Saturday, April 23, 2011

Goya by Patricia Wright

This is actually one of those Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Books aimed at school-age children. A few weeks ago when the kids were on Spring Break we found ourselves in a quaint little bookshop in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and I bought my daughter the one on Cats. On the interior front cover and title page, they show the covers of all the other Eyewitness books and I saw the one on Goya.

"Goya," I told my son, who wanted an Eyewitness book of his own, since his sister had gotten one. "You should get the one about Goya." I knew next to nothing about Goya, other than that he had painted all those dark and foreboding "black" paintings on the walls of his home near the end of his life. A few days later, when we were back home at at our local library, I saw the very book I mentioned, and we checked it out.

The format of these Eyewitness books makes it really hard to keep track of and retain a coherent narrative. Each spread is about a different facet or period in Goya's life, and each contains more a smattering of pictures and captions than any real expository information. After reading it through I know that Goya lived an extremely long life, that he enjoyed alternating periods of wild popularity and practical exile, based on the shifting political winds of Spain and Europe in the 1700s, and that many of his paintings were deeply allegorical, often twisting the classical themes that possessed other painters to mimic the political caricatures and issues of his day.

The greatest and most disturbing (in my opinion) of all his black paintings, Saturn Devouring His Children, can be viewed as an allegory on the situation Spain was then facing--a series of brutal wars and revolutions that were devouring its own citizens with the same blind madness that grips Saturn's face in Goya's great work. He promoted a decided anti-war theme in countless other etchings and paintings, and produced several famous series of prints that showed the ruthless and violent reality that few other artists of his day dared explore.

Another great theme was that of sorcery and witchcraft, where Goya allegorically attacked the practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church and its Holy Inquisition.

A sentimental favorite of mine is one that Goya sketched near the end of his life. Aun aprendo, it says in the upper right-hand corner. "I am still learning." Given everything I read about him, and the scope of experimentation he showed throughout his career, I imagine it is very much the way Goya must've felt when he drew it in his seventy-ninth year. Shouldn't we all be thus? Tottering forward on our two canes in our old age, still eager for the next opportunity to learn something new, open to all that life has yet to offer?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

The End of Faith was better. There’s a quote from Richard Dawkins on the back cover of this edition:

I dare you to read this book…it will not leave you unchanged.

Well, Richard, Letter to a Christian Nation did not leave me unchanged. The End of Faith did. Still, there are some high points—places where Harris’ pointed and logical wisdom leaps off the page. Some of it, in fact, seems more pointed because he is writing directly to the Christian reader.

If you think that it would be impossible to improve upon the Ten Commandments as a statement of morality, you really owe it to yourself to read some other scriptures. Once again, we need look no further than the Jains: Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible. It is impossible to behave this way by adhering to the principles of Jainism. How, then, can you argue that the Bible provides the clearest statement of morality the world has ever seen?

They can’t, as Harris well knows, unless they admit that the morality of the Bible has nothing whatsoever to do with the alleviation of suffering. Indeed:

One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not—that is, when they have nothing to do with suffering or its alleviation. Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral—that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings.

How can this happen? Harris is kind enough to provide the reader with several examples from their own doctrine, including a look at the details of Christian opposition to stem-cell research.

A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all. It is worth remembering, in this context, that when a person’s brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury him in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such. If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.

But Christians are not concerned about the amount of suffering in the universe, as Harris has already pointed out. In this case, what they are worried about is their belief that the three-day-old embryos have souls. To which Harris presents the classic and simple retort of twins and chimeras—embryos that either split or fuse—and the mathematical gymnastics that soul-believers must evoke in order to make sense out of those situations.

Isn’t it time we admitted that this arithmetic of souls does not make any sense? The na├»ve idea of souls in a Petri dish is intellectually indefensible. It is also morally indefensible, given that it now stands in the way of some of the most promising research in the history of medicine. Your beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings.

Like humans with spinal cord injuries.

The moral truth here is obvious: anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics. The link between religion and “morality”—so regularly proclaimed and seldom demonstrated—is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion.

As I argued in my post for The End of Faith, and as Harris himself argues in that book, it would be best to drop “religious” from that last sentence, and rest the blame solely on dogma—religious or otherwise. There are plenty of atrocities and idiocies committed in the name of non-religious dogma, something to which Harris’ side of the argument is vulnerable if it only reserves religious dogma for its condemnation. Harris knows this, and has one of the best rebuttals to the “Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot” charge regularly leveled against atheists.

Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, and the killing fields of Cambodia are not examples of what happens to people when they become too reasonable. To the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of political and racial dogmatism. It is time that Christians like yourself stop pretending that a rational rejection of your faith entails the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma. One need not accept anything on insufficient evidence to find the virgin birth of Jesus to be a preposterous idea. The problem with religion—as with Nazism, Stalinism, or any other totalitarian mythology—is the problem of dogma itself. I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.

I love that phrase—totalitarian mythology. I’m going to use that more often. It’s kind of like nationalistic mythology. Believing things without evidence-based reasons leads to idiocies or atrocities, whether those beliefs are based on religiosity or patriotism.

Two more quick quotes that are worth mentioning. One about the accusation of arrogance often leveled at the non-believer:

One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be appreciated in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while condemning scientists and other non-believers for their intellectual arrogance. There is, in fact, no world view more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend eternity in hell.

And the second one about just how messed up our society appears to the individual who lacks belief in a god:

…just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus, where the government spent billions more in tax dollars to support institutions devoted to these gods, where untold billions more in tax subsidies were given to pagan temples, where elected officials did their best to impede medical research out of deference to The Iliad and The Odyssey, and where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn’t know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food. This would be a horrific misappropriation of our material, moral, and intellectual resources. And yet that is exactly the society we are living in. This is the woefully irrational world that you and your fellow Christians are working so tirelessly to create.

Like The End of Faith, I’m not sure Harris is going to change any Christian’s mind with Letter to a Christian Nation. But if you harbor any doubts about the benevolence of a Christian-based society and those who would like to create it, this handy little tome will give you plenty to think about.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Good and Evil

“For truly, evil is disguised as good in the book of the heavens and in the speech of the earth, and no man is wise enough to choose between them.”
David Eddings, The Seeress of Kell

Friday, April 1, 2011

Chapter Nine

from STONE TO FLESH
FARCHRIST TALES - BOOK ONE

Speculative Fiction
Approximately 33,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Years before Sir Gildegarde Brisbane would set out on his mission to kill the dragon Dalanmire, he was introduced to a second cousin of the King, a young woman named Madeline. The occasion was a formal banquet in honor of the King’s birthday and it bore an air of importance and sobriety. When Madeline Farchrist tripped on the hem of her gown and fell into the punch bowl, Brisbane helped her to her feet and placed his overcoat around her wet shoulders. Madeline wrapped the coat around her frame, covering the now transparent fabric of her dress and embarrassingly thanked the man she would one day marry and to whom she would one bear a son for his kindness and chivalry.

+ + +

The first thing Brisbane noticed was the stench. The room contained only a collection of small kneeling benches, all facing the wall through which they had entered. He looked on that was a saw a mural depicting gigantic hands parting a bank of clouds, faded with age and festooned with spiderwebs. There was a stairway in the far corner, leading down into the earth, and it was from there that the stench came.

Roundtower and Shortwhiskers were making their way to the stairs and Roystnof was following them. Brisbane’s feet moved of their own accord, taking him across the room to the staircase. The stink became worse with each step, like rotting meat and gangrene. It passed over him in waves and made his eyes water. He didn’t know how the others could stand it.

As they reached the stairs, there was a low rumble from below that shook the building. The same eerie voice, soft and threatening, came out of the depths.

“And you are not alone, are you, paladin? I can smell the meat of a dwarf and two other humans. One of those humans is even more afraid than you are.”

Roystnof’s light spell extended down into the cellar, and as Brisbane made his way down the steps, the room revealed more and more of itself to his eyes. It was bare. All he could see was the bare stone of the floor and two walls. It wasn’t until his friends had collected at the bottom of the stairs and he was near the end that the creature standing against the far wall came into his view.

It was hideous. An unnatural mishmash of animals that could never have been created under their will of a caring god. Bipedal, it stood nearly nine feet tall, its massive legs slimming down to shiny black cloven hooves. Hairless and sexless, its body was that of a muscular man, but the skin was green and scaly like that of a snake. Its powerful arms ended in massive red crab pinchers and perched upon its solid neck was the head of a bull, with glowing red eyes and horns out to its broad shoulders. The stench Brisbane smelled came off the creature like heat from a flame. But perhaps most terrifying of all, painted on the far wall directly behind the monster, in a strange dark red ink, was the outline of a circle as big as a man, and inside the circle was drawn a five-pointed star.

Roundtower took a step towards the beast, his shield held in front and his sickly green sword held tight and ready to strike.

“Demon-spawn,” the warrior cursed. “Prepare to meet thy doom.”

The demon roared as Roundtower charged into battle. Shortwhiskers advanced a pace behind Roundtower and Roystnof backed up to the bottom stair and began to prepare a spell. Brisbane soon found himself alone and unsure of what to do.

Between the two of them, Roundtower and Shortwhiskers had the demon on the defensive. But every swing they made was seemingly easily blocked by one of the creature’s red claws. These appendages seemed impervious to their blades. Each time they collided, a shower of sparks erupted, but there seemed to be no other effect. Brisbane took a few helpless steps forward, wondering what good he could do. There was really no room for him to fight with Roundtower and Shortwhiskers there, and this monster was no simple ogre.

Then, tragedy struck. The demon caught Shortwhiskers’ sword between one of its pinchers and with a quick snap, broke the blade in two. While expertly parrying with Roundtower with its other claw, the demon unleashed a horrible blow to the unarmed dwarf, lashing a quick swipe across his face and knocking Shortwhiskers out and out of combat.

Quicker than Brisbane would have thought possible, the demon turned on Roundtower with an insane grin spreading on its bull jaws.

“Now you die, paladin!” it squealed, death heavy in its voice.

A huge claw fastened around Roundtower’s waist and the demon’s muscles bulged as it lifted Roundtower off the ground and held him at arm’s length. Roundtower cried out in pain and desperately brought his sword down fast on the demon’s head. But blindingly fast, the second claw came up and swiped Roundtower’s thrust aside, just as it had done to Shortwhiskers’ body. Roundtower’s blade flew out of his grasp and skidded across the stone floor.

It came to rest directly at Brisbane’s feet.

Roystnof’s magic struck. As he had done to the ogre, a huge bolt of red lightning crackled out of his fingers and struck the demon full in the chest, throwing it back and pinning it against the pentacle on the far wall. Roundtower fell out of the spasming grasp of the demon, falling heavily to the floor.

The lightning flashed and was gone, leaving the demon standing on shaky hooves and with a blackened chest. Shortwhiskers lay unconscious to one side of it and Roundtower, weaponless, was crawling slowing away, favoring one leg. The demon looked up and fixed its red eyes on Brisbane.

Brisbane tossed his short sword aside and bent down to pick up Roundtower’s slender blade. His hand closed around the hilt carefully as he slowly lifted it from the ground. Power surged up Brisbane’s arm and wrapped itself around his heart. A seductive, deep, and wholly feminine voice echoed in his brain.

—Greetings, young Gildegarde Brisbane.—

The demon was breathing hard. “And what do we have here?” it gasped. “A boy or a man?”

Brisbane could feel the demon’s voice working on his fear but the strange woman’s voice in his head was much more compelling to him.

—I have waited centuries for a warrior such as you. Roundtower was devout, but your potential eclipses his.—

Who are you? Brisbane thought.

Roundtower was kneeling off to one side. “My sword,” Brisbane could hear him saying, his voice faint and very far away. “Gil, give me my sword.”

—My name is Angelika.—

The demon roared and rushed at Brisbane, snapping him out of his reverie. The sword became a green flash in Brisbane’s hands, swooping up and attacking the demon almost of its own accord. Brisbane beat the penetrating claws aside, one after the other, searching for an opportunity to strike. The sword felt natural in his grasp. It was an extension of his own arm and he used it like a seasoned veteran. If Brisbane had stopped to think about it, he probably would not have believed he could do what he was doing.

But the demon was just too quick. It was all Brisbane could do to swat the angry claws away from him, and although the sword was much lighter than it appeared to be, Brisbane was tiring. Soon, he would miss one of those claws and it would snap him in two as it had to Shortwhiskers’ blade.

Suddenly, Roystnof cried out to him. “Strike, Gil! I have slowed it. Strike now!”

Brisbane made the decision in an instant. After blocking the thrust of the first claw, he ignored the second, which would certainly finish him if Roystnof was somehow wrong about his slow spell, and brought the blade of the sword down hard on the demon’s muscular chest.

The blade cut into the scales covering the demon’s body and an explosion of the demon’s black blood spewed out of the gaping wound. Brisbane was able to wrench his sword—for now, oddly, now that he had drawn blood with it, he knew the sword was truly his—free and block the approach of the second claw in the nick of time. Roystnof’s spell had worked. The creature was slowed.

The demon, eyes bulging with fury and pain, bore down upon the human warrior, amazed and terrified at his unexplainable speed. Brisbane cut again, deeply across the demon’s abdomen, and brought his sword out in time to mash the next claw attack aside. The slimy green snakes that were the demon’s intestines pushed their way out of their host, dangling from its belly and falling on the floor. The demon gave up the attack and crouched over, uselessly trying to push its organs back into its body with its misshapen claws. Its roars of rage had decayed into whines of agony.

—Strike the beast down, Brisbane. Send it back to its unholy maker.—

With the strange female voice echoing in his head, Brisbane, in a huge sweeping swing, brought his blade down on the top of the demon’s bull head and cleaved it nearly in two. The beast fell completely to the ground and lay still.

—It is done. Praise Grecolus for His wisdom and praise Brisbane for his bravery.—

Brisbane looked at his surroundings. At his feet lay the crumpled form of the demon, its body already turning to ashes as the spirit that had inhabited it was forced back to its plane of origin. To his right stood Roundtower, his shield lowered and his eyes wide in amazement. To his left, Shortwhiskers was weakly getting to his feet, one hand rubbing the side of his face. And the pentacle on the far wall began to run, the dried blood that had been its ink turning fresh and running down the face of the stone, smearing the image and dissolving the magic.

Brisbane felt a reassuring hand rub his shoulder. He turned and met Roystnof’s eyes.

“Roy,” Brisbane said. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Roystnof said. “For what?”

Brisbane opened his mouth but nothing came out. He knew what he was sorry for. He was sorry that he had rejected the magic Roystnof had taught him and, in a time of crisis, had resorted to the warrior instinct that had always been inside him but which had never been nurtured. Brisbane knew all of this, but he could not bring himself to tell Roystnof about it.

Roystnof shook his head. “No, Gil. Do not be sorry. Perhaps it was wrong for me to try and teach you something I knew you could never fully accept. You are a Brisbane, Gil. Like it or not, you are a Brisbane. Your destiny is tied to the sword and not the spell.”

Roundtower stepped forward. “Brisbane?” he said. “I thought your name was Parkinson?”

Roystnof gave Brisbane an uncomfortable look.

Brisbane shook his head, letting his friend know he held nothing against him. “Parkinson is the name of my stepfather,” he said to Roundtower, “and I have adopted it as he has adopted me. I was born with the name Gildegarde Brisbane.”

“Gildegarde Brisbane?” Roundtower asked, a sprinkling of awe audible in his voice. “As in the famous Knights of Farchrist?”

Brisbane nodded defeatedly. “I am the illegitimate son of Sir Gildegarde Brisbane the Second. My mother was pregnant with me when she left Raveltown the night he died. Please don’t hold it against me.”

Roundtower looked a little shocked at Brisbane’s request. “I wouldn’t think of it,” he said distantly.

Brisbane lowered his head and saw the pile of ashes that had been the body of the demon. He still had his sword in his hand and he felt almost as if he couldn’t drop it if he had to. Forcing himself, he held the sickly green blade up and offered it, pommel first, to Roundtower, silently hoping—

knowing

—the warrior would not accept it.

—No, Brisbane. I am yours now. I am for you.—

Roundtower reached out his hand to take the sword, but he slowly drew it away. He stood silently for a moment and then nodded his head, as if making a momentous decision.

“It is a sign from Grecolus,” the warrior said. “For me and for you. She is now yours to combat the forces of evil. Without her, there is now nothing to stop me from riding to Farchrist Castle. She is a holy relic, but as a magical device, she would only be a hindrance to my quest for the knighthood.”

“She?” Brisbane said, not understanding.

“The sword,” Roundtower said. “Her name is Angelika, She has the enchantment of Grecolus.”

Brisbane looked incredulously at his weapon and the seductively feminine voice rang in his head again.

—I am for you, Brisbane. And you are for me.—