Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Idle Thoughts -- Danish Ham, Is That What's Rotten in Denmark?

Okay, Kid. Here's my guide for you on those issues. Read them over and think about them. Then you can call me and we can discuss them.

Act three scene two what is Claudius's mood as he stops the play. How does Hamlet respond. Has he learned the Claudius is guilty?

So, Hamlet having created his clever attempt to prove that Claudius is guilty, sets up a really awful play. Remember everyone is still in grief. The death of King Hamlet has hurt everyone and caused instability in the kingdom. There are real problems of a political nature which may tear the kingdom apart, an enemy nation is threatening war, and everyone is still in an deep state of emotional distress trying to recover from the death of their loved one. On top of all that, Hamlet has been acting like a madman.

Given the horrible nature of the play, after all it's talking about the death of the king to people whose king has recently died and not only a king but a loved one, it would be surprising if Claudius did not find this emotionally disturbing .  

It is very unlikely, for example, the family that had recently lost a loved into a horrible car accident would immediately rush out to go see a movie which was full of action scenes involving brutal car crashes.

If someone invited this family over to watch a movie and began to show them exactly that type of action, it would be very surprising if at least one of the family members didn't jump up in shock and disgust as the cars began to crash.

In other words, Hamlet saw what he wanted to see. And he interpreted what could be perfectly natural response to a heartless and cruel exploitation of grief into a confession of guilt.

Hamlet interprets what may well be a perfectly normal and healthy reaction into guilt, because guilt is what he is looking for.

It need not even be a reaction of horror at being reminded of a loved one's death. Since Hamlet has been acting so strangely the fact that he has chosen to present this play could be interpreted as a sign that Hamlet has descended into complete madness. If Claudius is innocent, the moment he sees this play may be the moment at which he realizes that Hamlet thinks he is guilty of murder. When a person, innocent or guilty, suddenly realizes that a dangerous madman thinks that he has murdered that madmen's father, even the innocent individual don't usually just sit there and say. "Oh really, how interesting."  He is far more likely to jump up in shock and fear, and even rage.

All that Hamlet has proven is that his play, which he intended to be provocative and emotionally wrenching, was provocative and emotionally wrenching. It proves nothing about anything else, least of all Claudius' guilt.  What is proven by this scene is that Hamlet will take any action as proof because proof is what he really wants.

Act three scene three Claudius's prayer scene. What does he admit? Why can't he ask for forgiveness? Why doesn't Hamlet seek revenge?

Now in privacy where no one else can hear him, Claudius confesses, but only to God, that he has killed his brother. This does not justify any of Hamlet's actions or overreactions. Hamlet has no proof only his passionate need to find proof that the man is guilty.

Strangely enough in Claudius's prayer there is a sign that part of him is still a quite decent human being. He really wants to repent but he recognizes that he is still enjoying the benefits of his crime therefore any such asking for forgiveness a repentance that he offers will be false. He must give up the benefits of the crime if he can really expect to be forgiven by God.  (This mirrors Hamlet's inability to make up his mind.)

This is a point often missed by individuals asking for forgiveness or in the Catholic rite of confession. You need to truly repent the sin in order to be forgiven. It's not enough just to say, "Oh I am sorry. Please forgive me."  Those who say this are not forgiven. The sinner must regret the sin, must repent the sin, must be determined not to benefit from the sin, must be determined not to commit that sin ever again.  Claudius admits to himself and to God that he has not met these standards. Therefore he cannot be forgiven. It remains a blot upon his soul.

Hamlet, not having heard this part of the prayer or any part of it, wants to kill Claudius but cannot because he fears doing so will send Claudius straight to heaven.  This grows out the conviction common among Christians at that time that if you sincerely repent your sins, at that moment you are free of those sins. And Hamlet is upset because if he kills Claudius as he is praying, Claudius will be free of sin and therefore go straight to heaven. On the other hand, he is angry because his father was not killed in prayer. Therefore his father's sins were not forgiven and he had to pay the price for them.

This Christian belief reminds me of Jodo, or Pure Land, Buddhism.  By chanting namu amida Butsu (it has many translations, but all refer in some way to homage to Buddha), one gains salvation and freedom from sin or error.  Some say you only need to do this with a pure heart and true intent once in your life to gain the salvation, others say that you must do it regularly because it can only cleanse the sins or errors you have already committed, not those you make in the future,  which sounds a lot like Christian beliefs to me.

Act IV scene 2 discuss Hamlet's interactions with his mother Gertrude

Before Hamlet even comes to Gertrude who is now frightened for her son's sanity and probably for her own safety, Polonius urges her to be really strict with him with because Polonius thinks this will straighten the young man out. Obviously this is bad advice but it is well-intentioned.

It's not clear exactly what Hamlet wants, but whatever it is, he feels it is urgent that his mother comply. So she is trying to be firm with him while he is planning on being extremely harsh with her.  The results are not surprising.

Hamlet is so cruel and violent toward his mother that she actually cries out in fear that he will attack her. This suggests that Hamlet may think his mother has actually helped murder his father, but as usual in this play, that isn't clear.

Poor old Polonius calls for help and is murdered by Hamlet who thinks he may be Claudius. The horror of the situation seems to completely escape Hamlet.Whether it was his step father-uncle or innocent Polonius, killing someone should be shocking, but it just makes Hamlet even more angry. This suggests that his madness may indeed be true, but doesn't prove it.

So Hamlet in this discussion in which his mother is trying to be firm with him to bring him back in line, quickly turns into a series of atrocities. Hamlet kills innocent Polonius, and shows no regret that he killed the wrong man. He begins talking to a ghost that his mother cannot see. He verbally assaults her with graphic details of her sex life, clearly something no son should ever do to his mother.

From her point of view the evidence is complete and absolute. Her son is a violent maniac. He may kill anyone at any time, including her.

Act four scene three 

Hamlet, confronted by his old friends Rosencrans and Guildenstern and king Claudius, instead of showing any grief for having killed for Polonius adopts an arrogant, nasty, and hateful attitude with a verbal display of wit about death.  He insults the king by,in effect, calling him a corpse fed worm, saying the worm fed the fish and the fish fed the king and thus the worm becomes the king, or at least the King's flesh.

This terrifies the king. To him, it is more evidence that Hamlet is indeed insane and dangerous. That is certainly one interpretation. But Hamlet's attitude also reminds me very strongly the attitude taken by men in combat.

Soldiers often make wild and crude jokes about death and slaughter as a way of handling their own strong feelings. They are human, so they feel horrified by what they have done. In order to make what they have done more acceptable, they turn it into a cruel joke.

For example, a popular song among American troops in Vietnam was sung to the tune of the Camptown Races. The original song was light and amusing. The Vietnam version included the line, "You'll go home in a body bag, do da, do da. You'll go home in a body bag! Oh, do da day!"

Was Hamlet feeling that he had gone to war with his own family and this was his way of handling it? Was he insane? Was he just an insensitive, self-centered little thug? Was he striking out at his stepfather with words because he didn't have the guts to do it with a sword? Make up your own mind. You can justify any of those positions.

Act four scene 4 soliloquy theme, resolution, transformation

The theme is simply Hamlet struggle with himself. He wants to get revenge but he keeps finding reasons not to actually do it. He feels that he isn't accomplishing anything of any real importance,  just surviving like an animal.

He complains that God has made man brilliant but we don't make us of that intelligence and yet then complains that taking time to think things out only allows you to delude yourself.

He resolve his conflicts by looking at the foolishness of an army of men going to invade another country for the single and sole purpose of acquiring some useless land and making a prince able to be proud of himself as a great conqueror. But he is inspired by the fact that the prince at least is taking action. He isn't dithering and blithering and blathering like Hamlet is. The prince actually mounted his horse and is leading the army. He is risking his own death in order to gain a useless and worthless piece of land.

He compares himself to this. He believes that he, Hamlet, has a real reason to risk his life but won't. Yet here is this prince who will risk his life for something that isn't worth it.

This resolves his dilemma. He will act. Better to act and at least be a man than survive like a beastwho accomplishes nothing. Hamlet then is transformed from the I may, I might into the I will, and that is that.

Let me add on a note: Another song popular among American troops in Vietnam was the 12 days of Christmas. Except that it started on the first day of Christmas the VC gave to me. You can imagine where that goes.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On the Front Lines

I just realized in the midst of a rather harrowing experience for my family that the posts relating to the situation are only seen by a few of my Facebook friends. So, to update the rest of you:

My middle girl lives in Kansas.  She is married to the kindest, gentlest man I've ever met.  He has given very much to her and they are deeply in love.  Not long ago a growth was discovered on one of his lungs.

For those of you who have struggled with cancer I'm sure you know what came after.   Patients can keep informed of every preliminary finding or wait until all the facts are in.  It's a long and terrifying wait, stretched out over weeks of testing.  They chose to know each set of test results as they came in, rather than remaining in ignorance until the final diagnosis. It ran something like this:

It might be benign or it might might be cancerous. We need more tests.

The preliminary results of the first tests indicate that it probably is cancer but we hope we caught it in the early stages. We need more tests.

The tests confirm that it is cancer but they are not conclusive as to the exact type or prognosis. We need more tests.

It is a very dangerous form of cancer called squamous cell lung cancer. It appears to be at a more advanced stage that we originally thought but...We need more tests

The current test results indicate it is likely to be at an extremely advanced stage which may have metastasized and may be already untreatable. But we can't be certain of this until all the doctors involved meet together and study all the test results.  We will have a final answer in a few days. In spite of the urgency, this can not be rushed. The team must study all the data very carefully and very thoroughly to ensure that we finally have the correct diagnosis.

Final diagnosis. It is in a more advanced stage than we originally believed, but not as advanced as we feared.  That makes it extremely dangerous, but treatable. Both chemotherapy and radiation are indicated.  Treatment will begin next week.  

This type of cancer is not predictable. Some patients respond very well to treatment and recover surprisingly quickly. Others do not. Only time can give us the answer.

Support has been freely given.  We are all grateful and determined to fight the good fight.  If you believe in prayer, pray hard.  If you do not, think good thoughts.  Both are welcome.

Idle Thoughts --Hamlet, Oedipus, and the Order of One

So what did you learn from your literature survey especially from Oedipus and Hamlet?  You're not sure where to start or how to focus it?  Based on our conversations as you took the course, I think you should consider including the following in your response:

One thing that comes through in any study of literature, but especially when you're focusing on those tragedies, is just how hard we humans struggle. We try to find a little control in our lives, a little security, yet, whatever we can build can be swept away in a moment by forces completely beyond our control.

Living is just a game of chance. Every day we make bets and take gambles. We do the best we can, we make decisions we think will result in rewards, not damage, and when we make a mistake there's no way to go back and change it. And of course, it isn't really a game. The stakes can be life itself.

That isn't to say we have no control at all. Things aren't purely random. Good choices do tend to result in safer outcomes. But then again, sometimes they don't.

I don't know how much national coverage there has been on that bus accident recently. As far as we can tell right now, the bus driver was doing everything right and certainly the students in the bus were also following the rules. But somehow the driver of the semi truck lost control and smashed into the bus. Through no fault of their own the driver and passengers suddenly found themselves fighting for their lives.

Look at poor Oedipus. He did everything right. He left his father and mother and moved to a strange country so the evil prophecy couldn't come true. He had no way of knowing that they weren't his real mother and father and that by staying home he could have prevented the disaster he was desperately trying to avoid.

And Hamlet teaches us that we may never be able to really know the truth. Was he insane to begin with? Did his pretending to be insane lead him to actually become lose his mind? Did Ophelia kill herself or was it an accident? There are no clear and simple answers. Frankly, life is a great big mess.

However, the tragedies don't need to lead us into despair. There certainly are things that these people could have done to make things better.  Although the point of Oedipus was that you are trapped by your fate, we don't accept that in this era.  From our point of view, if Oedipus had not been such a vicious, brutal man who became a king by murdering a stranger and then forcing that man's widow to marry him, the prophecy would have been averted. Again, that's not how the Greeks felt things could have gone, but it certainly makes sense to us today.

There can be no doubt that Hamlet had many, many choices. Time after time, he made the worst possible choice. Part of this was because he believed the worst possible interpretation of the few facts he had at hand. In spite of all the long soliloquies it's clear that Hamlet was not thinking very clearly or very carefully. He let his emotions take charge and run wild with him.  Then he talked himself into doing the worst possible thing.

This is in contrast to Oedipus who tried to think things out very carefully and found that even logic failed him.

For us, for you, in your daily life, especially in the struggle you are now facing, these tragedies might make you feel ready to just give up in despair. But however rough life can be, it's not likely to be as bad as those tragedies.

The best thing we can do is to do our best. When there are good moments to enjoy, enjoy them to the fullest. When bad times come, work hard to get through them and then put them in the past and don't dwell on them.  Instead, take the time to enjoy what you have now. Whatever it is, good or bad, it will not last. Enjoy the good and stretch it out as long as you can. Endure the bad and make it as short and as rare as possible.

I'm not sure if this is helpful, but it is very important to me that I engage in a set of rituals that I have established for myself. However I feel, good or bad, I almost always do these things every day. They provide a framework for me in the midst of all the craziness that Oedipus and Hamlet and all the rest of us have to suffer.  

First, at sundown I respect the child I was and I play taps on my pan flute. On air bases around the country and in Germany, this gave me an achor point.  It still does.  It also ties me to my father, so long lost to me.  Sometimes I play it surprisingly well. Other times I can barely get it to sound properly or I get the timing way off. But I do it every day, unless I am sound asleep at sundown or too sick to get up. And however sick I am, I usually manage to at least do taps.

After that I sing the lyrics to myself and to God. To God, because all of these things I do are religious observances. Monks and friars have orders that they follow. They're different for each order (Franciscan vs Jesuit).  They are called (surprise, surprise) the Rules of the Franciscan Order or the Rules of the Jesuit Order.

I'm certainly no monk or friar but I do have rules for my order of one. Just me, but they're my rules and I follow them devoutly.

Since taps is  at sundown, it is quickly followed by the next observance, also in recognition of the child I was. The first star I see in the night sky gets the old starlight, star bright treatment except that now instead of a wish as I made when I was a child, I pray.

That's twice every day that I say a prayer. And I do pray thoughtfully and carefully. It is also part of my meditation which is so important to me. There are two other times I also make a point of always praying.  I have a prayer and a ritual I follow every time I light incense. I like incense for itself, but when I light it, it is always with prayer.

I also pray every time I hear a siren. Whether it's police or fire is not important. The point is that someone is in trouble and someone else is rushing to give aid. Considering how close we are to the hospital that happens several times a day.

To bring this back to your class, this gives me a pattern. This gives me a structure. This gives me time to pray and meditate even when I might otherwise forget.

In a difficult and unpredictable world were terrible things happen even to ordinary folk, even to those of us who are not  the King of Thebes or the Prince of Denmark, these things give me comfort and strength. They also ensure that I take time to calm myself and to clear my mind so that I CAN pray and meditate. This helps me to think clearly, which helps me to deal with the troubles of the day.

It also helps me deal with the joys of the day. To appreciate them even more and to feel the closeness of God.

I'm not sure what else to say right now. I hope this helps. Call me if you need more. I love you both.  Be well.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Big Bang Theory Meets String Theory

I just finished watching the most recent Big Bang theory episode. The central theme is that Sheldon decides to give up his search for proof of the superstring Theory of Everything because it is unprovable. While this criticism has been steadily leveled against the theory, I have always noted that just because a theory cannot be tested now does not mean that it cannot be tested sometime in the future as technology develops. For example, there was a time when atomic theory could not be proven. That time passed.

Naturally, this does not mean that if a theory cannot be tested now it will inevitably be proven in the future. The theory of the luminiferous ether, when it finally could be tested, was proven to be false.

In fact, Sheldon surely would have been aware that there have been recent developments in a number of areas which offer hope that string theory can in fact be tested. This would end the primary objection which has been raised by conservative physicists.

I did note with some amusement that loop quantum gravity came up again. Naturally, as a former string theorist, Sheldon could not possibly accept that as an alternative. See my earlier post: http://el-naranjal-del-desierto.blogspot.com/2012/04/big-bang-theory.html.

Back to possible proofs. A very quick look at the Internet revealed the following:

Yet inspired by Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, Towson University scientists say that precise measurements of the positions of solar-system bodies could reveal very slight discrepancies in what is predicted by the theory of general relativity and the equivalence principle, or establish new upper limits for measuring the effects of string theory.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-01-scientists-theory.html#jCp

“If experiments prove that our predictions about quantum entanglement are correct, this will demonstrate that string theory ‘works’ to predict the behavior of entangled quantum systems,” said Professor Mike Duff, lead author of the study.

Read more: http://www.universetoday.com/72531/scientists-say-they-can-now-test-string-theory/#ixzz2yhjy4Ubq

Actually, we may already have our first evidence that can lead us toward confirming supersymmetry, with the potential discovery of the Higgs boson.


(Supersymmetry is an essential part of string theory. It is possible to conceive of supersymmetry without string theory being confirmed. However, it is not possible to conceive of string theory without supersymmetry being confirmed.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Idle Thoughts Excessive Grief -- Xenophon vs Shakespeare

So here's some thoughts off the top of my head. Call me and we can talk about them.  Although this is unedited and barely proofread, I'm going to post it under idle thoughts. As a set of idle thoughts, it might be worth reading. If anyone else ever reads this, remember, it's barely proofread and not edited at all because I just don't feel like bothering to do those things today.

Okay, some thoughts on Hamlet. Well, here's Hamlet. He has two conflicting cultural pressures on him, both of which are very powerful. This is all taking place in Denmark, one of the homes of the Vikings. Revenge plays a critical role in an honor culture. Remember that in an honor culture if you lose everything you have even if you die and your family dies with you that's a good thing as long as it defends your honor. On the other hand, losing your honor and maintaining those things makes you weak and earns the contempt of everyone around you.

But by the time we look at Hamlet, the Vikings are long gone, still, the need for honor has a strong cultural hold. However, there's a contrary pressure on him. He is also a Christian. He is not supposed to seek revenge. He should be turning the other cheek. Revenge or forgiveness is a massive moral problem for him.

Of course, he could say that he's only seeking justice not revenge. But that just raises a new question. When does revenge turn into justice, when does justice turn into revenge?

Not to mention, the only evidence he actually has that any of this happened consists of two things:  First, the statement of a ghost who claims to be his father. For all we know it's an evil spirit who knows the ultimate result of seeking revenge will be everyone's death, which of course is what happens at the end of the play. Is this a father asking his beloved son to give him justice in the afterlife or is this a demon sent from hell determined to destroy the entire ruling family of Denmark? We don't really know.  Maybe he's the ghost of a king of Norway who wants to bring Denmark down.

The second piece of evidence he has is his fevered interpretation of the way the king reacts to the play which is supposedly re-creating his father's murder. Does the king really react that clearly in a way that shows he's guilty? Or is he just reacting because he realizes that Hamlet, who has been behaving insanely, obviously thinks he murdered his brother, Hamlet's father?

This supposed evidence wouldn't get an arrest warrant, or probably even get as much as an investigation in a modern justice system. Nevertheless, it's an enough for Hamlet to run around slaughtering everybody in sight.

The king's effort to kill Hamlet can be seen as an act of self defense. He's going mad, running around making wild accusations. He's destroying his country. It was no secret to Shakespeare's audience that kings and queens often did harsh and even cruel things in order to protect their nations from instability. In that light there is no real evidence contained in the efforts to kill Hamlet that the king was in fact guilty. He may simply have been a harsh but rational king.

Hamlet is almost universally regarded as a great character demonstrating the struggles and sufferings to which men are subject in times of great stress. I have to say I find him wimpy and feckless. He either needs to look the ghost in the eye and say how the hell do I know you're my father's ghost? You haven't offered any proof.  You look like him but disguises are easy for spirits to assume. Then he could simply let the whole damn thing go. Yes, the doubt might torment him, but you live with it.

On the other hand, if he really does believe the ghost and that his trap in the form of a play really did prove the king was guilty, why does he keep equivocating? Get the damn thing over with. As a member of the royal family assassination was a way to the top. I'm quite certain he could have arranged a palace coup and gotten away with it.  At least he would have had a reasonable chance of success, and in the process he would have maintained a stable nation.

Instead he whines what if this, what if that, what if this, what if that.  I don't like him. I don't respect him. I don't see anything to admire in him.

As far as I'm concerned, when he starts going on and on about to be or not to be I'm sitting there watching the play and thinking, do it do it do it. It would put an end all the blather.

Of course, there is a way which I rather do enjoy the play. Some of the scenes are really good especially alas poor Yorick If you remember that Hamlet was already acting as if he was insane before the ghost appeared as if he was obsessed with grief for his father, the play can make a lot more sense. If you assume from the beginning that Hamlet is in fact insane, his weird inexplicable behavior becomes explicable and understandable.
In other words, as a play of a man tormented by two conflicting needs and by doubts I don't like the play. If you look at the play as showing the dangers of allowing yourself to grieve too much and leading yourself into insanity it's not so bad.

I had to look this quote up. I was sure it was by Zeno but it was actually by Xenophon, but I found it.

Excess of grief for the dead is madness; for it is an injury to the living, and the dead know it not.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Heil, Stalin! Aka, Vodka vs Bourbon

Watching C-SPAN's book TV, as I do every weekend, I found an interesting presentation by a man named Ronald Radosh. I had never heard of him before, but found his presentation amusing and interesting.  He was talking about his new book, "Commie".  His presentation, in a bright and witty fashion, demolished the bizarre, idiotic and even insane pretensions of the radical left. I knew as I listened to him that I would need to report on this in my blog because he so deeply reflects why I have nothing but contempt for extreme liberals and will not call myself even a moderate liberal.

I have nothing to object in regard to any of the points he made, in fact I find them exactly in agreement with the points I make about the radical left.  However, being a skeptic born, I found myself wondering if, since he was presenting himself as a reformed addict, whether he was actually reformed, or if he had instead, as I so greatly feared, merely substituted an equally poisonous, equally mindless, equally bigoted, right-wing extremism.

It didn't take long during the question-and-answer period to determine that he had done exactly that. Mister Radosh, who is so proud of having finally freed himself from the poisonous ideology of extreme left-wing liberalism in which he was raised, has merely substituted the almost identical poisonous ideology of extreme right-wing conservatism.

To put it succinctly, he is so incredibly proud that he is now a reformed vodka drinking alcoholic, but somehow misses the fact that all he has accomplished is to change into an active bourbon drinking alcoholic.

In other words, he has only exchanged one addiction for another. He is just as mindless, just as bigoted, just as determined to refuse to face any facts or reality which contradict him as he ever was. There really is no difference in his condition. He remains as sick as ever. He is the same person he always was. He is a sad, unfortunate, and helpless man. What he is helpless to do is to think clearly. What he is helpless to resist is his own mindless, extremist way of thinking. He is a slave to his own hysterical emotions. He poisons his own intellect.

To use a different analogy, let us go to extreme focus. There was a time in European and American history when people were presented with a forced choice/false dichotomy. Either you were a Nazi because you were anti-Stalinist or you were a Stalinist because you were anti-Nazi. Obviously, there was actually a huge middle ground between these two extremes, but many refused to see it.  It has been noted many times by historians there is little difference between a Stalinist and a Nazi in terms of how they treat their citizens or run their countries. The only difference is in the ideologies which provide the justification for their brutal, extremist actions.

It is so sad to see what is clearly a brilliant mind poisoned by ideology. However, I also find this to be quite normal. We find ultra liberals who say they have freed themselves from ultra conservatism as often as vice versa. The real problem never lay in the ideology which this person once believed was so true. The flaw lay in the fact that they were always what Hoffer referred to as True Believers. That is, deeply flawed personality types that are incapable of facing reality and prefer to live in their warped dystopian fantasies.

Perhaps Hoffer should have referred to them as true followers. Although many of them have the intellectual capacity to lead, all too often they lack the emotional security and confidence which is required to understand and think independently. They prefer to surround themselves with the mass of their fellow apes in the troop. Let someone else be the leader. They are only content to follow, securely surrounded by their fellow travelers.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


A brief, but hopefully an evocative response to an LA Times editorial on homework:

-- principals should be required to do a thorough examination of the homework their teachers are assigning. --

One of the major purposes of homework, arguably the only important point of homework, is a give parents a view into what the child is learning at school and the opportunity to be a part of the process. Pointless drill should not be assigned, although it frequently is. Homework should be a time for children to explore their own ideas and apply them to the lessons they have learned in the context of their own lives and family.

IMIO (In My Infallible Opinion)