The Lie That Is Art

21 December, 2009

Philosophers have often argued that art is useful because it speaks to an underlying truth. Data can lead to Knowledge which can lead to Understanding – art can help us get there. In his early work Friedrich Nietzsche spoke against this view. Influenced by Schopenhauer (and through him, the Buddhist tradition) he conceived of the world as being a bleak and terrible place. True understanding of this world leads to the realisation that all is suffering, and unlike the Buddhists, Nietzsche didn’t think that the way out was by following the Eightfold path. Instead he turned to the ancient art of the Athenian Playwrights.

Tragedy was an art form much admired in Athens. Aristotle thought it brought catharsis to the people to see such horrors and pathos on the stage. Nietzsche thought that the truth was much more horrible than what was in the Tragedies however. Like a Cthulhic nightmare, reality would drive us mad, but if we glimpsed the real through the safe eyes of art then we can grow as people, cocooned from insanity. By adding plot, character, and most of all reasons for the actions in the plays, the writers give us an easy way in to the chaos that lies behind our lives. We add meaning, but that meaning is a lie, and only exists to help make the truth palatable. By trying to find any other truth than this horror, art is making a mistake and showing yet more lies, without the sobering knowledge of the futility of life behind it. Nietzsche could be a bit of a downer. He also changed his views on art several times, and repudiated the above ideas in his later works.

The concept of the real world being a truly mind altering place was taken up by H.P. Lovecraft and his successors who wrote the Cthulhu mythos. During the early 20th century discoveries were being made that shattered any illusion that Mankind was at the centre of the universe. In the Cthulhu mythos characters realise their unimportance in the grand scheme of things. They are, in effect,  put in a total-perspective-vortex and their feeble simian minds find they cannot cope with the truth. If only they had looked at the truth through the lie of art! How could they be expected to cope with this: our collective existence is a meaningless accident and our time on this world is finite.

And yet, that truth seems rather banal these days. Whatever non-euclidean geometry drove Lovecraftian heroes to the brink of insanity just doesn’t seem as scary today. Has art finally led us to a place where we are comfortable with the meaningless of existence? And how do we tell which part of art is the terrifying truth, and which the comforting lie?


Why have you forsaken us?

20 December, 2009

When the Babylonians and Medes destroyed Nineveh they heralded the end of the Assyrian Empire. Splitting its provinces between them they inherited a huge swathe of land across the Middle East. The Babylonians were in no doubt as to why the mighty Empire had fallen. The Assyrian King Sennarcherib had destroyed the city of Babylon to remove any doubt as to where the Gods favour lay. Just as the Romans looked back to the Greeks with an admiration for their culture, so too had the Assyrians looked to the Babylonian city states as the source of their religion. This gave the Babylonians too much power in Sennacherib’s eyes, and so he razed the city and enacted the great rituals and festivals in the heartlands of Assyria. His son rebuilt Babylon and restored the Gods to their rightful place, but this was not enough it seemed, and when the Empire collapsed the blame was squarely on the defilers of the Gods, Sennacherib.

It’s easy to invoke the Gods when you are on the winning side, but what happens when those same Gods don’t defend you? The Assyrians had already broken the Kingdom of Israel and deported much of the ruling population. When the Babylonians inherited the Empire they continued the practice of moving troublesome populations around. Most famously the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II tore down the Temple in Jerusalem, installed a governor to look after the Kingdom of Judah and brought its leaders, including the young King, to Babylon where they would remain in exile for decades. How did the people of Judah reconcile this catastrophic event with their all powerful god, Yahweh, who was supposed to look after them? Some no doubt turned to other Gods who would be seen as more powerful, others realised that it couldn’t be Yahweh that was at fault, so it must be the people themselves who were to blame. By not being pious enough, by not performing the correct rituals, by not being good enough people, these were the reasons that Yahweh had turned from Judah – more than this, Yahweh himself had caused the Exile to show his anger just as he had hardened the Pharaoh’s heart in order to show his power in the story of Exodus. Great Empires were at the beck and call of Yahweh, but that was no guarantee that the people of Judah would be safe.

The prophets of this period (Jeremiah and Ezekiel) were not the first to come up with this sort of explanation. Half a millennium before Nebuchadnezzar II brought destruction to Judah, his namesake, Nebuchadnezzar I ruled in Babylon. One of Nebuchadnezzar’s greatest victories was recovering the cult statue of Marduk from the Elamites who had plundered it decades before. A prophecy was written around the time of Nebuchadnezzar stating that a good king would arise and destroy the cities of Elam, bring back the statue and make the land whole and good. The prophecy talks of the three times that the statue of Marduk had been stolen by invading armies. In each case it does not describe the plundering as something that Marduk didn’t want – after all how could that be since he was the supreme God? When the Hittites captured Marduk around 1600 BCE it was described in the prophecy as a journey to the lands of Hatti in order to establish trade and make the lands known to the Babylonians. After 24 years he returned in the hands of a Babylonian King. When the Assyrians stole the statue around 1200 BCE it is described in the prophecy as Marduk travelling north to bless the people of Assur.

His final journey, to Elam (around 1150 BCE), is not described so positively in the prophecy. Marduk declares that he has decided to abandon Babylon, that he has sent the other Gods away and no sacrifices will be enough to lure them back. The land is cursed, and only the rise of the good king will return happiness to Babylon. Unlike the books in the Hebrew Bible which go to great pains to explain why Yahweh abandoned them, there is no such explanation in the prophecy of Marduk. He simply asserts that he will go, and so he does.

“I am Marduk, the great Lord. I went to the land of Elam – all the Gods went with me – I myself commanded it. The offering of the temple I myself withheld. People’s corpses block the gates. A brother eats his own brother. Evil lies across the land.”

“A King of Babylon will arise: he will restore the wondrous temple. He will take my hand and bring me to my city Babylon forever. Brother will love his brother. The marketplace will thrive. He will keep evil in line.”

It is up to Nebuchadnezzar to bring back their God, and as in all good prophecies, he does just that.


14 December, 2009

Around four and a half thousand years ago the warrior king Sargon established an Empire amongst the city states of southern Mesopotamia. His grandson, Naram-Sin, expanded the Empire to the north, defeated rebelling cities and was declared a God by the people. As a God, Naram-Sin was allowed to sport some fancy horns which can be seen in the image on the right. Naram-Sin ruled at the height of the Akkadian Empire. It quickly collapsed in his successors reigns but the idea of the Empire resonated for centuries. The language that it spread was the lingua franca of the ancient world for centuries afterwards, only finally dying out two and half thousand years later. When people remembered the Empire they also remembered its two most famous Kings, Sargon and Naram-Sin. One they associated with its meteoric rise, the other with its collapse. Naram-Sin became a literary figure more than a historical one. An ancient story tells of how Naram-Sin defied the Gods, was defeated in battle, realised the error of his ways and changed for the better.

At the end of the tale there is a message for the reader. It says that if you are a wise King you should heed the advice of the story, those who don’t will suffer the wrath of the Gods. It also reminds the ruler to pass on their knowledge, as this story does. Those who don’t will doom future generations. An example of just such a king is given at the start of the story.

Enmerkar was King of Uruk, but he disappeared. Diviners had told him of the Gods’ will, but he disregarded their advice, whatever that was. A council of Gods cursed him, Shamash in particular demanded harsh penalties on Enmerkar and his descendants. His ghost would not receive prayers, and his memory would not be preserved. Even his offence would not be known. So it happened, and Naram-Sin bemoaned the fact that Enmerkar left no record of what he had done wrong, other than to disregard the diviners. This was a lesson to all Kings – make a record of your triumphs and mistakes so that others can learn from you.

This story was copied down many times by scribes who no doubt liked the moral that writing was good for a King (it kept the scribes employed too). It is somewhat ironic that Enmerkar, a King about whom we know nothing, indeed his point in the story is that we know nothing about him, nonetheless still lives on as a character, a warning to others. His name is now immortalised by the nameless scribes of Naram-Sin. Of the billions of humans who have ever lived, Enmerker the Unknown, by dint of having his name recorded, may well be one of the more famous.