We may be very uncomfortable with our monkey past, but it is undeniable.
Thursday, December 08, 2022
Monday, December 05, 2022
Recently in the Netherlands, and especially at the Leiden University, a discussion was going on, whether it was allowed to remove a painting because you don’t agree with the representation. Briefly, a painting showing smoking professors of the university board had been removed because some people didn’t agree with its contents: It was not acceptable that a university board existed of only old men who, moreover, were smoking. In other words, the painting was not in agreement with the present values. Note that the painting had been made in 1976 and that it showed the actual board of the Leiden University in that year. Although the painting has been hung back in the meantime, the question remains: Must a piece of art be removed, if you don’t agree anymore with its representation? But actually, the problem is wider than only about art, for also monuments are often under discussion, because people don’t agree any longer with what they express. For instance, in the USA statues of slave holders are under discussion, in the UK the question was raised whether a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a representative of colonialism in Southern Africa, should be removed from the University of Oxford, and in the Netherlands there was a controversy about a statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the founder of Batavia (Jakarta) and former governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, who harshly ruled this colony. And at the moment in the Baltic States monuments are destroyed that had been placed there in Soviet times.
Often there are good reasons to remove a controversial monument – in this blog it includes also a piece of art –or to change its context, but often there is also much against doing so. So let’s see why a monument should be removed:
- The monument is considered to represent a former oppressor or it is not in agreement with the views of the present regime. That’s why Soviet monuments are removed in the Baltic states, but also why in Hong Kong recently monuments have been removed that commemorate the killings on the Tian An Men Square in Beijing in 1989. However, already when the Soviet monuments were placed, many people detested them.
- The view what the monument represents has changed during the years. So, the view on Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Cecil Rhodes and slaveholders have changed through the years and nowadays nobody would make monuments for them anymore. However, also when these monuments were made, they were often already controversial.
- The monument as such is not under discussion but the maker is. I discussed such a case already three years ago in my blog on “degenerate art”: a painting in the room of the former German chancellor Angela Merkel was removed, since the painter appeared to have been a Nazi.
Undoubtedly, there are more reasons that a monument might be removed, but I think that these points make clear that removing a monument, because the idea it represents has changed, is not just a matter of correcting a false point of view. If that were the case, there would be nothing against destroying a “false” monument. However, by destroying a false monument not only a supposedly false point of view is corrected, but also a little bit of a once accepted view on the state of affairs in the world is destroyed, so a part of history. The idea that humans are historically developing beings is denied by cutting off a part of the past. For that’s what actually happens when a monument is removed. One does as if not seeing, is not being; as if it never existed; as if we are not like that. Moreover, a chance to learn from the past is destroyed, with the possibility that mistakes of the past will be repeated again in future. On the other hand, some monuments were already controversial at the moment they were placed, and this makes the question even more complicated, for why should we maintain what was already controversial from the beginning? Another complicating factor is that a monument in my sense can also be a piece of art or have artistic value.
Here I shall not elaborate these points, but I want to propose some possible solutions:
- Monuments can be removed and then destroyed. Sometimes this is the best solution, but in a sense it is destroying history, as I just explained.
- Monuments can be moved to a more appropriate place. This can be a less striking place (so not any longer on a central square but in a park), a museum or other appropriate place. For instance, in Budapest, monuments from Soviet times have been collected somewhere outside the town in an open-air museum where everybody can see them: The Memento Park.
- Monuments can be adapted in some way or a plaquette can be added describing the context of its origin and what’s wrong with it. There are many ways to re-interpret the original representation of a monument.
- A monument can be transformed into a new monument, a “counter-monument”. This is what happened with a monument of the former dictator Alfred Stroessner of Paraguay. The old monument is used as material for a new monument or it is fit in a new monument, while parts of the old monument are still visible.
Removing monuments, including pieces of arts, is re-interpreting and rewriting history. This can be a tricky affair, for what to do with the old monument? Destroy it? But that’s destroying a part of your history with all its dangerous sides. But as I have shown, there are several solutions that do right to both the past and the present. Anyway, monuments are fundamentally political, but society changes and what is “innocent” today may be “unacceptable” tomorrow. However, today re-interpreted monuments may tomorrow again be unacceptable.
Thursday, December 01, 2022
Monday, November 28, 2022
At the moment that I write this, the Russian dissident and opposition leader Alexey Navalny is in solitary confinement. That is, he has been placed in a small punishment cell, where he has to stay for fourteen days. He is allowed to take two books with him and to use the prison kiosk, albeit on a very limited budget. It is already for the fifth time since mid-August that Navalny has to undergo this kind of punishment. Here it is not the place to write why Navalny has been placed in solitary confinement, but I think that it is a good moment to write a blog about what being kept in isolation means to you.
What actually is solitary confinement? Let’s quote the Wikipedia: “Solitary confinement is a form of imprisonment in which the inmate lives in a single cell with little or no meaningful contact with other people.” A prisoner can be isolated for different reasons, for example, as a result of a court decision; as a disciplinary sanction in the prison; in order to protect the prisoner; and so on. The essence is that the prisoner is deprived of any contact with other prisoners and has a minimal contact with the warders. The punishment can vary from having to spend the whole day in a prison cell, with the exception of doing exercises outdoors once a day, to complete sensory isolation, when the prisoner is placed in a pitch-dark cell in which no sound from the outside can be heard. The latter is the worst.
Especially complete sensory isolation has devastating consequences for the functioning of your brain. Most people will think that the brain works this way: Via the eyes, ears and other senses the brain makes a representation of the world describing how the world outside looks like. Research has shown, however, that it works not this way but about like this: There is already a kind of description of the world in the brain and via the eyes, ears and other senses the brain receives input about the present state of the world. The brain compares the input with the description present and if there is a difference the brain updates the description with the help of the input. However, the updating doesn’t simply stop, if there is no input from the senses. The brain is continuously in flux and is continuously reordering and revising the world description with the help of the information that is already there and with the help of its imagination. That’s what is happening when you are dreaming when you are asleep, but also – which is a more serious effect of sense deprivation – when you are hallucinating. Then you produce your own fantasies in your mind and in the end you can become mad. And just this happens (usually already very soon) when a prisoner is placed in an isolation cell without any light and sound: the prisoner becomes mad. What exactly happens is different from person to person. Some are going to daydream and have strange fantasies; some are also going to bang their heads against the wall. Your brain runs riot. It’s terrible (see David Eagleman The Brain. The Story of You, 53-58).
But also less extreme forms of isolation are not without consequences for your mental health, for there is also another factor that seriously affects your mental health, besides sense deprivation: deprivation of human contacts. Humans are social beings that need other humans to survive. Being provided with all you need to survive physically (food, fresh air, free space to exercise, and the like) is not enough. Also deprivation of human contacts, while otherwise living in the best physical conditions, will make you mentally ill. It can make you physically ill as well. The list of health problems you can get is very long and I’ll not mention them all, but here are some. Mentally, you can suffer from anxiety, stress, depression, paranoia, outbursts of violence, suicide, etc., etc. Physically you can suffer from chronic headaches, eyesight deterioration, dizziness, fatigue, laziness, sleep problems, muscle pain, etc., etc. Moreover, it is not unlikely that these problems will not stop once the isolation has ended. They can stay with the ex-prisoner for the rest of his or her life and maybe lead to a premature death.
Therefore, solitary confinement must be avoided as much as possible and be used only in extreme situations. That’s what, for example, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment says: “Solitary confinement should only be imposed in exceptional circumstances, as a last resort and for the shortest possible time.” (source Wikipedia) Then one can think of isolating a prisoner or psychiatric patient for a few hours after an extreme outburst of violence at most. The United Nations considers in the so-called Mandela Rules solitary confinement lasting longer than fifteen consecutive days as torture. (source here) And I think that it is torture, indeed, certainly if it lasts more than a short time, depending on the kind of isolation (complete sense deprivation and forced staying alone in a cell with TV, radio and books available are quite a different, of course). And, that – torture – is what they do to Navalny, certainly in view of the fact that, as said, he is being isolated already for the fifth time since mid-August. But all this throws also a grim light on the forced isolations ordered by the authorities everywhere in the world in order to stop the Covid pandemic. Even though these isolations were or are in most cases by far not as extreme as the forced isolations in prisons by way of punishment, even in these cases already we see the negative health effects that human isolation can bring.
Thursday, November 24, 2022
Monday, November 21, 2022
It has become clear that mirror neurons play an important part in reading the minds of others, so in seeing and understanding what other people think, feel, intend and so on, although it is not the only factor that helps interpret other humans. Other important factors are what people say, what they actually do and their gestures, for instance. Autistic people have the problem that they cannot read the mind of others well, which may be caused by a malfunctioning of their mirror neurons.
Our mirror neurons are continuously active, when we see others. “To better understand how we read faces so rapidly and automatically”, David Eagleman and his team invited test persons to his lab, so he tells us in his book The Brain. The Story of You. The test persons got two electrodes on their faces and they were asked to look at photos of faces. “When participants looked at a photo that showed, say, a smile, or a frown, we were able to measure short periods of electrical activity that indicated their own facial muscles were moving, often very subtly. This is because of something called mirroring: they were automatically using their own facial muscles to copy the expressions they were seeing. A smile was reflected by a smile, even if the movement of their muscles was too slight to be visually obvious. Without meaning to, people ape one another.” Note that normally you are not aware of this mirroring process and that it happens automatically. (pp. 154-5)
This mirroring effect when you see others may explain why married couples tend to resemble each other after many years. It’s not only because they get the same habits, tend to wear the same kinds of clothes and the like, but also because, so research suggests, “they’ve been mirroring each other’s faces for so many years that their patterns of wrinkles start to look the same”. (ibid. 155)
All this casts a negative light on the use of Botox and other such products as a beauty treatment. Botox is the brand name for Botulinum toxin, a very poisonous product protein derived from a bacterium. Only a few drops in your brain can kill you, because it paralyses your muscles. Injected in your facial muscles, it paralyses them, too (locally), and thereby reduces wrinkling. Besides the supposed effect that it makes you more beautiful, there may be another effect of using botulinum toxin for reducing wrinkling as well. Eagleman and his team showed the photos used in their research also to Botox users. He tells us: “Their facial muscles showed less mirroring on our electromyogram. No surprise there–their muscles have been purposely weakened. The surprise was something else.” Eagleman asked both Botox users and non-Botox users to look at photos with expressive faces “and to choose which of four words best described the emotion shown.” The result? On average, Botox users were worse at identifying the emotions in the pictures correctly.” Why? “One hypothesis suggests”, so Eagleman, “that the lack of feedback from their facial muscles impaired their ability to read other people.” (ibid. 155-7)
Reading emotions in the face of someone else is mirroring them with your own face and then interpreting with your brain what your own face is doing. But if your own face cannot mirror the face of the other, there is nothing to read there for your brain and as a consequence, nothing to see in the face of the other. The emotions of the other cannot be felt. So, the malfunctioning of your facial muscles makes understanding the other and feeling with the other more difficult. Cosmetic beauty can have its price, if this explanation is right.
Thursday, November 17, 2022
Monday, November 14, 2022
One of the main characteristics of Orwell’s type of dictatorship is that people are oppressed by manipulating the language they use. It was thesis 2 in Onfray’s summary of Orwell’s theory in my blog last week: Impoverish the language and manipulate the thoughts with the help of words. This is done by introducing new words and banning undesired words, if not by making a completely new language. Sometimes words get a double, possibly contradictory, meaning. The word “peace” is a case in point, not only in Orwell’s Big Brother Society but also in the present world. A “peace keeping” operation is a kind of military operation performed by United Nations troops. Really peace keeping should be sending mediators. But in this case we can say yet that it is an independent international organisation that tries to end a violent conflict, which is a step towards peace, indeed. But how often hasn’t it happened that one country has invaded a neighbouring country on the pretext of bringing there peace, while in fact it was nothing but forcing the neighbouring country to the will of the invader. Or, another case, just say that your neighbouring country is governed by Nazis and you have constructed a pretext to invade it.
There is a basic idea behind the view above: By manipulating the language people speak we can influence their thoughts. Even more – and we see this also in Orwell’s approach of the relation between dictatorship and language – the idea is that by manipulating their language we can determine how others think. It’s a common idea. Not only political writers like Orwell once thought so, but also linguists assumed a relationship between language and thought: the Sapir-Whorf thesis. The strong version of the thesis says that the relationship is deterministic. However, it has become clear that this strong version is not true. The relationship between language and thinking is more complicated. As a consequence, in this sense a strong version of an Orwellian kind of dictatorship cannot exist: A dictatorial language instrument that oppresses people by determining how they think does not exist. And how could it? It would suppose that the Sapir-Whorf thesis was not valid for the leader(s) of the Big Brother Society but only for the common people.
The idea that we can determine people’s thoughts by manipulating the way they speak supposes that thinking and language are two sides of the same coin, but this idea is quite problematic. For instance, don’t animals think because they don’t speak? Cannot we discriminate colours if we haven’t a word for it? In Russian, there are words for light blue and dark blue, while in Dutch there is only one word for both. Does it mean that the Dutch cannot discriminate these shades of blue? Of course not. Such examples illustrate that thought and language are different things. However, although your language doesn’t determine your thinking, it does have an influence on it. So, although the strong Sapir-Whorf thesis is not tenable, there is a weak version that says that their language does have an impact on what people think, and there is clear evidence that supports this weak version. For instance, in many languages some substantives have a female gender and other substantives have a male gender, but in each language it is different whether a substantive is female or male. So in Spanish “bridge” (puente) is male, while in German (Brücke) it is female. Lera Boroditsky discovered that, when asked to describe “bridge”, the Spanish speakers said “big”, “dangerous”, “long”, “strong”, “sturdy” and “towering”, while the German speakers said “beautiful”, “elegant”, “fragile”, “peaceful”, “pretty” and “slender”. Other tests gave equal findings. As Boroditsky concludes: “Apparently, even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world.” (see my blog dated 18 November 2013).
For this reason, but also based on what I see happening around me, I think that the effect of language manipulation for political reasons is somewhat different from what Orwell’s theory of dictatorship supposes. Orwell’s theory implicitly endorses the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf thesis, and this view is not tenable, as we just have seen. However, there is clear evidence that a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf thesis is true and that language does have an influence on how we think. This means that language still can be used to oppress people and to affect what they do, but the effect is not deterministic. There is no strong version of Orwell’s dictatorial language theory. Instead, there is a weak version, based on the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf thesis. By manipulating language dictators can try to influence social, and so political behaviour. If it is not allowed to talk about certain themes or if people are forced to use certain words, dictators can try to prevent that people are going to communicate about certain political issues and next that they organise themselves around a certain idea in a way the dictator doesn’t like. “No communication, no organisation”, is the slogan of a dictator. To make communication more difficult is to make it more difficult that people oppose themselves and organise themselves with like-minded people. If you call an invasion a “special military action” instead of a “war”, maybe people feel less the need to oppose it (or so the dictator hopes). Word manipulation can influence people in the same way as an ideology does. However, the effect of language manipulation is not deterministic. It does not exclude alternative ways of thinking. This is what we see in dictatorships happen and this is how dictators use language in order to oppress people: Manipulation with words. Nevertheless, opposition remains possible and also often exists.
Thursday, November 10, 2022
Monday, November 07, 2022
When talking of dictatorships, most readers will think of Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, and indeed, these are the most important dictatorships in the present world (certainly in view of the size of the countries, for the situation in a country like North Korea is even far worse). However, dictatorship is not a black-and-white phenomenon in the sense that a country is a dictatorship or it isn’t. Moreover, often a country doesn’t suddenly become a dictatorship but gradually develops to become one (see Russia since 1991). It’s a phenomenon on a sliding scale. A country can be more dictatorial or less dictatorial. It can also move into one direction or in the opposite direction. Actually, Onfray’s book is not a warning against Russia or China (although it helps understand these countries, too), but a warning against dictatorial tendencies in France and the European Union. So, if you live in a democratic country, then you can use Orwell’s view also to judge your own country and use it as a guide to stopping dictatorial tendencies. However, in democratic countries dictatorial tendencies often don’t come from the top but are the result of developments on all levels of society. It’s an interaction between social developments and governmental interventions. Keeping this in mind, here then are the main lines of Orwell’s theory of dictatorship summarized in seven theses by Onfray with a little bit interpretation by me:
1) Destroy liberty. Watch people continuously; prevent that they have a personal life and that they live on their own; let them participate in common feasts and ceremonies; manipulate and uniformise their thoughts and views.
2) Impoverish the language and manipulate the thoughts with the help of words. Introduce new words and if possible a completely new language or terminology. Ban undesired words. Give words a double, possibly contradictory, meaning. Prefer oral texts to written texts. Try to prevent that people read the classical authors or rewrite them. A present example here is the term “special military operation” instead of “war” for Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
3) Do away with the truth. Develop and teach an ideology. Use the press as your instrument. Spread false news. Only what the authorities say is true.
4) Manipulate history. Erase undesirable past facts. Rewrite history and “make” new facts. Destroy books and write literature according to the official norms.
5) Deny or ignore nature. Deny natural human desires or just use them as a way to distract people from the real problems (sex, sport). Promote an ideal type of living; an ideal model of man. Regulate procreation. Medicalize life. See, for example, how China deals with the Covid pandemic. On the one hand, it tries to stop the spread of the coronavirus with measures which may reduce the spread of the virus but cannot destroy it (nature is ignored), while on the other hand these measures are a manner to keep the people under control.
6) Propagate hate. Make an internal or external enemy. Make war. Say that those who criticize your measures are psychiatric patients or criminals; make them “confess” their sins. Examples here are the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (the internal enemy) and Ukraine and the NATO (the external enemy).
7) Strive for full power and control of all aspects of life. Take full control of the education of children in all its aspects. Make your own opposition. Put the elite to your hand. Make that scientific facts are only known to those who really need them (so to the scientists). Make people believe that they have something to say and that they have an influence, although, of course, the real power is in the hand of the leader(s).
This theory of power is based on Orwell’s imaginary worlds in Animal farm and 1984. Even in the most severe dictatorships, it can happen that its aspects are not fully realized and maybe never will be realized. But Orwell holds us a mirror that reflects a possible world; a world that has already partly been realized in some countries. If we may believe Onfray, France and the EU are on the way to become dictatorships. I think that this is a bit exaggerated. Nevertheless, we can see Onfray’s thesis as an early warning, and in order to see how France, the Netherlands and the EU are developing, we can use Orwell’s theory of dictatorship and Onfray’s interpretation as a checklist. If warned in time, maybe we can keep the situation under control, but for that we need more than a checklist but also people with a democratic mind.
Thursday, November 03, 2022
Tuesday, November 01, 2022
More and more people are reading my blogs. Till last February, I had about 3,000 views a months and then gradually more people discovered my blog page, with the result that last month I broke the 10,000 limit. Thank you all !
Monday, October 31, 2022
Lately, someone asked me whether I like big cities. When I said that I preferred little towns and the countryside, he replied that metropolises and big cities are interesting and multinational and that they attract many tourists, implying that little towns and the countryside are boring; even more, that they are something to look down upon. I don’t agree and I opposed that the countryside is often underestimated and that you can find there beautiful things that would certainly would deserve a place in a museum, if you wished to have it there. Although what I said is certainly true, I think that in some way I missed the point.
Before going on, I want to say that I certainly see the value and the interesting points of big cities. I have been in many big cities and national and regional cultural centres that have that function. I wrote in my last blog that recently yet I have been in Lille, France. I often come in Amsterdam and through the years I have visited the mayor metropolises and capitals of Europe, like London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin or Helsinki to mention a few, and I have been in Tokyo as well. It was nice to be there, although, it’s true, I preferred to stay there not too long. These cities have something that you don’t find in the countryside. And it is just for this, what these cities “have”, that people go there: their museums, their atmosphere, their internationality, their masses of people with many backgrounds; and so on. But does this mean that the countryside is not as valuable, and not as much worth to visit? People do go there, indeed, but even then people often go there for the special. For that special little museum, for that special splendid view from the mountains, or for the folklore, the local yearly festivities. The rest is banal, or so they think. I think, however, that little towns and the countryside are also worth to visit for the non-special; for what they are.
Now it is so that you can value the special only if you can value the banal, even if it is in a negative way. But is the banal really banal? If you think so, in fact, you misunderstand the value of normality; so the stream of life in which much is routine and continuously flowing. But by saying it this way, I make a mistake, for it seems to imply that you find the simple, “normal” life in the countryside and the exciting special life that is actually worth to live in the city. This is a false contrast, a false opposition. For it is not the city versus the countryside but the special against the normal, or the banal, if you want to call it that way, and you find as much normality or banality in the city as in the countryside. In fact, most city life is normal or banal. People wake up, go to work, school or whatever they do, and in the evening they go to bed. If they do something special, it can only be an escape from the normal, a deviation from the routine, for the normal is the base. Even for the celebrated painter, whose work hangs in a famous museum, for the member of the parliament, or for the successful businessman, most of life is routine. He or she brushes his/her teeth, parks his car, goes to a food shop and also most of their work is routine. But it is just these normal things that make life possible. Without eating, so going to a shop, for example, life is not possible. In this sense just the normal is the most special and in this way more valuable than the special.
However, this is not all. Montaigne tells us somewhere in his essay “Of Experience” (Essays Book III-13) “In my infancy, what they had most to correct in me was the refusal of things that children commonly best love, as sugar, sweetmeats, and march-panes. My tutor contended with this aversion to delicate things, as a kind of over-nicety”. In other words, Montaigne wants to say, the normal, in this way the ordinary and common food, is not only the base of life, it has also value as such. It is not vulgar, as apparently Montaigne’s tutor thought and as many people tend to think. See how Montaigne continues his text: “Indeed ’tis nothing else but a difficulty of taste, in anything it applies itself to. Whoever cures a child of an obstinate liking for brown bread, bacon, or garlic, cures him also of pampering his palate. There are some who affect temperance and plainness by wishing for beef and ham amongst the partridges; ’tis all very fine; this is the delicacy of the delicate; ’tis the taste of an effeminate fortune that disrelishes [dislikes] ordinary and accustomed things” (my italics).
Indeed, how often doesn’t it happen that people highly value a refined taste and look down upon those who don’t or who even prefer the kitschy. They make a distinction between High Culture and low culture, as if there isn’t simply only culture (or Culture, if you like). Taste is a matter of taste, but even if there is a refined taste, we can only value it if we know the normal taste. The special rests on the normal. And what is actually against appreciating the normal, for not only does it constitute life, it constitutes the special as well.
Thursday, October 27, 2022
A state is always built around an ideology that presupposes a system of values with its good and its evil, its vices and its virtues, its bastards and its heroes, its legends and its truths, its saints and its heretics.
Monday, October 24, 2022
Recently I was in the opera in Lille in France for seeing (and hearing, of course) Handel’s beautiful opera Semele. I enjoyed the music a lot, and as often, when I see an opera and follow the text, it makes me think. So it was this time as well. The story of the opera is that Semele, the leading character, has fallen in love with Jupiter, the highest god in the Roman mythology and religion, and that Jupiter is in love with Semele as well. This love makes Semele very happy, but she is suffering from the fact that she is mortal, since she sees this as an insurmountable barrier between herself and Jupiter. Juno, Jupiter’s wife, comes to hear of her husband’s relationship and becomes extremely jealous. She decides to destroy Semele. Juno takes the shape of Semele’s sister Ino, and in this shape she tells Semele that she can become immortal, if she sees Jupiter in full glory. So, the next time that Semele meets Jupiter, she says that she has a request. Jupiter, who is besotted with love, swears by the Styx, the river that separates the earth from the underworld, that he’ll do everything she asks. However, when he hears Semele’s request, he is shocked, and urgently asks Semele to abandon her wish, because he knows that the consequences will be dramatic. However, Semele insists that she wants to see him in his full divine glory. Because of his oath, Jupiter can’t refuse and Semele dies “in the embrace of its incandescent rays”, as the programme of the opera tells us.
I think that we can learn several lessons from this opera, also from the parts I haven’t told here, but when watching the opera, my thoughts gradually moved to the idea: There are limits to your wishes and to what you can like to happen to you. Don’t ignore the warnings of others, for if you don’t, it can lead to your fall. Know your limits.
Handel had derived the story of the opera from one of the classics of the ancient Roman literature: the Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem by Ovid written in 8 AD. So, wanting to write a blog about Semele’s story, I went to the original version, as told by Ovid. As it often happens in operas, the content of the libretto is different from the original text. So it is also in this case. The main lines are the same, but in fact, Ovid tells us something else. However, also Ovid’s version of the myth of Semele is today still as relevant as Handel’s interpretation. Also Ovid tells us that Semele and Jupiter are in love with each other, but now Jupiter has made Semele pregnant. When Juno hears about it, she becomes extremely furious, and also in Ovid’s story she wants to destroy Semele. However, now Juno goes to Semele in the appearance of Beroe, a nurse from Epidaurus, who tended Semele. “Beroe” asks Semele whether she really knows that her lover is Jupiter. For how often has it happened that a man has deceived his love, lying to her that he is a god. Then Beroe/Juno says to Semele: “When Jove appears to pledge his love to you, implore him to assume his majesty and all his glory, even as he does in presence of his stately Juno”. The rest of the story goes as in the opera. Semele expresses her wish the next time she meets Jupiter. Jupiter, in love, swears that he’ll fulfil it, anyhow, but despite his effort to mitigate his overwhelming power, Semele’s “mortal form could not endure the shock and she was burned to ashes in his sight.” However, her unborn son, who would become Bacchus, the god of wine and ecstasy, was saved.
Also Ovid’s version of the story of Semele can be given several interpretations, but I think that an important lesson for us is this: Don’t believe in fake news: It can kill you.
The website of the opera in Lille: https://www.opera-lille.fr/spectacle/semele/
An English translation of Semele’s myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0028%3Abook%3D3%3Acard%3D251
Thursday, October 20, 2022
Monday, October 17, 2022
Montaigne begins his essay “Not to communicate one’s glory” (Essays, Book I-41) with the words: “Of all the follies of the world, that which is most universally received is the solicitude of reputation and glory”. The last thing people want to give up, so Montaigne, is the idea of becoming famous and, following Cicero, Montaigne writes: “even those who most controvert it, would yet that the books they write about it should visit the light under their own names, and seek to derive glory from seeming to despise it.” Now, I think that there is much truth in it, although I also think that for a kind of person like me it would be a torture to be really famous, and it is something I would avoid to become. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t publish a book without my name on the cover, so that everybody knows that it is me who has written it, and I don’t want that someone uses my photos without referring to me as the photographer. And didn’t also Montaigne himself have his name printed on the cover of his Essays? Nevertheless, it is as if Montaigne will make us think that trying to be famous is mere vanity and something that must be disapproved of. I agree that striving for fame only because of the fact itself is vanity, but I think that at least being a little bit famous, or at least being known, has also positive sides: it opens doors. Often people cannot reach their goals because nobody knows them and because just for this reason they are not taken seriously. Once people know you, or rather they have heard of you, they tend to listen better to you and are more disposed to help (and maybe they even think that they can profit by helping you). This doesn’t imply, of course, that your goals are worth to be achieved for the simple reason that you are known.
However, some people like it to be famous, since they see it as an intrinsic positive value. For them being a celebrity is not an agony but a joy. Moreover, its open doors, and the more famous you are, the more doors can be opened. It gives you power. But there is a risk, for don’t we say that power corrupts? Of course, this is not always the case but it often happens. The Me-Too affaires are a case in point. Actually, it is something like the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle, developed by Peter Hull and explained in his book The Peter Principle (written together with Raymond Hull) tells us that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. As the Wikipedia explains: “Employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.” To my mind, this principle is not only valid for employees, but the phenomenon is general: People who strive to rise socially tend to reach a level that is that high that they cannot bear the burdens of this high position any longer or that they tend to overestimate themselves. Again the Me-Too affaires are exemplary.
So, the Peter Principle is not only restricted to employees. We can also apply it to celebrities, and generally to people who have come at the top and have got power. As for the latter, I think that the Peter Principle applies especially to people with power in authoritarian structures; in closed structures, to paraphrase Karl Popper. For where authoritarianism reigns and openness or democracy is absent, criticism is absent as well; and where criticism is absent, people cannot be corrected for their mistakes. Authoritarian leaders become isolated, are cut off from criticism, tend to box up themselves in their ivory towers, and become closed off from reality. And finally they are toppled. We see it in organisations, where managers are often dismissed for that reason and we see it in politics as well. Look around: How many authoritarian political leaders reach the end of their careers in a normal way? Stalin was one of the few who “peacefully” died in his bed. Most are chased away, if not killed, by the rising men under them, or by the people.
Once being famous, people often want to become more famous, for the fact itself and because it gives power. Others just want to have power. But whatever the road to power you have taken, once you have got it, it is not unlikely that you are going to overplay your hand. We see it, for instance, in Russia, where Putin thought that, after having taken the Crimea, in the same easy way he could control Ukraine as a whole. But in his ivory tower, he hadn’t seen that Ukraine 2022 is different from Ukraine-2014. But let’s stop here, for in a Montaignian way I have already too much drifted off from my original theme, and that is that being famous can be an agony, if not for yourself, then for others, but being a little bit known usually has only positive sides. For power it’s the same. Too much power makes a hell for many, but a little bit is useful for making things run. Be open for others, and especially be moderate. Didn’t already Plato say that moderacy is one of the cardinal virtues?