Sunday, June 28, 2009

Satan’s Siren Songs

The interpretation of Satan's role varies within Judeo-Christian religions. Alhough Christianity often compares Satan to the Devil, the opposing force of God, the Jewish Bible (or the Old Testament) and the Talmud portrays him as the Accuser (ha-Satan or השָׂטָן), or the Tempter. He is working for God, testing the strength of people's faith and morality, tempting them to sin. Bulgakov's famous "Master and Margarita" is based on this theme. Although in Genesis Devil takes the form of a serpent in the paradise, not generally regarded as a pretty creature, in other biblical passages Satan is described as the most beautiful of God's angels, powerful enough to have other angels follow him and supposedly desiring to replace God. Many stories tell of the fallen angels being cast down from heaven, Satan as their leader. The temptation of Christ mentions Devil as the tempter of Jesus in the desert in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew but Satan in the Gospel of Mark. None of us can deny the existence of evil as it surrounds us constantly, yet I for one wouldn't call it Satan's work.

It is interesting that we are told of God being omnipotent and yet at the same time some writings, held sacred, admit that there is a constant war between God and Evil. The Jewish faith generally believes in demons, king of whom is often mentioned as Asmodai or (אשמדאי). According to some writing he was married to Lilith (Lilli or similar names), his queen. He is overseer of gambling, prince of revenge and demon of lust. He is also one of the seven princes of hell and has seventy-two legions of demons in his command. Some tales claim Asmodai is the same as Satan but in general Satan's role is quite different as he is only supposed to act with the permission of God. Among many interesting items in Derfner Judaica Museum in the Bronx there is a deck of old playing cards from the 1920s Palestine, having pomegranates, stars of David, fig leaves and menorahs replace the usual suits. Asmodai is also pictured, as the Joker.

We are seeing an increase of anti-Semitism these days, both globally and here in the States. Neo-Nazi sites are all over the internet and the Aryan Nation flexes its muscle whenever it can. Not that Americans are strangers with this: it is not that long ago when Jews couldn't join clubs or even rent a room in many hotels ("Hebrews are not welcome"). In 1939 Cuba turned back a German ship, St. Louis, full of Jewish refugees heading for Havana, letting in only 22 Jews, those with visas. Those almost a thousand people then slowly sailed towards Miami and saw the lights of the city but weren't allowed to disembark. Western Europe finally accepted most of them but with the swift invasion of the Third Reich, 532 were trapped and of those 254 died.

Part of this raw emotion is understandable, disgusting as it is, with the worsening economic crisis and seeing so many Jewish names connected to failed institutions, not to mention the Jewish poster boy Bernie Madoff. Finding a scapegoat is a result of any crisis and pointing a finger at a certain ethnic group is easy. Muslims are treated even worse but it is because we associate them with 9/11 and terrorism in general. Jews, on the other hand, didn't improve as human beings with wealth and power. Gone is the humble piety of a poor person from the Pale. Today we more likely see a Jewish public figure that pretends to be religious only to have the support of the well-to-do community, has a lavish Bar or Bat Mitsvah for his offspring, and yet at the same time takes perverse pride in having a shiksa as a girlfriend or mistress.

We learned from Greek mythology about the deadly singing of the Sirens. Sailors couldn't resist their tempting voices and headed for their deaths. The famous anti-Semite Richard Wagner wrote some very seductive music which has brought music lovers, his intended victims, to his world in hoards. In many ways his music is that of the Sirens. The Nazis blasted it in the concentration camps so that it made the poor suffering souls even sicker before gassing them. The idea of praising a Nordic pagan religion in the Ring cycle should be revolting to Christians, but what about all the Jews who embrace the same music and ideology? Isn't the Jewish character of Mime enough of an insult? Granted, the music is very tempting at times, but do we have to give into an anti-Semite's plan any more than to fall for every seductive woman or man? We, in the West, haven't accepted the use of the swastika after the defeat of the Nazi party which stole the sacred symbol in its anti-clockwise form from India and other cultures. I would rather embrace the ornamental cross, which was never intended to cause harm, than the music of a dangerous but gifted maniac.

Is Wagner's music another test by Satan the tempter or is it a product of Asmodai the demon of lust? I don't have the answer to that but although I had to take part in numerous productions of the composer's operas, today I wouldn't be caught dead attending a performance. For reasons he never told me, my father deeply disliked Wagner's music, and thus I had very little exposure to it until much later. In my dad's situation, I think the music made him feel uneasy early on, even before Hitler's time. In any case he didn't fall for the seductive qualities of Wagner's works and genuinely hated the bombastic overtures and other such sections that he had heard. Never did his orchestra play any of the composer's music although other German music was to his liking, with the exception of Bruckner. He was a violinist after all, not a brass player, and I don't think there are too many of us who love endless tremolos.

May Israel's ban on Wagner's music remain in place in spite of the work to the contrary by some wonderful musicians, such as Barenboim. Perhaps they have given in to the lust, just like Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, formerly one of the strongest voices demanding the impeachment of President Clinton and his Monica. Take the operas to China: people there are accustomed to such stories. Ling cycle, anyone?

"Satan" by Gustave Doré
Palestine playing cards at Derfner, NY Times

Monday, June 08, 2009

Swine Lake

It is said that two of the most tragically memorable contributions of the United States joining the World Wars have been the use of nuclear bombs in the second one and the Spanish Flu pandemic in the first, traveling to Europe with American troops. Perhaps included should be the cluster bombing of German cities where people actually melted as they couldn't burn due to lack of oxygen. Those defending the atomic bomb rush to claim how many American deaths it avoided since peace was soon negotiated. If you were Japanese, you would feel differently as the victims were mainly civilians and died in many cases in inhumane pain. At the time we had no knowledge of the terrible misery radiation causes long-term. No doubt the destruction of German cities such as Dresden by the Allies was an act of revenge as London had suffered terribly in bombings earlier. One can argue that the killing of the millions of Jews, Gypsies and other unwanted in the concentration camps was a more horrendous act and thus we had the "right" to bring hell to earth in Germany. In my mind, all the terrible acts during these wars were equally senseless and criminal against humanity. The idea of testing cluster bombs was not an American invention as all sides to WWII used them but the firestorms of Dresden and Tokyo sound like a doomsday scenario dreamed up somewhere far away the both scenes.

Although the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, also known as the Spanish Disease, killed far more many people than the "Great War" itself, it soon disappeared from memory or at least from the news media. Perhaps it had been so horrible that people wanted to forget about it ever happening. For the longest time we did not even know that it was a flu virus and various different theories of its nature surfaced from time to time. It wasn't until some years ago when frozen bodies were exhumed in the far Arctic, such as Spitzbergen, that scientists were able to positively identify as a swine flu H1N1. Influenza in pigs is rather common but seldom mutates to a form that affects humans as well, although both Influenzavirus A and C can infect both species. New viruses usually develop in rural China where domestic animals and people often live under the same roof or at least in close contacts.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we just read about the second death of this new wave of swine flu. Although fingers have been pointed at pig farms in Mexico, near the U.S. border, the virus itself probably originated in the Far East but possibly mutated on this continent. The 1918 flu, according to some studies, started in Kansas, though again research believes that the origins were elsewhere. The disease only got the name "Spanish" because the country was the only one reporting on the illness as the country was neutral in WWI and its news were not censored. This present swine flu resembles the one nine decades ago in some eerie ways. Back then the first wave in March of 1918 was not particularly severe and fatalities were no higher than from a normal influenza. The second wave, obviously a mutation, hit in August of the same year in the U.S., France and parts of Africa and rapidly spread globally. Up to 50% of people were infected and mortality rate was between 2% and 20%, 20-200 times higher than from normal influenza which is a major killer itself, of mainly the very young and the elderly. Back then and now many of the victims have been of an atypical age, under 50. The Spanish flu seems to have killed by making our immune systems overreact as a cytokine storm. Victims often died within 24 hours. Back then we didn't have antiviral drugs or steroids to calm the body's immune reaction down, so it that sense the mortality rate in the advanced and rich nations would not be as high as in the past. Poor and/or geographically isolated nations would suffer the worst should this present virus mutate in a similar fashion.

In the worst-case scenario the world's economies would suffer another devastating blow. Would anyone rush to a place where there would be a large concentration of people under the same roof? Sports events would have to be canceled. The performing arts, already fighting for their lives, would meet a final blow as only a suicidal person would want to go to a show or concert of any kind. A Swan Lake would become a Swine Lake to drown in. Shopping malls might as well close their doors. Groceries could be delivered to the door and charged, to eliminate human-to-human contact. Schools would temporarily have to operate on the internet; not necessarily a bad choice. Many jobs could continue from people's homes but obviously not all. Travel by any form of mass transit would come to a halt: planes are known to spread pathogens fast with re-circulated air. Filters might catch bacteria but not viruses that are many magnitudes smaller.

As it stands now, I am not planning on any traveling later in the summer and certainly would not think of buying tickets for events from August on in advance. Yes, perhaps I'm being overly cautious, but so far being careful has served me well, such as in this financial chaos. I would have smelled a rat in a Madoff-type character from the beginning but then, I'm quite good in being able to recognize a sociopath. We were recently watching a Frontline special about said Mr. Madoff and his modus operandi. It amazes me how gullible people are: in their greed they will stop asking the simplest questions. If markets are down, how can a secretive finance "genius" get your investments a 20% return? Many people had warned about Madoff's Ponzi scheme and sent detailed information of numerous red flags to the Securities and Exchange Commission, to no avail. Perhaps people working for this government branch had all invested with Mr. Madoff, who knows. It was insulting to read in today's New York Times how investors are now demanding that the Securities Investor Protection Corporation come up with the money. We know what that ultimately would mean: we the taxpayers would have to compensate for the investors' blind greed. A simple rule applies to even the very rich: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

We have suffered from the financial swine flu and now it is time for the physical Porky's Revenge. I'm ready.

photo from Scientific American