John Milton & “Paradise Lost”: The Man Who Made Satan Cool

188. Paradise Lost

On this day in 1667, John Milton’s Paradise Lost was registered for publication. One of the most famous poems in English literature, it is also one of the most paradoxical. Milton wrote it to – as he put it – “justify the ways of God to men”. However, it is the character of Satan rather than God who has generated the most interest – and the most controversy – since the poem’s publication. As William Blake so famously put it, Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. Or as William Empson put it in Milton’s God, “the reason why the poem is so good is that it makes God so bad”.

In writing Paradise Lost, Milton set out to establish himself in the tradition of the classical epics of Homer and Virgil. In the first two books of the epic, Satan is the main character and therefore assumes the mantle of Achilles/Odysseus, the flawed hero. This was a major change in the character of Satan, who had previously been depicted as “the ridiculous Devil of the Middle Ages, a horned enchanter, a dirty jester, a petty and mischievous ape, band-leader to a rabble of old women”, as Hippolyte Taine put it.

In both books, Satan displays what could be described as great courage in the face of adversity. Having been cast out of heaven, he says,

“What though the field be lost?
All is not lost—the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield”

He is painted as a strong military leader, whom the other fallen angels look to for leadership, and who will not submit to the will of a tyrannical monarch. Readers of the poem in 1667 didn’t have to look too far to see similarities with a certain real-life figure. Milton had long been a supporter of Oliver Cromwell – amongst many other political tracts, he wrote Eikonoklastes, an explicit defence of the execution of Charles I, as well as Defensio secunda, which praised Oliver Cromwell. Needless to say, all this didn’t go down too well with Charles II. After the Restoration in May 1660, Milton went into hiding, while a warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings were burnt. He re-emerged after a general pardon was issued, but was nevertheless arrested and briefly imprisoned before influential friends intervened.

In Paradise Lost, the “ways of God” that Milton has to justify are particularly harsh. As Ian Johnston puts it, “[God] sounds like an irascible, peevish, irrational tyrant, filled with a self-defensiveness” and “a harsh egotist whose major interest seems an inadequate defence of His own actions and grim delight in the pain He can now inflict.” So, in writing Paradise Lost, Milton is faced with a dilemma – how does someone who has spent his life advocating justice and liberty write a narrative defending the actions of a would-be tyrant?

It seems that Milton’s solution – in the latter half of the poem – was to paint an unflattering portrait of Satan: because if he cannot convincingly defend God’s actions then he can, at least, show the extent of Satan’s evil. Satan begins to display characteristics – envy, jealousy and spite – that are a far cry from his earlier nobility. What previously had been an issue of pride – to strike back at God for injuries he had inflicted – now turns into malice for its own sake.

There are some critics, such as Stanley Fish in his influential book Surprised by Sin, who claim that Milton deliberately makes Satan attractive at the beginning of the poem to seduce the reader in; his subsequent degradation is a warning to the reader of the dangers of sin, especially the sin of pride and arrogance.

But to many readers – this one included – it would seem that, however unwittingly, Milton sympathised with his antagonist. Perhaps he realised this after he had written the first two books and tried to set it right. If so, he doesn’t succeed. The strongest character in the poem remains the character of Satan. A proud, flawed, and – ultimately doomed – anti-hero.

And what reader doesn’t love one of those.

The Truth About … the “Wild West”

Gunfighters 6607

One of the biggest historical myths is that of the “Wild West”. It’s not hard to see why this myth has thrived. Names like Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok, places like Tombstone and Deadwood and events like the Gunfight at the OK Corral, have ensured the public’s fascination with gun-toting cowboys. However, the truth is a far cry from such stories.

The main part of the myth is the level of violence in the “Wild West”. If the stories and movies about the period are to be believed, cowboys were running riot throughout the frontier towns, shooting anything that moved. However, the article “Violence in the Wild West?”  highlights the real truth:

 “There were never more than five murders in any given cattle town during a single year despite the presence, on both sides of the law, of gunfighters … During the peak years of cattle towns, the average number of homicides was only 1.5 a year for each town.”

In the article “The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality”  Thomas J. DiLorenzo writes:

 “Eugene Hollon writes that the western frontier ‘was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today’. Terry Anderson and P. J. Hill affirm that although ‘[t]he West … is perceived as a place of great chaos, with little respect for property or life,’ their research ‘indicates that this was not the case; property rights were protected and civil order prevailed’.”

The reason for this?

“Private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved … organizations [such] as land clubs, cattlemen’s associations, mining camps, and wagon trains.”

“The wagon trains that transported thousands of people to the California gold fields and other parts of the West usually established their own constitutions before setting out … Ostracism and threats of banishment from the group, instead of threats of violence, were usually sufficient to correct rule breakers’ behaviour.”

So how did the image of the “Wild West” come about? Partly through some individual’s self-perpetuation of the myth (Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok, for instance); partly because of certain newspaper editor’s wild imaginations; and – with the advent of cinema – partly because of the equally wild imaginations of certain film writers and directors.

But one of the main reasons for the violent image of the “Wild West” is because of the US government’s treatment of the Native American population. Following the Civil War, the huge project of constructing a Trans Continental railway was undertaken. There was enormous amounts of money to be made from such a project and the men who stood to make that money all had ties to the ruling Republican Party. Only one thing stood in their way – the Native Americans.

When he became President, Ulysses Grant put his fellow “war heroes” General William Sherman and General Phillip Sheridan in charge of the “Indian problem”:

“Thus,” writes Michael Fellman in Citizen Sherman, “the great triumvirate of the Union Civil War effort formulated and enacted military Indian policy until reaching, by the 1880s, what Sherman sometimes referred to as ‘the final solution of the Indian problem’”.

“During the Civil War,” writes John Marzalek, author of Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order, “Sherman and Sheridan had practiced a total war of destruction of property … Now the army, in its Indian warfare, often wiped out entire villages … Sherman insisted that the only answer to the Indian problem was all-out war – of the kind he had utilized against the Confederacy.”

Fellman goes on:

“What Sherman called the ‘final solution of the Indian problem’ involved killing hostile Indians and segregating their pauperized survivors in remote places … Sherman gave orders to kill everyone and everything, including dogs, and to burn everything that would burn so as to increase the likelihood that any survivors would starve or freeze to death. The soldiers also waged a war of extermination on the buffalo, which was the Indians’ chief source of food.”

And so emerged the Hollywood image of “Cowboys and Indians” constantly attacking each other. In Hollywood movies, it was usually the Native Americans who were portrayed as the aggressors. In truth, it was the other way round. Of course, tales of the US government’s mistreatment of the Native Americans is not anything new. But it is interesting that this is one of the reasons for the myth of the “Wild West” as a violent and lawless frontier.

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Hunter S. Thompson’s Wild Ride

185. Hunter S Thompson

If there was ever a person for whom the phrase “larger than life” was invented it’s Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson blazed a trail of drugs and excess through his life, inventing a new style of journalism along the way. He once ran for Sheriff of Aspen on a platform of decriminalising drugs, turning streets into pedestrian malls, and renaming Aspen “Fat City” to try and keep investors away. Also, hilariously, Thompson shaved his head and referred to his opponent – who had a crew cut – as “my long-haired opponent”. In the end, Thompson narrowly lost the election.

But Hunter was also a serious journalist. In 1970, he wrote an article which would spawn a new type of journalism, one which he would become famous for: Gonzo Journalism. The article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” was a result of a last minute deadline. Pressed for time, Thompson started sending the magazine pages ripped directly from his notebook that he hadn’t edited. The style which would become known as Gonzo involved the writer placing himself into the story (as opposed to the objective and invisible journalist).

The book that would make Thompson famous was written on a trip to Las Vegas, ostensibly to interview a Mexican-American attorney for an article Thompson was working on, as well as to write a short piece on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. The subsequent book – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – turned out to be a whole different animal altogether. This was evident from the opening paragraph:

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive …’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?’

 Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. ‘What the hell are you yelling about,’ he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘It’s your turn to drive.’ I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.”

The contents of their trunk have gone down in literary history:

“The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls … Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”

 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would be a rumination on the death of the American Dream and the failure of the 60s counter-culture. Hunter’s disgust at the death of the American Dream led him to become more interested in politics. He followed the candidates on the Campaign Trail for the 1972 Presidential election, which became the book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Thompson saved some of his finest vitriol for Richard Nixon. He once described him as a man who “could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time” and said “[He] was an evil man – evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it.”

In the 1980s, Thompson became more reclusive and spent more time at his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek. He died there in 2005 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His family believe it was not a sudden decision but something that Thompson had planned. He was in chronic pain due to a number of different medical problems. The note that Thompson left behind would seem to confirm this:

 “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your (old) age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

 His friend Ralph Steadman said, “He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment.”

Hunter once said, “I hate to advocate drugs or liquor, violence, insanity to anyone – but in my case it’s worked”.

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What’s So Wrong With Spotify?

181. Spotify

For those not familiar with it, Spotify is an online music service that allows you to stream music. There are both free and paid options. So, what’s wrong with that? Well, probably nothing if you’re one of the 20 million people who have used the service since its creation in 2008. However, if you’re Thom Yorke – lead singer with the band Radiohead – there’s a lot wrong with Spotify. Last week, Yorke removed his solo music and the music of his side project “Atoms For Peace” from Spotify, saying in a tweet:

 “Make no mistake new artists you discover on Spotify will no[t] get paid. Meanwhile shareholders will shortly be rolling in it. Simples.”

 He went on to defend those who would call his move meaningless:

 “‘Your small meaningless rebellion is only hurting your fans…a drop in the bucket really’ No we’re standing up for our fellow musicians.”

182. Thom YorkeThom Yorke. Thinks Spotify is a ‘Creep’

And he’s not alone in his criticism of Spotify. Patrick Carney of the Black Keys said that “Spotify isn’t fair to artists”, while Biffy Clyro guitarist Mike Vennart said, “I’d sooner people stole my work than stream it from [Spotify]. They pay the artists virtually nothing. Literally pennies per month. Yet they make a killing.”

And they’re right, at least when it comes to the amounts paid to musicians. According to Wikipedia, “an artist on Spotify would need over four million streams per month to earn US$1,160 (equivalent to working full-time at a minimum wage job).” One of the most streamed songs of recent months was Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, which surpassed 1 million streams. Using the above formula, that’s still “only” $290 and – let’s face it – no new artist trying to break out is going to come anywhere near 1 million views.

But, here’s the kicker. It’s the same story with all online streaming services. The other big player in the market – iTunes – pays similar rates. I say similar because it’s hard to nail down an exact figure for either service as there seems to be differences between paid and premium users and also depending on the amount of streams.

There were, of course, those who took another view of Spotify. Twitter user @kube555 commented: “Flipside to Spotify coin. I’ve discovered countless new bands through it. In turn leads me to increase their [money] by seeing them live.” Irish journalist Una Mullally seemed to sum up the thoughts of many when she tweeted:

Una Mullally2

Una Mullally

Spotify themselves said in a statement: “Spotify’s goal is to grow a service which people love, ultimately want to pay for and which will provide the financial support to the music industry necessary to invest in new talent and music.

“We’ve already paid $500 million to rights holders so far and by the end of 2013 this number will reach $1 billion. Much of this money is being invested in nurturing new talent and producing great new music.”

So where does all this leave musicians like me and probably hundreds others like me? Both of my albums are available to stream on Spotify. (I release my albums through “CD Baby” and Spotify is one of the many affiliate music sites they send music to.) But, the fact is, given the amount of plays I will get, I’m not going to make much money from Spotify, and neither are any other artists at the same level as me.

But – and here’s the catch 22 – I can get exposure for my music on Spotify. Someone like Thom Yorke doesn’t need exposure; someone like me does. New artists need both exposure and sales, but from Spotify, we’re only going to get one of those things? So, the question is: is one of those things better than none at all?

I Am An Independent Musician

support_independent_music

I am an independent musician.

What does that mean? It means I record, release and promote my own original music. No record company backing, no massive PR machine. Just me, a laptop, and a Twitter and Facebook account. It also means that many of you will not have heard my music. We hear a lot these days about the demise of the record industry but, even if this is the case, it has not led to the democratisation of the music industry. If anything, the music industry is more homogenised than it ever was. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: “Never has so much been controlled by so few.” In the past, no matter how powerful the record label, no matter how famous their acts were, they could never – for instance – have dictated what song would be a Christmas Number One.

Today, Simon Cowell can.

I am an independent musician. This means that you will never see me – or the hundreds of other independent musicians like me – on shows like “X-Factor” and “The Voice”. This is not because we’re musical snobs; it’s because we write and perform our OWN music. The acts who appear on those shows are judged on their ability to perform OTHER people’s music. And, let’s face it, they are also judged on their looks, their age, their potential to be packaged as a TV and radio-friendly commodity. No independent artist would want to subject themselves to this. And this is not some dismissal of musical reality TV shows. Those shows are entertainment; they are enjoyed by millions of people; and the acts that appear on them are often incredibly talented. They should be able to co-exist side by side with independent musicians.

Sadly, this is not the case.

If these TV shows were simply that – TV shows – it might be the case. But they are something else entirely. They have become a monolith that has obscured so much other music. The influence of the shows, their creators and the acts that appear on them has permeated every aspect of the music business – the record labels, the radio stations, the music magazines – so that there is little room any longer for the independent artist.

So it’s all doom and gloom, then? There is no hope?

On the contrary, there is. There is always hope because there are always people – many people – out there who don’t want their music homogenised and delivered to them in a “cookie cutter” package. There are people out there who want to discover their own music. So, what can they do? What can YOU do?

A lot. First of all, the obvious. You can buy music by independent artists; you can go see their shows. But there’s a lot more you can do to not only support the artists but to also change the way the music industry works.

  1. Contact your local radio station. Ask them to play your favourite independent artist. Most radio station’s playlists are narrow and repetitive but they also need listeners and they need to keep their listeners happy. If enough listeners ask to hear independent music, the radio stations can’t ignore them. Especially the smaller, more regional radio stations whose listenerships are their lifeblood.
  2. Spread the word. Word of mouth is still the most important thing to an independent musician. And the means to spread word of mouth has never been so —-. Tweet about your favourite independent artist, link to their YouTube videos, write a post about them on Facebook.
  3. Further to that, if you’re a music blogger, why not start focussing on more independent artists. Nobody – including Daft Punk themselves – needs yet another review of Daft Punk’s new album. But a review of an independent artist’s new album could mean more publicity, more sales, and more people at their next show.

The landscape for artists has changed dramatically in recent years. Whether you’re a musician, a writer, a filmmaker, the tools to produce your work are so much more accessible than they’ve ever been. But that’s only half the battle. The other half is getting it into the hands of the people you want to hear/see it. I’d like to believe that people will support those artists out there who are trying to do things for themselves, without the weight of the corporations behind them.

That right there is a revolution in the making.

(I’d appreciate you passing on this post to any independent musicians you know. Thanks!)

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“The Old Testament” or “Choose-Your-Own-Morals”

Moses

There is a debate going on in Ireland again at the moment about abortion. This is not something I’m going to get into here. However, there is something about the debate that has caught my attention. We all know that the Catholic Church does not agree with abortion. And while there is nothing in the Bible directly referencing abortion, Christians tend to point to the Sixth Commandment “Thou shall not kill” as proof that the Bible condemns abortion. And this is the thing that has caught my attention.

Now, I will be the first person to admit it has been many years since I was a regular churchgoer. But I have been to church for weddings and christenings etc. in recent years and, as far as I can tell, little has changed when it comes to the liturgy since I was a child. The attention of the Christian church is focused on Christ. Most of the reading’s – gospel and otherwise – are taken from the New Testament. Most of the time the church is not interested in promoting the ideals of the Old Testament – with its archaic tribal customs and violence – and instead is more interested in promoting the values of Christ and the New Testament. And this is admirable. However, it would seem that when debates about issues such as abortion or homosexuality arise, suddenly the Church invokes the Old Testament.

This is the Old Testament of Leviticus that allows the owning of slaves:

 “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves … You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” Leviticus 25:44-46

and quarantines a woman when she has her period:

“And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” Leviticus 15:19-24

 or Exodus that prescribes death for working on a Sabbath and allows the selling of daughters:

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.” Exodus 35:2

 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do.” Exodus 21:7-11

or Deuteronomy that calls for the stoning to death of anyone who believes in any other gods:

 “If a man or woman living among you … has worshiped other gods … take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.” Deuteronomy 17:2-7

Now, there are many Christians who will say that this is too easy, that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are easy targets. And they would be right. But the reason they are easy targets is because they are there. There is no denying them: these stories and rules are there and they cannot be changed. And if we are going to invoke certain rules and moral codes of the Old Testament and use these to further an argument, then – it would seem to me – we must abide by ALL of the rules and the moral codes of the Old Testament. And if this is not the case, then why not?

And I am not being facetious here. If we are to accept that certain laws contained in this book have a moral certainty (and this is certainly how they are portrayed by Christians) then surely all the laws contained therein must have equal moral certainty? Otherwise, the entire house of cards collapses.

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The Truth About …The Dark Ages

Dark Ages

I’m a huge history buff and I find I’m often surprised to see the types of inaccuracies that exist out there when it comes to some historical facts. It’s not just that certain people believe long discredited myths about history – it’s that these “facts” are repeated in books, on websites, in TV and movies and sometimes – shock horror! – by teachers and academics.

So, I’m starting a blog series today called “The Truth About …” which will look at and – hopefully – rectify these historical myths.

So, first up: The Truth About … The Dark Ages.

The “Dark Ages” is the phrase commonly used in the past (not so much anymore) by historians to refer to the period (roughly) between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. As historians of yore would have us believe, this period was a time of superstition, the rise of the Catholic Church, lack of intellectualism, and a time that was, just generally, a bit crap. The reason modern historians rarely use the phrase anymore is because … well, the “Dark Ages” weren’t really that dark.

It was the writer Petrarch who first invented the idea of the “dark ages” in 1330. He was using the phrase to refer to the lack of writers that existed in the period.  This attitude continued during the Age of Enlightenment when philosophers such as Kant and writers such as Voltaire referred to the period as the “Dark Ages” also. The reason they did so, however, was different than the reason Petrarch did. They regarded religion as the antithesis of reason and because religion had been so prevalent during those years, to them, the period was dark.

This attitude changed during the Romantic period of the 1800s. The reason for this was because of the advancements in the industrial revolution and the awful conditions that many people found themselves in. The Romantic writers idealised the mediaeval period as a time of innocence when man was at one with nature. So, while Petrarch and the others thought of the people of that time as illiterate savages, the Romantics thought of them as carefree, hippies. And, of course, they were both wrong.

There are a number of myths about the “Dark Ages” that are simply incorrect. The main myth is that the Middle Ages were a time of superstition when people valued religion over reason. While this might have been the case to a certain extent, the fact is, rationality was a dominant force in the Middle Ages. Historian of science, Edward Grant:

“If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed [in the 18th century], they were made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities”.

One perfect example of this is the myth that everyone in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat. This was not the case. Many lecturers in the mediaeval universities often put forward evidence to support the idea that the earth was round. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers write:

“There was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth’s] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference”.

Of course, the very fact that there were mediaeval universities at all puts paid to the idea that people in the Middle Ages were crawling around in the dirt. It is true that most of these universities were set up by the Catholic churches, but the simple fact of the matter is that without the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, we wouldn’t have many of the classical written works that they preserved. Not that that excuses the whole inquisition thing and all, but that’s a post for another day.

Another myth connected to the church is the idea of religion’s suppression of science. This myth probably came about because of the Church’s treatment of Copernicus and Galileo. But again, this is not true. David Lindberg says that:

“The late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led”.

As Richard Swan points out in an article in The Independent newspaper:

“Modern law and parliamentary democracy depend on Magna Carta and the development of the parliamentary system in the 13 and 14 centuries. Modern philosophy builds on the work on many great medieval thinkers, such as Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas. Universities are a medieval creation, and scientific and technological innovations were numerous. Such is the continuity of change that historians now identify at least three medieval ‘renaissances’: the Carolingian, the Ottonian and one in the 12 century.”

Knights-of-Ni

And, of course, the Middle Ages gave us the Knights who say Ni

So, all in all, the “Dark Ages” weren’t as primitive and intellectually-lacking as some would have us believe. Of course, they didn’t have shows like “X-Factor” and “Dancing on the Stars with Ice” so … Eh, yeah, what I just said!

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