BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH!
LEGENDS OF THE FALLS
“Beware the Ides of March! Beware the Ides of March!”
Surely you remember not only these famous words of the old soothsayer to Julius Caesar but also those other famous lines on the steps of the Roman Senate as Caesar gasped out to his assassin and former friend Brutus, “Et tu, Brute!?” Well, if you had Mrs. Gossett as your ninth grade English teacher you remember them very well because you had to memorize and recite every line in front of the entire class. Or perhaps you recall the usual ninth grade smart-mouth response, “No, Caesar, I ain’t et nuthin’ yet”.
In the ancient Roman calendar Ides were the 15th day of March, May, July, and October and the 13th day of the other months.
It’s all from “Julius Caesar”, a play by one of Hollywood’s favourite scribes, Will Shakespeare. The play (and the 1953 film starring James Mason, Marlon Brando, and John Gielgud) tells the story of a Great Fall. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 classic film “The Conformist” he stages the assassination of the protagonist’s mentor in the manner of Caesar’s demise. In the fabulous 2005 BBC series “Rome” Ciaran Hinds plays Julius and does an excellently tragic performance of the death scene.
Whether it’s the downfall of an overly ambitious individual, the toppling of an institution or the demise of an entire people, the Great Fall is a rich Mythic Theme that offers lots of drama and wisdom.
Remember that myths are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world around us and within us. The Great Fall is a Mythic Theme often used to explain such universal imponderables as why there is evil and death, or why does a social system exist the way it does. It is also a paradigm for exploring the dynamics of personal success and failure.
Let’s take a look at some of the Great Falls in history, myth and story and also take note of how you can use this Mythic Theme in your own story-telling and how it may shed light on your own life experiences.
KINDS OF FALLS
There Goes the Planet -– Really Great Falls
From the Judeo-Christian Bible and the Islamic Koran there are Great Fall stories about arrogant Lucifer and the rebellious angels, the curious independent Eve and manipulable Adam, rival siblings Cain and Abel, the ambitious architects of the Tower of Babel, the Pharaoh doomed by the Israelites’ Yahweh to a hard heart and a watery grave, the magician Simon Magus, the despotic ruler Herod Antipas, and the thrice-denying Peter the Apostle, to name but a few.
These events — some legendary, some historical — have been fodder for story-tellers for centuries. A few examples include Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, “1001 Arabian Nights”, “The Silver Chalice”, Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part I”, Robert Graves and the BBC’s “I, Claudius”, Charlton Heston’s thesping of Moses in “The Ten Commandments”, HBO’s “Rome”, and Disney’s “Prince of Egypt”.
Reaching much further back in time are Hindu/Vedic accounts of the Fall of Atlantis caused by the arrogance of the scientist-sorcerers who misused their prowess. Echoes of this story appear in Plato’s and Edgar Cayce’s accounts of Atlantis. And then of course there’s Disney’s version, “Atlantis”.
From the Omaha Indians to Sumatra, from ancient Persia to Africa, most cultures have complex stories to explain the sorry state we’re now in, compared to that Paradise which surely must have preceded our times. An interesting aspect of some people’s version of the story is that in addition to humans being expelled from Paradise there’s a retreat by the gods, leaving us abandoned here on earth. The Norse gods leave via a rainbow bridge which coincidentally (or not) is also how Initiates of the Wisdom schools are supposed to reconnect their lower earthly selves with their higher spiritual selves. Sometimes the old Paradise deities are overthrown by more modern gods, ala the Greek Olympians overthrowing the Titans. “Clash of the Titans” [with hero Perseus played by Harry Hamlin in 1981 and Sam Worthington in 2010] deals with the fallout of that Fall. And for those of you enamoured of “Lord of the Rings”, read the intricate history of pre-modern Middle Earth.
For some people the concept of otherworldly visitors is evidenced in their supposed remnants such as the Nazca Lines, the Sphinx, the Bimini Road, Mayan, and Anazasi ruins and other megaliths around the globe. Some stories say that as the god-alien-creator-teachers left the planet they put up a huge “quarantine” sign to warn off other extra-terrestrial visitors since humanity was seemingly incapable of civilized behaviour. Not much has changed.
But regardless of how it happened, here we are, abandoned and isolated in a galactic “time out”. Lots of alien movies include some parts of this premise, as do many of our dystopic (apocalyptic) films. We seem to have a fascination with this theme of a collective fall from grace or expulsion from Paradise. Perhaps it’s simply the story-teller’s recognition that the scenario provides lots of dramatic conflict on a multitude of levels from the individual to the cosmic.
Think of: Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, Tolkien’s works, “Road Warrior(s)”, “Waterworld” (okay, try not to think of that one), “Tank Girl”, “Planet of the Apes”, “Escape From New York”, “Escape From LA” (see the former, forego the latter except for the scenery; hey, surf the Cahuenga Pass, dude), “The Fifth Element”, “Stargate”, some episodes of the “Star Trek” series, the TV series “Andromeda” and “Men in Black”. In Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, earth is an experiment run by multi-dimensional beings disguised as white lab rats and our Great Fall was simply part of a computer program designed to find the answer to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything.
Social Insecurity — Societal Great Falls
Just as history is written by the winners, so too are myths and legends often tailored after the fact to fit a party line.
The entire class/caste system of India is often justified by the Hindu religion as well as by profane custom.
Robert Graves’ book “The White Goddess” investigates European and Mediterranean myths as history-in-disguise and many advocates of the goddess religions stir politics into the mix.
Hitler’s vision of the Ubermensch (Superman) and a thousand year empire was a gross distortion of among other things, an ancient Tibetan philosophy dealing with so-called root races and the evolution of the human species.
A recent societal Fall that is still affecting most of the world via peace dividends, immigration, and loose nukes is the Fall of the Berlin Wall 1989.
The period between the two World Wars and right after WWII saw a lot of artworks reflecting what seemed like the Fall of civilization. The Dadaist movement promoted absurd and nihilistic works to reflect this perceived Great Fall. T.S. Elliot writes of “The Waste Land” and “The Hollow Men”. William Butler Yeats wrote:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Sound like our recent political shenanigans?
The existentialism of early 20th century Europe produced an entire philosophy of the fallen via Kafka, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, and their ilk. Yet lest we think we’re all off to Hell in a Handbasket, let’s not forget that these times also spawned incredibly idealistic art and literature as well, e.g. Kandinsky, Rilke, the Impressionists, Yeats, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. And how about “Atlas Shrugged”, Cole Porter musicals, and Frank Capra films.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on the mythology of victimization and whose religion gives whom property rights. Okay, so it’s also about a warm-water port and military staging area for the Western powers, but other than that….
During the Bosnian conflict one reason given for the flare-up of ethnic hostilities was the revival of old myths and histories about who conquered whom centuries ago and who were the fallen ones who would perpetuate again their aggrieved victim status. Weird, weird thinking. Ditto in the genocidal massacres of Rwanda.
Tales of the American West and American history in general have changed over time as the politics of justifying the status quo has been influenced by the demands for truth and reconciliation about slavery and genocide.
Currently in the category of Societal Great Falls is the Catholic Church with its continuing scandals of sexual abuse by clergy.
Some stories about societal Great Falls include “The Alamo”, “Gone With the Wind”, “Dr. Zhivago”, “Little Big Man”, “Dances with Wolves”, “Roots”, novelist Paul Scott and the BBC’s “The Raj Quartet”, Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave”, and novelist Gary Jenning’s “Aztec” series.
I’ve fallen and I can’t get up – Personal Great Falls
On a less macrocosmic level we have the Great Falls of many an individual. In history there’s the aforementioned Julius Caesar, French General and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, that cake-eating French Queen Marie Antoinette, disgraced former American President Richard Nixon, televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, the vapor-stock bad boys of Enron, and now all the investment bankers, giant insurance companies, and real estate brokers, along with most of Wall Street.
Fascinating as some of those larger Great Falls that involve the entire species or a culture might be, we typically find stories about individuals more accessible.
Many stories portray the personal Great Fall: the Mesopotamian historical-mythic king Gilgamesh (who was eventually redeemed), the Biblical anti-hero Samson who was shorn of his power-hair by beauty school dropout Delilah, Puccini’s petulant opera princess Turandot who was felled by love, Kane of “Citizen Kane”, the greedy Gordon Gecko in “Wall Street”, both Gloria Swanson and William Holden in “Sunset Boulevard”, the outmoded cowboys in Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”, bad-boy Raven (Willem Defoe) in “Streets of Fire”, the despair-driven anti-hero of “Falling Down”, Captain Peter Quincy Taggart in “Galaxy Quest” (who recovered from his own fall to become a hero), and from the annals of TV history – “Dallas”’s JR Ewing.
Though we don’t know the cause for this personal Great Fall, a favourite take on taking a dive is the 19th century English poet Percy Byshe Shelley’s piece Ozymandias.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
”My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Sound a little bit like Iraq these days?
Reasons for Falls
There are some generally accepted reasons for Great Falls of the personal or societal nature.
To reign is worth ambition, though in hell:
Better to reign in hell than serve in heav’n.
John Milton, “Paradise Lost”
From Greek myth the ambitious young men Phaeton and Icarus both had tragic falls from the sky, the former from his dad’s sun chariot that he couldn’t control after all and the latter because he disobeyed his dad, flew too close to the sun and melted his wax wings.
The Senators who assassinated Julius Caesar did it to save Rome because Caesar had become too ambitious. Napoleon was also overly ambitious in his attempts to conquer Russia and was felled by winter weather and then by Wellington at Waterloo. The lesson was nicely put in that silly song from the sixties, “Every puppy has his day, every body has to pay, every body has to have his Waterloo.”
In “Wall Street”, the Charlie Sheen character was felled by ambition. Needless to say, greed also fits nicely into this category. Though their victimized men had other motives that led to their downfall, the manipulative women of “Double Indemnity” and “Body Heat” seem quite driven by ambition. As was Faye Dunaway’s character in “Network”. And how about the inappropriate ambitions of Jon Voight’s “Midnight Cowboy” and the overblown ones of Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull”. An amusing approach is seen in Mickey’s ambitious broom marching in the “Fantasia” episode “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.
“Everyone gets everything he wants.
I wanted a mission, and for my sins
they gave me one.”
Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) in “Apocalypse Now”
Pride aka Hubris
“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
Besides ambition, another powerful reason for a fall from grace is pride, or hubris. Now hubris is an interesting concept. Basically it means pride, but mythologist Joseph Campbell and others have pointed out that it’s usually a pride based on creative power. As in, someone thinks they are so powerful that they can rival the gods and they often go on to actually challenge some god or another, most often with dire results.
Taking the creative power concept even further is the interpretation of hubris as pro-creative or sexual power, as in, having the potency and ability to actually create life. You could say they’re too big for their britches, in a sexual sort of way. Needless to say this sort of swaggering about by mortals really ticks off the gods and there’s usually holy heck to pay.
Some examples of characters plagued with the fatal flaw of hubris in its various forms include Oedipus Rex, the Greek king who unknowingly slew his father, married his mother and had children with her. Cassiopeia, Queen of Ethiopia bragged that she was more beautiful than the goddesses and a plague was visited upon her country.
Then there’s Mozart’s anti-hero Don Giovanni from his opera of the same name, whose pride in his sexual prowess gets him snatched away down to hell.
A Zambian story tells of the first man Kamonu who kept trying to gather more goods and powers from his creator god Nyambi. Nyambi and his counselors retreated first to an island, then to a mountain peak, and then up into the sky. Kamonu was determined to storm Nyambi’s new home so he and his descendants started building a tower. They cut logs and built, cut more logs and built it higher, higher and higher. But their engineering skills were a bit primitive yet and the whole thing became top-heavy and shuddered down into a heap of logs, leaving heaven unassailed.
Sounds a lot like the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel built to reach up into the heavens and bring man to the level of god. Once again, not a smart idea. The Israelite’s tribal god Yahweh looked down on the progress, apparently got a little spooked by the results and “confused the tongues” so that the workmen could not communicate any more. Construction stopped as humans fell into raging fits over multi-lingual situations, and we’re still dealing with the mythic decline from a proto-language. And all because of some ambitious architects and a territorial god.
A number of other cultures have this same story. One almost wonders if there isn’t some ancient historical truth echoing behind this recurring myth. Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” makes fascinating use of this idea.
The story of Doctor Frankenstein is also about hubris. After all, the good doctor was angry at god about his mother’s death and determined to beat death by creating life independent from god. All well and good, until as we all know, the creature turned on him because he wouldn’t create it a mate.
Besides “Frankenstein” some other characters felled by hubris are the scientist in “Terminator II”, Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”, and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. In their stylish pre-“Matrix” movie “Bound”, the brothers Wachowski show a gangster named Caesar felled by his blind-siding pride over his own smarts and choice of babes.
Pleading the Fifth or, Is that a fig leaf I see?
During Watergate the joke going around Texas was that Nixon should have remembered the two rules of Texas politics. Rule One: Do anything you want, just don’t get caught. Rule Two: If you do get caught, turn State’s evidence. That aside, it was the elaborate cover-up that ultimately led to his downfall and to the Redford-Hoffman film “All the President’s Men”. In “Frost/Nixon” we see the shakeout from Watergate.
It’s not just the crime, it’s the cover-up. Interestingly enough some of the most interesting parts of stories about Great Falls come after the Fall. Think about it. Presumably if one were to confess and beg forgiveness all would be well, but to deny culpability adds insult to injury.
In the Bible story Eve said, “Yeah, I do want to be wise and as the gods so I will eat of this tree of knowledge after all”, and Adam simply did what she told him. They hid from God at first and covered up their nakedness. Then when found and confronted Eve admitted to having been beguiled by the serpent and Adam pulled the Nuremberg defense — “I was just following orders from my superior…that babe you made for me made me do it.” In this early version of being impeached out of office, their cover-up got them turned out of Paradise and an angel with a flaming sword was set to guard the gates. A huge lifestyle change brought about by that Great Fall and attempted cover-up.
When Cain slew his brother Abel and then Yahweh went to check it out Cain made that famous plausible denial, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Though he was ousted from the first family fold, Yahweh put a protective mark on Cain so no one would kill him, yet presumably he was still recognized as a killer. Sort of like notifying the neighbors when a sex offender moves in.
And speaking of being branded, Oedipus Rex marked himself after his Great Fall by blinding himself. Perhaps this perpetual punishment is what Shakespeare had in mind as he noted in “Julius Caesar”,
“The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.”
Besides the horrendously incorrect behaviour of the offending priests, a huge part of the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church is the fact that the Church kept moving the offending priests from parish to parish, perpetrating a cover-up that is shredding the formerly sacrosanct concept of a celibate all-male priesthood.
And speaking of shredding, what lesson did we learn from the Enron-Andersen debacle?
Some films which deal with the cover-up aspect of a Great Fall are: “Silkwood”, “The China Syndrome”, “LA Confidential” and “Chinatown”, “Smartest Guys In The Room”, and “Frost/Nixon”.
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Now some of you must be saying, “But what about Love? Love fells many.” Yes, but that’s usually a two person deal. And we’ll get into much more about Ah-Love in an upcoming article, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
EXPLANATIONS FOR GREAT FALL STORIES
Frank Herbert wrote in Dune that “Deep in the human unconscious is the pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”
Humans seem for the most part to have a Jiminy Cricket inbred sense of right and wrong, an innate idealism of how things should/could be. And yet, reality just doesn’t quite match up. Rather than accept reality as reality we seem ever so much happier coming up with a reason for why reality is not as we would wish it to be. Hence our stories of why we are alone, how evil came to be, and why life isn’t fair. One Hollywood style theory is that we all signed onto the shoot with the working title “Bowl of cherries, piece o’ cake” but by the time we got here there were pink pages in the script and it was too late for us to renegotiate the contract.
Regardless, we are intent on explaining the situation. After all, if we can explain it then we might be able to fix it. It’s sort of like when someone breaks up with you and you search and beg for the reason, thinking desperately that if you know the reason you can address the reason and reclaim the situation. Give it up. Sometimes there just isn’t any reason or even if there is it’s way way beyond you to fix it. Out of that mentality come stalkers, sophomoric poems, and country-western songs. Or as the book and movie says, “He’s just not that into you”.
Another reason for our fascination with the Great Fall of others is Schadenfreude, that malicious joy we have at other’s misfortune. Remember “Dangerous Liaisons” and it’s post-modern version “Evil Intentions”.
We’ve a morbid fascination with pulling down arrogant, ambitious people. As John Travolta warns in “Pulp Fiction”, “Pride only hurts, it never helps.” There seems to be something almost tribal and herd-like about wanting to bring down any individual who rises too high above the norm. We demand heroes and celebrities and then relish their demise; just cruise the tabloids for evidence of this tendency.
And maybe part of it is simply the cyclic nature of reality: the sun rises and falls, empires rise and fall, people rise and fall.
But take heart. As General George S. Patton, Jr., observed, “It’s not how far down you fall, it’s how high back up you bounce.”
TIPS FOR FALLING
If your story or part of it is about a Great Fall, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Decide what your heroine’s Fatal Flaw will be. Is it pride, ambition, greed, or that pro-creative hubris?
Foreshadowing is a writer’s tool that needs a deft hand. You want to get your audience tuned in right away but you don’t want to give away the story. Two examples of foreshadowing aspects of a story are the opening starship chase from “Star Wars” wherein you immediately know it’s going to be a David-versus-Goliath story and in the opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where you learn that Indy loathes snakes and sure enough, has to face that fear to save the day.
Remember to have correlation between the Flaw and the Fall. In other words: Live by the sword, die by the sword. See “Predator” for a series of examples.
Observe the fine line between pride and self-esteem, it can provide a rich character arc.
Draw out the dramatic tension with a cover-up. Or perhaps your story will be mostly about a cover-up. In that case have the thing that caused the Great Fall (pride, ambition, greed, etc.) continue to cause problems. Or have the character attempt to clean up their act but still get caught. Or, get away with it but we know they’ll always carry the guilt like Cain in the Bible and George Clooney’s character in “Michael Clayton”.
Will your hero or group be able to rise again or will they share the fate of this nursery rhyme character?
Humpty Dumpty, sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty, had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
If you choose acts of redemption, be sure they too align with the Flaw and the Fall. It sounds simplistic, but the trick is to get nuances of each so that the hero meets the same problem but deals with it this time from a higher awareness, like in “Wall Street”.
“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Lord Acton [1834-1902]
Supposedly we can learn from each other. If so, then you as story-teller can give us insights into the perils of pride and the pitfalls of power so that through your art we just might be able to avoid the mistakes of others or to find a path to redemption.
“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touch-stone of our judgment.”
John F. Kennedy October 26, 1963
May you always find the poetry and put it out there with power.
Make Great Myths!