Tuesday, March 30, 2010

French Folklore: Bluebeard

Ostensibly, one of my projects out here has been to research French folklore for the thesis I am writing.  I like looking at the legend and then finding out what parts of it come from history and which parts are myth.  Unfortunately, in the case of the story of Bluebeard, the truth is far more disturbing than the fiction...

Warning: The true story is deeply disturbing.  If you have a weak stomach, stop reading when the fairy tale ends.

The Legend (as summarized by wikipedia):

Bluebeard is a very wealthy aristocrat, feared because of his "frightfully ugly" blue beard. He had been married several times, but no one knew what had become of his wives. He was therefore avoided by the local girls. When Bluebeard visited one of his neighbours and asked to marry one of her two daughters, the girls were terrified, and each tried to pass him on to the other. Eventually he persuaded the younger daughter (Perrault does not name the woman, but many versions state her name to be Fatima) to marry him, and after the ceremony she went to live with him in his château.

Very shortly after, however, Bluebeard announced that he had to leave the country for a while; he gave over all the keys of the chateau to his new wife, including the key to one small room that she was forbidden to enter. He then went away and left the house in her hands. Almost immediately she was overcome with the desire to see what the forbidden room held, and finally her visiting sister, Anne, convinced her to satisfy her curiosity and open the room.
The wife immediately discovered the room's horrible secret: Its floor was awash with blood, and the dead bodies of her husband's former wives hung from hooks on the walls. Horrified, she locked the door, but blood had come onto the key which would not wash off. Bluebeard returned unexpectedly and immediately knew what his wife had done. In a blind rage he threatened to behead her on the spot, but she implored that he give her quarter of an hour to say her prayers. He consented so she locked herself in the highest tower with her sister, Anne. While Bluebeard, sword in hand, tried to break down the door, the sisters waited for their two brothers to arrive. At the last moment, as Bluebeard was about to deliver the fatal blow, the brothers broke into the castle, and as he attempted to flee, they killed him. He left no heirs but his wife, who inherited all his great fortune. She used part of it for a dowry to marry her sister to the one that loved her, another part for her brothers' captains commissions, and the rest to marry a worthy gentleman who made her forget her ill treatment by Bluebeard.

This story comes to us from Charles Perrault.  It is one of the folk tales he chronicled in his Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé. It is believed to have come from the Brittany region of France.  On the surface it seems to be just another tale of feminine curiosity and how dangerous it can be.  (Eve, Pandora, Lot's Wife, Psyche....even Belle from Beauty and the Beast couldn't keep her nose out of that West Wing).  

However, the historical inspiration for this tale is even more ghastly.

The History: 
Gilles de Rais was a man of contradictions.  A wealthy lord, baron, and Breton knight, he fought alongside Jeanne d'Arc and was a deeply pious man.  He was also one of the most prolific serial killers of children known to history.

He became a war hero, most notably during the Seige of Paris, where he was granted the right to add the royal coat of arms to his own, and specifically commended by the king for his "high and commendable services", the "great perils and dangers" he had confronted, and "many other brave feats". 

Once the war hero retired from military life, he began to spend his money lavishly.  Much of it was drunk away during wild parties, but he also spent a small fortune constructing the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, dedicated to the young boys killed  by Herod.  This choice would prove tragically ironic, as de Rais had innocents of his own to slaughter.

According to his testimony and that of his associates, it was during this time that de Rais began dabbling in the occult.  He testified that he began sacrificing children to the demon "Barron" in order to regain his squandered fortune.  It is likely that this explanation was fed to him by the court in an effort to understand how a former hero could sink to such depravities. 

He killed hundreds of children, mostly young boys.  He tortured and raped them as he killed them, laughing as they died.  

In his 1971 biography of Gilles de Rais, Jean Beneditti tells how the children were put to death: 
"[The boy] was pampered and dressed in better clothes than he had ever known. The evening began with a large meal and heavy drinking, particularly hippocras, which acted as a stimulant. The boy was then taken to an upper room to which only Gilles and his immediate circle were admitted. There he was confronted with the true nature of his situation. The shock thus produced on the boy was an initial source of pleasure for Gilles."
Gilles' bodyservant Etienne Corrillaut, known as Poitou, was an accomplice in many of the crimes and testified that his master hung his victims with ropes from a hook to prevent the child from crying out, then masturbated upon the child's belly or thighs. Taking the victim down, Rais comforted the child and assured him he only wanted to play with him. Gilles then either killed the child himself or had the child slain by his cousin Gilles de Sillé, Poitou or another bodyservant called Henriet. The victims were killed by decapitation, cutting of their throats, dismemberment, or breaking of their necks with a stick. A short, thick, double-edged sword called a braquemard was kept at hand for the murders. Poitou further testified that Rais sometimes committed his vices on the victims (whether boys or girls) before wounding them and at other times after the victim had been slashed in the throat or decapitated. According to Poitou, Rais disdained the victim's sexual organs, and took "infinitely more pleasure in debauching himself in this manner...than in using their natural orifice, in the normal manner."
In his own confession, Gilles testified that “when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed...”
Poitou testified that he and Henriet burned the bodies in the fireplace in Gilles' room. The clothes of the victim were placed into the fire piece by piece so they burned slowly and the smell was minimized. The ashes were then thrown into the cesspit, the moat, or other hiding places.The last recorded murder was of the son of Eonnet de Villeblanche and his wife Macée. Poitou paid twenty sous to have a page's doublet made for the victim, who was then assaulted, murdered, and incinerated in August 1440.

Though the outlying village was aware that something evil was taking place in the castle, none dared try to stop him, even as their children began to vanish.  Peasants had been complaining for months that their children who went to the castle to beg never returned.  However, it wasn't until de Rais kidnapped a cleric that an ecclesiastical investigation was sent and his crimes were unconvered.  

He was charged by both ecclesiastical and secular courts of heresy, sodomy, and murder.  It is difficult to know the exact number of his victims, because their remains were burned after the deed, but it is estimated to be anywhere between 80 and 600 victims between the ages of six to eighteen.  He was sentenced to death by hanging followed by burning, and throughout the trial and to his death he seemed concerned about the welfare of his soul, terrified of going to hell.  He was allowed to have a last confession, and just before his death, exhorted the throngs with 'contrite piety' before telling his accomplices to 'die bravely and think only of salvation'.  On the 26th of October, he was hung and set aflame, though his body was cut down and buried before it was completely reduced to ashes.

This is one of those instances where the legend is far less horrific than the truth.  

Benedetti, Jean (1971), Gilles de Rais, New York: Stein and Day,
Wolf, Leonard (1980), Bluebeard: The Life and Times of Gilles De Rais, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.,

Friday, March 19, 2010

Guest Blogger: Zach Parker

Former roommate and worldclass playboy billionaire Zach Parker has posted something very interesting on his blog.  Head over there and join in the discussion.  Its a conversation about faith, God, science, and above all, logic.  Go weigh in!

Also, some housekeeping:  In the interest of thwarting the ever-present threat of spammers, I've enabled comment moderation.  This will keep us spam-free, as well as give me the chance to make sure the conversation stays civil here.  I encourage debate and disagreement, but personal attacks and knee-jerk emotional reactions should be reeled in.  A blog is a forum for sharing opinions, not hate, and I've seen too many other blogs comments sections turn into private flame-wars between two people that aren't even relevant to the post.

Without further ado:

The God Delusion’s False Conclusion

2010 MARCH 19
by Zach
Since the beginning of sentient man’s existence, people have wondered where they, as well as the universe, came from.  For the majority of people, the answer has been simple: God (or a god, or gods) put it there.  We really had no other way to explain the world.  As time passed, and mankind developed science, the body of collective historical knowledge accessible to us grew.  As more and more of the processes we witness were explained in technical terms, instead of as “miracles,” many began to believe that there was ultimately no reason to believe in a God; all natural phenomena could be dissected and explained.  To these atheists, people who believed in any kind of supernatural or higher power were generally ignorant and easily manipulated.  Religions existed for the purpose of uniting and controlling the masses.  Moreover, religions weren’t just the quaint stupidities of the weak and simpleminded.  They made enemies of peoples who didn’t worship the same God, leading to wars and acts of terrorism.  An appeal to an authority higher and more important than any one person inspired people who were willing to kill and die to please their bloodthirsty God.  Blind faith in an “invisible friend” would especially be dangerous when held by political leaders, who would therefore not govern rationally, but rather impose their beliefs on their subjects.
A fortunate or unfortunate fact, depending on one’s outlook, is that we cannot prove the existence of God.  To do so would require the use of an alternate, “control” universe, in which we know for a fact that there is a God.  By comparing our results, we could either lend credibility to, or disprove our hypothesis.  We must remember, however, that “the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff,” meaning that not proving one hypothesis does not in itself prove its antithesis.  The fact that my colleague cannot prove it is raining outside does not mean that I have proven that it is sunny.  Likewise, the fact that atheism cannot be proven does not prove that there is a God.
However, the opposite of this statement is also true, because we do not have a control universe in which we know there is no God.  In this case, atheism become the plaintiff case, the positive assertion of the nonexistence of God, wherein lies the burden of proof.  If neither case can be experimentally proven, then the default state, or rather, the only conclusion at which we can arrive relying solely on fact we absolutely know, is that of agnosticism, the assertion that we cannot know whether or not there is a God.  Aside from that, all we can do is rely on evidences for the existence or nonexistence of God, and arrive at our conclusion, just as a judge must weigh evidence for and against a given case in order arrive at a verdict.   For the deistically inclined, these evidences can include personal, spiritual experiences. However, this verdict relies to some degree on faith – believing in something you can’t prove – regardless of how strong as the case for or against may be.  This is a notion that the religious are used to and comfortable with, but that atheists will definitely have difficulty with.  In order to satisfy ourselves with a conclusion of theism, the belief in the existence of God, or atheism, the belief in the nonexistence in God, we must rely on some amount of faith, contingent on the various empirical evidences we might have.  Various arguments postulated over the centuries, from the teleological argument for the existence of an intelligent designer, to the problem of evil and its implications against the idea of an all-powerful and all-benevolent God, are merely evidences to support the feasibility of a conclusion.  That conclusion, however, is ultimately sustained by faith.
The other arguments made against religions are subject to examination as well.  Religion, especially national or otherwise organized, can lead to manipulation of the masses, discrimination against those “heathens” who do not share the faith, and even wars and terrorism.  Leaders will govern by religious opinion, rather than by rational principle.  These may be true, but looking closely, we can see that these implications could be true of an atheist society as well.  The Reign of Terror under Robespierre and the Soviet Union under Stalin are two prime examples of atheist societies where discrimination, persecution, and terrorism occurred in the name of an enlightened, Godless, new order.  Modern atheism, with its militant (or shall we say “evangelical”) approach can be every bit as bigoted and discriminatory as some manifestations of Christianity have been.
Furthermore, these arguments are true of any factor that divides people by party lines.  Perhaps as notoriously divisive as religion throughout human history is the issue of race.  Countless wars have been fought in the name of asserting one race’s dominion over another.  We have no further to look back than the Rwanda crisis of the early 1990’s to see a society divided by race tearing itself apart.  Yet abolishing race is certainly not the answer to solving this type of crisis.  Religion, like race, is not the factor that turns brother against brother.  People of diverse races and religions can coexist peacefully.  A manipulative demagogue, looking for a bogeyman with which to scare the masses into unified submission, will never be at a loss for such divisive factors to separate factions, whether they be religion, race, socioeconomic class, political leaning, etc.
Vilifying religion and campaigning to eliminate it will not end religious strife.  Majorities have always historically persecuted minorities.  They are different and therefore threatening.   And, as demonstrated above, neither conclusion can be unequivocally proven.  Belief is in the eye of the beholder.  Closed-mindedness is the condition wherein a person is unwilling to entertain the idea that contrary views might be right, not just “those who don’t agree with me are wrong because I have SCIENCE!”  The important thing is to be secure enough in one’s own belief as to not feel threatened by the beliefs of others.  That is the true way to peaceful coexistence.  At least, that is what I believe.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

7 Things I Hate (That Most People Love)

Everyone's got a few things that everyone seems to love but you.  Thanks to a bout of insomnia tonight, here are mine:

7. The word "anyways".  It is always wrong.  Always.  Just say 'anyway'.

6. Sports movies.  Am I missing something here?  I just don't buy into 'winning the big game' as something that the audience needs to be emotionally invested in.  And they're so formulaic.  Loser team gets a new coach/quarterback/captain/funny animal player and suddenly they start winning.  The underdogs (sometimes with a literal dog on the team) make it to the finals against Generic Bad Guy team who has been winning all season.  Team Underdog wins at the last possible moment.  Everyone hugs.    There's no tension! You KNOW the outcome of the game before it even starts.  Somehow watching a movie ABOUT a sport is less exciting than watching the sport itself.  Think about that a moment.  You're watching a movie about something that is actually less interesting than watching the thing itself. Imagine if Diehard was less exciting than a real office Christmas party.  I saw Invictus last week with some of my students.  Every person in the theater but me walked out of there thinking it was cinematic brilliance.  Really?  It was just like every other sports movie ever, except that rugby also cures racism.  We already knew that American football cures racism, or am I the only one that Remembers the Titans?  News Flash: Morgan Freeman playing the 'wise old black guy' and a team of underdogs winning the big game is not treading new ground.

5. Harry Potter: I tried to give this book a chance, I really did.  Back when every book club in the country was devouring this little series I picked up the first one and gave it a go.  I got about to the part where Harry makes it to Hogwarts when I realized I had read this story before as a child, except it was called Matilda.  "My family is mean to me but its okay because I'm really a special child and I can use my magic powers to make everything better."  Its a fun story..when you're a child.  And Harry Potter works really well on that level.  I just don't get why adults are camping outside waiting to find out what happens to a bunch of prepubescent British wizards.  I'd put Twilight on the list too but thankfully I'm not nearly as isolated in my hatred of that literary abomination.  And unlike Harry Potter, Twilight doesn't even work on the 'quality children's literature' level.

4. Apple: Not so much the products.  I myself have an Ipod.  The computers are fine if you don't mind that most computer games aren't going to be available and you're paying a lot more for the same specs a PC would give you.  Its the whole idea of buying into a culture.  Its like some kind of strange hipster title that you pay for.  You get to call yourself a 'mac user' and smirk knowingly to other people who paid too much for their computer.

3. The Olympics:  Honestly, this is another thing I don't get.  Why in the world do we set aside a week every four years to pretend to care about sports that we never pay any attention to otherwise?  Do we feel guilty that curling players (what are they called anyway...curlers?) are completely ignored when not competing for immortal glory?  Does it have some kind of geopolitical significance I'm overlooking?  Near as I can tell, aside from a platform to make the obligatory political gesture of boycotting the Olympics (take THAT, China's human rights policies!), they don't serve much of a function.  Hitler attended the Olympics, and while it did give him a platform to make racist excuses for American gold medals, it didn't do much to stop World War II from happening.  Great, so we finally can settle the question of which country produces skaters who can speed skate in a circle the fastest...Unless Jamaica is winning a bobsled race (you know how those underdog teams tend to surprise you), I'm not going to tune in.

2. Gyms: Someday, our descendants are going to look at this period in history and wonder how gyms were so successful.  Here is a business where you pay to go do manual labor with a bunch of strangers.  You know you live in an pretty decadent society when manual labor has somehow become a luxury item.  We're literally so pampered that any kind of exercise has become something we'd pay for.  And pay we do.  Gym memberships are notoriously complicated contractual black holes that are nearly impossible to escape from.  Combine that with gym representatives who are more pushy than a used car salesman to get a commitment out of you, and joining a gym is a very high pressure experience.  What I hate most of all about gyms, though, is the industry that it is a part of.  This is an  industry that is worth billions of dollars and is based on the fact that we have very low self esteem.  Magazines in the grocery store checkout aisles, diet pills, male enhancement, plastic surgery, weight loss programs, cosmetics, fashion, and gym memberships all have the same marketing plan: 1) The customer is unattractive and will die alone without our product.  2) Do we even need a step 2? Did you READ premise one??  And so, like vultures that prey on the rotting carcasses of our self worth, these businesses grow bloated on vanity and broken dreams.

1. Democracy.  Yeah, I said it, and I'm only halfway kidding on this.  Democracy, by its very definition, is rule by the average.  That bell curve of intelligence puts the very smart in the minority.  What does this mean when the majority is making every decision?  It means that politics becomes theater, and the real issues of substance are watered down or forgotten in favor of impressing the slack-jawed masses.  There's this cultural idea that you have a civic duty to vote, even if you have no idea what the issues are or what the candidates stand for. So when MTV 'rocks the vote', you get a bunch of people voting on things they are only vaguely aware of.  What happens when decisions are made in ignorance?  Is it good or bad for the country when policy is determined by people who are voting because they feel they have to, even if they don't know what they're voting for?   I understand that democracy is better than other forms of government, but that's not really saying a lot.  Some time in recent American history, it has become cool to be stupid.  People are proud of their ignorance.  Intelligent people are marginalized as 'elitist' and 'out of touch'.  People would rather vote for the guy they could get a beer with then for someone with a high IQ (in some cases they would vote for that guy for 2 terms...)  Politicians begin to sell empty buzz words like 'dream', 'change', 'hope', and 'rainbow' because the people that are voting want to feel reassured but lack the intelligence to demand substance.  I could rant about the problems of 'rule by the average' all night, but the fact is, what is considered average seems to be getting less and less intelligent... I'd prefer to live in Aristotle's utopia or Plato's Republic to Obama or Palin's democracy...

There you have it...six things I hate that you probably love.  And now that I've channeled all that rage into my keyboard, I can finally get some sleep.  If I offended anyone...too bad.  Insincere apologies would be number 8 on my list if I cared to go back and add it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How I Met Your Mother

A friend of mine recommended this show to me and, though he rarely takes my recommendations to heart, I certainly trust his taste.  Thanks to my ridiculously awesome brother, I am now in possession of four seasons of it and so far I'm loving it!  At first I was skeptical...I am NOT a fan of canned laughter.  It really makes the jokes less funny for me somehow.  Its like I think if they have to put a laugh track in, then the joke wasn't good enough to stand on its own.

However, after the pilot episode I got over it.  This is one of the smarter written sitcoms I've seen, though it isn't exactly a genre where there's a lot of competition (seriously, I challenge you to sit through a whole episode of Two and a Half Men).  Its got one of my favorite people of all time: Neil Patrick Harris, and the other actors are great too.  The character of Marshall, played by Jason Segel ("I Love You, Man") is great, as is his fiancee, the always adorable Alyson Hannigan (Willow of "Buffy" fame).

Its also a show that chronicles the romantic misadventures of a father recounting to his children how he met their mother (the show title doesn't leave you guessing).  Its a show for anyone that's ever been the single friend watching his best friends get married while he feels single, constantly worried that it won't ever happen to him, but also strangely hopeful that it will.  What is great is that you know it eventually happens to him; its a love story told in reverse.  You know there's a happy ending, so you can enjoy all the pitfalls along the way.

It made me wonder, wouldn't life be great if we could live it like that?  If all of these experiences we slog through now, all the heartaches, the disappointments, the comedic mishaps...they're just stories you're telling your kids that have grown humorous with the distance of time and the wisdom of perspective?  I'd still prefer not to have canned laughter for mine, but...its a nice thought.

Why do I bring this up now? I just watched episode 12 of season 1, The Wedding, where this guy calls off his wedding because he wants to be single again.  He wants his freedom, to be able to do what he wants.  Being in a couple is hard and he's not sure if he wants to do it.

Ted, our protagonist, needs him to go through with it for his own selfish reasons (he is planning on taking the girl of his dreams as his 'plus one').  He asks his friend Marshall, the engaged guy, to talk him into it.  Marshall says something very profound.  He says not to marry her.

Marshall: Being in a couple is hard. And committing, making sacrifices; it's hard. But if it's the right person, then it's easy. Looking at that girl and knowing she's all you really want out of life, that should be the easiest thing in the world. And if it's not like that, then she's not the one. I'm sorry. 

I love that quote, it sums up exactly what I lacked the eloquence to explain in my last post.  Its moments like this where I realize the show has both wit and soul...a rare thing on network television.  Funny and thoughtful... Maybe that's why I'm enjoying it, we have so much in common!

As a sidenote: Neil Patrick Harris is awesome.  Nathan Fillion, Neil Patrick Harris, and, surprisingly, James Franco, are my current favorite people in Hollywood. 

Friday, March 5, 2010

Babelfish Not Necessary

I was chatting with a friend today and it got me thinking once again about human nature, and how we as a society try to overcomplicate things.

In Utah, Gary Chapman's book on the Five Languages of Love is very much in vogue. Though I haven't read it, I am familiar with the premise and it has always rubbed me the wrong way. I could not put my finger on what it was exactly until today.

For those of you not up to speed with your pop 'psychology', Chapman outlines five love 'languages' used to express affection, and postulates that many disconnects in relationships are simply the result of both people speaking a different love language. They are:

Physical Touch.
Acts of Service.
Quality Time.
Words of Affirmation.

The idea, then, is that two people could love each other equally, but not feel loved simply because one is demonstrating his affection through gifts and the other through words of affirmation (for example).

This may indeed be the case in some situations. I have no idea what Chapman's academic credentials are, but I'm going to assume they're more impressive than mine in this field. But the problem with this theory is that, in practice, it complicates what is a rather simple issue. It is then used as a rationalization to prolong failing relationships. "Its not that she doesn't love me, she just values words of affirmation more than touch and I'm quite the opposite."

I contend that love is simpler and yet more involved than this. A healthy relationship isn't one in which you must calculate the exchange rate between caresses, compliments, and random acts of kindness. You shouldn't be wondering how many of his words equivocate one of your gestures. Love isn't an equation and you don't need Chapman's translation phrasebook to navigate its waters. Its actually a lot simpler...and therefore, sometimes it a harsher truth to face.

Relationships are either in balance or out of balance. By this I mean, either both parties are equally invested or they are not. They say that the person who cares the least about a relationship controls the relationship. This is true, of relationships and all things. When I am driving a beat up car, I know I can be more aggressive on the road than the guy in an expensive Ferrari. He can look at my dented bumper and realize that he has a lot more to lose than I do.

Control and power in a relationship are not happiness. In a healthy relationship, there is balance. His happiness is her's, and her's is his. Seeing that the other person is happy literally increases their own happiness. Its not a question of who is more invested in the relationship...they have achieved that state of unity that is described by Paul. They are of one heart and one mind, which is why they can be of one flesh without the complications and pain that inevitably when that first step is skipped.

It is rare to find a relationship in balance, but I am not being naive when I say that nothing less will do in a marriage. The trick is in finding a relationship where both partners are equally invested...and in knowing when that is not the case.

To paraphrase Michael Buble, I'd say pulling that off is about 50% timing and the other half is luck...

Just to prove that I'm not completely cynical in matters of the heart, I'll just go ahead and say that is a good note to end on. After all, I just haven't met her yet.