Symbolism in Homer’s Odyssey: On the Blindness of Polyphemos

As many of you know, I have been teaching Homer’s Odyssey for four years now. During this time I have taught it four times to high school students, and I have also had the pleasure to teach community members and parents for the last three years in bi-weekly seminars. So, by the end of this year, I will have taught this Ancient epic poem through lecture and seminar seven times. Add to that my reading it during graduate school, taking an Ancient Greek preceptorial on it, and having “read” it in undergraduate education, and this is my tenth time going through the ancient epic. So, it is high time to share some mature reflections on the meaning of certain key moments in the text as something of a celebration of this feat! Today, we will begin with the cyclopes episode and the dread monster, Polyphemos.

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As almost everybody knows, during the “cyclops episode” Odysseus gets himself into trouble looking for a “guest-gift” from a man with savage and wild nature, who also happens to be a giant, man-eating cyclops. This cyclops eats six of Odysseus’ men, famously believes Odysseus when he calls himself ou tis or Nobody, and is eventually physically blinded by Odysseus before calling down a curse on him after he reveals his name. Below, we will consider the ways in which Polyphemos is illustrated as truly blind, regardless of whether he has his physical sight, and that in fact he only “sees” after he loses his capacity for physical sight, much as the illuminated poet of the Phaiakians, Demodokos, cannot physically see anything but the truth of stories, and the blind prophet Teiresias, cannot physically see, but can see the truth of the future.

The four examples of Polyphemos’ blindness to intangible truths is illustrated in four events: 1) his blindness to being deceived about Odysseus’ “given” name, Nobody; 2) his blindness of the fact that Odysseus would dare injure or kill him; 3) his blindness to seeing the path beneath his rams as a means of escape, and of course 4) his blindness to the fact that a small and insignificant appearing man might be the very man of prophecy who was sent to bring about his blindness (sort of similar and opposite to another man sent by prophecy to the Western world to alter one’s vision.) Let us now consider what these illustrative examples teach us about the true nature of the cyclops’ sight.

First and foremost, one immediately knows that sight and seeing will be huge parts of this episode by the fact that Polyphemos is a cyclops or a Kuklos+ops=Circle-eye. Though he is reported to have “brows” which are singed by Odysseus’ olive-brand, the cyclops is known to have one eye by nature or due to some injury at another time. The point, however, is to note that a creature with one eye lacks depth-perspective in the natural world, but in this world of epic imagination, his one eye indicates his lack of perspective in general.

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How he demonstrates his lack of perspective* is by the following acts. First, Odysseus lies to him multiple times: the first time, Polyphemos asks after Odysseus’ ship’s location, and though Odysseus has 12 ships docked at the island, he savvily responds that Poseidon had destroyed his ship and that only he and his 12 companions remained. Later again, while Odysseus is ingratiating himself to the cyclops and the monster is consuming unmixed wine, the cyclops asks who Odysseus is, to which Odysseus famously responds: Nobody. All this goes to show, so far, that Polyphemos does not see through the words and intentions of Odysseus, whereas Odysseus in his responses to Polyphemos, clearly sees what the monster is up to. Therefore, if Odysseus happens to defeat the monster, who is much stronger and larger than Odysseus, the reason would be that seeing through, or having perspective, or cunning, is a more valuable skill than brute and blind strength. Odysseus, of course, does escape.

Next, the foolish cyclops assumes or does not see the threat posed by Odysseus. He falls asleep drunk, vomits up both wine and human remains, and leaves himself open to attack. To his mind, Odysseus would not dare attack him because only Polyphemos can move the boulder blocking the entrance to the cave. He has however miscalculated, failed to see, that Odysseus might come up with a circuitous and complex plan of escape, which involves physically blinding the cyclops. The cyclops therefore fails to account for a threat precisely because he does not see Odysseus as one. He pays with his physical sight for this. And as Polyphemos yells out that “nobody is hurting me by force or violence,” of course nobody helps him!

After losing his sight, Polyphemos then himself hatches a plot to catch Odysseus. He opens the cavern and sits himself at the entrance to touch and inspect the backs of his goats, sheep, and rams as they exit. That said, he fails to see that Odysseus and his men might just as well lash themselves beneath the rams and escape scot-free. He even fails to see, while wishing that his ram could speak, that it could tell him where Odysseus was. But since it always leads the pack, and today is so clearly weighed down, he fails to see that the ram has told him where Odysseus/Nobody is! And it is the cyclops’ foolish assumptions which keep him from seeing it! So, though his plan takes account of part of the whole situation, again he lacks the perspective necessary to see the situation correctly, or wholly, blinded by his own presuppositions.

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Lastly, as Odysseus and his men escape on their ships, Odysseus himself losing perspective yells out to the cyclops twice, both times risking disaster as the cyclops slightly misses the mark (hamartia**) throwing large boulders (one is called a mountain-peak) near enough Odysseus’ ship to wash it back ashore. The blindness, however, is even more lucidly illustrated by the fact that when Polyphemos learns the name Odysseus, he recalls a prophecy by a former prophet named Telemos who said that one day some Odysseus would blind Polyphemos. Polyphemos, however, trenchant in his blinding arrogance had expected a bigger and more exceptional man to fulfill this prophecy! So, he tragically, for himself, failed to see that a man who seemed to be weak and of no account, could be the fulfiller of his destiny. The man who would physically take the sight which he symbolically lacked. So, like Teiresias, the blind prophet, and Demodokos, the blind but illuminated singer, the cyclops loses his physical sight, but in this moment of realization he finally sees what has happened to him, and how symbolically fate tends to work! His physical sight blinds him to what is real, but ultimately, only through losing his physical sight does he acquire the insight or the hindsight that the prophecy about his blindness had already been fulfilled!

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*The word perspective of course comes from the Latin word Perspectivum, or an optical glass through one sees, from perspicere: to look closely.

**Hamartia comes from the Greek alpha-privative and marturos (seer/witness), so “not-witness”, or one who errs by failing to see the truth.

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On Eternity

There is nothing more shocking than realizing you have forgotten something you once knew so well. And realizing you are worse at something you once were very good at.

And yet all life is rise and fall.

And that is good–for whatever way do we know to live? Both heaven and hell, as perfect and unchanging, are such monstrous concepts because of this. But true infinity is the coincidentia oppositorum. The yin yang. The mobius strip–the symbol of infinity. Cosine and Sine. The wave and the trough. The eternal drama of one changing into two and back again. Motion is eternal and therefore always appears changing though it follows a set pattern. And that is how we experience living.

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Though many are familiar with religious and philosophical sayings about the beginning being the end, and the divine being a perfect circle (Plato/Campbell), or the circumference of a circle and its center (Augustine), or the alpha (first letter) and omega (last level), or the trinity (think in terms of time), the experience or representation of the divine is generally the outer limits of human experience or the totality of the representation. So, the alpha and omega are the borders to the alphabet (like the circumference and center are borders to the circle by defining or limiting its diameter), which represent the entirety of it. This, however, is not how humans experience the world. Though the eternity of the ocean might be helped by the flowing of rivers which find their sources in mountains (quite the coincidentia oppositorum there–the top of a mountain leading to the depths of the sea), humans, or people, do not experience the totality of being all at once, but generally temporally, or in part. And this is how most would wish to as well! For when I ask students about Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso they frequently respond in the same way!

“What does one do in heaven?” Of course they do not ask this about hell, because in all circles of Dante’s hell the sinners are suffering, except those hopeless few in Limbo. But this is a fine question–do the souls simply revel in eternal glory without willfully desiring anything else? Well, we can hardly imagine doing one thing with all our hearts and forever enjoying it–we think in temporal and material terms about diminishing utility, and how we could never be satisfied doing one thing for all time. And this makes sense given the fact that human nature strives always for growth sprung from conflict, and that life without change becomes stagnant. As the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus once said, “even the posset separates if it is not being stirred.” This is also born out perfectly well by our symbols for immortality or eternity–even on this vase painting below we see several:

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At the top edge is a conjoined chain, mobius strips, together symbolizing infinity, but differentiated into light and dark. We see beneath them two men, one white and one dark. Surrounding them are several other symbols of completeness: a circle comprising white and dark with a dark center. Four conjoined circles with lines through them. A square made of up of nine smaller squares with the space between being light and the squares being dark. And even in front of Polyphemos’ soon-to-be blind eye we see a symbol of the labyrinth, or eternally moving forward and inward. What these symbols represent, rather simply than the divine perspective of a god, is the more human experience of change, or cycle from one thing to another. For though the totality exists, and perhaps is how some divine being perceives things, like the author of a book with the whole story present in his mind, but it is the shifting of things, the turning of pages, until we reach the dramatic conclusion which seems most real to humans!

One of the best symbols for this is the shield of Achilles.  It is surrounded by Ocean and has the Heavens in its center. There is both dancing (leisure) and harvesting (work) occurring on it; there is a trial for a murder (an end) as well as a wedding (an end and a beginning–as represented by rings in our culture); and of course there is a city at war, and another at peace. Humans experience the totality of things only by experiencing the totality of things. Simply to see and understand the symbol does not provide one with such an experience, but it can guide one along the way.

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On the Nature of a Great Books Teacher

I am often asked what distinguishes a “Great Books” teacher from an average secondary-school educator, and the answer is both subtle and tricky. I suppose, at the base level, the response is that a “Great Books” teacher must be a true educator, rather than one simply manufactured by training. To be a true educator, here, does not suggest that a Great Books teacher knows more than an average teacher, but the Great Books teacher simply has a different orientation or attitude from the normal sort. This is to say that a GB teacher wishes to live a life of infinite and eternal learning. So, in a way, rather than pursuing traditional professional development, a GB teacher desires to be a life-long learner. And though this sounds like being a professor, and is in this respect, less time is spent championing issues, serving on committees, and publishing literature–this time is generally devoted to increased learning, more reading, and pursuing public seminars with a broader community of learners. GB teachers, then, cannot be trained, are rarely found, and are thus diamonds in the rough.

How, then, does one become a GB teacher? On the one hand, of course, there is the attitude of being a life-long learner, and ocean fed by the rivers of boundless thought. This attitude, though natural, may be cultivated in several ways, and in fact, must be in order to be maintained. The path that I, personally, took was to pursue graduate work at St. John’s College, a Great Books school, known for training teachers, specifically, in its graduate program. In the program at my high school which I designed, however, there are teachers from several differing backgrounds who have been successful: some come from undergraduate programs with Great Books emphases like Gutenburg College or Biola’s Torrey Honor’s Program. Others come from backgrounds in local home-school high school programs which focus on the Great Books like Escondido’s own Escondido Tutorial Service. And then others come from traditional teaching backgrounds and learn the ins and outs of navigating great literature through in-house and community seminars run by veteran teachers. The cash-value, or bottom-line difference, thus, is that a GB teacher focuses on process over methodology and values communal, seminar-style learning over the more medieval lecture based curriculum and the more recent project-based learning model currently gaining traction. In pursuing an education which connects us to the past, not only the books, but even the methods lead us backwards.

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This attitude, therefore, of being a life-long learner redirects the current model of education from “giver-of-knowledge to recipient” to the more effective, and more honest model of “fellow seeker, or warden seeking to learn alongside another.” One then connects with one’s students through exploring the depths of the minds of the great thinkers together. One acts more as a final cause, always pushing forward by leading alongside one, rather than pushing from the back as an efficient cause and insisting on rote learning and the stifling practice of espousing unit goals, learning outcomes, and essential questions. What guides a Great Books teacher, and this takes art, which is to say more than simply training or knowledge, is the flow of thought in the current moment about an ancient idea–very much similar to Dante’s perception of the mutable image of the griffin in Earthly Paradise. Though the essence of thing remains unchanging, its image is constantly shifting. a Great Books teacher, therefore, recognizes well that one can never step in the same river twice, and yet one may step into a river many times.

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Essential to understanding the difference elucidated above is that the teacher does not view himself or herself as the giver of knowledge, but rather as a glass through which knowledge may pass–a mediator in the service of illumination. In Dante’s Purgatorio, Beatrice serves as an intermediary between Dante and the Divine which, like mentioned above, allows Dante to see the essential nature of the being through the mutable forms it appears to have. This is what a Great Books teacher does as well. Rather than considering himself or herself the source of wisdom, a GB teacher, as steward to the king (knowledge or truth), seeks to hone, refine, and clarify the knowledge which a great books shares, and in a way, to translate it to whoever his or her audience happens to be, and in whatever language or terms, such an audience speaks. A great books teacher must be a master of pathos, then, in this respect, and while a normal, average, teacher may be a cup filled to the brim with pedagogical tricks and formulae, and a relation of some strength to his curriculum, a GB teacher is an emptied cup, who shows his students how to fill their own by actually doing it himself. Most teachers are unwilling to show themselves in the process of learning–they feel it portrays them as less masterful because it shows that they do not know something. This is most unfortunate, because whether one studies Plato or Lao-Tzu, one perceives that the master does not know, but is always learning. And that is what he has to offer his students–how to learn, not simply “what-to-know”, its crass corruption. So, in its final analysis, an average teacher, overwhelmed by the pride of knowing, forgets what makes a teacher truly great: humility: which opens the golden path towards learning.

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Source:  (Dante and Virgil among the Envious on the mountain of Purgatory)

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On Geryon’s Spiral Flight

As many of you may know, I teach Homer, Virgil, Sophocles and Plato to freshmen at a charter high school, and I spent the better part of two years ago recording the topics and questions considered during our seminars. Since that time, a sophomore course has been added to continue pushing forward and building the Great Books curriculum here into a fully-fledged four year program. Featuring prominently in the current sophomore year is Dante Alighieri’s  Comedia, or Divine Comedy, as it is commonly referred to as. In this text, we go canto by canto, and sometimes line by line. As we have been afforded the deep pleasure to take Dante as slowly as possible, and to discuss in seminar-style varied and deep topics,certain insights have been awarded our efforts, and in the series here commenced, they will be shared in part. Though these conversations and topics are being shared late, they will be all the more pleasant to read through on account of the acquired erudition the interim between event and written account has allowed. That said, the insights below are fresh.

“Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail,
who crosses mountains, shatters weapons, walls!
Behold the one whose stench fills all the world!
So did my guide speak to me,
and then he signaled him to come ashore
close to the end of those stone passageways.
And he came on, that filthy effigy
of fraud, and landed with his head and torso
but did not draw his tail onto the bank.
The face he wore was that of a just man,
so gracious was his features’ outer semblance;
and all his trunk, the body of a serpent;
he had two paws, with hair up to the armpits;
his back and chest as well as both his flanks
had been adorned with twining knots and circlets.
No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics
more colorful in background and relief,
nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs.”
(Dante’s Inferno 17.1-18. Mandelbaum tr.)

Geryon, the symbol of fraud, with his just man’s face, covered in whorls and swirls (spirals), descends to the eighth circle of Dante’s Hell where the ten bolgias of the sin Fraud, and its many manifestations, are included. To understand the significance of Geryon’s ponderous, yet quick and easy, spiral descent, one must compare Geryon to the Griffin, which is the dual-natured God, Jesus, at the top of the Mountain of Purgatory (itself created in the same event which created Hell). Just as Geryon, who appears just but is not, represents fraud, so does his flight downward represent the “untrue path” of following “false appearances.” That which seems good, but truly is not. That which appears one way but is not. That which is fraudulent quickly leads one down a dark path, essentially.

“I do not think that there was greater fear
in Phaethon when he let his reins go free—
for which the sky, as one still sees, was scorched—
nor in poor Icarus when he could feel
his sides unwinged because the wax was melting,
his father shouting to him, “That way’s wrong!”
than was in me when, on all sides, I saw
that I was in the air, and everything
had faded from my sight—except the beast.”

(Dante’s Inferno 17.106-114. Mandelbaum tr.)

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One must then compare this to the spiral path up the Mountain of Purgatory. To ascend this mountain requires time, patience, suffering, directed will-power, help from the divine (in helpful tips on the location of doors by invisible angels), and a clear and meaningful goal. Also, at the top of this mountain is the Divine (appearing as a Griffin),

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which leads you there the whole way as a Final Cause, rather than Geryon, who acts as an efficient cause or even simply an instrumental cause in lowering one into Fraud. This difference is fundamental and illustrative: the path of following false-appearances quickly leads one downwards, into immobility, torture, and blindness. This happens fast and effortlessly, of course. The path towards the divine takes concentrated toil, struggle, faith, hope, and relying on others (or one’s faith in the process) when the way seems hopeless or unending. And it takes a great amount of time. Does this not perfectly illustrate the difference between fraud and truth, appearance and reality? Try this new diet. Here, this workout plan is easy and quick. Become rich fast! Our world is full of “low-hanging” or rotten fruit. The truth requires discipline, courage, patience, faith, and brutal honesty. Ask any Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor, power-lifter, or even the Kung Fu Panda. The secret is that working hard and facing weaknesses is the path of truth. There is no shortcut which results in anything more than backtracking. Choose wisely.

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On Squares

The symbol of conscious consistency, mother-earth, and form both complete and incomplete, perfect and imperfect, we meet the square. With its straight lines interconnected at right angles, with its rigid uniformity, it serves as an image of conscious control, without the interweaving curves, arcs, and general constant change in perspective of the circle, or any curving shape. Just as a circle might indicate the whole picture, a completed analogy, or an enlightening metaphor, so does the square show the necessity of practice, routine, and regular habit. If a brilliant metaphor illuminates a course in a moment, the routine of the square illustrates the day-in and day-out struggle of slowly perfecting a craft.

For example, if one is a power-lifter, and one only trains three main lifts: squat, deadlift, and bench-press, well the majority of one’s days involve training, accessory work, and just tons of volume of lifting at sub-maximal weights. Very few days does one see major personal records. It is the same across sports and even in more classical endeavors. It is a beautiful thing reading a line from Vergil’s Aeneid in the Latin original and leaving it untranslated and savored as a whole in one’s mind–arma virumque cano. But the vast majority of my days studying Latin involve copying down and drilling paradigms and struggling through lexicons for obscure (and common) words. That is the province of the square–the regular, the every-day, the conscious willing which inches one towards the completion of any endeavor. And when it is does correctly, and does not fall into mindless repetition, each day, though structured similarly, has its own uniquely creative aspect.

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That said, the square also shares in that deformity as well–it may be a purely conscious endeavor unconnected with one’s personal myth, vocation, or teleology. If this is so, then one’s personal libido (energy store) begins to be depleted, and what inspiration begins and generally meaningful activity continues on becomes so much hum-drum that is only a parrot-discipline, lifeless routine. Think of someone you might call a square who never “thinks outside the box.”

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Plain and uniform, it represents the negative aspect of infinity as endless, Sisyphean routine. When properly aligned with the circle, however, one’s conscious movement curves with new perspective and goes in straight lines in order to achieve a conscious purpose.

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Against the conscious nature of a square as a representation of routine, it is also a symbol of order through the insight into necessity which an ordered or disciplined life begets. Though David Hume is undoubtedly correct in saying that we never truly and fully know the connection between cause and effect, through consciously willed-directed activity, one almost always sees results: whether in the gym, learning a language, or acquiring or refining any new skill, one understands that regularly directed and refined energy used in the service of practicing a skill, will improve one’s capabilities over time–to whatever extent one’s consciousness, or talent, allows–until (or unless) one “takes the next step” in a spiral-like fashion. In philosophy, necessity denotes an action which must occur or a conclusion that must be reached, without exception. Therefore, physical cause and effect falls short of necessity’s pristine perfection, but in this temporal, mutable, and fallible sphere, one’s own conscious efforts towards embracing the connections between cause and effect (by repeatedly employing a cause, training, in order to produce an effect, performing better) helps one to see, as far as is consciously possible, that the cause of something, though invisible, is that which is universal and immortal, whereas the effect, which received so much attention, is simply temporal and soon-to-fade. Squares represent that regularity which teaches one about the eternal principles that govern the temporary consequences.

So, just as the a city is measured by its blocks, and we measure our land by acreage, or square meters and square feet, so is our life largely measured by that which we regularly do. Just as Plato says that squares represent the “earth element” in his Timaeus, or that which is most stable in our lives, so does Aristotle assert that good habit, as opposed to simple routine, is one of the keys to a happy or meaningful existence. Therefore, just as the body is the necessary receptive principle of the active principle of the soul, so is the square necessarily conjoined to the circle in its representation of life. Circles show the path in all its perfected completeness, a whole story told. Squares show the method by which one practices to get there, with regular and steady consistency.

On Spirals

All life is a spiral upward, downward, or inward. Just as Dante’s Inferno is a spiral downward, like Geryon’s fell-flight, so is his mountain of Purgatory a spiral path upwards. Only Paradise, removed from material constraints, has true circles. In our own macrocosm, the Milky Way is a spiral.  And down to the microcosm, so is a snowflake, as Dr. Seuss reminds us in The Grinch, also spiral, or fractal in nature.

A spiral, or a twisted and labyrinthine line, curved infinitely inward, represents both physical and spiritual nature. Even look to the structure of the spiral itself. It begins with a point of departure from the pristine perfection of a circle–continues on a continuous slowly degenerating loop until it again fails to hit its starting point and loops back in on itself. How could this not be a representation of life in all its degenerating progress? Just as one attains greater consciousness and wisdom as one ages, so does the vitality of one’s body begin to fade. Perhaps just as when one marries, one turns one’s focus to a new family, and certain friendships or more tertiary ambitions fall to the wayside.

But spirals can also be directed outward, and while one’s loop is consistently going beyond one’s former boundaries, one can also expand or excel one’s limitations in other endeavors, almost unconsciously. As one begins to master a physical art, like Olympic Lifting for example, making great and deep strides which require an iron-like will, razor focus, and a great heart, one might return to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (only very loosely related) with a mindset primed and ready to learn up to or beyond the level attained in the prior sport. And that, like the spiral, is the deepest reason one pursues sports, as a measure of self-growth.

Not only does improvement in physical arts share its full expression through the spiral growth pattern. Really any measurable or immeasurable endeavor (harder to see, obviously)–which gives one’s self an opportunity to grow in a way that improves one’s capacity to learn and adapt, will invariably improve one to the next level in one’s art or craft–the deepest expression of one’s innermost nature. The greater one’s manner of self expression becomes (Language is the limit of our being?), the greater one’s conscious imprint on this world will be. This has very famously been called the true measure of a man. (know me by my effects?).

Every substantial form, at once distinct
from matter and conjoined to it, ingathers
the force that is distinctively its own,

a force unknown to us until it acts-
it’s never shown except in its effects,
just as green boughs display the life in plants.

Dante, “Purgatorio” (18.49-54)

And so the spiral shows the tripartite, or trinitarian, aspect of growth. Whether it be expressed as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or beginning, middle, and end, or as a man with an empty cup, who then fills his cup, and then empties it to fill it again, the spiral nature of becoming or degenerating is maintained in all endeavors. One must try, fall, and try again. Even in Jonathan Nolan’s brilliant new HBO prestige-show, Westworld, one sees both humans (The Man in Black–played by Ed Harris) and Hosts (Dolores). One sees that both the semi-conscious robots which inhabit this immersive, fun-house, west-style experience, and their violent delight-taking guests (humans) are both struggling to find meaning, to be truly conscious. And therefore a maze is designed as a sort of game to lead, or to the teach one, the way towards consciousness, or recognition of one’s place in the world, by recognizing the nature of the world. This process takes the form of traumatizing the hosts over and over until they finally develop trace memories of what has happened before–these memories are called reveries, and they very much upset the hosts usual Ground-Hog Day existence (they only ever live on a one day or one loop journey, and then as if the River Lethe were turned mechanical, they have their memories wiped after each loop.) One wonders to what extent this is a conscious analogy to us people who time and time again refuse to adjust and change, regardless of the negative results. It is as if we turn our backs on the truth. That said, at least one Host finds the center of the maze, reaches the next loop of the labyrinth, and expands “beyond her loop” to the next level of the spiral.

Dante would agree very much with this analogy for extending consciousness, having himself written (and supposedly had a vision of) a tri-partite after-life, very much with this analogy for extending consciousness. As would the apostle Paul, who tells us to become child-like. One must first be a child, and then “put away one’s childish things,” and then ultimately, one must again become childlike. One must empty one’s cup. One must become like the ocean and expand by placing itself beneath the raging rivers. A master begins as a white-belt, attains expert status as a black-belt, and eventually, his belt wears back through to white as he becomes a master. Such are the uniform lessons of the ever-changing spiral, ever growing outward, or inward, but always moving towards something, like Zeno’s paradox of the arrow which never reaches, but eternally approaches, its destination. Perhaps this is the limit of our mortal thought on immortality–forever becoming and striving against forever being–uniform and constant, without our beloved twists and turns, born of our own imperfect existences.