27 December, 2008

Sister Sin: The Incestuous Seed of the Insidious Satan

The following is an essay from 2006, which I wrote for a class on Paradise Lost. It is about Sin and Death, from said epic poem by John Milton. Those are two very interesting characters.

Sister Sin: the Incestuous Seed of the Insidious Satan

Fallen, wretched, doomed to perpetual agony and suffering; this is the state of Sin when we first meet her in Hell. Dreadfully deformed by the birth of her first child, Death, raped by the latter, and further abused by the fruit of that rape, the Hell-Hounds, whose ordeal repeats itself in never-ending cycles. Few images in Paradise Lost are so horrifyingly striking, and one wonders whether any of the fallen angels, Satan included, were befallen by comparable torments. The lover of her own father, the mother and sexual victim of her incestuous offspring (who also happens to be her brother), the violated and cannibalised prey of her more than inbred Cerberean beastly children, Sin, the God-appointed guardian of the gates of Hell, does not have it easy. It is hard to find another character who suffers this much, the Son included, and even in her condition of guardian, she is within the very prison whose doors she keeps shut: she is, after all, still in Hell.

Sin and Death are two quite interesting characters in that they form the first order of creatures born not directly of God; indeed, Sin is the first entity that can call God her grandfather, for she is the very first being born from one of God’s creatures, namely Satan. As to Death, he is the first Hell-born character and, the Hell-Hounds excluded, the only one. Every further visitor of Hell will have been born on earth, and all those who have been sent to Hell were born in Heaven prior to their Fall. The hellish pair has that in common that their very creations were not usual and a complete first on all aspects. While Sin is the first creature made not directly by God, Death is the first to be conceived by two parents, the way Adam and Eve will procreate mortal children.

Moreover, the strictly visual aspect of the two keepers is by itself worthy of much interest. Sin is a monster in the traditional sense of being a crossing from two orders (in this case animal and angelic) much like a siren or a centaur. Death, for his part, lives in the no-man’s-land of definition; a shapeless shape, his appearance can only be guessed at. All of this contributes to make of Sin and Death special characters on more than one count; whereas the angels and our general parents have rather classical shapes and appearances, Sin and Death strike us as the first two monstrosities of the poem. They are indeed a creation of Milton, imagined from his own initiative, and the status of these two oddities has been much discussed in literary debates. Some think them mere allegories, and not good ones at that, others barely pay attention to them. Be it my own faulty research or the lack of criticism on Sin and Death, I have not found much material on them, and I did not find any work solely dedicated to their study. For all these reasons, I decided to choose them as the topic of this essay. To begin, I will focus on the aspects of each of the Hell-Gate keepers and on their possible origins and reasons of being. Although the potentially seminal line that gave Milton material to create Sin and Death is to be found in James 1, 15: “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.”,[1] I will show that Milton used other references as well.

As I explained just above, Sin is a monster. She is endowed with serpentine features (which motivated the hissiness of this essay’s title) even before Satan chooses the snake to deceive Eve and before God turns the devils into reptiles. I suppose this fact alone could provide some valuable argument to say that God had it all planned, but that is not the object of the current essay, so I will not go further into this. The serpentine features are traditionally given to evil creatures: sirens, dragons, etc. And Sin is indeed compared to Scylla, (II, 660),[2] who at once had her lower body turned into barking dogs and then preyed on sailors, the usual activity of sirens in the Hellenistic tradition. Another figure of famous snake-like creatures I can think of is the Mélusine of both Jean D’Arras and Coudrette. Whether Milton knew of these works I do not claim to know, and the following lines may be sheer digression, but I think it is worth mentioning. Mélusine is a cursed fairy who turns into a half snake every Saturday. She is the child of a human king and of a full-blooded fairy (which makes her a hybrid, a crossing of the orders just like Sin is too) and she herself marries a human to whom she will give a whole empire and countless sons of great value. Her husband triggers the fall of himself and his empire the day he calls her a serpent (there was a pact between him and Mélusine: he was to never inquire about her on Saturdays and never to seek to know why she wanted to hide away) and that brings to mind Adam’s sentence to Eve: “Out of my sight, thou serpent”, (X, 867). This alone of course does not make for a sufficient connection and I therefore will not endeavour to make much more out of the Mélusine parallel; but on the possibility that Milton knew of her, I venture a few comments. Mélusine starts off as a doomed creature too, and she ends up even more doomed, condemned to wait until Judgement Day to terminate her fairy life (she is otherwise immortal). Milton did not make Sin out of the blue, though she is among his most creative figures in Paradise Lost. There are several models he could refer to, and did refer to; among them are sirens, Scylla, and possibly Mélusine.

Much closer to the text, Sin seems to share some of Hell’s own features. Only a few lines away, Hell is said to be “thrice threefold”, (II, 645), like Dante’s Inferno, and Sin “… end[s] foul in many a scaly fold”, (II, 651). The word “fold” occurs in either line and the description of Hell is put side by side with that of Sin. Whether there is a wish to connect the two in such a way as to make us assimilate them, I am not sure since I am running short of arguments for it. But there certainly is a connection to sin as being “fair” at first sight and then “foul” on further examination; this may be far-fetched, but Sin could be said to be a representation of venereal disease and how sinful sexual behaviour leads to “foulness”, shall I say. This two-face aspect is a most important feature in Sin’s visual appearance. For one, it breaks unity, and thus steps away from God, I would argue, because the division from order to chaos comes in great part because of the uprising of a second will (and individuality), namely that of Satan. In other words, when all are one with God everything works out fine, but when a differentiation comes to be, problems begin. Sin embodies duality that way, and although she was not born like this, she is the first example of when one became two, as Satan gave birth to her by himself. So even if she did not start off as a two-natured monster, the beginning of her existence is tightly connected to duality nonetheless. I am usually wary of the use of numbers in analysis, so I hope I am not making too much of the dualities involved here. After all, the schism in Heaven was also a case of “when one became two”. And this can further be applied to Adam desiring a companion of his own kind, and the following catastrophe. Duality is always made better by the addition of a third party: Hell and Heaven are then completed by the creation of Eden, Adam and Eve are to be redeemed by the Son. If duality is intrinsically evil, trinity always saves the day.

Let us turn to Death. The aspect of Death is mostly one of absence (his evasive ontology I tried to reflect in the title of this essay, as he is the only character to whom Sin is a sister). Indeed, Milton first mentions this creature as a shape, “If shape it might be called that shape had none”, (II, 667). Death is black, or rather, he is not of any colour, since that is what black is. Fearful uncertainty characterises Death, and rightly so as it embodies one of the greatest mysteries of life. Other features of Death are his crown and his dart, to which I will come back in the following paragraph. This here paragraph is indeed quite short, but that is because Death’s aspect is a negative. Yet, there is more to say on Death’s appearance; especially his having a crown and a dart.

Death has a weapon, and not just any weapon: his is the instrument that will kill all that lives. But why did Milton choose a “dart”? My suggestion is the following: Milton may have used elements from the Book of Revelation to constitute Death. In 9, 10 of that book, we find these words: “And they [locusts] had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.” That alone would not be enough, but there is more to support my suggestion that Milton refers to the Apocalypse of John in the making of Sin and Death. According to B. Rajan, “Usually … it is a tenth, not a third, of the heavenly host which rebels.”,[3] he tells us in his comment on the hexaemeron. In Paradise Lost, a third of the angels rebel and consequently fall. This, I think, may originate in the Book of Revelation as well. See 12, 4:

And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

These words do not refer to actual angels (at least I do not think so, though it could very well be according to one’s interpretation) but it would not be unusual to compare angels to stars. Satan is traditionally the morning star, and more to our point, he is compared to a comet in the very passage I discuss here: “Unterrified, and like a comet burned”, (II, 708). A few lines lower, “pestilence and war”, (II, 711), are mentioned in relation to the hair of the comet, and these two are half of the four horsemen to be found in Revelation. Moreover, 12, 4 also has interesting things to say about a woman and her ready to be devoured child. Should we see a connection to Death as the ready-to-be-slain son of Sin when Satan gets ready to fight him? I am aware of the rather rich images provided by the Book of Revelation, likely one could find there anything he wanted to fit his theories, but as the coincidences pile up, the case seems to be a more and more valid one. For instance, the locusts described by John are not only armed with deadly stings like Death owns, but they also have crowns too:

And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men. (Revelation 9, 7, italics mine)

The only two identifiable features of Death can be found together in the locusts of the Apocalypse. Both locusts and Death have for main mission to do harm to men, to torture them or to kill them. Death’s purpose in life is a little more varied than that, but essentially they share the same common objective: to deal with humans. The fact that Death is first mentioned on line 666 of the book may not be a coincidence at all, as the infamous number is only to be found in the Apocalypse.

Still in the Book of Revelation one can find these rather interesting words:

… and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit. (Revelation, 9, 1, italics mine)

In view of the passage that concerns Sin and Death, it is difficult not to think of Sin’s key, especially as her key opens onto an “illimitable Ocean without bound/ Without dimension, where length, breadth, and heighth,/ And time and places are lost” (II, 892-4). Any of these elements taken separately may be revoked as purely coincidental, but taken all together they tend to trace a coherent set of references to the Apocalypse. Given the roles attributed to Sin and Death, the references to the Apocalypse are not mismatched; Death’s similarity to the locusts sent to torture men perfectly fits with his future mission to appease his famine by feeding on human life. While the Book of Revelation looks a lot like a bad drug trip for the most part, it is not impossible, indeed arguable, that Milton used the imagery there to constitute Death in his aspect, as well as other elements in the poem, though I cannot say that there is a very strict coherent pattern in the borrowing of certain features. Possibly some of those features entered the poem half-unconsciously as Milton knew his Bible. However, coherence is achieved by the apocalyptical purpose of the hellish pair of gate-keepers, the Sin and Death squad of God.

The references to be found in Sin and Death do not stop there. There is a whole range of elements that clearly put Sin and Death in parallel with their Heavenly counterparts. B. Rajan, like many others, considers Sin, Death, and Satan, to be part of an “Infernal Trinity”.[4] Exactly what roles would the three Hell-Hosts have is not clear, but one can assume that it would be something like the Mother, the Son, and the Unholy Ghost. Unlike the set of references drawn from Revelation, the elements that call for a comparison to traditional Christian doctrine seem to have a more clearly defined purpose. Sin refers to Death as Satan’s “only son”, (II, 728), she further describes him as his “own begotten”, (II, 782); also, she tells him she will reign “At thy right hand”, (II, 869). In all of these instances, Sin definitely calls for a parallel between her own unholy family and that of Heaven. Arguably, she even lies to get to that parallel, for after all, Death is not the only child of Satan, she is herself his daughter, but one could say she is only a “daughter” and not a “son”, literally speaking. Sin is however not the only character to draw our attention towards the heavenly hosts; Satan does his share as well: “… I go/ This uncouth errand sole, and one for all/ Myself expose”, (II, 827). Throughout the poem, many are the instances where Satan can be compared to the Son, this is not something exclusively used in Book II; Satan’s very volunteering in place of all the fallen angels is mirrored by the Son’s proposal to sacrifice himself for humankind, and there are many other examples I could refer to here. What happens in this passage is that this scheme of mirroring the heavenly ones spreads out to Sin and Death so as to form the “Unholy Trinity”. Because of this, we cannot argue that Sin is individually mocking God and the Son, rather, the pattern of parody seems to come from a higher level, namely that of the author, Milton. He did not think much of the dogma of God being three, so it is possible to interpret the parallel as a potential jab against that dogma. Were I writing a longer work, I think it would be worthwhile to comment on all the other structural effects to be found in Paradise Lost, such as Hell resembling Heaven and other elements that tend to echo each other.

I propose now to take a look at what would characterise Sin, Death, and Satan, as an “Unholy Trinity”. In the context of the entities completing this unhallowed triad, Satan could be said to be a counterpart to God (I know this may sound like stating the obvious) because of his quality of creator: he made Sin out of nothing, so to speak. Sin is the parent of Death, the Son, and he is the one through whom all humans will have to pass to enter Hell, which is what Christ is to Heaven, though it is true one also has to pass through Death to enter Heaven. Sin as the infernal Mother takes the role of the procreating Father of Christian traditions, yet things are not all that simple. Their family tree looking like a stump, the relationship of each entity to another becomes relatively complex.

Incest is met at every branching of that Satanic tree. Sin is born of Satan alone, which does not exactly qualify as incestuous though it is obviously unnatural for a creature of God, Death is born of the union of Sin and Satan, and finally the Hell-Hounds are born of Death’s mating with Sin. The father mates with the daughter, who, unwillingly, becomes the lover of her son. What can be done of this rather dysfunctional family? According to my relatively humble knowledge of Greek mythology, incestuous unions are not a seldom occurrence, and as we know, Milton can heavily refer to Greek myths. Yet there certainly is more than that to it. There is a pattern of degeneration in the family of Satan; if he starts off as a beautiful angel, his daughter turns out to be a hybrid mixing humanness and reptile features. Furthermore, the child of their incestuous union is a complete figure of otherness as he cannot be distinguished perfectly even by Satan’s gaze, whose ability is thought to be much more efficient than that of mere humans. As to the fourth “member” of the family, the Hell-Hell hounds, they are mostly an unindividualised pack of beasts; they lost all angelic features, and they lost all unity too. The loss of unity, I think, is to be connected with what I said earlier about chaos and order and the structure of Hell resembling Sin. If this family went on, the descendents of the Hell-Hounds would probably be malefic maggots.

It is noteworthy that incest characterises Satan’s family; not only is it considered a sin, religiously speaking, but it also marks procreation as a less perfect creation than the kind God achieves. Similar to Adam and Eve’s only way to create offspring, sexual intercourse, the two-partied making of Satan and Sin create a monstrous child (however, Adam and Eve expected to have children before they knew of the Fall, but that is not a typical feature of the Christian tradition). The idea that every human is born sinful because of the carnal union of their parents can perhaps be found in the comparison between parthenogenesis and the immaculate conception God, the Father, can perform.

The question of hate in Heaven has always been a theologically loaded one, but along with Sin as the first female being of the universe comes the question of sex in Heaven. The one reference to this comes from Sin herself when she tells Satan her story: “… such joy thou took’st/ With me in secret, that my womb conceived/ A growing burden.”, (II, 765-7). The question of joy in Heaven may be much less interesting than that of hate, but that of physical, sexual joy, can be thought of more peculiar (though Milton clearly portrays a vision of sex that is sinless with Adam and Eve and how promiscuous they get, especially considering the above mentioned future children they expect to have to help them with their daily work). Thus sex per se is not automatically a sinful thing, yet what to think of Satan and Sin’s relationship? Well, for one, she is his very daughter, and while Milton could conceive of sinless sex, I would not suppose he would consider sinless incestuous sex (given that incest is not only a religious taboo but very much so an inherently human one, even atheists do not copulate with their daughters, generally). This incestuous nature is the first clue that something is not quite right, even in Heaven. The second point I ask myself about is whether the “joy” Satan took with Sin was shared. Indeed, Sin nowhere tells that she herself enjoyed the act, or even agreed to it, and so it is not inconsiderable that she may in fact have been raped by Satan. Raped in Heaven and raped in Hell? The story of Sin being what it is, that would not be unsuited. A third point is that this relationship with Satan was lived “in secret”, (II, 766), and that too brings up some questions. First of all, can there be secrets in Heaven? Whereas we have seen that there could be hate and even sex in Heaven, whether or not there can be secrets is much less certain. God is omniscient, after all; so there can be no secrets. What is most interesting, however, is that likely Satan believed there could be secrets and that God did not know everything. That argument is of major importance for critics who argue that Satan was tricked into doing what he did and that ultimately God is responsible for everything that happened, Fall included. This notion of secret also brings the fact that there was something to hide, something possibly wrong that needed to be kept from others, something possibly sinful. If Satan felt the need to hide, then surely he must have thought that what he was doing was not all that correct. But why exactly? If he thought the joy he took with his own daughter a thing not to do, then why did he do it at all? This would mean he knowingly chose to do evil. Any reason for the hiding can only be conjectural, since neither Sin nor Satan explicitly explains the why of the secrecy. There could be several origins: Satan could have been aware of the incestuous nature of the relation, and that it was “wrong”, he may have wanted no one to know about the affair, though why exactly I do not know (except for the reason previously mentioned), perhaps he discovered a new kind of joy with Sin and that raised suspicions in him (and perhaps also he did not want any other angel to find out “sex”, maybe Satan discovered sex, since Sin is the first female being of them all; although angels are traditionally genderless, Milton refers to them as males: Satan is a “he” and so are the other angels), lastly, if Satan was indeed raping Sin repeatedly, then he would not have wanted others to find out his crime. Whatever the reason, Satan, according to Sin, decided to keep the act a secret, thus admitting that he was not entirely at ease with the relationship and that probably, he was experiencing evilness.

To go back shortly to the idea of sinless and sinful sex, it is very likely that Milton differentiated sex as an act of love and sex as an act of lust; the latter characterising the relationship between Satan and Sin (and later on Sin and Death), as well as the first intercourse of Adam and Eve after the Fall. I will now pass on to the last topic of my essay: the allegorical nature of Sin and Death.

Patrick Cullen considers Book II to be “the most openly allegorical book of the poem – a book in which virtually every event has an allegorical dimension of one sort of another”.[5] With names such as “Sin” and “Death”, the allegories to be found in them is unmistakable, obviously. However, the evident allegory may not be all that simple, after all. Did Milton really mean to make these two allegorical beings at all? One would think that there is no question about it, if only because of the names perfectly fitting the actions (although this is more easily said of Death than of Sin), yet there is potentially another kind of interpretation. The idea is to take Sin and Death literally. One of the angels who teach Adam and Eve explains that it is somewhat difficult to describe heavenly things to mere humans (unless my memory fails me); from that, it is arguable that all these things that are beyond human perception have completely incomprehensible natures. Thus, Sin and Death could be said to be entities that literally do what they are called after, Death kills and Sin leads to Hell. The highway to Hell they build can be said to be equally literal in that frame of thinking. Ironically, arguing that these are not allegories backfires with the fact that if this is not an allegorical use of Milton’s, it is one from the angels who teach the human couple (yet, that does not work with either Sin and Death or their bridge, since only the narrative voice of the poet relates them, not the angels’). I realise my argument is fairly brittle. The nature of Sin and Death tends to push our conceptions of the world in which they (and we) live so far as to make it quite confusing; which led many a critic to be heavily disappointed and displeased by and with the infamous duo. Thus Samuel Johnson wrote:

To exalt causes into agents, to invest abstract ideas with form, and animate them with activity has always been the right of poetry. But such airy beings for the most part suffered only to do their natural office, and retire. Thus Fame tells a tale and Victory hovers over a general or perches on a standard; but Fame and Victory can do no more. To give them any real employment or ascribe to them any material agency is to make them allegorical no longer, but to shock the mind by ascribing effects to nonentity.[6]

Johnson has a problem with allegories doing actual things, things that go beyond the nature of the thing which they are allegories of. He would not allow Fame to have a cup of coffee, or Victory to take a bath, God forbid Sin and Death to build a bridge from Hell to Earth. This critic probably has a point when he says they are no longer allegories, in that the two entities exist as true characters within the poem; they are not a mere figure of speech. The question is whether or not an allegory has to remain an obvious allegory to be considered one. Many are the examples where allegories have features that do not belong exclusively to that which they allegorise. All of the allegorical characters of Everyman for instance have the ability to speak, which none of the allegorised concepts actually have. Thus Beauty, Faith and Knowledge do things that Johnson would not quite like. They are indeed anthropomorphised, yet I have never heard or read anyone arguing that they were not allegories. Another important question is whether allegories can do things without turning these very things into allegories too; can allegories live in a non-allegorical world. Sin and Death build a bridge, is the bridge an allegory if the builders are? Technically speaking, sin and death, as we know them in daily life, do not build any bridges, so it must not be that part of Sin and Death that enables them to do more than sin and death can do, in Johnson’s vision. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure where this is going, the question belonging more to a linguistic essay than the present one. Are Milton’s Sin and Death allegories that are given extra possibilities or are they simply not allegories at all? Does an enlarged allegory remain one? Can Sin and Death even be non-allegories given the names they bear? The last question I tried to engage in the beginning of this paragraph, to mild results. It could be interesting to venture the idea that Sin and Death not only are monstrous characters of the poem but also monstrous entities as literary ones, that is, that they escape even critics’ comprehension in their very nature. Many critics have been somewhat shocked by the obviousness of the allegorical use made with Sin and Death, and that puzzled them quite a good deal to see those two allegories from Hell doing so many unallegorical activities. Perhaps Milton aimed for a pair of entities that would seem out of human comprehension, as was my argument earlier, or that he wanted to have them monstrous and “other” on as many sides as he could. I would not exactly support that view myself as this seems a bit far-fetched; nonetheless, this could be interesting.

Although I certainly have not covered all the topics related to Sin and Death, I hope to have dealt with the main ones, at least partly. The children of Satan prove to be worth the close inspection which I could not find in most of the criticism I read (and I repeat that this may be due to my research rather than the lack of criticism on the issue). From their origins to their aspects, both Sin and Death are challenging us in a way that is never quite reached by other characters in Paradise Lost; although this is a bold claim, and likely wrong on certain levels, the Guardians of Hell, and its subsequent feeders, have that unique trait of being original creations of Milton, a characteristic that even God cannot claim to possess. I demonstrated the amount of coincidences to be found in Book II (for the passage that concerns us) and the Book of the Apocalypse, coincidences that stop being ones as they pile up to the level of organised references. I may have failed to provide those references with a strict reason to be, unless the apocalyptic roles of Sin and Death are to be compared with the frightening fate John of Patmos warns us of. Concerning the incestuous nature of Satan’s family, I have showed that it was a rather loaded issue since it begins in Heaven with the strange birth of Sin, and is further continued with the no less strange father-daughter sexual relationship between the two. In this I demonstrated, I think, how Sin and Death can be significant elements in arguments that do not directly concern them (as literary characters in a literary study), such as God’s omniscience and Satan’s knowledge or ignorance of it (the latter is what Sin suggests). Nevertheless, as I tried to show, Sin and Death per se are worthy of much scrutiny, scrutiny which they may have gotten from critics I have not read. Taken individually, Sin strikes us as a most damned creature. The first female ever to live, she is also the first being created not directly from and by God. Her only partner in womanhood is Eve, and both possess a “Sad instrument of all our woe”, (II, 872); for one an apple, for the other a terrible key. The connection between Sin and Eve is the one topic I omitted from my essay, but it too is a relevant theme. As to Death, the first procreated being of the universe, he is a black-hole of an entity. A shadow made of darkness, lusty like a brute beast, the self-declared king of Hell sounds a lot like his rebellious father, only worse and not romantic for a second. Although he shares that weak spot for incestuous affairs, and that sense of bravery, he is more of a debased version of Satan rather than a heroic saviour, which Satan devotes himself to be. Death’s main mission, unlike his father, is to satisfy his hunger to kill; he is not here to save anyone and is endowed with the most powerful weapon of all, he can kill everyone and everything save the Almighty and the Son. In Sin and Death, suffering and pain as well as grief and agony are polarised at both ends of the line: Sin does not in effect hurt anyone, nor does she wish harm to anyone either, her only major act in the epic is to keep Satan and Death from fighting, a noble and peaceful act; as to Death, he is the complete opposite: he never seeks to protect anyone from his selfish hunger, not even his own mother from his malevolent lust, his only wish in existence is to kill as much as he can. Satan’s offspring thus combines the conditions of being the aggressor and the prey, as Satan is God’s victim and Man’s misery-maker.

Primary Source

- Milton, John. Paradise Lost. London: Penguin Classics, 2000.

Secondary Sources

- Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: John Milton. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
- Cullen, Patrick. Infernal Triad, The Flesh, the World, and the Devil in Spenser and Milton. Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1974.
- Empson, William. Milton’s God. London: Chatto & Windus, 1961.
- Forsyth, Neil. The Satanic Epic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
- Kean, Margaret. John Milton’s Paradise Lost: a Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 2005.
- Rajan, Balachandra. Paradise Lost & The Seventeenth Century Reader. London: Chatto & Windus, 1947.

[1] The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version. Thomas Nelson Bibles, 1970, 2001. All further references are to this edition.
[2] Milton, John. Paradise Lost. London: Penguin Classics, 2000. All further references are to this edition.
[3] Rajan, Balachandra. Paradise Lost & The Seventeenth Century Reader. London: Chatto & Windus, 1947, p. 40.
[4] p. 50.
[5] Cullen, Patrick. Infernal Triad, The Flesh, the World, and the Devil in Spenser and Milton. Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1974, p. 104.
[6] Cited in Maccaffrey, G. Isabel. “Satan’s Voyage” Modern Critical Views: John Milton. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, p. 32-33.

07 November, 2008

“Electro-Shock Blues”

8th November 2008

I would not usually devote a chapter to an album, but Electro-Shock Blues is a notable exception. This is the album by which I discovered The Eels, who still remain one of my favourite bands of all time, and certainly among the best of them. I kid you not, The Eels have remained excellent since their beginning. Each album has been different, yet uniquely their own. Sometimes experimental, sometimes traditional, sometimes simple and bare, sometimes elaborate and sharp.

Electro-Shock Blues came out in 1998. It is The Eels’ second album, after Beautiful Freak. Following their intense success, E, the leader of the band (he does most of everything in the band), would come to face some tragedies in his life. His sister, Elizabeth, eventually gave up after a life-long struggle against depression, and committed suicide. His mother slowly died to cancer, leaving him as the sole remaining member of his family, his father having died in 1982. E was the first to discover the body of his father, a famous physicist who wrote letters with Einstein, no less. Friends of E also died, and other sad things.

The result of all these tragic events is that E decided to confront it with an album based on all of it, since he knew he wouldn’t be able to avoid it. Sixteen songs are to be found on that glorious album. Death, suicide, cancer, suffering, loss, psychiatric hospitals, electro-shocks, you’ll face all this and more. Yet, as gloomy as this may sound, the record is full of hope, and the album ends on “maybe it’s time to live,” because yes, one must live though life is tough.

The album is made of bits and pieces from E’s entire family: the booklet begins with a poem written by his grand-mother, or even great-grand-mother, I forget. Some of the artwork was made by sister and/or father, I forget the details exactly. The first song “Elizabether on the Bathroom Floor” is about Elizabether’s suicide, and I read that parts of the lyrics, if not all of them, were taken from her last diary entries. Many songs are about Elizabeth in some way or another. The album is dedicated to her.

The first songs are very dark, admittedly, but it lightens up later on. It doesn’t mean the subject matter is happier, but the songs are like... imagine a song that sounds happy, but has sad lyrics. That is a bit what the cover of this album is like, it looks cute and harmless at first sight, but when you know what it means, then there’s added sadness to this apparent happiness.

Electro-Shock Blues is a masterpiece on every level: the songs are epic, the lyrics are deep and poetic, and heart-wrenching. They’re like short stories, or have the density of them, at any rate. This album is like a novel indeed.

Here is the list of those terrific songs:

1) “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor”

2) “Going to your Funeral Part I”

3) “Cancer for the Cure”

4) “My Descent into Madness”

5) “3 Speed”

6) “Hospital Food”

7) “Electro-Shock Blues”

8) “Efils’ God”

9) “Going to your Funeral Part II”

10) “Last Stop: This Town”

11) “Baby Genius”

12) “Climbing up to the Moon”

13) “Ant Farm”

14) “Dead of Winter”

15) “The Medication Is Wearing Off”

16) “P.S. You Rock My World”

I could write enormously on each song, that’s how intense they all are, but I won’t, because I’d much rather you get your own relationship with them. And I couldn’t select pieces of lyrics to show you without showing you all of them.

If you’ve never heard The Eels before, what should I tell you? Well, before everything else, that you are missing out. Secondly, that The Eels are mostly traditional rock, except that E is not afraid to experiment with just about anything, which means some songs will be plain guitar and voice (and strings, often), or that there’ll be electro elements (but not enough to be called techno, by far not). The use of strings and other ambient instruments does add a very eerie feeling to this album. The Eels’ masterpiece will make you cry and smile and most of all it will make you feel alive.

Thank you for reading and I hope you will give Electro-Shock Blues a chance.

Here's the story of this album, from The Eels' own website.

26 October, 2008

The People who Turn to God

27th October 2008

Everyone knows the case of the repentant drug-addict or alcoholic who “found God” and improved his life. Everyone knows of that person who was lost and then was found, by God. Who are these people who turn to God?

The people I mean to write about here are usually not raised religiously, and if they were, they weren’t religious themselves. Instead, they went through a real reflection about religion and God and what it meant. This is much harder when you didn’t grow up being accustomed to the idea of God.

Now, because these people turn to God after a crisis in their lives, many imagine that they merely “found a quick solution” and that faith is easy. “They didn’t care about God until they had problems in their lives,” is often said in a contemptuous manner. A lot of people didn’t care about God before they realised life was hard.

Does it mean those people are fools who just turn to God in an act of weakness? Not in my opinion. If your life is no great trouble to you, and you enjoy living, chances are you don’t ask yourself an army of existential questions on a daily basis. Why? Because when living is fun, you need no more reasons to live. However, when each breath you take is an effort, that’s when you actually start thinking about whether this life is worth the pain. It’s easy to live on when you enjoy the ride, but when it’s taking everything you’ve got, you need a goal. Your life is no longer its own reason and justification. You need more, or you’ll give up. It’s practically impossible to struggle for nothing; it’s much easier to confront bigger obstacles if you have a goal than smaller ones if you don’t.

Contrary to popular belief, faith isn’t a quick solution to your problems. You don’t just suddenly decide one day that God exists and that you need Him. Most of us can’t do that. And we don’t, unless we get seriously damaged and broken. It’s not only because people look for help and solutions, it’s mostly because people need to be driven. A life without meaning is infinitely harder to live than a meaningful one. Believing in God doesn’t mean you’ll know exactly what the meaning of your life is – nor that of the universe – but it will mean that you have a hope there is a meaning to both your life and the universe, and that both are interrelated.

The sad thing is that this new found faith is looked at with suspicion and even scorn. On the one hand, people assume the faith is worth nothing because it was gotten in a time of distress; on the other, these new believers are thought to be hypocrites, for mostly the same reason. Often, you don’t know what you really need before you lose it. Most often, you don’t know the worth of things before they’re gone. You become aware of your mortality more easily when someone close to you dies, or when you are severely injured, or afflicted with a fatal disease, that’s only logical.

I remember my High School French teacher. She was a very intelligent woman with a strong character. One day, I discovered she was a Christian, which, to me, back then, was mutually exclusive with “intelligent”. And I remembered a story she told us once, about her daughter. Her daughter had leukemia and slowly died because of it. She was a young girl, maybe ten or twelve. Our teacher told us that for an entire year after her death, she cried every night. I don’t know whether she was a believer before this tragic event, but chances are she wasn’t, though that’s only a guess. The point is that if your own child died this way, you’d be seriously upset at life, and you would demand a reason. You would need some sort of an explanation, because you can’t live without one anymore. That’s when it becomes important that life actually make some sense.

So yes, broken people are more likely to turn to God than happy people. This isn’t because broken people are weaker, it’s because they faced the less pleasant sides of life. Demanding to understand what this whole life is about is not a sign of weakness, but of a healthy mind. You’re not a piece of wood, you have emotions and ideas, and thoughts, and you react to this world. The stronger you react doesn’t mean the weaker you are, not at all. No one is similar in the face of pain, and some of us will be enormously affected by what someone else would find easy to go through. Pain is not comparable, you’re your only standard.

Understand that sometimes you need a slap in the face to look at something in a fresh way. You need to be broken to be mended. You could compare that with minor and major depression: while a minor one will let you function like everyone else for years, it’ll slowly eat you inside, whereas a major depression will hold you down until you fix it. Sometimes a bigger crisis is better, like a full fracture is better than a partial one (or so I’m told).

I’m not suggesting that you should seek pain or anything like that. I don’t think anyone will be spared pain, it just varies in degrees. The point is to learn from it, discover needs in yourself you didn’t know existed, and solutions you never thought of.

23 October, 2008

“Vir Dolorum”

23rd October 2008

Lorenzo Monaco (circa 1370 - 1423), 1405. Tempera on wood.

I went to a museum yesterday, and saw this, and wanted a picture of it. If I were rich, I'd have bought the painting, but as it is, I bought the postcard. I realised there was no image of this online, so I scanned the postcard and here it is.

For all I know, this is a rather unusual pose of Christ, with His arms on Himself, and it intrigued me. Plus He is a beautiful Christ.

As to the title, with my little Latin knowledge, I think it may mean "man of pain" or "suffering man", or something like that. "Vir" means "man", as in "virility", but it may also mean "life", though I am unsure (I think not).

So, after this brief description of the painting and how it got to here, let’s get deeper. But before I do, let’s make sure you understand I primarily intended to just show you this painting, because I couldn’t find it anywhere else on the internet. I am no specialist of that period of time, and no art historian.

What first struck me with this painting was the fact that Christ doesn’t have His arms in a cross shape, as is usual. Then I noticed the colour of His skin, and His face. So what of all this? First question is what kind of Christ is this. If you pay attention, you’ll know it’s the dead Christ, because He does have the Holy Wounds. Look at His visible hand: there is a stigmata in it, which implies this is after His Crucifixion. Also, and equally discrete, is the spear wound in His side (our left, His right).

If you want to be a realist to the extreme, you will argue that such a tiny hand wound has been caused by a rather diminutive nail, and that no nail this size could support the body of a grown man. Many among you know that a nail in the palm like this would not be able to bear the weight of Christ. Still, many among you also know that the word for “hand” used in the Gospel included the wrist in the definition, and that a nail in the wrist could support the weight.

The deathly hue of Christ’s body suggests His being dead more than the wounds do. In the background, you can see the Cross, although it is mostly hidden by Christ’s halo. I love this painting because Christ seems so peaceful in this (and that isn’t a typical characteristic of the dead, some are, some aren’t) and I don’t know, this has what most classical paintings don’t have. A something special. His eyes look almost Asian, like some Western Buddha of sorts. And His features are at the very least rather feminine. Christ is rarely depicted as a muscular type of man. His nipples and navel are very faded-looking, perhaps a suggestion that those human attributes are further away from Him than they are for regular humans – given that a navel is the perpetual reminder that you were once a fetus, and that nipples mark you as a feeding creature, if you’re a woman, and that, if you’re a man, you have once been a female as a fetus – but it could also simply be that those elements faded because of the passage of Time.

One thing I confess I am ignorant of is this pink-looking basin at the bottom of the image. I don’t know what it could be. Perhaps it is a bathtub of the kind they used in the Renaissance, which maybe they used to wash the Body of Christ, because you obviously don’t see any blood on this corpse. It’s only a guess, other paintings depict Christ on the Cross itself and there is no blood to be seen either, so it is arguable.

Back to the arms. Usually, Christ has His arms outreached, because of the Crucifixion (even though this isn’t one) and I have never seen Christ portrayed with this pose. In this one, He seems to protect Himself. This Christ looks like a baby in his sleep. This is after His Passion, but before His Resurrection. It is a still moment of peace before the great change.

I hope you appreciated seeing this painting.

17 October, 2008

Retro-Gaming and Free Online Games

17th October 2008

Nowadays every game that comes out, on consoles and computers, has a massive plot, hordes of characters, is produced like a Hollywood movie, and takes you large amounts of time to play. Moreover, they’re always in 3D.

My own parents gave up on videogames the day they became tridimensional. Videogames used to be simple, in the 80’s and early 90’s. A few buttons were enough to play for hours, you didn’t always know what the plot was, and you didn’t always care, and the pixelised quality of the games left much room to your imagination.

Now, what you see is mind-blowing, what you hear is just as convincing as any sound from the world outside the screen. Videogames have become too real for some of us, and thus, some of us resort to retro-gaming and free online games.

A perfect example of this is me. I played the latest Mario Kart game, the Wii one, and no matter how hard I tried to convince myself it was good, it wasn’t. In fact, I didn’t even try to convince myself, I knew it was crap. My immediate reaction was to pull out the old Super Nintendo, and pop in the first of the Mario Kart games. That game is from 1992 if my memory serves me well. And you know, I think it’s a better game. It’s not only because I played it as I grew up, but also because you actually get some sensations playing this – once you get used to the weird flat land you roll over and how it spins, which at first will not look real at all, but you get used to it.

Sometimes all you want is a little fun in a videogame. I’m not always interested in reading a 200-page manual on a game just so I can play it. Even chess doesn’t require that much. Nor does poker, nor does Tetris. You get my point. (And yes, learning the rules of this game is fast, mastering them takes much longer, I know.) This is when free online games come onto the scene. What are the advantages of these? First of all, obviously, they’re free. So whatever happens, you know you won’t be tricked because the worst case scenario is that you’ll lose a minute of your precious time before you realise the game sucks. But if it doesn’t, you may have many hours of quality gaming and a lot of fun, for free. Another advantage is the amount of games available online. There are hundreds! And new ones come out daily. That way, if you get bored with them quickly, there are always new ones to get bored with. Kidding, many of them are quality games, even if they are very simple. Yet, not all are simple. And I suspect they will get more and more complex with time, but I also hope they won’t end up like the mainstream industry, which I don’t think they will because a single person can create any sort of game online now, so you’ll always have these simple yet compelling games.

As far as retro-gaming is concerned, pulling out your old consoles is not the only way to retro-game. The Wii has what it calls a “virtual console” and that allows you to purchase old games online, and download them on the Wii. I’ve played numerous old games this way, and that’s actually what I like best about the Wii. You can even buy old games from other consoles, such as the Sega Genesis, which is fantastic for my generation because back in the day, the early 90’s, every kid had to side for either Sega or Nintendo, and I, seeing through the bullshit, sided with Nintendo. Now I can look down on all my ex-classmates who worshipped Sega and Sonic and tell them how owned they are now that I can buy Sonic the Hedgehog on my Nintendo Wii. Take that, bitches. (That said, most of them probably have a job and a real life, and wouldn’t much care about it...)

If you don’t have an antique console to dig up from your attic, and if you don’t have a Wii either, you still have the opportunity to get free vintage games; a category known as “abandonware”. These are games whose rights have expired, and which you can get for absolutely free. Typing “abandonware” on Google will lead you to countless sites offering those free games. Games that you had to pay for 80 dollars ten years ago can now be had for nothing! All the classics of the past decade and more can be gotten for nothing more than a rather fast dowloading. Well, except the Lucasart games, whose rights are maintained.

Most of my gaming time is now spent on free online games because they’re usually more creative than mainstream games, and much more free. You can afford goofiness in such games, and more creative experiences, which you can’t when you work on a game that costs millions to produce and which is expected to bring millions back home. I still play mainstream games, though, it’s just that they have very different things to offer, and sadly, no one would release a simple game on one of these leviathanesque consoles. People would laugh to have a 2D game on the Playstation 3 or 360 X-Box. They still create those games for portable consoles, though. Why don’t they release a game which would be a collection of hundreds of small games? It may happen in the future. So many of those free online games are pure genius that I just can see the day when anthologies begin to unfold. I’m very happy about that because it is a true renaissance of the art. Back to basics, with a twist.

Now I will shut up and list games that I really enjoy and wish to share with you. I’m going to post this chapter right now, so at first there won’t be anything, and then the list will casually grow. Enjoy!


Bike Mania

This is a very simple yet difficult game. Only 4 keys to use: move forward, backward, lean forward, lean backward. There are two sequels to this game, which you can find easily through Google.

Bloons Tower Defence

Probably the series of games I played most. There are three episodes, so far, for all I know, and I've loved everyone of them. That game is a "Tower Defence" type of game, and I really adore those. Basically, you have to keep enemies from reaching a certain point, by placing sentries about the path that leads to that certain point. Bloons uses monkeys with darts, and other devices. Hours and hours of fun to be had.

Fancy Pants Adventure

This is probably one of the best, if not the best, plaftorm game I have played for free online. It's wonderfully well made, a ton of fun, and charming.

Dino Run

This game has a pixelised esthetic to it which I totally dig, and it's a good game too. You're basically a little dinosaur who must escape the apocalypse. It's a gripping game, very simple to play, but damn gripping. You won't stop playing before you're safe.

14 October, 2008

Is There a Point to Literary Criticism ?

14th October 2008

I’ve studied literature for a good number of years, in a university, and I have often wondered if there was a real point to it. What is the use of literary criticism?

When you study computers, physics, and the likes, or intend to be a doctor, a psychologist, and all those things, you know what you’ll do later on. And you know it will be useful and serve a purpose. When you’re a literature student, you think maybe you’ll be a teacher and teach literature to people. People who will then... become teachers too, perhaps. On and on. But why?

When you write books of literary criticism, your only audience is students and teachers, and the occasional insane fan of whoever author you discuss. It feels like feeding a self-eating snake to me. There seems to be no direct purpose except perpetuating itself. Don’t get me wrong, I love studying literature, I’m just wondering about the point of it beyond being an interesting thing to do.

I do believe teachers should have gone to university before teaching the mandatory classes (pre-High School and all), in that case it would make a lot of sense, but I’m more focused on people in the academy staying in the academy and writing for the academy. Is there really a point in dissecting novels and poems?

I always love discussing things, so my initial impression is that it’s cool to do so. But then you see the sort of criticism people come out with, and you wonder if it adds anything to those novels and poems. Most of the time, you don’t really want to know what academics have to say about your favourite novel because your personal experience of it is more important to you. And that’s something the academy disregards: your personal experience of a work of art. They almost forget that a book is an experience in your life, not just a text that you can analyse. I’m all for analysing, but we have to go all the way, and analyse analysis.

I don’t think any serious author writes and assumes that his work will not be complete before a horde of academics write about his books. That’s preposterous. Moreover, people who read, say, Hemingway, don’t really go on to read literary criticism about his stories. You read the stories. Then if you’re curious, you may check some of the criticism, but I don’t think most people will do that. I typically don’t, I’d rather read the primary work of another author. So basically, we read criticism if we are either students or teachers. That’s alright, most people don’t read specialised literature in any field unless they study it, or unless they have a crazy interest in it.

The problem I have is about what you do with this education. The reason why I studied literature was so that I would learn about literature, in order to be a writer. In my case, I have a specific goal and I know where I’m going. If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t have studied literature, I think.

It seems to me that studying literature only has indirect effects on your life. When you study psychology, you can become a psychologist and help people. When you study science, you can become a researcher and make things evolve. When you study literature, you can help others to study literature. But to what end? I would say: to enhance people’s critical sense, open their minds to subtleties they may not have been aware of, and so on. But that’s hardly comparable to solving someone’s neurosis, or broken leg, or inventing a new motor for spacecrafts. Creating art and touching people with it, however, is definitely comparable. I am more thankful to Salinger for having written what he wrote than I am to the man who invented zippers. Zippers are cool, but if I had buttons instead of them, it wouldn’t have made a huge difference in my life. Removing The Catcher in the Rye and Salinger’s other books would have made a much bigger impact on me (or lack thereof, if you want to be picky).

This reminds me of a passage from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, in which she and her boyfriend discuss their respective vocations. He studies to be a doctor, she wants to be a poet. He says poetry is just paper, is just dust. She says, to herself, later on, that people are just dust too, if you want to see it that way, and that making someone’s body feel better through medicine is not more important than making someone’s soul feel better through poetry, and more generally art. I of course agree with that. There is a very real need for art, and art definitely has a purpose. And I find it sad that in our age, having a purpose is sometimes perceived as a negative thing. Art being meaningful and making sense, and touching you, doesn’t make it bad art. Some of you have to get off your high horses of stupidity and get some common sense. See my chapters on Post-Modernism and Remodernism for more on art.

Back to literary criticism. I wrote a ton of essays throughout my academic career, and I don’t feel like they were much of use to anything or anyone. No matter how good they are, who is going to read them except the teachers whose classes I attended? And suppose I somehow get chosen for an anthology of essays, who’s gonna read that? Teachers and students specialising in whatever topic or subject I wrote about, and nobody else, and even those won’t be very thrilled, it’d just be work.

I am aware that in other countries, studying literature implies more things than it does here; things like creative writing, journalism, and many other fields which actually are more obviously useful and pragmatically more satisfying.

I’m just scared that academics spend their time masturbating their brains and being paid for it, while not bringing anything substantial to the rest of us. And self-perpetuation is not a valid reason to exist. Studying to become a teacher to then teach students who will become teachers too, I don’t see the point.

All in all, I know it’s useful, as it has been to my life, but it’s rather nebulous, and hard to focus on practical endeavours, unless, like me, you write, in which case my studies were very useful to me. I would have taken creative writing, but we don’t have this option in my country. Studying literature was the next best thing.

13 October, 2008

On Writing Horror

13th October 2008

Most of what I will say here will also be applicable to horror in movies, but more on this more specifically later on. So, what is the core of horror? I would imagine it is fear. And what is fear? I would imagine it is tension.

Tension is what you want to have in a horror story. I’ll give you an example of what not to do. In a horror story involving the supernatural, you usually have one supernatural entity, or capacity. Perhaps some demon from Hell was summoned accidentally, or someone with bad intentions obtains special powers. That’s one thing, and tension happens between our regular realistic world and this new element. That’s a different type of tension than strictly the fear-tension, but it’s related. Now, if you’re Stephen King and you want to screw that tension up, here’s what you do: you introduce other such entities or capacities that should be unique. Suppose we have a story in which a demon from Hell is summoned, then a group of people team up to fight it. So far, so good. But then, being King, you decide that your group of heroes suddenly have telepathic powers, and, since you suck, you don’t root that special capacity to the same origin the demon has, thus making two specific supernatural entities/capacities and stretching the tension between your realistic world and something wholly other beyond its strength. The tension breaks, and you got nothing left.

Another better example is this: suppose one of the band dies in a fight with the demon from Hell. Now, out of the blue, that character is resurrected out of some group capacity the team has. That would be a third special capacity thing within our realistic world thing, and that too would kill the tension. Why? Because if a character that dies can be revived, then what could not happen? At this point, you expect anything and everything, which means you are no longer under tension, because your story is limitless. Whatever problem our main characters face, you know the author can pull out any insane trick out of his sleeves and solve it. Thus, you don’t feel tension, and you don’t much care about the plot either because anything can happen, at any point.

This is why I recommend you stick to one very specific entity or capacity that would be endowed with the “wholly other” and such numinous qualities. That is, if your setting is “our” world, our realistic world, our usual reality. If your setting is fantastic and all, you will yourself decide what is usual and what isn’t, but it won’t be obvious to readers before you delineate it yourself.

It’s easier to create tension in a written story than in a movie, because in a story, you give out the information exactly how you want, and you can have such scenes as having your character face the creature (or any numinous entity) and yet not give out what the creature looks like. In a movie, they would show you the character from the point of view of the monster or something along those lines. The point is, it’s easier not to show in a narrative than it is in a movie. An image speaks a thousand words, they say, and in the case of horror, it’s not always an asset.

To create tension, you have to have limits. These limits are what will give a sense of reality to your story, even if there are insane creatures in it. If you have children, you know that babies find limits comforting and reassuring because where they come from, the womb, all was limits, and once out of there, their insecure limbs can waver to every direction and not find any. (And I don’t have children.) This is why it is recommended to wrap your new born baby in a blanket that somehow recreates what the baby is used to. Similarly, some animals feel more secure in the darkness of a blanket than otherwise, when captured. True story.

How do you create limits? You make it clear what is possible and what isn’t, and you stick to it. Once the rules are established, you don’t fuck it all up with some new super power coming out of nowhere, because that will change all the rules, and it will in essence destroy the tension of your story because the reader will have to rearrange everything, and the reader will also know that you may again destroy that structure in later pages, because if you did it once, you can do it twice. There’s no guarantee, and that too will be the hallmark of a bad story.

This is a fault I find in Stephen King and Philip K. Dick, even though I never read an actual novel by King. I did see many of the films, and I know the basic plots, which is all I need now. (And please keep in mind I’m not attacking King, I’m only using what I know of his work to illustrate my point, so if you’re a fan and you hate me for dissing your hero, please forgive me and recommend a book of his for me to read; we can be friends.) For instance, if you have seen this most impressive movie Blade Runner (1982), and you then read the Dick novel it’s based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? well you know what I mean. In the novel, there’s a whole series of such “capacities” that don’t appear in the movie, thankfully, because that’s too much. If there’s an android theme in your movie, you will not want to add some mystico-religious pseudo paranormal virtual reality experience. Have one big theme and explore it to the full, that is much better than a gazillion half-assed themes. For Dick, it’s never enough to have drugs that make you live in a virtual reality, and have a man back from the limits of our universe, you also have to have people with special brain gifts such as divining the future and other medium-like abilities. Too much causes your tension to break.

A perfect example of this is Alien and Aliens. Respectively by Ridley Scott and James Cameron. In the first movie, you have one alien in one spaceship. In the second movie, you have thousands of aliens over an entire planet. Don’t get me wrong, both are good movies; they just are different. Cameron went for an action movie, and it worked great. Scott was going for something else, and he understood what I mean by having limits: one single numinous entity, one single location which you can’t escape. That’s how you create tension: you give clear and indestructible limits (and you do NOT destroy them later in the story!).

I am reminded of a horror thought I had when I was a child, by which I mean, when I was a child, I had a traumatic imaginary life. I’d be terrified of nightmares, and when I had them, they were the stuff of Hell. This one thought I had was about being chased around my house by some evil old man, looking somewhat like a zombie. I don’t recall exactly what this person looked like, but the focus of my thought was about speed. And the strange thing was that it seemed scarier if the evil person was slower. Why? I think it might be because if the evil entity is slower, it gives you more opportunity to escape, thus creating more tension because it becomes your responsibility to effectively flee, or fail to flee. A faster creature would get to you in an instant, and there wouldn’t be much tension in that, and on top of that, there wouldn’t be much time to feel this tension. Thus, a weaker creature is not necessarily less scary. Think of zombies! The slowness of zombies is usually counter-parted by their number. If you had just one slow zombie, it’d make for a pretty ridiculous story, but when you have hundreds, it works. If those hordes of zombies were extra fast and efficient, you’d have your characters killed in about twelve seconds. Not recommended, unless your characters have some weapons or situation that counter-balances that. It’s all about balance and tension.

Imagine another example: you’re in a huge hotel that’s entirely empty except for you... and a psychopathic killer, somewhere. Now that’s tension. To screw this up, let’s add 200 psychopathic killers to this hotel. You get the idea right away. You should be in a far worse situation, yet it’s not as scary. The fact is that, as Andy Warhol pointed out and demonstrated, repetition lessens whatever is being repeated. Instead of one numinous killer, you got 200 non-scary killers, and they become one abstract mass which itself might be scary, but in a very different way. You lose focus by having so many bees in your hive.

To conclude, remember to create and maintain tension by imposing limits on your characters and story. There must not be some silly deux ex machina trick to save your characters, they must pull themselves out of it. With a clearly limited character or situation, you create suspense and tension, because you know what can and what cannot be done, and should you be surprised, it should only be because of the ingenuity of the author, not by his giving his characters out of the blue new special powers.

I hope this was interesting to you.

10 October, 2008

Reflections on the Past

10th October 2008

Directly related to the previous chapter – The Retrospective Age – this present chapter will be about how we deal with our own past, on an individual basis. And since I am only one individual, myself, this will be about how I consider my own past. Nothing too personal though, at least, nothing you can’t relate to.

When you feel your past was mostly wasted, and that you didn’t live as much as you wish you had, you feel rather bad, like you have lost something that you will never get back. But let’s see how that goes with a great past. You regret that it’s gone, because you’ll never get it back either. Different pasts, similar results. So basically, whatever kind of past you have, it makes you sad. Although, you can see it from a different angle: my past sucked, and I am glad it’s over with. Does that work? You tell me. Personally, I find that everything in my past makes me sad, whether it was sad, because it was sad, or good, because it’s over. There seems to be no escape from being sad about the past. Except maybe to simply look ahead.

Sometimes I live with the illusion that one’s past condenses into something, and that if I had had a great past, it would solidify into a solid block of happiness which would sustain me on a daily basis. But as I said before, if someone had such a block of happiness, in sad times, they could look back on it and feel extremely depressed that they have no such happiness right then. The present moment is all, the past is only remembered.

So what matters is right now, yes? It doesn’t do to try to live your entire past in this moment, because it can’t be done, and whichever way you go about it, you end up being sad. Which brings me to this puzzling question: how long is the present moment? How much time between it being present and then passed? I don’t have a clue. So anyway, next.

If looking back always makes us sad, we might as well look ahead, correct? But then that too can have its problems. You may worry about your future, rather than look forward to it. So we should really stick about the present moment. But I digress.

I don’t know where to go from here.