Saturday, February 21, 2015


In Dickens' Bleak House there is a chapter in which we learn that poor Caddy is engaged to a young man named Prince Turveydrop.  Prince is neither here nor there, but his father, the elder Mr. Turveydrop, is a quintessential Dickens character, a man with little learning or ability, but renowned for his astonishing deportment, which he nurtures with all the strength of his being.

It's a term I'll admit I found a little vague on the occasion of meeting Mr. Turveydrop, and which I continued to find vague on taking leave of him--a kind of absurd propriety, an affected grace, a superiority of manners.

The memory of this character (and characteristic) was revived on the occasion of my beginning Douglas Southall Freeman's R.E. Lee.   The eighteen-year-old Lee is from a good family, but his father, Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, has died abroad after impoverishing his second family through improvident speculation.  Lee sees his best chance in a military career, and, in pursuit of an appointment to West Point, has the following recommendation send to the then-Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun.

Robert Lee was formerly a pupil of mine. While under my care I can vouch for his correct and gentlemanly deportment. In the various branches, to which his attention has been applied, I flatter myself that his information will be found adequate to the most sanguine expectations of his friends. With me he has read all the minor classics in addition to Homer & Longinus, Tacitus & Cicero. He is well versed in arithmetic, Algebra & Euclid. In regard to what he has read with me I am certain that when examined he will neither disappoint me or his friends.
W B Leary

What caught my eye was the prominence of the first recommended trait:  "his correct and gentlemanly deportment."  It is one of those small distinctions that confirmed my decision to finally begin Freeman's biography.

I like to read all sorts of history and literature, and it is satisfying to find, in so traveling to the past, both a common humanity and significant differences.  In fact, one of the great pleasures of reading about, say, classical antiquity, is in the dim perception of their own self-understanding, wholly innocent of the considerable train of events that has formed ourselves after the intervening ages.

 It's a paradox of this kind of reading that, just as I am often surprised at how little has changed over the millennia, I am still surprised by how much can change in just a few generations.  In some ways Freeman's Lee, and Freeman himself, seem very, very far away.

My interest in Lee is somewhat personal.  I am a Southerner by birth, if not much by inclination.  I attended a Robert E. Lee High School.  Like many, many Southern towns, the first high school was named after the city, the second, after Robert E. Lee (or Jeff Davis or Jeb Stuart).  The burden of the loss of the Civil War was still quite real when I was growing up, and left many traces, some of them quite ugly.  Defeat was humiliating, the cause was hardly anything to brag about, the aftermath was devastating, and the former slaves, if freed, were kept in subjegation by laws that were beginning to be set aside when I was born, but which left a poisonous social and economic legacy.

Robert E. Lee was singled out, however, as a figure who somehow embodied the virtues of the defeated South.  If he was a slaveholder, he was a reluctant one, no worse, at least, than Washington or Jefferson.  He opposed secession, and took up arms not so much against the Union as in defense of Virginia, which, we tend to forget, had a claim to loyalty that has all but vanished this last century.  He was a gentleman and an outstanding soldier, and, in defeat, he made reconciliation his priority.  His life has something of the dignity of tragedy, and his commitment to ideals even then vanishing, an odd combination of chivalry and Jeffersonianism, lends him a touch of Don Quixote.

I had, in high school American history, a teacher, Bob Wyche. who was a notorious eccentric, and a huge Civil War buff.  He was a very good teacher, whose particular enthusiasms I never adopted, but whose love for and dedication to learning from the past I never lost sight of.  I remember him excitedly playing for us a tape of Douglas Southall Freeman discussing the historian's work, the careful sifting and organization of evidence, a voice whose surface flatness only slowly revealed the satisfaction of uncovering historical truths, and communicating them for posterity.  So I have always had a notion to one day read Freeman.

And I find much value in reading him.  He was a journalist, not a professional historian.  Like many biographers, he much admired his subject, and didn't seek to conceal that admiration.  He was, nevertheless, careful to qualify its implications:

For more than twenty years the study of military history has been my chief avocation. Whether the operations have been those of 1914‑18, on which I happened to be a daily commentator, or those of the conflict between the states, each new inquiry has made the monstrous horror of war more unintelligible to me. It has seemed incredible that human beings, endowed with any of the powers of reason, should hypnotize themselves with doctrines of "national honor" or "sacred right" and pursue mass murder to exhaustion or to ruin. I subscribe with my whole heart to the view of General Lee that had "forbearance and wisdom been practised on both sides," the great national tragedy of 1861 might have been prevented. If, in this opinion, I have let my abhorrence of war appear in my description of Malvern Hill after the battle, and in a few indignant adjectives elsewhere, I trust the reader will understand that in these instances I have momentarily stepped back on the stage only because I am not willing to have this study of an American who loved peace interpreted as glorification of war.

Some will object to a description of Lee as "an American who loved peace."  But Freeman takes Lee at his word, and he may not be wrong to do so.

The biography itself can perhaps best be described as possessing a certain "gentlemanly deportment."  Here is Freeman on the scandal that destroyed the career of Lee's older half-brother, Henry:

Impoverished and embittered, Henry Lee had tried to make a living by writing. By inheritance he was a Federalist, but he had become a protagonist of Andrew Jackson. He had resided at "The Hermitage" after the sale of Stratford, had been engaged in arranging Jackson's military papers, and had written several polemic in behalf of "Old Hickory." Jackson found these last to be indited in a temper that matched his own and he felt much gratitude to Lee. When he became President, he named his defender United States consul to Morocco. It was a vacation appointment, which Lee was very glad to accept. He left the country for his post, only to find that he left a storm behind him. His wife had a younger sister, co-heiress to her father's estate. In some way, Henry Lee became enamoured of her and had been guilty of misconduct with her.

"Guilty of misconduct."  This reticence is characteristic.  We are left in no doubt as to what happened, but we are allowed no unsavory details.  It is an old-fashioned approach, exactly appropriate to the temper of its subject.  If it gives us less than the three-dimensional man, one can reasonably respond that what we today conventionally consider the whole man may be nothing more than our post-Freudian speculations.  Arguably, Freeman delineates the legend.  But the legend is set out strictly on the basis of the facts and the documents.  It could be criticized as selective history, were it not for the fact that all history is selective.  We never, and can never, reproduce the whole.    

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Calvin and Wahhabis

Recent events have gotten me thinking about Islam and the extremists whose crimes keep putting it in the news.

It's odd to to remember a time when Islam per se wasn't perceived as a significant global issue.  As a kid I followed the Arab/Israeli conflict, the black-and-white images of the Security Council on television during the Six-Day War, and recall, being young, the mild surprise at seeing the armies deploying in tanks rather than chariots.

But Islam had nothing to do with it.  The world was about the cold war, and all conflicts, as I understood them, were proxies for the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Israel represented the United States, and Egypt, and its allies, stood in for the Russians (who had built that dam, and moved those statues that were always showing up in My Weekly Reader).  Yes, a lot of that understanding was a child's selectiveness, but I think that that was also the way the networks and the papers tended to carry it.

So, in my lifetime, the first appearance of Islam as a challenge to the "West" came in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution.  I remember "Down with the Shaw" demonstrations beforehand, and was vaguely aware that the discontent of Iranian ex-pats in the U.S. was directed, too, at our government, which apparently had been hand-in-glove with the Shah for too long a time.  The hostage crisis and the emergence of the Ayatolla Khomeni as supreme leader introduced a new element:  extremist Islam, fanatical Islam, jihadist Islam  And this new, threatening face of Islam had a name:  Shi'ism.  The Shi'ites were different from the other Muslims.  They broke international law.  They mocked the immunity of ambassadors.  They demanded that women wear the chador.  And they called us the "Great Satan."  Iran became the new Cuba--the irreconcilable country.

All that was well and good, but the end of the cold war in 1991 was still the real news.  That got even serious people talking about an "end of history"--until the end of history ended with the bringing down of the World Trade Center.

There had been, of course, no cessation of violence, by all sorts of violent and marginal figures (including home-grown ones, like the Oklahoma City bomber).   But in one terrible day Muslim extremism come to the fore with new names and faces--Al Qa'eda, Bin Laden, Taliban.  And all of a sudden--at least to a casual observer--the baton had been passed from Shi'i radicalism to Sunni radicalism, to the heirs of Muhammed Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab--the Wahhabis.

These were names wholly unknown to me in 2001, and remaining so for years thereafter.  Just this last month I finally got around to starting a biography of al-Wahhab, and learning how directly his movement promoted the rise of the House of Sa'ud in the Arabian peninsula.

What was unexpected, in reading through this material, was the parallel with puritanism in Christianity.  Please don't get me wrong.  This is simply a matter of noting certain interpretive parallels between movements in two different religions.  It is not about asserting some sort of equivalence between Christianity and Islam, or between puritanism and Wahhabism, but of understanding how certain interpretive approaches can operate in different religions.

In a previous post I had contrasted the Islam of the fourteenth century, as found in the travel writing of Ibn Battutah, with the Islam of ISIS, which some Western journalists habitually mis-characterize as "medieval."  Medieval Islam had much in common with medieval Catholicism:  intercession with God provided by recognized saints and living holy men; pilgrimages to shrines and tombs of the saints; traffic in amulets and protective objects; a distinctive sacred architecture and art; schools of religious law and philosophy; mystical fraternities; recognized hierarchies of religious authority; and the kind of reverence for the foundational sacred writings that made popular, direct recourse to them, if not formally forbidden, discouraged.

It was in the late eighteenth century that al-Wahhab began preaching his new, rigorous version of Islam.  It was based, fundamentally, on an unprecedentedly broad understanding of shirk, the forbidden association of any god, person or object with the one supreme God.  For al-Wahhab all veneration of Islamic holy men, living or dead, was forbidden, as was seeking their intercession.  Veneration of their tombs, and traffic in and use of amulets, was utterly unacceptable.  Though al-Wahhad was himself most closely associated with the rigorist Hanbaliyya school, he denounced all schools of law and systems of theology and philosophy, especially insofar as they in fact operated as illegitimate intermediaries; their great crime was that, in asserting that the Qur'an needed expert interpretation, they dared to subordinate it to their own assertions.  Needless to add, al-Wahhab denounced the mystical way of Sufism, and considered Shi'ites as worse than idolaters.

Now it is sometimes said that the problem with contemporary Islam is that it has not yet gone through a "Reformation," and that if it would do so it would lose its militant edge.  I now tend to think, on the contrary, that the Wahhabist movement, far from being a "medieval" throw-back, constitutes in surprising detail a counterpart to the Protestant reformation:  a denunciation of saints, intercession, pilgrimages, shrines, pictures, mysticism, sacred brotherhoods, and necessary interpretive hierarchies, all based in a need for the individual Muslim to go to God directly, and an ability to do so by means of direct engagement with the Qur'an.  It is sola scriptura in another key.

We tend to forget that the Protestant reformation, far from bringing peace and tolerance to Christendom, initiated an unprecedented age of Christian-on-Christian violence.  My own patron saint, Thomas More, got his head cut off by fellow Christians, and the violence of the English reformation was rather modest compared with, inter alia, the Wars of Religion in France, and the Thirty Years War that devastated central Europe during the first half of the seventeenth century.  Religious tolerance came to Europe, not through any triumph of one or the other party, but in the exhausted realization that none could win by force of arms.

And something similar, I think, is going on now in Islam.  There is, to be sure, an anti-Western, anti-Christian component, that stems from a distinctive Western imperialist domination of the middle east and the Maghreb for the last couple of centuries.  That does indeed fuel much of the resentment.

Nevertheless, most of the violence is Muslim-on-Muslim.  The "reformed" ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS makes most of the world's Muslims believers in name only.  The aggression initiated by al-Wahhab was not against the West; it was against what he considered the pseudo-Islam of the Ottoman sultans.  And the great political  achievement of the Wahhabist movement was it adoption by the House of Sa'ud.  The Saudi's successful conquest of the two holy cities and their fabulous, if fortuitous, oil wealth made Saudi Arabia a uniquely powerful entity in both the Islamic world and the wider geopolitical sphere of first, second and third worlds.

It is there perhaps that we see one of the greatest differences between Calvinists and Wahhabis.   The puritans were, by intent or default, republicans.  Their churches had no pope, no bishops.  Their churchmen cut off the head of one king, the unfortunate Charles I, and laid out a theological framework for representative government in Switzerland, Scotland and the American colonies.  That record is rather distinctive from the Wahhabist promotion of the Saudi monarchy.

But I wonder, when I peruse Calvin's letter to Francis I, which prefaces his Institutes of the Christian Religion, whether the puritan opposition to kings would have been quite so vehement, had any king of note and staying power taken up the Calvinist banner.  For both Calvin and Wahhab (as, indeed, for Lutheran and for Catholic), the form of secular power is subordinate to the religious message, and will be judged as godly or Satanic not on its own secular merits, but to the extent that it serves and promotes the religious message.

And the point of all this?  To perceive, I hope, some common currents and common human reactions to different approaches to what we hold as most dear.  I hate the fact that Islam is almost only spoken of in light of its most extreme adherents.  I hope that even my slight familiarity with the Islamic "canon," and slight acquaintance with contemporary Muslims, prevent my confounding the fringes with the mainstream.

I, after all, as I've noted before, grew up Presbyterian, a member of a church that at one time shook all of Christendom, both religiously and politically.  I was a good Presbyterian, but by the mid-twentieth century Calvinism was no longer a creed to shatter thrones and cause nations to tremble.  So, just as the rigor and zeal of Calvin is no longer a troubler of a broader Christian peace (and no obstacle to a wider mutual tolerance), so also the Wahhabist approach to Islam may, after inevitable failure to obliterate its Muslim rivals, takes its place in the Muslim world as a distinctive practice which is nevertheless able to live and let live.

If we live that long.  


Monday, January 12, 2015

Eras and Titles

The practice of dividing time into discreet eras goes back a long way.  The Greeks were already talking about the Age of Gold and Age of Silver in what we now call Classical Antiquity.  The eras are always somewhat arbitrary, but useful for keeping the exuberance of the past in manageable and memorable pigeonholes.

It was the mention in the last post of the English historian Eric Hobsbawm that got me to thinking about this use of "ages" and "eras."  Hobsbawm was a true and lifelong disciple of Marx.  And with Marx (as with St. Augustine), history has a meaning, each age having its own particular role and responsibility in the procession of time.

The four volumes I am thinking of I purchased from the Folio Society back in 2005.  They share a common format, and sit in a handsome single slipcase, emblazoned with a series title, "The Making of the Modern World."

But Hobsbawm didn't mean, at first, to write a four-volume account of recent history.  As is so often the case, one thing led to another, and we are now fortunate to have the the following:

The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848
The Age of Capital, 1848-1875
The Age of Empire, 1875-1914
The Age of Extremes, 1914-1991

These are books I can heartily recommend.  God knows I'm no Communist, but I honestly know of no series that compares for conveying the sense of breathtaking change that has overwhelmed the world these last few centuries.  One need not share Hobsbawm's Marxist hopes to get caught up in the drama of this story.

And yet I come back to those titles--especially the incongruity of the last one.  Marxist history, as I said above, has a definite shape.  Class conflict gives rise to revolution, then to a new orientation of class relationships, based on newly emerging forms of the means of production.  The nineteenth century form, bourgeois industrial capitalism, begins to crack when untrammeled competition forces it to make increasingly crushing demands on the industrial proletariat.  Lenin's assertion that imperialism is the final last stage of capitalism then gives a plausibly Marxist rationale for capitalism's unexpected reprieve, the interval in which the entire world is roped into the system.

So far, so good.  We have in the titles of Hobsbawm's first three volumes the three stages that Marxism-Leninism considers the prelude to the triumph of socialism.  So why, I wonder, was the last volume not called The Age of Socialism.

After all, the period chosen encompasses, almost exactly, the lifespan of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the first and most powerful of the "workers' states," and the unchallenged leader of the international Communist movement.  This period also sees the rise of the British Labour Party, the adoption of social democracy and the welfare state as the predominant form of government in Western Europe, and, even in the resisting United States, a vast expansion of the regulatory apparatus and the so-called "safety net":  social security, mandatory unemployment insurance, the federal reserve, medicare, and the like.  And fascism?  We tend to forget that fascism was not an ideology of laissez faire capitalism or material consumption, but a corporate and centralized movement for collective effort;  we overlook the fact that Hitler's "Nazism" was short for "National Socialism."

So why didn't the next stage in Marx's schema, which fits so well the world of 1914-1991, supply the title to Hobsbawm's last volume?  Perhaps because it wasn't supposed to end that way...or even end at all.  There is a certain sense to the Marxist eras.  But history is not that clean or precise.  Socialism, though denied in name, is a growing omnipresence.  But revolutions have not ceased.  Capitalism and imperialism, far from being abolished by socialism, aufgehoben out of existence, seem to be getting along quite well with socialism.  Our syntheses are much muddier than the Hegelian-Marxist model might suggest.

This should not be a surprise.  The future doesn't, and ought not, to yield so easily to our scrutiny.  "No man knows the day or the hour."  We really, really realize that the future is, essentially, surprise.  Thus our own "Age of Anxiety," as we wonder where the next wonders, the next disasters, will arise.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Creating History: A Follow-up

In my post of October 18 I was thinking about how we all create a particular past by, to some extent, choosing the objects that populate it.

A related idea was very commonly voiced during the recent midterm elections.  Some significant number of voters have their own favored news sources.  The choice of a single source may perpetuate itself; the accuracy of a unique source of news is apparently confirmed by a lack of engagement in self-criticism or self-correction.  In this circumstance the electorate can therefore develop (or be manipulated into) discreet outlooks that are politically useful, but at the cost of increasingly alienating them from those others with a different viewpoint--to the extent, even, that any other viewpoint becomes so incomprehensible that the only explanation for it must be stupidity or malice.

That's something we can see practically every day in our politics.  But I thought of another example.

I have been interested for some time in reading a Spanish account of the Spanish Civil War.  Twenty to twenty five years ago I read Antony Beevor's account of it, and it struck me as fairly balanced.  I had the bad judgment to lend the book to a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and I never got it back.  So I was thinking, my Spanish is much improved these last two decades, maybe I should tackle ithe subject in Spanish.

So I was looking on Amazon Spain and ran across what looked like a pretty good general account of the war, a Historia de la Guerra Civil Española, by Ricardo de la Cierva.  As is sometimes the case, after ordering a book I became curious about the author.  Now the literature of the Spanish Civil War is still fiercely heated, and soon I became aware of rather bitter animosity on the part of some against de la Cierva.  I learned that he was, and remains, a franquista, a Franco partisan who served as a cultural minister in some of the last Franco governments.  His partisanship is arguably understandable, since his father, a supporter of the Nationalists, was imprisoned and then murdered by the Republicans as the Nationalists closed in on Madrid.  

That's not to say that de la Cierva is a fascist.  "Reactionary" is a word that would probably be used by his more polite opponents.  He seems to characterize himself as one who values the "old Spain," the Spain of Catholic monarchy over a more traditionalist society of peasant farmers and middle class artisans and merchants.  His more vocal critics call him only a "historian" (in quotation marks); his own great criticism of writing about the war, especially that written in English,  is that it too often ignores primary documents (to which he, as a government insider, has had some advantage of access).

These are not things that will put me off reading him.  One of the interesting things about Spain--not exactly unique, but perhaps more pronounced than elsewhere--has been its ambivalence about the modern enterprise, its alleged backwardness in the face of a challenges from bourgeois capitalists, anarchists, socialists and communists.  Spain seems now to have "caught up" with the rest of Europe--for better or for worse--but the civil war seems to have been fought, in part, over that whole issue of the implications of modernity, and I think, therefore, it could be enlightening to hear the story from what was, militarily, the winning side, but, culturally, the side that is probably now losing. 

In doing so I will undoubtedly be given to sympathizing with those whom many think beyond the pale.  Franco is associated with fascism, and it was, and has been, the work of the Spanish left to paint him so.  I'm not so sure myself,  The English Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose leftist credentials are surely impeccable, states right out that Franco was not a fascist (though his coalition undoubtedly included them).  

In any case, Hobsbawm raises the interesting issue that, though I give second thoughts to reading a historian tagged by some as a fascist, as, in any case, an unreconstructed franquista, it never occurred to me to be particularly "on guard" with a communist like Hobsbawm.  Perhaps it's because I've read quite a bit of Marxism, and though I can't accept it as a real science, or as defensible ideology in practice, I can certainly respect its implicit promotion of those who labor so that the few can live at ease.  It is one of the great virtues of Hobsbawm's four volumes on the making of the modern world that they pay attention to the obscure as well as the great, the suffering of the many as well as the triumphs of the few, the price paid by the voiceless for the "progress" of the world.  One would think that those topics should be more front-and-center in Christian historiography.

The upshot is the same.  In a world filled with angels and devils, who all write their own books, we owe it to ourselves not to confine ourselves to our own little tribe, but to also sup occasionally with the angels and with the devils, hoping thereby not to become trapped in our own untested assumptions--but also keeping one's own long spoon handy, just in case.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Meaning of the Story of Noah

The occasion for this post is my having just watched Aronofsky's Noah.  To be charitable, it's an entertaining CGI spectacle, looking more like The Two Towers than anything out of Genesis.  The desolate scenes at the beginning remind one of another popular Hollywood genre, the "post-apocalyptic"--which is in fact kind of funny, when you think about it.

But that's the occasion, not the aim, of this post.

I was baptized and raised Presbyterian.  Therefore I went to Sunday School practically every single week for most of my childhood and received a fairly thorough grounding in the stories of the Bible.  Now, "Sunday School" is not, generally, a positive adjective.  A "Sunday School" conception of something ordinarily means something sentimental, simplistic, pious, saccharine.  But let's consider Noah.

Even in a time of diminishing biblical knowledge, the story of Noah is still known fairly widely.  Almost everyone knows about the Ark, the "floating zoo," the sign of the rainbow.  Almost everyone gets the joke about thinking Joan of Arc Noah's wife. 

The story in Genesis is very straightforward.  There is great wickedness in the earth, wickedness such that God regrets having ever created man, wickedness such that God decides to destroy the human race.  But Noah found favor.  So we get the building of the great chest, the entry of the animals, the opening of the floodgates of heaven and the bursting of the fountains of the earth.  The remnant survives, and God gives Noah a special sign, placing his bow in the heavens,a sign that he will never again destroy the human race.

Anyone familiar with fairy tales or fables knows that it's that last section that lays out the meaning of the story--the lesson or the moral.  It's not subtle or hidden.  The Sunday School take is that God will not destroy us, for all our faults.  It's a message of comfort.

Now that's a reading I don't typically come across when the story  of Noah comes up.  At best there is the picturesque saving-the-animals angle, or the related picturing of Noah as conservationist or environmentalist.  

And then there is the more contemptuous, contemporary "new atheist" take:  There are no waters above the heavens!  God is a genocidal  monster!  This polemical, more literal reading has the rhetorical advantage of making the story look like an assault both on science and humanity.  What fools believe in a God, in a world, like this?

It's the literalism that leads them astray, I think.  Keeping in mind the limits on what we can say with complete certainty about the past (as I tried to say some few posts back), there's no indication, in human or natural history, that a flood ever actually covered the surface of the earth or destroyed all terrestrial life apart from the pairs marched into an ark.  So if it's not history, what is it?

Over the years you pick things up.  So I've come across Utnapishtum's flood in the Gilgamesh Epic, and the Greek flood.  It's a common ancient story motif, and that shouldn't surprise us, given our ancestors' absolute dependence on the harvest, and the deadly destructive power of even small floods.  So the story was out there, to be put to use.

And I've picked up enough Hebrew to make a nine-year journey through the Tanakh.  And there I noticed, as is often the case, that the Hebrew name has a meaning.  Noah. נֹחַ "Comfort."  The form appears again at the beginning of the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah, where a shift in tone is so marked that many scholars consider it a new work:

נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי

"Comfort, comfort, my people."

Which of course brings me back to my old Sunday School take on the thing.

 וְזָכַרְתִּי אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, אֲשֶׁר בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, וּבֵין כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, בְּכָל-בָּשָׂר; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה עוֹד הַמַּיִם לְמַבּוּל, לְשַׁחֵת כָּל-בָּשָׂר.   וְהָיְתָה הַקֶּשֶׁת, בֶּעָנָן

"And I will remember the covenant between myself and you, the covenant with all living souls, with all flesh, and I will never yet again bring death with a flood, to destroy all flesh.  And I set my bow in the clouds...." 

It is a comfort, undoubtedly, a promise to never yet again punish the wicked by death with a flood.  And if we moderns can't help but think that there never was a flood at all, the message, the moral, becomes even more comfortable:  I haven't, I won't.

Because it is an important point, and properly belongs here at the beginning of the great story of humanity.  What to do about human evil?  Our first impulse is always to kill it.  Just kill the bad people, the troublesome people.  How many revolutions and movements, even in the last century, rested on just such a terrible cutting of the Gordian knot?  Kill the bad, leave the good, and the earth will be paradise again.

So that's what God, in the story, does.  But that's what God, by the end of the story, promises never to do again.  Or, for us sceptical moderns, what he never did, and never will do.  Because, in a real sense, that's the whole point of the biblical project.  For Jews, the story of Noah, in rejecting any wholesale killing of the wicked, sets the stage for the Abrahamic covenant, for the Mosaic law, for the ethical demands of the prophets.  For Christians, the story of Noah similarly rejects the darkest solution, and, incorporating the law and the prophets, sets out an alternative scheme, not to kill, but to redeem the wicked.  In both cases the point is not to purify the earth by the death of the wicked, but to redeem the wicked themselves, to save both the world and human beings from human evil.

So that's why I say the Sunday School version turned out to be essentially correct.  The story of Noah is one of comfort, a preliminary rejection of an easy, a tempting approach to human evil, to which God said "never again"--or even, "not then, not now, not ever."  The bow is not in our hands, nor even in God's; it is set in the clouds.  

Friday, November 28, 2014

If you find yourself in Ashgabat this week...

An artist friend in Albuquerque, Diana Stetson, has been in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, this last week curating a show titled "The Spirit of Two Deserts"  at the Museum of Fine Arts.  Diana, whose work we have known and admired for almost twenty years, has made earlier trips to Turkmenistan as a cultural liaison.  Reproduced above is a painting that my wife Jeanine contributed to the show at Diana's request.

We could not, unfortunately, attend the opening.  But I am happy to add this to the "shameless plug" category.       

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On the Day of the Armistice

Today is Veteran's Day, once observed as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of what now is called the First World War, when, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent.

This year is also the centennial of the outbreak of what contemporaries called the Great War.  For many historians it marks a major turning point in modern history, the end of the "long nineteenth century," (conventionally beginning with the French Revolution), and marks a particular end to a liberal vision of economic progress and the limitation of war through diplomacy.

On this day I usually re-read the last few paragraphs of Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front).  Here they are in German.  I don't know where else in literature the unheralded change from first person to third is so poignant.

Ich stehe auf.

Ich bin sehr ruhig. Mögen die Monate and Jahre kommen, sie nehmen mir nichtes mehr, sie könnon mir nichts mehr nehmen.  Ich bin so allein und so ohne Erwartung, daß ich ihnen entgegensehen kann ohne Furcht. Das Leben, das mich durch diese Jahre trug, ist noch in meinen Händen und Augen. Ob ich es überwunden habe, weiß ich nicht.  Aber solange es da ist, wird es sich seinen Weg suchen, mag dieses, das in mir "Ich" sagt, wollen oder nicht.

Er fiel im Oktober 1918, an einem Tage, der so ruhig und still war an der ganzen Front, daß der Heeresbericht sich nur auf den Satz beschränkte, im Westen sei nichts Neues zu melden.

Er war vorübergesunken und lag wie schlafend an der Erde. Als man ihn umdrehte, sah man, daß er sich nicht lange gequält haben konnte; - sein Gesicht hatte einen so gefaßten Ausdruck, als wäre er beinahe zufrieden damit, daß es so gekommen war.