Monday, December 7, 2009

The Creation Story

Michael Fong
Journal #21 The First Americans
December 7, 2009

"When he [the good mind] had made the universe he was in doubt respecting some being to possess the Great Island; and he formed two images of the dust of the ground in his own likeness, male and female, and by his breathing into their nostrils he gave them the living souls, and named them Ea-gwe-howe, i.e., a real people; and he gave the Great Island all the animals of game for their maintenance and he appointed thunder to water the earth by frequent rains, agreeable of the nature of the system; after this the Island became fruitful and vegetation afforded the animals subsistence." (The Iroquois Creation Story 20)

"Though David Cusick was one of the first Iroquois to record the oral literature of his nation in the alphabetic writing of Western civilization, contemporary Iroquois do not necessarily receive his work with praise. For instance, Seneca-Wyandot scholar Barbara A. Mann points out that Cusick inserted missionary interpretations of Iroquois creation stories into the text of his Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations." (From Finding a place for David Cusick in Native American literary history - Susan Kalter)

The above quote is from David Cusick's rendition of the Iroquois Creation Story at the part where the "good mind" creates humans, and the world as we know it to be. It also relates how the "good mind" gave rein to the humans to have control over the world that he created.

I was struck initially by the marked similarities between the Iroquois Creation Story and the Genesis of the Bible. The parallels are so unmistakable that passages between the two could be easily interchanged. God breathes upon Adam to give him life; the "good mind" does that too. God gave humans free rein of the earth and its living things; again the "good mind" did the very same thing. Even the fall of mankind is subtly hinted in the later parts of the story, where the "evil mind" was deemed to be responsible for the creation of reptiles.

The question remains now is that whether David Cusick, as suggested by Susan Kalter, inserted Christian interpretations of the myth and presented it to us modern readers in that fashion. Such undertakings are not completely of in history. For instance, there was a similar issue with Beowulf, where messages with Christianity connotations were inserted throughout the poem to the point that some question whether the poem was constructed by more than a single poet, or whether it was modified later by other individuals with the agenda to spread Christianity. It would be indeed be interesting to obtain the copy of the original myth for comparison to see how Cusick made modifications, if any, to the contents.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Christopher Columbus

Michael Fong
Journal #20 Christopher Columbus
December 1, 2009

"I came to serve at the age of twenty-eight years, and now I have not a hair on my body that is not gray, and my body is infirm, and whatever remained to me from those years of service has been spent and taken away from me and sold, and from my brothers, down to my very coat, without my being heard or seen, to my great dishonor. It must be believed that this was not done by your royal command...I did not sail upon this voyage to gain honor or wealth; this is certain, for already all hope of that was dead. I came to Your Highnesses with true devotion and with ready zeal, and I do not lie." (Columbus 34-35)

"So Columbus said, somebody show me the sunset and somebody did and he set sail for it,
And he discovered America and they put him in jail for it,
And the fetters gave him welts,
And they named America after somebody else." (Ogden Nash - Wikiquote)

In an attempt to clear his name and restore his reputation, Columbus wrote the letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, seeking pardon from the charges made against him at the time. He was ultimately successful, as Ferdinand went forth with the pardon, as the royal couple restored Columbus subsequently with his wealth as well as freedom.

The difference between this particular letter to Ferdinand and Isabella could not have been more different with the letter to Luis de Santangel regarding the first voyage. Every phrase and every word used in the letter all point to the desperation that Columbus held when he was writing it. I myself was brought up with the idea that Columbus was the virtuous and fearless voyager who discovered America, so to be brought to face the darker side of Columbus was, at first, extremely strange to me.

Nash's quote had a tone of pity and defense for Columbus, as he lamented the fate that Columbus was met with, a fate that he took to be unfair given the immense significance of the discovery that Columbus made. I beg to differ. One should always judge an individual on every episode of his life, and not just selective moments. What about Columbus' atrocities in the West Indies? What about the violent bloodshed and torture that he put to use during his brief stint as governor? Although those charges were never proven, it casts doubt and shadow over Columbus' character. This much could be said though, that we should never herald Columbus as the perfect, moral voyager as history books still present to our generation nowadays.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Puritans: the Chosen People?

Michael Fong
Journal #19 William Bradford
November 24, 2009

"Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies, and give them delivernce; and by His special providence so to dispose that not any one of them were either hurt, or hit, though their arrows came close by them, and on every side them, and sundry of their coats, which hung up in the barricado, were shot through and through. Afterwards they gave God solemn thanks and praise for their deliverance, and gathered up a bundle of their arrows, and sent them into England afterwards by the master of the ship, and called that place the 'First Encounter.'" (Bradford 119)

"The English in which it is written is that of the English Bible, or perhaps we should rather say the more popular language of the 'Pilgrim's Progress.' It is a language which Bradford uses with great effect." (G. Cuthbert Blaxland. "Mayflower" Essays on The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers. Ward & Downey Ltd., 1896)

Bradford records the encounter between the Puritan colonists and the Indians. Victory belonged to the colonists, and Bradford credited it to the workings of God. The protection of the Puritan colonnists from the arrows that the Indians fired was also said to be an act of God.

Blaxland categorized Bradford's language as that of the Bible, and in some ways, it is remarkably similar to the Old Testament. In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites, led by Moses to escape from the grip of the Pharaoh, underwent a similar journey to the promised land. The parallels are unmistakable; in Bradford's work, the theme of the Puritan colonists being on a divine journey could be observed. What is more interesting though is how Bradford fashioned the colonists. He included a reference of God in no less than nine occasions, and in each of the cases, God is said to be the direct cause of either the curse upon the enemies, or the success of the colonists themself. They saw themselves, in essence, as the Israelites, the chosen people. When mana rained from the Heavens, the Israelites rejoiced and knelt to thank God; similarly when Indian arrows spared the colonists, they took it as a form of God's protection.

However, the Puritan colonists, in my opinion, displayed the unfavorable traits of so many other groups of people before them who believed God was on their side and that they were chosen. The British, for instance, did the same thing with Indians as the Puritan colonists did with the Native Indians. Their religious fervor immediately led them to view other races as inferior and in need of enlightenment. Such mindset and mentality eventually sowed the seeds of slavery. The colonists adherence to the Old Testament blinded them in the virtues and qualities prescribed by Christianity. "Love thy neighbor"; "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The Bible could be interpreted in a great many different ways; it appeared that the Puritan colonists had their own separate interpretation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Anne Bradstreet

Michael Fong
Journal #18 Anne Bradstreet
November 19, 2009

"If ever two were one, then surely we. / If ever man were loved by wife, then thee; / If ever wife was happy in a man, / Compare with me, ye women, if you can. / I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold / Or all the riches that the East doth hold. / Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense. / My love is such that rivers cannot quench, / Thy love is such I can no way repay, / The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray. / Then while we live, in love let's so persevere / That when we live no more, we may live ever." (Bradstreet 206)

"A number of love poems written for her devoted husband, Simon Bradstreet—a busy colonial official often away from home—reveal a healthy sensuality and suggest that, although she was a Puritan, she was not puritanical." (Anne Bradstreet: An Overview. Thomas F O'Donnell)

In Bradstreet's "To My Dear and Loving Husband", she expresses her affection and love towards her husband. The theme of unity and eternal love could be observed in the poem, as well as the greatness of their relationship.

Writing in the age of Puritans, Bradstreet echoes one of the most famous Renaissance poets of all time in this particular poem, John Donne: "My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears...If our two loves be one, or thou and I / Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die". The language and tone is so alike that I would go as far as saying that this could definitely pass as a love poem written in the Renaissance by a man, were the genders be inversed. In "The Good Morrow" (the quoted excerpt above by John Donne), Donne incorporates the idea of mutual and everlasting love. O'Donnell mentioned that although Bradstreet was a Puritan, she was not puritanical, and surely this love poem to her husband is a clear example of such notion.

The equality and mutuality of the love expressed in the poem also could be interpreted as Bradstreet's perspective on femininity and gender. As opposed to the traditional, uptight, housekeeping wife, Bradstreet chose to profess her love in a direct manner, which was unorthodox for women at the time. I think, in a way, this is why Bradstreet was so popular within Puritans. True, they held to their beliefs with fervor and passion, but subconsciously desires and love, as described for instance in this poem, was repressed within their minds. Bradstreet echoes such ideas and thoughts, and as a result the Puritans at the time could, at a certain level, relate to what she was saying her poetry.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Michael Fong
Journal #17 Jonathan Edwards
November 17, 2009

"The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation. This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ. That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up." (Edwards 430)

"Never was there a happier combination of great power with great piety." (THOMAS CHALMERS, quoted by G. D. Henderson in Jonathan Edwards and Scotland, The Evangelical Quarterly, January 1944)

Upon his detailed elaboration on the workings of God and how He punishes the wicked, Edwards shifts the tone of his sermon. The second part of it starts with the above quote, focusing largely on converting non-believers into Christians, and those who were already Christians into more devout believers. The message of rebirth and redeeming oneself is dominant.

True, Edwards is a stout and devout Christian (to say the least), but he also possesses the power, as Chalmers put it, to impress his audience with his message. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" invokes the sense of fear. Not only did it invoke fear, but it extends the fear to the realms of the unknown, that is, one would never know when God will strike, and that every sinner is essentially at the hands of a God, a God who will act according to his pleasure. We all have heard sermons on how God is the Almighty and that sinners should repent for their sins, but to put the message in such a powerful way and to instill such emotion within his audience (one could but imagine how the audience reacted to Edwards' sermon) is a work of art.

The feeling that I usually get from Christianity is that to some extent certain messages are sugar coated. We believe in Christ, we are saved from hell and doom. We admit to our sins and pray for forgiveness, we shall be granted that provided that we are sincere. Edwards' approach is unique; he infuses both the anger of God and the terrible consequences should we follow the path of evil, and present us with the one and only way to escape from Hell. His message is direct and not dressed up in fancy rhetoric. The difference in being moved by religion and comprehending religious ideas, according to Edwards, is the difference between reading the word fire and actually being burned. In "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", he has succeeded, in a way, in lighting a fire on all of our backsides.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Declaration of Independence

Michael Fong
Jouornal #16 Thomas Jefferson
November 12, 2009

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain...And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another." (Jefferson 655)

"Nothing can be more absurd than the cavil that the Declaration contains known and not new truths. The object was to assert, not to discover truths, and to make them the basis of the Revolutionary act." (Letter to Thomas Jefferson by James Madison on September 6, 1823)

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson goes on an elaborate attack on the British Empire and King George in particular, citing his violation to the rights of life and his lust for violence as well as war for his own greed as crimes and sins. This passage was ultimately dropped from the Declaration of Independence.

Oppression is, throughout history, the fundamental root cause of most revolutions across the world. Whether it is the Roman slave rebellion led by gladiator Spartacus, or the English Revolution in the wake of the execution of Charles I, or the American Revolution, it could be seen that it is oppression that drives people to revolt and to rebel. It is within human nature, and indeed the nature of every other living organism, to push back when cornered, to attack when too much pressure and force is delivered. For Jefferson to stand up against the British rule, and to construct the document that influenced the United States for years to come is, in itself, a feat that cannot be easily matched within the history of this country.
Yet, as we shower Jefferson with respect and pride the Declaration of Independence as the ideal of America, we must also look at this country and her place in the world as of now. Isn't the United States edging closer and closer to what Britain did? Wars are being waged and still the agenda is unclear. Other countries are constantly forced to the brink by America, either by the strong hand of economical coercion or by simple intimidation of power. Jefferson claimed it as a right and duty to go against tyrannical powers in situations where revolution is deemed necessary. With the actions of America within the past fifty years, is she inching closer and closer to that boundary when other countries would rise up and revolt against her? One could but only hope the United States would not follow the path in which Britain ventured through three centuries ago. If the object is to assert truths within the Declaration, let us make sure that this country would adhere to them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Common Sense

Michael Fong
Journal #15 Thomas Paine
November 10, 2009

"Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord now is broken, the people of England are presenting addresses against us. There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did. As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mitress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain...Asia and Africa have long expelled her [Freedom]. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind." (Paine 636-637)

"History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine." (John Adams - Wikipedia)

In the quote above, Thomas Paine goes in an outright attack towards the British empire as a whole, accusing her of wrongdoings comparable to that of rape and murder. He ends by going on a ferocious lament on the gradual extinction of freedom in every other continent, thus singling out America as the "last free land"; the ultimate sanctuary for freedom, human rights, and peace.

Paine may not employ fancy rhetoric in his writing, but his "plain" style of writing is not, in any sense, a display of weakness in his arguments; rather, it cloaks the ingenuity
and brilliance of them. His mode of argument is so intricate and elaborate that the title "Common Sense" of his work seems all but a subtle suggestion of irony. I could not help but be reminded of yet another speech given by Mark Antony shortly after the death of Julius Caesar. Through the course of one single speech, Antony successfully turned the crowd from supporting and agreeing with the course of action of the assassins to a raging mob determined to avenge Caesar's death. The Roman public was thus turned to revolution against Brutus and his fellow statesmen, which in turn marked a significant change of political climate within the Roman Empire. "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears", began Antony with his speech, and what follows completely changed the mindset of the Romans and their perception of Julius Caesar. Isn't Paine doing a similar thing? Is he not declaring, "Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears", and designing within his arguments to refute and counter Britain? In "Common Sense", Paine's agenda is clear: to rally the colonies into joining the revolution against Britain, and through the course of his work he succeeded. His infusion of direct appeal of emotion to the public along with his clear, concise arguments (as opposed to the British mode of oratory, which tends towards the archaic and dense nature) indeed was a pioneer to the politics of America to this very day.