Sunday, February 19, 2017
I have long intended to write something about Islam and the contemporary West. Recent events have suggested that perhaps now might be a good time.
I have no particular expertise in the subject, only what I know of history, and my own limited experiences.
I put the "Muslim problem" in "scare quotes" because some recent reading from the early twentieth century, where a widespread concern with what they called the "Jewish problem" was evident. What to do with them? How do they fit in, these non-Christian interlopers, these wealthy money-lenders, these superstitious, clannish Eastern strangers with their own Law and their own language--in short, how to deal with these people whose whole existence contradicts the contemporary notion of the integral, ethnic Nation?
Most people with any sense of decency look back at that time with shame and alarm for what we know followed. Our "Jewish problem" turned out to be mostly a problem with ourselves, and my general take is that our "Muslim problem" is largely little different, though the two situations plainly are not entirely the same.
Our modern anxiety stems from the unavoidable fact that the boundary between Islam and the West becomes less distinct year by year. There was always conflict along the boundary of the two civilizations, and the boundary sometimes moved dramatically. But the two civilizations did not mingle in any significant fashion until the imperial West first conquered large portions of the Islamic world, beginning with Napoleon, followed by a significant, if still relatively small, intermingling of the populations as imperialism retreated.
What that means is that the violent disorders that have characterized the middle east and southern Asia over the last fifty years--disorders for which the Western powers plainly share some significant part of the blame--are spilling over into the West. And that in turn has given rise to a widespread fear that that exported violence is not simply the "outskirts" of the current wars, but somehow intrinsic to Islam, that they are skirmishes in an ongoing war between Islam and the West which has to be prosecuted by punitive measures against Muslims in the West and by barricading the borders.
So what I'd like to do is look at the question in four further posts. The first will look at exactly how Islam should be understood as a religion. The second will consider Islam as a civilization. The third will look at the question from the perspective of what I think is demanded of a Christian, one who is committed to following the teaching and obeying the commandments of Jesus Christ. The fourth will look at the question from the perspective of American values; that is, those American ideals embodied in our founding documents and cultural images.
Saturday, January 21, 2017
A hundred years ago the First World War was raging. Our first mental image of that conflict is probably the landscape of trench warfare in Western Europe: Unbroken ditches running mile after mile, no-man's-land, blighted landscapes, barbed wire, and waves of doomed men going over the top.
Yet there were other theaters in that war, no less brutal, no less senseless, but whose foreignness won them a pass in the contemporary imagination. I'm thinking, of course, of the Arab Revolt, a movement encouraged by the British against Germany's eastern ally, the Ottoman Empire of the Turks, chronicled most famously in T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Lawrence remains an enigma. Solitary in life and unmilitary in demeanor, he took a new name and sought anonymity after publishing his great memoir, completing his translation of the Odyssey just before dying in a motorcycle accident on a quiet English road.
A couple of decades ago I read Revolt in the Desert, Lawrence's abridgment of Seven Pillars. He lost his first manuscript of Seven Pillars, and when rewritten made it available only in a severely limited edition. Its reputation created a demand that Lawrence answered with Revolt, a version that read like a traditional account of a military campaign. What was left out of Revolt, and what makes Seven Pillars such a compelling read, is Lawrence's self-revelation--not only his eccentric observations on Arab life, but his whole consciousness of duplicity in encouraging one people's revolt for his own people's advantage. James Morris has called shame the leitmotiv of Seven Pillars, and that sense of play-acting in a deadly serious game permeates the book with an omnipresent unease.
A soldier, but also an artist, as noted by Jean Villars at the beginning of his biography of Lawrence:
Dans la galerie des grands hommes, Thomas Edward Lawrence—le colonel Lawrence—est l’un des rares, peut-être le seul, á avoir été á la fois un chef de guerre et un artiste.
Seven Pillars reads much of the time like other classics of exploration. It describes, day by day, travel through the desert: the geography of well and oasis; the composition of ground: sand, slate or flint; the hills and the wadis; the unrelenting sun. In this it is reminiscent of books like Burton's Lake Regions of East Africa, or Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (an expedition as much geological as biological). Here is Lawrence observing the difference between male and female camels:
"Arabs of means rode none but she-camels, since they went smoother under the saddles than males, and were better tempered and less noisy: also, they were patient and would endure to march long after they were worn out, indeed until they tottered with exhaustion and fell in their tracks and died: whereas the coarser males grew angry, flung themselves down when tired, and from sheer rage would die there unnecessarily."
These kinds of narratives make it a classic of travel writing. But it also a war memoir:
"Blood was always on our hands; we were licensed to it. Wounding and killing seemed ephemeral pains, so very brief and sore was life with us....Bedouin ways were hard even for those brought up to them, and for strangers terrible: a death in life. When the march or labour ended I had no energy to record sensation, nor while it lasted any leisure to see the spiritual loveliness which sometimes came upon by the way. In my notes, the cruel rather than the beautiful found place....Our life is not summed up in what I have written (there are things not to be repeated in cold blood for very shame); but what I have written was in and of our life. Pray God that men reading the story will not, for love of the glamour of strangeness, go out to prostitute themselves and their talent in serving another race."
That last line highlights the irony of Lawrence's contemporary fame. He is best known from David Lean's extraordinary film "Lawrence of Arabia." In the film he is presented as virtually taking leadership of the Arab Revolt, a textbook instance of what is sometimes called the "Mighty Whitey" trope. In his memoir Lawrence, not an extraordinarily modest man, always emphatically insists that he was a collaborator in an operation that he in no sense led.
So the film tends to make Lawrence an unabashedly romantic character, a role he sincerely tries to shun in his memoir. But it must be said that the film does convey some sense of Lawrence's inner doubts, often amounting to a kind of agony.
"[T]he effort for these years to live in the dress of the Arabs, and to imitate the mental foundations, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other, and was become like Mohammed's coffin in our legend, with a resultant feeling of intense loneliness in life, and a contempt, not for other men, but for all they do."
Lawrence wrote at a time when Arabia was far more exotic than it is now. Our entanglement with the middle east is not only more pervasive than it was a hundred years ago, but the terms are profoundly different. One of the perhaps surprising characteristics of Lawrence's war was the tangential role of Islam. This was a conflict between Arabs (allied with English) and Turks (allied with Germans). The creed which Lawrence preaches is Nationalism, a cause nipped in the bud after the war by the French/English carve-up of the middle east, and made largely irrelevant today by the overriding significance of the struggle between Sunni and Shi'ite interests (and, of course, the continuing resentment over Israel).
Another contemporary facet of Lawrence's story is the contrast between old England's encouragement of various linguistic competences and contemporary monolingual America. Lawrence had spent three years traveling in Syria writing his Ph.D. thesis on crusader castles. He was not alone among British officers in his ability to speak Arabic. He was fortunate, perhaps, that the proliferation of dialects prevented his learned Arabic from exposing him as an Englishman. In the following excerpt he has some fun with his own abilities, in the context of Auda, the leader of the expedition against Akaba, chanting on dark nights to guide his comrades through unfamiliar territory:
"On this long journey Sherif Nasir and Auda's sour-smiling cousin, Mohammed el Dheilan, took pains with my Arabic, giving me by turn lessons in the classical Medina tongue, and in the vivid desert language. At the beginning my Arabic had been a halting command of the tribal dialects of the Middle Euphrates (a not impure form), but now it became a fluent mingling of Hejaz slang and north-tribal poetry with household words and phrases from the Limpid Nejdi, and book forms from Syria. The fluency had a lack of grammar, which made my talk a perpetual adventure for my hearers. Newcomers imagined I must be the native of some unknown illiterate district; a shot-rubbish ground of disjected Arabic parts of speech. However, as yet I understood not three words of Auda's...."
As we continue to struggle, today, with finding the right relationship with our middle eastern neighbors, Lawrence's great account of an early twentieth century collaboration, and a great betrayal, might just possibly contain a few lessons from which we might profit.
Friday, January 20, 2017
In the year of the Incarnate Word of our Lord 1187, when Pope Urban III held the government of the Apostolic See and Frederick I was emperor of Germany; when Isaac II was reigning at Constantinople, Philip II in France, Henry II in England and William II in Sicily, the Lord's hand fell heavily on His people, if indeed it is right to call those "His people" whom uncleanness of life and habits, and the foulness of their vices, had alienated from his favor. Their licentiousness had indeed become so flagrant that they all of them (casting aside the veil of shame) rushed headlong in the face of day into sin.
It would be a long task, and incompatible with our present purpose, to disclose the scenes of blood, robbery and adultery which disgraced them (for this work of mine is a history of deeds and not a moral treatise); but when the Ancient Enemy had diffused, far and near, the spirit of corruption, he more especially took possession of the lands of Syria and Palestine, so that other nations now drew an example of uncleanness from the same source which formerly had supplied them with the elements of religion. For this cause, therefore, the Lord, seeing that the land of His birth and place of His Passion had sunk into an abyss of turpitude, treated with neglect His inheritance and suffered Saladin, the rod of His wrath, to put forth his fury to the destruction of that stiff-necked people; for He would rather that the Holy Land should for a short time be subject to the profane rites of the heathen than that it should any longer be possessed by men whom no regard for what is right could deter from things unlawful.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
Friday, December 23, 2016
I have recently completed Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Some thirty years ago I read it in an English translation, and it honestly didn't make an enormous impression on me. But because of its formidable reputation as a high water mark of French literary prose, I thought I ought to try it in the original.
The novel's reputation has always been rather daunting. Rather than try to summarize my own impression of the kind of praise the novel tends to receive, I did a quick search on the web and found the following, not untypical, from an interview of Julian Barnes in The Paris Review:
"Madame Bovary is the first truly modern novel, by which I mean the first through-composed novel. In the nineteenth century, many novels, especially in England, were published as they were written in serial parts in magazines; novelists wrote with the printer’s boy tugging their sleeve for copy. The equivalent English novel to Madame Bovary would be Middlemarch, which in terms of structure and composition is more primitive—partly, I believe, because of its serial composition. I’m sure that in terms of the description of society Balzac is Flaubert’s equal. But, in terms of artistic control—the control of narrative voice and the use of style indirecte libre—Flaubert shows a new line and says, Now we are starting again."
Flaubert's own conception of what he was doing was no less ambitious:
“J’en conçois un pourtant, moi, un style qui serait beau, que serait rythmé comme le vers, précis comme le langage des sciences, et avec des ondulations, des ronflements de violincelle, et des aigrettes de feu, un style qui vous entrerait dans l’idée comme un coup de stylet….”
So it's admittedly a little bit of a let-down to turn from the criticism and aspiration to the novel itself, which is a rather ordinary story of an unhappy wife and and her clueless husband. I had actually thought of Barnes' comparison with Middlemarch on my own. Country doctors in country towns with bored, impecunious wives. But I didn't think the of differences in terms of "artistic control." Eliot in Middlemarch seems as expert in interweaving far more narrative threads than are followed in Madame Bovary. But Middlemarch is shot through with a sincere Victorian earnestness, its characters motivated by various idealisms frustrated in the end by the most common vices and habits. There are no such aspirations in Madame Bovary--no high ideals, no dreams of sacrifice, no chivalry (at least outside of Emma's succession of assumed and discarded romantic poses).
It's been said that Madame Bovary sometimes fails to impress because its then-novel approach to the novel has become commonplace. The characters are ordinary people and the plotting straightforward, with just enough scandal to give it a melodramatic flavor. (It's hard to believe that the novel was actually prosecuted as indecent). The life of a small, mostly agricultural town is painted with considerable detail, always in the third person, but shot through with Emma's insatiable boredom and the author's pitiless naturalism.
And I found it difficult to really enjoy a novel where none of the characters have anything at all admirable or distinctive about them. I suppose that that's Flaubert's naturalism, but it certainly makes for a different experience from following the career of a Jean Valjean, or Edmund Dantes, or even a villain like the Marquis de Valmont.
That's not to say that there aren't some memorable set-pieces, like the pathetic attempt to correct the tavern boy's club foot. Even now I can't think of it without cringing. But in the end Emma is undone, not by her adulteries, but by her attachment to expensive trifles. The banality of her fall becomes, again, more cringe-worthy than tragic, and the behavior of the men around her--her husband, her lovers, her enemies--mainly invoke shame at male excuses and irresponsibility when their promises are actually believed.
In all this I realize I've said nothing about style, about the rhythm and precision of the prose. Flaubert's aspiration to "science" does little (for me) to advance the notion that a scientific conception of life can be as rich and full of wonder as the older notion of a world full of gods. In the end it's a sad book about a thwarted and unhappy life, whose miserable end ripples out in the brief and rapid conclusion to blight the lives of husband and daughter. It is a realism that I have to believe is too bleak to be entirely representative of the real.
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Like many others I've been smitten with Lin Manuel-Miranda's Hamilton. I haven't seen it, of course, but last spring we drove half-way across the country and, looking for new CD's for the trip, I happened on the original cast album and bought it on impulse.
Astute readers will have guessed that those of my age are not exactly the target demographic for hip-hop. But I very much enjoyed the music and lyrics, whose word-play and unexpected rhyme-schemes reminded me of no one so much as Stephen Sondheim. I should also emphasize that hip-hop is really only a part of the musical; there is a great deal of Broadway-style balladry and show-stoppers. With Jefferson's return from France there is some toe-tapping boogie-woogie, and Burr's big number, "The Room where it Happens,"starts off somewhere between Stephen Foster and Kurt Weil.
(I began writing this post long before the dust-up with the Vice-President-Elect, and I am really rooting for that Hamilton boycott, because it's probably the only chance I'll have a shot at a ticket anytime before 2020.)
It's a Broadway musical, not a history text, but the outlines are quite accurate and the themes of the story are exactly what your teachers would have wanted you to pick up: Hard work and perseverance pay off, virtue is its own reward, and your sins will surely find you out.
Most surprising is the production's respectful portrayal of Washington. It's been a good forty years since I read Gore Vidal's Burr, an enjoyable but thoroughly cynical take-down of all the founders, starting with Washington. Here Washington the slaveholder is largely ignored, eclipsed by the prudent general and the virtuous first magistrate, first to last a steadying figure among more ambitious and less scrupulous men, and a father figure to the orphaned and abandoned Hamilton.
In commending the play's accuracy I don't mean of course that the founders occasionally burst into song or worked topical twenty-first century observations into their banter. But as it happens I received, last Father's Day, a copy of the book which led Miranda to write the musical, Ron Chernow's 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, and I only finished it last week. It's a timely reminder that American politics in the late eighteenth century was not so genteel as we imagine. After all, it rarely happens today that one leading politician kills another.
But though Burr fills a key dramatic role as a career-long competitor and opponent to Hamilton, the deeper and more significant conflict, both personally and philosophically, is that between Hamilton and Jefferson. That conflict is of course present in the musical, but it's only in the biography that the depth of personal animosity is set out, as these two men spend year after year attacking each other, directly as members of the first cabinet, and indirectly, through anonymous broadsides and scurrilous journals and the leaking of scandalous rumors.
In that respect Jefferson is the founder whose reputation seems to have fallen the farthest in my lifetime. In my college days he was invariably revered as the purest exemplar of the new American idea--author of the Declaration ("hold[ing] these truths..."), advocate of a constitutional Bill of Rights, opponent of corrupt capital, advocate of the independent farmer. And though today he is more frequently lambasted as seriously compromised--a Southern slaveholder who took a mistress and left unacknowledged children in bondage--it's a little surprising that Hamilton, the spokesman for banks, the virtual founder of Wall Street, and the distruster of democracy, so easily takes the role of virtuous hero, in both the musical and the biography.
The two men are so diametrically opposed in every way that their juxtaposition seems almost too perfect for real life, a symbiosis I've tried to suggest in the Finniganian variation on Mutt and Jeff in this post's title.
One of the recurring motifs of Chernow's biography is the vulnerability of democracy in the face of unscrupulous campaigning; when truth takes a back seat to ambition the "mob" can be too easily manipulated. Hamilton had the luxury of being able to treat democracy as only one form of consensual government, but in the end he was its victim, unable to refuse a challenge from Burr when such a refusal would brand him a coward in the eyes of the electorate.
The biography is full of similar "object lessons" fully applicable to our contemporary crisis. I will end with one not untypical summarizing paragraph with obvious continuing validity, from pp. 456-57:
"In its final report in late May, the Republican-dominated committee could not deliver the comeuppance it had craved. Instead, it confessed that all the charges lodged against Hamilton were completely baseless, as the treasury secretary had insisted all along. And what of the endless Jeffersonian insinuations that Hamilton had used public office to extract private credits? The report concluded that it appears 'that the Secretary of the Treasury never has, either directly or indirectly, for himself or any other person, procured any discount or credit, from either of the said banks...upon the basis of any public monies which, at any time, have been deposited therein under his direction.' The vindication was so resounding that Hamilton withdrew his long-standing resignation, and his cabinet position grew more impregnable then ever.. Nevertheless, it frustrated him that after this exhaustive investigation his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct. He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics and mused wearily that 'no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.' If a charge was made often enough, people assumed in the end 'that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.'"
Friday, December 9, 2016
For personal reasons I have lately been reading about Avignon, primarily in Joelle Rollo-Koster's Avignon and it Papacy, 1309-1417.
The city's chief claim to fame, of course, comes from its having hosted the papacy during most of the fourteenth century, and subsequently having had a hand in the Great Schism, when two, and then three men had colorable claims to the Petrine office.
I first came across the phrase, "Babylonian Captivity of the Church," in Luther's eponymous treatise. He wasn't of course talking about the papacy's sojourn in Avignon, but the sacramental system that he felt shackled the Church and obliterated the gospel. But the phrase had certainly been bandied about in the fourteenth century, most prominently by Petrarca, a bitter critic of this self-chosen exile.
Now Petrarca was himself an exile of sorts. His father was a Florentine, expelled from Florence in the early fourteenth century in the same purge of White Guelfs that got Dante kicked out. The elder Petrarco found employment at the papal court, and the family settled at nearby Carpentras. It was from there that the "Father of Humanism" began his long journey to revive the literary treasures of classical antiquity, to reconcile his desire for fame with his Christian devotion, and to pay his most personal hommage to a secretly-admired lady in the Canzoniere.
The literature of the fourteenth century was undeniably brilliant; think of Meister Eckhart, Dante Alighieri, the afore-mentioned Francesco Petrarca, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer. But life in the fourteenth century was marked with extraordinary crises, most disastrously the arrival of the Black Death in 1348, when perhaps a third of the population of Europe perished in a remarkably few years. Well before that catastrophe the Church endured crisis after crisis: the death of Boniface VIII after being roughed up by Philip the Fair's goons, the destruction of the Knights Templar, the Franciscan schism between the Spirituals and the Conventuals, the almost continuous warfare between France and England in the inception of the Hundred Years War, and of course the almost unintended settling into and then settling down in the city of Avignon by pope after pope.
I have noted before the practical necessity of our thinking in categories, and how focusing on particular places and times can sometimes help us see how conceptually distinct worlds can intersect. Avignon in the fourteenth century is no different. Though crusades were actively promoted at least through the mid-fifteenth century (the last conventionally being the busted crusade called by the great humanist pope Pius II), the crusading spirit was probably broken most decisively when Philip the Fair determined to destroy the Templars, and the first of the real Avignonese popes, Clement V, acquiesced in their fall.
I have always considered John XXII representative of the papacy's dark side. Rollo-Koster acknowledges his spiritual flatness, seeing his significance in the rationalization of the bureaucracy and finances, a lawyer, not a spiritual leader. It was in 1327-28 that Meister Eckhart came to Avignon appealing the findings of heresy lodged against him by the Parisian Dominicans. Eckhart died before the proceedings were completed, and John's In agro Dominico, condemning a limited number of discreet propositions as heretical after Eckhart's death, put him under a cloud for his immediate time and posterity.
(Recent calls for his formal rehabilitation have been met with denials that he needs any such rehabilitation. Eckhart himself was never personally adjudged a heretic, and even such orthodox stalwarts as St. Thomas Aquinas have had particular propositions condemned, some very closely upon his death.)
As is often the case, though, even the limited condemnation tells more about the limitations of John than the orthodoxy of Eckhart. Eckhart was a subtle and often paradoxical writer and preacher. Many of his problems stemmed from having explored ideas, not only in Latin among clerics, but in vernacular sermons as well.
But it was also in 1327 that the young Petrarca first glimpsed his "Laura" in the church of Sainte-Claire in Avignon, composing thereafter, throughout his life, the 366 poems to her of the Canzoniere--poems to which presumably she lived and died entirely oblivious. In this conjunction of the great light of late German mysticism and the harbinger of Italian humanism we find those two great movements of the human spirit surprisingly physically proximate.
John XXII has also been taken much to task for his ham-handed handling of the conflict between Conventual and Spiritual Franciscans. Malcolm Lambert, in his Medieval Heresy, argues that John's typical overreaching and harshness created a heretical movement out of a disciplinary dispute.
Before becoming acquainted with the details of the conflict I had always assumed that the "Spirituals" followed to some degree the extreme mind/body dualism of the Albigensians. In fact that perennial tendency did not enter into the Franciscan controversy, however much, in fact, areas of "Spiritual" resistance roughly coincided, in the fourteenth century, to centers of Albigensiansim in the thirteenth.
But to speak broadly, part of the great problem of the papacy in Avignon strikes me as analogous to the over-stressing of the spiritual to the prejudice of the material and the bodily. There is really no reason that the successor of St. Peter cannot reside wherever it is convenient. There was no great difficulty in moving the curia and the archives; in fact, the administrative side of the papacy was remarkably developed during the sojourn in Avignon. Certainly the entire spirit of the institution could move as readily as any medieval monarch's court.
And yet, the successor of Peter remains the Bishop of Rome, and throughout this period, however convenient it was to be absent from Rome--Rome in ruins, malarial Rome, riot-torn Rome, indefensible Rome--that "body" of the papacy proved irresistible. The permanent return to Rome in the early fifteenh century, and the papacy's continuous residence at all times since, confirms the century away to have been an "interlude," and Avignon to have briefly served, not as a "Second Rome," but as "Babylon."