script, said he was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe and it does seem very Edgar Allen Poeish. It’s a sort of thought experiment, perhaps aimed at the film industry, about a man who films the people he kills.

The main character had been the son of a scientist who used him as a guinea pig to study the effects of voyeurism. The film is layered with voyeurism, including those of us who are watching it.

The film was a huge failure when it was first released. Critics openly expressed their horror which almost ended Michael Powell’s career and forced him to escape Britain by moving to Australia. The biggest complaint was that the film encourages the viewer to sympathizes with the killer. Today, however, it is considered to be one of the best British horror films of all times.

I think the cover of the film might have said something about it being the British Psycho. But that doesn’t seem right because wasn’t Alfred Hitchcock British? Anyway, Psycho and Peeping Tom were released the same year and apparently this is significant because they both completely changed the horror film genre. Instead of focusing on the victims, the focus is completely upon the anti-hero. Also, horror films typically took place in the past and were fantastic tales about otherworldly creatures and happenings. Both Psycho and Peeping Tom were about people you might pass on the street in current society. The reason they have become monsters is thanks to abusive parents who are dead, but continue to live through their children.  This is the stuff of real world evil.

SPOILER WARNING!!!

The most horrifying aspect about the murders is that the killer forces his victims to watch their own death as he films them. What we, as viewers of the film are watching, is a person watching themselves get killed. We are also watching the killer. The only person who is able to “see” in the film, is a blind woman which seems to mock those of us who think we see.

 

We, the viewer, are complicitly engaged in the killer’s voyeurism. We are guilty.

Thoughts on Altruism, Education and the Lucifer Effect

I have a degree in Education and I used that degree for all of a year when I taught English in a public high school.    When my youngest child went to school, I was on the board of the PTA and was extremely active in what went on in his school. I became increasingly appalled at the events the PTA organized with the schools. Children’s natural internal motivation was rarely taken into consideration.

Everything was about external motivation. Instead of raising money for the school because it made you feel good to do something for your school, the kids were encouraged to raise money to win stuff. There was a whole system and with the biggest contributors getting to stand in a booth with swirling “money” in front of the student body. For 30 seconds, or whatever it was, the “winner” (those who had raised the most money) caught all the “money” they could and won all the little prizes that were indicated on the “money”.  What does that teach a child – especially since this was done as a special school assembly?

Every week, two of us addressed our concerns to the other parents on the PTA, but we got nowhere. We had started really small, too. Initially, we were concerned about the PTA giving candy to all of the kids whose parents had become members. They did this very publicly and with ceremony in the classrooms in front of all the other students to try and get those kids to get their parents to become members so they could get candy, too. For the most part, this school was fairly wealthy, but it had its share of kids who were living with multiple families in 1 and 2 bedroom apartments.  It just didn’t seem appropriate for the PTA to encourage membership in this way. Even if there was no poverty within the school, this didn’t seem appropriate to us. But none of the people on the PTA board was at all interested in our concern. 

I totally lost it when students were asked to bring teddy bears for the kids who were in a cancer hospital. How difficult is it to get kids to do something nice for other kids? In my experience, it isn’t that difficult! But the PTA didn’t trust the altruism of the students so told the kids that whichever classroom contributed the most teddy bears got a pizza party!

You do in order to get. The reason you go to school is to make sure you will become successful little producers and consumers.   Unfortunately, this is also applied to what might otherwise be opportunities for altruistic acts of kindness.  Those acts become about producing and consuming, too.

Anyway, that’s a tangent and explains, in part, why we decided to homeschool. I wanted my kids to be able to think for themselves. Whether they do that or not, I can’t say yet. It seems that they do, but the real test will be adulthood. They are both in the public education system, now.  This is my daughter’s first year in the system and she has received two “good citizenship” awards. Her most recent award allows her to choose a friend and they can eat lunch outside rather than having to stay in the cafeteria. She got to do this for the first time last Friday and she said she felt like she had been let out of prison because they were outdoors with no monitors.  She said it was amazing to be outside and to watch all of the animals that are free, coming and going as they please.  She is at school voluntarily – it was her decision to go back – she wanted to experience it. But most kids aren’t in school voluntarily – they have no choice in the matter.

It just makes me wonder – what does this do to the psyche of our kids?

The reason I got to thinking about this was because I decided to find out more about Phil Zimbardo’s work and found the an interesting discussion by Zimbardo on TedTalks. Good people do evil things all the time. The line between good and evil is permeable:  good and evil are the yin and yang of the human condition.  Zimbardo says the problem is that we’ve been dealing with “evil” at the individual level and that doesn’t work.  We have to deal with systems.  Zimbardo defines evil as “the exercise of power to intentionally harm people psychologically, to hurt people physically, to destroy people mortally (or ideas), or to commit crimes against humanity”. The question should never be “who” is responsible.  It should be “what” is responsible because the power is always in the system. Basically, evil is the willingness of people to blindly obey authority. Americans may think they are independent individuals, but study after study shows that two-thirds of us are willing to push that electric shock button all the way up to 450 volts!