Friday, January 1, 2010

Striving for a Better World, Starting Now in 2010

An article of the December 2009 Economist entitled “Onwards and Upwards”, discusses the concept of "progress" by introducing the story “The Tragedy of Man” an 1862 allegory by Hungarian writer Imre Madach. The cautionary tale follows the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden as told from Adam’s perspective--a man’s perspective. Adam boasts peevishly: “My God is me; whatever I regain [of Eden] is mine...”

The tale plays out a little like the Ghost of Things to Come segment in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The three main characters of Adam, Lucifer and Eve, travel through time to visit turning points in our history. Lucifer easily convinces Adam that life will prove meaningless and mankind is doomed. Adam and Lucifer appear at the beginning of each scene, with Adam assuming various important historical roles and Lucifer usually acting as a servant or confidant. Eve enters only later in each scene, playing a minor role.

As we move through time, Adam glimpses the glory of the Egyptian pyramids only to discover that they were built on the misery of slaves. Rejecting slavery, he advances to Greek democracy only to see heroes condemned, and turns to the worldly pleasures of hedonistic Rome. Sated but ironically empty, he seeks the chivalry of the knights crusader only to witness their debauchery and hypocrisy. He turns to equality and the rights of man only to see it curdle into Terror under Robespierre. He embraces individual liberty, which crumbles under the greed of Georgian London financiers. Finally, at the twilight of humanity, a scientific “utopia” dictates that Michelangelo make chair-legs and Plato herd cows because art and philosophy are not considered useful.

At the end of Madach's poem, Adam stands suicidal at the precipice of “the end of time” ready to throw himself off the cliff, having witnessed that man has no guiding principle except violence and greed. Adam pleads with Lucifer, “Let me see no more of my harsh fate: this useless struggle.” Then Eve approaches him with news that she carries their child. And God counsels him to change his perspective and not reckon his accomplishments on a cosmic scale. "For if you saw your transient, earthly life set in dimensions of eternity, there wouldn't be any virtue in endurance...It is human virtues I want, human greatness."

I'm not sure why I find this end and "God's parting message" a little lame and his definition of "man" (and I include every living being) rather limiting.

Perhaps it is because I am a woman and this remains in some important ways very much a man's story. Eve's role in the tale is deligated to that of "supporting actress" and one of simply providing progeny (though one could take that metaphor and soar with its possibilities. And it is her news that turns Adam around). Where is the woman's perspective--and her true contribution--in the story? Where do we see compassion in the face of adversity? Where do we see hope in the midst of despair? Where do we see cooperation among "competitors" and a solution -- and alternative -- to violence and war.

Perhaps it is because I believe that divinity dwells inside each of us and we are all destined to become more than we are. I don't mean this in a hubristic way like Adam's boastful challenge. I am not talking about the power or greatness of wealth or technology or pedigree or race or belief.

Perhaps it is because I believe in the "higher self" that resides inside each of us and guides our moral progress to become better individuals, and accounting for why people are willing to suffer for their beliefs and sacrifice something of themselves for the well being of all other beings and things through moral sensibility.

Perhaps it is because I believe in heroes and moral courage (see my Christmas post), in divine destiny, universal intelligence and the power of love.
Madach's dramatic poem remains a classic. The Publisher's Weekly says, "Madach passionately examines such themes as human destiny, the illusory nature of free choice and the inability of science and technology to deal with moral issues." But, it was written in 1862. Where are our modern allegories?

Happy New Year, everyone! Let's make 2010 a splendid year.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

This time of year is always an optimistic one. Let's make it last until 31st December. have a great year!

Anonymous said...

Which translation did you read?

Before commenting on your blog, I found a translation by GEORGE SZIRTES

It is a very interesting and compelling piece.
For me, the core of the story is a quest to understand the meaning of life.
The opening scene introduces order and chaos through a dialogue between God and Lucifer.
The definition of man is how Madach imagined Lucifer would define man and man's relationship with God.
As expected, Lucifer doesn't have much respect for God or for man.
Lucifer's avowed objective is "negation" - death, discord, chaos.

The following scenes are dominated by male characters like the history of civilizations being portrayed.
I find that Eve's part, though smaller in terms of lines of dialogue, shows compassion, seeks the light.
In the end, it is Eve that understands the song (message) of the angels.
Adam can only guess the meaning.

The conclusion of the tragedy is that man has choices. The noble choices will be tougher and the pay off will be slower.
Conversely, as most of the story and history bears out, opting for the easy path and immediate pleasure ultimately leads to pain, suffering and death.

Thus I think that Madach's theme is that the meaning of life is to return to God's path, to act for Him through virtue and compassion, that the path isn't easy but it is the path to long term happiness.

I think that The Publisher's Weekly incorrectly tries to tie "the inability of science and technology to deal with moral issues" to the theme of the story.

You were looking for "cooperation among 'competitors' and a solution -- and alternative -- to violence and war" in Madach's prose.
The piece was meant as a consideration on the meaning of life, not how to act. The painful scenarios that Lucifer puts before Adam show the consequences of straying from God's plan. Adam gets to the point where the future consequences are too much and is prepared to nip it the bud by committing suicide.
That Eve is bearing their child gives Adam a reason to live and brings him closer to the enlightenment that Eve ultimately attains.

I think that your belief in the "divinity that dwells inside each of us" is shown in the Madach's story. But each of us is free choose to embrace that divinity or to take other paths.

You ask where are our modern allegories. On one hand, 1862 is still very modern. That is less than 150 year ago given that Madach's story covers 1,000's of years and many key points in time. He also moves into the future and eventually put's Adam in space.
On the other hand, the allegory you seek may well be out there, lost in the noise of the here and now.
Distracted by LOL Cats and inebriated stuffed animals (yes, I am talking about you Toulouse!).

The Climate Change literature and negotiations that are here and now seem to parallel what Madach was getting to: Humanity must choose between a long hard path to sustainability or continue to seek short term gain - giving into emerging economies need to industrialize without the expense of being clean.

Best wishes for 2010. May our choices lead to long term peace and harmony.


SF Girl said...

Limberger, you speak wisely -- again -- good thoughts...good words... and you do a good job summarizing the main points in the translation by George Szirtes.

...yes, Toulouse can be very distracting, especially when he's inebriated!

Maroussia said...

It will be great to watch A Christmas Carol, i have bought tickets from looking forward to it.