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Thus far, there are four great classics of Chinese literature (or possibly 5 if you count the erotic masterpiece “The Plum in the Golden Vase”).  Three of the four were written in the Ming dynasty.  Of these three, Ferrebeekeeper has already talked about “The Journey to the West.”  I have not yet read “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which concerns the brutal nature of statecraft and the ghastly moral equivalence involved in controlling other people (maybe I don’t want to read that one).

This leaves us with “The Outlaws of the Marsh,” the tale of a group of Song dynasty heroes who are marginalized, framed, abused, or exiled by corrupt court officials.  These convicts, bandits, rogues, and dark sorcerers join together in an inaccessible wilderness in Shandong and form a “chivalrous” brotherhood (although three of the outlaws are warrior women and witches).  The bandit brotherhood fights off increasingly violent attempts by the state to subdue them while trying to deal with the anomie of the times and the vexatious problem of which outlaw will lead them.

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There is a larger frame story to “Outlaws of the Marsh.”  Since it is the first of 100 chapters I will spoil the book somewhat by relating it to you:

Plague is ravaging the capital and the emperor sends out Marshal Hong, a weak and corrupt court official, to find “the Divine Teacher” a great immortal magician who can stop the plague.  At a local abbey, the chief monk tells Hong that, in order to find “the Divine Teacher”, he (Hong) must ride to the top of a foreboding mountain.

Hong precedes only a short way before he is scared by a white tiger and by a poisonous snake.  He weakly decides to abort his mission when…supernatural events fully reveal the nature of his corruption (and the Divine Teacher intervenes with godlike insouciance).

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In a black mood, marshal Hong rides back to the monastery and starts to torment the monks with edicts and highhanded behavior…which leads him to find that a group of demons have been imprisoned under a tortoise with a great stone on its back.  With his trademark blend of bungling and arrogance, Hong destroys the magical prison to reveal a vast evil black pit a hundred thousand feet deep.  Out of this pit leaps a roiling black cloud of spirits which tear the roof off of the monastery and fly into near space above China before breaking into one hundred and eight glowing stars which fall throughout the land.

Marshal Hong orders his flunkies to silence concerning this misadventure and rides back to the capital where he lies to the Emperor.  Thus we are introduced to the thirty six heavenly spirits and the seventy-two earthly fiends (who are the outlaws of the marsh).  It is one of the best lead-ins ever.  A perfect beginning to this huge novel which is the father of China’s rollicking fung-fu tradition.

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The book also gave us some of the most indelible characters of martial literature: Wu Song, Lu Zhishen (the flower monk!), the cunning Wu Yong,  Black Whirlwind, and my favorite, “Panther Head” Lin Chong.  Each character has a different personality..and a different lethal weapon. They are all matchless warrior trapped in nightmarish circumstances.  There is no way out…only a way forward by means of red slaughter…

Speaking of which, Outlaws of the Marsh is a violent book.  In fact it is so exceedingly violent that it would probably make George R. R. Martin fall down and start throwing up. However, it is also a funny book…and, like all Chinese literature, it is heartbreakingly sad.  Even though the novel is set in the fictionalized Song Dynasty, it somehow describes the corruption endemic to JiaJing-era China, the corrupt Late-Ming era when it was penned by an anonymous author (probably Shi Nai’an, but nobody truly knows for sure).

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I am also sad…I have not described what is so magical and dark and beautiful about this amazing epic tale of corruption, bravery, and friendship (and death).  I guess there is only one way to find out for yourself… Coincidentally the translation by Sidney Shapiro was excellent.

The competition between Marsyas and Apollo on a Roman sarcophagus (290–300) marble

The competition between Marsyas and Apollo on a Roman sarcophagus (290–300) marble

The aulos was a woodwind instrument of classical antiquity.  The word is sometimes mis-translated as “double flute” but the instrument was not a flute, instead it had reeds–like an oboe or a clarinet.  In classical mythology, the aulos was invented by Athena, the glorious goddess of wisdom and favorite child of Zeus.  The first aulos made beautiful music, but it caused the goddess’ cheeks to puff out–which was at odds with her dignified self-image and caused the other gods to laugh.  In disgust she hurled the instrument down into the mortal world where it was found by the satyr Marsyas who picked it up and began to play melodies never heard before.   Marsyas became the first great aulos master.  He wandered through forests and fields on his two hooves playing the pipes in celebration of the pastoral and sylvan beauty he observed.
Apollo and Marsyas (John Melhuish Strudwick, 1879, oil on canvas)

Apollo and Marsyas (John Melhuish Strudwick, 1879, oil on canvas)

One day, Marsyas saw the radiant god Apollo playing his lyre (which, in Greco-Roman society, was the instrument of the aristocracy).  Lord Apollo was clad in the costliest raiment and equipped with the finest gold trappings.  He was inhumanly beautiful…dangerously beautiful.  Marsyas was overwhelmed: he was a crude goat-man, and Apollo was the god of music (and sunshine, and medicine, and prophecy).  At this juncture, Marsyas made a fateful choice–he decided to challenge glorious Apollo to a musical contest. The winner would be able to “do whatever he wanted” with the loser. Marsyas, a satyr (synonymous, in the classical world, with lust) thus imagined that he would “win” or “be won” no matter which way the the competition worked out.

Apollo and Marsyas (Pietro Perugino, late 15th century)

Apollo and Marsyas (Pietro Perugino, late 15th century)

Apollo grew oddly enflamed by the challenge and agreed readily–with one stipulation of his own.  The muses, the goddesesses of art, would judge the event.  Now the muses were daughters of Apollo, both figuratively and literally. To a disinterested observer the arrangement might smack dangerously of favoritism, but Marsyas was blinded by longing and besotted by hist art.

Apollo and Marsyas (Hans Thoma, 1888, oil on canvas)

Apollo and Marsyas (Hans Thoma, 1888, oil on canvas)

The two musicians set up beside a river and began to play.  Apollo played a complicated piece about laws and lords and kings.  It sparkled like sunshine.  It grew oppressively magnificent like the great gods of high Olympus.  It ended like glittering starlight in the cold heavens.  Next Marsyas played and his music was completely different–it spoke to the longing of the weary herdsman coming home at sundown.  It was about the mist rising from furrowed farmlands, about fruit trees budding in the orchard, and about the soft places where the meadows run out into the rivers.

Contest of Apollo and Marsyas, 350-320 BC from Mantineia. Part of the Base of a Sculpture,

Contest of Apollo and Marsyas, 350-320 BC from Mantineia. Part of the Base of a Sculpture,

The muses listened closely to the music and made their choice. “These pieces are played by opposite beings on dissimilar instruments.  The works have completely different subjects, but both pieces are perfect.  Neither is clearly “better” than the other.”  Sublime music had won the contest!

The Contest between Apollo and Marsyas (Tintoretto, About 1545 Oil on canvas)

The Contest between Apollo and Marsyas (Tintoretto, About 1545
Oil on canvas)

But Apollo was not satisfied.  There are two versions of the story: in one he turned his lyre upside down and played it as well as ever (Marsyas, of course, could not do the same with the aulos).  In the other version, Apollo played the lyre and sang (also impossible with the aulos).  “I have two arts, whereas Marsyas has only one!” he proclaimed.   The muses halfheartedly assented: Apollo had officially won the contest.

Apollo flaying Marsyas (Luca Giordano, 17th century, oil on canvas))

Apollo flaying Marsyas (Luca Giordano, 17th century, oil on canvas))

This was the moment Marsyas had planned for.  He was shaking with excitement as Apollo took hold of his unresisting form and shackled him to a tree.   Then Apollo picked up a skinning knife and started flaying the saty’s skin off.  Marsyas screamed and bleated in horror and pain, but Apollo kept cutting and peeling until he had removed the satyr’s entire hide.  Then the lord of music sat and watched while Marsyas bled to death, before hanging up the horrible dripping pelt in the tree and departing.  Vergil avers that the blood of Marsyas stained the river everlastingly red–indeed the waterway was thereafter named the Marsyas.

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Apollo and Marsyas (Bartolomeo Manfredi, ca. 1615-1620, oil on canvas)

The artistic thing to do, would be to leave the story as it stands–to let readers mull the troubling tale on their own. However I have been thinking about it a great deal…Every artist thinks about it a great deal.  Museums are filled with interpretations of the story by history’s greatest painters and sculptors.  There was a version of Apollo and Marsyas painted on the ceiling of the Queen of France (in that version, the skinning is done by underlings as Apollo languidly points out how he wants things done).  Since I have seen plenty of museum-goers blanch when looking at pictures of Marsyas and hastily turn away, I will provide some ready made meta-interpretations to start the conversation.

Apollo and Marsyas from the ceiling of Anne of Austria's summer apartments (Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, ca. mid 17th century, fresco)

Apollo and Marsyas from the ceiling of Anne of Austria’s summer apartments (Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, ca. mid 17th century, fresco)

First, this story is a tale of masters and servants.  The lyre is the instrument of the rich.  It was expensive to own and required tutors to learn.  The aulos was the instrument of shepherds, smallfolk, and slaves.  The tale of exploitation is a very familiar one throughout all of history. It always goes one way: somebody gets fleeced.

The Flaying of Marsyas (Titian, ca.1570-76, oil on canvas)

The Flaying of Marsyas (Titian, ca.1570-76, oil on canvas)

Also this is self-evidently a tale of forbidden sexuality.  It was immensely popular with Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian artists from the west because of the opressive mores of society.  By presenting this story as a classically varsnished picture, people could represent forbidden ideas about same-gender relationships which society would literally kill them for saying or acting upon.  Indeed the story’s ghastly climax represents exactly that!

Apollo and Marsyas (Giuseppe Cammarano,  19th century, print)

Apollo and Marsyas (Giuseppe Cammarano, 19th century, ink wash)

In a related vein, philosophers and writers interpret the story as “reason chastening lust.”  The former is more powerful than the latter: ultimately the mind subjugates the passions. Perhaps this is why the picture was above the queen’s bed–maybe the king commanded that it be painted there.  Yet the reason of Apollo does not strike me as at all reasonable.  If this is what rationality accomplishes, then reason is monstrous (and it often seems so in the affairs of men). I wish I could sit with Jeremy Bentham and talk about this. Utility and pragmatism oft seem as ruthless as cruel Apollo.

Apollo and Marsyas (Anselmi, 1540, oil on canvas)

Apollo and Marsyas (Anselmi, 1540, oil on canvas)

It is also a tale of artists and their audiences (and their art).  Marsyas does not clearly lose the contest.  His music is as beautiful as that of Apollo–maybe better.  However the game was rigged from the start.  Art is a mountain with infinite facets but the sun of fashion only shines on a few at a time.  The greatest artists are not necessarily appreciated or loved.  I can’t imagine a single artist who painted this story imagined themselves as Apollo. Unless you have personally rigged the game with money and power, it will not benefit you. You must prepare for operatic destruction at the hands of the world.  It is a terrible part of art.  The world’s inability to discern true worth is one of life’s most disappointing aspects.

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, 1735, oil on canvas)

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, 1735, oil on canvas)

Above all, it is a story of gods and mortals. For daring to step on the field with the divine, mortality is punished with the ultimate penalty–mortality.  I don’t believe in gods or divinity (people who literally believe in such things strike me as dangerous lunatics).  Divinity is a myth–but an important one which informs us concerning humankind’s ultimate purpose and methods.  We have strayed into vasty realms.  I’ll come back to this theme later but for now let’s say that the defeat of Marsyas reveals something.  Would you prefer if he just gave up and groveled before Apollo?  No, there would be no story, no striving, no art. There is a divine seed within his failure–a spark of the celestial fire which animates (or should animate) our lives.

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, ca. 1734-1735, oil on canvas)

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, ca. 1734-1735, oil on canvas)

Anyway, for putting up with this rather horrible week I have a Halloween treat for you tomorrow.  Remember, I am not just a moral and aesthetic philosopher but a troubled toymaker (and a lost artist) as well.  Happy Halloween!

Property of Dynamic Range Media

Property of Dynamic Range Media

Sadly I am unable to think of any seasonally appropriate scary/creepy things to post today (I am saving all of my Halloween material about dreams and nightmares for next week!). Therefore I am dedicating today’s post to hyping my friend’s visionary online TV project! My friend, Dan, is a gifted director in Hollywood who has crafted several online TV programs. The first of these shows is a whole series of mini-webisodes which portray a terrifying near-future dystopia of…wait, actually I will tell you about the action-packed series shortly; first let me explain Dan’s business idea.

Business before ultraviolence...

Business before ultraviolence…

Dan believes that in the near future there will be no broadcast or cable television:   programming will be accessed directly through the internet (indeed, most of the people I know under thirty already get their programs this way). He therefore decided to sidestep the nightmarish business of pandering to sharklike Hollywood producers and make his own content directly for the web.

The web likes original content!

The web likes original content!

Although moving to the web gave Dan and his team endless freedom, it also imposed its own severe limits, since they had to make their first program with a shoestring budget. I mean this literally—Dan had the pecuniary resources for string for shoes. This tiny production budget had to cover cameras, props, professional actors, settings, lights, costumes, special effects, catering, stunts…everything.

Hmm...

Hmm…

Dan’s first program has to work so that he can get more funding for the amazing programs to come. He thus constructed this first show “The Kill Corporation” to appeal to very broad tastes. This is a savage world of primary colors, ruthless characters, and non-stop action.

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The Kill Corporation takes place in the business world of tomorrow. Litigation and internecine office politics have been replaced by “terminal arbitration” a swift and final method of conflict resolution carried out by the eponymous third party corporation. Parties involved in arbitration are understandably desperate to win their disputes and they cajole the arbitrators with every manner of blandishment. Some arbitrators chafe under this corrupt scheme—or become generally lost—and the main way to solve such problems is, of course,  more arbitration.

Pictured: Schlubs

Pictured: Schlubs

This works out as you would imagine with unlikable corporate schlubs desperately bumping each other off in hopes of moving up the hierarchy of their own horrible organization. Painted with the vivid expressionistic lines of classic farce, The Kill Corporation transcends its genre to project a satirical vision of humankind’s eternal inability to administrate anything without producing a bloodbath.

Be forewarned, the website for the series is located within the fictional world of the show. While this means you can’t actually purchase terminal arbitration as billed—it also means you can participate in fun online games and hijinks!

Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld

Mayan cosmology, which shrinks neither from darkness and violence nor from beauty and heroism, features one of the most strange and transformative tales of the underworld.  The story is found in the Popul Vuh, the most comprehensive remaining work of Mayan mythical literature (which was recorded in the Quiché language by a Domenican friar in 1701 AD). The most important and cohesive part of the Popul Vuh recounts how twin heroes, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, challenged the gods of the underworld to a multi-match ball tournament. Episodes from the story are recognizable in art from the golden age of the Classic Mayas (from 200-900 AD).

Xquic magically impregnated by Hun Hunahpu

The story begins when Hun Hunahpu, the father to both twins, challenged the greedy and corrupt gods of Xibalba (the Mayan underworld) to a ball game. Mayan ball was a sort of high impact racquetball with scoring hoops (rather like rollerball).  In important tournaments, the losers were sacrificed and their severed heads became permanent additions to the court.   When Hun Hunahpu lost the ball game to the gods of the dark house, they ripped him apart and left his head impaled on a tree.  However, Xquic, a lovely blood goddess of the underworld fell in love with the head of the brave and handsome Hun Hunahpu and became impregnated by his spit.  She raised her twin sons, Hunahpu and Xbalanque hidden away from the eyes of the gods below, but when the two grew to manhood they inevitably found their father’s sports equipment.  Learning of his downfall they set out to defeat the gods of Xibalba, whose malign influence was corrupting the world of life (also, by besting the gods at the sacred ball game, they hoped to restore life to their father).

After deliberately losing several ball matches in order to obtain a strategic advantage, the brothers were forced to take shelter in a dark house in  Xibalba, which was filled with killer bats and with the horrifying bat gods, the Camazotz.  To escape the bats, the brothers took refuge inside their blowguns, but Hunahpu, mistakenly believing that dawn had arrived, stuck his head out to look around.  A Camazotz (or the Camazotz—their nature is unclear) promptly snipped Hunahpu’s head off with razor claws, and carried the bleeding head to the ceremonial ball court for use during the next day’s ball game.

Grieving for his dead brother, Xbalanque summoned the animals of the jungle and asked them to bring their favorite food.  Many animals brought leaves or grubs or worthless carrion, but the coati brought a calabash gourd, which Xbalanque then fashioned into a surrogate head for his brother. During the ballgame, he managed to exchange the fake head for the real one and the brothers ultimately went on to win the tournament.

A Mayan Classical Vase Depicting Twin Catfish

Enraged by the loss, the Xibalbans constructed a great oven in which they immolated the meddlesome twins.  The deities of hell then ground the twins’ burned bones to dust and threw them in a river.  However Xbalanque and Hunahpu were again one step ahead.   They magically regenerated as a pair of catfish which gradually changed into boys. Amazed by this miracle, and not recognizing the now-transformed twins, the Xibalbans hired the orphans as magical entertainers.  The twins performed increasingly spectacular magical miracles for the Xibalbans. They transformed into animals and burned buildings only to restore them perfectly unburned. Finally the two magicians were called to appear before One Death and Seven Death, the ranking rulers of Xibalba.  The twins performed a spectacular magic show which culminated with Xbalanque sacrificing Hunahpu, only to have the latter emerge more powerful and vigorous then before.  One Death and Seven Death applauded and demanded the twins put them through the same transformation.  Naturally the twins sacrificed the rulers of Xibalba, but they did not restore them to life.  They then revealed their true identities and began to slaughter their former tormentors.  The forces of Xibalba surrendered utterly and begged for mercy.

The story ends with the twins granting clemency to the surviving gods of hell on the condition that the world of life no longer need worship them or present offerings to the underworld.  The brothers then dug up their father’s remains and pieced them together.  But their magical skills could not bring him fully back to life.  Maimed and broken, he was left on the ball court where they found him.  Some say he became maize and gave life to the world.  Others say he became the fragile hope which lingers for all things lost and dead.

The brothers then left the underworld, but as they ascended to the world of the living, they found that it had become somehow diminished to them.  Their mighty magical transformations had put the affairs of life behind them. The two kept climbing and transcended the world entirely.  They are still visible as the sun and the moon.  Their story is the Mayan story of the creation and how life was redeemed—at least for a time—from the greedy deities of the underworld.

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