Friday, April 30, 2010

The Foreign Body

It is in sickness that we are compelled to recognise that we do not live alone but are chained to a being from a different realm, from whom we are worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.

(Proust, Guermantes Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

In his essay, "On the Power of the Imagination," Montaigne gives examples of psychosomaticism: basically the physical manifestations of a robust imagination--how the imagination affects and transforms our body and bodily states as well as society, from the realm of male impotence (a psychological issue with measurable effects) to religion (belief in spirits, ghosts, saints, and gods/God). Proust, by contrast, seems to identify the self wholly with the mind, our minds are the "we" and our bodies are the "them." Nonetheless, there remains a psychosomatic trace--the great chain. It does remind me a bit of the ancient Greek notion of the body as a prison; here it is our ball and chain. But it is a quiet chain until sickness disrupts it, sending reverberations down it to the mind, reminding the mind of its own vulnerability and of its own limitations: language. Language allows the mind to express itself (notably through the body: the tongue, the mouth, the lips, the throat, not to mention non-verbal communication). Even if the body is the instrument of communication to other minds, it does not understand this language nor does the mind understand the body. Even as the body is the mediator to other minds, another mind must be our mind's mediator with our own body: the medical doctor. The physician has learned the language of the body and acts as the interpreter between the mind and the body. But the physician also belongs to the world of the mind, and so her or his understanding of body language is not that of a native speaker--the physician may miss certain nuances or inflections apparent to a native speaker; thus, cannot be fully trusted:

For, medicine being a compendium of the successive and contradictory mistakes of medical practitioners, when we summon the wisest of them to our aid the chances are that we may be relying on a scientific truth the error of which will be recognised in a few years' time. So that to believe in medicine would be the height of folly, if not to believe in it were not of greater folly still, for from this mass of errors a few truths have in the long run emerged. (ibid.)

There are only two follies available to the mind vis-a-vis the body: to believe medicine is folly; to not believe is greater folly still. To reach truth by error reminds me of Razumikhin's statement in Crime & Punishment of finding truth through lying. Or even in the Master & Margarita where the Devil (Woland) uses evil in the service of ultimate good (that is my reading of Woland, anyway--and frankly I do not find him very evil at all). Sometimes the best way to reach our desired goal is to walk in the opposite direction of it with an untrustworthy interpreter. That is the means to health, but, it seems, in health is the means to forgetfulness of one's chains.

Brown and Clegg Hiking their Leg

From BBC. Most awkward and yet humorous picture of the day: why do both Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown both have the same leg in the air at the same time? It is like both are doing balancing acts while David Cameron puffs his cheeks and looks off skyward.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Online Coptic Resources

AWOL (Ancient World Online) has posted on a site Coptica that gives a great wealth of digitized Coptic material collected together, including free unicode fonts and digitized manuscripts. It will prove to be an invaluable resource for those of us interested in Coptic literature and language. I will also place this site in my sidebar.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New Hamlet

I am excited about the new filmed version of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company that premiered this evening on PBS. It has Sir Patrick Stewart as Claudius. Here is the info on the Great Performances site where it will soon be available in its entirety.

I really liked the use of mirrors in the production, particularly broken mirrors (a broken self?).

Judy Redman's article in the latest JBL

I know a lot of other bloggers have spoken about this, and I am not going to say much, except READ Judy Redman's article on memory in psychological research as it bears upon the gospels. It is quite thought-provoking and, frankly, a breath of fresh air on what seem to become rather stale debates.

Just one completely unimportant note: Her discussion of schema reminded me of Albert Lord's definition of "theme" as something of a standard outline to fill in with detail (with each new remembering for Redman; with each new performance for Parry/Lord). She does speak of Lord briefly to discuss the memory of trained tradents, although I think I read Lord a little differently. Whereas she indicates the oral tradents' usage of verbatim speech--what Lord would call the Formulae--my reading of Lord (which is something he highly emphasizes in his introduction to the Singer of Tales) is that the moment of performance is itself the moment of composition. The entire narrative is not repeated verbatim, but constantly changes from context to context in length, in elaboration, etc. Certain formulae may be remembered verbatim (but these are limited to repeated clauses, like "rosy-fingered dawn," "manslaughtering Hektor," "godlike Akhilleus," etc.), but the smaller units of narrative, the particular imagery used in simile, and even larger chunks of narrative change with each new performance, since each new performance is a new composition. This is neither here nor there, however, for Redman's main point, since the earliest "earwitnesses" as Redman calls them were hardly highly trained bards.

New York as Babel in Reverse

Or perhaps it is a veritable Noah's ark of language. New York has become a refuge for dying languages. According to a recent New York Times article, New York may be home to around 800 distinct languages! Different languages from pockets in Eastern Europe, African tribes, and what might interest biblicists...Aramaic! Mandaic!
In addition to dozens of Native American languages, vulnerable foreign
languages that researchers say are spoken in New York include Aramaic,
Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family; Bukhari (a Bukharian
Jewish language, which has more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan
or Tajikistan), Chamorro (from the Mariana Islands), Irish Gaelic,
Kashubian (from Poland), indigenous Mexican languages, Pennsylvania
Dutch, Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in Switzerland) and Romany (from the
Balkans) and Yiddish.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My Ideal Introductory Literature Course

Today in my Literature Humanities class, we were a bit reflective, reflecting over the year and critiquing our syllabus from the year. There was much catharsis, I think, in this discussion. There were several issues raised, but the root of much frustration with the syllabus is that there are simply too many works on it (other issues are that it is too western-focused, too androcentric, too historicist--the last refers to the structure or sequencing). And so this evening, I have begun to reflect what my ideal introductory literature course would be like. What if we started from scratch?

I decided that my ideal course would be one in which we would read a single work for the entire semester in great detail intertwining our close readings with the various approaches that have been taken in studying literature (formal, Marxist, feminist, Freudian/Lacanian, historicist, new historicist, etc.), skills, theoretical approaches, and methods of reading and writing that would then be transferable to other works. In fact, everyone would write papers using these skills, methods, theoretical positions on other works and presenting them to the class (that is where the diversity of literature would come in). That one work could be most anything....almost. Many may not be complex enough to sustain a semester's reading and the various approaches of reading. And this is where my curiosity set in. I have asked my class the following question and asked them to think on it a bit: if you had to choose any work of literature in the world (whether it was on Columbia's Lit Hum syllabus or not) to read for an entire semester, what would it be? And why?

OR: If you simply object to this ideal course, what would your ideal course be?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Being Born Circumcised

A long while back, I posted on how Jubilees portrays Angels as being created already circumcised. These pre-circumcised angels mirrored Israel, much like they mirror them in things like Sabbath observance, etc. It turns out, however, that pre-circumcision is not limited to angels! According to Genesis Rabbah, which I have been slowly working through, Noah's son, Shem, was born already circumcised:

Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Surely Japheth was the eldest? [Shem, however, is written] first because he was [more] righteous [than the others]; also because he was born circumcised, the Holy One, blessed be He, set His name particularly upon him; [other reasons for his priority are that] Abraham was to arise from him, he was the minister in the High Priesthood, and because the Temple would be built on his territory.

(Gen. Rab. 26.3; trans. Freedman)

The passage tries to explain Shem's priority given Japheth being elderly--I should wonder, however, given that Ham is the most accursed in the story, why his name comes second and not last? The reasons for Shem's priority: more righteous, he's pre-cut (and, therefore, God set His name on him), Abraham's ancestor, a high priest, and his future territory would have the temple. Two of these deal with covenant (pre-circumcised and Abraham), and three the temple/cult (Name, high priest, and temple). I say the name is related to the temple because of Deuteronomy, wherein the future temple is where God will cause his Name to dwell, and the fact that the Name--the tetragrammaton--was inscribed on the headdress of the high priest. To have God's name set on you is to represent God on earth to the people. He receives this name, however, because he comes pre-circumcised; thus, the covenantal and temple issues are causally connected. What does it mean, however, to be pre-circumcised, especially at this moment before circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of the covenant? My guess would be chosen-ness; to be born circumcised pre-circumcision is to be especially chosen (chosen for God and chosen as God's representative). I don't know if the Rabbis speculated on angelic phalli, but if they thought of them in terms of Jubilees (a big if), this would make Shem like one of the angels.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Centaurs in Genesis Rabbah?

And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enosh (iv, 26). Abba Cohen Bardela was asked: "[Why does Scripture enumerate] Adam, Seth, Enosh, and then become silent?" "Hitherto they were created in the likeness and image [of God]," he replied, "but from then onward Centaurs were created."

(Gen. Rabbah 23.6; trans. Freedman)

Lest anyone get too excited to find centaurs in midrash, in his notes Freedman assures the reader that literal centaurs are not meant, but metaphorical, or spiritual ones; that thenceforth, humans undergo a depreciation of divine spirit, and, by implication, an increase in animality. Spiritual centaurs; incompletely human, having lost the image and likeness of God and instead the image and likeness of beasts. This means, therefore, that all humanity after Enosh are "centaurs"--that's you and that's me!

Lies that Lead to Truth

In Dostoevsky's masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, Razumikhin, the representative of "reason"--but who has disdain for cold, calculated reason--often speaks of why he loves liars, because in lying they unwittingly, inevitably speak truth:

I like it when people lie! Lying is man's only privilege over all other organisms. If you lie--you get to the truth! Lying is what makes me a man. Not one truth has ever been reached without first lying fourteen times or so, maybe a hundred and fourteen, and that's honorable in its way; well, but we can't even lie with our own minds! Lie to me, but in your own way, and I'll kiss you for it. Lying in one's own way is almost better than telling the truth in someone else's way; in the first case you're a man, and in the second--no better than a bird! The truth won't go away, but life can be nailed shut; there are examples. Well, so where are we all now? With regard to science, development, thought, invention, ideals, aspirations, liberalism, reason, experience, and everything, everything, everything, we're all, without exception, still sitting in the first grade! We like getting by on other people's reason--we've acquired a taste for it!

(trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

What truth is there in lying? For Razumikhin, there appear to be at least two truths of lying: it is the marker of our humanity (and positively so) and a marker of originality, that is, individual personality. They are connected, in fact. Firstly, all other creatures are trapped in truth; only humans lie and deceive. It leads to the truth of ourselves as a race. But it is also the truth of a person. Anyone can parrot the truths and verities and proverbs of others, of their surrounding culture, or other cultures (Razumikhin, at one point, calls the main protagonist, Raskolnikov, a "foreign translation"--not only are Raskolnikov's ideas unoriginal, but they are not even Russian). But a lie can be more personal. It gets into individual circumstances, has to consider particular data that regards one's own self--even if to evade and obfuscate. It is better, for Razumikhin, in these terms to be "true to oneself" and lie rather than to falsify oneself by telling other people's truths, since even a bird (e.g., parrot) could do that. Razumikhin throughout disdains people trying to advance themselves, make themselves look better, by just parroting whatever ideas are in the air, whatever ideas are popular in the moment--they are, what seems to be the worst sin for him, "commonplace" ideas. These are the people who do not operate on their own reason, but get by "on other people's reason." What is, however, the negation of the negation (to borrow a commonplace, foreign translation, concept from Hegel) is when people borrow other people's commonplace lies. They are no longer being true to themselves, but, perhaps, they are at least true to their humanity. One has to wonder, however, if Razumikhin thinks there are any ideas that are not commonplace. The threefold repetition of "everything" suggests that all is banal. Although, perhaps he would think his idea of the deeper truth of lies falls outside of the commonplace.

The Ale-House Church

The Little Vagabond

Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am use'd well,
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But if at the Church they would give us some ale.
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale;
We'd sing and we'd pray, all the live-long day;
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray,

Then the Parson might preach & drink & sing.
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring:
And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church,
Would not have bandy children nor fasting nor birch.

And God like a father rejoicing to see,
His children as pleasant and happy as he:
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel
But kiss him & give him both drink and apparel.

(William Blake, Songs of Experience 45)

Oh wouldn't it be loverly?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hell's Heaven and Heaven's Hell in Blake's "Clod and Pebble"

The Clod & the Pebble

Love seeketh not Itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care;
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hells despair

So sang a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattles feet:
But a Pebble of the brook,
Warbled out these metres meet.

Love seeketh only Self to please.
To bind another to Its delight:
Joys in anothers loss of ease.
And builds a Hell in Heavens despite.

(William Blake, Songs of Experience)

Selfless love for others creates Heaven in Hell, whereas self love, the love to seeks only self-interest and self-delight, because such occurs at the expense of others, can create Hell in Heaven. This mixture reminds me of the end of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
(trans. William Weaver)

If, as another wise person said, "The Kingdom of God is within/among you," the kingdom it resists does too. If hell exists, it exists here. To make heaven break through, for the Kingdom of God to emerge, one must give space to those who are not of the inferno, one must, indeed, act with selfless love to endure it. Those in the second half of Blake's poem, the love of self that overshadows all else blend into the inferno and no longer recognize it for what it is, at best a coping mechanism. The rub is in recognition: who are they who are not of the inferno but are within the inferno? My guess is the mad and the eccentric.