Monthly Archives: August 2013

Classical References in Lady Gaga’s Applause

Lady Gaga’s new video has hit the scene and it is as weird as ever. I’m a fan of some of Lady Gaga’s music, but I am really not for the whole over-the-top, attention seeking, randomness that is found in her videos or her VMA dresses. This isn’t a blog about Lady Gaga, though, it’s about Classics. I watched the video because I have friends who are huge Gaga fans and because let’s be honest all that attention seeking really works. I immediately picked up on two classical references. I read the Buzzfeed article and don’t know that I believe all of the references that sight pulled out of this video, but I do agree with the two classical ones. They are the myth of Icarus and the myth of Venus’ birth.

In short summary, Icarus was the son of the inventor, Daedalus. Daedalus invented wings made of wax so that they could fly, but warned his son that if he flew too high the wax would melt and he would fall to the sea. Icarus flew too high, the wax melted, and he died. I liked Buzzfeed’s explanation for the reference to Icarus saying that maybe Gaga became “too consumed in her own art.” The problem with this is that they are not taking into account what the song is about. The song repeats over and over that Gaga lives for applause. That is why she chooses the use of Icarus. He flew too close to the sun and she is saying that she may be doing the same. She lives to fly higher and higher and be more and more loved by her fans. Gaga who we know is obsessed with duality, as mentioned over and over in her career, knows that wanting to more love from her fans constantly and being addicted to that fame is a catch 22. There are good and bad things about fame and flying high.  Gaga, clearly, loves the stage, the show, the attention, and she craves all of these things. That’s what the story of Icarus is about. When it comes to a good thing, don’t get greedy.

Now Icarus was not fortunate enough to be reborn the way Gaga is in her video. Her birth is very obviously a reference to the goddess Venus. Of course, Venus, is all about love and sexuality. These are not uncommon themes in Lady Gaga’s music or videos so it’s no surprise that this is the goddess she chose to be reborn as. Venus was born from the sea which some people take as a purifying experience, however, the creation myth of Venus/Aphrodite most commonly accepted in the classical world is that she was born from Uranus’ sea foam when Cronos cut off Uranus’ genitals and threw them into the sea. That’s a myth twisted enough for Lady Gaga.  Her rebirth as Venus might be simply a reference to the sexuality for which Venus is known or if I’m going to take things as deeply and reach a little the way Buzzfeed has, it might be her return to love and passion for her music and her art which the Icarus reference has shown us has gotten away from Gaga a bit.

Not my style when it comes to videos, but I am happy to point out the classical references and even more happy that they are there. Classics is thriving in popular culture as much as ever. In this case Lady Gaga, surely, knew what she was doing when using them. In other cases they pop up inadvertently because these myths and themes are more ingrained in our world than most of us realize. For more about these references keep an eye out for more posts. As always comment with your thoughts or suggestions for what you want to read about.

referenced:

Buzzfeed http://www.buzzfeed.com/azafar/every-cultural-reference-you-probably-didnt-catch-in-lady-ga?bffb

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Obama, Cicero, and Sallust VS. Manning, Snowden, and Catiline

While taking in all of the news recently about the NSA and the people exposing government secrets I am, of course, looking constantly for links to the Classical World. Government corruption and secrets were pretty common in the ancient world and I think that might be too obvious a connection to point out for the purpose of this blog. What I do find interesting though is the comparisons that can be made between the language used by politicians to describe whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning and the language used to describe the conspirator Catiline. Whether you find these whistleblowers to be heroes or traitors may make you question this comparison, but remember that it is just the language used, I am not comparing the situations rather the way that politicians describe these men. My use of the word whistleblower is not to give a leaning either way, it is the easiest noun to use for them. It is also important to keep in mind that we do not have the common man’s opinion of Catiline. We only have the politicians’ and historians’ views on him. Imagine the shape of today’s debate if we took out the common person’s voice and only had record of what politicians say about these men.

First a brief rundown of Catiline and his conspiracy in case you are not familiar with this part of Roman history. The wiki is pretty good on this and while I don’t endorse wiki as a scholarly source, it is a great way to get a general understanding of most things. I will link to that at the bottom. In a short version, Catiline was a Roman Senator so someone in a position of relative power and with access to information. He didn’t like the way things were going and in the year 63BCE was to execute a plot to overthrow the republic until Cicero called attention to his plan and effectively squashed it. Catiline may not have been simply a rogue senator the way he is painted to be by historians and politicians. He had people on his side who were senators, generals, and even a former consul. He had people of power who agreed with him, just not the most important people or the ones that would end up writing it down. Remember, the victors write history. I’m not defending the actions of Catiline or claiming to know which side of that political debate I would have even been on, but it is important for me to make clear that he was not alone, he had followers and powerful ones at that who agreed with him for one reason or another.

As stated, the situation is not as important as the way he is described. Both Cicero and Sallust give accounts of Catiline’s Conspiracy and describe in detail Catiline himself and the nature of his conspiracy.  In America we have similar sides reacting to Snowden and Manning, politicians and historians (I will include some mainstream media in this category, begrudgingly), but we also have other outlets like not so mainstream media, blogs, tweets, the general public, etc. When looking at the comments of politicians and some major media the descriptions line up with the ancient ones.

Snowden has been consistently called a traitor and his acts called treasonous by politicians including President Obama, Boehner, and Feinstein. Cicero in his first oration against Catiline says, “And shall we, who are the consuls, tolerate Catiline, openly desirous to destroy the whole world with fire and slaughter?”  If we are going by position, Cicero is probably the equivalent to Catiline of Obama and Boehner to Snowden and Manning. Sallust and Cicero also attack Catiline at a personal level. Sallust points out that prior to Catiline’s political career he had done unspeakable things with a Vestal Virgin. The best is the way he calls him a madman though, “His pallid complexion, his bloodshot eyes; his gait now fast, now slow; in his face and his every glance showed him a madman” (15.5). Toobin, writer for the New Yorker, said about Snowden that he is a, “grandiose narcissist.”

Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his leaks, is seaking pardon from Obama which I find incredibly interesting given the reaction to Snowden. Obama said prior to any trial that Manning was guilty. Obama, whose speeches already sound Ciceronian, sounds very much like Cicero in the aftermath of these two leaks. He even does the self aggrandizing thing Cicero was so known for by always making it sound like he is doing everything personally and on his own to stop all of these traitors. Specifically though the video floating around (below) in which he says Manning broke the law sounds much like Cicero reacting to Catiline.

I suggest reading Cicero and Sallust as well as the wiki on the conspiracy. While it is not a perfect comparison it is an interesting one in terms of the language politicians use towards “traitors” and the way politicians view security.

VIDEO:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/22/bradley-manning-obama-video_n_852553.html

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MLB PEDs, A-Rod, and Ancient Cheaters

With all of the talk surrounding baseball, Alex Rodriguez, and the seemingly never ending use of the word “cheating” I thought it would be interesting to discuss what happened to the ancient cheaters. So we know Alex Rodriguez has been suspended for essentially cheating; using performance enhancing drugs, although more of the suspension comes from impeding the MLB’s investigation and simply his obnoxious arrogance. While A-rod is just the most recent cheater to join the ranks of Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and of course Barry Bonds, it is not the first time the question of legacy comes up for a professional athlete. The same questions about remembrance have been brought up about many other athletes such as Tiger Woods, Jim Thorpe, and Lance Armstrong.  We are still waiting to see how most of these will play out (exception being Jim Thorpe, I think he is remembered well, but then his crimes are not considered very serious nor cheating by most people). We can say that McGwire has been passed up multiple times now in Hall of Fame elections and prior to the steroids scandals many were calling him a first ballot Hall of Famer. For the most part, however, it remains to be seen what people will be saying about the steroids era in 10, 20, 50 years.

In the ancient world there were different theories about handling such people. While the Roman example didn’t apply to athletes as much as politicians and traitors, sometimes the same person fit all of those categories I guess, for comparison purpose I will say damnatio memoriae was their method of handling such unwanted stigmas. Damnatio memoriae is a system put in place by the Roman Senate to completely erase someone from history and that was meant in the most literal sense of erase. They would remove inscriptions with his name, remake statues to remove his image, and seize all property. Due to the nature of the practice not a ton of information is known about it, but it was used a few times in the imperial period for emperors who were disliked by the emperor succeeding them or for people who conspired against the emperor.

This is an instance when the Greeks handled things very differently than the Romans. The Greeks would put the story of cheating Olympians everywhere. Yes, cheating happened even in the original Olympic Games. When there are riches to be won and glory to be had, unfortunately if unchecked, cheating will occur; you may say a laurel wreath isn’t exactly riches, but many athletes received rewards either from their home city-state or through other means, but I digress as usual.  The Greeks actually erected statues, using the money of the cheaters, which were to serve as warnings to future athletes. On the statues were elegiac poems, interestingly the same style of poem found on grave markers. These poems extol the values of how the Olympics are to be won, through physical prowess, and criticize other methods of obtaining victory like paying money.

The contrast of the Ancient Roman damnation memoriae and the Ancient Greek example-making tactics are a good chance for history to show us what should be done. Some are saying the MLB should put a steroids era wing on the Hall of Fame to show the history of the game accurately and also to point out the terrible things steroids did to the game of baseball. This is obviously following the Greek example. The voters have consistently left steroid era players out of the Hall, however, maybe preferring the way of the Romans and attempting to erase them from the history of the game. This will definitely be something to watch in the years to come as many steroid era players reach eligibility for the Hall of Fame.

Comment below and tell me if you are for the Roman way or the Greek way? How about outside of athletics like for politicians, celebrities, traitors, etc.?  

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Matt Damon’s Elysium, Plato’s Republic, and Utopias!

I’ve been too far away from pop culture recently, but I am coming back to it. Having seen a trailer for Matt Damon’s new movie Elysium, I couldn’t help but write a post. Of course, the movie’s title comes straight from one classical concept of the afterlife known as the Elysian Fields. This is very much referenced in the movie Gladiator. There is a lot to discuss when talking about Elysium because it is quite controversial. I want to focus more on this movie’s concept and relation to ancient sources than the arguments surrounding the Elysian Fields. I will say one thing about the Elysian Fields, however, and that is that they are not the equivalent to the modern beliefs many religions hold about Heaven. They were originally reserved for heroes (god-related mortals) and, arguably, later considered open to those who were chosen or initiated into the mysteries. It was also not separate from the underworld, but rather a part of it and therefore the Heaven and Hell dichotomy was not in existence.

That’s enough on the Elysian Fields since they really have nothing to do with this movie other than its title. Clearly the title was chosen because the rich are allowed to live in a paradise (Elysium) while the poor are left stranded on Earth which has been left to ruins. That’s about as much of a synopsis as you will get from me because I have not seen the movie and I am writing purely on the concept with a great excitement to see this film. I also want to see how much I can predict from knowledge of classical works and works of “utopian” literature.

It could be argued that Elysium does not present a utopia because there is still an Earth society which is not at all utopian, but I think it is fair to say that the space station where the rich are living is meant to be a utopia that Matt Damon will somehow alter, destroy, wreak havoc upon, etc. The wiki calls it a utopian space station so I am going with that. It also claims that there are instant cures to all diseases in this space habitat (WOAH COOL!).

So take a step back with me to Ancient Greece and let’s take a look at the first utopian works that we currently have knowledge of.  These works would be Plato’s Republica and Plato’s Laws. The Republic actually attempts to set out standards for a utopian society while Laws sets out a society that is as close to that as possible, but could potentially be governed by real (aka flawed) men. Plato’s ideal society is nothing like what I assume Elysium will be, but that’s assumption based on the fact that Elysium must be driven by wealth. In the Republic there is no such thing as private property, everything is communal including children and food. The children are raised by the community without knowledge of who their parents are. Food is simple, not extravagant. Basically it is that everyone lives a moderate life so that no one is below or above another, everyone is equal.

The most important main goal of the Republic was to be devoid of human weakness. This is the part I find most fascinating both about the Republic itself and its connection to the film Elysium. In the film the focus on removing human weakness comes in the form of physically curing everyone in the habitat of all diseases.  While, I think, Plato would argue that human weakness comes from desires for excess, luxury, satisfaction, etc. it is noteworthy that Elysium considers it purely physical. The nature of Elysium is actually the opposite of the Republic because the idea on the space station is that everyone can afford and has everything they could possibly want.

Of course as with all utopian works we will find out that Elysium is actually dystopian for many reasons, I’m going to bank on it being some sort of human nature flaw. It may come in a form we are not used to like compassion or it may be that the people want more and more and we find there are even limits to luxury. I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

That is a wandering, smattering of the origins of utopian works and Plato’s beliefs about utopia. I hope it gave you a nice little base of knowledge. I suggest reading more on these things by reading Plato’s Laws and his Republic. I also suggest Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bacon’s The New Atlantis (unfinished, but encourages luxury so may be a good comparison to Elysium).

Leave a comment below arguing with me, telling me your favorite work of utopian literature, or how you think this movie is going to play out. I will hopefully be seeing it shortly and writing a follow up to this.

EDIT: I love District 9 so hopefully this is as good.

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