Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Beowulf as a Global Metaphor

Will we reap the dragon as Beowulf did?

In order to transform not only what we do, but also our feelings about something (and thus, our motivations) we can start by changing our metaphors. The cinema version of the 7th century epic poem Beowulf departs in a number of crucial aspects from the original. I believe those changes are spot on, as they say a lot about our contemporary human condition.

The movie Beowulf provides an insightful look at what the human being is; a creature that is compelled by incredibly powerful forces – passions – that drive the fates of entire nations. The primary drivers are greed and lust, though neither are necessarily negative. Greed, tempered a little, can be healthy ambition. Lust, given more time, can soften and deepen to love. Beowulf succumbs initially to both of these positive effects. But when faced with the question: What does a powerful man seek? The answer is invariably the same: More power.

This is true of nations too. This lust for power, beyond what is healthy, beyond what is good, is represented in the cinema version through the introduction of the beautiful, seductive demon, essentially the first monster’s mother (rendered as Angelina Jolie). The demon promises Beowulf greater prosperity, in exchange for a small detail, one that is inevitably difficult to keep an eye on when one’s world and powerbase is expanding. And the consummation of the contract is a metaphor for man’s capacity to give in to the seductions, the trappings of excess.

Initially the dalliances seem harmless enough, but secrets and lies ultimately undermine relationships, causing Beowulf in this case to lose a sense of his own personal dignity (in itself, a redeeming quality, and a heroic trait). In the world, this can be compared to the massive corruption we see, both in corporations (for example the current scandal at VW Germany), and generally, in global politics.

The sum of a lifetime of small deceptions and duplicity is a fire breathing dragon capable of destroying everything that has been built, capable of ruining the castle; and destroying those closest to us. In the same way that Beowulf unwittingly fathers the dragon, there is something of ourselves in that awesomely destructive creature. In this sense, we begin to see the solution: we are connected to both the heroic, and the seeds of our doom. We cannot pretend to disown the dragon; it is simply the bearing out of Absolute Consequence.

Nevertheless, one remembers in the film rendering, that the mythical hero Beowulf seemed not to stand a chance against the amorphous golden ghost. She moved through his sword and turns it to quicksilver. Does this imply that it is inevitable that we succumb to our baser instincts? That we humans are still animal enough not to have the power to control our appetites? This is the question.

But as we move through the next millennium, it is very difficult to conceive of life on Earth 5 years from now, even less 10 years from now. But if we can begin to construct global metaphors, affirming mindsets, we can possibly do a lot to disarm our dark hearts. It is possible to shine a light into our collective aorta, and we do that by first of all seeing ourselves not succumbing to the great demon that we know deceives us. We start by rejecting its beauty as a false beauty. We know what that beauty is. It is the meretricious beauty of a world that does not exist – in movies, magazines, and Celebrity Land. That is not the real world, and if we aspire to live in that place, while neglecting far more urgent relationships – those with our siblings, our sisters, our brothers and neighbors – we bring about our own and worse, their doom.

Life, all life – not just a single person – is sacred. Life is a gift, one that is given to us, and one that we are asked to return to the world. To dwell in profanity – and we all know what those vulgarities are – and to turn the gift of life into a collection of things, is to engineer for ourselves a dragon. We are asked to be respecters of all living things, to share and give the gift of our lives. If we can do that, the world of men can be again heroic and good, and worth saving.

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