Saturday, February 28, 2009

On Language and its Endless Deferral of Meaning

No...this is not Derrida; it is Michel de Montaigne:

Our disputes are about words. I ask what is Nature, Pleasure, a Circle, and Substitution. The question is couched in words, and is answered in the same coin. A stone is a body. But if you press the point: And what is a body? -A substance.- And what is a substance? and so on, you will end by driving the answerer to exhaust his dictionary. One substitutes one word for another that is often less well understood. (Michel de Montaigne, "On Experience," Essays 3.13; trans. J.M Cohen)

Words refer only to other words, which refer to other words. Meaning is always deferred, even diminished, and never stable. It is the endless field of signifiers, a signum of a signum of a signum ad infinitum with no res.

Book Bargains: Newsom and Schuller

I was wandering around Book Culture (formerly Labyrinth) yesterday and happened upon some very surprising book bargains. I go there for their bargains. They have tons of reduced priced books on their staircase and on the tables upstairs. And in the latter place, I found these two books:

Carol Newsom, Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: A Critical Edition, Harvard Semitic Monographs 27 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985).

Eileen Schuller, Non-Canonical Psalms from Qumran: A Pseudepigraphical Collection, Harvard Semitic Monographs 28 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986).

The Schuller volume was on sale for about $7 and the Newsom for $8. I have been trying to acquire my own copy of Newsom's critical edition of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice for years, since I use it in my research. I had completely given up and have had the library's volume checked out for about a year and a half...or so. I was under the impression that it was out of print. But both of these volumes are newly printed, never used, nicely bound (cloth-bound). I wonder if a professor in the area had a class on Qumran Psalms/Songs and these are the leftovers. If so, I am very sorry I missed that course, but very happy to be reaping some benefits!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Quote of the Day: Michel de Montaigne

Let me excuse myself for saying what I often repeat, that I rarely repent, and that my conscience is content with itself, not as the conscience of an angel or a horse, but as the conscience of a man; though always with the addition of this refrain--which is no formal refrain but a true and sincere confession--that I speak as one who questions and does not know, referring the decision purely and simply to common and authorized belief. I do not teach, I relate. (Michel de Montaigne, "On Repentance," Essays 3.2; trans. J.M. Cohen)

Sounds like he is using Socrates as his model here as one who claims not to know, and as one who does not teach, but always questions.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Metamorphosizing Metaphor

John Hobbins has a nice posting on "proleptic metaphor" in Job 28. Take a look.

He writes, and maybe this will be a good appetizer:

Skilled authors are in fact very good at planting semes early on in a stream of discourse such that, at the appropriate time, they will, retroactively, bear metaphorical fruit.*

Be sure to read the asterisk at the bottom!

*It is fun, in a statement about metaphor, to use an expression like “planting semes.” I’ve run across people whose wooden view of Scripture makes them break into a sweat when they realize that the Bible contains playful etymologies which, from a linguistic point of view, are false. Sooner or later, when reading the Bible or anything else, it is necessary to “let it be,” to quote the Beatles. As Picasso said, “art is a lie which tells the truth.” The Bible is full of truth, but its authors are as faithful to their subjects as Picasso was to his. Since I am a believer, my response is: praise be to God. bring in Dante, Inferno 16.124: Sempre a quel ver c'ha faccia di menzogna; to the truth that has the face of a lie, terminology that perhaps represents Dante's entire Comedy (see Teodolinda Barolini, Undivine Comedy, 58-73).

I've spent more time on simile lately (in Homer and Virgil). I have been playing with the idea that Ovid transforms Virgilian (and, ultimately, Homeric)simile in his Metamorphoses by literalizing it--instead of being "like" something, you become that thing...usually an expression of something you already were, something Dante consciously anxiously imitates with the double metamorphosis of serpent/thief and thief/serpent:

Let Ovid now be silent, where he sings
of sad Sabellus and Nasidius,
And wait to hear what flies off from my bow.
I do not envy him; he never did
transmute two natures, face to face, so that
both forms were ready to exchange their matter.
(Inferno 25.94-99; trans. Mandelbaum)

The one of formerly human form slithers away; the former snake, stands and speaks.

Returning to Virgil, how then can we think of simile (being like), metaphor (being), and metamorphosis (becoming), as verisimilitude subtly shifts into ver, as an image simulates itself from technique to technique, forcing us to work back not just from a proleptic metaphor in a single work, which, by the way, works wonders with the serpentine imagery in Virgil's Aeneid (which takes on myriad forms of "real" serpents to metaphorical ones)?

And then, before the very porch, along
the outer portal Pyrrhus leaps with pride,
his armor glitters with a brazen intelligence
he is like a snake that, fed on poisonous plants
and swollen underground all winter, now
his slough cast off, made new and bright with youth
uncoils his slipper body to the light;
his breast erect, he towers toward the sun;
he flickers from his mouth a three-forked tongue.
(Virgil, Aeneid 2.627-35)

From work to work, from technique to technique, it is as if Virgil's simile was just waiting for metamorphosis, a "planted seme" that bore fruit not just for himself, but for his admiring readers, or perhaps even more for them as simile becomes literalized, but its literalization is "truth with the face of a lie," an invitation to read multivalently. Yet only in retrospect, and it is part of the art of Ovid and Dante that they turn Virgil and Ovid into prologues of themselves, as a mere metaphor (or here simile) becomes proleptic of a later writer.

Perhaps Statius was right about Virgil in this respect, speaking to Virgil in Purgatory, creaing a new productive simile:

You did as he who goes by night and carries
the lamp behind him--he is of no help
to his own self but teaches those who follow
when you declared: 'The ages are renewed;
justice and man's first time on earth return;
from Heaven a new progeny descends.
(Dante, Purgatorio 22.67-72)

The new progeny is not only Christ as Statius says, but the richness of productive imagery that would bear much fruit in retrospect from his planted "semes." Something he could not foresee, but made possible.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Othello in NYC

I will be teaching Shakespeare's King Lear in a few weeks, and I am always looking for ways to show my students how the literature they read was meant to be experienced, whether Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides (Columbia Stages just did a production of Medea). And Shakespeare is particularly wonderful to see. I saw a nice low-budget production of MacBeth here a couple summers ago. And so I was happy to see a very highly rated production of one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays showing right now in the city--OTHELLO. It is showing at the Duke at 42nd St. Theatre. If you are in NYC, it is only running through March 7th! So, the rest of this week and next week!

For tickets and info, see here.

Here is the raving review from the NYTimes:

February 24, 2009


Love Curdled Through a Malevolent Scheme


The spring theater season this year is enticingly rich, both on Broadway and off. But I suspect it will not bring a Shakespeare production to equal the gripping “Othello” now blazing across the stage of the Duke on 42nd Street Theater, courtesy of Theater for a New Audience. I can say this partly because Shakespeare has unfortunately become a relative rarity on major New York stages, but primarily because this production is so terrific.

No, there are no marquee names — British, American or anything else — to entice the verse-averse or make the show a necessary ticket for cocktail party chatter. Shakespeare is the star here, but he is handled with the kind of artistry we always hope for and rarely find. This is among the most sensitively directed, eloquently designed and impeccably acted productions of a Shakespeare tragedy that the city has seen in years.

The director, Arin Arbus, might just be a star in the making, or to put it less glibly — and more realistically — a potentially important artist. The associate artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, she makes an extraordinary Off Broadway debut with this production.

Do not go looking for a ham-fisted personal signature or bold innovation. Ms. Arbus allows this most taut and tense of Shakespeare’s tragedies to weave its inexorable spell simply by letting the language breathe and the drama unfold at a quietly accelerating rhythm. And by encouraging her actors to engage with one another on a level so natural and yet so intense that the audience cannot help being made to feel the powerful, painful weight of the play’s beauty.

She gets out of Shakespeare’s way, in other words, but this is only the reward of much intelligent care and hard work. You get the sense that each moment in the play has been thought through, line by line and even step by step, with the result that every scene achieves its purpose with a trenchant simplicity. I can’t remember any other Shakespeare production that inspired my admiration even for the way the actors are arrayed on a simple thrust stage, creating compositions of rich emotional eloquence. It helps that her design team — Peter Ksander (sets), Miranda Hoffman (costumes) and particularly Marcus Doshi (lighting) — all contribute first-rate, understated work in tune with Ms. Arbus’s rigorously simple aesthetic.

To cite just one small example, I love the way Ms. Arbus stages the crucial scene in which Iago begins to chip away at the foundations of Othello’s love for Desdemona. They are placed at opposite ends of a long table, and distracted by busywork, as Iago (Ned Eisenberg) casually begins letting little suggestions of doubt and suspicion drop from his tongue, almost as if unconsciously.

Othello (John Douglas Thompson) at first lets these subtle digs slide by, but Mr. Eisenberg’s insidious inflections grow more pronounced, and Mr. Thompson’s Othello goes from calm to needled to unnerved. This is the way, Ms. Arbus underscores, that evil does its most effective work — in an offhand manner, not through the obvious gesture but while the mind is ostensibly occupied with other things. It’s wholesale destruction by stealth attack.

Ms. Arbus’s exemplary work would have far less impact if her cast were inadequate or merely competent. But the actors in the play’s crucial roles — Mr. Thompson and Mr. Eisenberg, along with Juliet Rylance as Desdemona, and Kate Forbes as Emilia — handle the demands of the writing with a confidence that allows them to inhabit the characters so naturally that even the knottiest verse feels like spontaneous expression.

Mr. Thompson has a voice almost too comfortably beautiful for Othello, and a couple of times I thought he lapsed into making simply gorgeous music of the words. But his performance is carefully paced and wrought with care. The tenderness of Othello’s love for Desdemona feels as palpably real as the violence that surges through his body when Iago’s poison begins to infect his blood. (The moment in which he cautions Iago to be sure of his information, or pay a grim price, is hair-raising.)

Moreover, the process by which Othello’s love is corrupted and coarsened into something monstrous is revealed with a clarity that rings terribly true.

This is partly because Mr. Eisenberg’s Iago is likewise human-scaled, compelling in soliloquy but in company almost a faceless functionary whom nobody would suspect of having the brains, or the ambition, to bring down a great man. The performance is decked out in small, witty flourishes — a mocking thumbs-up as his victims obediently take up their roles as dupes in his plan to destroy Othello — but there is a sense, too, of bone-deep malevolence in his casually contemptuous, brutal treatment of his wife. And the bitter half-smile with which Iago looks on at the waste he has wrought in the final scene says everything about his shriveled soul.

Ms. Rylance is the daughter of the great Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, the former artistic chief of Shakespeare’s Globe in London and a Tony winner this year for his farcical turn in “Boeing-Boeing.” Whether her gifts are primarily due to nature or nurturing is as immaterial as the talent is impressive.

Her performance is exquisitely moving, but not in the softly sighing way of so many Desdemonas. There is steel in this woman’s spine, and yet her love is so overpowering that even as Othello drops dark hints of his intentions in the last scene, she keeps kissing him ardently, the words barely penetrating the feeling in her heart.

The role of Emilia, Desdemona’s handmaiden and Iago’s wife, is technically small, but any good actress also knows that it can be a meaty and even a mighty one. Ms. Forbes, so fine as Helena in the same company’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” a few years ago, gives it its due in a performance of wonderful strength and dignity, allowing the play to sustain its emotional force straight through to the end.

The heart leaps in sympathy as Ms. Forbes’s cowed Emilia finds the courage to expose her husband’s evil, shedding the hard light of truth on the enveloping darkness. But of course it is much too little, much too late.


By William Shakespeare; directed by Arin Arbus; music by Sarah Pickett; choreography by Doug Elkins; fight direction by B. H. Barry; sets by Peter Ksander; lighting by Marcus Doshi; costumes by Miranda Hoffman; sound by Matt O’Hare. Presented by the Theater for a New Audience, Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director. At the Duke on 42nd Street Theater, 229 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 229-2819. Through March 7. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

WITH: John Douglas Thompson (Othello), Juliet Rylance (Desdemona), Denis Butkus (Roderigo), Ned Eisenberg (Iago), Graham Winton (Brabantio/Lodovico/soldier), Lucas Hall (Cassio), Robert Langdon Lloyd (Duke of Venice/senator/Gratiano), Christian Rummel (Montano/senator), Alexander Sovronsky (senator/soldier/Cypriot musician), Kate Forbes (Emilia) and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse (Bianca).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Quote of the Day: Mark van Doren

The end of comedy is self-parody, and its wisdom is self-understanding. (Mark van Doren, Shakespeare 67)

With this line, Mark van Doren writes about the play within a play, "Pyramus and Thisbe" within A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Pyramus and Thisbe," however, does not really parody A Midsummer Night's Dream so much as it does his slightly earlier play, Romeo and Juliet. Parodying his highly successful early tragedy on love within the hall-of-mirrors comedy, van Doren claims, Shakespeare has reached a new level of self-awareness as a poet, seeing that the whole is greater than the parts. This whole is not just the play itself with the parts being the various characters, the various soliloquies or exchanges and poetic reflections, but the play itself is the part within the whole of plays; one play as a single entity interacting with all other possible plays, latent or actualized, by the poet himself, who is just one part of another greater whole:

Never again will her work without a full comprehension of the thing he is working at; of the probability that other and contrary things are of equal importance; of the certainty that his being a poet who can do anything he wants to do is not the only thing to be, or the best possible thing; of the axiom that the whole is greater than the part--the part in his instance being one play among many thinkable plays, or one man, himself, amogn the multitude that populate the world for whose size and variety he with such giant strides is reaching respect. (ibid.)

Mark van Doren interests me. He was originally from a small town in Illinois and then came to Columbia to become one of its preeminent literature professors. He was one of the early pushers of the "great books" movement. So, in a way, my life mirrors his (from small town in Illinois to Columbia) and has influenced mine (I now teach Literature Humanities, which is the result of his promotion of the great books movement). And his brother, Carl van Doren, wrote a spectacular biography of Benjamin Franklin, which I used in my undergraduate honors thesis. In some ways, my intellectual journey has taken me from Carl to Mark, which is only natural since my own writing oscillates from history to literature without thinking I should ever choose between them.

Mark van Doren was especially known to be an outstanding teacher--I believe that hte highest award for teaching excellence at Columbia is named for him. After taking a class with van Doren, Jack Kerouac decided that literature and writing might be a more worthwhile pursuit than football. He also taught Thomas Merton and many other later writers and poets. Van Doren writes very beautifully as he moves between probabilities, certainties, and axioms. His work, Shakespeare, is a joy to read because van Doren's prose about Shakespeare sings perfectly in counterpoint to Shakespeare's poetry. It has a spontaneity about it. You can hear him speaking to his students, almost as in a moment of pedagogical inspiration, through this book as he gives short bursts of meditations on each of Shakespeare's plays as well as his poems.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Quote of the Day: Boccaccio's "Decameron"

A kissed mouth doesn't lose its freshness: like the moon it turns up new again. (Boccaccio, Decameron II.7; trans.G.H. McWilliam)

Boccaccio quotes this as a traditional proverb, but the Decameron is its first literary attestation. You can guess what it means....

Grades and Student Expectations

The chair of my department just sent this out to the entire department. It is an article from the NYTimes on grades and student expectations, particularly the increasing sense of entitlement to high grades that students have:

February 18, 2009

Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes


Prof. Marshall Grossman has come to expect complaints whenever he returns graded papers in his English classes at the University of Maryland.

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that a third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the required reading.

“I noticed an increased sense of entitlement in my students and wanted to discover what was causing it,” said Ellen Greenberger, the lead author of the study, called “Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting, and Motivational Factors,” which appeared last year in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Professor Greenberger said that the sense of entitlement could be related to increased parental pressure, competition among peers and family members and a heightened sense of achievement anxiety.

Aaron M. Brower, the vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offered another theory.

“I think that it stems from their K-12 experiences,” Professor Brower said. “They have become ultra-efficient in test preparation. And this hyper-efficiency has led them to look for a magic formula to get high scores.”

James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, said: “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’ “

In line with Dean Hogge’s observation are Professor Greenberger’s test results. Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

Sarah Kinn, a junior English major at the University of Vermont, agreed, saying, “I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.”

At Vanderbilt, there is an emphasis on what Dean Hogge calls “the locus of control.” The goal is to put the academic burden on the student.

“Instead of getting an A, they make an A,” he said. “Similarly, if they make a lesser grade, it is not the teacher’s fault. Attributing the outcome of a failure to someone else is a common problem.”

Additionally, Dean Hogge said, “professors often try to outline the ‘rules of the game’ in their syllabi,” in an effort to curb haggling over grades.

Professor Brower said professors at Wisconsin emphasized that students must “read for knowledge and write with the goal of exploring ideas.”

This informal mission statement, along with special seminars for freshmen, is intended to help “re-teach students about what education is.”

The seminars are integrated into introductory courses. Examples include the conventional, like a global-warming seminar, and the more obscure, like physics in religion.

The seminars “are meant to help students think differently about their classes and connect them to real life,” Professor Brower said.

He said that if students developed a genuine interest in their field, grades would take a back seat, and holistic and intrinsically motivated learning could take place.

“College students want to be part of a different and better world, but they don’t know how,” he said. “Unless teachers are very intentional with our goals, we play into the system in place.”

I have run into this sense of entitlement from time to time. I know that of all the activities I do--writing, researching, teaching, etc.--I hate grading the most. I wish I could just read papers very carefully and give systematic feedback without having to give it a particular mark. I usually tell my students that I take grading very seriously, I read each paper very carefully more than once, and, ultimately, some of them are going to like their grades and some of them are not going to like their grades. I say this when I give them their first assignment, when I collect that assignment, and then when I return it. I also tell them that I am available to discuss how to improve their writing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

For the Letter Kills, but the Spirit Gives Life

The Master said, "Unless a man has the spirit of the rites, in being respectful he will wear himself out, in being careful he will become timid, in having courage he will become unruly, and in being forthright he will become intolerant." (Confucius, Analects 8.2a; trans. Lau)

It sounds a bit like Paul in 2 Cor. 3:6: "For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life." The hallmark verse, at least for Augustine, for his "spiritual" hermeneutics that he learned from Ambrose (Confessions V.xiv (24)):

Above all, I heard first one, then another, then many difficult passages in the Old Testament scriptures figuratively interpreted, wehre I, by taking them literally, had found them to kill.

This was while listening to Ambrose's sermons. And then reading on his own:

I was also pleased that when the old writings of the Law and the Prophets came before me, they were no longer read with an eye to which they had previously looked absured, when I used to attack your saints as if they thought what in fact they did not think at all. And I was delighted to hear Ambrose in his sermons to the people saying, as if they were most carefully enunciating a principle of exegesis: "The letter kills, the spirit gives life." Those texts which, when taken literally, seemed to contain perverse teaching he would expound spiritually, removing the mystical veil. (Augustine, Confessions VI.iv (6); trans. Chadwick; cf. Ambrose, Sermon 19).

Yet, returning to Confucius, Confucius does not refute the precise actions of the rite (especially when you read the Analects as a whole), but just when those actions are not done in the spirit of the rite. Without the spirit, the letter kills, but the spirit does not exclude the least, not for Confucius. And, seeing Augustine's mature reflections of various modes of interpretation, he would not either (except when he deemed the "letter" to be absurd).

Van Gogh's Faith

John Hobbins has posted on Van Gogh's faith in the expressionists' oscillations of joy and depression, in which the downs eventually outweighed the ups.

Van Gogh is by far my most favorite painter of all time.

Here is a quote from Hobbins's post:

In 1885 Van Gogh painted this volume in his Still Life with Bible. A crack in the spine still causes the book to fall open at Isaiah 53, precisely the page at which the Bible lies open in the painting.

I have posted the "Still Life with Bible" above.

And here is Isaiah 53:1-12:

Who hath believed our report?
and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant,
and as a root out of a dry ground:
he hath no form nor comeliness;
and when we shall see him,
there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:
and we hid as it were our faces from him;
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows:
yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth:
he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb,
so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment:
and who shall declare his generation?
for he was cut off out of the land of the living:
for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death;
because he had done no violence,
neither was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him;
he hath put him to grief:
when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin,
he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days,
and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
He shall see of the travail of his soul,
and shall be satisfied:
by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many;
for he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he hath poured out his soul unto death:
and he was numbered with the transgressors;
and he bare the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Translation is KJV; linebreaks roughly follow RSV. I typically don't follow the "Authorized Version" myself, but it just seemed fitting for Van Gogh for some reason.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Religious Questioning is the Correct Religious Rite

When the Master went inside the Grand Temple, he asked questions about everything. Someone remarked, "Who said the son of the man from Tsou understood the rites? When he went inside the Grand Temple, he asked questions about everything."
The Master, on hearing of this, said, "The asking of questions is in itself the correct rite." (Confucius, Analects 3.15; trans. D.C. Lau)

So, the next time you go to a church, synagogue, temple, mosque, etc., ask a lot of questions! For this is the correct rite. But why would questioning in itself be the correct rite? Perhaps asking questions is a sign of humility. Indeed, answering is not also named as the correct rite. At the same time, it is the search for understanding (even if ultimately there are no answers). It forces the questioner and the questioned to reflect upon why they do what they do. Such reflection, it seems to me, is too rare.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Quote of the Day: Song of Solomon

I thought it would be appropriate to quote some excerpts from the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon) for Valentine's Day. Later interpreters would reread the male and female lovers here as God and Israel (among Jews) or Christ and the Church (Christians), and so forth. But, originally, it is just a raw love song between two lovers in which the female voice predominates:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
your anointing oils are fragrant,
your name is perfume poured out;
therefore the maidens love you.
Draw me after you, let us make haste.

How beautiful you are, my love,
how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teach are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved.
Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in courses;
on it hang a thousand bucklers,
all of them shields of warriors.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
that feed among the lilies.
Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
and the hill of frankincense.

I slept, but my heart was awake.
Listen! my beloved is knocking
"Open to me, my sister, my love,
my dove, my perfect one;
for my head is wet with dew,
my locks with the drops of the night."
I had put off my garment;
how could I put it on again?
I had bathed my feet;
how could I soil them?
My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,
and my inmost being yearned for him.
I arose to open to my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrrh,
upon the handles of the bolt.

My beloved is all radiant and ruddy,
distinguished among ten thousand.
His head is the finest gold;
his locks are wavy,
black as a raven.
His eyes are like doves
beside the springs of water,
bathed in milk,
fitly set.
His cheeks are like beds of spices,
yielding fragrance.
His lips are lilies,
distilling liquid myrrh.
His arms are rounded gold,
set with jewels.
His body is ivory work,
encrusted with sapphires.
His legs are alabaster columns,
set upon bases of gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
choice as the cedars.
His speech is most sweet,
and he is altogether desirable.

I am my beloved's,
and his desire is for me.
Come, my beloved,
let us go forth into the fields,
and lodge in the villages;
let us go out early to the villages,
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.
The mandrakes give forth fragrance,
and over our doors are all choice fruits,
new as well as old,
which I have laid up for your, O my beloved.

(1:1-4; 4:1-6; 5:2-6; 5:10-16; 7:10-13; all NRSV)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Quote of the Day 2: Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

Since today is both Darwin's and Lincoln's 200th birthday, both born Feb. 12, 1809, I think I should balance out my quotes of the day. The earlier was a beautiful passage from Darwin's Origin of Species, and here Lincoln's justly famous and comparatively brief Second Inaugural Address:

AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Emphases are mine.

Strangest Letterman Interview!

If you didn't see Letterman last night, here is the most awkward and strangest interview ever with, it seems, a highly drugged Joaquin Phoenix.

"Joaquin, sorry you couldn't be here tonight."

I apologize that the earlier YouTube video was pulled due to copyright issues (thanks, Angie, for pointing this out). Here is a shorter clip directly from CBS:

Quote of the Day: Darwin's "Origin of Species"

This excerpt is the very last paragraph to the Origin of Species. It is a well-wrought piece of prose from a literary perspective, and, James McGrath will notice, sees a seemlessness in creation and evolution, at least in its prosody:

It is interesting to comtemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth and Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

The balance of fixity (Creator, gravity, and the various "laws") and dynamism (cycling, endless forms, evolved), the matching of one and many, coincide in the ever-self-transforming complex interdependence of the world's beauty and wonder found in the smallest intricacies of nature; in birds, insects, plants, and worms. Indeed, there is a "grandeur in this view of life."

Happy 200 Abe Lincoln and Chuck Darwin

Today, February 12, is the 200th birthday of two giants of the 19th century: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. That's right--they were born on the exact same day. There are two recent books that have discussed these two figures together, their similarities within their differences, so to speak.

The most recent is just out:

Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life.

Here is its description:

On a memorable day in human history, February 12, 1809, two babies were born an ocean apart: Abraham Lincoln in a one-room Kentucky log cabin; Charles Darwin on an English country estate. It was a time of backward-seeming notions, when almost everyone still accepted the biblical account of creation as the literal truth and authoritarianism as the most natural and viable social order. But by the time both men died, the world had changed: ordinary people understood that life on earth was a story of continuous evolution, and the Civil War had proved that a democracy could fight for principles and endure. And with these signal insights much else had changed besides. Together, Darwin and Lincoln had become midwives to the spirit of a new world, a new kind of hope and faith.

Searching for the men behind the icons of emancipation and evolution, Adam Gopnik shows us, in this captivating double life, Lincoln and Darwin as they really were: family men and social climbers; ambitious manipulators and courageous adventurers; the living husband, father, son, and student behind each myth. How do we reconcile Lincoln, the supremely good man we know, with the hardened commander who wittingly sent tens of thousands of young soldiers to certain death? Why did the relentlessly rational Darwin delay publishing his “Great Idea” for almost twenty years? How did inconsolable grief at the loss of a beloved child change each man? And what comfort could either find—for himself or for a society now possessed of a sadder, if wiser, understanding of our existence? Such human questions and their answers are the stuff of this book.

Above all, we see Lincoln and Darwin as thinkers and writers—as makers and witnesses of the great change in thought that marks truly modern times: a hundred years after the Enlightenment, the old rule of faith and fear finally yielding to one of reason, argument, and observation not merely as intellectual ideals but as a way of life; the judgment of divinity at last submitting to the verdicts of history and time. Lincoln considering human history, Darwin reflecting on deep time—both reshaped our understanding of what life is and how it attains meaning. And they invented a new language to express that understanding. Angels and Ages is an original and personal account of the creation of the liberal voice—of the way we live now and the way we talk at home and in public. Showing that literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization, Adam Gopnik reveals why our heroes should be possessed by the urgency of utterance, obsessed by the need to see for themselves, and endowed with the gift to speak for us all.

Then there is this more substantial volume:

David R. Contosta, Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln & Charles Darwin

Here is its description:

February 12, 2009, will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of two of the most extraordinary and influential men in recent history--Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. While the coincidence of these two men being born on exactly the same day might fill astrologers with glee, further reflection points to many parallels and intersections in their lives. In this unique approach to history and biography, historian David R. Contosta examines the lives and careers of Lincoln (the political rebel) and Darwin (the scientific rebel), and notes many surprising and illuminating points of comparison.

Contosta points out that despite obvious differences--one born to a poorly educated, impoverished family on the American frontier, the other to a wealthy and prominent English family; one largely self-taught, the other with a degree from Cambridge; one a politician seeking the crowd's approval, the other a reclusive scientist--there are striking similarities between these seemingly disparate individuals. Both Lincoln and Darwin:

·Lost their mothers in childhood and later lost beloved children at young ages.
·Had strained relations with their fathers.
·Went through years of searching for a direction to their lives.
·Struggled with religious doubt.
·Were latter-day sons of the Enlightenment who elevated reason over religious revelation.
·Suffered from severe bouts of depression.
·Were ambitious as well as patient, with sure and steady mental powers rather than quick minds.
·Possessed an excellent sense of pacing that allowed them to wait until the time was ripe for their ideas and leadership.

Contosta makes a compelling case that by studying the similarities (along with the differences) between these two giants of history we are able to understand each man better than by examining their lives in isolation. This approach also affords many insights into the factors that impel special individuals to lead great paradigm shifts. Today, as American society still struggles to come to grips with the impact of racial integration and controversies over the teaching of evolution, it is more important than ever to understand how two 19th-century rebels with revolutionary ideas helped to shape the present.

Here's to the two men born on this date 200 years ago who changed the political and scientific vocabulary by which we think. Happy Birthday!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Quote of the Day: Confucius

The Master said, "If one learns from others but does not think, one will be bewildered. If, on the other hand, one thinks but does not learn from others, one will be in peril." (Confucius, Analects 2.15; trans. D.C. Lau)

The point is you must learn, but must apply your learning from others, thereby multiplying knowledge through thinking. It seems, moreover, to be a conjunctive process that oscillates between learning and thinking and back again.

By the way, my more regular readership might want to know that the Analects resemble, at least formally, the Gospel of Thomas, in the sense of being a series of sayings that begin with "The Master said..." as Thomas begins each new saying with "Jesus said..." albeit with some variations (some sayings begin with a disciple's statement or question).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Muslim Sex Shop

Since I am interested in all things related to religion, I thought I would send along this site, which features halal hip-huggers.

As the site says:

Peace and Blessings Be Upon You. And welcome to Muslim Sex Shop!

And among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own kind, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think! -Qur’an, 30:21 (Muhammad Asad Translation)


Are you tired of your aunties not talking to you about sex? Are you afraid that your little sister learns about sexuality from Barbie dolls? Married sex-life becoming a bore? Enter Muslim Sex Shop.

There is plenty of material on the internet for intimacy, sexuality, and related products. We’ve never come across one for Muslims, and so we decided to create a space for our own. The reality is, Muslims need to access useful, factual information on sexuality and intimacy. Sexual ignorance hurts both ourselves and our future and/or present spouses.

So, here is some fodder for those interested in religion and sex....and, come on, when it comes down to it, who is not interested in religion and sex?

Quote of the Day: Dante's Inferno 3.1-9

Per me si va ne la citta dolente,
per me si va ne l'etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e 'l primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

Through me the way into the suffering city,
through me the way to the eternal pain,
through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
my maker was divine authority,
the highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
were made, and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, who enter here.
(Dante, Inferno 3.1-9; trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

Maybe I should post this above my classroom door.... ;)


If you study antiquity for any length of time, you'll realize that the ancients had a fascination with serpents. Not just with the cunning serpent in Gen. 3, but throughout all ancient cultures with multiple responses: they were ambivalent creatures, capable of death and rejuvenation at the same time. One might remember in the Epic of Gilgamesh how a serpent stole the plant that gives the power of rejuvenation from Gilgamesh. They were the symbol of Asklepios (Lat. Aesculapius), the god of healing, and, in fact, remain a symbol of medicine to this very day (the serpent around the staff). In fact, if you go to my academic bio page on the right, you'll see me standing next to Asklepios at his great sanctuary in Epidauros.

They were symbols of the chthonic gods--the Furies, for example, have serpentine qualities and inhabit the area beneath the Acropolis in Athens. One might notice that Athene often has serpentine imagery. The fringes of her robes in her statues in Athens are snakes! She also has the Medusa, whose hair was snakes, on her shield.

This semester, while teaching the Aeneid, my students were interested in the story of Laocoon, who along with his sons, were attacked by snakes for, it seems, impiety towards Minerva (a.k.a., Athene). See photo of Laocoon and his sons from the Vatican:

And the primal serpent, in fact, in Greek mythology has the power of prophecy as the inhabitant of Delphi. Apollo took this power when he conquered the serpent. But, afterwards, the prophetess at Delphi would always be called the "Pythia" (depicted below), retaining the serpentine associations of prophecy. Indeed, here and in the Bible, the serpent is associated with a type of wisdom: cunning in the Bible and foreknowledge at Delphi.

These early figures may derive from Bronze Age Greece. When you visit the sites of the Mycenaean period, you find statuettes of goddesses and serpents! They all have little holes, probably to hang things (perhaps offerings) on them.

I thought it would be an interesting project to start collecting all of these serpent representations and just see where it takes me. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) Jim Charlesworth beat me to the punch with an enormous book on it, called The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized. I haven't read it yet nor do I have time for a while, but I am fascinated by all of this.

This is all to say, in the news today was a discovery of an ancient serpent's bones found in Colombia. It probably weighted 1 ton!!! It was more than twice as large as any known Anaconda and probably ate alligators for a snack. Here is the article from NPR (but you can find it in most newspapers today). Apollo's massive Python, interestingly enough, that took his full quiver of arrows to bring down (at least according to Ovid), in fact, might not be far off (except without the ability to predict the future).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Quote of the Day: Augustine's Confessions

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours. (Augustine, Confessions 10.27 (38); trans. Chadwick)

Pope Demands Holocaust-Denying Bishop to Recant

The recently reinstated Holocaust-denying bishop has been asked to recant by the Pope. The Vatican, it seems, is responding to international pressure, especially in the Pope's native Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the Pope's recently stated positions on the Holocaust were not sufficiently clear or just weren't sufficient.

The NYTimes reports:

February 5, 2009
Vatican Demands Holocaust Denier Publicly Recant

ROME — Responding to global outrage, especially in Pope Benedict XVI’s native Germany, the Vatican for the first time on Wednesday called on a recently rehabilitated bishop to take back his statements denying the Holocaust.

Late last month, the pope revoked the excommunication of four schismatic bishops, including British-born Richard Williamson, who in an interview broadcast last month denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers.

A statement issued on Wednesday by the Vatican Secretariat of State said that Bishop Williamson “must absolutely, unequivocally and publicly distance himself from his positions on the Shoah,” or Holocaust, which it said were “unknown to the Holy Father at the time he revoked the excommunication.”

The unsigned statement seemed a clear indication that the Vatican was facing an internal and external political crisis.

The day before, in a rare case of a head of state criticizing the pope, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the pope to clarify his position on the Holocaust, saying his previous remarks had not been “sufficient.”

On the reinstatement of the bishop see here. For the Vatican's subsequent statement, the one I'm guessing Merkel found insufficient, see here.

It's the End!!!

The End is....HERE.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Slavonic Pseudepigrapha Project

Andrei Orlov, a friend of mine from Marquette and scholar of Slavonic Pseudepigrapha, asked me to post the following:

The Slavonic Pseudepigrapha Project would like to announce the launch of two new resource pages devoted to 2 (Slavonic) Enoch ( and the Apocalypse of Abraham (

The resource pages include original manuscripts, translations, extensive bibliographies, and research articles pertaining to these important apocalyptic works which survived in Slavonic language.

The Slavonic Pseudepigrapha Project ( is an electronic resource developed by scholars from the Theology Department at Marquette University (Milwaukee, USA).

Routledge Religion

I just received my Routledge catalogue for religion. There were numerous interesting books listed, but two caught my eye:

Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets by Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston.

Here is its product description:

Fascinating texts written on small gold tablets that were deposited in graves provide a unique source of information about what some Greeks and Romans believed regarding the fate that awaited them after death, and how they could influence it. These texts, dating from the late fifth century BCE to the second century CE, have been part of the scholarly debate on ancient afterlife beliefs since the end of the nineteenth century. Recent finds and analysis of the texts have reshaped our understanding of their purpose and of the perceived afterlife.

The tablets belonged to those who had been initiated into the mysteries of Dionysus Bacchius and relied heavily upon myths narrated in poems ascribed to the mythical singer Orpheus. After providing the Greek text and a translation of all the available tablets, the authors analyze their role in the mysteries of Dionysus, and present an outline of the myths concerning the origins of humanity and of the sacred texts that the Greeks ascribed to Orpheus. Related ancient texts are also appended in English translations. Providing the first book-length edition and discussion of these enigmatic texts in English, and their first English translation, this book is essential to the study of ancient Greek religion.


The Mysticism of St. Augustine: Re-Reading the Confessions by John Peter Kenney.


This book explores Augustine's account of his experience as set down in the Confessions, and considers his mysticism in relation to his classical Platonist philosophy. John Peter Kenney argues that while the Christian contemplative mysticism created by Augustine is in many ways founded on Platonic thought, Platonism ultimately fails Augustine in that it cannot retain the truths that it anticipates. The Confessions offer a response to this impasse by generating two critical ideas in medieval and modern religious thought: first, the conception of contemplation as a purely epistemic event, in contrast to classical Platonism; second, the tenet that salvation is absolutely distinct from enlightenment.

This last one particularly caught my interest because I am teaching Confessions this week and next week.

Futurama's Theology: God Speaks in Binary

From the profound theologians at Futurama:

I thought God's point of having a light touch was actually interesting: "if you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all." No one likes a heavy-handed micro-managing God.

I Lego NY

I just saw this in the Times: NYC in legos...or parts of daily NY experience in legos.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Polyphemus in Love

It is one of the ironies of Ovid that he gives one of the most moving love songs to the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who in previous literature is presented as rather unskilled in speech. But, being smitten by Galatea, love transforms the Cyclops from a ravening killer to an eloquent love poet. Galatea, however, does not return his love, for she loves another, Acis. Recognizing his own seemingly frightening appearance, Polyphemus says:

Don't think me ugly because my body's a bristling thicket
of prickly hair. A tree is ugly without any foliage;
so is a horse, if a mane doesn't cover his tawny neck;
birds are bedecked in plumage, and sheep are clothed in their own wool.
Men look well with a beard and a carpet of hair on their chests.
I've only one eye on my brow, in the middle, but that is as big
as a fair-sized shield. Does it matter? The Sn looks down from the sky
on the whole wide world, and he watches it all with a single eye.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.845-53)

In the larger section and the book as a whole, Ovid does something interesting; he transforms, metamorphosizes if you will, the monsters from Homeric and Virgilian epic into multidimensional characters, filled out by love and loss. Polyphemus, the man-eating Cyclops, becomes a hopeless, and somewhat eloquent, lover and love poet. Scylla, the monstrous woman with dogs for her lower body, who eats Odysseus' men in the Odyssey, becomes a tragic woman. She is sought by someone she doesn't love. He will not let go of his love for her and seeks help from Circe, but Circe falls for him, and out of spite, transforms Scylla into her monstrous shape. It was, then, in revenge that she ate Odysseus' (now Ulysses') men, since Circe had helped Ulysses and became his lover. Ovid does something very Homeric and un-Homeric at the same time. Like Homer, he evokes strong pathos in his stories, but, unlike Homer, that pathos is directed toward the monstrous characters. We see things from their point of view, and we sympathize with them.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

NT Wrong Interview at Biblioblogs

If you haven't seen it, Jim West interviewed NT Wrong at

I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when Wrong was asked: "Do you have any secret hobbies or interests that our readers might find surprising?" I'll leave it to you to discover the hobby.

I also liked some of Wrong's discussion of pseudonymity. I had discussed pseudonymity at length in my undergraduate senior thesis on Ben Franklin's female pseudonyms. I hope to publish it in a journal somewhere soon.