Tag Archives: morality

Thou Mayest.

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“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’”
– John Steinbeck, East of Eden

East of Eden is my favorite book of all time, and I knew the moment I first read these three paragraphs that I had encountered something profound. I think the words “thou mayest” are emblematic of the balance of free will, equal parts all-encompassing possibility and personal morality, and that’s an emblem I don’t mind having on my body forever. 2012 was the year of no regrets, and getting my first tattoo hasn’t upset the year’s theme: I love my tattoo, and I’m glad I did it. Now, on to the next.

My tattoo was done by Chris at Liberty Tattoo in Seattle, Washington.

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Read This: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

PhotobucketAs per usual, I was totally late to the game on the Hunger Games craze. I’d heard whisperings about it from early converts, and when the film was released in March I tried to maintain an air of cool disinterest, as I am generally put off by anything that is uber-hyped. But then I saw the film and fell in love. Knowing that the book is always a hundred times better than the movie, I went and bought the book the very next day and could hardly put it down. True, I don’t like to buy into hype, but The Hunger Games just serves to prove that sometimes hype is completely deserved.

The Hunger Games takes place in dystopian Panem, a future version of America that has been divided into thirteen districts and the Capitol, the center of power and wealth. Back in the day, when a rebel uprising threatened to topple Panem’s government, the Capitol rose up and crushed the rebels, destroying all of District 13 as a lesson to the remaining districts. Now, in addition to reaping the benefits of the districts’ resources while keeping them largely impoverished, the Capitol holds the annual Hunger Games: each district is forced to offer two “tributes,” one male and one female between the ages of twelve and eighteen, selected by lottery to participate in the Games, wherein they’re released into an outdoor arena to try to kill their fellow tributes until one lone victor remains. And the Games are broadcast on television for the entertainment of the citizens of the Capitol and to remind the districts that rebellion has a steep price. Pretty messed up, right?

During the public Reaping in District 12, Katniss Everdeen’s twelve-year-old sister Prim is selected as a tribute. Horrified, Katniss jumps in as a volunteer to take her sister’s place in the Games, even though she knows her chances of survival are slim. Along with the male tribute, Peeta Mellark, Katniss is whisked away to the Capitol where she’s essentially paraded in front of the Capitol’s citizens and prettied for slaughter. She manages to make a big impression and garner adoration from the Capitol, which puts a huge target on her back that her fellow tributes are eager to crush. Once inside the arena, it’s a free for all, and Katniss must use all of her wits and skill to outsmart her competitors and stay alive.

Dystopian stories are the most terrifying of narratives because they put the darkest shadows of humanity on display and say “This is what we could become if we’re not careful.” This story feels so culturally relevant to me because when I look at the Capitol, I see the 1%, living decadently and blissfully ignorant, with no regard for the 99% who are struggling to survive. Collins describes Katniss’s initial wonder and subsequent disgust at the Capitol’s fineries so well, and it’s fascinating to watch Katniss slowly come to the realization that showmanship is key, and that the Capitol will be happy so long as they’re given a good show. It’s that reality television mentality of manipulating the situation into the most appealing storyline until it’s basically scripted, but Katniss’s survival depends on her ability to play her role convincingly.

In a world where fierce brutality and adherence to skewed rules is the norm, the moral quandries are endless and questions of identity and freedom of choice abound. The night before the Games begin, Peeta and Katniss have a deep conversation on the roof:

“I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” I ask.
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol that they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.

Can you still remain yourself while playing a role that someone else has set out for you? What are our lives worth? How far would you go to save your own life? Is it ever okay to take another person’s life? These are the central questions of the story, and there are a surprising array of answers depending on which character you ask.

The Hunger Games is pretty existential for a young adult novel, but it’s also written in a way that is incredibly accessible and engaging. Katniss is a relentlessly badass heroine with endless stores of ferocity, and Peeta is so likable and self-effacing and deep. There’s also a colorful cast of minor characters, from perpetually drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy to brilliant stylist Cinna to flamboyant tv personality Caesar Flickerman, that add a bit of extra humor and poignancy where it’s needed. I’ve read the entire series (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) and it’s beyond-words excellent. You’ll probably cry at the end like I did. But it’s important to start from the beginning. For a tale of rebellion, unlikely love and survival, I encourage you: read this book.

Mid-Week Reads.

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According to Amanda Marcotte, the best television shows of our modern age feature men who are trying to navigate the murky waters of contemporary masculinity. “What does it mean to be a man? No one knows, but it makes for some damn good television.”

A litany of heinous adolescent fashion sins. I committed most of these as a high schooler as well. The only major one missing is the Old Navy Tech Vest… anyone? Anyone? (via Thought Catalog)

Moral individualism/relativism is the great affliction of my generation, says David Brooks. Let’s blame our parents. (via NYTimes)

The inimitable Kat George on the first time you say ‘I love you’: “You want it to be a moment you’re going to remember and recall fondly forever, because you’re going to get married a have a billion kids or at least a puppy, and everything needs to be exactly perfect.”

Errbody be hatin’ on Zooey Deschanel’s girlishness and trying to implicate her for the overarching cultural trend of women not being taken seriously. Zooey invokes feminism FTW. (via Jezebel)

 

Meditations on Art.

For Valentine’s Day, my bosses took the entire office (all six of us) out to lunch. One of my co-workers asked me what my plans were for Valentine’s Day, and I said I was going to eat a heart-shaped pizza, drink mimosas, and watch Shaun of the Dead. And then, for the rest of our lunch, the conversation did not veer away from the topic of movies for even one second. It was kind of bizarre.

Someone brought up A Clockwork Orange, and I was saying that all of the really graphic rape that happens in the film was so disturbing to me that I almost couldn’t finish watching it, and one of my co-workers asked what the point of watching those kinds of movies were. He asked why anyone would want to watch something disturbing or horrifying when they could watch something uplifting that could positively contribute to their lives. He said that that kind of evil stuff could “find a place inside you,” and that he didn’t even want to expose himself to it at all. And then we started talking about horror movies.

I started feeling really sad for my co-worker, that his narrow view of art was keeping him from experiencing some really incredible artistic work.

Good art, to me, is not meant to be good in a moral sense. When art espouses a particular and unbending brand of morality or Truth, that’s when it becomes propaganda. I think good art is meant to be a reflection of reality and of the human condition, which are both infinitely complex and can’t be boiled down to just ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ There are ugly aspects of both that shouldn’t go unacknowledged simply because they aren’t pleasing to look at. As Akira Kurosawa said, “The artist is the one who does not look away.” In order to understand the world we live in, and our place as humans in it, we have to see everything: the beautiful, the hideous, the pleasing, the disturbing; and we have to figure out and embrace how these disparate elements work together. That’s what makes reality whole and dynamic, instead of just one-dimensional. Artists do that better than anyone else.

One way that I judge art is by how much thought it provokes. For example, I mentioned that I was really disturbed by A Clockwork Orange, but I can’t dismiss it just because it was disturbing. I can’t simply say “The fact that there is graphic rape in this movie means that it can’t have any artistic merit.” It’s horrifying and disturbing, but it serves an artistic purpose. The film’s themes of nature versus nurture make me think about the male brain and if there’s a correlation between the prevalence of rape and the license of the male population. It makes me wonder how the male brain can find pleasure in the combination of sex and violence. It makes me think about what facets of a nation’s humanity would have to be neglected for humanity to end up in a world like that of A Clockwork Orange. It makes me think that my being disturbed by the sight, and the idea, of rape says something about me as a human. Thinking and processing is so much a part of what makes us human, and I think any art that encourages intelligent thought is a good thing.

I love that art can make me think, but I also love that it can simultaneously make me feel. I’m an emotional person to begin with, but the extreme outpouring of emotion that I’m able to experience through art is so cathartic. It’s something incredible to experience art that examines the human condition, and through your personal emotional response be able to both be a participant in that piece of art and to recognize the profundity of your humanity through it. It feels like a soul-cleansing, and it’s a beautiful feeling.

Basically, I think art is of the greatest value to the human race. I’ve cultivated these thoughts on art over the course of years of college lectures on art and literature and morality and taboo and the meaning of life, but I would love to hear other opinions or thoughts on the nature and purpose of art. What do you love about art? What do you see as the ultimate purpose of artistic works? Why do you think art is important, or unimportant?