Sunday, May 31, 2009

Undeciphered Scripts

Just to remind ourselves how much we don't know, the New Scientist has an article on eight ancient scripts from around the world that remain to be deciphered.

WRITING is one of the greatest inventions in human history. Perhaps the greatest, since it made history possible. Without writing, there could be no accumulation of knowledge, no historical record, no science - and of course no books, newspapers or internet.

The first true writing we know of is Sumerian cuneiform - consisting mainly of wedge-shaped impressions on clay tablets - which was used more than 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Soon afterwards writing appeared in Egypt, and much later in Europe, China and Central America. Civilisations have invented hundreds of different writing systems. Some, such as the one you are reading now, have remained in use, but most have fallen into disuse.

These dead scripts tantalise us. We can see that they are writing, but what do they say?

That is the great challenge of decipherment: to reach deep into the past and hear the voices of the dead. When the Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered in 1823, they extended the span of recorded history by around 2000 years and allowed us to read the words of Ramses the Great. The decipherment of the Mayan glyphs revealed that the New World had a sophisticated, literate civilisation at the time of the Roman empire.

So how do you decipher an unknown script? There are two minimum requirements. First, there has to be enough material to work with. Secondly, there must be some link to a known language. It helps enormously if there is a bilingual inscription or identifiable proper names - the Rosetta Stone (see image), for example, is written in both ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek, and also contains the name of the Ptolemy dynasty. If there is no clear link, an attempt must be made to relate the concealed language to a known one.

Many ancient scripts have been deciphered (see "The great decipherments" and The ancient scripts), but some significant ones have yet to be cracked. These fall into three broad categories: a known script writing an unknown language; an unknown script writing a known language; and an unknown script writing an unknown language. The first two categories are more likely to yield to decipherment; the third - which recalls Donald Rumsfeld's infamous "unknown unknowns" - is a much tougher proposition, though this doesn't keep people from trying.

Most of the undeciphered scripts featured here have been partially deciphered, and well-known researchers have claimed that they have deciphered some much more fully. Further progress is possible for most of them, especially if new inscriptions are discovered, which fortunately happens fairly often.

The article then goes on to discuss Etruscan, Meroitic Hieroglyphs (from the Kushite pharaohs), Ancient American Languages (Olmec, Zapotec, and Isthmian), Linear A, Rongo-Rongo (from Easter Island), the Indus Script, Proto-Elamite, and (perhaps) the Phaistos Disc.

Goodbye, Morningside Books!

One of the few remaining independent bookstores in my neighborhood, Morningside Books, will be closing its doors today. I have often browsed their sale tables. It is a very sad day.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Are Angels Circumcised?

Strange question, yes? I guess we often do not think of angelic genitals, much like in the movie Dogma. But there is a rather difficult passage in Jubilees that may just raise this issue:

This law is for all the eternal generations and there is no circumcising of days and there is no passing a single day beyond eight days because it is an eternal ordinance ordained and written in the heavenly tablets. And anyone who is born whose own flesh is not circumcised on the eighth day is not from the sons of the covenant which the LORD made for Abraham since (he is) from the children of destruction. And there is therefore no sign upon him so that he might belong to the LORD because (he is destined) to be destroyed and annihilated from the earth and to be uprooted from the earth because he has broken the covenant of the LORD our God. Because the nature of all the angels of the presence and all the angels of sanctification was thus from the day of their creation. And in the presence of the angels of the presence and the angels of sanctification he sanctified Israel so that they might be with him and with his holy angels. (Jub. 15:25-27; trans. Wintermute)

Most of this is just saying you MUST circumcise sons on the eighth day, no more days nor fewer days. If someone is not circumcised precisely on the eighth day, they do not belong to the covenant and will ultimately be destroyed, annihilated, etc. But the reasoning at the end is what caught my attention: because this is the nature of the angels of the presence and sanctification since their creation. They are created with the sign of the covenant within them, and the sign of the covenant is circumcision. So, according to Jubilees, angels (or these highest orders of angels) are created already circumcised. These are also the same orders of angels that observed the Sabbath from the beginning of creation (Jub. 2:17-33). So, the angels that observe the sabbath alongside the Israelites are also circumcised like their human counterparts. The sabbath, recall, is also a sign of the covenant in the priestly tradition. So far, the only other thing these angels and covenanted humans share is Shavuot (Jub. 6:17-22) or the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of Oaths (which, by the way, begins tonight at sundown). Jubilees associates Shavuot with Noah: so we have Sabbath, Shavuot, and circumcision all shared by the elect angels and elect humans.

"A Surprise from St. Augustine"

Peter Brown reviews Paula Fredericksen's Augustine and the Jews in the New York Review of Books in a beautifully written, vivacious style (if a book review can be beautiful and vivacious). In the same review he also discusses Hadith Sivan's Palestine in Late Antiquity. Here are some excerpts from the first half (the Fredricksen half):

It is a pleasure to write on a book that derives from a modern scholar's brain wave about the fateful insight of a thinker over a millennium and a half ago. Paula Fredriksen's sudden inspiration occurred in an altogether appropriate place—Jerusalem:
I remember staring out the window of the Mishkenot Sha'ananim at daybreak, watching the walls of the Old City glow gold.

She realized that, between 394–395 and 399–400, Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa (modern Bône/Annaba in Algeria), had his own brain wave—or rather, a series of brain waves. As a result,
Augustine had come to a view of Jews and of Judaism that differed dramatically not only from his own prior teachings but also from the prevailing traditions of his church.

This was nothing less than "a Christian affirmation of Jews and Judaism." It is the thrill of this book that we are encouraged, by Fredriksen, to "witness...the birth of an idea."


Thus, Fredriksen urges readers not to think that Saint Paul intended to replace Judaism outright with brand-new Christianity. Rather, she argues, "Paul was always an excellent Jew in both phases of his life." He converted pagans not to make them Christian, but because he saw them as Jews of the Last Days. They would be gathered by Christ into a rejuvenated Israel, as all nations turned to face the true God, who had waited, silent and barely known, for their return.

As for the denunciations of Jews and Jewish leaders in the Gospels, Fredriksen advises the reader to take them for what they were—"fraternal name calling" between factions within Judaism itself. Fierce rhetoric of this kind was "one of the most unmistakably Jewish things about the Jesus movement.... The gospels are no more intrinsically 'anti-Jewish' than is the Bible itself."

Her main point in this long introduction to Augustine is that the parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism was by no means inevitable. It cannot be seen as the result of a supposed "monotheistic" closure of Judaism to the outside, gentile world. Nor can it be said to have grown, fatefully, from the preaching of Paul, and still less from the remembered sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. Above all, the real Roman world had no use for the rigid boundaries assumed in these notions. It was a world of impenitent diversity. We are eons away from the cramped ghettos of the Western Middle Ages. This was very definitely not
a society where the lives of Jews are under threat.... Jews are Ro-man citizens. They sit on city councils. They own land. And the legal precedent for assurances regarding their ancestral customs stretch back for centuries before the ascent of Christianity.... Late-fourth-century Jews are still part of "the system."

o what went wrong, and how did Augustine attempt to put it right? Very briefly, Fredriksen believes that the Christians of the second and third centuries were caught in the grip of a peculiarly late-antique high-mindedness. They strove for the spiritual. Worse than that, they believed strongly in progress. They looked to a bright future, freed from the weight of the past. For them, history was junk. And the worst junk they could imagine was Judaism. Here, they thought, was a religion irreparably locked into the material world. It imposed circumcision on the penis, the most intimate and distastefully material part of the entire body. It favored fecundity and warfare. It practiced blood sacrifice. Its worshipers remained locked into the past, through nostalgia for a temple whose destruction by the Romans had declared Judaism as a whole to be passé.

As Fredriksen points out, none of this image of Judaism bore any relation to the real thing. It was an image of "rhetorical Jews" generated by anxious debates among Christians about how much of their own bodies they could accept and how much of the weight of the past might be allowed to linger in their own present. High-mindedness, when combined with a heady faith in progress toward better things, is not always the best recipe for tolerance of the ways of others. When Constantine unexpectedly became a Christian in 312, it was this image of a squeaky-clean Christianity, committed to the spiritual and purged of the past, that drew the attention of a crowned revolutionary. The past could be junked. Judaism and paganism alike could be declared, by imperial fiat, to belong to the dust heap of history.

It was this conglomerate of confident notions that Augustine found himself confronting. They might not have challenged him if they had not been presented by advocates of Manichaeism, a sect to which he himself had adhered for twelve years as a young man. Today, Manichaeism tends to be treated as weird and wonderful, and even as slightly ridiculous—at best, a New Age fad. But it was not its exotic features that made Manichaeism so hated by the local clergy in Augustine's era. It was its troubling resemblance to mainline Christianity. Believers in Manichaeism claimed that it was the reformed, the true "spiritual" Christianity of their age. As a result, the attitudes of the Manichees toward Jews and Judaism, and, above all, toward the body and the past, were a caricature of the high-minded progressivism of mainline Christians.

Thus it was the challenge of Manichaeism, represented by Faustus of Milevis, whom he had known in his Manichaean days in Carthage, that provoked Augustine to a reappraisal of his own past attitudes toward the Old Testament in general and toward Judaism in particular. His intellectual reappraisal was summed up, in 403, in a long and hitherto understudied work, Against Faustus, whose significance for the evolution of Augustine's thought Fredriksen has realized and exploited to the full.


What needs to be stressed is the imaginative upshot of Augustine's prolonged intellectual struggle. Basically, it was about how much of the past could be condemned to the past, and how much could be allowed to linger, like a majestic shade, in the present. Unlike his more euphoric contemporaries, Augustine thought that Judaism could never be totally transcended, for the simple reason that the human condition itself admitted no startling fresh departures. Nor could the Judaism of ancient times be dismissed as a religion, irreparably tarnished (in the eyes of Christians) by disquieting overtones of physicality, for the simple reason that physicality itself was neutral. Material existence placed no bar between human beings and God. All that counted was God's will.

If that was so, Augustine went on to argue, then God was free to leave the signs of His will as deep in flesh and blood as He wished. He could leave his mark on penises. He could bless sexual fertility and look with favor on a multiplicity of wives. He could ask for the shedding of blood in sacrifice. He could create an entire kingdom and a mighty temple supported by the wealth of a nation. These were God's great words—each of them impenitently heavy with materiality—by which He spoke to the world through a chosen group of human beings, the Jews.

The history of Israel and of its institutions acquired a new majesty in this reading. They were like a mighty poem that unfolded across the centuries. The lived experience of Jews under the Law might seem mysterious and even alien to human judgment; but what was certain was that the life of the people of Israel had never been either trivial or disgusting, as so many "spiritual" Christians (quite as much as Manichees) were tempted to believe. Even in the present, Jews should be left alone to practice their ancient faith. Against so many of his contemporaries, "Augustine insisted that Jews were not a challenge to Christianity but a witness to it." Jews and Judaism could never be put into the past. In an age in which so much of previous history was being flattened by Christian intolerance, they were to continue to stand out, protected by the aura of their own, God-given past.


Under the shadow of the distant majesty allowed by Christian followers of Augustine to the Jews, other pasts sidled back into the Middle Ages. Ancient gods began to walk the land again, like deposed dynasties, pushed to one side by the new religion, but never entirely exiled from the present, whether in the woods of Scandinavia or among the ruins of postclassical Rome. Above all, ancient pagans joined the Patriarchs. Virgil, appearing before Dante on the edge of the underworld, like "one who seemed hoarse from long silence," was the imaginative heir of Augustine's long search, in the depths of biblical time, for an age whose heroes would never be "condemned to history." Little did Augustine know it, but the imaginative richness of Europe was at stake. In the words of the seventeenth-century clergyman and poet George Herbert: "If the Jews live, all the great wonders of old live in them."

I haven't read the book, because I am extremely busy and the book is nearly 500 pages, but I think I might with such a rave review from Peter Brown. I also recall hearing a talk by Philip Cary (he spoke to the Lit Hum instructors at Columbia) and he also praised this book. For the rest of the review on Hadith Sivan, hit the link at the beginning of this post.

Gentiles Have Uncovered Genitals according to Jubilees!

I have been rereading Jubilees today, mostly because I am finding it increasingly relevant to my chapter on the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, and I found the passage on the expulsion of Adam and Eve particularly interesting (and a bit funny):

And he made for them garments of skin and he dressed them and sent them from the garden of Eden. And on that day when Adam went out from the garden of Eden, he offered a sweet-smelling sacrifice--frankincense, galbanum, stacte, and spices--in the morning with the rising of the sun from the day he covered his shame. On that day the mouth of all the beasts and cattle and birds and whatever walked or moved was stopped from speaking because all of them used to speak with one another with one speech and one language. And he sent from the garden of Eden all of the flesh which was in the garden of Eden and all of the flesh was scattered, each according to its kind and each one according to its family, into the place which was created for them. But from all the beasts and all the cattle he granted to Adam alone that he might cover his shame. Therefore it is commanded in the heavenly tablets to all who will know the judgment of the Law that they should cover their shame and they should not be uncovered as the gentiles are uncovered. (Jub. 3:26-31; OTP 60; trans. Wintermute)

This passage of expulsion is full of interesting things. Firstly, the "sweet-smelling sacrifice" (cf. the biblical "pleasing odor") is the combination of spices found in Exod. 30:34 for a very special form of incense only to be used before the ark of the testimony in the most holy place within the tabernacle (cf. Abraham's mixture for Sukkoth at Beer-sheba in Jub. 17:24). Does this passage reinterpret this special blend as a recreation of Adam's offering? Does this special blend only used in the inner chamber constitute the desire and hope for humans to return to Eden? It is particularly interesting due to the equation between Eden and the Sanctuary, particularly found in temple symbolism.

This Eden seems far more exciting than the one in Genesis because there are talking animals! Presumably they spoke Hebrew. It is something straight out of Aesop or Chaucer to be deliberately anachronistic. This part, however, lets us know that burning question: what happened to all the animals in Eden. Their scattering by changing their language (or making it so they cannot communicate with humans) sounds a bit like the Tower of Babel story, but with animals in Eden.

Finally, my favorite part and the reason I am posting on this: Adam (and Eve presumably) should cover their shame and not be uncovered like the Gentiles are. Firstly, what Gentiles? They don't exist yet! But, more importantly, this second-century BCE document (that's about where I would date Jubilees), speaks of Gentiles as if they didn't wear clothes. I suggest two sources for such an accusation. Firstly, it sounds like the Greeks. In the wake of Alexander the Great, cities all around Asia Minor, the Levant, in Egypt, and outward to Babylon were being transformed and reorganized along the lines of a Greek polis. This new polis would include a Gymnasion (most of you are probably used to the Latinized spelling, Gymnasium) and the Ephebeion, as well as occasionally a hippodrome for horse racing and an amphitheater. The Gymnasion and the Ephebeion were most key, however, since they were the educational centers to mold the new citizenry from childhood onward. The Gymnasion was not just a place of exercise, although it was that, but it was a place of education as well. And, oh, it gets its name from one fact: the Greeks would exercise in the nude (gymnos). Moreover, Jerusalem was remade into a Greek polis in the second century BCE under the rule of Antiochus "Epiphanes" IV in collusion with the Jerusalemite upper classes (particularly the priests!)(see 1 and 2 Maccabees). The other source is traditional: Leviticus 18. This chapter begins by speaking of not walking in the ways of the Egyptians and Canaanites, the gentiles par excellence of their day (18:1-5), and the following verses, which presumably elaborate what this gentile behavior is, is all sexual (these are the laws against incest). And the language used is to uncover someone's shame! So uncovering shame (in Leviticus meaning sex) set as Gentile behavior matches Jubilees usage, but also makes sense in Jubilees Hellenistic context.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

SBL Forum: Specialist vs. Generalist

I tend to be fairly anti-over-specialization. "Specialists," such as those who focus their entire lives on one book (or I would even say a single body of literature), tend to have scholarly myopia. A piece in the SBL Forum by Michael F. Bird with Craig Keener addresses some of these issues:
Young scholars beginning their careers in biblical studies may have to decide if they are to pursue a career as a “specialist” in one particular field like Pentateuch, Prophets, Paul, Petrine literature or be a “generalist” with expertise across a whole Testament, Second Temple literature, and often even rabbinic and early Christian writings. The attraction to the specialist track can easily be identified: (1) It is easier to master the primary sources of one specific area; (2) secondary literature in our guild is growing exponentially and it is impossible to keep up with the scholarly developments in more than one field; and (3) in terms of career prospects it is easier to develop a research portfolio, and thus secure tenure and promotion, if one sticks to one field of research. That said, the generalist track should also remain a viable and fruitful avenue for scholars to pursue as careers. In this short piece we will present a case for the value of generalists in biblical studies, that is, for the scholar who is “jack of all trades, but master of none.”

I, in fact, find this a bit overdone. I personally consider expertise in an entire Testament or body of literature SPECIALIST, and anything more microscopic than that super-specialist to an absurd degree. A true generalist studies, er, ancient religion, using all of the Christianity and Judaism a small, itty-bitty, tiny examples of broader issues. Bird/Keener make this point a bit further down:
Third, Hebrew Bible and especially New Testament each constitute a relatively small body of writings compared to many other areas of discourse (Renaissance literature, postmodern French philosophy, etc.). Especially in New Testament studies, disciplinary myopia and sometimes even a pinch of indifference towards other fields risk preventing concerted engagement and research with wider horizons relevant to biblical studies.

Indeed, NT is perhaps the only field in the world in which there are so few texts about which there is so much scholarship that, really, says very little. Dante's Divine Comedy alone is longer, and a "specialist" would have to master all of his writings, know a bit about Boccaccio and Petrarch as well. The constant focus on only a few texts leads to scholarly standstills--it is like we keep driving and out wheels are spinning in the mud, because we ask the same questions over and over and over and over and usually just fall on similar lines of the debate that has been raging well over a century (getting nowhere). Thus, while the secondary literature on, say, just the gospels is so vast that the attempt to "master" or "keep up" with it is hopeless, most of it keeps saying the same thing over and over anyway.

The article offers some good general guidelines:

Such observations may invite some younger scholars to wonder how one can cultivate generalist sensitivities. Several suggestions are helpful, though most scholars will not follow all of these. (1) One obvious starting point is to develop competencies in as many of the ancient languages as possible. (2) To adapt I. Howard Marshall’s expression, one should endeavor to become the “master or mistress” of the primary sources and immerse oneself in the relevant literature of the ancient world.[3] That could mean placing a higher priority on reading the primary sources, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of reading all the secondary ones. (3) Hengel suggests that New Testament scholars (but the principle is equally applicable to other fields) should attempt to develop an expertise outside of the New Testament.[4] For instance, developing a side interest in certain writings from the Septuagint, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, or Apostolic Fathers would hone one’s scholarly skills. (4) Read book reviews and summaries of research over a breadth of areas. Journals like Review of Biblical Literature and Currents in Biblical Research can expand one’s horizons about the state of scholarship in other fields. Similarly, it could be beneficial to attend seminars, conferences, and papers on a wide variety of biblical studies and related topics. (5) In terms of research a generalist might stagger one’s research agenda over a number of areas as time progresses. (6) An additional strategy is to write works (books and articles) for both specialist and generalist readers. For instance, concerted study of the Aramaic of the book of Daniel might be accompanied by publication of a textbook on Jewish apocalyptic literature. Alternatively, study of the textual history of Romans might well be followed by a more general volume on the history of the reception of Romans in the first four centuries. One can stay in the preferred “zone” and still produce specialist and generalist works.

If you want to be creative, stick your head out and see what people are doing in other fields. This will lead to new insights in your own area of publication, and you can still do the gritty minutiae work along with it (so, it is not really completely an either/or, but sometimes a both/and): the Aramaic of Daniel and apocalypticism being their example. I try to stagger my research across a multitude of bodies of literature, primarily HB, NT, DSS, and Nag Hammadi. The knowledge of these various texts cross-fertilize one another. My insights into a text of the NT (Hebrews) is highly informed by research into the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible via the Dead Sea Scrolls (there is the structure of my dissertation for you). It is all interlinked. You cannot know one without knowing the others. I agree with Hengel here: stick to the primary sources and the ancient languages--without these you cannot appreciate the secondary works as well anyway. And, there is a reason they are SECONDARY; they are a notch lower on the list of reading priorities. Indeed, a specialist is someone who knows the PRIMARY text thoroughly in its original language, and, given the relative paucity of texts in antiquity, that makes it easier to be a generalist and still be thoroughly familiar with multiple sets of literature, perhaps making the dichotomy between specialist and generalist moot.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Online Resources for the Talmud

Today I was trying to double check a reference regarding the פרוכת or "veil" that separates the holy place from the most holy place (Exodus 26:31; 36:35; 2 Chronicles 3:14) in b.Yoma 72a, regarding the distinction between embroidered and woven work in the Tabernacle. And I found a lot of good resources for studying the Talmud.

For example, you can find the entire Soncino translation at, where you can download it in .pdf format.

Perhaps more impressively for scholarship, you can view digital photographs of different MSS themselves at Online Treasury of Talmudic Manuscripts. The navigational tools are all in Hebrew. You indicate what order, tractate, page (daf), side (amud), and then which manuscript. Seeing the page is important, since the arrangement is very important for Rabbinic documents. Unfortunately, however, it only includes the Bavli and the Mishna.

There are numerous other sites, many including streaming audio, so you can hear the text, but these two suffice to give a good start.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Ancient Greek Online

The translation link I set up in the last post for Sappho's Fragment 31 is a website, Ancient Greek Online, I just happened upon that seems to be quite useful for those learning and refreshing their ancient Greek, with very readable Greek (including restored digammas), helpful lexical tools, and English translations for cheaters. The rather instructive site has an edition of the Iliad, Sappho's Lyrics, Aristotle's Poetics, and the Gospel of John for a rather wide range of ancient Greek literature in terms of style, substance, a nice balance of poetry and prose, etc., in different dialects. It has far fewer texts and options than Perseus Digital Library, but seems more user friendly and the Greek is larger and more readable.

It might be fun to work through the Iliad, or sections of it.

Sappho and Donne: Poetic Erotic

Fragment 31

φάινεταί μοι κῆνοσ ἴσοσ τηέοισιν
ἔμμεν ὤνερ ὄστισ ἐναντίοσ τοι
ἰζάνει καὶ πλασίον ἀδυ
φωνεύσασ ὐπακούει

καὶ γαλαίσασ ἰμμερόεν τὸ δὴ ᾽μάν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόασεν,
ὠσ γὰρ εὔιδον βροχέωσ σε, φώνασ
οὐδὲν ἔτ᾽ ἔικει,

ἀλλὰ κάμ μὲν γλῳσσα ϝέαγε, λέπτον
δ᾽ αὔτικα χρῷ πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ᾽ οὐδὲν ορημ᾽,
ἐπιρρόμβεισι δ᾽ ἄκουαι.

ἀ δέ μ᾽ ί᾽δρωσ κακχέεται, τρόμοσ δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίασ
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ᾽ ὀλιγω ᾽πιδεύϝην
φαίνομαι [ἄλλα].

πᾶν τόλματον [......]


See a translation here.

Sappho to Philaenis

Where is that holy fire, which verse is said
To have? is that enchanting force decayed?
Verse, that draws Nature's works, from Nature's law,
Thee, her best work, to her work cannot draw.
Have my tears quenched my old poetic fire;
Why quenched they not as well, that of desire?
Thoughts, my mind's creatures, often are with thee,
But I, their maker, want their liberty.
Only thine image, in my heart, doth sit,
But that is wax, and fires environ it.
My fires have driven, thine have drawn it hence;
And I am robbed of picture, heart, and sense.
Dwells with me still mine irksome memory,
Which, both to keep, and lose, grieves equally.
That tells me how fair thou art: thou art so fair,
As, gods, when gods to thee I do compare,
Are graced thereby; and to make blind men see,
What things gods are, I say they are like to thee.
For, if we justly call each silly man
A little world, what shall we call thee then?
Thou art not soft, and clear, and straight, and fair,
As down, as stars, cedars, and lilies are,
But thy right hand, and cheek, and eye, only
Are like thy other hand, and cheek, and eye.
Such was my Phao awhile, but shall be never,
As thou wast, art, and, oh, mayst thou be ever.
Here lovers swear in their idolatry,
That I am such; but grief discolours me.
And yet I grieve the less, lest grief remove
My beauty, and make me unworthy of thy love.
Plays some soft boy with thee, oh there wants yet
A mutual feeling which should sweeten it.
His chin, a thorny hairy unevenness
Doth threaten, and some daily change possess.
Thy body is a natural paradise,
In whose self, unmanured, all pleasure lies,
Nor needs perfection; why shouldst thou then
Admit the tillage of a harsh rough man?
Men leave behind them that which their sin shows,
And are as thieves traced, which rob when it snows.
But of our dalliance no more signs there are,
Than fishes leave in streams, or birds in air.
And between us all sweetness may be had;
All, all that Nature yields, or Art can add.
My two lips, eyes, thighs, differ from thy two,
But so, as thine from one another do;
And, oh, no more; the likeness being such,
Why should they not alike in all parts touch?
Hand to strange hand, lip to lip none denies;
Why should they breast to breast, or thighs to thighs?
Likeness begets such strange self flattery,
That touching myself, all seems done to thee.
Myself I embrace, and mine own hands I kiss,
And amorously thank myself for this.
Me, in my glass, I call thee; but alas,
When I would kiss, tears dim mine eyes, and glass.
O cure this loving madness, and restore
Me to me; thee, my half, my all, my more.
So may thy cheeks' red outwear scarlet dye,
And their white, whiteness of the galaxy,
So may thy mighty, amazing beauty move
Envy in all women, and in all men, love,
And so be change, and sickness, far from thee,
As thou by coming near, keep'st them from me.

~John Donne~

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Absurd Desert of the Real

For the garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it
Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere
that is not a desert


The Real is what will strike you as really absurd

(W.H. Auden, "Advent IV," For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratio)

NYC Has the WORST Drivers

That's what makes the traffic here so fun!

From US News & World Report:

The worst drivers in America live in New York. Of course, you knew that. You've been in the Holland Tunnel. But now, we have proof.

GMAC Insurance has released the results of its National Drivers Test for 2009. The test, which measures basic knowledge of driving laws, was given to more than 5,000 drivers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia -- and New Yorkers finished last. Last year's loser, New Jersey, improved its score just enough to leap over New York. Hawaii, California and Georgia rounded out the bottom five.

Evidently, Idaho and Wisconsin have the best drivers. My home state of Illinois came in 29th.

Preventative Detention?

According to the NYTimes, Obama told human rights activists that he is ruminating over the idea of preventative detention. What is "preventative detention"? It is what it sounds like. It is the incarceration of suspects, who, it seems, as of yet have not done anything (or we cannot prove they have done anything) who cannot be tried. This sounds eerily like the movie "Minority Report" with its concept of "pre-crime," but without all of the psychic stuff.
The two participants, outsiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the session was intended to be off the record, said they left the meeting dismayed.

They said Mr. Obama told them he was thinking about “the long game” — how to establish a legal system that would endure for future presidents. He raised the issue of preventive detention himself, but made clear that he had not made a decision on it. Several senior White House officials did not respond to requests for comment on the outsiders’ accounts.

“He was almost ruminating over the need for statutory change to the laws so that we can deal with individuals who we can’t charge and detain,” one participant said. “We’ve known this is on the horizon for many years, but we were able to hold it off with George Bush. The idea that we might find ourselves fighting with the Obama administration over these powers is really stunning.”
The other participant said Mr. Obama did not seem to be thinking about preventive detention for terrorism suspects now held at Guantánamo Bay, but rather for those captured in the future, in settings other than a legitimate battlefield like Afghanistan. “The issue is,” the participant said, “What are the options left open to a future president?”

This does sound like a Bush/Cheney idea. I find this news highly disappointing. I am just reminded, as I often am, of a saying of Ben Franklin's:
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Quote of the Day: Vernon Robbins

I rarely quote scholarship. Even in my written work, I give pride of place to ancient sources with scholarship relegated to footnotes. Nonetheless, I have been reading the volume of Bakhtin and Genre Theory in Biblical Studies, edited by Roland Boer of Stalin's Moustache fame. Bakhtin, by the way, is my favorite (at the moment) literary non-theorist (I am always fascinated by how the most productive "theorists" claim to be anti-theory as Bakhtin himself claims). I primarily activate his "chronotope" in my current writing, yet his concepts of heteroglossia, polyphony, dialogism, etc., highly inform my approach even if I do not use the lingo. The final chapter in the aforementioned volume is the response to the essays of the Bakhtin and Bible SBL group by Vernon Robbins (famous for his "sociorhetorical criticism), and some of his final words on the chronotope (a dialogized chronotope), I thought worthy of blog quotation:

Perhaps...the idea of a new Moses or a new Elijah is the result of two chronotopes, one of the "prophetic politics of fulfillment" and another of a "cyclical prophetic language," contending with one another in the context of multiple "biblical" and "extrabiblical" languages in the Mediterranean world. Perhaps earlier discussions in biblical interpretation about type and antitype were a way of talking about relationships among characters and events that exist in contending conceptualities of space and time, and in multiple languages and language-worlds. And perhaps references to "allegory" were yet another way. Is it the case, then, that only the modern novel and works contemporary with it contain pervasive dialogism and heteroglossia? Or is there pervasive dialogism and heteroglossia especially, perhaps, in deuterocanonical, pseudepigraphical, and New Testament literature during the Hellenistic-Roman period?
(Vernon Robbins, "Response--Using Bakhtin's Lexicon Dialogicae to Interpret Canon, Apocalyptic, New Testament, and Toni Morrison," 202)

These sources mentioned at the end of the quote do remind of Bakhtin's penchant for lesser-known sources in producing his ideas (e.g., his preference for Hellenistic literature to discuss menippean satire to develop his concept of carnivalesque) rather than Auerbach's tendency to focus upon canonical works, such as his own beloved Dante's Divine Comedy. Nonetheless, I really like both Auerbach and Bakhtin. Is there a good literary theorist (or non-theorist) whose name begins with a "c"? I think anyone who works without the canon or without particular regard for canonical boundaries should pay attention to Bakhtin, thinking of genre dialogically.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Reading Aloud

Reading out loud, something taken for granted in antiquity, something part of sociality just a couple hundred years ago, is becoming a dying art:

May 16, 2009
Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud

Sometimes the best way to understand the present is to look at it from the past. Consider audio books. An enormous number of Americans read by listening these days — listening aloud, I call it. The technology for doing so is diverse and widespread, and so are the places people listen to audio books. But from the perspective of a reader in, say, the early 19th century, about the time of Jane Austen, there is something peculiar about it, even lonely.

In those days, literate families and friends read aloud to each other as a matter of habit. Books were still relatively scarce and expensive, and the routine electronic diversions we take for granted were, of course, nonexistent. If you had grown up listening to adults reading to each other regularly, the thought of all of those solitary 21st-century individuals hearkening to earbuds and car radios would seem isolating. It would also seem as though they were being trained only to listen to books and not to read aloud from them.

It’s part of a pattern. Instead of making music at home, we listen to recordings of professional musicians. When people talk about the books they’ve heard, they’re often talking about the quality of the readers, who are usually professional. The way we listen to books has been de-socialized, stripped of context, which has the solitary virtue of being extremely convenient.

But listening aloud, valuable as it is, isn’t the same as reading aloud. Both require a great deal of attention. Both are good ways to learn something important about the rhythms of language. But one of the most basic tests of comprehension is to ask someone to read aloud from a book. It reveals far more than whether the reader understands the words. It reveals how far into the words — and the pattern of the words — the reader really sees.

Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes where a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.

No one understood this better than Jane Austen. One of the late turning points in “Mansfield Park” comes when Henry Crawford picks up a volume of Shakespeare, “which had the air of being very recently closed,” and begins to read aloud to the young Bertrams and their cousin, Fanny Price. Fanny discovers in Crawford’s reading “a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with.” And yet his ability to do every part “with equal beauty” is a clear sign to us, if not entirely to Fanny, of his superficiality.

I read aloud to my writing students, and when students read aloud to me I notice something odd. They are smart and literate, and most of them had parents who read to them as children. But when students read aloud at first, I notice that they are trying to read the meaning of the words. If the work is their own, they are usually trying to read the intention of the writer.

It’s as though they’re reading what the words represent rather than the words themselves. What gets lost is the inner voice of the prose, the life of the language. This is reflected in their writing, too, at first.

In one realm — poetry — reading aloud has never really died out. Take Robert Pinsky’s new book, “Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud.” But I suspect there is no going back. You can easily make the argument that reading silently is an economic artifact, a sign of a new prosperity beginning in the early 19th century and a new cheapness in books. The same argument applies to listening to books on your iPhone. But what I would suggest is that our idea of reading is incomplete, impoverished, unless we are also taking the time to read aloud.

We always read out loud in my classes. Even when I have my students break up into smaller groups, I request them to read the passages aloud to one another. There IS something lost when just reading silently. Especially when you are reading something in its original language, you have to feel the rhythms of the language with your own tongue sometimes to discover the great effect it can have. It is also true: fewer and fewer people really know how to read. Read slowly, read carefully, and read aloud--its a rather sensuous experience.

My Candle Burns at Both Ends

My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -
It gives a lovely light.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, "A Few Figs from Thistles", 1920

Friday, May 15, 2009

Should We Keep Latin Diplomas?

I personally do not have a Latin diploma. IWU and my current Columbia use English (yes, even Columbia).

Dickinson College's Latin professor, Christopher Francese, says, indeed, Latin diplomas must go:

Latin is a beautiful language and a relief from the incessant novelty and informality of the modern age. But when it’s used on diplomas, the effect is to obfuscate, not edify; its function is to overawe, not delight. The goal of education is the creation and transmission of knowledge — not the creation and transmission of prestige. Why, then, celebrate that education with a document that prizes grandiosity over communication?


I know that getting rid of the Latin diploma will not be easy. While most colleges and universities now issue English diplomas, some prominent holdouts — including Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania — still use Latin. Many students and alumni cherish the tradition. In 1961, when Harvard switched to English diplomas, about 4,000 students protested in the “diploma riots,” and criticized the new documents as “Y.M.C.A. certificates.”

We Latinists have also been resistant to change. Like most keepers of arcane knowledge, we savor our rare moments of prominence.

I say this from personal experience: Once, the hardened leader of the local SWAT team asked me for a Latin version of his team’s credo, “The strength of the wolf is in the pack, the strength of the pack is in the wolf.” I told him: “Robur gregi in lupo, robur lupo in grege.” He thanked me and then said the nine most comforting words a SWAT team leader could say to anyone: “Let me know if you ever need a favor.”

Admittedly, this pales in comparison to the fame gained by the Columbia University Latin scholar who had the high honor of translating for the press the tattoo of the woman at the center of the Eliot Spitzer scandal from “Tutela valui” to “I use protection.”


Originally, diplomas were letters of introduction given to travelers by the Roman government. For centuries, Latin served as a convenient common language among educated people around the world. This is no longer the case. Graduates don’t pull diplomas out of their glove boxes, and fraud is resolved by checking college records. But diplomas are still supposed to convey information, and Latin diplomas fail to fulfill that function. When one Dickinson College alumna recently applied to work at a public school, she had a photocopied version of her Latin diploma returned as foreign and illegible.

I’ve heard some argue that Latin is on diplomas because it’s beautiful and the language of Virgil and Cicero. The sad fact, though, is that diploma Latin is a far cry from Cicero’s Latin.

Roman writers composed some of the world’s most thrilling verse and were masters of historiography, oratory and philosophy. But diploma Latin is some of the most depressing and long-winded legalese you can find. Hiding behind the lovely calligraphy are maddening syntax and appalling neologisms. How do you say the name of every college town in Latin? You shouldn’t have to.


I love Latin, but when the last American diploma is finally converted to English I will say, “Ita vero.” Right on.

I see that Professor Francese has not been initiated into "you know what," so he does not know the secret knowledge and wisdom the university passes down obscurely; thus, the rather minor obfuscation on the diploma. ;)

At Columbia, there is a little game of whether or not you can find the owl in the alma mater statue. The owl is slightly hidden, representing hidden wisdom. Yet we have English diplomas.

Thursday, May 14, 2009



Let us praise our Maker, with true passion extol Him.
Let the whole creation give out another sweetness,
Nicer in our nostrils, a novel fragrance
From cleansed occasions in accord together
As one feeling fabric, all flushed and intact,
Phenomena and numbers announcing in one
Multitudinous oecumenical song
Their grand givenness of gratitude and joy,
Peaceable and plural, their positive truth
An authoritative This, an unthreatened Now
When, in love and in laughter, each lives itself,
For, united by His Word, cognition and power,
System and Order, are a single glory,
And the pattern is complex, their places safe.

~W.H. Auden~

Hubble Pics

In honor of the current Hubble repair mission, here are some amazing pics from the most successful telescope ever!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Will to Knowledge

What signs ought we to make to be found, how can
we will the knowledge that we must know to will?

(W.H. Auden, "The Dark Years")

Kingdom of Heaven Here, Among, Within

"The Kingdom Of Heaven"

A suffering soul on the way to the Kingdom of Heaven
Held up a sign that says "God hates America"
A child has been lost
A mother is shocked and is grieving
And turning away, turning away

He said there is a love that is so hideous and destructive
We must drive it from Earth to save all of our children
He must know it well
In the night it's the hell that he speaks of
It keeps him awake, keeps him awake

My God is love
My God is peace
My God loves you
My God loves me

A suffering soul on the way to the Kingdom of Heaven
Prayed in the dark, "Death to the infidel"
He strapped all his desperate pain and his faith to his body
And blew them away, blew them away

A suffering soul on the way to the Kingdom of Heaven
Shouts on the news, "They are the godless ones"
The anger inside and the fear that it hides
never leave her
When the cameras are gone, when the cameras move on

Oh, people, c'mon? tell me where is your Kingdom of Heaven?
Where is your faith?
Where do you put your fear?
Do you have a price for truth and a price for believing?
And heaven is here, heaven is here

My God is love
My God is peace
My God is you
And my God is me

(Melissa Etheridge)

Being asked asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:20-21)

35,000-Year-Old "Venus" Figurine Found

When a NYTimes article is headlined as "Ancient Figurine of Voluptuous Woman is Found," it is difficult not to read further!

May 14, 2009
Ancient Figurine of Voluptuous Woman Is Found

No one would mistake the Stone Age ivory carving for a Venus de Milo. The voluptuous woman depicted is, to say the least, earthier, with huge, projecting breasts and sexually explicit genitalia.

Nicholas J. Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who found the small carving in a cave last year, says it is at least 35,000 years old, “one of the oldest known examples of figurative art” in the world. It is about 5,000 years older than some other so-called Venus artifacts made by early populations of Homo sapiens in Europe.

Another archaeologist, Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge in England, agrees and goes on to remark on the obvious. By modern standards, he says, the figurine’s blatant sexuality “could be seen as bordering on the pornographic.”

The tiny statuette was uncovered last September in a cave in southwestern Germany, near Ulm and the Danube headwaters. Dr. Conard’s report on the find is being published Thursday in the journal Nature.

The discovery, Dr. Conard wrote, “radically changes our view of the origins of Paleolithic art.” Before this, he noted, female imagery was unknown, most carvings and cave drawings being of mammoths, horses and other animals.
Scholars say the figurine is roughly contemporaneous with other early expressions of artistic creativity, like drawings on cave walls in southeastern France and northern Italy. The inspiration and symbolism behind the rather sudden flowering have long been debated by art historians.

Commenting in the journal on the new discovery, Dr. Mellars, who did not participate in the research, wrote that the artifact was one of 25 similar carvings found over the past 70 years in other caves in the Swabian region of southern Germany — “a veritable art gallery of early ‘modern’ human art.”

These sites, he concluded, “must be seen as the birthplace of true sculpture in the European — maybe global — artistic tradition.”

The large caves were presumably inviting sanctuaries, scholars say, for populations of modern humans migrating then into central and western Europe. These were the people who eventually displaced the resident Neanderthals, around 30,000 years ago.

Dr. Conard reported that the discovery was made beneath three feet of red-brown sediment in the floor of the Hohle Fels cave. Six fragments of the carved ivory, including all but the left arm and shoulder, were recovered. When he brushed dirt off the torso, he said, “the importance of the discovery became apparent.”

The short, squat torso is dominated by oversized breasts and broad buttocks. The split between the two halves of the buttocks is deep and continuous without interruption to the front of the figurine. A greatly enlarged vulva, Dr. Conard said, emphasizes the “deliberate exaggeration” of the figurine’s sexual characteristics.

As such, the object reminded experts of the most famous of the sexually explicit figurines from the Stone Age, the Venus of Willendorf, discovered in Austria a century ago. It was somewhat larger and dated at about 24,000 years ago, but it was in a style that appeared to be prevalent for several thousand years. Scholars speculate that these Venus figurines, as they are known, were associated with fertility beliefs or shamanistic rituals.

The Hohle Fels artifact, less than 2.5 inches long and weighing little more than an ounce, is headless. Carved at the top, instead, is a ring, evidently to allow the object to be suspended from a string or thong.

Its sexual symbolism should not come as a surprise, Dr. Mellars said, because at about the same time people in western France were chipping out limestone to represent vulvas. Nor were these Stone Age artists fixated only on female sexuality. Archaeologists in recent years have also found phallic representations carved out of bone, ivory and bison horn.

Has anyone suggested it may just be decorative? I am always amused that we tend to automatically assume some religious dimension to ancient artifacts, particularly when we are not sure what "purpose" they served. Of course, it could be related to fertility. Or perhaps it was the ancient equivalent of "pornography" (of course, this is not either/or, ancient porn can be a religious thing).

More Moses on the Mount

hmmm...maybe I should start collecting these...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Middle Eastern Christianity

From the NYTimes:
May 13, 2009
Christians in Mideast Losing Numbers and Influence

JERUSALEM — Christians used to be a vital force in the Middle East. They dominated Lebanon and filled top jobs in the Palestinian movement. In Egypt, they were wealthy beyond their number. In Iraq, they packed the universities and professions. Across the region, their orientation was a vital link to the West, a counterpoint to prevailing trends.

But as Pope Benedict XVI wends his way across the Holy Land this week, he is addressing a dwindling and threatened Christian population driven to emigration by political violence, lack of economic opportunity and the rise of radical Islam. A region that a century ago was 20 percent Christian is about 5 percent today and dropping.

Since it was here that Jesus walked and Christianity was born, the papal visit highlights a prospect many consider deeply troubling for the globe’s largest faith, adhered to by a third of humanity — its most powerful and historic shrines could become museum relics with no connection to those who live among them.


Christians have inhabited the Middle East ever since, well, Christianity began, starting in Palestine, working through modern Jordan and Syria to Babylon (Iraq) fairly quickly. This reminds me of a book I have not read by Philip Jenkins (from Penn State) on Christianity in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Too often in Euro-American studies we neglect the varieties of Christianity that do not come from Latin and Greek traditions.

Parting the Sea

I wonder how many times Moses had to hear, "Are we there yet?" in forty years of wandering...but this is almost as bad:

Monday, May 11, 2009

Commercializing Prague's Golem

In the NYTimes:
May 11, 2009
Hard Times Give New Life to Prague’s Golem

PRAGUE — They say the Golem, a Jewish giant with glowing eyes and supernatural powers, is lurking once again in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue here.

The Golem, according to Czech legend, was fashioned from clay and brought to life by a rabbi to protect Prague’s 16th-century ghetto from persecution, and is said to be called forth in times of crisis. True to form, he is once again experiencing a revival and, in this commercial age, has spawned a one-monster industry.

There are Golem hotels; Golem door-making companies; Golem clay figurines (made in China); a recent musical starring a dancing Golem; and a Czech strongman called the Golem who bends iron bars with his teeth. The Golem has also infiltrated Czech cuisine: the menu at the non-kosher restaurant called the Golem features a “rabbi’s pocket of beef tenderloin” and a $7 “crisis special” of roast pork and potatoes that would surely have rattled the venerable Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Golem’s supposed maker.


Eva Bergerova, a theater director who is staging a play about the Golem, said it was no coincidence that this Central European story was ubiquitous at a time of swine flu and economic distress. “The Golem starts wandering the streets during times of crises, when people are worried,” Ms. Bergerova said. “He is a projection of society’s neuroses, a symbol of our fears and concerns. He is the ultimate crisis monster.”

Rabbi Manis Barash, who oversees an institute here devoted to Rabbi Loew’s work, said that “because of the financial crisis, people were increasingly turning to spirituality for meaning.”

Others, like Jakub Roth, a derivatives trader and a leader of the Jewish community, noted that the Golem had contemporary relevance because he protected sacred values from imminent dangers. “In the past this was anti-Semitism,” Mr. Roth said. “Today it is global recession, Islamic fundamentalism and Russian aggression.”

The surge in popularity of the Golem also anticipates the 400th anniversary in September of Rabbi Loew’s death in 1609, at nearly 100. A Jewish mystic and philosopher who a leading scholar of the Talmud and kabbalah and wrote at least 22 books, he was known widely as the Maharal, a great sage.

Few here dispute that the Golem, who is often depicted as either a menacing brown blob or an artificial humanoid, has become a lucrative global brand. But it is also a profound irritation to Prague’s Jewish leaders that Rabbi Loew’s legacy has been hijacked by a powerful dunce whom the Talmud characterizes as a “fool.”

“I am frustrated by the legend of the Golem in the same way I am frustrated that people buy Kafka souvenirs on every street in Prague but don’t bother to read his books,” Rabbi Karel Sidon, the chief rabbi of the Czech Republic, lamented. Alluding to the recent rise of neo-Nazis in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, however, he hastened to add, “We like the Golem because he protected the Jews.”

Rabbi Barash emphasized that in the Talmud, the Golem was considered a dumb klutz because he was literal-minded, could not speak and had no “sechel,” or intellect. “If in school,” he said, “you didn’t use your brains, the teacher would say, ‘Stop behaving like a golem.’ ”

According to one version of Prague’s Golem legend, the city’s Jews, under the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, were being attacked, falsely accused of using the blood of Christians to perform their rituals. To protect the community, Rabbi Loew built the Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River.

He used his knowledge of kabbalah to make it come alive, inscribing the Hebrew word emet, or truth, on the creature’s forehead. The Golem, whom he called Josef and who was known as Yossele, patrolled the ghetto; it is said he could make himself invisible and summon spirits from the dead.

Eventually, the Golem is said to have gone on a murderous rampage — out of unrequited love, some explain. Fearing that he could fall into the wrong hands, Rabbi Loew smeared clay on the Golem’s forehead, turning emet into met, the Hebrew word for death, and put him to rest in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue.

Though a quintessentially Jewish tale, the saga of the Golem, popularized here in a 1950s fairy tale film, has long been regarded as a Czech legend. Benjamin Kuras, a Czech playwright and the author of the book “As Golems Go,” said the fighting figure of the Golem had appeal in a nation traumatized by centuries of occupation and invasion.

“After living through the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazism and decades of communism, the Czechs are drawn to a character with supernatural powers that will help liberate them from oppression,” Mr. Kuras said. “Many here don’t even realize he is a Jewish monster.”

Such is the pull of the Golem that Rabbi Sidon said he received dozens of requests each year for visits to the Golem’s attic lair — requests he politely declined. During World War II, it was rumored that Nazi soldiers broke into the synagogue, and Rabbi Loew’s Golem ripped them apart, limb by limb.

“We say the Golem is in the attic, up there,” Rabbi Sidon said. “But I have never gone there. I say that if the Golem was put there 400 years ago, then today he is dirt and dust and can’t do anything to disturb anyone.”


Rabbi Sidon recalled that in the late 1990s, an elderly Jewish woman asked him where the Golem was. “I told her he was in the attic,” Rabbi Sidon said. “ ‘Not that one, the real one,’ ” he said the woman replied, insisting that she had been at the synagogue a year earlier and had met Mr. Golem, a lanky figure with ruddy cheeks.

Recognizing the description, the rabbi said, he confronted the synagogue’s shamash, or attendant, a man called Josef, who shares the Golem’s first name. Josef eventually confessed that he had been telling visitors he was the Golem’s great-grandson.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Probable Impossibilities and Improbable Possibilities

προαιρεῖσθαί τε δεῖ ἀδύνατα εἰκότα μᾶλλον ἢ δυνατὰ ἀπίθανα:

Probable impossibilities are preferable to implausible possibilities.

(Aristotle, Poetics 60a (1460a); trans. Malcolm Heath)

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Year of "Godot"?

Becket's famous "Waiting for Godot" is not just in NYC, but has been revived in London's West End, starring no less talents than Ian McKellen, whose King Lear was fabulous, and Patrick Stewart:

The opening moments of Sean Mathias’s production of Samuel Beckett’s benchmark 1953 play suggest that this will be a “Godot” with a difference, and for two-and-a-half alternately crushing and beautiful hours, Mr. McKellen and his scarcely less distinguished colleague, Patrick Stewart, do not disappoint. There are innumerable ways to play Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi), the two tramps suspended in the limbo that, broadly speaking, is life. But in my extensive experience of this play, I’ve never seen a staging as attuned to the presence of mortality that underpins even Beckett’s jauntiest repartee.

Think of Didi and Gogo as two clowns on a road to nowhere, their banter possessed of the constantly changing push-me/pull-you quality one associates with long-married couples. As here embodied by two accomplished men of the British theater, who have found international renown together in the “X-Men” films, Beckett’s hobos come across as two vaudevillians sharing one last, infinitely human gasp. I can’t imagine audiences wanting to miss out on the experience.

Things could, I suppose, have turned out otherwise. With a production that on paper sounded almost top heavy with talent, Mr. Mathias, the director, deserves credit for keeping light on its feet what could have become an orgy of thespian grandeur. In some ways, the casting of this same play’s concurrent Broadway revival, with Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, seems truer to the comic impulses of an iconic work whose first American production famously starred Bert Lahr.

Don’t two feted English classicists risk overplaying a text that is never more biting than when at its most apparently breezy? (Estragon: “What about hanging ourselves?” Vladimir: “Hmm. It’d give us an erection.” ) Not here. His voice sliding toward and away from a Northern accent, Mr. McKellen softens his vocal sonorities to etch for keeps someone who may just as well have risen from the dead and isn’t entirely sure he likes what he sees. Remarking “We are all born mad; some remain so,” his Gogo could well be quoting the only belatedly wise monarch Lear, whom Mr. McKellen played on a world tour for the Royal Shakespeare Company several seasons ago.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Coptic as a Living Language?

From Rant/Rave:
It is generally believed that Coptic is an extinct language, alive only in the prayer books and scriptures of Coptic Christianity, which is one of the major branches of the Christian faith tradition. Coptic is the language of ancient Egypt. Unlike Arabic , it is not Semitic but Afro Asiatic. In its earliest from, it was written with hieroglyphics. Later, it was written with a phonetic alphabet which is mainly Greek but has added characters for sounds not found in Greek.

The Islamic conquest of Egypt involved harsh repression of coptic as a spoken language. Indeed even today, the adherents of Coptic Christianity endure civic liabilities in Egypt that are unimaginable in the west.

The most commonly believed time line of the Coptic language lists the mid 1600’s as the time in which the last speaker of this language died. Now there are reports that the language may still be spoken, still a living language.

The most solid report of Coptic language survival comes from the Coptic Monastery of St. Anthony in the Red Sea Mountains about 110 miles southeast of Cairo. According to the “redbooks” web site, the monks in this monastery speak Coptic among themselves as a language of daily business and discourse . The article notes as follows.

“Amazingly, the monks who live here still speak Coptic, a language directly descended from the language of the ancient Egyptians.”

Of course, what really makes a language alive is when families pass it on to children, or better still, when villages perpetuate an endangered tongue. Such reports about Coptic are not numerous enough for those who wish the language well.

Despite this, there is a report of an extended Egyptian family that speaks Coptic among themselves, including even the detail of a woman who got strange looks when she spoke it on her cell phone.
The Daily Star of Egypt reports ‘ “Mona Zaki is one of only a handful of people that continue to use the language in everyday conversation. She speaks a colloquial form of Coptic with her parents and a few relatives that dates back 2,000 years.

“In many ways it helps strengthen my faith,” Zaki said. “It has really helped when I go to church because they still use a form of Coptic for many services.” Her dialect, however, differs slightly from the standard Coptic that is used for study and church services. She does not speak Coptic with her children. “I felt that Coptic was a worthless language to have my children speak, therefore I did not do so when they were young,” said Zaki. Coptic is the language of the first Christian church in history, and when the members of the two families that speak the colloquial form of Coptic die, it will be the first language of the early Christian churches to become extinct.”

Sadly, this article paints a portrait of a language in its dying stages , with one of its last speakers apologetically explaining her decision not to transmit it to her children.

The article about Ms. Zaki does however cautiously offer hope for the survival of Coptic as a language in the following paragraph.

“Some scholars have theorized that some remote villagers in the Delta region of Egypt or in the south of the country may still speak forms of the Coptic language. Because many Egyptians live in small villages away from government control and active study by anthropologists, it is theorized that Coptic will persist despite official numbers.”

I find it interesting that the Coptic dialect spoken differs from the official Coptic of study and liturgy, which descends from Bohairic Coptic. I wonder if this spoken form resembles some of the varieties of dialects from antiquity--Achmimic, Subachmimic, Fayyumic, Sahidic, etc. (most notable in the shifts in vowels)--or if it shows signs of Arabization. I wonder how Coptic might have adapted to more modern devices--in fact, the woman was speaking on the cell-phone in Coptic; what is the Coptic word for "cell-phone"?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Bust of Nefertiti a Fake?

Outside of King Tutankhamun's richly decorated sarcophagus, perhaps the most recognizable ancient Egyptian artifact is the bust of Nefertiti...but a new book argues that it is an early twentieth century fake, originally meant to test ancient pigments found on an archaeological site (thus the pigments are ancient, but the bust itself is not). From Yahoo! News:

Famed Nefertiti bust 'a fake': expert

2 hrs 1 min ago
PARIS (AFP) – The bust of Queen Nefertiti housed in a Berlin museum and believed to be 3,400 years old in fact is a copy dating from 1912 that was made to test pigments used by the ancient Egyptians, according to Swiss art historian Henri Stierlin.
Stierlin, author of a dozen works on Egypt, the Middle East and ancient Islam, says in a just-released book that the bust currently in Berlin's Altes Museum was made at the order of German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt by an artist named Gerardt Marks.
"It seems increasingly improbable that the bust is an original," Stierlin told AFP.
The historian said the archaeologist had hoped to produce a new portrait of the queen wearing a necklace he knew she had owned, and was also looking to carry out a colour test with ancient pigments found at the digs.
But on December 6, 1912, the copy was admired as an original work by a German prince and the archaeologist "couldn't sum up the courage to ridicule" his guest, Stierlin said.
The historian, who has been working on the subject for 25 years, said he based his findings on several facts. "The bust has no left eye and was never crafted to have one. This is an insult for an ancient Egyptian who believed the statue was the person themself."
He also said the shoulders were cut vertically in the style practised since the 19th century while "Egyptians cut shoulders horizontally" and that the features were accentuated in a manner recalling that of Art Nouveau.
It was impossible to scientifically establish the date of the bust because it was made of stone covered in plaster, he said.
"The pigments, which can be dated, are really ancient," he added.
Stierlin also listed problems he noted during the discovery and shipment to Germany as well as in scientific reports of the time.
French archaeologists present at the site never mentioned the finding and neither did written accounts of the digs. The earliest detailed scientific report appeared in 1923, 11 years after the discovery.
The archaeologist "didn't even bother to supply a description, which is amazing for an exceptional work found intact".
Borchardt "knew it was a fake," Stierlin said. "He left the piece for 10 years in his sponsor's sitting-room. It's as if he'd left Tutankhamen's mask in his own sitting-room."
Egypt has demanded the return of the bust discovered on the banks of the Nile since it went on display in 1923, depicting a stunning woman wearing a unique cone-shaped headdress.
One of Berlin's prime attractions it will move into its own hall at the newly renovated Neues Museum when it reopens to the public in October.

I don't know of leaving out on the living room table is an argument here. Archaeologists did some weird things in the late nineteenth and early twentieth the entire removal of the Pergamon Altar to Berlin! Elgin's marbles...Schliemann's expeditions for Troy and Mycenae...those were some crazy days.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Interesting Responses to Mark Taylor

There are more responses to Mark Taylor, but these are actually Gawker:

Mark C. Taylor, chairman of Columbia University's Religion department, started some shit. So much we need two posts to flush-it down properly. First up: Kate Perkins and Dan Kois. God can't save you now, Mark!

So Professor Taylor's main thesis:

If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps

And he outlines his manifesto for reform in six points. All of it raises central questions about the purpose of education in our new information age. I got some peeps to discuss:

When an article starts off like this, who wouldn't want to keep reading?

Here was my favorite response from a "peep":
The ivory tower, traditionally, has stood as a haven for the kind of scholarship that is at least indifferent to the pressures of the socioeconomic order – if not actively subversive to it – whereas today it's essentially a gold-plated monument of industry. Private universities charge tuitions affordable only to those in the same tax brackets as professional athletes, guaranteeing the next generation of American aristocracy. This is why schools like NYU (which do of course have innumerable fluffy ‘interdepartmental' study programs like the ones Taylor recommends) look absurd when their students – among the most powerful and privileged citizens in the country – are staging a protest on their nearly privatized Washington Square Park campus: their tuitions have a direct and transparent role in the erosion of the public good.

Even state and city universities disproportionately fund ‘profitable' departments in the axis of techno-pharma-sci-finance researches that yield the greatest gains in funding and reputation. CUNY's "Look Who's at CUNY!" campaign, e.g., advertises the achievements of graduate students and research fellows in ‘important' fields like ADD research and biotechnology. In this sense, graduate programs already do act as the "problem-focused programs" Taylor endorses. When universities operate in service of profits, though, it becomes difficult to tell what their responsibility is with regard to social problems and who, exactly, their problem-solving serves. It's easy to imagine a "Water program" serving not the public but the corporations monopolizing the means of its distribution, at, say, Black Water University.

If Taylor's right to describe the crisis of education as an industry crisis, it's not because, like automobiles or high finance, universities are inherent pillars of American capitalism. It's because social contribution does not equal surplus value. The genuine social utility and social prestige of universities should be based on their institutional independence from The Powers That Be. Taylor's 6 Steps make for relatively useless suggestions, since none of them relieve scholarship from its burden of profit. He's concerned with changing the internal structure of universities, rather than with restructuring the academy's place in the social order. Until that happens, no matter what bureaucratic rearrangements and curricular changes go on, they'll continue to produce the class divisions that make them institutions for the elite, by the elite.

The other response really just looked at the same issues from a slightly different perspective.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

An Augustinian Mind-Twister

No one...must try to get to know from me what I know that I do not know, unless, it may be, in order to learn not to know what must be known to be incapable of being known! (Augustine, City of God 12.7)

Go ahead, read it again to know what you can know and cannot know or know that you cannot know (which is better than not knowing what you can know) about knowing and not knowing from Augustine.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Coptic Restoration

I saw this via Agade; Al-Ahram Weekly reports on the cataloging and restoration of many deteriorating Coptic Manuscripts in the Coptic Museum archives:

The Coptic Museum archives, considered to be the world's most important Coptic library and containing more than 5,000 manuscripts and books, are being given a facelift.

Serenity, peace and complete quiet are the overwhelming sensations in the museum library, despite the presence of two dozen experts and restorers who have spread themselves to each corner of the reading room. Since January, the library has been converted into a scientific laboratory so that a comprehensive survey to assess the current conditions of its treasured manuscripts and books can be carried out. Armed with white gowns, masks, small brushes, glass plaques, small pieces of cottonwool and special liquids, junior and professional restorers sit in front of their improvised desks examining the piece of manuscript win their hands. They are looking for parts of each manuscript that show signs of being infected, and then they will identify its causes, take notes and rescue the pieces that are in need of attention.

The article explains why Coptic documents tend to be in worse shape than Arabic documents in terms of material and history of handling:
"I am very happy to be taking part in such a great project," Hamdi Abdel-Moneim, an expert in manuscript restoration, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that during his 22-year career in restoring Islamic manuscripts, it was the first time he had come face to face with Coptic pieces. "They are totally different than each other," Abdel-Moneim said, pointing out that Copts used goatskin or manuscripts while Muslims, writing at a later date, used paper, which required different maintenance and restorative treatment. "I have examined almost 30 per cent of the stored collection," Abdel-Moneim said, "and I have realised that the condition of the Coptic manuscripts is worse than Islamic ones since they have been handled more often by monks and other churchgoers. But Islamic ones are much better preserved since they have been kept in hard covers, like the Quran for example."

Abdel-Moneim noted that spots of wax and oil are easily seen on the manuscripts, while others had been attacked by insects. Ten per cent of the stored collection was badly damaged and required an immediate attention, since the goatskin interacted with itself, thus transformed into gelatin, which made it beyond repair. He said the books were in better condition but many had wax and water spots as well as holes and tears.

"The project also is trying to adjust the incorrect restoration implemented during the 'era of the Martyrs' in about 1600, when monks glued the manuscripts to sheets of paper in an attempt to support them. Regretfully, however, this treatment led to the deterioration of some parts of the manuscripts, while some others were lost in the process.

Sounds like the stories of the early handlers of the Dead Sea Scrolls or, worse, the Tchacos Codex.
The restorers are using state-of-the-art techniques, giving each MSS a "digital birth certificate," controlling the immediate environment, particularly humidity, etc. And it seems to be a training ground for junior restoration experts, since the Coptic materials are multiple: goat skin, papyrus, fabric, etc.

May Day Poem


May with its light behaving
Stirs vessel, eye and limb,
The singular and sad
Are willing to recover,
And to each swan-delighting river
The careless picnics come
In living white and red.

Our dead, remote and hooded,
In hollows rest, but we
From their vague woods have broken,
Forests where children meet
And the white angel-vampires flit,
Stand now with shaded eye,
The dangerous apple taken.

The real world lies before us,
Brave motions of the young,
Abundant wish for death,
The pleasing, pleasured, haunted:
A dying Master sinks tormented
In his admirers' ring,
The unjust walk the earth.

And love that makes impatient
Tortoise and roe, that lays
The blonde beside the dark,
Urges upon our blood,
Before the evil and the good
How insufficient is
Touch, endearment, look.

(W.H. Auden)