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.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Pericles' Funeral Oration, paragraph 2

'῎Αρξομαι δὲ ἀπὸ τῶν προγόνων πρῶτον· δίκαιον γὰρ αὐτοῖς καὶ πρέπον δὲ ἅμα ἐν τῷ τοιῷδε τὴν τιμὴν ταύτην τῆς μνήμης δίδοσθαι. τὴν γὰρ χώραν οἱ αὐτοὶ αἰεὶ οἰκοῦντες διαδοχῇ τῶν ἐπιγιγνομένων μέχρι τοῦδε ἐλευθέραν δι' ἀρετὴν παρέδοσαν. καὶ ἐκεῖνοί τε ἄξιοι ἐπαίνου καὶ ἔτι μᾶλλον οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν· κτησάμενοι γὰρ πρὸς οἷς ἐδέξαντο ὅσην ἔχομεν ἀρχὴν οὐκ ἀπόνως ἡμῖν τοῖς νῦν προσκατέλιπον. τὰ δὲ πλείω αὐτῆς αὐτοὶ ἡμεῖς οἵδε οἱ νῦν ἔτι ὄντες μάλιστα ἐν τῇ καθεστηκυίᾳ ἡλικίᾳ ἐπηυξήσαμεν καὶ τὴν πόλιν τοῖς πᾶσι παρεσκευάσαμεν καὶ ἐς πόλεμον καὶ ἐς εἰρήνην αὐταρκεστάτην. ὧν ἐγὼ τὰ μὲν κατὰ πολέμους ἔργα, οἷς ἕκαστα ἐκτήθη, ἢ εἴ τι αὐτοὶ ἢ οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν βάρβαρον ἢ ῞Ελληνα πολέμιον ἐπιόντα προθύμως ἠμυνάμεθα, μακρηγορεῖν ἐν εἰδόσιν οὐ βουλόμενος ἐάσω· ἀπὸ δὲ οἵας τε ἐπιτηδεύσεως ἤλθομεν ἐπ' αὐτὰ καὶ μεθ' οἵας πολιτείας καὶ τρόπων ἐξ οἵων μεγάλα ἐγένετο, ταῦτα δηλώσας πρῶτον εἶμι καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν τῶνδε ἔπαινον, νομίζων ἐπί τε τῷ παρόντι οὐκ ἂν ἀπρεπῆ λεχθῆναι αὐτὰ καὶ τὸν πάντα ὅμιλον καὶ ἀστῶν καὶ ξένων ξύμφορον εἶναι ἐπακοῦσαι αὐτῶν.

"I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valour. And if our more remote ancestors deserve praise, much more do our own fathers, who added to their inheritance the empire which we now possess, and spared no pains to be able to leave their acquisitions to us of the present generation. Lastly, there are few parts of our dominions that have not been augmented by those of us here, who are still more or less in the vigour of life; while the mother country has been furnished by us with everything that can enable her to depend on her own resources whether for war or for peace. That part of our history which tells of the military achievements which gave us our several possessions, or of the ready valour with which either we or our fathers stemmed the tide of Hellenic or foreign aggression, is a theme too familiar to my hearers for me to dilate on, and I shall therefore pass it by. But what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang; these are questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my panegyric upon these men; since I think this to be a subject upon which on the present occasion a speaker may properly dwell, and to which the whole assemblage, whether citizens or foreigners, may listen with advantage."

Here Pericles veers toward what he suggests is conventionality, the praise of the ancestors.  Again there is some parallel in our own pre-eminent funeral oration:  "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers...."

The reference to ancestors living in the land without any break ("αἰεὶ οἰκοῦντες," "ever living") has a significance that may not be readily apparent.  A.R. Burn, in The Classical Age (op. cit.) notes that this claim is made, not only by Pericles here in the funeral oration, but also by Thucydides himself in the first pages of his history, and that there was, among the Greeks a certain prestige to being a "native," to being "earth-born" from a particular location, from time immemorial, and that it was a claim that the Spartans, specifically, as Dorians, could not make.

Pericles significantly begins by praising the "ancestors, "προγόνων", but reserves even greater praise for "our own fathers, "οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν."  The ancestors are to be praised for founding the city, but the achievement of the fathers, which here receives grater praise, is the "empire which we now possess," "ὅσην ἔχομεν ἀρχὴν."

"Empire" is not quite the right word, I think, for "arche," "ἀρχὴ," though it is the conventional one.  Empire conveys an impression of hugeness, the modern empires on which the sun never set, or the ancient empires, Rome or China, which dominated their own known worlds.  There is another connotation of the word, an assemblage of diverse nations, such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  And a third connotation, the notion in certain manifestations of Christendom that secular power was best unified in a Christian emperor set over other Christian rulers.

Obviously the Athenian "empire" was none of these things.  In size it was modest, and indeed dwarfed by the next-door Persian Empire.  It was an assemblage of Greek-only polities.  But it was this achievement of "arche" which Pericles most praises as the achievement of the fathers--not the ancestors.  There is a certain pride in the mere domination of other Greeks, and anyone having read the previous pages of the history will have known that it was this growing power of Athens that most disturbed the generally slow-to-act Spartans.

Nevertheless, he will "pass by" their recent history, for reason of everyone's familiarity with Athens' military valor.  Rather, he will concentrate on the unmilitary, the "unvalorous" causes of Athens' dominance,  "what the form of government ("ἐπιτηδεύσεως") under which our greatness grew, what the national habits ("τρόπων") out of which it sprang."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

More on Rahner

I am continuing to read Karl Rahner's Grundkurs des Glaubens, a little over three quarters of the way through.  As I think I might have said in a earlier post, there's a dilemma in choosing whether to read a text like this in German or in translation.  My intermediate grasp of German makes my understanding undeniably inept at times, but at least I'm conscious of the uncertainly, which the reading of an expert translator might conceal.

Be that at it may, as I go through Rahner I start to get the impression that in some sense his method is a detailed, twentieth century application of the well-known aphorism from the first book of St. Augustine's Confessions:

et tamen laudare te vult homo, aliqua portio creaturae tuae. tu excitas ut laudare te delectet, quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.

God has "made us for himself," and we cannot rest apart from him.  In my last post on Rahner I had descibed his initial analysis of human existence and transcendence as a philosophical application of the thought of Kant and Heidegger to the relation of God and man, his initial portrait of God being thereby the quintessential "God of the philosophers," not yet the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

But in another sense Rahner's analysis, though philosophical in form, seeks to give a rigorous exposition to something which, if not universal, is certainly widespread:  the feeling of God, the intuition of God, that conception of transcendence that comes, not from Kantian analysis, but but from the mere everyday experience of human life, human freedom, human wonder at the world.  Religion, in fact, is not some hobbyhorse of the leisured.  For rich and poor, ruler and ruled, sophisticated and naive, the sense that the world is filled with God (or gods) runs throughout history and around the globe.

So, though Rahner indeed takes as his starting point some rather daunting analyses from technical Western philosophy, in language that few have the training to understand comfortably, he uses those categories to try to express an experience that is almost universally human.  In that sense his "God of the Philosophers" intends to capture, not just the sense of the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," but the divine sense wherever human beings may locate it.

That wideness is his starting point, not the realm of the Christian faith, or the Catholic Church.  As a Christian, though, and as a Catholic, he has to then bring that general sense back to the Faith, so that his analysis indeed leads to what he aims for in his subtitle, "An Introduction to the Concept of Christianity," not simply an introduction to the concept of religious transcendence.

So his method aims to connects up the general to the particular.  If the sense of the transcendent indeed comes into history, it does so in terms of the Christian concept of God.  If that historical breakthrough is to achieve full concreteness in some form of "Heilbringer," savior or bringer of holiness, we can find such a historical fulfillment uniquely in the life and work of the man Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

The course of the argument is from the concept to the historical object, from the general idea to the particular manifestation.  But that connection, from universal to particular, works both ways.  If the general sense is identified with the particular Catholic faith, then the Catholic faith must necessarily in some sense be identified with that general human sense of the historically present sense of the divine.

"Wir haben sehr oft im Lauf unsere Überlegungen zu betonen gehabt, dass es durchaus eine gewissermassen anonyme and doch wirkliche Beziehung des einzelnen Menschen zur Konkretheit der Heilsgeschichte and somit auch zu Jesus Christus in demjenigen gebt and geben musss, der die ganze konkrete geschichtliche and dabei ausdrücklich reflektierte Erfahrung in Wort and Sakrament mit dieser heilsgeschichtlichen Wirklichkeit noch nicht gemacht hat, sondern die existenziell reale Beziehung bloss implizit hat im Gehorsam gegenüber seiner gnadenhaften Verwiesenheit auf den Gott der absolute, geschichtlich daseienden Selbstmitteilung, indem dieser Mensch sein eigenese Dasin vorbehaltlos annimmt, and zwar gerade in dem, was darin in Wagnis dieser Freiheit nicht übersehen and verwaltet werden kann."

This is the concept of the "anonymous Christian" popularly identified with Rahner.  The felt transcendental relationships are in fact relationships to the Trinity and the incarnate Son, whether acknowledged or not.  Whether those relationships are ever explicitly realized by the individual is a separate question from whether they exist, whether they are real, whether they are salvific.  Here we come back to St. Augustine.  It is not simply the Catholic who is made for God.  It is not only the Christian who cannot find rest outside of God.   And this sense of recognized devotion to the unknown (or denied) God relates and is affirmed by the important, if not novel, assertion of Vatican II, in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

"Qui enim Evangelium Christi Eiusque Ecclesiam sine culpa ignorantes, Deum tamen sincero corde quaerunt, Eiusque voluntatem per conscientiae dictamen agnitam, operibus adimplere, sub gratiae influxu, conantur, aeternam salutem consequi possunt. Nec divina Providentia auxilia ad salutem necessaria denegat his qui sine culpa ad expressam agnitionem Dei nondum pervenerunt et rectam vitam non sine divina gratia assequi nituntur."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pericles' Funeral Oration, paragraph 1

'Οἱ μὲν πολλοὶ τῶν ἐνθάδε ἤδη εἰρηκότων ἐπαινοῦσι τὸν προσθέντα τῷ νόμῳ τὸν λόγον τόνδε, ὡς καλὸν ἐπὶ τοῖς ἐκ τῶν πολέμων θαπτομένοις ἀγορεύεσθαι αὐτόν. ἐμοὶ δὲ ἀρκοῦν ἂν ἐδόκει εἶναι ἀνδρῶν ἀγαθῶν ἔργῳ γενομένων ἔργῳ καὶ δηλοῦσθαι τὰς τιμάς, οἷα καὶ νῦν περὶ τὸν τάφον τόνδε δημοσίᾳ παρασκευασθέντα ὁρᾶτε, καὶ μὴ ἐν ἑνὶ ἀνδρὶ πολλῶν ἀρετὰς κινδυνεύεσθαι εὖ τε καὶ χεῖρον εἰπόντι πιστευθῆναι. χαλεπὸν γὰρ τὸ μετρίως εἰπεῖν ἐν ᾧ μόλις καὶ ἡ δόκησις τῆς ἀληθείας βεβαιοῦται. ὅ τε γὰρ ξυνειδὼς καὶ εὔνους ἀκροατὴς τάχ' ἄν τι ἐνδεεστέρως πρὸς ἃ βούλεταί τε καὶ ἐπίσταται νομίσειε δηλοῦσθαι, ὅ τε ἄπειρος ἔστιν ἃ καὶ πλεονάζεσθαι, διὰ φθόνον, εἴ τι ὑπὲρ τὴν αὑτοῦ φύσιν ἀκούοι. μέχρι γὰρ τοῦδε ἀνεκτοὶ οἱ ἔπαινοί εἰσι περὶ ἑτέρων λεγόμενοι, ἐς ὅσον ἂν καὶ αὐτὸς ἕκαστος οἴηται ἱκανὸς εἶναι δρᾶσαί τι ὧν ἤκουσεν· τῷ δὲ ὑπερβάλλοντι αὐτῶν φθονοῦντες ἤδη καὶ ἀπιστοῦσιν. ἐπειδὴ δὲ τοῖς πάλαι οὕτως ἐδοκιμάσθη ταῦτα καλῶς ἔχειν, χρὴ καὶ ἐμὲ ἑπόμενον τῷ νόμῳ πειρᾶσθαι ὑμῶν τῆς ἑκάστου βουλήσεώς τε καὶ δόξης τυχεῖν ὡς ἐπὶ πλεῖστον.

"Most of my predecessors in this place have commended him who made this speech part of the law, telling us that it is well that it should be delivered at the burial of those who fall in battle. For myself, I should have thought that the worth which had displayed itself in deeds would be sufficiently rewarded by honours also shown by deeds; such as you now see in this funeral prepared at the people's cost. And I could have wished that the reputations of many brave men were not to be imperilled in the mouth of a single individual, to stand or fall according as he spoke well or ill. For it is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth. On the one hand, the friend who is familiar with every fact of the story may think that some point has not been set forth with that fullness which he wishes and knows it to deserve; on the other, he who is a stranger to the matter may be led by envy to suspect exaggeration if he hears anything above his own nature. For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity. However, since our ancestors have stamped this custom with their approval, it becomes my duty to obey the law and to try to satisfy your several wishes and opinions as best I may."

Strangely, the speech begins by questioning the propriety of the funeral oration itself.  Pericles downplays the value of any speech compared to actions.  This may be a convention, a sentiment has not gone unrepeated in our own history:

"...in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

But Pericles' concern is not so much with adding or detracting as with inciting envy, φθόνον.  It seems a strange concern for a commemorative funeral oration.  But maybe not.

After moving, some years ago, to the American Southwest, certain parallels between the Native pueblos and the city-states of Western antiquity suggested themselves.  Please don't think I'm claiming any sort of detailed acquaintance with either.  But I did begin to note certain similarities that likely have their origin in a small polity--a strong magistracy checked largely by short terms of office, a mostly consultive assembly of recognized "elder statesmen," and an integrated religious/cultural system that polices as well as celebrates.  Another characteristic is this concern about inciting envy, a notable tendency to discourage individual achievement that might cast any aspersion on the average citizen.

Pericles' oration, in turning the focus from the fallen to the whole polity, maintains this emphasis on the community over the individual.  This difference brings to mind a remark that Kenneth Clark makes at the beginning of his Civilisation, that "civilization" means, for him, a society that fosters the flowering of individual genius.  That is very far from the view of Pericles, who, in extolling the glories of Athens, mentions not one single individual.

It's an important point, to keep their perspective separate from ours.  This is a polity, after all, that exiled Thucydides and executed Socrates.      

Saturday, October 18, 2014

History, memory and the interpretation of relics

Recently one of the big web magazines ran a by-now stock piece questioning whether Jesus of Nazareth existed.  This sort of thing pops up regularly, resting on such shocking facts as discrepancies between the gospels, their conventional dating, the latest best-selling proof that Jesus was a Zealot or a magician or a mushroom, or the failure of Plutarch or Suetonius to write about religious controversies in the province of Judea.  They also garner astronomical numbers of impassioned comments.

For myself I try to stay away from such things and keep in mind the opening sentence of the Appendix (“Sources for the Reign of Alexander”) to Simon Hornblower’s The Greek World, 479-323 BC:  “The surviving accounts of Alexander’s reign were all written down centuries after the events they describe.”  In a sense all history rests on rather slender reeds.

It seems to me axiomatic that history is not a science in the sense that, say, physics is a science.  Natural laws (so far as we know) are constant over time, so that, if I have doubts about the accuracy of a law of physics, I can try to verify it this afternoon, or tomorrow, or next year, and it should come out the same.

Now there is a science of history in the sense that there are conventional methods used by professional historians to evaluate evidence:  canons of interpretation, standards of verification, sub-disciplines like graphology, and sister disciplines like archaeology.  But a proposition like "Jesus lived in first century Judea," or "Alexander conquered the Persian empire" can't be tested like the gravitational constant.  Sometimes new evidence is unearthed.  Sometimes old evidence is re-interpreted.  And I would be very surprised if sometimes the standards for evaluation didn't change.  But these differences are normal because the subject matter of the disciplines is different in one very important respect:  The force of gravity is always out there to measure; the Persian empire fell in the distant past.  We can't reach it to verify it directly.

So, in that sense, it's quite possible that Jesus didn't exist.  It's possible that Alexander was simply a founding myth to explain the appearance of the Hellenistic dynasties that sprang up in the territory once ruled from Persia.  It could even be that Plato and Xenophon were so taken with a fictional character in Aristophanes' Clouds that they adopted him as their spokesman for various ideas.  All of these things are possible only because scenarios can by imagined which might leave behind the same remains from which we have inferred the real existence of Jesus, Alexander and Socrates.

Now most of us don't care two straws about such possibilities.  We know that such things as lies, forgeries, and conspiracies exist.  But we are content to let the professionals weigh the evidence and publish their conclusions.  Otherwise the past, about whose entirely-conventional course we are mostly ignorant, would become an incomprehensible and almost infinite morass of exploding possibilities.

So we require some consensus-based narrative, certain enough to ground our ordinary human understandings, but open enough to allow the normal correction, revision and re-assessment that regularly accompanies historical reflection.  But it can be tenuous.  Consider memory, and the basis for our understanding of the past.  I am thinking, at first, of the long discussion of memory in Augustine's Confessions.  It's well worth a look.  He considers how insubstantial the present is, how vanishingly small, each duration, of lesser and lesser extent, itself divisible into a past, present and future.  The now that is our eternity is an infinitely small slice of time, and consider how little of what we know and who we are is comprised of the present sense impression of this very now.

Rahner uses an expression I didn't get at first:  "suchenden memoria," "seeking memory."  I'm not entirely convinced even now that what I think of it is what he meant by it.  But it's a good phrase for the continuing present,a "now" not separate from past and future, a "now not passive," but "now" as a meeting, a present memory, all that I am and have been, all that can be called to mind, actual and potential, recent and long past, but oriented toward a future, seeking, willing, intending, pushing into that next ever-changing indivisible succession of moments.

What I know, all that I know, all that I can know, of the past, is what exists, and continues to exist, in my present.  I have memory, personal memory, of all that I have experienced and not forgotten.  I have second-hand memory, what others have remembered and told me or written down for my reading--what we attorneys call "hearsay."

The one other way we learn of the past is inference from what I call relics.  We know and remember that some things vanish with time, that some other things continue, much altered, and that some things continue, little altered.  These I call "relics," the things that remain, altered or unaltered, the things to which, like gravity, we can still have recourse.  "Relics" does indeed have a religious sense that I am trying to expand on.  Religiously they are links to the past, but tenuous links.  We picture them as knuckle bones and scraps, a material connection to a much larger material and spiritual reality, just as the remains in the Roman forum, which anyone today can still see and walk through, are in a sense the knuckle bones of the ancient Roman city.  The image is also apt, I think, because of the obvious difficulty of working back to historic reality from the bones alone.  The madeleine sent Proust back, a relic of the past, but you can't reproduce the recovered narrative from the madeleine.

So, in addition to now, I have personal memories that seem mostly accurate.  My first visit to New York City when I was eight years old, for example.  I remember historic events that happened in my lifetime, but mediated.  John Kennedy was assassinated about a hundred miles from where I lived on that terrible day in 1963.  I saw the funeral on television, in black and white.  I made a scrapbook, since lost, of the Dallas Morning News stories.  The historical events were experienced second-hand.

Moving out from these, I have been educated, have read, over a lifetime, hundreds of histories, biographies, novels, epics, letters, and have seen paintings, sculpture and films, depicting their own time, or times other than that of their creation.  So out of this I have a very vivid, detailed, and concrete sense of the past.  That I have literally forgotten more than I know only reinforces that sense of historical knowledge.  I am reminded of things I once forgot, such as how Prussia gained ascendancy over the Austrian Empire.  This past is very real to me, but my knowledge of it is a construction from many sources, and contains a hefty portion of interpretation and judgment.

And it occurs to me that, apart from my own judgments, my own sense of the history of the world (or any smaller history within that larger field), is necessarily going to be different from that of others, not only because of the idiosyncratic content of my own judgments, but because every single person's set of memories, experiences, classes, books, sights and sounds, direct and indirect, is individual to himself.  It is no wonder that we see the world so differently from each other.  The wonder, in fact, may be, that even with those disparate sources of input, we come to so much in common.

We have to assume, I think, that the past is common to all.  Memory is individual, and the relics are so numerous that none of us can have direct experience of all or even most of them.  Nevertheless, we remarkably have a rough consensus.  It cannot be proven.  But I don't know how we can have a common life without that unproven common past we all seem to come out of.     

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A second shameless plug

My younger sister, who styles herself "S.J. Allen" in the learned world, along with her co-editor and old friend, Emily Amt, have just brought out the second edition of their sourcebook, The Crusades:  A Reader.  It's published by the University of Toronto Press in its "Readings in Medieval Civilization and Cultures" series.

A sourcebook is always, I think, a good way to balance the unitary point of view of the narrative historian.  The sourcebook's editors, of course, have their own points of view, and an overall interpretive organization, but the presentation of blocks of material almost entirely in the voice of contemporaries helps avoid some of the modern biases and assumptions that can enter into any narrative. 

Among the additions to the second edition are a final group of pieces, from the Enlightenment on, ranging from David Hume to Pope John Paul II.  There is also a new chapter on a woman crusader, Margaret of Beverly, who participated in the defense of Jerusalem in 1187.

The collection, though centered on the conventional campaigns which we call the first, second, third, etc. crusades, includes other material relating to Christian/Moslem conflicts, including a 1530 treatise by our old friend Erasmus on an expected conflict in eastern Europe with the Ottomans.  The atmosphere he describes is strangely contemporary:

"...[W]henever the ignorant mob hears the name "Turk," they immediately fly into a rage and clamor for blood, calling them dogs and enemies to the name of Christian; it does not occur to them that, in the first place, the Turks are men, and, what is more, half-Christian; they never stop to consider whether the occasion of the war is just, nor whether it is practical to take up arms and thereby to provoke an enemy who will strike back with redoubled fury."

Erasmus is no pacifist, but he takes some exception to the stirring up of war fever by the circulation of graphic depictions of Turkish atrocities:

"...[P]ictures are painted showing examples of Turkish cruelty, but these ought in fact to remind us how reluctant we should be to make war against anyone at all, since similar "amusements" have been common in all the wars in which, over so many years, Christian has wickedly fought against Christian.  These paintings condemn their cruelty, yet worse crimes were perpetrated at Asperen, not by the Turks, but by my own countrymen, many of them even my friends."

I am therefore happy to again recommend the work of a more-talented family member.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Pericles' Funeral Oration

As suggested by an earlier post, I began last year to read Thucydides in Greek.  After the Republic I thought that it might be best to next tackle something heavy on sentences like "They built a wall" or "Then all the ships sailed out."  I had forgotten, of course, (as indicated by the op. cit. post), that there is quite a lot of talk in Thucydides.  And the most famous bit of talk is the Funeral Oration.

It is conventionally understood as the great expression of the Athenian spirit, and it is short enough that I hope I can cover it, section by section, occasionally and sporadically, as was the case with the Finnegans Wake posts.  My idea is to begin each post with a part of the oration, copying the Greek text from Book II of the Wikisource History of the Peloponnesian War cite and the English from the Pericles' Funeral Oration cite in the "Links" list to the left.  I will then make whatever comments come to mind.  If I have trouble coming up with interesting things to say I will make some lame excuse for quitting that, with a little luck, won't sound like just some lame excuse for quitting.  I should also note that it looks like it's going to be an unusually busy fall and winter both at work and with my family, and that these occasional fits and outbursts, as always, will remain subject to the requirement of non-virtual life.

Just a note on transliteration of Greek into Roman letters:  When commenting on a word or short phrase I will try to copy out the Greek and follow it with a transliteration.  My only limitation is that I have not yet figured out how to make a "long" sign over Roman vowels, so I will have to use "o" for both omicron and omega, "e" for both eta and epsilon.

How much of the speech is Pericles' and how much is Thucydides' is apparently a vexed question.  Plutarch's Life of Pericles contains not a hint of it.  For our purposes here I won't go much into the question, but plainly it can have some bearing on how we understand it, because Thucydides knew what Pericles could not, that Athens would lose the war.  That awareness goes very much to how to understand Pericles' repeated reasons why the Athenians should prevail.

Here is the introductory material, just before we begin with the speech proper:

᾿Εν δὲ τῷ αὐτῷ χειμῶνι ᾿Αθηναῖοι τῷ πατρίῳ νόμῳ χρώμενοι δημοσίᾳ ταφὰς ἐποιήσαντο τῶν ἐν τῷδε τῷ πολέμῳ πρώτων ἀποθανόντων τρόπῳ τοιῷδε. τὰ μὲν ὀστᾶ προτίθενται τῶν ἀπογενομένων πρότριτα σκηνὴν ποιήσαντες, καὶ ἐπιφέρει τῷ αὑτοῦ ἕκαστος ἤν τι βούληται· ἐπειδὰν δὲ ἡ ἐκφορὰ ᾖ, λάρνακας κυπαρισσίνας ἄγουσιν ἅμαξαι, φυλῆς ἑκάστης μίαν· ἔνεστι δὲ τὰ ὀστᾶ ἧς ἕκαστος ἦν φυλῆς. μία δὲ κλίνη κενὴ φέρεται ἐστρωμένη τῶν ἀφανῶν, ο῏ ἂν μὴ εὑρεθῶσιν ἐς ἀναίρεσιν. ξυνεκφέρει δὲ ὁ βουλόμενος καὶ ἀστῶν καὶ ξένων, καὶ γυναῖκες πάρεισιν αἱ προσήκουσαι ἐπὶ τὸν τάφον ὀλοφυρόμεναι. τιθέασιν οὖν ἐς τὸ δημόσιον σῆμα, ὅ ἐστιν ἐπὶ τοῦ καλλίστου προαστείου τῆς πόλεως, καὶ αἰεὶ ἐν αὐτῷ θάπτουσι τοὺς ἐκ τῶν πολέμων, πλήν γε τοὺς ἐν Μαραθῶνι· ἐκείνων δὲ διαπρεπῆ τὴν ἀρετὴν κρίναντες αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸν τάφον ἐποίησαν. ἐπειδὰν δὲ κρύψωσι γῇ, ἀνὴρ ᾑρημένος ὑπὸ τῆς πόλεως, ὃς ἂν γνώμῃ τε δοκῇ μὴ ἀξύνετος εἶναι καὶ ἀξιώσει προήκῃ, λέγει ἐπ' αὐτοῖς ἔπαινον τὸν πρέποντα· μετὰ δὲ τοῦτο ἀπέρχονται. ὧδε μὲν θάπτουσιν· καὶ διὰ παντὸς τοῦ πολέμου, ὁπότε ξυμβαίη αὐτοῖς, ἐχρῶντο τῷ νόμῳ. ἐπὶ δ' οὖν τοῖς πρώτοις τοῖσδε Περικλῆς ὁ Ξανθίππου ᾑρέθη λέγειν. καὶ ἐπειδὴ καιρὸς ἐλάμβανε, προελθὼν ἀπὸ τοῦ σήματος ἐπὶ βῆμα ὑψηλὸν πεποιημένον, ὅπως ἀκούοιτο ὡς ἐπὶ πλεῖστον τοῦ ὁμίλου, ἔλεγε τοιάδε.

"In the same winter the Athenians gave a funeral at the public cost to those who had first fallen in this war. It was a custom of their ancestors, and the manner of it is as follows. Three days before the ceremony, the bones of the dead are laid out in a tent which has been erected; and their friends bring to their relatives such offerings as they please. In the funeral procession cypress coffins are borne in cars, one for each tribe; the bones of the deceased being placed in the coffin of their tribe. Among these is carried one empty bier decked for the missing, that is, for those whose bodies could not be recovered. Any citizen or stranger who pleases, joins in the procession: and the female relatives are there to wail at the burial. The dead are laid in the public sepulchre in the Beautiful suburb of the city, in which those who fall in war are always buried; with the exception of those slain at Marathon, who for their singular and extraordinary valour were interred on the spot where they fell. After the bodies have been laid in the earth, a man chosen by the state, of approved wisdom and eminent reputation, pronounces over them an appropriate panegyric; after which all retire. Such is the manner of the burying; and throughout the whole of the war, whenever the occasion arose, the established custom was observed. Meanwhile these were the first that had fallen, and Pericles, son of Xanthippus, was chosen to pronounce their eulogium. When the proper time arrived, he advanced from the sepulchre to an elevated platform in order to be heard by as many of the crowd as possible, and spoke as follows."

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Running with the wolves

Please forgive a little re-cycling.  The following is a slightly-modified Amazon review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.  The New York Times Book Review just this last Sunday featured the title story from her newly-published anthology, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher."  Both Wolf Hall and its first sequel, Bring up the Bodies, took Britain's Man Booker Prize, a remarkable achievement, and many are waiting with anticipation for the promised third and final installment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.  My review of the first:    

One difficulty with reviewing a historical novel is determining the importance of historical accuracy. The very name "historical fiction" assumes a certain license with the facts, and its appeal often lies precisely in the freedom of a novelist to propose a fresh take on a story we already know. But there are limits, and it's not easy to say when revisionist history impermissibly blurs into "Springtime for Hitler."

Thomas Cromwell is one of the great stock villains of English history. Some few years ago I read G.R. Elton's England under the Tudors, in which Cromwell was famously re-evaluated as the genius of the Tudor revolution, an unsung visionary of the modern practice of reform by parliamentary legislation. Elton's limited rehabilitation didn't, however, go so far as to elevate Cromwell's character.

One has to give Hilary Mantel credit for taking on such a task. Wolf Hall opens with Cromwell being beaten senseless by his father, a somewhat manipulative way of initially engaging our sympathies. Mantel's Cromwell is not only capable and resourceful; he is a loving husband and father, a loyal retainer to his beloved Wolsey, and a semi-secret adherent to the new religion of simple goodness for simple people through the translation of the scriptures into English. The problem with this characterization, of course, is squaring it with what the historical Cromwell actually did: enabling the absolutism of the English crown (and the political, dynastic, and sexual desires of Henry), and the destruction of all who stood in its way. The result is a Cromwell who is sometimes a modern secular liberal, sometimes a Machiavellian, sometimes a proto-Protestant. This succession of personalities gives the novel a certain variety, but at the expense of consistent characterization. Like Stendhal's Julien Sorrell, Cromwell has memorized the Latin New Testament; also like Sorrell, it seems to have had no effect on him. There is no apparent progress or corruption; the Cromwell who takes in hapless children at the beginning is the same Cromwell who destroys Thomas More, John Fisher and the Carthusians at the end.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised by my registering some protest at the characterization of More. Yes, of course, this is fiction, and there is plenty to criticize in More's conduct as chancellor. But Mantel has taken the leading light of English Renaissance humanism and cast him as a sadistic, arrogant bigot. Anyone familiar with More's own writing, or the writing of those who knew him, or even the most critical of his modern biographers, will not recognize the nasty character that Cromwell finally sends to the block. And, given the announcement of film deals, it's hard not to suspect that Mantel will be shaping the popular public image of More for the foreseeable future.

Mantel's writing style is vigorous, and her characterizations have force and life. The overriding atmosphere, though, is one of claustrophobia--both physical and moral. There is a recurring theme of incest: Henry and Arthur with Catherine, Henry with Ann and her sister (and perhaps their mother), Cromwell with his wife's sister, Ann with her brother, and anybody and everybody in the Seymour clan at Wolf Hall. These inbred loves, and the squalid, violent conclusion, made it, for me, a relief to reach the end, and I doubt I'll be returning for the sequels.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sacred languages

ἔγραψε δὲ καὶ τίτλον ὁ Πιλᾶτος καὶ ἔθηκεν ἐπὶ τοῦ σταυροῦ· ἦν δὲ γεγραμμένον· ᾿Ιησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν ᾿Ιουδαίων....καὶ ἦν γεγραμμένον ῾Εβραϊστί, ῾Ελληνιστί, ῾Ρωμαϊστί.

"Pilate wrote a placard and placed it upon the cross, on which was written, 'Jesus the Nazorean, the king of the Jews....And it was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin."

Many religions have what can be called a sacred language.  Hindus have Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the great epics, and the Bhagavad Gita. Therevada Buddhism, I understand, privileges the Pali canon, as Islam gives pride of place to Quranic Arabic.

The inscription over the cross in St. John's gospel has always suggested to me the three sacred languages of Catholic Christianity:  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, Greek, the language of the New, and Latin, the language of the Church.  One might even, with important qualifications, call them the languages of the Holy Trinity, the historic languages of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I don't mean to suggest that facility in a language has anything to do with entry into or the depth of one's practice of Christianity.  The majority of Christians through the ages may well have been illiterate, and obviously there are illiterate Christians whose devotion, charity and Christlikeness would put the average literate Christian to shame.  It's more a question about whether those Christians who have the opportunity, and the capability, to learn something of the sacred languages, should do so.

If, for instance, we ought to promote biblical literacy--as undoubtedly we should--does that not suggest that knowing the testaments in their original languages (to the extent that we have them) is of prime importance?  But, the objection runs, I'm not a genius--how can I learn Greek?  Well, however highly we think of the Greeks, they certainly weren't a race of geniuses.  I remember having this conversation with a young woman, objecting that she just wasn't smart enough or educated enough to know a second language.  During our conversation her gardener came in with his helpers.  She gave them their instructions in English, and they walked out speaking among themselves in their native Spanish, and she went back to telling me that only intellectuals could handle more than one language.

Learning another language certainly takes time and commitment.  But it's more a matter of will than intellect.  Poor and uneducated people, whether in the Old South or first century Palestine, will learn as many languages as it takes to get by.

Latin is sort of a special case.  It has no particular standing for the Eastern Orthodox, or for Protestants.  But for Catholic Christians it is the official language of the Church, the Church as Mater et Magister, Mother and Teacher.  Within living memory the most solemn worship of the Church was conducted in Latin (putting aside the Eastern Rites).  And though vernacular worship has been the norm since the promulgation of the Mass of Paul VI, the vernacular is still a translation from a Latin Roman rite, and there remains a vocal minority that prefers a Latin mass.  In that regard I think it's something of a shame that the appreciation of Latin in worship has come to be identified with reaction.  I understand full well that the majority of Catholics have neither the time nor inclination to learn Latin and I have no quarrel with mass in the vernacular.  But some limited availability of worship in Latin in no way threatens the prevailing approach.

I needn't mention how the acquisition of these ancient languages of the faith also opens up a world of incomparable literature.  Virgil and Homer, Plato and Cicero--these are names to conjure with.  Latin went on to become the common language of the West and remained the chief means of transnational learned communication through the day of Spinoza and Newton.  (It even occasionally shows its head in the title of blogs.)    

Latin is extolled within the Church as a common language, if not for the faithful, at least for the clergy.  Canon law requires that it be taught in ordinary seminary education.  How far that requirement obtains in real life I have no clue.  But it does promote, to some extent, that dream of a common language throughout the orbis terrarum.  If its usage today is limited, it can still be extolled, not only for its aspiration to universality, but for its long continuity.  As Pope St. John XXIII put it in his apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia:

Neque solum universalis, sed etiam immutabilis lingua ab Ecclesia adhibita sit oportet. Si enim catholicae Ecclesiae veritates traderentur vel nonnullis vel multis ex mutabilibus linguis recentioribus, quarum nulla ceteris auctoritate praestaret, sane ex eo consequeretur, ut hinc earum vis neque satis significanter neque satis dilucide, qua varietate eae sunt, omnibus pateret; ut illinc nulla communis stabilisque norma haberetur, ad quam ceterarum sensus esset expendendus. Re quidem ipsa, lingua Latina, iamdiu adversus varietates tuta, quas cotidiana populi consuetudo in vocabulorum notionem inducere solet, fixa quidem censenda est et immobilis;

Furthermore, the Church's language must be not only universal but also immutable. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority. Thus if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would, moreover, be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings.  But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. it has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use. 

I don't know if this is good linguistics.  This alleged immutability of Latin may be as aspirational as its universality.  But Latin certainly carries a kind of patina that no other Western language can claim.  I think of even the Harry Potter books, where Ms. Rowling put her spells into a kind of pidgin Latin.  Even children know that that's the language of antiquity, and of linguistic power.

Dr. Johnson once remarked, "Greek, Sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can."  We have to admit that precious few of us aspire to "getting" much Greek.  Latin may still carry some of that allure, however much it has faded.  For those with the time to take it up, I think it very worthwhile.  And most of us would have plenty of time, even with full time jobs and families, were we not preoccupied with television, and smart phones, and the web.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A shameless plug

Skill, I think, can be acquired by training and practice.  Talent may be more of a gift. I haven't got it.  So I married it.

My wife Jeanine is a painter who works primarily in pastels, mixed-media, and oils.  The October, 2014, issue of Pastel Journal has an article entitled "Creative Beginnings," featuring Jeanine and two other artists on their paintings' foundations.  I can't take you to the article itself, but the link below shows a little more of their work:


Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Traveler from the Maghrib

I have started reading an abridged translation of the Rihlah--the Travels--of Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah, whose wanderings from his native Morocco, between 1325 and 1354, took him as far east as China, and as far south as Timbuktu.  Living roughly a generation after Marco Polo, he exceeded the journeys of the better-known Venetian, and arguably anyone else we know of for centuries.

It was a time of relative peace between the Christian and Islamic worlds (the key word here being "relative").  In 1291 the last Christian stronghold in Syria, the fortress of Acre, fell to the Mameluke sultan al-Ashraf Khalil.  The Reconquista in Spain was mostly accomplished, save for the Muslim kingdom of Grenada.  The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks was still a century in the future.  Trade continued, as it always does, whenever it can, and pockets of minorities got on as well as they could within the larger civilizations. 

I have only gotten so far as Ibn Battutah's first pilgrimage to Mecca, by way of Syria.  Along the way he visits well-known shrines and tombs and consults with holy men, much as Christian pilgrims did.  He occasionally comes across heterodox groups, such as the "revilers" of Sarmin, and is careful to relate their extraordinary doctrines--here, an extreme hatred of the Ten Companions of the Prophet, to the extent that they cannot bear ever the number, "ten."  But their presence in an orthodox Sunni world is taken pretty much for granted.

He relates the following from his first visit to Syria:

"I witnessed at the time of the Great Plague at Damascus in the latter part of the month of Second Rabi of the year 749 [July 1348] a remarkable instance of the veneration of the people of Damascus for this mosque [the Mosque of the Footprints]....[A]fter performing the dawn prayer on the Friday morning they all went out together, walking barefoot and carrying Qur'ans in their hands.  The entire population of the city joined in the exodus, male and female, small and large; the Jews went out with their book of the Law and the Christians with their Gospel, their women and children with them; and the whole concourse of them in tears and humble supplications, imploring the favor of God through his Books and his Prophets."

There appears, to me, a great humanity in this joint response to a common calamity.  It is not, of course, what we would call religious freedom.  But it is an unusual marshaling of everyone to common prayer, of the sort that would be unusual even today, either in the secular West or in the Islamic states of the Near East. 

And it calls to mind an earlier incident, a Phoenician ship foundering in a great storm,

 וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים, וַיִּזְעֲקוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אֱלֹהָיו, ...; וְיוֹנָה, יָרַד אֶל-יַרְכְּתֵי הַסְּפִינָה, וַיִּשְׁכַּב, וַיֵּרָדַם.  ו וַיִּקְרַב אֵלָיו רַב הַחֹבֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מַה-לְּךָ נִרְדָּם; קוּם, קְרָא אֶל-אֱלֹהֶיךָ--אוּלַי יִתְעַשֵּׁת הָאֱלֹהִים לָנוּ, וְלֹא נֹאבֵד.

In great fear the sailors cry, each to his own god....Jonah, though, slinks down into the hold, to be interrupted by the captain:  Why are you sleeping?  Get up!  Call upon your god!  Perhaps he will act for us, and we will not be destroyed.

We all know the story--at least the whale part--but of course it ends in Ninevah, where the purported tomb of the reluctant prophet has only lately been destroyed. 

I am always dismayed when I hear the ISIS militants called "medieval."  Of course medieval people could commit atrocities and acts of cruelty.  But we moderns have often given them a run for their money on that score.  The demolished tomb, before its destruction, was a simple but strikingly beautiful building, where both Christians and Moslems made pilgrimage for centuries.  It was medieval people who designed and built it, the work, roughly, of contemporaries of Ibn Battutah.  The iconoclasts who blew it to rubble, disdaining tradition and all reverence for a common (if very human) prophet, were, distressingly, thoroughly modern.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Uncle Remus, Aesop and Pogo

Last week, in a local shop, I came across a book I hadn't seen in decades, Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus:  His Sayings and His Songs.  The book, not surprisingly, was printed in 1957, and, with happy memories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, the tar baby and the brier patch, I bought it.

The Uncle Remus books remain in print, but there's no great mystery to their contemporary low profile.  They purport to relate folk-tales told by the plantation slaves and former slaves in the Old South.  Their offense is manifold.  Uncle Remus speaks in a thick dialect which in itself many would find most offensive, incorporating numerous racial terms now universally intolerable, up to and including the "n-word."  The atmosphere of the slave quarters is one of easy contentment, the very picture of  the antebellum argument that plantation slaves led happy, care-free lives under the eyes of kind and solicitous masters.  To the extent that Chandler has fictionalized, he is accused of falsifying.  To the extent that he accurately transmits the folklore of the slaves, he is damned for cultural appropriation.

All of this is understandable.  Much of it is unavoidably accurate.  And yet in a real sense, because there is genuine artistry in the animal tales, it's a shame that our concern about current, seemingly intractable, racial issues might require our abstention from such pleasures that, to an outsider, would seem entirely innocent.  As with Lincoln, who, in a speech given shortly before his death, said that he always loved the tune, "Dixie," and who, having captured it fair and square, had no compunction about having it played, it would be nice if the Uncle Remus stories could be subject to a similar capture.

That our concern is not slavery in general, but our slavery, our slaveowning, slavedriving heritage, is shown simply enough by considering the figure of Aesop.  Admittedly he's a shadowy figure, and what we think we know of him rests on the flimsiest evidence.  Nevertheless, what is most commonly said of him is that he was a slave.  And knowing that fact--if it is a fact--makes not a bit of difference to our enjoyment of his animal fables.

Now of course there was no real "Uncle Remus."  He was a combination of many slaves and ex-slaves Harris knew and would listen to when first employed on a Georgia plantation, the illegitimate son of a young Irish immigrant mother.  But the reality of Uncle Remus or Aesop is really beside the point.  Greek and American slavery were real.  But Greek slavery is far enough away from us that it doesn't spoil The Fox and the Grapes for us.

Another serious sticking point is the dialect.  It was something that Harris was quite serious about.  He wanted to write the tales just as he heard them, in the very speech used by the slaves.  That technique didn't necessarily demean or mock those who used it, but we hear it, so to speak, on the other side of "Amos 'n Andy," after it has become, not merely put to comic use, but itself, alone, a form of ridicule and smug superiority.

Which brings me to the case of Walt Kelly's Pogo.  I have loved the Pogo comic strips since I was a kid.  (No, to be more accurate, since I was a teenager, since the Pogo strips in the newspaper utterly baffled me when I was in elementary school.)  Kelly, though a northeasterner, wrote Pogo in an invented dialect that hews close to that of the deep South (not surprising, since the strip is set in the Okefenokee swamp).  He actually began in the forties with a comic about a young African-American named Bumbazine living on the edge of the swamp, and having adventures with his talking animal friends.  From the one exemplar I've seen the dialogue is just barely in dialect.  As the strip developed, Bumbazine disappeared, and animal characters took over, and the language became a thing of wonder.

"Mam heerd tell a man over here figgers he's gon run for public office...mam sent the tads over to be kissed up.  Us can't bear kissin' the ugly li'l' sprats ourselfs but we understan's you politicians kisses 'em free of charge."  That's Mr. Frog bringing his tadpoles to Pogo.

"Ef you don't lemme loose, I'll knock you agin,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch 'er a wipe wid de udder han', en dat stuck.  Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nothin', en Brer Fox, he lay low."  That, of course, is Harris.

What's the difference here?  Obviously in neither case do the animals have any human ethnicity.  Nevertheless, in the case of Pogo, the dialect is somewhat non-specific.  In the tar-baby story the particular ethnicity of the fictional story-teller is directly expressed in the dialogue of the animals.  I myself don't find the use of the dialect offensive, but I understand how others could.

One probably intractable problem with Harris, at least for the foreseeable future, is his free use of terms for African-Americans which remain, in most contexts, unprintable.  There exists, of course, one still-popular work that has managed to overcome that issue, Huckleberry Finn.  But that book's importance in American literature, coupled with Twain's irreproachable humanitarian bona fides, give it a pass that is probably unavailable to Uncle Remus.

That leaves us with two unpalatable alternatives:  setting aside the Uncle Remus stories entirely, or bowdlerizing them.  Those of us of a certain age may conceivably plead that, since our characters are fully formed and too rigid to bear much improvement or corruption, we can privately enjoy these stories without much risk.  But for children, and school libraries, and popular media, they unhappily probably belong with Disney's (partly-scrubbed) Song of the South in the "unsuitable and quarantined" vault--at least in their original form.

There was much talk, with the election of President Obama, of the entry of the United States into a "post-racial" era.  Well, most of that talk has now run up against reality.  Much as I love the Uncle Remus stories, I know how they can be, and would be, used in shameful and unsavory ways.  I am glad we don't have actual censorship, and I am sure that a day will come when they can be read, enjoyed and criticized as freely as Aesop's fables.  But we are still far from that day.  


Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Again wake.  And as all good dreams must come to a fin, and glad as I've been in your company then, please join me in reading the closing lines, slowly and thoughtfully:

"If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he’d come from Arkangels, I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the           riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and..." OMIGOD NO!  IT'S STARTING OVER AGAIN!  SOMEBODY THROW THE SWITCH!

(Ha ha)

It is one of the best-known features of Finnegans Wake that it is a tale of "doublends jined," that the end loops back to the beginning, so that there is no real start or finish, only an eternal recurrence.

Now I think that's undoubtedly right, but it's also wrong.  Dreams don't run over and over again.  Night gives way to day, not night after night after night.  And to bring it back to this particular book, the Wake, in its concluding pages, ycleped Part IV, takes the plain form of a conclusion, the dawn breaking, the dream making its way to forgottenness, the River Liffey, as Anna Livia, flowing joyfully, relentlessly into the sea.  So the book ends; also, it doesn't.  Imagine that.

Part IV is the shortest of the four parts, only about thirty pages in my edition.  But it is still divided into four of what I have called divisions.  After a beginning ("Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas!") that again evokes an upanishadic closing (as Eliot did in "The Waste Land"), the harbingers of day from the beginning of the sections seem reasonably clear to me:

"Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayne. Array! Surrection! Eireweeker to the wohld bludyn world. O rally, O rally, O rally! Phlenxty, O rally!"

"Dayagreening gains in schlimninging. A summerwint spring-falls, abated. Hail, regn of durknass, snowly receassing, thund lightening thund, into the dimbelowstard departamenty whither-out, soon hist, soon mist, to the hothehill from the hollow, Solsking the Frist...."

"What has gone? How it ends?
"Begin to forget it."

The forgetting, I think, is the forgetting of the dream that typically happens when we awaken.

The last division is the invocation of Anna Livia as the Liffy flowing to the ocean, as well as the fall of leaves:  "Soft morning, city! Lsp! I am leafy speafing. Lpf! Folty and folty all the nights have falled on to long my hair. Not a sound, falling. Lispn! No wind no word. Only a leaf, just a leaf and then leaves."  It introduces perhaps the most lyrical section of the Wake.

And what can I say here in closing?  First, I guess, that I don't see that the Wake has any particular claim on anyone.  I wouldn't call it one of those books anyone has to read to understand this or that (except, possibly, the works of James Joyce).  If I had to choose a single best book by Joyce I'd still have to go with Ulysses. 

Still, no one should succumb to finneganphobia.  It's a book everyone's going to miss most of.  Having taken Joyce seventeen years to write (spending much of his time, apparently, deliberately obscuring it) there's no way that anyone with a life is going to be able to read it as Joyce wrote it, to understand what he was referring to, to glean where he was going, to get what he was getting at.  Puzzled?  Join the club.  It can still be exhilarating, and, even as I was bogging down a bit toward the end, still I find that I miss pulling it off the shelf, and a great advantage of having not gotten so much of it is that I find that I can open it anywhere and still be amused and challenged and entertained, and even  laugh at something that flew five miles over my head the first time through.

Joyce is Literature, but he can be very, very "lowbrow," vulgar, tasteless.  His excuse is the dream.  The proverbial foul rag and bone shop of the heart is quite indiscriminately ransacked.  That closeness to his own common environment is part of what makes him difficult, and which makes me fear that the obscurity of this book will grow exponentially over time.  For all the small library of commentaries and keys explaining Joyce, I am thankful he can still be read straight on, without the volumes of explanation he will undoubtedly require a century hence.

A side effect of reading Finnegans Wake is the advantage of developing and exercising a facility to read with ambiguity.  Anyone who's tried to read a foreign language (or contemporary poetry) knows the need to suppress that frustration with knowing most, but not all, of the meaning attached to the words on the page.  Assuming you don't explode with rage after the first twenty pages, the Wake gets you into a frame of mind to accept what's there and move on with the hope of filling in the gaps tomorrow; maybe some meaning will later emerge.  It's an important skill for any reader to have.

In the end, though, it's about the book, and its art, and its impossible pretentions to wholeness.  I had thought at one point that the Wake might be likened to a koan.  A very long koan.  But I certainly wasn't struck with enlightenment at its conclusion.  Perhaps it is more like the eleventh teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita, in which Krishna instructs Arjuna:

...see my forms
in hundreds of thousands;
diverse, divine,
of many colors and shapes.

See the sun gods, gods of light,
howling storm gods, twin gods of dawn,
and gods of wind, Arjuna,
wondrous forms not seen before.

Arjuna, see all the universe,
animate and inanimate,
and whatever else you wish to see;
all stands here as one in my body.

Or, to bring it back west, we might rest content with what Dryden said of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:  "Here is God's plenty."

I have arguably devoted a disproportionate amount of time to blogging the Wake.  Maybe so.  I think I blogged, not so much for the blog itself, but rather as a means to help myself with the reading of the book.  That is to say, Finnegans Wake is so odd, so formless, so baffling, that I found it helpful, in going through it, to continually ask myself, "What can I say about this part?"  The implied promise to blog forced me to be more active than usual in reflecting on the readings as I went along, and I think that in itself promoted understanding and made the experience all the more fruitful.

In reading any blog series the beginning is the end, the end the beginning.  So, to bring the enterprise to an end, if any stray reader wishes to peruse all the Wake entries, from the other end, they can be found as follows:

1.  Sin against Fate (March 19)
2.  Sense or Sensibility (April 18)
3.  A quarter dunned (May 22)
4.  Too clever by half (June 27)
5.  Finnegans Wake, Part II, third division (July 9)
6.  Finnegans Wake, Part II, fourth division (July 15)
7.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, first division (July 20)
8.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, second division (July 31)
9.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, third division (August 11)
10.  Finnegans Wake, Part III, fourth division (August 12)
11.  Fin (which is where we came in)

शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Finnegans Wake, Part III, fourth division

"What was thaas? Fog was whaas? Too mult sleepth. Let sleepth."

The beginnings of many of these latter sections suggest, almost clearly, that the night is passing.  The previous division suggested dawn and waking, but didn't quite make it, and this one begins putting us back firmly in the sonambulant state.  We drowse still.

And yet.  And yet.  I have to admit, as I approach the end, I give in to the temptation to hurry up and finish.  This is not good.  This is a book that requires patience.  And when you get impatient, Finnegans Wake can get tedious.  Sense only surfaces slowly.

Soon after the beginning we are presented with a "dumbshow," a sort of pantomime, with HCE and ALP and the children sporting what some think their "real" names, Bartholomew and Mrs. Porter.  There may be a parallel with a chess game, as, throughout the division, each of our "four" notes a position:  Matt a "first position of harmony," Mark, a "second position of discordance," Luke (implied), a "third position of concord," and at the end, John, with a "fourth position of solution." 

The performance eventually makes its way into an indictment of "Honuphrius," presumably Porter/Humphrey/HCE, for infidelity, unnatural coitus, blasphemy and sacrilege.  This unaccountably transforms, in a sentence or two, into the details of a ridiculously detailed commercial legal claim.  The four watchers then seem to withdraw: 

"— He sighed in sleep.
"— Let us go back.
"— Lest he forewaken.
"— Hide ourselves.
"While hovering dreamwings, folding around, will hide from fears my wee mee mannikin, keep my big wig long strong mano-men, guard my bairn, mon beau.
"— To bed."

The narrative then goes elsewhere, for page after page, and ends with "John's" fourth tableau, the end of part III of the Wake, and a real promise of the morning:

"Fourth position of solution. How johnny! Finest view from horizon. Tableau final. Two me see. Male and female unmask we hem. Begum by gunne! Who now broothes oldbrawn. Dawn! The nape of his name-shielder’s scalp. Halp! After having drummed all he dun. Hun! Worked out to an inch of his core. More! Ring down. While the queenbee he staggerhorned blesses her bliss for to feel her funnyman’s functions Tag. Rumbling.
"Tiers, tiers and tiers. Rounds."

Again I have missed much, skipped lots.  Anyone can return, when you or I wish.  The night recedes.  I think I'm absorbing more, but it seems so much less necessary or useful to articulate the connections, to point out this or that reference or tie when the whole cacaphony is winding up.  There is a weariness, or a surrender, as the end looms.  But maybe it's just from starting to rush.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Finnegans Wake, Part III, third division

From a Shaun and a Jaun we come to Yawn (which one does at dawn): "Lowly, longly, a wail went forth. Pure Yawn lay low. On the mead of the hillock lay, heartsoul dormant mid shadowed landshape, brief wallet to his side, and arm loose, by his staff of citron briar, tradition stick-pass-on. His dream monologue was over, of cause, but his drama parapolylogic had yet to be, affect."

This unaccountably puts me in mind of the awakening of Faust at the beginning of Part II, after the revels of Walpurgis Night and Gretchen's death.  If Finnegans Wake is indeed a nightdream, it is surprising that Yawn is waking as dawn is breaking.  But if the "dream monologue" had ended, the "drama parapolylogic" was not.  We're not out of the woods yet.  The dream was within a dream, perhaps, or a false dawn yawns.

We are soon again in the presence of our Four:  "First klettered Shanator Gregory, seeking spoor through the deep timefield, Shanator Lyons, trailing the wavy line of his partition footsteps (something in his blisters was telling him all along how he had been in that place one time), then his Recordership, Dr Shunadure Tarpey, caperchasing after honourable sleep, hot on to the aniseed and, up out of his prompt corner, old Shunny MacShunny, MacDougal the hiker, in the rere of them on the run, to make a quorum."  And they meet to "hold their sworn starchamber quiry on him."

Whether these are still the four evangelists, or now the four provinces of Ireland, or the four points of the compass, Joyce only knows.  But for the next two-thirds of this division a conversation begins.  It presumably includes the Four, making their "sworn starchamber quiry," but this is only an inference from the above.  Who else is involved, I cannot say, and it seems to have no form, and no aim, and no conclusion. 

This is, to me, a long period of obscurity.  There is some linguistic play, and a more frequent invocation of HCE.As I look over these posts I become dissatisfied because the matters brought out are what to me are the brightest, clearest spots.

At a certain point we begin to again encounter sexuality, though doubling with ALP's character as water:  "[S]he began to bump a little bit, my dart to throw: and there, by wavebrink, on strond of south, with mace to masthigh, taillas Cowhowling, quailless Highjakes, did I upreized my magicianer’s puntpole, the tridont sired a tritan stock, farruler, and I bade those polyfizzyboisterous seas to retire with hemselves from os (rookwards, thou seasea stamoror!) and I abridged with domfine norsemanship till I had done abate her maidan race, my baresark bride, and knew her fleshly when with all my bawdy did I her whorship, min bryllupswibe."

There is plainly a lot of sex in Finnegans Wake.  This arises, I think, from something more than the fact that sex is often suspected and more easily detectable when other activities are more obscure.  Aside from the obvious physiological rising and falling involved, the play of generation is yet another pattern of death and resurrection,  life ascendant succeeding to life descending, the great recurrent drama of the human race.  But perhaps Joyce is also enjoying writing one impliedly pornographic scene after another that his censors can't object to as unambiguously salacious. 

Another section that stands out seems nothing less than a mash of personal and lodging ads, with few puns and doubled words, but a series of phrases, some ordinary, some absurd, on the same pattern:  "[E]ccentric naval officer not quite steady enjoys weekly churchwarden and laugh while reading foreign pictorials on clumpstump before door, known as the trap, widow rheumatic and chars, haunted, condemned and execrated, of dubious respectability, tools too costly pledged or uninsured, reformed philanthropist whenever feasible takes advantage of unfortunates against dilapidating ashpits, serious student is eating his last dinners, floor dangerous for unaccompanied old clergymen, thoroughly respectable, many uncut pious books in evidence, nearest watertap two hundred yards’ run away, fowl and bottled gooseberry frequently on table, man has not had boots off for twelve months, infant being taught to hammer flat piano, outwardly respectable, sometimes hears from titled connection."

Another remarkable section conveys a sense of primordial history of Genesis, in the spreading of civilization and the founding of cities:  "long agore when the whole blighty acre was bladey well pessovered, my selvage mats of lecheworked lawn, my carpet gardens of Guerdon City, with chopes pyramidous and mousselimes and beaconphires and colossets and pensilled turisses for the busspleaches of the summiramies and esplanadas and statuesques and templeogues, the Pardonell of Maynooth, Fra Teobaldo, Nielsen, rare admirable, Jean de Porteleau, Conall Gretecloke, Guglielmus Caulis and the eiligh ediculous Passivucant (glorietta’s inexcellsiored!)"

Yes, I know this is mostly hunting and pecking.  Maybe from the perspective of the end these sections may find some place in a greater architecture.  But it's honestly hard to see, for me.

Again this section ends with the four: "--Mattahah! Marahah! Luahah! Joahanahanahana!"

And here's an ending note on trivia/puzzle solving.  One of the themes I haven't much commented on is the possible indecency committed by HCE in Phoenix Park.  The park is a real place, a very large public, open space to the west of Dublin center, and lying north of the Liffey.  Now I had assumed, simply, that the park was a prominent location because of its name, the mythical bird who so spectacularly expires and is resurrected from its own ashes.  But in doing a google search for an aerial phote of the park, I read that the park's name is not in fact an English transliteration of the Greek name of the mythical creature, but is a kind of Joycean English approximation of the park's Irish name, Fionn Uisce, "Clear Water."  Not only is there then a double referent to the Liffey, but also a sort of rough-enough assonance between "Fionnuisce Park" and "Finnegans Wake."  I think.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Martin Heidegger and the Nazis

Martin Heidegger's relationship to National Socialism has long been a matter of controversy.  It has lately again come to the fore with the publication in Germany of the "Black Notebooks," the concluding volumes of his complete works.

My acquaintance with Heidegger is long but hardly profound.  When I was an undergraduate philosophy major I wrote a senior "honors thesis" comparing the systems of Heidegger and Alfred North Whitehead.  At a hundred and fifty hand-typed pages it still holds the record for the longest piece I've ever written.  During the summer between my junior and senior years I worked as a surveyor's assistant for a local construction company, ten hour days, five days a week, with evenings free to make my way through Being and Time and Process and Reality.  I honestly, at that time, had no idea that there was any controversy about Heidegger's character or politics.

I have ever since that time retained an interest in his work, and have occasionally dipped into the German Sein und Zeit, which I bought in college (but little consulted, due to my poor German).  I also picked up, over the next few years, a couple of anthologies of Heidegger's shorter works, Holzwege and Wegmarken, which I have also occasionally perused.  This almost-lifelong acquaintance with Heidegger has left me with some small sense of "ownership." I bristle at the possibility of having wasted my time, and I'm therefore probably a little defensive of someone whom I've considered a member of (if I can put it this way) "my team."

I hasten to add that my appreciation of Heidegger never had anything to do with considerations of his life or character.  As best I can judge (and I am obviously an amateur), a case can be made that his books and shorter pieces are the most influential philosophical works of the twentieth century.  I say that as one who admittedly has never been much taken with the English analytic tradition, and who never really learned anything much about the French structuralists and deconstructionists.   Heidegger, apart from his own work, was a mighty impetus to the existentialist philosophers (and existentialist literary figures) of the forties, fifties and sixties.  In theology he had a decisive influence on Bultmann among the Protestants and Rahner among the Catholics.  Himself an atheist, Heidegger offered to an increasingly technical and material world a critique of technology and materialism that, in my view, is more needed now than when formulated.

Nevertheless, there is that Nazi thing.  And a Nazi thing is never a small thing.

Heidegger became the rector of the University of Freiburg shortly after Hitler's rise to power.  He resigned after a year or so, and lived relatively privately in the Black Forest to the end of the war.  During his tenure at Freiburg he made some speeches in enthusiastic support of the new regime.  He also acted against Jewish faculty members, including his old mentor Edmund Husserl.  These kinds of facts came trickling to my attention in the early 1980's.  They were disturbing, but not necessarily damning.  The murderous character of the new regime may not have been so evident in those early years.  Decent Germans arguably had a duty to continue to staff German institutions to prevent their utter subjugation to Nazi policy.  And anyone holding such a position would have to occasionally give a cheer-leading speech for the Führer or enforce increasingly anti-Semitic regulations.  In any case, might it not have been a small act of courage to resign when he did?

Time has not been kind to these rationales.  Heidegger resigned from the rectorship, but not from the party.  And now the publication of the Black Notebooks has, for the first time, revealed the man's thoughts and judgments during the remaining years of the Third Reich.  Some of those who have examined these notebooks have found them black indeed for Heidegger's reputation.

Now at this moment I think we have to say that a verdict has not yet been finally rendered.  The notebooks have not yet been put into English.  I looked on German Amazon and a number of them, volumes ninety-two to ninety-five of the complete works, are available now.  I have neither the time, nor the money, nor the inclination, really, to purchase these volumes and pursue the question.  There are allegations that Heidegger revives the old slanders about the "rootlessness" of the Jews, finding them irredeemably alienated from the authentic sense of Being that grounds the true German.  This chauvinism, allegedly, isn't confined to the Jews.  Similar things are said about the grasping English, the barbarian Russians, the vulgar Americans.  I'm not sure whether this helps him or hurts him.  But it's supposedly not pretty.

But what does one do with this?  These past few years I have run across articles and book reviews calling, essentially, for the shunning of Heidegger.  Isn't Nazi party membership alone enough to ban him from the high company of philosophy?  I've read arguments that the young ought not to be exposed to him, that his philosophy, if it co-existed with Nazism, must be tainted at its root.  I've never given these calls for expulsion much credence.  But now they are back, with new support.

My own view is that these late concerns about Heidegger's philosophy (as opposed to his own personal fault) suggest that the philosophical content of his work itself can't be fairly tagged as Nazi or anti-Semitic, at least the work that made his reputation and is at the heart of his influence.  It's one thing to read some of Heidegger's later disturbing comments and find suggestions of them in his earlier work.  In a body of writing so vast and impenetrable it wouldn't be difficult to make such a case.  But I don't think that anyone did or could imply Nazi or anti-Semitic propositions from Sein und Zeit when it was originally published in 1926.  Those intimations have by and large only been seen in retrospect.

Any body of teaching can be corrupted or appealed to for different ends.  Karl Popper famously saw Plato's philosophy as the germ of modern totalitarianism.  The use of religious doctrine to justify persecution and violent conflict is of course too well known.  Whatever the flaws in Marx's work, it's doubtful that he foresaw, or would recognize, the use to which Stalin or Mao Tze-Tung put it.  The development of ideas is rarely predictable.

Any proposed removal of Heidegger from the "canon"--even if that were actually possible--would obviously leave an enormous gap in the intellectual history of the twentieth century.  There will undoubtedly continue to be research and advocacy on the relationship between Heidegger's life, politics and philosophical work.  He will continue to have defenders and adversaries.  My attitude that is that these controversies, proper as they are to a certain sphere, do not essentially touch his work.  At most, if the worst allegations are proven, they will establish that the ideas alone were not sufficient to override any prevailing darker tendencies.  But this we really know already, from the distance between ourselves and whatever ideas and ideals which we profess.

Last year I started reading Sein and Zeit in German, and I got about fifty pages into it.  I put it aside for reasons I don't remember, and I may pick it up again later.  If some of my thoughts on it make their way here,  objections based on Heidegger's compromised character will probably not enter into it.  I'm aware of the problems, and I hope I've taken them seriously.  But, in this instance, I think the dance can actually be distinguished from the dancer.