Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Archaeologists Uncover Amphitheater at Portus

The London Times reports that archaeologists have unearthed a private amphitheater for the emperor at Portus, a site near Rome's Fiumicino airport.

This is the first time that a large-scale dig has taken place at the site, known as Portus, which was discovered in the 16th century and excavated in the 1860s. Now two miles inland, it would have been twice the size of the port of Southampton and an important gateway between Rome and the Mediterranean. It is possible that it was frequented by 2nd-century emperors.

British excavators, including staff from the University of Cambridge and the British School at Rome, said that the amphitheatre was likely to have been built for the private entertainment of a senior statesman or emperor and could have held up to 2,000 spectators.

Professor Simon Keay, the project director, said: “[The amphitheatre’s] design, using luxurious materials and substantial colonnades, suggests it was used by a high-status official, possibly even the emperor himself.

They also found the toilet there.

Biblical Studies Carnival XLVI

Daniel and Tonya at Hebrew and Greek Reader have posted the latest Biblical Studies Carnival.

Yours truly has a few posts this time, which I found interesting since I posted much less this month. Perhaps quality went up with less quantity.

My review of Mark George's Tabernacle as Social Space made the cut. Unfortunately, the link they set up does not work because it is missing the "l" in "html."

My off-hand post on Pathos also shows up. And my reporting of a report on the find of a horde of coins. Personally, however, I thought my post on Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes was more interesting than these last two. But maybe Death is too light of a topic for the Carnival.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Quote of the Day: John Donne

Seek we then ourselves in ourselves; for as
Men force the sun with much more force to pass,
By gathering his beams with a crystal glass;

So we, if we into ourselves will turn,
Blowing our sparks of virtue, may outburn
The straw, which doth about our hearts sojourn.

(John Donne, "To Mr Roland Woodward")

The Places of Past Memories

I just completed Swann's Way, the first part of Marcel Proust's magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time. It is an absolutely beautiful book. It captures the always escaping evanescence of our memories, but fully sensually. It is the luxurious perfume that triggers something within us and sets out minds into places in our past, places that can never be the same again because we have changed. Lost places are the other dimension of lost time that slip on by, wafting and then dissipating in the air. The last line of the book captures the temporality of place beautifully:

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

(Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Scapechicken?

Yom Kippur is coming up on Monday. In Leviticus 16, the real action of the ancient ritual concerned two goats. One goat was slaughtered and the blood cleansed the sanctuary. The other, the "scapegoat" or the goat "for Azazel," had the people's sins passed upon it and it was driven into the wilderness (evidently where Azazel was).

In Brooklyn on Monday Hasidic Jews will sacrifice a chicken in the "kapparot." The idea is that sins are transferred to the bird and then disappear at its death. I don't know much about this ritual, its origins, its explanations, and its developments. But it sounds like the two goats from the ancient ritual combined together into a single chicken.

Interestingly, it seems that this ritual contravenes rabbinic rulings on proper slaughter of animals.

Monday, September 21, 2009

In Death is Wisdom: Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes

I am about to teach the Epic of Gilgamesh again. My students read the Standard Babylonian version, basically since it is the best preserved. This version transforms the earlier epic versions into something of an epic wisdom text, particularly regarding the Utnapishtim's speech at the end. This speech and the Standard Babylonian version as a whole remind me of Ecclesiastes in many respects. They both concern themselves with the inevitability of death and, in a way, the meaninglessness of much of life. Coming to terms with both aspects leads to wisdom. Nonetheless, they approach this whole coming-to-terms-with-death-is-the-foundation-of-wisdom in different ways. Of course, one is narrative and couched in conversation between Gilgamesh and Utnapisthim. The other is a more wisdom text--a radical one, in fact--but appears more in the form of a treatise as the "Preacher" goes through all aspects of life to show how they are all a "chasing after the wind."

The Standard Babylonian version of Gilgamesh would have been known by its first line: "He who Saw the Deep." It reads:

He who saw the Deep, the country's foundation,
[who] knew..., was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country's foundations,
[who] knew..., was wise in all matters!
(1.1-4; all translations by Andrew George)

In the subsequent narrative, Gilgamesh does not act very wise at all. In fact, he acts rather stupidly and is depicted as a horrible tyrant who will only be tamed by Enkidu. It will only be after Enkidu's death and after Gilgamesh's journey to the end of the world where the only immortalized human, Utnapisthim who survived the flood, lives. Gilgamesh's failure at immortality will coincide Utnapishtim's advice to the king. Ultimately, the lesson will be that immortality will be gained through one's constructive acts--such as rebuilding the walls of Uruk. This is quite a different response than the Iliad, for example, where undying glory is attained through destruction. Yet, ultimately, Gilgamesh will become, we presume, the wise king who "saw the deep." Having seen the deep things of the world, he will understand how ephemeral his own existence is.

Yet the attainment of wisdom by seeing the deep is set up as an impossibility in the late biblical wisdom traditions:

All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, "I will be wise," but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? (Eccl. 7:23-24; RSV)

In Gilgamesh, wisdom was garnered by journeying to the end of the earth and investigating the deep things by his superhuman, heroic strength (he was 2/3 divine, 1/3 human after all). He could bound in a few days what for others would take several months to journey. The author of Ecclesiastes also puts these foundations "far off" and in the "deep." But these places can not be found by any normal human being. We are not all Gilgameshes. No one really is. So how can we find this wisdom? We can't. But the Preacher does not give up because it is impossible, but merely recognizes it as another "chasing after the wind." Instead, the Preacher comes to wisdom (that there is no wisdom) not by superhuman feats of strength, but by observation of the surrounding world.

Wisdom from both is the inevitability of death for all--not matter who you are, no matter how good or bad you are. Utnapishtim says to Gilgamesh:

No one at all sees Death,
no one at all sees the face [of Death]
no one at all [hears] the voice of Death,
Death so savage, who hacks men down.

Ever do we build our households,
ever do we make our nests,
ever do brothers divide their inheritance,
ever do feuds arise in the land.

Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
then all of a sudden nothing is there!

The abducted and the dead, how alike is their lot!
But never was drawn the likeness of Death,
never in the land did the dead greet a man.

The Anunnaki, the great gods, held an assembly,
Mammitum, maker of destiny, fixed fates with them:
both Death and Life they have established,
but the day of Death they do not disclose.

This is probably my favorite passage in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The repetition of the first parts of the lines of "no one at all" and "ever do we" build up rhythm and suspense until "death so savage, who hacks men down" and "then all of a sudden nothing is there." I always like to say "all of a sudden" quickly and then pause, slowing down on "nothing." The point of the poetry is abundantly clear. Death is invisible but is ever-present, and ready to take us down. While death awaits, we "ever do" so many meaningless things in our daily lives, at least from the perspective of our own inevitable yet unknown deaths.

Ecclesiastes 9:3-12 makes the exact same point, but, I think, less poignantly:

There is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all; also the hearts of the men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more forever any share in all that is done under the sun.

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white; let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish which are taken in an evil net, and like birds which are caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

Again, death is the fate of us all, and we do not know when it will come upon us. Moreover, we all have the same lot in the afterlife, where there is no memory, no thought, no wisdom, and no knowledge. It is much like the Greek afterlife. In fact, the line about it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion also reminds me of Achilles in the Odyssey, where he tells Odysseus he would rather be the lowest of peasants on earth than the greatest among the dead in the underworld. Much like Gilgamesh portrays death as abduction, Ecclesiastes portrays it as capture in a snare, an evil net. The suddenness of death equally features in both as well. Once one comes to terms with these aspects of death--its inevitability, its suddenness (it can come upon us at any time), and that the afterlife is undifferentiated--then we can finally achieve a modicum of vain wisdom in our vain life: to enjoy life, enjoy eating, enjoy drinking, enjoy the person you love, take pleasure in your work, for there is nothing else. If all is impermanent, one might as well enjoy those impermanent things by taking pleasure in the passing moment. If you fail to do this, death may spring on you at any time and your chance of enjoyment will be gone.

Finally, the "ever do we" lines of Gilgamesh recall, to me at least, the repetition of "a time to" in Ecclesiastes.

Ever do we build our households,
ever do we make our nests,
ever do brothers divide their inheritance,
ever do feuds arise in the land.
(see above)

For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
(Eccl. 3.1-4)

And it keeps going. The difference perhaps is that the Epic of Gilgamesh emphasizes the constant drum of the same activities, whereas the the Ecclesiastes passage emphasizes the appointment of times for different activities, although these activities, too, are recurrent.

While Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes are very different texts, different genres even, set at different times (vastly different, in fact), and written in different places, they show a great deal of the same imagery and concerns. They both claim that wisdom is coming to terms with death. Death is sudden, it is pervasive, everyone must succumb to it, and don't count on the afterlife to make up for this one. The wisdom is that death comes to call and at any time without us knowing it; thus, we must live our lives in the moment for any moment could be our last.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lefebvre on Time in Space

Let everyone look at the space around them. What do they see? Do they see time? They live time, after all; they are in time. Yet all anyone sees is movements. In nature, time is apprehended within space--in the very heart of space: the hour of the day, the season, the elevation of the sun above the horizon, the position of the moon and stars in the heavens, the cold and the heat, the age of each natural being, and so on. Until nature became localized in underdevelopment, each place showed its age and, like a tree trunk, bore the mark of the years it had taken it to grow. Time was thus inscribed in space, and natural space was merely the lyrical and tragic script of natural time.... With the advent of modernity time has vanished from social space.... Economic space subordinates time to itself; political space expels it as threatening and dangerous (to power). The primacy of the economic and above all of the political implies the supremacy of space over time.... Our time, then, this most essential part of lived experience, this greatest good of all goods, is no longer visible to us, no longer intelligible. It cannot be constructed. It is consumed, exhausted, and that is all. It leaves no traces. It is concealed in space, hidden under a pile of debris to be disposed of as soon as possible; after all, rubbish is a pollutant.
(Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 95-6; trans. Nicholson-Smith)

T.S. Eliot on Time

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
("Burnt Norton," Four Quartets)

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
("East Coker," Four Quartets)

It seems T.S. Eliot was thinking quite a bit about Ecclesiastes!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Divided Self in the Iliad

The Iliad contains within it, I think, a very interesting, and perhaps psychologically sensitive, concept of the person, the self. It is a self that is composed of multiple elements that are divided against themselves. This divided self can be found in the formulae regarding internal deliberation--and I think it is significant that the Iliad actually has formulae of internal deliberation.

The first type of formula has to do with the division within a particular element of the person: these elements include the heart, the mind, and the spirit. It first appears with regard to Achilleus in 1.188ff:

So he spoke. And the anger (achos) came on Peleus' son, and within
his shaggy breast the heart was divided two ways, pondering
whether to draw from beside his thigh the sharp sword, driving
away all those who stood between and kill the son of Atreus,
or else to check the spleen within and keep down his anger (cholos).
Now as he weighted in mind and spirit these two courses....
(trans. Lattimore)

In this scene, Achilleus contemplates whether to kill Agamemnon for taking Briseis from him. Athene comes (where the ellipses begin) to dissuade Achilleus from killing the son of Atreus, and rather just verbally abuse him. I should also note my objections to the translation: there are several words used throughout the text (menis, menos, cholos, achos, etc.) that Lattimore translates simply as "anger." The two words here--achos and cholos--refer to grief and bitterness respectively. In this scene, we find that bitterness resides in the spleen, while deliberation can occur with the mind, the heart, and the spirit, which are divided within themselves. The two courses, moreover, remind and foreshadow the revelation of Achilleus' choice of destiny, which is also of two ways--short life and undying glory or fame (kleos) or a long life without glory (9.410-416). Similar deliberations occur with other characters. For example, Odysseus ponders two ways in mind and spirit (5.671ff). Compare Diomedes in 8.167ff, Nestor in 14.16-26, and Hera in 14.159ff. Yet Achilleus is the only one who deliberates in all three: mind, spirit, and heart.

Yet this internal division within the mind, within the spirit, and within the heart only occurs in the first half of the Iliad (the last being in book 14). From there, the terminology shifts. Although it first occurs with Menelaos and then Zeus (17.90-105; 17.198-208, 441-55), let us look at this new formula with regard to Achilleus again:

Disturbed, Achilleus spoke to the spirit in his own great heart


Now as he was pondering this in his heart and his spirit.
(18.5, 15)

In this opening scene to book 18, Achilleus does not yet know that Patroklos has died, but just subsequently, he will learn the bitter truth and go into deep mourning. The form, here, however, is what is interesting to me. Achilleus not longer is divided within his heart or spirit, but he--his self--speaks to his spirit, which is within his great heart. This shows a new division within the self. Instead of just contemplating within one's spirit, one speaks to one's spirit. The final line of "now as he was pondering..." also typically shows up in this formula. On the other hand, it misses one typical element of the formula. The example of Menelaos is more typical:

Deeply troubled, he spoke to his own great-hearted spirit


Then why does my own heart within me debate this?


Now as he was pondering this in his heart and his spirit.
(17.90, 97, 106)

Menelaos debates whether to stay and protect Patroklos' body, being outmatched, or to seek help from Aias (Ajax). Note the additional formula: "Then why does my own heart within me debate this?" Again, the heart is internally divided, yet the self appears separate from this as well, as one speaks to one's own great-hearted spirit, again equating heart and spirit (as with Achilleus one is within the other). For additional examples, see Zeus (17.198-208, 441-55), more Achilleus (20.343, 21.53), Agenor (21.549-70), and Hektor (22.98-130). This all reminds me of the ancient Egyptian text, The Dialogue of a Man with his Soul (or "Ba"), where a man talks to his "ba" or soul. As with the Egyptian conceptions of the person, the Iliad shows that the person is more of a confluence of elements rather than a unity. Those elements can be divided both within themselves and against one another. One element can speak to another, but also deliberate within. One can speak to one's soul/heart/mind/spirit or within them. Indeed, with such a divided self, the Iliad does demonstrate psychological sensitivity already with the first piece of Greek literature, and, since it is expressed in the formulae themselves, this sensitivity most likely long predates the writing of the Iliad with the oral bardic tradition.

Friday, September 11, 2009

New Book on Pre-Kabbalistic Jewish Mysticism

Peter Schaefer has published a new book with Mohr-Siebeck entitled the Origins of Jewish Mysticism.

Here's the (English) blurb:

This book provides the reader for the first time with a history of
pre-kabbalistic Jewish mysticism. It covers a wide range of quite
diverse literatures, from the biblical book of Ezekiel to the ascent
apocalypses, the Qumran literature, Philo, Rabbinic literature, and
finally the Hekhalot literature, which provides us with the first
full-fledged mystical movement in late antiquity (Merkavah mysticism).
Instead of imposing on these different literatures a preconceived
notion of "mysticism," Peter Schäfer offers a close reading of the key
texts and asks what they wish to convey about the age-old human desire
to get close to and communicate with God.The author of this book has
dedicated much of his scholarly life to the history of Jewish
mysticism. The Origins of Jewish Mysticism summarizes his views in an
accessible way, directed at specialists as well as at a broader

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Image of the Temple

A horde of Bar-Kochba coins have been discovered, some of which have an image of the facade of the temple on them!

Via Agade:

Bar-Kokhba Treasure Chest Discovered in Judean Hills
by Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu

The largest-ever known number of coins from the time of Bar-Kokhba,
the Jewish leader against Roman invaders, has been discovered in the
Judean Hills by cave researchers from Hebrew and Bar-Ilan

The research team found three batches of bronze, silver and gold coins
in a deep cavern in a nature reserve. Pottery and weapons also were
discovered during a research project by Prof. Amos Frumkin of Hebrew
University and Prof. Hanan Eshel and Dr. Boaz Zissu of Bar-Ilan.


Most of the coins are in excellent condition, and Bar-Kokhba's
followers imprinted their own designs over the currency, which is of
Roman origin.

The new imprints show Jewish images and words, including the façade of
the Hole Temple and the slogan “freedom for Jerusalem.”

Bar-Kokhba coins of this quality and quantity have never before been
discovered in one location by researchers in the Land of Israel,
although antiquities looters have found and sold large numbers of
coins from this period.


“This discovery verifies the assumption that the refugees of the
revolt fled to caves in the center of a populated area in addition to
the caves found in more isolated areas of the Judean Desert,” he said.

Now THAT is Pathos

Pathos is the moment in a great piece of literature, or film, etc., where you get that lump in your throat and a tug at your heartstrings. It is when a work elicits from the reader an overwhelming sense of compassion (in a way, anticipating and manipulating reader response). I have yet to read anyone who does this better than Homer (if there was a Homer). He does this in many ways. He tells us the back stories of each individual fighter who dies, whose family depends upon him and who will no longer be able to provide for them in death. Yet I think the most pathos-ridden passage is the one where Priam visits Achilleus in the latter's tent to beg for the return of Hektor's body. After kissing Achilleus' hand and supplicating at his knees, the great Priam, king of Troy, says:

I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through;
I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.
(Il. 24.505-6).

Now that's Pathos.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Literature Humanities, Plays, and Politics

I was just perusing the NYTimes (online) and glimpsed a familiar face on the front page tonight: a fellow preceptor in Literature Humanities, by all accounts a fantastic instructor, who came in at the same time I did, Zayd Dohrn. I was somewhat surprised seeing his face in the NYTimes. We chat occasionally about class and the literature we're teaching (I just saw him Tuesday with his copy of the Iliad in hand), but I don't think I realized he was a playwright (although I knew he was in theater), didn't really know he was much interested in politics, and didn't know much about his personal life (other than the fact that he has a young child). It turns out he has been busy turning out plays resonant with timely political themes.

From the New York Times of the political plays of Zayd Dohrn:

September 3, 2009
A Playwright’s Glimmers of a Fugitive Childhood

When Zayd Dohrn began writing "Sick," a play about a Manhattan family going to extremes to shield themselves from pollution, he tapped into anxieties around him: he was living in Beijing at the time, during the height of the SARS epidemic, and he had moved there from New York, where environmental fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks was widely feared.

But Mr. Dohrn, now 32, had even more personal experience to draw on. Until he was almost 4 years old his parents, the former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, were living with him in hiding in Morningside Heights, and using assumed names — even for Zayd, who was known simply as Z.

Only a handful of memories remain with Mr. Dohrn from that young age, and yet those years on the run from the police — followed by his mother’s brief time in jail after she and Mr. Ayers turned themselves in — have fueled an abiding fascination with living under extreme conditions and pressures.

His work is drawing attention from a growing number of theaters across the country, with “Sick” running at the Berkshire Theater Festival through Sunday. Another play, “Reborning,” involving a woman trying to recreate and rewrite her past, was produced for the Summer Play Festival at the Public Theater in July.

“A lot of what I think and write about deals with constraints and looking for a way out, especially in family situations, when the struggle to live free of constraints can take an emotional toll,” Mr. Dohrn said recently over coffee near Columbia University, a few blocks from the 123rd Street apartment where he and his parents lived in hiding.

“It may sound strange, but I didn’t feel especially smothered by my family’s constraints, even though I was aware of them,” he continued. “They were simply something I was aware of. The worst year for me was when my mother went to jail. It was so sad and scary. I remember visiting her and sneaking in ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ and ‘Charlotte’s Web’ through the metal detectors so that she could read to me.”

An earlier play of Mr. Dohrn’s, "Haymarket," is his most overtly political and historical work, about a real-life 19th-century gathering of radical demonstrators in Haymarket Square in Chicago. A bomb goes off during their rally, and some of the radicals go into hiding afterward. The incident evokes an experience of Mr. Dohrn’s parents, who fled a Greenwich Village apartment in 1970 after the accidental explosion of a bomb killed three fellow members of the Weather Underground, an organization that conducted a campaign of bombing public buildings in the 1960s and ’70s as a form of protest.

Mr. Dohrn does not include any explicit echoes of his parents in “Haymarket,” though, and he said that in general he tried to avoid heavily reflecting his own life — or theirs — in his work so far. “For me it’s not very interesting to write about myself or my parents,” he said. “That doesn’t create any special friction for me.”

Still, Mr. Dohrn said he could imagine writing a play someday about the experience of his father during the 2008 presidential election.

Mr. Ayers, now an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, became a lightning rod for opponents of the candidate Barack Obama because the two men were acquaintances and neighbors in Chicago. Leading Republicans attacked Mr. Obama for having ties with, in Mr. Dohrn’s words, “this extreme caricature of my father as a so-called unrepentant terrorist.” (Mr. Dohrn’s mother is an associate professor of law at Northwestern University.)

“It was a very weird experience, sitting down with my dad and watching CNN and Fox News and ‘The Daily Show’ describing him as this wild symbol of extremism rather than as a human being,” Mr. Dohrn said. “While it wasn’t particularly painful — my dad and I would laugh about some of the coverage — it was surreal and at times quite ominous. I could certainly see creating a play out of the experience.”

“Sick,” meanwhile, was inspired foremost by Mr. Dohrn’s observations of residents of Beijing wearing surgical masks, closing their shops and staying indoors during the SARS crisis. (This year’s swine flu epidemic gives the 2003 outbreak of SARS, also a respiratory illness, a particular relevance.)

Mr. Dohrn was living in Beijing with his wife, Rachel DeWoskin, a writer and actress, who had a starring role in a television soap opera, “Foreign Babes in Beijing.” In the play the mother in the family — played by Lisa Emery in the Berkshire production — first enters the stage wearing a surgical mask, and uses air filters, oxygen tanks and other means to purify the air for her two teenage children.

“Sick” has also been produced by theaters in Dallas, New Orleans and New Jersey, and Mr. Dohrn said he was hopeful that the play would have a run in New York City at some point. Theater critics have been mostly positive and encouraging about the work. A critic for The Boston Globe, reviewing the Berkshire production last week, described “Sick” as a “witty, original dramedy” with “a brilliant if flawed script” marred by an anti-climactic second act.

The director of the Berkshire production, David Auburn, is himself the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Proof,” which also explored the bonds and tensions of a close-knit troubled family. (“Proof” ran for more than two years on Broadway, winning the 2001 Tony Award for best play, and was later made into a film.) Mr. Auburn said he was recruited to direct “Sick” by one of its Berkshire cast members, Greg Keller, who put him in touch with Mr. Dohrn.

Mr. Auburn said that while he recognized themes in “Sick” that might reflect Mr. Dohrn’s experiences with his own parents, he added that he never spoke at length with Mr. Dohrn about living underground as a child.

“It’s not something we ever really went into, in part because I tried to keep my focus on the text,” Mr. Auburn said. “I’m always interested in what the playwright intends, what they are trying to express, and usually that comes down to figuring out each moment with the actors in a given scene. But I didn’t see a need to dwell on Zayd’s past.”

Mr. Dohrn added that as much as his plays may have echoes from his own past, “Sick” also reflected his own experiences as a new father himself.

“My wife and I had also just had a baby when I was working on ‘Sick,’ and I was thinking a lot about how to raise this fragile newborn,” he said. “Relatively normal, sane people can really go kind of crazy when it comes to protecting their children.”

So he's writing plays, teaching Lit Hum, has a young child, and, since he is a PH.D. student, is working on a dissertation. I thought I was busy! Congrats Zayd on this exposure of your work in the Times!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Tangled Web of Memories

All these memories, superimposed upon one another, now formed a single mass, but had not so far coalesced that I could not discern between them--between my oldest, my instinctive memories, and those others, inspired more recently by a taste or "perfume," and finally those which were actually the memories of another person from whom I had acquired them at second hand--if not real fissures, real geological faults, at least that veining, that variegation of colouring, which in certain rocks, in certain blocks of marble, points to differences of origin, age, and formation.

(Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

Abraham's Parenting Skills

Here's a scenario. A person hears a voice. They think it is God. And this voice tells them to kill their own child. And they actually decide to do it! At that point, it is time for the police, perhaps the people in white coats, and child services to step in, right? Well...that's what happens in Genesis 22, making Abraham the paragon of bad parenting, at least according to the theologians of Family Guy.

I might have responded similarly!

New York, Media Development, and the University

Columbia University president Lee Bollinger has an article in the Huffington Post on the role of New York universities and research institutions in the development of new technologies, particularly media, that create new businesses, etc.

BAR's Top Ten

BAR has posted the top ten archaeological finds that has been reported in its pages.

Listed WITH PICTURES(!!!) are:

Ashkelon's arched gate

Stepped Stone Structure in Old City Jerusalem

'Ain Dara temple--which has a similar layout to Solomon's temple

Tel Dan Stele--the only mention of King David outside of the Bible

"Yahweh and his Asherah"--an actual depiction of the god and the goddess....

Babylonian Siege Tower and Arrowheads in Jerusalem

St. Peter's House

The Siloam Pool

Mona Lisa of the Galilee

The Nag Hammadi Library

This are all fantastic discoveries, but I scratch my head along with Jim Davila at the exclusion of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Perhaps they only wanted to include one textual discovery that completely transformed our views?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

From Spatial to Spatiotemporal Poetics: A Review of Mark George's "Israel's Tabernacle as Social Space"

Scholars of the ancient Israelite sanctuaries often discussion the construction, plan, and symbolism of those spaces, yet one of the more interesting recent readings of a sanctuary is Mark K. George’s Israel’s Tabernacle as Social Space, in which he develops a “spatial poetics” to discuss the social dynamics of the tabernacle in terms of “spatial practice,” “conceptual space,” and “symbolic space.” He models his categories off of the French Marxist spatial theorist, Henri Lefebvre’s La production de l’espace [The Production of Space], who spoke of spatial practice, representations of space, and spaces of representation with the heaviest emphasis on the last category, which Lefebvre saw as having the greatest revolutionary potential against capitalism. Spatial practice refers most directly to the physicality and materiality of space—how humans shape spaces (such as buildings, parks, and roadway systems) and how those buildings in turn shape human behavior, or, for our purposes, the very materials of the tabernacle, its placement in the camp, and how the ordered space of the tabernacle grants or denies access through its curtains and the veil. Conceptual space or representations of space refers to space in thought and is more abstract. The most obvious example would be a map, but also directions would fall under this category, such as instructions for building the tabernacle and the conceptual framework that undergirds its spatial configuration. Spaces of representation or symbolic space refers to the meaning and significance people imbue spaces with. While a house is made of particular materials and the placement of walls and doors directs human behavior in how they move through the building (spatial practice), and the house has a conceptual design (the blueprints), it has added meaning and significance as a home, a place where specific acts of heightened meaning and poignancy—George highly emphasizes the emotional involvement in symbolism—occur, such as Christmas in the living room. In the Tabernacle, the symbolism is perhaps the most studied and best understood aspect—it contains, for example, extensive symbolism of creation, and, in fact, can be considered the final act, the sealing, of God’s creation.

George embroiders this spatial poetics with the approach of New Historicism, represented here by Harvard Shakespearean scholar, Stephen Greenblatt. New Historicism is more of an approach than a particular theory or method of study, something I think to its credit; it is a general movement that, while sometimes bewildering in its variety, has a few broad characteristics: it considers literature as part of a cultural and social matrix of exchange of material culture and ideas and an expression of that matrix (it is more than a single person’s creative genius); it is an approach that considers its own position as a cultural production that participates in a particular type of exchange (such as late twentieth-century, early twenty-first-century research); and it tries to uncover the conflicted, tensed, and competing ways in which cultural expressions—literature, art, etc.—emerge from and feedback into this matrix of material practices in which it participates. Something George does not particularly mention, but is also relevant, is that New Historicists tend to combine insights made in anthropology and literature. Greenblatt, for example, appears to be a combination of Auerbach and Geertz. As such, George will tend to embroider his discussion of the Tabernacle with comparative spatial discussions of other texts from the ancient near east for each section—although necessarily without the richness found in Greenblatt’s work, for example.

For spatial practices, George focuses on the inventories of the tabernacle (28:4; 31:7-11; 39:33-41). These lists give physicality to the tabernacle, a material verisimilitude. One interesting aspect of this in the Priestly narrative is that the people voluntarily contribute the entirety of the materials for the tabernacle and their labor, creating a social situation unique in ancient near eastern building practice (where the king provided materials; and the people involuntary labor). Additionally, the lengthy descriptions of the tabernacle give material verisimilitude. In this respect, George notes that the building is from the perspective of an observer, but not the builder or planner—someone who can experience tabernacle space while walking through it, but does not know what is not observable (e.g., does the kapporet have a lip inside of it to keep it in place on the ark of the testimony?). The configuration of this space also has social implications—who can go where and when—for example all the priests are permitted to enter the holy place, but not the holy of holies, which is even blocked from view by the veil. An important aspect of the configuration of the sacred enclosure is that it is portable, and, likewise, all of its sacred objects are built for portability. It moves--and therefore the deity moves--wherever the people move. It is not grounded to any particular place (a poignant point if this account was written in exile).

In terms of conceptual space, George turns to theories of taxonomic systems, particularly relying upon Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society, pointing out that all taxonomic systems, no matter how logical they appear, are not value neutral. The conceptual defining of space through classification exerts social power through that space. George, then, tries to consider what taxonomic system undergirds the tabernacle’s conceptual space. He considers the language of the account itself: holiness. The tabernacle, in fact, demonstrates a graded holiness from most holy inward to lesser and lesser holiness as one moves outward (and eastward). In the most holy places, gold is used, whereas, for example, bronze is used for the courtyard materials. He reviews scholarly positions on graded holiness particularly pointing to “divisions” and “separations”—holiness is made through successive separations. This also, by the way, applies to time and people (there is a graded holiness throughout the year that corresponds to the graded holiness of the sacred enclosure and mirrors the graded holiness of people). George, however, finds holiness difficult as a conceptual or analytic category because it is a “first-order” category. While some would see using a group’s own language to describe them its merit, George sees this as problematic. Instead, he seeks a conceptual taxonomy undergirding this space in terms of people—who has access and who does not to what and when. The broadest category is the congregation, with whom God made the covenant, then he turns to principles of descent (only Levites can handle the tabernacle materials and move in and out more freely) and finally hereditary succession within this descent from father to son starting with Aaron for the high priesthood. This is not “holiness” but it explains holiness, at least according to George. I would point out, however, that this still operates on the principle of separation—the congregation separated from all other peoples, the priests separated from the congregation, and the high priest separated from the priests, becoming more holy with each separation. I am more reluctant to claim that one system of separations (of people) generates the other (of space...and of time), but most likely that they are all co-dependent, mutually influencing one another. Is the high priest the most holy person because of his descent or because he is the one who enters the most holy place (the holy of holies) at the most holy time (Yom Kippur)? Is Yom Kippur the most holy time because that is when the most holy person enters the most holy space? Or is the holy of holies the most holy space because that is what is entered at the most holy time by the most holy person? There may be something "behind" holiness, but the expression of holiness in terms of time, space, and person is all interdependent. It is a bit difficult for me to conceive of only the separation of person as undergirding this entire expression.

George also comments on the horizontal perspective of the tabernacle—there are no steps—in contrast to the more vertical perspectives of separation in other spaces—Sinai, Ezekiel’s temple, etc.; in fact, while he rejects the statements by scholars that the tabernacle represents a mobile Sinai with similar graded holiness of three zones because one is vertical holiness and the other his horizontal, he still often refers to the tabernacle as the vertical holiness of Sinai laid on its side. He also discusses the fact that the material is organized from inside out, starting with the most holy space and moving outward, which, he claims, gives the perspective of God who would reside within the most holy place. The significance is that the entire pattern of instructions give the divine perspective and authority.

Finally, in terms of symbolic space, George relies heavily upon Stephen Greenblatt’s discussion of “circulation of social energy” from Shakespearean Negotations, basically how the tabernacle acquired and adapted particular symbols from Mesopotamia (particularly the Enuma Elish) combined with those from the J/E Epic, transforming both in the process, but leaving both recognizable. (I discuss this process in my dissertation in terms of Bakhtinian dialogism, but this lingo works too.) In this he speaks of how the tabernacle reflects the priestly creation account in various ways (which is perhaps one of the most well-trod areas of tabernacle scholarship), but perhaps his most interesting illustration has to do with the ark. He notes that the entire instructions follow the literary form of Mesopotamian royal building inscriptions, which, interestingly enough, were placed in a box or chest inside the building. While there is no king in the Priestly account, it seems YHWH takes the place of king, while the people take the place of the king in another respect by supplying the necessary materials—it removes kingship from the human sphere in one respect, but democratizes it in another. At the same time, many inscriptions were kept in ornate boxes in the ancient near east—the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, opens saying that the story was contained in an ornate chest—and George argues that the ark acts similarly, but, with an interesting twist: in the Priestly account, he argues, the ark contains the instructions for the building of the tabernacle (Exod. 38:21), just as found in the ancient near eastern counterparts, rather than the ten commandments, which is usually assumed at this point of the narrative, even though that occurs later in the non-priestly section. Thus the priestly instructions for building the tabernacle reflect the literary form and the broader practices of placement of building instructions in a chest contained in that building. I was surprised, however, that George did not link this up with the תבנית Moses saw on the mountain. Based on George’s discussion, would this make the earliest concept of the תבנית the tablets themselves? Finally, the tabernacle account makes the presence of the deity permanent in the midst of the people, reducing the distance between the people and their god. The tabernacle is not just a tent or a fixed temple that the God visits occasionally, but continually resides among the people.

This is, of course, a gross simplification of much of George’s sensitive readings of the materials and the wealth of ancient near eastern inscriptions and literary patterns he brings to bear on the evidence, and how these broader patterns were appropriated and transformed alongside previous Israelite traditions by the priestly authors. At the same time, my primary critique of George and, indeed, most spatial theorists is the subordination of time to space. While George does occasionally discuss temporal aspects of his spatial poetics (an example is the Gezer calendar as his comparison in terms of taxonomy to the tabernacle's conceptual space), it remains an auxiliary aspect of his analysis. Indeed, any spatial poetics implies a temporal poetics on every level—practical, conceptual, and symbolic; spatial and temporal poetics are mutually interdependent. Every approach and insight George makes with regard to the tabernacle could be applied to temporal appropriations, separations, "circulations" as well. They work in conjunction with one another and, in fact, this is especially clear in the priestly accounts in the Pentateuch. What is necessary, therefore, is a spatiotemporal poetics, something one can find throughout anthropological theory (particularly ritual studies) and literary criticism (particularly Bakhtin)--a New Historicist move in its own right.

New Fragment of Sinaiticus Discovered

Deidre Good posts on a report from the Guardian of a new Sinaiticus fragment found as part of the cartonnage, or binding, of another book. This reuse of old writing materials to form the binding of new books was common in antiquity (check out the bindings to the Nag Hammadi Codices, for example). With our current technology, we can view the piece without destroying the underlying papyrus it protects as cartonnage, although St. Catherine's does not quite have that technology yet. The fragment, by the way, is of Josh. 1:10.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Iran May Purge Universities in Social Sciences and Humanities

In the NYTimes:

September 2, 2009
Purge of Iranian Universities Is Feared

CAIRO — As Iran’s universities prepare to start classes this month, there is growing concern within the academic community that the government will purge political and social science departments of professors and curriculums deemed “un-Islamic,” according to academics and political analysts inside and outside Iran.


Ayatollah Khamenei said this week that the study of social sciences “promotes doubts and uncertainty.” He urged “ardent defenders of Islam” to review the human sciences that are taught in Iran’s universities and that he said “promote secularism,” according to Iranian news services.

“Many of the humanities and liberal arts are based on philosophies whose foundations are materialism and disbelief in godly and Islamic teachings,” Ayatollah Khamenei said at a gathering of university students and professors on Sunday, according to IRNA, the state news agency. Teaching those “sciences leads to the loss of belief in godly and Islamic knowledge.”

For years, the study of subjects like philosophy and sociology has been viewed suspiciously by Iranian conservatives. During the earliest days of the Islamic Revolution, the nation’s leaders closed universities and tried to sanitize curriculums to fit their Islamic revolutionary ideology. The efforts ultimately failed under the weight of more pragmatic forces eager to engage with Western economies, and a student population hungry for contemporary ideas and contact with the West.


The state’s renewed focus on education took center stage last week when the confession of a prominent reformer, Saeed Hajjarian, who had been the theoretician behind the reform movement, was read in court and broadcast on national television.

The confession, dismissed by reform leaders as a reflection of the views of Mr. Hajjarian’s jailers, provided a lengthy criticism of human sciences, especially sociology and political science. It lamented the negative influence of theories like “post-structuralism, post-Marxism and feminism.”

The confession also addressed Mr. Hajjarian’s application of certain political theories to his own work, saying, “For these unworthy interpretations which became the cause of many immoral acts, I ask forgiveness of the Iranian people.”

For an account of academic life from a humanities perspective in Tehran from the revolution through the 90s, Azar Nafisi gives an account in Reading Lolita in Tehran. It seems like the Iranian regime attributes more power to academics in the humanities and social sciences than we usually perceive ourselves as having. Does "post-structuralism, post-Marxism and feminism" have such revoluationary potential? Or have they become rhetorically turned into dustbin categories of "othering" as communism was in the U.S. in the 1950s (or most prevalently then), attaching a label to something that may operate on different assumptions than the dominant governmental regime in order to contain and control. In terms of Humanities, do the modes of reading assumed by these "posts" have such transformative power, unleashing the unbounded human imagination? I think the Ayatollah and President Ahmadinejad overestimate academics' influence, seeking out a scapegoat, but we professors in the humanities and social sciences can only dream of such influence...

The Snake, the Scorpion, the Gnat, and the Frog in God's (Anti-Roman) Purposes (Genesis Rabbah 10.7)

Our rabbis said: Even those things which you may regard as completely superfluous to the creation of the world, such as fleas, gnats, and flies, even they too are included in the creation of the world, and the Holy One, blessed be He, carries out His purpose through everything, even through a snake, a scorpion, a gnat, or a frog.


R. Eleazar was sitting to ease himself in the privy, when a Roman came and drove him away and sat down. 'This has a purpose,' remarked he [R. Eleazar]. Immediately a snake emerged and struck and killed him. At that he applied to himself the verse, Therefore will I give a man for thee (Is. 43:4)


When the wicked Titus entered the Holy of Holies, he dragged down the veil, blasphemed and reviled [God]. On his return a mosquito entered his nose and began piercing his skull. And when he died they split open his nose and found that it was like a bird weighing two pounds.

(Genesis Rabbah 10.7; trans. Freedman)

I have highly edited this, removing four of the episodes of death by snake and scorpion and frog, leaving these two fascinating anti-Roman episodes. It is interesting, firstly, that the argument for the importance and purpose of the gnat, the snake, the frog, and the scorpion are the deaths they bring either directly or by assisting other animals to kill an unrighteous human. Power over life and death was, in fact, the prerogative of the emperor (and God). Yet, as bringers of death, the smallest of creatures--even the gnat--can be God's death agent; thus God's agents of death surround us all. The excerpts, however, show something else: the anger at being oppressed, colonized under the Roman imperial regime. In a way, there might be a symmetry between the perceived smallness but real potency of the snake and gnat and the Jews themselves in comparison to the Romans, the destroyed small Jewish commonwealth in the shadow of the great Roman empire. While the emperor has perceived power, the Rabbis claim that even a gnat has the equivalent power of life and death, that they, primarily through Torah study, become agents of God. As the last story illustrates, even a miniscule mosquito can bring down the ruler of the most powerful earthly empire!

I am also interested in how the texts read life-situations in the way they do other texts. These are, of course, fanciful stories, but express a stance of interpretation of life that one can take to scripture--all is relevant; nothing is misplaced. It applies the typical midrashic principle of the school of Akiba (that every little jot and tittle of the Torah has meaning). As R. Eleazar says, "This has a purpose."

While the first anti-Roman story is literally potty-humor--a snake biting and killing while the Roman is in the privy--the second shows a bit of interesting parallelism: just as Titus entered the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the temple, dragging down the veil, and ransacked the temple from the inside out, so this little mosquito enters Titus' skull (the inner chamber, so to speak, of his head), eats and ransacks it by eating up his brains. As Titus destroyed the temple, the mosquito pierced his skull.