Tuesday, May 25, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

The classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, which has not been out of print since its publication, turns fifty this year with fifty parties and events set up across the country in celebration. See here:
Few novels have achieved both the mass popularity and the literary cachet of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book was originally published in 1960 by J. B. Lippincott and Company (now part of HarperCollins), won a Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since. It has sold nearly one million copies a year and in the past five years has been the second-best-selling backlist title in the country, beaten out only by the novel “The Kite Runner.”

Learning from Other Faiths: Article by the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama (number 14), Tenzin Gyatso, has an op-ed article in the NYTimes. It isn't every day that you see an article in the Times by a world religious leader. He writes on religious intolerance and the need to learn from other faiths while remaining faithful to one's own:
Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.

Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more interconnected and cultures, peoples and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance — it demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

Interestingly (at least for me), he says he learned this truth from the Trappist monk and Columbian Thomas Merton:
An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

In what follows he traces the thread of compassion across major religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Islam), emphasizing the necessity of personal contact with people of different faiths to learn about how their traditions emphasize compassion and the inspire mutual compassion for one another. When pulling on their resources of compassion, they can work together to reduce the suffering of those around the world:
Let me tell you about the Islam I know. Tibet has had an Islamic community for around 400 years, although my richest contacts with Islam have been in India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. An imam in Ladakh once told me that a true Muslim should love and respect all of Allah’s creatures. And in my understanding, Islam enshrines compassion as a core spiritual principle, reflected in the very name of God, the “Compassionate and Merciful,” that appears at the beginning of virtually each chapter of the Koran.

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

It is an interesting article. I may have the opportunity to teach an introduction to the religions of the world next year, and wonder if this might be a good way to start it off as religions increasingly come into contact due to globalization and ongoing migrations.

For a fairly negative reaction to this article, see John Hobbins here. Hobbins characterizes the article as a "strong misreading." I think this characterization is overly strong. Hobbins simply and rightly emphasizes context and faithfulness to a particular faith tradition--something that I did not see the Dalai Lama denying, but, rather, promoting in the article; I read the article as finding intersections among traditions while holding to one's own: the point is finding platforms for dialogue across traditions while remaining true to one's own. Only by engaging on those platforms--whether it is the Dalai Lama's point about compassion or something else--does one see how things are framed differently in different contexts. As Max Müller said about the study of religion, whoever knows one, knows none. I think the point of misreading is different: compassion, although found in various religious traditions and framed differently in different contexts of those traditions, is Tenzin Gyatso's own hobby horse. It is clearly the platform of dialogue set on his own terms. What would the platform if a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu leader set the terms?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Peace Between Heaven and Hell: The Harmonizing of Beauty

So, I've talked about the Symbiosis of Heaven and Hell with Blake and Bulgakov, and the Hellish Heaven and Heavenly Hell with Blake and Calvino. Let's give Blake a little rest and turn to Yeats!

The Rose of Peace

If Michael, leader of God's host
When Heaven and Hell are met,
Looked down on you from Heaven's door-post
He would his deeds forget.

Brooding no more upon God's wars
In his divine homestead,
He would go weave out of the stars
A chaplet for your head.

And all folk seeing him bow down,
And white stars tell your praise,
Would come at least to God's great town,
Led on by gentle ways;

And God would bid His warfare cease,
Saying all things were well;
And softly make a rosy peace,
A peace of Heaven with Hell.

W.B. Yeats, "The Rose of Peace," The Rose, 1893)

Yeats transfixes Michael, God's archangelic general, in a domestic moment. He does not stand on the field of battle, but in his heavenly home. A homely and very physical home: "door-post," "divine homestead," "God's great town." In the contemplation on the unnamed rose, thoughts of wars become a garland of stars. The greatest angel, the heavenly bodies, bow down before the earthly rose. As aesthetics overcome ideology, it is by peace, by "gentle ways" that people come to God's fold, to his "great town." Beauty is greater than the Manichean fight of light vs. darkness, good vs. evil: it is all beautiful when the "vs." is removed; when the "vs" is removed, it is peaceful. When it is peaceful, that is when the "folk" will be impressed. When heaven ceases its quarrel with hell, finally all things will be "well." The line "saying all things were well" is an interesting twist on Genesis 1. In Gen. 1:1-2:3, when God creates something, he often ends the creation by saying that it was "good" or saying it was "very good." The shift from "good" to "well," from goodness to wellness emphasizes the health and wholeness of all things--they are harmoniously working together, unlike in the disease of war that tears down and infects, making all things ill. In beauty, one moves beyond good and evil to well and ill.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Imitation

But imitation requires not only the absence of any unconquerable originality but also a relative fineness of ear which enables one first of all to discern what one is afterwards to imitate.

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

Famously, since Plato and Aristotle, art has been defined as the imitation of life or nature. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, fascinatingly, reversed the direction of imitation, saying in his portrayal of Actaeon's transformation by Diana into a stag that is torn apart by his own dogs that nature imitates art--he is speaking of the rock formations around Diana's pool that are in the form of arches--the famous Roman architectural feature. Dante, on the Ledge of Pride in his Purgatorio, similarly, depicts an ecphrasis that is so real that nature could not compete with it. Art imitates life; life imitates art; it is an endless circle of mimesis. This is a fairly creative view of mimesis; Proust, however, takes a more ambivalent point. Imitation lacks originality. In high modernism, however, there is a cult of originality that ultimately is not original, as people clamor to imitate the artists who are "original." This is not a part of the loop of mimesis between life, art, and nature, but an exaggerated offshoot in which art imitates art. Or, in what he speaks of, is the circulation of particular mannerisms and trends among the upper classes. The other side of this ambivalence, however, is discernment. One' ability to discriminate what to imitate versus what not to imitate: this, it seems, is a useful social skill. It can be directed toward toadyism, for shameless self-promotion, or just surviving the shifting waves of society. The real issue, however, is whether or not "originality" is an illusion. What seems original is probably just the reorganization of partially imitated elements combined into new configurations. If originality is an illusion, creative mimesis is all there is.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Two Phrases that Should be Banned from Scholarship

I have returned to working on a book review that I have been dreading--partly because I am now receiving some pressure from the journal to do it. And in the same chapter the author uses two phrases that I find jarring.

Phrase 1: "The burden of proof lies with those who..."

This phrase always pertains to the position one opposes. It assumes that the consensus lies with you and that others must argue against it. It also indicates that you are not going to provide an argument yourself. To say that the "burden of proof lies" with whoever opposes your assumptions is just scholarly laziness, saying you will not (or perhaps cannot) effectively demonstrate your assumption. The burden of proof lies with whoever is making an argument, meaning, it lies with all of us.

Phrase 2: "The exception that proves the rule."

No, it is just a plain old exception. That it might stand out among a great deal of evidence, making it striking by comparison can be duly noted. But, especially for those of us who study antiquity in which we have very little surviving evidence and the evidence that survives most often reflects the concerns of later individuals and communities who transmitted them, omitting documents or even destroying documents or just failing to copy documents that did not fit their own perspective, it is not surprising to find large scale agreements on some issues in the ancient evidence with occasional exceptions that broke through. This, however, is not evidence that what we have is an exception that proves the rule. It is a surviving scrap that barely made it that might reflect a much broader perspective that was later forgotten or suppressed as its supporting similar evidence was lost.

Both phrases should be thrown out of serious scholarship. Neither is a form of careful argumentation; both are rhetorical ways to dismiss alternative viewpoints or dismiss inconvenient evidence.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What is a Philosopher?

From the NYTIMES, a discussion of what a philosopher is, from the silly to sublime.

See more commentary (which refers to other blogger responses) here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Paroxysm of Patriotism": Religious Symbols on Public Land

Stanley Fish writes a fascinating opinion piece in the NYTimes on a recent Supreme Court decision concerning a Cross used in a memorial on public land in the Mojave desert. The argument that won the day was to argue that the cross did not violate the Establishment Clause because it was a secular rather than a religious symbol (something, I should note, is similar to why French students can wear cross necklaces to school, but other religious symbols are excluded). The irony is quite apparent:

Notice what this paroxysm of patriotism had done: it has taken the Christianity out of the cross and turned it into an all-purpose means of marking secular achievements. (According to this reasoning the cross should mark the winning of championships in professional sports.) It is one of the ironies of the sequence of cases dealing with religious symbols on public land that those who argue for their lawful presence must first deny them the significance that provokes the desire to put them there in the first place.

It has become a formula: if you want to secure a role for religious symbols in the public sphere, you must de-religionize them, either by claiming for them a non-religious meaning as Kennedy does here, or, in the case of multiple symbols in a park or in front of a courthouse, by declaring that the fact of many of them means that no one of them is to be taken seriously; they don’t stand for anything sectarian; they stand for diversity. So you save the symbols by leeching the life out of them. The operation is successful, but the patient is dead.

At the end of the piece, Fish claims that he has no problems with the use of symbols of public land, but does have problems with the disingenuous reasoning used to keep them there.

UPDATE: the cross has been stolen! This is a crazy case. See here.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Titular Editing

My old banner subtitle of "my musings on antiquity, religion, and other phenomena and ephemera," while perhaps complete, since all things perhaps fall under "other phenomena and ephemera" still seemed incomplete to me given the many postings I have done on Proust, Shakespeare, etc--basically the increased occurrence of non-antique literature. Thus, I have included "literature" into my subtitle to represent more accurately the content you might find here--still heavily biblically and anciently oriented, but inclusive of a great deal of musings on other literature.

Thank you for reading!

Hamlet's Last Words

I confess I never really thought of Hamlet's last words until I watched the PBS production of the recent Royal Shakespeare Company's performance. They take out the aftermath of Fortinbras picking up the shattered pieces of Denmark, and end simply with Horatio's words: "Good night, sweet prince, / and fights of angels sing thee to thy rest." Yet just before this, Hamlet's final words just before death are quite strange, eerie, interesting:

"The rest is silence" (V.ii).

The rest is silence. As in the interview for the PBS special, the actor who plays Hamlet says he is going off into oblivion. It is as if he has gotten his answer to the problem in the "to be or not to be" speech. For, indeed, it is the fear of things to come, the "undiscover'd country" that makes cowards of us all--that is, if living is cowardly. I am struck, as a specialist in the study of religion, in this particular phrasing--"the rest is silence." Indeed, the interpretation of oblivion may be preferred, may be most correct. But, there is another way to read it. Silence, indeed, need not mean oblivion--it need not be Lear's "nothing." Silence could be a more poignant word for peace. After the noise of life, a particularly neurotic one in Hamlet's case, silence/peace. Not the noise of the inferno, but perhaps not the choirs of heaven either: a completely unimagined, unimaginable silent peace; not oblivious nothing but superfluous silence. I am reminded, however, of ancient traditions of holy silence. For example, it is said (in the Letter of Aristeas) that the entire officiation in the temple is done in silence. It is as if silence is the necessary auditory posture before God. In the Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth, a Hermetic work, an adept ascending through the heavenly spheres, observes the angels singing songs in silence. This paradox of songs and silence also appears in the work found with the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, depicting heavenly praise by the heavenly host on the Sabbath. Silence, in fact, is often associated with the most holy and most heavenly, as if silence were the result of perfect harmony. Was Shakespeare tapping into something of the silence of an afterlife of rest? I mostly doubt it. But I do wonder...especially when we reread the second word of "the rest is silence."

As readers we have been assuming that "rest" means "what remains." But what if it means something more like "repose." The rest, the cessation of work, is silence, itself a synonym of rest. In this reading, "the rest is rest." It is a tautology, something the opposite of Lear's "nothing" because it is complete in and of itself. We should note that in the ancient Jewish tradition, particularly prominent in Rabbinical writings and thereafter the Sabbath--the day of rest--is a precursor of the world to come; that is, the world to come is an everlasting rest. This did carry over into Christianity--for example, St. Augustine's Confessions and City of God both end with a meditation of heavenly rest based upon an exegesis of Gen. 1:1-2:3. The afterlife as "rest" is such a truism these days that we abbreviate it as "R.I.P." Rest is peace. Rest is silence. Perhaps complete nothingness, complete oblivion would be best for Hamlet, but his last words have a doubled edge. It could mean that the "undiscover'd country" is no country at all, that it is nothing--a fairly radical statement. Or it could be tapping into the extensive Jewish and Christian associations of the afterlife with rest, peace, and silence. It is up to the audience to decide, and that ambiguity in phrasing that could go either way is, indeed, how Shakespeare's speech continues to live with us, how it speaks to so many different people of such different dispositions. It, it seems, never rests. It is never silent.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

From Self to Society

People foolishly imagine that the broad generalities of social phenomena afford an excellent opportunity to penetrate further into the human soul; they ought, on the contrary, to realise that it is by plumbing the depths of a single personality that they might have a chance of understanding those phenomena.

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

Born Again with the Weather, with Proust

Although it was simply a Sunday in autumn, I had been born again, life lay intact before me, for that morning, after a succession of mild days, there had been a cold fog which had not cleared until nearly midday: and a change in the weather is sufficient to create the world and ourselves anew. Formerly, when the wind howled in my chimney, I would listen to the blows which it struck on the iron trap with as keen an emotion as if, like the famous chords with which the Fifth Symphony opens, they had been the irresistible calls of a mysterious destiny. Every change in the aspect of nature offers us a similar transformation by adapting our desires so as to harmonise with the new form of things. The mist, from the moment of my awakening, had made of me, instead of the centrifugal being which one is on fine days, a man turned in on himself, longing for the chimney corner and the shared bed, a shivering Adam in quest of a sedentary Eve, in this different world.

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

Reborn by the changing of the weather leads to something else. It is an exterior change that leads to interiority and a search for a new Eden. But it is not just weather, it is adapting to new forms. As it turns out, these new forms turn out to be literature. New forms of literature are new because they create new associations between things, associations heretofore unseen. When this new literature shows new associations between things, we ourselves are transformed as we adapt to these new associations. This, however, means something about literature--that is is not static, that it progresses. In fact, it is a different perspective of art in the association between works of art:

And I was led to wonder whether there was any truth in the distinction which we are always making between art, which is no more advanced now than in Homer's day, and science with its continuous progress. Perhaps, on the contrary, art was in this respect like science; each new original writer seemed to me to have advanced beyond the stage of his immediate predecessor; and who was to say whether in twenty years' time, when I should be able to accompany without strain or effort the newcomer of today, another might not emerge in the face of whom the present one would go the way of Bergotte? (ibid.)

Bergotte is the writer the narrator adored in his youth, but now has found new forms of art that show new associations between things that build upon, advance beyond his youthful favorite author. That new author, in turn, shall be surpassed as new associations between things are discovered or, better yet, imagined. In reading something new, by seeing new associations, we are reborn as we incorporate these new associations into ourselves and see them in our own lives.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

On the Symbiosis of Heaven and Hell

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell
(William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

This past week I just finished up my Literature class by reading Mikhail Bulgakov's amazing Master and Margarita, which happens to be one of my favorite books. One thing often commented on about the novel is the prominent solar and lunar imagery: the sun and the moon align the scenes as they alternate between 20th century Stalinist Russia and first century Jerusalem. The sun is often portrayed as merciless, unbearable, taking away one's breath. The moon allows one to breath, but can be deceptive, creating shadows in the dark. Yet, considering the dark, in the end Night personified strips away all illusions--it is as if illusion and deception were used in order to reach deeper truths. For example, when the devil, Woland, comes to town, he stages a theatrical magical performance, using magic (the real thing) in order to discern the inner truth about humanity--humanity's greed--but, interestingly, also humanity's ultimate mercy.

One might want to suppose that we have a series of opposing binaries between light and darkness, sun and moon, and finally Yeshua (as Jesus is called in this novel) and Woland. But that turns out not fully to be the case--neither Woland nor Yeshua are particularly associated with the merciless sun. They both have strong connections with the moon. When it comes to light and darkness--with Yeshua associated with light (and compassionate, merciful light, like the moon?) and Woland with darkness (in which that darkness shines), they seem to work together to bring deceptive and revelatory light in the darkness. Woland speaks to Levi Matvei (Yeshua's disciple), who shows up in Moscow, allowing the Moscow and Jerusalem chapters to blur, in which Levi addresses Woland--who, by now, has becomes somewhat of a sympathetic character--quite rudely, calling him "Spirit of Evil and Sovereign of the Shadows," and wishing him evil. To this Woland responds:

You pronounced your words as if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of either shadows or evil. But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living things beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You're stupid. (trans. Burgin and Tiernan O'Connor)

Woland notes that perhaps light could exist without darkness, but it would be naked light without any life. As long as there is any life, the light hits it and creates a shadow; and therein lies Woland. Darkness and shadows will exist as long as life exists. Interestingly, it turns out that the light needs the shadows as well. The reason Levi is there is that Yeshua (or "he") requests, very nicely, that Woland grant peace and rest to the Master (who wrote a novel about Pilate that Yeshua really liked). Woland grants Yeshua's request. Woland and Yeshua, it seems, work together, and work well together, as interdependent beings. Woland exposes human vices and executes divine justice; Yeshua acknowledges the inherent goodness of humanity and grants mercy. (Blake's note of the passivity of Good resembles Yeshua, who recognizes the inherent goodness of all humans, who is also ultimately passive--Yeshua tells Pilate that all forms of power are violence; that in the kingdom of light to come, there will be no power at all and, therefore, no violence.) Each, as Woland says earlier in the novel when Margarita begs mercy for someone suffering eternal torment, belong to their own "department" and do what is expected of them in their respective "departments" of justice and mercy, but do not infringe on the other's territory. Both are necessary and both need each other. There is a great deal that resembles Manichean doctrine here, but, I would note, for at least Bulgakov's novel, light and darkness are not in opposition, but excepting the stupidity of Levi Matvei work together.

God Made in Our Image

There is an ancient truism that is the inversion of the Genesis statement that God made humans his God's image that humans always image God in their own image, and that if horses could speak, they would speak of God as a horse (I do not quite recall the reference off-hand, but if someone would like to supply it in the comments, it would be much appreciated).

But such truisms, however true, seem trite to just speak it outright, and so to help make the point, I have enlisted a poet (W.B. Yeats):

The Indian Upon God

I passed along the water's edge below the humid trees,
My spirit rocked in evening light, the rushes round my knees,
My spirit rocked in sleep and sighs; and saw the moorfowl pace
All dripping on a grassy slope, and saw them cease to chase
Each other round in circles, and heard the eldest speak:
Who holds the world between His bill and made us strong or weak
Is an undying moorfowl, and He lives beyond the sky.
The rains are from His dripping wing, the moonbeams from his eye.

I passed a little further on and heard a lotus talk:
Who made the world and ruleth it, He hangeth on a stalk,
For I am in His image made, and all this tinkling tide
Is but a sliding drop of rain between His petals wide.

A little way within the gloom a roebuck raised his eyes
Brimful of starlight, and he said: The Stamper of the Skies,
He is a gentle roebuck; for how else, I pray, could He
Conceive a thing so sad and soft, a gentle thing like me?

I passed a little further on and heard a peacock say:
Who made the grass and made the worms and made my feather gay,
He is a monstrous peacock, and He waveth all the night
His languid tail above us, lit with myriad spots of light.

(W.B. Yeats, "The Indian Upon God," Crossways; italics original)