Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Day-Dreams

When a mind has a tendency towards day-dreams, it's a mistake to shield it from them, to ration them. So long as you divert your mind from its day-dreams, it will not know them for what they are; you will be the victim of all sorts of appearances because you will not have grasped their true nature. If a little day-dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time. One must have a thorough understanding of one's day-dreams if one is not to be troubled by them....

(Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

Here the character speaking is the painter Elstir, relaying this information to our day-dreaming narrator at his studio in seascape vistas of Balbec. He almost comes off as a Platonist in his desire to move from the appearances of things to the things themselves, but the true nature here to be grasped is not the form or idea of the good or beautiful, but the true nature of something that is inherently evanescent, something that cannot have permanence nor a static nature: a day-dream. Indeed, can a day-dream or the nature of day-dreaming be grasped at all, or is it something more like sand--the tighter you grasp the more of it will slip through your fingers? The more you pursue a day-dream, the faster it slips away. If one is to face it, perhaps the best thing to do is to merely linger, and to let it thicken around you like a mist.

Academic Studies of Dudeism

According to the NYTimes, the Dude abides in academe:

December 30, 2009
Dissertations on His Dudeness

Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 movie, “The Big Lebowski,” which stars Jeff Bridges as a beatific, pot-smoking, bowling-obsessed slacker known as the Dude, snuck up on the English-speaking world during the ’00s: it became, stealthily, the decade’s most venerated cult film. It’s got that elusive and addictive quality that a great midnight movie has to have: it blissfully widens and expands in your mind upon repeat viewings.

“The Big Lebowski” has spawned its own shaggy, fervid world: drinking games, Halloween costumes, bumper stickers (“This aggression will not stand, man”) and a drunken annual festival that took root in Louisville, Ky., and has spread to other cities. The movie is also the subject of an expanding shelf of books, including “The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers” and the forthcoming “The Tao of the Dude.”

Where cult films go, academics will follow. New in bookstores, and already in its second printing, is “The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies,” an essay collection edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe (Indiana University Press, $24.95). The book is, like the Dude himself, a little rough around the edges. But it’s worth an end-of-the-year holiday pop-in. Ideally you’d read it with a White Russian — the Dude’s cocktail of choice — in hand.


In one essay Fred Ashe — he is an associate professor of English at Birmingham-Southern College — profitably compares the Dude to Rip van Winkle, for both his “friendly charisma” and what Washington Irving described as Rip’s “insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor.” Both men, Mr. Ashe notes, expose “the sickness of a straight society premised on the Puritan work ethic.”


Reading “The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies,” it’s hard not to recall some of the profound and not-so-goofy things the novelist Umberto Eco had to say about cult movies in his 1984 essay “ ‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.”

“What are the requirements for transforming a book or movie into a cult object?” Mr. Eco asked. “The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise.”

(If the phrases “Nice marmot,” or “You’re entering a world of pain,” or “I can get you a toe” mean anything to you, then “Lebowski” has entered your private sectarian world.)

Mr. Eco certainly seemed to presage the existence of “The Big Lebowski” when he wrote in his essay about “Casablanca” that a cult movie must be “ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself.” He explained: “Only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.”


As a new generation of “Lebowski” fans emerges, Dude Studies may linger for a while. In another of this book’s essays, “Professor Dude: An Inquiry Into the Appeal of His Dudeness for Contemporary College Students,” a bearded, longhaired and rather Dude-like associate professor of English at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., named Richard Gaughran asks this question about his students: “What is it that they see in the Dude that they find so desirable?”

One of Mr. Gaughran’s students came up with this summary, and it’s somehow appropriate for an end-of-the-year reckoning: “He doesn’t stand for what everybody thinks he should stand for, but he has his values. He just does it. He lives in a very disjointed society, but he’s gonna take things as they come, he’s gonna care about his friends, he’s gonna go to somebody’s recital, and that’s it. That’s how you respond.”

Happy New Year, Dude.

It just makes me want to pull out my copy of the movie and watch it again.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Power of the Opposed Idea

A powerful idea communicates some of its power to the an who contradicts it. Partaking of the universal community of minds, it infiltrates, grafts itself on to, the mind of him whom it refutes, among other contiguous ideas, with the aid of which, counter-attacking, he complements and corrects it; so that the final verdict is always to some extent the work of both parties to a discussion. It is to ideas which are not, strictly speaking, ideas at all, to ideas which, based on nothing, can find no foothold, no fraternal echo in the mind of the adversary, that the latter, grappling as it were with thin air, can find no word to say in answer.

(Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

This reminds me of a saying by Oscar Wilde: "When people agree with me, I always think I am in the wrong." Similarly, Proust suggests that when your ideas encounter no opposition, they are simply flimsy, lacking robustness; they lack power. Only powerful ideas are complex enough, rich enough, to invite opposition. Proust's phrasing, however, is not just that of opposition, but of cooperation in opposition. Strong opposition suggests a "fraternal echo," a camaraderie that cannot occur when lesser ideas are proposed. Two or more figures--sharing in the "universal community of minds"--oppose one another and contribute to one another; they pull apart among plural minds and come together in the universal community with a composite resultant that bears the marks of one another's thought. It is almost the stereotyped Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but the antithesis can only have authority if the thesis was powerful; the synthesis is almost the child of two minds coming together in cooperation and opposition, being born with distinctive traits from both of its parents.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Archaic Mark Codex a Forgery

For full discussion, see here.

Ancient Book of Mark Found Not So Ancient After All

ScienceDaily (Dec. 15, 2009) — A biblical expert at the University of
Chicago, Margaret M. Mitchell, together with experts in micro-chemical
analysis and medieval bookmaking, has concluded that one of the
University Library's most enigmatic possessions is a forgery. The
book, a copy of the Gospel of Mark, will remain in the collection as a
study document for scholars studying the authenticity of ancient

Scholars have argued for nearly 70 years over the provenance of what's
called the Archaic Mark, a 44-page miniature book, known as a "codex,"
which contains the complete 16-chapter text of the Gospel of Mark in
minuscule handwritten text. The manuscript, which also includes 16
colorful illustrations, has long been believed to be either an
important witness to the early text of the gospel or a modern forgery,
said Mitchell, Professor of New Testament and Early Christian

"The mystery is now solved from textual, chemical, and codicological
(bookmaking) angles," said Mitchell, who first became intrigued by the
codex when she saw it as a graduate student in 1982. Comprehensive
analysis demonstrates that it is not a genuine Byzantine manuscript,
but a counterfeit, she said, "made somewhere between 1874 and the
first decades of the 20th century."

Mitchell said experts from multiple disciplines made the findings
possible. "Our collective efforts have achieved what no single scholar
could do -- give a comprehensive analysis of the composite artifact
that is an illustrated codex. The data collected in this research
process has given us an even deeper understanding of the exact process
used by the forger," said Mitchell. "It will, we hope, assist ongoing
scholarly investigation into and detection of manuscripts forged in
the modern period."

As the rest of the article indicates, there have been sporadic doubts of the codex's authenticity, from various fields.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sumerians Look on in Confusion as God Creates World

Members of the earth's earliest known civilization, the Sumerians, looked on in shock and confusion some 6,000 years ago as God, the Lord Almighty, created Heaven and Earth.

According to recently excavated clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script, thousands of Sumerians—the first humans to establish systems of writing, agriculture, and government—were working on their sophisticated irrigation systems when the Father of All Creation reached down from the ether and blew the divine spirit of life into their thriving civilization.

"I do not understand," reads an ancient line of pictographs depicting the sun, the moon, water, and a Sumerian who appears to be scratching his head. "A booming voice is saying, 'Let there be light,' but there is already light. It is saying, 'Let the earth bring forth grass,' but I am already standing on grass."

"Everything is here already," the pictograph continues. "We do not need more stars."

Historians believe that, immediately following the biblical event, Sumerian witnesses returned to the city of Eridu, a bustling metropolis built 1,500 years before God called for the appearance of dry land, to discuss the new development. According to records, Sumerian farmers, priests, and civic administrators were not only befuddled, but also took issue with the face of God moving across the water, saying that He scared away those who were traveling to Mesopotamia to participate in their vast and intricate trade system.

Moreover, the Sumerians were taken aback by the creation of the same animals and herb-yielding seeds that they had been domesticating and cultivating for hundreds of generations.

"The Sumerian people must have found God's making of heaven and earth in the middle of their well-established society to be more of an annoyance than anything else," said Paul Helund, ancient history professor at Cornell University. "If what the pictographs indicate are true, His loud voice interrupted their ancient prayer rituals for an entire week."

According to the cuneiform tablets, Sumerians found God's most puzzling act to be the creation from dust of the first two human beings.

"These two people made in his image do not know how to communicate, lack skills in both mathematics and farming, and have the intellectual capacity of an infant," one Sumerian philosopher wrote. "They must be the creation of a complete idiot."


This piece is part of The Onion's Our Annual Year: The Top 10 Stories Of The Last 4.5 Billion Years

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Yerushalmi Obituary

The New York Times has a nice obituary on Yosef Yerushalmi, who passed away earlier this week:

Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, a groundbreaking and wide-ranging scholar of Jewish history whose meditation on the tension between collective memory of a people and the more prosaic factual record of the past influenced a generation of thinkers, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 77 and lived in Manhattan.


An elegant writer and mesmerizing raconteur, Dr. Yerushalmi earned his reputation as one of his generation’s foremost Jewish historians by plumbing eclectic subjects like the history of the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, messianism, the intellectual history of modern German Jewry and Freud’s relationship with his religion. In 1982, Dr. Yerushalmi, then the Salo Wittmayer Baron professor of Jewish history, culture and society at Columbia University, published perhaps his most influential work, “Zachor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory,” a slim volume whose title bore the Hebrew imperative “Remember!”

Barely 100 pages, “Zachor” was an examination of the conflict between the collective stories that invigorate Judaism as a culture and the verifiable chronicle of history itself. The critic Harold Bloom, reviewing it in The New York Review of Books, predicted that the book might “join the canon of Jewish wisdom literature.” Many scholars would argue that it has joined that canon, even if they interpret his thesis differently.


Mr. Bloom, in his review, wrote that Dr. Yerushalmi worried that in the modern age “Scripture has been replaced by history as the validating arbiter of Jewish ideologies,” and that the replacement “has yielded chaos.”

Elisheva Carlebach, Dr. Yerushalmi’s successor as Salo Baron professor at Columbia, said Dr. Yerushalmi had encouraged scholars to treat collective memory itself as a subject of research. “He recognized that what’s important is remembered and that this becomes part of the consciousness of people,” she said. “Whether archaeologists can or cannot verify is a separate question on a different level.”

What I've Been Listening to: 30 Seconds to Mars

Other than having a cool name, this band has some catchy, somewhat addictive songs, such as the following called "Kings and Queens":

Ok...I don't quite get what's going on with all the bicycles. And I am not quite sure what that resuscitation (resurrection?) moment was doing there. Perhaps that is the "promise" in the "kings and queens of promise" or the juxtaposition of self-destruction and promise, the the moment of being in between heaven and hell? But the lyrics pick up on elements of fragmentation, brokenness, perhaps alienation (unless that is too existentialist):

Into the night
Desperate and broken
The sound of a fight
Father has spoken

We were the kings and queens of promise
We were the victims of ourselves
Maybe the children of a lesser God
Between Heaven and Hell
Heaven and Hell

Into your eyes
Hopeless and taken
We stole our new lives
Through blood and pain
In defense of our dreams
In defense of our dreams

We were the Kings and Queens of promise
We were the victims of ourselves
Maybe the Children of a lesser God
Between Heaven and Hell
Heaven and Hell

The age of man is over
A darkness comes at dawn
These lessons that we learned here
Have only just begun

We were the Kings and Queens of promise
We were the victims of ourselves
Maybe the Children of a Lesser God
Between Heaven and Hell

We are the Kings
We are the Queens
We are the Kings
We are the Queens

The lines "Maybe the children of a lesser God / between heaven and hell" reminds me a bit of the demiurge in Gnostic traditions.

Many of you might have recognized the lead singer: among other roles, he was Hephaistion, Alexander the Great's lover, in Oliver Stone's badly edited version:

St. Nick Reconstructed

The Feast of St. Nicholas has already passed (it was Dec. 6), but since so many people relate him to Christmas it is still relevant news that his face has been reconstructed using forensic anthropology.

While many people may not have realized that Santa Claus was based upon a real person, St. Nicholas was an ancient bishop who lived in the late third to mid fourth century CE. He was born and died in Myra, a city in ancient Anatolia--modern Turkey. He attended the famous Council of Nicaea. He was particularly known for his acts of charity and giving anonymous gifts, hence many of the familiar traits and legends that began to grow around him.

But what I didn't know was that his relics--including his skull--lie in the Basilica de San Nicola in Bari, Italy, and having taken measurements of his skull, his facial features have been reconstructed.

So, here's what Santa Claus may have actually looked like:

For background on the history of St. Nick and his remains, and the report on facial reconstruction, see here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

R.I.P. Yosef Yerushalmi

I just received news that the esteemed and highly influential Columbia Professor of Jewish Studies, Yosef Yerushalmi, passed away yesterday. I particularly enjoyed his book on history and memory, Zakhor.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Space, Place, Sign, and Symbol

I am reading Yi-Fu Tuan's very clearly written, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. In his chapter on "Architectural Space and Awareness," which ranges from China, ancient Sumer, medieval European Cathedrals to modern architecture, he discusses the symbolic importance of space in a larger coherent worldview that is reflected in how we build, whether a home, a village, a church, or a skyscraper. While much of the chapter emphasizes continuities in how each society constructs its buildings and shelters in relationship to its larger symbolic system (to borrow a phrase from Mary Douglas), he notes something different is now happening in the modern world. Firstly, because of the high rates of literacy, the use of material and physical symbols are fading as the importance of verbal symbols rise: "verbal symbols have progressively displaced material symbols, and books rather than buildings instruct" (117). But there is something more, or something less that is happening. Symbols are themselves being emptied of their potency to organize the world because of a fractured worldview in modern perspective:

Symbols themselves have lost much of their power to reverberate in the mind and feeling since this power depends on the existence of a coherent world. Without such a world symbols tend to become indistinguishable from signs. (117)

How is Tuan differentiating between sign and symbol? It seems that he sees symbols as meaningful in and of themselves even as they indicate something else, whereas signs can only indicate something else. Or, perhaps in religious terms, symbols participate in the qualities of what they point toward, whereas signs may not. Symbols belong to a set of other symbols in a relatively closed (coherent) system; signs can exist outside such a system.

Retraction: More on "Couching" and "Crouching" in RSV

Earlier I noted a typo in my particular edition of the RSV that I use for class in which the LORD says to Cain that sin is "couching" at the door (Gen. 4:7). I took it as a typo, since it would be better rendered as "crouching." It would be a simple typographical error of the omission of one letter, but would totally change the meaning of the verse from a menacing predator to sexually seductive. Kevin Edgecomb, however, noted that all the RSV editions he could find say "couching," and so it might be the actual translation choice of the RSV. I had a hard time believing this, since "couching" just did not make sense, and "crouching" does, in fact, work with the Hebrew at this point. Other translations, for example, use "lurking" (NRSV). I suggested in the notes to that post that this might be an even bigger modern scribal error--one in the base text of the RSV that never got emended. Nonetheless, Kevin's suggestion that it might be intentional prompted me to check the different meanings of the verb, "to couch." Buried among all of the expected definitions of "lying down" to rest or to sleep are some that have more menacing qualities. For example, one definition means to "place or hold level and pointed forward ready for use." One can imagine someone holding a gun without its safety or a sword level and ready. It is like crouching in that one is poised and ready to pounce. This becomes much clearer in a subsequent definition: "to lie in ambush." This, in fact, is the exact imagery that "crouching" had suggested to me. The similarity in all of the definitions is that something is lying or held prone or horizontal, but it can be for rest or for destruction. This sense of "couching" however does not readily spring to mind the way "crouching" indicates a poised readiness to spring into action. This just illustrates why we constantly need to retranslate ancient texts, because our own language fluctuates so much.

The Fool Fixed in His Folly: Some Lines from T.S. Eliot

Perhaps in the alliterative tradition of Shakespeare's "Full fathom five thy father lies" (Tempest 1.2.329), T.S. Eliot renders in his own play about Thomas Becket, "Murder in the Cathedral":

The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.

These lines come in the midst of a scene highly reliant upon the Devil's temptation of Jesus in the Gospels. Here four different tempters come to Becket with different types of temptations that vary in subtlety from obvious physical temptation to the temptation of power. The tempter here seeks to remind Becket of his previous life of "mirth" and love, a life of pleasure, before he became archbishop of Canterbury. These lines are Becket's reply. The point is that one cannot return--literally turn back the wheel. What is done is done. If one seeks one's old life, one will find that this time around, things are different. He suggests that similar things happen from generation to generation because people fail to learn from others' mistakes, but in one's own life, one cannot repeat, one cannot return to one's youth. It is an attitude of folly. The last tempter, however, is much more subtle. He seeks to tempt Becket into doing good, but good that seeks spiritual power from beyond the grave as a martyr, as one is idealized and, in fact, idolized. It is a power more powerful than a mere king, who dies and is replaced. It is an ongoing power. It is the temptation, in fact, that Becket acknowledges that he is most inclined toward, but he finally resists, saying:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

One does good because it is good. Or, perhaps, one does good for God's glory and not for amassing spiritual power, even beyond the grave as a saint or martyr. (A true saint does not seek to be one.)