Thursday, May 31, 2007

Historical Fictions

As I sat at my computer last night waiting for Windows to set up, I browsed an essay by Hugh Kenner in his book of essays on literature, Historical Fictions. How excited I was to find the sentence, "The Bible in the same way was edifying if you knew how to go about not believing it."

Uh, what was that? Come again? Well, the sentence appears in a chapter titled "Ezra Pound and Homer":
...[W]e aren't even sure what the Homeric poems are; something more than bronze-age entertainments, surely? Our efforts to assure ourselves that we know what we're valuing have constituted much of the history of our thought. At one time the Iliad and Odyssey were esteemed as a comprehensive curriculum in grammar, rhetoric, history, geography, navigation, strategy, even medicine. But by the mid-nineteenth century A.D. they no longer seemed to contain real information of any kind at all. Had there ever been a Trojan War? Scholars inclined to think not. much as connoisseurs of the West's other main book were doubting that there had been a Garden of Eden with an apple tree, or that planks of an Ark might have rotted atop Mount Ararat. Both books got rescued by identical stratagems; the Bible was turned into Literature, and so was Homer. That entailed redefining Literature, as something that's good for us however unfactual. That in turn meant Nobility, and also Style. It also required Longinus to supplant Aristotle as the prince of ancient critics, and Matthew Arnold to become the Longinus of Christian England. He said that Homer was rapid and plain and noble: by Longinian standards, Sublime*. Those were the qualities a translator should reach for, in part to sweep us past mere awkward nonfact. The Bible in the same way was edifying if you knew how to go about not believing it. [italics mine] [p. 13]
Finding the concluding sentence seemed to me to be the same sort of discovery as the little scrap of paper marking my "definitive stop" quotation from Changing Places, a sign "designedly dropped," as Whitman wrote, a sign that despite my skepticism about books of revelation, there are revelations. Or is that but my wish-to-believe...or my overactive imagination?
__________________
* According to my indispensable copy of The Oxford Companion to English Literature:
Longinus, the name bestowed by a scribe's error on the author of the Greek critical treatise Περὶ ὕψους (On the Sublime) written probably in the 1st cent. AD. It locates the sources of poetic excellence in the profundity of the writer's emotions and the seriousness of his thought....

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Interpretation

Non interludus

The action in David Lodge's novel Small World: An Academic Romance takes up ten years after that in its prequel, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. At a conference hosted at Rummidge University by English Department Chairman Philip Swallow, Euphoric State University professor Morris Zapp delivers a paper:
"You see before you," he began, "a man who once believed in the possibility of intepretation. That is, I thought that the goal of reading was to establish the meaning of texts. I used to be a Jane Austen man. I think I can say in all modesty that I was the Jane Austen man. I wrote five books on Jane Austen, the aim of which was trying to establish what her novels meant—and, naturally, to prove that no one had properly understood what they meant before. Then I began a commentary on the works of Jane Austen, the aim of which was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle—historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, structural, Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, existentialist, Christian, allegorical, ethical, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it. So that when each commentary was written, there would be nothing further to say about the novel in question.

"Of course, I never finished it. The project was not so much Utopian as self-defeating. By that I don't just mean that if successful it would have eventually put us all out of business. I mean that it couldn't succeed because it isn't possible, and it isn't possible because of the nature of language itself, in which meaning is constantly being transferred from one signifier to another and can never be absolutely possessed.

"To understand a message is to decode it. Language is a code. But every decoding is another encoding, If you say something to me I check that I have understood your message by saying it back to you in my own words, that is, different words from the ones you used, for if I repeat your own words exactly you will doubt whether I have really understood you. But if I use my words it follows that I have changed your meaning, however slightly; and even if I were, deviantly, to indicate my comprehension by repeating back to you your own unaltered words, that is no guarantee that I have duplicated your meaning in my head, because I bring a different experience of language, literature, and non-verbal reality to those words, therefore they mean something different to me from what they mean to you. And if you think I have not understood the meaning of your message, you do not simply repeat it in the same words, you try to explain it in different words, different from the ones you used originally; but then the it is no longer the it that you started with...." [pp. 24-25]
I wrote in my post "Definitive Stop" on May 24, after quoting the corresponding passage in Changing Places: "Wouldn't it be nice if someone would write such a definitive series on religion?"

But ten years later, alas, Professor Zapp is saying that no one could possibly write such a series. While this might reassure those who hope to earn a living perpetually by writing works on religion, it could deeply trouble those who put great stock in the "Word of God" as revealed in their favorite "Holy Book"....

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Our own Tower of...

The original world envisioned in Genesis Chapter 11 "had one language and one speech" [Verse 1] and "the people [were] one" [Verse 6]. The Tower of Babel, far from being a tower of babble, was built as a monument to that unity—as a bulwark, somehow, to protect it:
Then they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar.
      And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth." [Verses 3-4]
It isn't clear why the people thought that building a tower into the heavens or making a name for themselves could prevent them from being scattered abroad. In fact, according to the story, they were scattered as a direct consequence of the construction—but apparently not as a punishment, because the scattering (or dis-uniting) is characterized as a calculated move on God's part to restrain mankind from achieving whatever "they have imagined to do." The author seemed to sense as perhaps some dreamers do today that if only everyone on earth could agree on some basic things, then we could end war and create a just world society.

We who construct into the blogosphere, are we building a monument out of the brick and asphalt of dialogue to affirm and celebrate our common understanding, or are we standing on our own soapboxes proclaiming our divergent wishes-to-believe and judgments of value? That is, are we constructing a Tower of Babel or a Tower of Babble?

It seems patently obvious to be the latter. In the blogosphere you're going to find various coteries. Among the more divergent (too weak a word in this case) are the Bush haters and the Bush supporters, two groups who speak such radically divergent languages that virtually no overall agreement on Bush will ever be reached. The languages of religion are not nearly so shrilly opposed, but each seems to have some particular understandings (or beliefs, whether or not "dogmatic") that cannot be shared, such as the nature of Jesus, whether Christ or not, whether son of God or not, whether divine or not. (And even people who call themselves Christians don't agree on the nature of Christ.) And you'll find "free"-thinkers (of whom I style myself). But who are they but people who tend to doubt everything (or, perhaps equivalently, to "believe all things")?

Nevertheless, people of courtesy, generosity, and good will can discuss their differences with respect and the hope of occasionally shaping their total understanding to a nearer accord one with another—even if there should never be again on earth a single people, a single language. For whatever reason (by an act of God or by the unfolding of neuronal complexity), there are many wishes-to-believe and judgments of value on this planet. And it looks to me as though there always will be, if they don't clash in a final cataclysm.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Babel

No, this isn't about Alejandro González Iñárritu's 2006 film. I haven't even seen it yet, but it's on my list.

Rather, this is à propos the one thing Freud knew for certain, which got me to thinking eight days ago about the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis, Chapter 11). I know that the surface story told there is that God "confused the people's language" and "scattered them abroad over the face of the earth." But whoever wrote the story was more likely promoting a myth to explain why there were, in fact, so many different languages.

What struck me about the myth of the Tower of Babel is that it could be a symbol not only for man's tendency to believe what he wishes to believe, but also for the rich mix of contrary wishes (or, in Freud's words, "judgments of value") that there in fact are on the face of the earth.

The very multiplicity of languages seems to reflect this diversity of values. In terms of the major religions (and speaking roughly, as a blogger does in his blabble, or blog babble), Hebrew is the language of Judaism, Greek and Latin (and the descending European languages) of Christianity, and Arabic of Islam—each intent on believing what it wishes to believe. The Christian believes Jesus was the Χριστός (the Messiah). The Jew believes he was no Christ. The Muslim believes that Jesus, far from even being the Son of God, was neither divine nor a Messiah but just another Messenger (and not even the last one, which honor is the Prophet Muhammad's).

And yet...and yet. "The world's just mad enough to have been made"...by a Creator who did, in some sense, scatter a diversity of wishes-to-believe and values over the face of the earth. Maybe the diversity is even something to celebrate rather than to try to homogenize for the sake of globalization, or spreading democracy, or enforcing religious fundamentalism—to celebrate, but to celebrate while continuing to look for overarching common wishes and values encompassing our diverging ones and enabling us, as a wise young woman put it to me, to "agree [amicably] to disagree."

Celebration may be an individual's choice and prerogative, but societies and cultures seem indisposed to celebrate. They seem to be swept up in the inertia of those global forces that threaten to engulf and destroy us.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Jane Austen again

Non interludus

I said the other day that I was finding David Lodge's Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses "replete with eminently quotable passages." True enough, but the passages I'd like to share with you tend to be little bits here, little bits there that, together, provide exhilarating twists and turns of plot. It's hard to share those without quoting more than is tolerable or providing, perhaps equally intolerably, summaries of intervening material.

So I'll content myself (and I hope you) by quoting the novel's concluding lines:
PHILIP: You remember that passage in Northanger Abbey where Jane Austen says she's afraid that her readers will have guessed that a happy ending is coming up at any moment.

MORRIS: (nods) Quote, "Seeing in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity." Unquote.

PHILIP: That's it. Well, that's something the novelist can't help giving away, isn't it, that his book is shortly coming to an end? It may not be a happy ending, nowadays, but he can't disguise the tell-tale compression of the pages.
(HILARY and DÉSIRÉE begin to listen to what PHILIP is saying, and he becomes the focal point of attention.)
I mean, mentally you brace yourself for the ending of a novel. As you're reading, you're aware of the fact that there's only a page or two left in the book, and you get ready to close it. But with a film there's no way of telling, especially nowadays, when films are much more loosely structured, much more ambivalent, than they used to be. There's no way of telling which frame is going to be the last. The film is going along, just as life goes along, people are behaving, doing things, drinking, talking, and we're watching them, and at any point the director chooses, without warning, without anything being resolved, or explained, or wound up, it can just...end.
(PHILIP SHRUGS. The camera stops, freezing him in midgesture.)
THE END
That's from page 251, so you can see that it wouldn't be a big investment of your time to pick up this delightful comic novel to enjoy yourself in its entirety. For me, it's on now to its sequel, Small World: An Academic Romance.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Leo Tolstoy to Czar Nicholas I as [ ? ] to Bush

Non interludus

In his short novel Hadji Murat (written between 1896 and 1904), Leo Tolstoy portrayed not only the Chechen hero of the title, but also his nemesis the Czar:
"Well, what else?" [Nikolai] said [to his minister of war].
      "A courier from the Caucasus," said Chernyshov, and began to report what Vorontsov had written about Hadji Murat surrendering.
      "You don't say!" said Nikolai. "A good start."
      "Evidently the plan devised by Your Majesty is beginning to bear fruit," said Chernyshov.
      This praise of his strategic capabilities was especially pleasing to Nikolai, for although he took pride in his strategic capabilities, deep down in his heart he was conscious that he had none. And now he wanted to hear himself praised in greater detail.
      "How do you see it?"
      "The way I see it is that if we had long been following Your Majesty's plan, gradually, albeit slowly moving forward, cutting down the forests, destroying reserves, then the Caucasus would have been subdued long ago. I put Hadji Murat's surrender down to this alone. He realises that they can hold out no longer."
      "That's right," said Nikolai.
      Despite the fact that the plan for slow movement into enemy territory by means of the felling of forests and the destruction of provisions was the plan of Yermolov and Velyaminov, and the complete opposite of Nikolai's plan, whereby it was necessary to seize Shamil's residence at once and sack that nest of brigands, and whereby the Dargo expedition of 1845 had been undertaken, costing the lives of so many men—despite this, Nikolai ascribed the plan for slow movement, the systematic felling of forests, and the destruction of provisions to himself as well. It would have seemed that in order to believe that the plan for slow movement...was his plan, it was necessary to conceal the fact that he had absolutely insisted on the completely contradictory military undertaking of 1845. But he did not conceal this, and was proud both of that plan...and of the plan for slow movement forward, despite the fact that these two plans were clearly contradictory to one another. The constant clear, vile blatancy of the flattery of those around him had brought him to the point where he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer adapted his actions and words to reality, to logic, or even to simple good sense, but was absolutely certain that all his instructions, no matter how senseless, unjust, and mutually incompatible, became entirely sensible, just, and mutually compatible simply because it was he that gave them. [pp. 74-75]

– translated by Hugh Aplin

According to the translator's introduction, Tolstoy realized that "his depiction...of Nicholas I...made publication of Hadji Murat under the conditions of Russian censorship quite unthinkable." Though Philip Roth was able to publish his satire of Richard Nixon (Our Gang) during Nixon's term of office and any number of writers have already satirized Bush in print, I wonder who might be writing something about Bush (and about our political inertia) so troublingly unflattering that it can't be published yet, even in America.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Only in small things?

I wrote yesterday that the single tiny scrap of paper I found in the library's copy of Changing Places marked the very page from which I wanted to extract my first quote.

Wednesday night, at a barbecue for university administrative staff, I somehow got into a conversation on such occurrences with my friend Jeff. He told me how one time someone who was stuffing envelopes at work asked him to get seventy-three more envelopes out of the box, and Jeff just pulled out a bunch seemingly at random and handed them over. A few minutes later, the person said, "Hey! You gave me exactly seventy-three. I bet you can't do that again." Jeff reached in and handed over seventy-three more, exactly.

"But," Jeff told me, "this always only happens in small things."

I told him I knew what he meant. "I have this idea," I said, "that when I fall asleep listening to a book on tape, my spirit self is still fully awake and knows how far back I need to rewind the tape. When I rewind later, I try to sense where my spirit self tells me to stop the tape."

Jeff looked at me to go on. "It works sometimes," I said.

A little later at the barbecue I got into a conversation with the bartender. He said he was a "rising senior" and would graduate next year with a baccalaureate degree in political science. I asked whether he planned to continue on for a graduate degree. He said, maybe later. He was interested in international politics and first wanted to travel, maybe work in an Asian country. He spoke well and with confidence. He seemed to me to have high aspirations and wanted to make a difference.

I wished him good luck. He said, "I don't know. There'll be lots of roadblocks along the way."

And I said, "Well, after listening to you, I have a sense that you'll surmount every difficulty that might present itself."

I wondered whether my sense of the young man's "destiny" was accurate. Or whether such a sense works only in small things....

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Definitive stop

Non interludus

I'm listening to David Lodge's comic novel Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses on tape, but having found it replete with eminently quotable passages, I borrowed a copy of the book from a library. Imagine my astonishment to find in it a single tiny scrap of paper marking the very page containing my first quotation!

The two campuses of the subtitle are Rummidge University, a fictional campus in England, and Euphoria State University, a perhaps equally fictional American campus except that it is obviously modeled on the University of California at Berkeley. (If I were more familiar with English universities, Rummidge U might not seem so fictional to me either.) The State of Euphoria lies between Northern and Southern California, and Euphoria State University is situated across the bay from the city of Esseph (S.F. for San Francisco). You get the idea.

The setup is that the two campuses have an exchange program, and the professors (of English) changing places for the six-month period (of the late 1960's) described in the novel are Philip Swallow and Morris Zapp. Their appointments have come about unexpectedly for both men, Morris's as a result of his wife Désirée's having demanded a divorce but agreeing to a six-month's delay if he'll just get out of the house.

In this passage, Euphorian* Morris Zapp, who at age 40 could "think of nothing he wanted to achieve that he hadn't already achieved," has just been asked by the Dean of Faculty why on earth he wants to go to Europe. He has to stop and think about it:
There was always his research, of course, but some of the zest had gone out of that since it ceased to be a means to an end. He couldn't enhance his reputation, he could only damage it, by adding further items to his bibliography, and the realization slowed him down, made him cautious. Some years ago he had embarked with great enthusiasm on an ambitious critical project: a series of commentaries on Jane Austen which would work through the whole canon, one novel at a time, saying absolutely everything that could possibly be said about them. The idea was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it; so that when each commentary was written there would be simply nothing further to say about the novel in question. The object of the exercise, as he had often to explain with as much patience as he could muster, was not to enhance others' enjoyment and understanding of Jane Austen, still less to honour the novelist herself, but to put a definitive stop to the production of any further garbage on the subject. [p. 44]
Wouldn't it be nice if someone would write such a definitive series on religion?
_______________
* Moristotle is a "Euphorian" also; I was born in Berkeley and might have taken UC Berkeley up on its offer of admission if I hadn't chosen to attend Yale instead.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mecca is where "the sacred there" is

In the context of pilgrimages, my reference yesterday to going on vacation could have been misleading. Going on a pilgrimage is not the same as going on vacation. And staying home to kick back in an easy chair is not the same as experiencing home as a destination worthy of pilgrimage—that is, as a "shrine or sacred place" (to quote The American Heritage Dictionary's definition of "pilgrim").

Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, that there was "no there there." But there's "there" and there's "there." The "there" that shrines have is a sacred presence. But I think it can be anywhere that we can bring the appropriate consciousness to.

I have for years often experienced the mundane as sacred, enjoyed routine tasks like making the bed or folding the clothes as sacramental. These mundane places and routines are ever present at home. The only journey we need undertake to reach them is spiritual, a road to mindfulness and awe. Awe-mindedness.

Home is for me the still point of which T.S. Eliot wrote:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
        [from "Burnt Norton," the first of his Four Quartets]
Home is the sweet spot where the dance of life can be engaged everyday, the dance by which Zorba the Greek celebrated and expressed life's sacred awe.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Where is Mecca?

Yesterday's post got me to wondering whether there's any place on Earth (or anywhere else in the Universe) that is "Mecca" to me. My first thought was that it certainly isn't Disneyland, and I've spent an hour on the Internet trying to find a drawing by Ralph Steadman showing a couple of tourists wearing a cap of Mickey Mouse ears leaning over the rail of the Fantasyland bridge throwing up into the moat. Alas, I couldn't find it. But if I do, I'll stick it in here. (Or if you know where it can be found, please let me know.)

The only place that resonates Mecca-like for me seems to be my home. I look forward to returning here every time I go out. I always enjoy returning home from vacation more than I enjoyed leaving home to go on vacation in the first place.

Surely I'm not such a homebody as that? This will bear thinking about further....

Monday, May 21, 2007

Pilgrimage

Non interludus

Among the English Roman Catholics portrayed in David Lodge's 1980 novel How Far Can You Go? [published in the U.S. as Souls and Bodies] is also the nun Ruth, who has been traveling around America studying changes taking place there in the lives of nuns. In Anaheim she visits Disneyland, where a couple sit
down on her bench to rest their feet, and the wife volunteered the information that they had come all the way from South Dakota. "Not just to see Disneyland?" said Ruth, with a smile, but they didn't seem to see anything amusing in the idea. "Well, we're seeing a lot of other places as well," said the woman, "but this is the high-spot of the vacation, isn't that right, Al?" Al said it was right. "He's always been crazy to see Disneyland," said the woman fondly, "ever since I started dating him."

It struck Ruth that Disneyland was indeed a place of pilgrimage. The customers had an air about them of believers who had finally made it to Mecca, to the Holy Places. They had come to celebrate their own myths of origin and salvation—the plantation, the frontier, the technological utopia—and to pay homage to their heroes, gods, and fairies: Buffalo Bill, Davey Crockett, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck....

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"This Film Is Not Yet Rated"

If you hadn't previously heard of the 2006 documentary, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," it could be because the film was rated "NC-17" (no children 17 or under) by the film rating board of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). And if you don't understand what that might have to do with anything—and you love movies and oppose censorship—then you owe it to yourself to watch this documentary.

I watched it last night and I was frankly appalled—and grateful that I learned about it (simply because the UNC film collection has it and I routinely search its growing list of consecutive call numbers assigned to films as they're acquired).

There are so many things of note in the film, but I'm going to mention only a few. One of the objectives of the director, Kirby Dick, was to try to identify the members of the rating board, whose makeup had for many years been a closely held secret, on the command of Jack Valenti (1921-2007), who created the rating board and was the MPAA's president for 38 years. Dick hired a private investigator and was successful in identifying all of the current members and exposing the fact that a number of them didn't fit the official MPAA profile of "average American with children." He also identified the members of the appeals board, to whom a film maker can appeal a decision of the rating board. Their identity had been even more closely guarded. And no wonder: they represent the corporate interests of the top production companies, who control around 90% of the movie business. Dick speculates that the secrecy and the corporate interest of the MPAA derives from Valenti's ties to government (he was an adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson) and to the movie industry. He candidly testified to Congress in 1968, when the rating board was created, that if the movie industry didn't police itself then undoubtedly government would police it. That is, the rating board was proposed as a self-defensive maneuver.

The MPAA is a lavishly funded lobbying organization, with a building in Washington to house its huge cadre of lobbyists. Through their efforts, Congress hears mostly about corporate interests (in strong copyright laws, anti-piracy technology regulations, etc.), and very little about consumer interests. Ironically, despite the rating board's assurance to Dick that no copy would be made of the tape he submitted for rating his film, a copy was made. But he had to do some more detective work to discover the fact. Ironic that this strongly anti-piracy organization should brazenly indulge in a sort of piracy....

One of the many things that I appreciated about "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" was its insight into the rating boards' role in violence's being so much more prevalent in American films than sex—just the opposite of European films, where sex is accepted as a normal part of life but violence is frowned upon. (But we all know that America is the most violent of "civilized" societies.) The corporation-friendly members of the rating board are okay with the depiction of violence (especially the dishonest variety that implies that shooting, stabbing, or cutting people is akin to make-believe—see, kids, people don't even bleed when you kill them!) But the depiction of sexual pleasure isn't okay (especially when it's a woman enjoying it; the board is much friendlier toward the depiction of rape and other forms of violence against women).

As I said, if you care about movies and abhor censorship (and the promotion of antisocial values) by people whose identity is not normally made public, then you should watch "This Film Is Not Yet Rated."

By the way, I do not recommend the Wikipedia's entry on the MPAA, which strikes me as a whitewash. But you might like to contrast its view of the MPAA to that of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"—after you watch it.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

One thing Freud knew for certain

Over the years I've seen so much evidence, not only in others but also in myself*, of people's tendency to believe what they want to believe that I now consider it virtually an axiom of what we might call the psychology of belief that people generally do believe what they want to believe—and selectively seek out reasons to support their beliefs.

So with some pleasure I discovered this morning, in reading George Prochnik's May 6 New York Times essay, "Hail to the Analysand," that Sigmund Freud knew this too—knew it for certain, he said. In Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote:
One thing only do I know for certain and that is that man's judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness—that, accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.
I say "Freud knew it too," but of course he knew it first and, because I read his book many years ago, his statement may have lodged in my mind waiting for me to corroborate it in my own experience.

If Freud's "certain knowledge" is a veritable straitjacket always and ever constraining people's beliefs (or their "judgments of value," as he says), how can people with different "wishes for happiness" ever come together in accord? That may be one of the central questions mankind must answer if world peace—or, at least, concord among bloggers—is to be possible.

But I wish to believe that there are ways to escape the straightjacket, that my "axiom of the psychology of belief" doesn't condemn us to wear it. In order to escape it—or at least to free oneself from a particular belief—certain conditions must obtain. It's time for me to start investigating what the conditions might be.

One happy thought is that there may be a seminal contradiction in Freud's understanding. For what if one's wish is that man's judgments of value need not always follow directly his wishes for happiness? What conditions must obtain for us not to believe something simply because we wish to believe it?
____________________
* Ironically appropriate to the theme of selectively seeking out reasons to support our beliefs, I read Prochnik's article because I expected to find yet more material condemning George W. Bush. The title of his article implies that the "analysand" (or person being psychoanalyzed) is someone we officially address with a "hail to" (as he swaggers awkwardly into the East Room or the Rose Garden accompanied by music supplied by the Marine Corps band or somebody). Prochnik takes off from the fact that another president had been a sort of analysand to Freud, who wrote a chapter titled "Thomas Woodrow Wilson" for a book by diplomat William C. Bullitt about the peace negotiations in Versailles following World War I.

Friday, May 18, 2007

God is not great?

How exciting, a new vitriolic attack on religion: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christoher Hitchens. Having been swept up into initial exhilaration and a few weeks of confusion by Sam Harris's book in this genre (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason), I'll approach Hitchens's book with circumspection. But read it I plan to do (God willing). Excerpts from Michael Kinsley's review, "In God, Distrust" in the May 13 New York Times Book Review:
...The big strategic challenge for a career like [Hitchens's] is to remain interesting, and the easiest tactic for doing that is surprise. If they expect you to say X, you say minus X...One obvious possibility stood out: Hitchens, known to be a fervid atheist, would find God and take up religion....

Well, ladies and gentlemen, Hitchens is either playing the contrarian at a very high level or possibly he is even sincere. But just as he had us expecting minus X, he confounds us by reverting to X. He has written, with tremendous brio and great wit, but also with an underlying genuine anger, an all-out attack on all aspects of religion...

Hitchens is an old-fashioned village atheist, standing in the square trying to pick arguments with the good citizens on their way to church...How could Christ have died for our sins, when supposedly he also did not die at all? Did the Jews not know that murder and adultery were wrong before they received the Ten Commandments, and if they did know, why was this such a wonderful gift?...Whether sallies like these give pause to the believer is a question I can’t answer...

...Hitchens notes tartly that if any one of the major faiths is true, then the others must be false in important respects—an obvious point often forgotten in the warm haze of ecumenism....

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A bottle of milk

Before breakfast this morning I went to our local grocery store for a bottle of milk. It's literally a bottle of milk, not one of those waxed cartons. And I had an empty to return for deposit refund. On my way in, the first store clerk I saw told me that it was too early for me to get a deposit refund. "I'm not authorized to do it," she said.

I explained that I was going to buy another bottle of milk, so maybe she could just not charge me a deposit on the new one? No, she said, she didn't think she could.

I said okay and just set the bottle down on the customer service counter and went back to the dairy department. I had a strange sense that the clerk was going to figure something out and there'd be no problem after all. My sense of this was so strong I felt positively peaceful and confident about it.

Sure enough, when I came back she said that she could split the credit card purchase up (I use my frequent flyer credit card for virtually every purchase I make, anywhere) and indicate that I'd paid cash for the deposit. That is, she'd take the empty bottle for cash.

I perceived this as a fine example, first, of the fact that the managers and clerks of this grocery store are sincerely in the business of serving their customers. This has been illustrated time and again, and I always enjoy just being in the store. It's a friendly, upright place. But, second, it was also an example of a conscientious new employee's wanting to "do the right thing," not only by the customer, but by her boss. In fact, as I was leaving, a manager showed up and the employee showed her my receipt and explained how she'd handled the transaction.

I hope that the clerk gained confidence from the experience and that her manager appreciates the thoughtful, considerate way she handled things.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The fascination of "Déjà Vu"

Hey, I don't even like science fiction, but I loved the movie "Deja Vu," directed by Tony Scott, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and starring Denzel Washington, with Paula Patton. "Deja Vu" won't let me go.

Without giving the show away, I'll say that the plot involves time travel. Right, how much more science fictiony can you get? Thing is, the technology and the characters are told so convincingly that it was no problem at all to suspend not only my disbelief but also my usual aversion to science fiction. I mean, Denzel Washington! And the best performance I've seen by Val Kilmer, who was perhaps responding to Washington and to Scott's direction? And James Caviezel (who starred in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"), eerily perfect as the terrorist.

What I think resonated with me most of all is the film's fitting in uncannily well with my recent reflections on the "seminal paradox in the heart of creation." You know, an accepted contradiction that "makes all things possible." For "Déjà Vu" asks you to accept (and effectively forces you, on an emotional level, to accept) that impossible contradictions in replayed versions of the past are...possible. Dramatically possible at any rate, and that, of course, is the art of cinema.

While watching the plot unfold (and for some minutes after watching "Déjà Vu"), I had that most glorious of all movie experiences, a sort of "sacred awe" (to quote Nikos Kazantsakis's character Zorba the Greek) at the beauty of this cinematic creation. Zorba spoke of sacred awe at life, at God's creation, but our awe at a brilliant cinematic creation (or creation in any art) can reflect and echo that grander awe. M. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, drew the same parallel between sexual orgasm and religious ecstasy....

My cinematic awe rested on my initial, mind-boggling thought that the plot is just too ingenious and intricate for anyone to have created it. I've had identical reactions to books—to most of the later novels of John Le Carré, for example, often uttering in disbelief, "How could anyone have written a book this good!" We can, when suitably disposed, be similarly in awe of the grandeur of Nature and the Cosmos, of the fact that there's something rather than nothing.

But a second, relieving thought about "Déjà Vu" was that, well, if you started with two or three simple ideas, it couldn't have been that difficult to work out the plot. I suppose that would be like our everyday attitude toward what we see around us. Just another day, nothing to be in awe of. We ordinarily just aren't disposed to "smell the roses." We have to stop to do it.

The first reaction gives life and movies their thrill, their "sacred awe." The second makes it possible for us to incorporate them into our ordinary, practical existence and get on with it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"When I heard the learn'd astronomer..."*

Non interludus

Parish priest Austin Brierley, in David Lodge's 1980 novel How Far Can You Go? [published in the U.S. as Souls and Bodies] would often go to the liturgical parties at his friends Michael and Miriam's house, where:
he often saw their eldest son, Martin, a keen amateur astronomer, crouched over his telescope in the dark garden, sometimes actually kneeling on the frosty lawn, immobile, habited like a medieval hermit in balaclava and a long, baggy, cast-off overcoat of his father's. Austin usually stopped to chat with the boy and through these conversations became seriously interested in the Universe. To the rucksack's contents he added popular books on astronomy, from which he learned with astonishment and some dismay that there were about fifty million stars like the Sun in our galaxy, and at least two hundred thousand galaxies in the Universe, each containing a roughly equivalent number of stars, or suns. The whole affair had been going for a very long time, and had spread over a very wide area. Galaxies now being observed for the very first time had started sending, at a speed of 180,000 miles per second, the light that was now being picked up by our telescopes, many thousands of millions of years before the Earth was even formed. If the history of the Universe was conceived of as a single calendar year, the initial Big Bang occuring on 1 January, then the Earth had been formed towards the end of September, and Homo sapiens made his appearance at about 10:30 p.m. on 31 December. Christ was born four seconds before midnight.

...The longer he looked, the more stars he could see, and beyond them were billions more that one could never see with the naked eye. It was statistically certain, according to the books, that some of them must have planetary systems capable of supporting life. It certainly seemed unlikely, when you thought about it, that the only life in the entire universe should be situated on this tiny satellite of an insignificant star in a suburb of the Milky Way. But if there was life out there, there must also be death. Had those creatures, like us, myths of creation, fall, and redemption? Had other Christs died on other Calvaries in other galaxies at different times in the last twenty billion years? Under the night sky, the questions that preoccupied philosophers and theologians seemed to reduce down to two very simple ones: how did it all start, and where is it all going? The idea that God, sitting on his throne in a timeless heaven, decided one day to create the Universe, and started the human race going on one little bit of it, and watched with interest to see how each human being behaved himself; that when the last day came and God closed down the Universe, gathering in the stars and galaxies like a croupier raking in chips, He would reward the righteous by letting them live with Him forever in Heaven—that obviously wouldn't do, as modern theologians admitted, and indeed took some satisfaction in demonstrating.
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* From Walt Whitman (1819-1892):
* When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Hadji Murat

A couple of months ago I read in the New York Times (in "Turn to Tolstoy," by Rory Stewart) how politicians who have taken to publicizing their supposed reading lists should be reading Leo Tolstoy's last major work of fiction, Hadji Murat. I decided to read it myself and finally started over the weekend. It's based on a Chechen hero from Russia's mid-nineteenth century "mission to bring modern government and economic growth to a medieval Muslim state" (as Stewart puts it). Sound vaguely familiar?

Anyway, the book's opening prologue sets up Tolstoy's symbol ("a crushed thistle in the middle of a ploughed-up field") for what Hadji Murat represents. But before I reached the thistle on the narrator's walk through the fields, I came upon something I'd seen on a blog recently...
I was returning home through the fields. It was the very height of summer. The meadows had been mown, and the rye was just about to be cut.

There is a delightful selection of flowers at that time of the year: red, white, and pink clover, fragrant and fluffy; impudent daisies; milky white "she-loves-me, she-loves-me-nots" with their bright yellow centers and their fusty, heady smell; yellow rape with its honeyed scent...
You used to be able to see Steve Glossin's photographs of a rape field on one of his blogs (but it's no longer available). Glossin* didn't take his photos at "the height of summer" (or in Russia) but in early spring (in Bavaria).
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* Glossin took the photograph that appears on my own blog masthead.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mom's (and Dad's) Day

Azalea Topiary Tree


A gift received yesterday from our daughter and son-in-law from California, with the note:
Happy Mother's Day and Dad I hope you feel better soon! [I've been home sick for a week]
Thank you, thank you! And being near this lovely plant makes me feel even better.

Another view

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Homo ludens

Reflecting yesterday on what I might really be doing here on this blog, I thought of the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga's (1872-1945) suggestion that Homo sapiens could have been named more accurately Homo ludens: playful man, playing man. For I realized that what I do here, however seriously I may on occasion take myself and my "pronouncements," is to assume poses, try on costumes, make faces, strip...have fun...I play more than I do anything else.

And I'm reminded this morning that Shakespeare (1564-1616), as usual, got to it first—or before Huizinga did, at any rate:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. [Macbeth1 V:v 24-28]
And yet, and yet...King Macbeth was at the end of his tether, at his lowest point, in despair for his lost chance, his wasted life, his wrong choices, his failing as a man. Macbeth was not admirable.

But Zorba, that grand creation of Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), was someone to admire and emulate:
"Life is trouble," Zorba continued. "Death, no. To live—do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble!" [Zorba the Greek2 p. 8]

The highest point a man can attain is not Knowledge, or Goodness, or Virtue, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe! [p. 24]
And I was also reminded this morning of the subtitle "un interlude" that I have sometimes used for my time-out posts, to quote something just for play before getting back to the seriousness of my blog. I see now that I was misusing the term. Those interludes were merely intermissions between...the acts of my true play.
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  1. The Sixteenth Edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations devotes four 2-column pages to quotations from Macbeth.
  2. Brought to the screen powerfully by Mihalis Kakogiannis in his 1964 film starring Anthony Quinn as Zorba and Alan Bates as the "aimless Englishman [whose] joyless existence is disturbed when he meets Zorba, a middle-aged Greek with a real lust for life." –John Vogel

Friday, May 11, 2007

Comfort in silence

Non interludus

Among the English Roman Catholics portrayed in David Lodge's 1980 novel How Far Can You Go? [published in the U.S. as Souls and Bodies] is Austin Brierley, a parish priest on a sabbatical to take a degree in psychology:
The books in [his] rucksack were paperbacks on sociology, psychology, philosophy, sexuality, comparative religion. Austin felt that he had a lot of reading to catch up on—too much. His head was a buzzing hive of awakened but directionless ideas. There was Freud who said that we must acknowledge our own repressed desires, and Jung who said we must recognize our archetypal patterning, and Marx who said we must join the class struggle and Marshall McLuhan who said we must watch more television. There was Sartre who said that man was absurd though free and Skinner who said that man was a bundle of conditioned reflexes and Chomsky who said he was a sentence-generating organism and Wilhelm Reich who said he was an orgasm-having organism. Each book that Austin read seemed to him totally persuasive at the time, but they couldn't all be right. And which were most easily reconcilable with faith in God? For that matter, what was God? Kant said he was the essential presupposition of moral action, Bishop Robinson said he was the ground of our being, and Teilhard de Chardin said he was the Omega Point. Wittgenstein said, whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent—an aphorism in which Austin Brierley found great comfort.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Odd twists

It occurred to me about a week and a half ago that if you unpaste a Moebius strip and twist it a second time before repasting the ends together, the strip again has two separate surfaces. And, if you [unpaste and] twist it a third time [then repaste it], it has but one again.
I wonder, Did God
command that the number of twists
be odd?

Why is there the quirk
that the Moebius band won't,
even, work?
I'd like for there to be some profound metaphysical significance in this, maybe even something bearing on Howard Nemerov's "Myth of Creation on a Moebius Band." Surely there is...or at least maybe I can make up something, cobble it together using my imagination and powers of reasoning? For isn't significance essentially a matter of a person's exercising curiosity and creativity to bring it into being? Everyone has the potential to be a philosopher or a poet.
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Odd twist:one surface; even twist:two surfaces:
1:1, 2:2, 3:1, 4:2, 5:1, 6:2, 7:1, 8:2, 9:1, 10:2...
Sequence of ratios:
1, 1, 3, 2, 5, 3, 7, 4, 9, 5...
Sequence of sums:
2, 4, 4, 6, 6, 8, 8, 10, 10, 12...
Sequence of differences:
0, 0, 2, 2, 4, 4, 6, 6, 8, 8...
Sequence of products:
1, 4, 3, 8, 5, 12, 7, 16, 9, 20...

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Reading by listening

Correspondence over yesterday's post put me in mind of the fact that I read more books on tape these days than I do books in hand. The reason is that in 1996 a brain tumor I didn't know I had led to my having double vision (I told part of the story on May 5). The visual problem rendered me eligible to use a Library of Congress program for the blind and physically handicapped. Services include free postage for borrowing and returning tapes (and Braille and large-type books) and free use of a special player for their half-speed recorded tapes (you can speed up or slow down the tape depending on the material and how fast the narrator is talking).

If you or a friend of yours could benefit from the Library of Congress program, you can learn more about it by visiting the home page of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). The NLS will soon migrate from books on tape to digitally recorded books.

My use of this program has been for me a blessing, as indeed was the discovery of the brain tumor, which otherwise would probably have killed me eventually in my sleep. I had already become acquainted with reading by being read to through the writings of Ved Mehta (born 1934), who was for many years a staff writer of The New Yorker Magazine. Both my wife and I highly recommend any of his books. Not only is he a great writer by any standard, but also he has traveled and done research all over the world as a blind man.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Good on you, oh my reader!

Your sincere travail will not go unrewarded.

Some recent critical references to “institutional education” on another blog made me realize that I very much cherish my own such education. I learned to form clear letters from dear Mrs. Zelpha Bennett, my nuturing third-grade teacher, learned to cherish ancient learning from Mr. Morris Knudsen, my cosmopolitan high-school Latin teacher, was introduced to “The Great Books” by Mr. Charles Albert King, my visionary high-school history teacher, read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and novels by Thomas Hardy and others for Miss Lois Thompson, my devoted high-school English teacher, acquired a love mathematics and proofs from Mr. Loren Court, my passionate math instructor, majored in philosophy at Yale University (which Mr. Court recommended I apply to), where I immersed myself in Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other philosophers, read a smattering of the world's religion texts, and discovered the work of Sigmund Freud, Leon Festinger, and a number of others.

I feel richly blessed by my institutional education and its book learning. A friend shared with me today that he and his wife went through a phase with their homeschooled son in which he would do nothing but read for hours on end. His wife told the local principal, “I don't know what to do. He won't do any of his workbooks. He just reads.” “He reads?” said the principal. “Don't do anything!”

I also feel richly blessed by my intuitive learning, which often “overcomes me” out in the garden—while I'm raking leaves, mowing grass, digging holes to plant, moving rocks to line paths. Life and learning are glorious, and institutional and life learning can come together in a beautiful, mutually supportive mosaic. At least, I feel that my own learning experiences have done so. Perhaps I am unusually blessed, but I can hardly credit that conceit.

Good on you all, to overrunning cup!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Top Picks

As you may have noticed, my sidebar continuously displays the ten movies I've viewed most recently. I decided to look back at the titles of those I've watched since starting to record them here (109 since approximately the end of last summer) and pick the ten I would especially recommend.

I at first tried to rank them*, but soon gave up in favor of just listing them most recently viewed first (release date: director; comment in parentheses):
  1. The Last King of Scotland (2006: Kevin Macdonald; Forest Whitaker is just too likable to play Idi Amin)
  2. The Good Shepherd (2006: Robert De Niro; Matt Damon has surely never had a part that required him to say so little...through dialogue)
  3. Keeping Mum (2005: Niall Johnson; beautiful example of compact, economical plotting, very funny, with murder and mayhem as well! Maggie Smith always a treat)
  4. Running with Scissors (2006: Ryan Murphy; hard to believe that the quirky characters portrayed are from a memoir of actual lives—Augusten Burroughs's of the same title)
  5. The World's Fastest Indian (2005: Roger Donaldson; I agree with Sir Anthony Hopkins, who said of his performance that it might be his best)
  6. The Devil Wears Prada (2006: David Frankel; in my book, Meryl Streep's best performance—at least, most enjoyed by myself—and Anne Hathaway is glorious, Stanley Tucci endearing)
  7. Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005: Stephen Frears; the music is wonderful and Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins perfect as usual)
  8. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006: Clint Eastwood; spellbinding, even if in black and white with subtitles for the Japanese)
  9. Oscar and Lucinda (1997: Gillian Armstrong; Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett!—twenty minutes into watching it, I'd already decided it had to be one of my favorite movies)
  10. A Prairie Home Companion (2006: Robert Altman; much better even than I expected, so sad that it was Robert Altman's last movie, Kevin Kline a master of physical comedy)
You can look them up on the Internet Movie Database.
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* I did, however, enjoy these the most: The World's Fastest Indian, The Devil Wears Prada, Keeping Mum, and Oscar and Lucinda. And I didn't actually "enjoy" Letters from Iwo Jima or The Last King of Scotland—their subject matters (war and bloody dictatorship, respectively) were just too brutal for enjoyment. But they are terrific works of cinematic art, and I do recommend them.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Looking for paradise

The 2003 movie about Paul Gauguin's becoming a painter, "Paradise Found," has for me too much the feel of a History channel biography to be a "feature film," but I nevertheless enjoyed watching it last night. Directed by Mario Andreacchio and starring Kiefer Sutherland as Gauguin and Nastassja Kinski as his wife Mette, the movie tells the story of Gauguin's finding in 1890's Tahiti the impetus for his symbol-laden art and culminates affectingly in the painting of his masterpiece, "D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?"

I was struck by Sutherland's over-voice narration of the movie's final frames:
I enjoy the day without a care in the world.
I had been seduced at one point
by this virgin land and its people,

and I have returned because
to create something new
it is necessary to go
back to the infancy of humanity,
face-to-face with the mystery of our origins:

Where do we come from?
What are we?
Where are we going?
These final words inspire me to try to think this way about my own attempts to create something new, personal, and fully mine as regards my "relationship with the Cosmos," rather than to follow a path blazed by others. I at least have the faith to believe that a sincere attempt will not go unrewarded.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

My best excuse ever

At the beginning of the final segment of our meeting in Atlanta yesterday, I asked to be given the floor for a couple of minutes to tell my friends and colleagues the best excuse I ever had for not going in to work.

It was a blizzardy January in North Carolina during my thirtieth (and final) year with IBM. While leaving the house after dinner to take our dog Ruffy out for his evening walk, I slipped on the icy back step and fell heavily onto my butt, not knowing at the time that I had a brain tumor and that the impact had caused it to start bleeding.

When Ruffy and I returned from the walk, my wife observed that I was disoriented and incoherent—that is, acting more strangely than usual <smile>. (I have no memory of this, or of little else that happened for several days.) She called my doctor, who recommended that, because of the condition of the roads, she call an ambulance. (One memory I do have of the evening is sitting in the kitchen as the ambulance crew came in to collect me. One of the crew members was a friend of our daughter.)

The final memory I have until after coming to after brain surgery a week later was that while lying on a gurney in a hallway of the emergency room I threw up the pizza I'd eaten for dinner. I said to my wife:
When you call my manager in the morning, tell him I can't come in to work because I have pizza in my ear.
[She actually did tell him this, as he confirmed when he came to visit me in the hospital. Throughout my six months of recovery before returning to work part-time, I continued to hope along the lines of one of the first thoughts I had after coming out from under the anesthesia: "Oh boy, I may never have to go back to IBM again!" Indeed, after a few months of part-time appearances at the office, I took early retirement and went on to a better life.]

Friday, May 4, 2007

On the road

On the road in Atlanta (but rather unlike Jack Kerouac), I brought Muhammad Asad's memoir, The Road to Mecca, along with me, hoping to finish it before it's due back at the library (where it can't be renewed because someone else wants it).

In the section I read last night [on p. 184], Asad (a European Jew) is asked by his friend Mansur:
"Tell me, O Muhammad...how did it happen that thou hast come to live among the Arabs? And how didst thou come to embrace Islam?"

"I will tell thee how it happened," interposes Zayd. "First he fell in love with the Arabs, and then with their faith. Isn't it true, O my uncle?" [Though Zayd is a few years older than Asad, he calls him uncle out of respect.]

"What Zayd says is true, O Mansur. Many years ago [it was actually well fewer than ten], when I first came to Arab lands, I was attracted by the way you people lived. And when I began to ask myself what you thought and what you believed in, I came to know about Islam."

"And didst though, O Muhammad, find all at once that Islam was the True Word of God?"

"Well, no, this did not come about so quickly. For one thing, I did not then believe that God had ever spoken directly to man, or that the books which men claimed to be His word were anything but the works of wise men..."

Mansur stares at me with utter incredulity: "How could that be, O Muhammad? Didst thou not even believe in the Scriptures which Moses brought, or the Gospel of Jesus? But I have always thought that the people of the West believe at least in them?"

"Some do, O Mansur, and others do not. I was one of those others..."

And I explain to him that many people in the West have long ceased to regard the Scriptures—their own as well as those of others—as true Revelations of God, but see in them rather the history of man's religious aspirations as they have evolved over the ages.

"But this view of mine was shaken as soon as I came to know something of Islam," I add. "I came to know about it when I found that the Muslims lived in a way quite different from what the Europeans thought should be man's way; and every time I learned something more about the teachings of Islam, I seemed to discover something that I had always known without knowing it..."
As I continue my reading of Thomas Cleary's English translation of the Qur'an, I am trying to remain sufficiently open-minded to recognize, if possible, whether I too discover anything that "I have always known without knowing it."

And clear enough minded to understand what the significance might be of "always having known."

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Graven Images

Yesterday's utterance here about the god of the Old Testament's being a literary character made me realize that it was rather clever of Moses to exempt reports of what that god had said to him from that god's supposed injunction against graven images.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

One serial killer on another?

The god of the Old Testament time and again killed thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children. . . .It eludes me how humans can worship such an evil, vindictive creature.
— Robert Charles Browne, from "The Confessor," by Chip Brown, in the current New York Times Magazine on the web [Browne claims to have killed 48 people in nine states over the past 30 years.]
It might seem outrageous to quote a convicted, confessed serial killer on anything, let alone quote his incendiary opinion of God, which he might hold out of a self-serving need to justify himself. After all, he seems to say, if God killed thousands, then....

Actually, Browne's opinion raises a couple of points we would do well to consider. First, he's talking not necessarily about "God," but about "the god of the Old Testament." If the Old Testament should, as I tend to think, be considered a work of literature, then the god it portrays may be no more than a literary character. That is, Browne's assessment doesn't bear on actual God. And his attempt to justify himself fails.

Second, Browne is of course right that humans actually do worship the character portrayed in the Old Testament. Those humans apparently don't think, however, that he's just a literary character, but really God (or Allah—see below). It may elude Browne how humans can worship God as so conceived (apparently Browne can't). But I think I can see how they manage it. They frame God's "vindictive" acts as morally justified retribution or punishment for disobedience. That is, the people whom God killed deserved it. But, worshippers believe, we won't deserve it so long as we're obedient and continue to worship.

And they do believe in God. That's their response to the natural human lust for more (their consciousness of transcendence). But how they come to think of God as "the god of the Old Testament" is more complicated. That "god" was conceived by the ancient Israelites, who considered themselves to be God's chosen people. Over time they developed a strong sense of community around their received oral and written traditions. And then along came Jesus, who was himself a Jew and endorsed those traditions at the same time updating it, thus ensuring that the Old Testament would become part of the Christian canonical scripture. Further, I understand that the Prophet Muhammad (an Arab related to the ancestor, Abraham, in common with the Jews) said that his message came from the same god, although the Qur'an refers to him as "Allah."

In other words, "the god of the Old Testament" is readily available to believe in, and humans around the world not only share the lust for more, they also tend to think and believe as their parents and their immediate neighbors do. Hence, most of them believe in "the god of the Old Testament."
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The painting below (by Rembrandt) shows Father Abraham being prevented from sacrificing his son Isaac. (The Jews decended from Isaac, and the Arabs from Abraham's other son, Ishmael.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Bicycling and the art of fiction

N'est-pas un interlude

In the 1890's, rotund Henry James engaged an instructor and took up bicycling. In another scene in David Lodge's novel Author, Author!, a letter has just arrived from the instructor
apologetically cancelling the afternoon's lesson. He was downcast for a moment, then reflected: why should he not take a spin on his own along the sea-road? He had managed well enough on his last outing. Accordingly he changed into plus-fours and Norfolk jacket, put on a soft cap, and fetched his bike from the stables at the back of the hotel where it was kept. Rather than entertain other guests by attempting to mount the machine on the carriage drive in full view of their windows and balconies, he wheeled it out of the hotel grounds and on to the Meadfoot Road. After one false start and a few alarming wobbles, he got the bike under way and pedalled stoutly.

It was a pleasant, sunny afternoon, with a light breeze from the south that, augmented by his movement through the air, stirred his beard and cooled his cheeks agreeably. As always he felt exhilarated by the surge of speed compared with mere walking. In a few minutes he had travelled half a mile. What a wonderful invention it was! So simple, and so ingenious. Why had it taken mankind so long to realise that, given a certain momentum, a human being could balance indefinitely on two wheels? The combination of Momentum and Balance was the secret—and one might draw an analogy here with the art of fiction: momentum was the onward drive of narrative, the raising of questions to which the audience desired to know the answers, and balance was the symmetry of structure, the elimination of the irrelevant, the repetition of motifs and symbols, the elegant variation of—

At this point in is reverie a very small perambulator suddenly rolled out of a side alley in front of him, pursued by a young woman and a little girl. He braked hard, his front wheel locked and skidded in some loose gravel on the road, the bicycle overturned and he tumbled to the ground....[pp. 302-303]
For some bicycle history.