Saturday, October 31, 2009

How we remember

A friend in the theater recommended a new production of "Antigone" to me, saying it was the best thing she'd seen in a long time. I saw it this afternoon and I believe her. SITI Company's performance of the new version of "Antigone" by Irish playwright Jocelyn Clarke, directed by Anne Bogart, is a revelation. The brief run ends tomorrow, but one can hope it will return or tour. It's that good.

The set is nothing but a square of tables with chairs on diagonal on a bare black-sided stage; square, circular and parabolic pools of light and a nearly imperceptible soundscape make it feel like a world whose center is a conference - appropriate enough for a play which takes place in time of war, as the military leader decides how to deal with setbacks in Argos and rising dissent at home in Thebes, and, like everyone at the table, tries to wriggle free of the horrifying legacy of the house of Thebes. Periodically, one of the elders (played by Will Bond, facing us in the picture above) steps away from the table to face the audience and tells us one of the episodes of this awful history, starting with the rape of Europa. He starts the play this way:

How does it all begin? (pause)
How does it all begin? (pause)
How does it all begin? (pause)
It begins with a girl.
It begins with a bull...
(walks to another place facing the audience)
How does it all begin? (pause)
How does it all begin? (pause)
How does it all begin? (pause)
It begins with a daughter.
It begins with a war. ...

Amazingly, every iteration of the words "How does it all begin?" (and there are probably 15 in all) is different. The first is rhetorical, the second full of curiosity, the third full of dread, etc.

Once he tells one of the stories, its climax is always a moment where some victim - Europa, Chrysippus - accepts her/his awful fate, holds her/his tunic up to her/his chest (his hand makes an arc'ing movement as if rounding a pregnant belly), and the rest billows behind her/him like a purple sail. By the end, Antigone's story has joined this retelling.

This growing sense of the tragic past adds ever more complications to the war with Argos - why did it start? Whose war is it? But it also adds both depth and opacity to Antigone. Too easy just to say that she will do what's right and bury her brother Polyneikes despite Creon's command. It's not just about justice but about memory and identity. "How we remember is who we are," she says, she is her family or she is noone. And yet what is it to be the daughter of Oedipus, the descendant of all those bloody events we've heard about? When she declares to Creon "I'm not afraid to die," his response resonates: "Are you afraid to live?"

Eat local

Many other things work better in the concentrated density of urban settings, what about farming? I kid not: an article by Dickson Despommier in the newest Scientific American shows what "vertical farms" could look like. What's more, he argues that they are ecologically preferable to traditional farming, which would otherwise have to add an area equivalent to the size of Brazil to keep up with population growth by 2050. This 30-story farm, using and reusing city waste water and fewer fossil fuels than factory farms and food transportation, "could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres, with less subsequent spoilage." Imagine: greener cities, wilder country... (See more and very stylish prototypes here.)

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Philharmonic!

Went to the New York Philharmonic tonight, on a whim. (Something else was planned, but the other person couldn't make it, and the internet helped me in less than 10 minutes to get a ticket for the Philharmonic. Turns out the Philharmonic was available for a similar reason - a trip to Cuba canceled at the last minute for some reason.) The program was friendly - Beethoven's Egmont Overture and Third Piano Concerto (with sometimes reserved Emmanuel Ax), then Bernstein's "Dance Suite from West Side Story" and one of the suites from Manuel de Falla's "Three-Cornered Hat." But the news was the orchestra's new Music Director, Alan Gilbert. Gilbert, who's a year younger than me, and a child of the Philharmonic, literally - both of his parents are violinists in the orchestra; his mother (who's Japanese) still playing, his father retired. He certainly seems comfortable up there, very nearly dancing to the Bernstein and de Falla. The Beethoven was by turns bold, agile and tender. But it was the Bernstein that made the evening for me, Gilbert and the Philharmonic bringing out all the cacophonous and diaphanous wonders that an earlier Music Director of the Philharmonic found he could put there as he adapted music from his opera/musical for a huge orchestra. Amazing percussion, dulcet strings, brass to make your hair stand ecstatically on end. At one point I heard the Rite of Spring and then, just seconds later, Tito Puente. Mambo! (Picture source.)

Fall in the Lang courtyard, Act II

(Act I was weeks ago, but all those red leaves fell leaving the trees green again until this week!)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Questionable

I asked yesterday what was the matter with this question:

Isn't it true, though, that — as [C. S.] Lewis says — that the philosophy that we bring to our experience, to our observations, influences how we interpret them? Now, if we approach a miracle with a philosophy that has ruled out the supernatural, then we have to find some explanation for it.

The problem with the question - posed by Dr. Armand Nicholi in the popular PBS show based on his book The Question of God: Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis - is of course that it presupposes that miracles happen. More, it presupposes that they are clearly and self-evidently inexplicable events which only the dogmatically scientistic will feel a need to try to explain away. The name for this presupposition, especially in 2004 when the PBS series was first screened, is "intelligent design."

Now what was this doing on PBS? There's a sobering story here. But first a few words about the program. It starts in a way you can imagine made me howl: No matter what your faith or what you believe, a generically deep-voiced narrator intones, how each of us understand the meaning of life comes down to one ultimate question: does God really exist? Not only are non-theistic religions ignored, but here too the existence of what's supposedly at question is presupposed. The question is not "is there a God?" but "does God exist?" By not using the indefinite article, the question "does God exist?" lets "God" be a proper name, the name of a particular being, not a concept which may or may not have a corresponding reality. Nicholi (a Harvard professor - of psychiatry - who's taught a seminar on Freud and Lewis for 30 years) in fact has a very particular God in mind, but contrasting Freud and Lewis - picked as the most influential 20th century representatives of the "atheist" and the "spiritual worldview" - lets him be vague about it. Whether we realize it or not, all of us possess a worldview, he says. We make one of two basic assumptions. We view the universe as an accident or we assume an intelligence beyond the universe who gives the universe order, and for some of us, meaning to life. Are those really the only options? (Consider, for instance, emergence.)

The series follows the lives of Freud and Lewis in alternation, in dreadful reenactments with pompous British actors, significant-sounding classical music and Ken Burns-effects, narrated by the generic voice-of-God narrator - not Nicholi - with some distinguished talking heads from the world of scholarship. (That's the dying Freud below.) The rest of the time is devoted to a seminar of "thoughtful men and women" who discuss in interesting and often surprising ways topics Freud's and Lewis' experiences and ideas suggest to Nicholi. These seven panelists are a demographically interesting bunch - a Jungian analyst and a spiritual writer, both using Christian language though in an unorthodox way; a skeptical film-maker mindful of the history of the civil rights movement; a doctor who made the leap of faith to Christianity; an atheistic lawyer from Canada; a distinguished looking partner in a Wall Street firm with a view close to Lewis' own; and Michael Shermer, American skeptic at large. The first two were the panel's only women. The film-maker's African American and the doctor Korean-American. The atheist lawyer is Jewish. Nicholi is - well, a "Harvard University professor," what else need you know? Disinterested and trustworthy, probably liberal and sceptical, surely.

In fact, what the series does, especially effectively in the discussion segments, is suggest that all "thoughtful" people are part of the discussion about God, whether they realize it or not. There is a broad spectrum of views, with atheism at one end. People move around along this spectrum over the course of their lives, as did Freud and Lewis themselves, both raised in moderately religious households and atheists in college, though Lewis converted and Freud did not. Who wouldn't want to be part of a conversation like this? I'm sure a big part of the program's popularity (I think I recall it's being replayed during pledge drives) is its invitation to people to enter free-ranging discussions about spirituality they didn't think were possible.

But if atheism's one end of the spectrum, what's at the other end? Funny you should ask. Sometimes the "spiritual worldview" seems to be anything that's not an atheist nihilism. Other times, notably when the Wall Street guy is talking, it seems to be a very specific Christian view of a world fallen into sin but yearning for redemption: This is not Plan A, I'd say, says the Wall Street guy. This is Plan B, which is a broken world, that free reign of evil is everywhere. And then you get this, from Nicholi: Lewis's worldview is very much based on a person that appeared in history. He looked very carefully at the historical documents, and this person who claimed to be God. And, indeed, Lewis concluded that this person was who he claimed to be, and that he died as he predicted he would, and that he rose again on the third day. Now if this person did appear today, so that we could experience him, would we believe? This is true to Lewis, but what's it tell us about "spiritual" positions which aren't Christian? What's really going on is that the spectrum is based on Lewis' life, not so much a spread as a trajectory from atheism to Christian faith. The New Agey women, the Jew and the skeptics don't make it to the end, but they're good conversation partners along the way.

Here's how the series closes: Is it possible that Freud and Lewis represent conflicting parts of ourselves? A part of us that yearns for a relationship with the source of all joy, hope and happiness, as described by Lewis. And another part that raises its fist in defiance and says with Freud — "I will not surrender." Whatever part we choose to express will determine our purpose, our identity, and our whole philosophy of life. This only seems even-handed. God's existence is once again presupposed, Freud a rebel, and a stand-in for the sinful part of each of us (dare I say: the Jewish part unable to accept Jesus as Lord?). Indeed Nicholi (this time it's him, not the generic narrator) pauses after "our purpose" long enough for certain listeners (including me!) to sense a question about afterlives spent in, well, different places.

So, a 4-hour special couched in the language of intelligent design with a barely concealed Evangelical apologetic beneath the surface, on PBS. How did it get there? Therein lies a tale. Turns out that Nicholi is one of Harvard's best known evangelical professors. (He's a cofounder of the Family Research Council.) Someone took his seminar and told evangelical entrepreneur Douglas Holloday about it. Holloday brought together funders (including of course the Templeton Foundation) so that he could offer it to PBS as a complete package. They took the bait. Holloday is the Wall Street Christian in the discussion - bottom right in the spread above.

I'm not making this up. It's described in D. Michael Lindsay's Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (Oxford University Press, 2007):

The Question of God ... is an excellent example of evangelicalism's intellectually oriented outreach. ... Evangelical backers of the documentary wanted a "subtle, even-handed" account of the differences between Freud and Lewis, and insisted that the program "not preach" so that viewers could decide which perspective was truer to their experience. ... "PBS was critical for this type of project," says Holloday, because "their audience was our direct target." (104)

I showed some clips from "The Question of God" in Theorizing Religion on Tuesday, right after we'd read Freud's The Future of an Illusion. It wasn't my intention to put anyone in harm's way, just to raise questions about how public discussion about religion is formed in our time (as we did earlier with the Belief-O-Matic). Sometimes "spiritual" means everything and nothing, a relief from the dangers of "religion." Sometimes the situation is more complicated. But the program is very well made, its PBS cheesiness disarming. And Lewis seems so open and joyful, Freud so dogmatic and grim. Indeed, Lewis is associated in my students' minds with the Narnia books and the joys of childhood enjoyed throughout life, while Freud seems the pervy uncle who thinks childhood cheerless and adulthood even worse. And they're too young (imagine that!) to remember the scandals around "intelligent design." They didn't like being bamboozled by Evangelicals, but I suspect that Nicholi's seminar is still one many would take if they could. D'oh! It's working.

Rose in the subway

As I was waiting for the subway this morning, the lush scent of a rose suddenly engulfed me. It came from two creamy roses a woman had in her handbag a dozen meters away, their heavy scent pushed toward me by the pressure of an oncoming train.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Intelligently designed question

What's the matter with this question:

"Isn't it true, though, that — as [C. S.] Lewis says — that the philosophy that we bring to our experience, to our observations, influences how we interpret them? Now, if we approach a miracle with a philosophy that has ruled out the supernatural, then we have to find some explanation for it."

Details tomorrow!

Shameful

Jane Mayer has an article in the October 26th issue of The New Yorker which will chill your blood. It's about the attacks on Taliban and others in Pakistan the CIA is conducting by means of Predator drones. We hear about these attacks occasionally, usually when a target has been hit. A few bystanders are usually killed, too. Strangely, the concept of "collateral damage," used to widespread indignation by Cheney and Rumsfield during the invasion of Iraq, isn't invoked. It seems not to be necessary. No defense is given at all. And these attacks are on the rise in the Obama administration.

During his first nine and a half months in office, he has authorized as many C. I. A. aerial attacks in Pakistan as George W. Bush did in his final three years in office. ... a rate of approximately one bombing a week. So far this year, various estimates suggest, the C. I. A. attacks have killed between three hundred and twenty-six and six hundred and thirty-eight people. Critics say that many of the victims have been innocent bystanders, including children. (37)

Let me put that in numbers you'll understand: between 326 and 638. (Presumably the New Yorker's style sheet discourages the use of numbers.) Just this year. And don't imagine they at least always hit their target. For the most celebrated hit, Baitullah Mehsud, it appears to have taken sixteen missile strikes, and fourteen months, before the C. I. A. succeeded in killing him. During this hunt, between two hundred and seven and three hundred and twenty-one additional people were killed, depending on which news accounts you rely upon. (45)

I translate again: between 207 and 321. Mayer shows the many issues raised by this program, from the unaccountability of the CIA (and its civilian subcontractors) to the unreliability of information about targets, from to the violations of Pakistani sovereignty to the anger such attacks generate among its innocent victims and how the Taliban benefit from it, from the US government's supposed opposition to assassinations to the moral and psychological implications of the fact that the drone over Pakistan is guided from the distance and safety of Langley, VA. How did this pass under our radar?

Those numbers again: between 326 and 638. This year alone. And With public disenchantment mounting over the U. S. troop deployment in Afghanistan, and the Obama Administration divided over whether to escalate the American military presence there, many in Washington support an even greater reliance on Predator strikes - from George Will to Joe Biden. It has indeed occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force (38). It's almost as if it's not really killing - the Predator's kin have innocuous names like Gnat.

Were it still the Bush administration, we'd all be up in arms. This article would be as necessary reading as the articles by Seymour Hersh in whose footsteps Mayer walks.

(By the way, the regularization of drone warfare is one more way in which the remarkable Mexican sci-fi film "Sleep Dealer"- which will be screened November 12th at the upcoming Digital Labor conference - has proved prophetic.)

Taste of Fall

Come Fall, I bring out my favorite Japanese tea cup - those falling leaves and needles have become the taste of Fall for me! (Okay, so I sometimes use it at other times I the year, too.) I've had the cup for ages - picked it up in Japan when I used to go there every year. Brings the taste of that back, too.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hopelessly French

Lest you think I do nothing but take pictures of autumn leaves, a quick report on something I read over the weekend. It came at the recommendation of a colleague in cultural studies who described it as the best account of the crisis of culture in thirty years. That seemed worth following up, especially as this work seems to be one of the inspirations of our campus anarchists. I scored further cred by ordering it at my local bookstore Unnameable Books.

L'insurrection qui vient appeared in French in 2007 and is a hopelessly French book - hopeless, that is, in a very French way. Words sing, paradoxes gleam, totalities are exposed, and nothing less than civilization (or its impossibility) is at stake. True life, impossible to describe without falsification, is found not in ideas, structures, movements, relationships or identities but in the interstices, the demimondes, perruques and black markets of the real. The team of writers (they think of themselves as a commune) are anonymous - one of the "zones of opacity" they encourage readers to "multiply" (107). But they're the same anonymous people whom the police arrested as they tried to sabotage the electricity of the French rails. This manifesto calls for acts of disruption of this kind all over, which they hope will break through the institutions of security, management and control which hide the emptiness of our endeavors from us. This will lead us from the thoroughly bankrupt present - which includes entirely bogus political, personal and intellectual struggles - to... well, where? The closest they come is in a parenthetical:

The interruption of the flow of commodities, the suspension of normality (it’s sufficient to see how social life returns in a building suddenly deprived of electricity to imagine what life could become in a city deprived of everything) and police control liberate potentialities for self-organization unthinkable in other circumstances. (119)

Don't think I didn't enjoy it. (I confess, I read some of it aloud with a French accent.) Some of its insights - as work, self, economy, environment, politics, organization, etc. are exposed as hollow - are electric. Some tastes, on city/country, environment, and the "clash of civilizations":

We’ve heard enough about the “city” and the “country,” and particularly about the supposed ancient opposition between the two. From up close or from afar, what surrounds us looks nothing like that: it is one single urban cloth, without form or order, a bleak zone, endless and undefined, a global continuum of museum-like hypercenters and natural parks, of enormous suburban housing developments and massive agricultural projects, industrial zones and subdivisions, country inns and trendy bars: the metropolis. Certainly the ancient city existed, as did the cities of medieval and modern times. But there is no such thing as a metropolitan city. All territory is subsumed by the metropolis. Everything occupies the same space, if not geographically then through the intermeshing of its networks.
It’s because the city has finally disappeared that it has now become fetishized, as history. … Control has a wonderful way of integrating itself into the commodity landscape, showing its authoritarian face to anyone who wants to see it. It’s an age of fusions, of muzak, telescoping police batons and cotton candy. Equal parts police surveillance and enchantment! ... The metropolis is this simultaneous death of city and country. ...
There still remain some fragments of the city and some traces of the country caught up in the metropolitan mesh. But vitality has taken up quarters in the so-called “problem” neighborhoods. It’s a paradox that the places thought to be the most uninhabitable turn out to be the only ones still in some way inhabited. (52-55)

There is no "environmental catastrophe." The catastrophe is the environment itself. The environment is what’s left to man after he’s lost everything. Those who live in a neighborhood, a street, a valley, a war zone, a workshop—they don’t have an “environment;” they move through a world peopled by presences, dangers, friends, enemies, moments of lie and death, all kinds of beings. Such a world has its own consistency, which varies according to the intensity and quality of the ties attaching us to all of these beings, to all of these places. It’s only we, the children of the final dispossession, exiles of the final hour—who come into the world in concrete cubes, pick our fruits at the supermarket, and watch for an echo of the world on television—only we get to have an environment. ... What has congealed as an environment is a relationship to the world based on management, which is to say, on estrangement. ... No material habitat has ever deserved the name “environment,” except perhaps the metropolis of today. The digitized voices making announcements, streetcars with such a 21st century whistle, bluish streetlamps shaped like giant matchsticks, pedestrians done up like failed fashion models, the silent rotation of a video surveillance camera, the lucid clicking of the subway turnstyles, supermarket checkouts, office time-clocks, the electronic ambiance of the cybercafé, the profusion of plasma screens, express lanes and latex. Never has a setting been so able to do without the souls traversing it. Never has a milieu been more automatic. Never has a context been so indifferent, and demanded in return—as the price of survival—such an equal indifference from us. (74-75)

There is no “clash of civilizations.” There is a clinically dead civilization kept alive by all sorts of life-support machines that spread a peculiar plague into the planet’s atmosphere. At this point it can no longer believe in a single one of its own “values,” and any affirmation of them is considered an impudent act, a provocation that should and must be taken apart, deconstructed, and returned to a state of doubt. Today Western imperialism is the imperialism of relativism, of the “It all depends on your point of view”; it’s the eye-rolling or the wounded indignation at anyone who’s stupid, primitive, or presumptuous enough to still believe in something, to affirm anything at all. … A century ago, scandal was identified with any particularly unruly and raucous negation, while today it’s found in any affirmation that fails to tremble.
No social order can base itself for long on the principle that nothing is true. Yet it must be made secure. … Containing all affirmations and deactivating all certainties as they irresistibly come to light—such is the long labor of the Western intellect. The police and philosophy are two convergent, if formally distinct, means to this end. (92-94)

Leafy Brooklyn

More Fall colors, top and bottom from Brooklyn - Park Place on the way to the B/7 and the view from my apartment window toward Manhattan. At left a spectacular harvest spread at the Union Square Green Market, which you can already feel contracting towards the the apple and pumpkin market to which winter reduces it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fall colors

Beautiful autumnal day! I started in familiar territory, though unfamiliar on a weekend - to school for our Fall Open House for prospective students. Jefferson Market Public Library was looking as splendid as ever as one of its attendant trees starts to turn. And sitting on the stage of our auditorium, a futurist folly from 1930, I noticed it's garish orange actually makes from some lovely effects. Up then to Central Park, in gorgeous color. But I was there because a friend had told me that the hundreds of trees blown down by a freak storm in August were being turned into mountains of wood chips. It's true. And then, since I was in the neighborhood, up to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, passing the crazy statue in the peace garden next door, and then dazzled by the light of the stained glass bathing the newly cleaned white stone columns inside in opulent jewel colors.

The ancient rivalry

Meanwhile, back in Melbourne, The Age still thinks it can sell papers by noting that, while Sydney's prettier, Melbourne is "considerably smarter." Its less balmy climate leads to greater reflectiveness, as do the climates of New York and London. Only some of this reflectivenss, I trust, is about those airhead Sydneysiders who don't even realize there's a race on! But I include this just because the attendant drawing is so apt, at least for Age readers! (Ms. Sydney would be right at home with Kath & Kim.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

That Strauss alchemy

Call me a Philistine, but I love Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier." I saw a performance of it for the first time tonight (well, last night - it started at 7:30 but ended past midnight) at the Met, with a great cast - Susan Graham as Octavian, Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Ochs, with Edo de Waart taking James Levine's place as conductor. Robert O'Hearn and Nathaniel Merrill's opulently staged production is forty years old, which is all to the good: nostalgia for the days of unironically grand opera mixes well with the "Rosenkavalier"'s games with nostalgia. It all made for a glorious night at the opera!
Almost as entertaining was watching the opera's differing effects on my friend D and on me. After the first act (which left me blissed out with weeping) he was dismissive - the music was so predictable that it was impossible to have an honest emotion: you always knew what note would fall before it fell. In vain did I try to describe this as Strauss' intent, even as in fact I find the music's melodic and rhythmic swoops satisfying precisely for their unpredictability. After the second act, with the mythical meeting of true teenaged hearts and the comedy of Ochs' vulgarity, I was sure he'd want to go home, but no: he had warmed to the opera and accepted its artifice more than me, whose turn it was to be the skeptic, convinced that Sophie would end up like the Marschallin and what about Octavian and Ochs? Exhausted after the final act, we were both reduced to the same awed but grateful murmur: "Wagner."

How does Strauss do it, mixing farce so expertly with pathos that you're surprised at the end to be overwhelmed with unmixed feeling?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Revelation!

I mentioned last week that the New School for General Studies was celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of The New School with a talk, to which I was looking forward, and an exhibit, whose poster I didn't like. Well, the talk turned out to be a dud. But the exhibit - it's a revelation! The artists' group Parts and Labor (3 alumni) placed their mobile gallery - a converted truck with transparent siding - in front of the entrance of the university, and filled it with wonders they found in the university's neglected archives. I knew about the project as they were working on it and couldn't imagine its working but now I'm a believer! The clear walls convey the school's distinctive place in the midst of the city. The truck is also the site of events, from classes to some séances, but it brings what's usually indoors into conversation with the bustle of outdoors all by itself. The old catalogs displayed inside the doors conjure up 90 years of relevance. The creative disarray inside suggests at once an embarrassment of riches and a neglected
inheritance. And the loops of old microfilms, evoking both books and the movement of film - wow! Transparent like the gallery, they also echo and give new meaning to the school's black & white modernist façade. The project's purpose is to share delight in the university's past and generate conversation about its future.
It's a triumph! It's up through Friday - check it out if you have a chance!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ethereal railroad

A testimonial in James' Varieties to which I hadn't paid much heed in past readings - it's in a footnote - stopped me in my tracks today. It's in the discussion of mystical experiences, experiences he suggests can be had in moments of intoxication, the report, by a "friend in England, ... a gifted woman, [who] was taking ether for a surgical operation."

"I wondered if I was in a prison being tortured, and why I remembered having heard it said that people 'learn through suffering,' and in view of what I was seeing, the inadequacy of this saying struck me so much that I said, aloud, 'to suffer is to learn.'
"With that I became unconscious again, and my last dream immediately preceded my real coming to. It only lasted a few seconds, and was most vivid and real to me, though it may not be clear in words.
"A great Being or Power was traveling through the sky, his foot was on a kind of lightning as a wheel is on a rail, it was his pathway. The lightning was made entirely of the spirits of innumerable people close to one another, and I was one of them. He moved in a straight line, and each part of the streak or flash came into its short conscious existence only that he might travel. I seemed to be directly under the foot of God, and I thought he was grinding his own life up out of my pain. Then I saw that what he had been trying with all his might to do was to change his course, to bend the line of lightning to which he was tied, in the direction in which he wanted to go. I felt my flexibility and helplessness, and knew that he would succeed. He bended me, turning his corner by means of my hurt, hurting me more than I had ever been hurt in my life, and at the acutest point of this, as he passed, I saw, I understood for a moment things that I have now forgotten, things that no one could remember while retaining sanity. The angle was an obtuse angle, and I remember thinking as I woke that had he made it a right or acute angle, I should have both suffered and 'seen' still more, and should probably have died.
"He went on and I came to. In that moment the whole of my life passed before me, including each little meaningless piece of distress, and I understood them. This was what it had all meant, this was the piece of work it had all been contributing to do. I did not see God's purpose, I only saw his intentness and his entire relentlessness towards his means. He thought no more of me than a man thinks of hurting a cork when he is opening wine, or hurting a cartridge when he is firing. And yet, on waking, my first feeling was, and it came with tears, 'Domine non sum digna,' for I had been lifted into a position for which I was too small. I realized that in that half hour under ether I had served God more distinctly and purely than I had ever done in my life before, or than I am capable of desiring to do. I was the means of his achieving and revealing something, I know not what or to whom, and that, to the exact extent of my capacity for suffering.
"While regaining consciousness, I wondered why, since I had gone so deep, I had seen nothing of what the saints call the love of God, nothing but his relentlessness. And then I heard an answer, which I could only just catch, saying, 'Knowledge and Love are One, and the measure is suffering' – I give the words as they came to me. With that I came finally to (into what seemed a dream world compared with the reality of what I was leaving), and I saw that what would be called the 'cause' of my experience was a slight operation under insufficient ether, in a bed pushed up against a window, a common city window in a common city street. If I had to formulate a few of the things I then caught a glimpse of, they would run somewhat as follows:
"The eternal necessity of suffering and its eternal vicariousness. The veiled and incommunicable nature of the worst sufferings; the passivity of genius, how it is essentially instrumental and defenseless, moved, not moving, it must do what it does; – the impossibility of discovery without its price;- finally, the excess of what the suffering 'seer' or genius pays over what his generation gains. (He seems like one who sweats his life out to earn enough to save a district from famine, and just as he staggers back, dying and satisfied, bringing a lac of rupees to buy grain with, God lifts the lac away, dropping one rupee, and says, 'That you may give them. That you have earned for them. The rest is for ME.') I perceived also in a way never to be forgotten, the excess of what we see over what we can demonstrate.
"And so on! – these things may seem to you delusions, or truisms; but for me they are dark truths, and the power to put them into even such words as these has been given me by an ether dream."
(William James, Varieties, 392n-393n)

Wherever these words come from, they are words to make a person shudder. I definitely have the desired reaction, described in James' famous letter to Leuba: there is something in me which makes response when I hear utterances from that quarter made by others. I recognize the deeper voice. Something tells me: - 'thither lies truth' (xxiv) And it is a near perfect illustration of many of the points James is making as he winds up the Varieties.

Was this experience chemically induced? So what if it was: this experience was clearly life-changing.

Is the language suspect - the celestial railway a giveaway of 19th century anxieties? So what if it is: in its very specificity it earns a place next to experiencers, from Anthony of the Desert to John of the Cross, whose truth we hear through their words.

Is religious experience self-important? It only seems to be: if in these minutes James' friend "served God more distinctly and purely" than ever before in her life, enabling God to "bend his course" as only she could have done, it was clearly understood as service to something greater, experienced not as a "purpose" but as a "relentlessness." Here we find a quite self-effacing example of religion as "mankind's most important function," an anticipation of the Varieties' closing suggestion that our faithfulness actually help[s] God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks" (519).

Of course - and now you'll see why students sometimes get whiplash in my classes - the English friend's experience can also help a Marxist critic in turn be more faithful to her task in critiquing James' fetishism of individual experience. Forget the opiate of ether. You could start with railroads and the reference to Indian famine - she's English, after all. (Marx actually praised the English for laying rails in India; it would hasten, he thought, the experience of national oppression required for revolution.) But, wherever the analogy comes from, she's describing a personal experience, too. We labor mightily to feed each other, but God takes almost all that we earn for himself. Even if described in a state of religious awe, the Marxist hears in it also a critique of a religion which parasitically weakens our efforts to help each other. A religion we experience as relentlessly intent but whose purposes we don't understand, which offers suffering as the only valid kind of knowledge, an experience which is incredibly powerful, explaining all, and yet one which the human isn't "capable of desiring."

Critiquing James is always a touchy business. James is so personal and personable that some students take it as an attack on their own interiority, their own ineffable experiences. I'm content just to have left them with a worry: does James' view that it is in private solitary experiences that we earn our keep in the universe blind us to other important experiences, not only of finding this-worldly solutions to our problems, but also in relations with other people? At one point, James affirms the importance of every individual experience:

If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. (487)

This is a stirring picture of the human race as a whole, but it's a whole divided into as many immovable and evidently unrelated parts as there are individuals, each of whom must do what she must do, on her own. (A bit like Charles Taylor's lonely conception of the "communion of the saints.") Otherwise religion goes off the rails.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Intergenerational

I had the occasion this evening to introduce one of the oldest members of the New School family, a veteran of WW2 who got a BA at The New School in 1948, to one if its youngest, a first year Lang student in her first semester. Though I'm not sure they quite understood everything the other was saying, they were enchanted at the sight of each other.

'48 to '13: "Before the GI Bill college was something only 6% of the population had the chance to do."

'13 to '48: "One of my friends in high school got so wigged out over APs that it completely screwed up her ovarian system."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wild things

The Morgan Library offers a fascinating juxtaposition of exhibitions at the moment. One offers some early sketches from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (tie-in to Spike Jonze's live action movie of it, which just opened). It's in the very imposing library, but bests the library's terrors. In the center as you enter, where one of the Morgan's Gutenberg Bibles usually greets visitors (!), you now find a glass case with a copy of Where the Wild Things Are. It's open to the page where the young protagonist says "BE STILL!" to the wild things - and they are. (I was sore tempted to call this post "Be still and know that I am Max!") The other sketches and final watercolors (none on their website, so I've had to make do with images from the book which others have posted) are great fun to see. And there is a rightness about seeing it in that imposing room, a hothouse of old books. Just as Max can see his bedroom blur into a forest, so a library's forest of book spines can easily dissolve into worlds of poetry, history, science and even theology!

You may have a question about the wild thing at the top of my post though. Familiar, perhaps, but is it really Sendak? No - it's from the other exhibition: works from the Library by William Blake, whose high point is the complete cycle of watercolors of The Book of Job (1805-10). The happy-seeming sea serpent is in fact Leviathan, displayed to Job (and his wife, and his friends) by God, along with the lesser-known Behemoth. These images - quite different in effect than the famous engravings based on them - are fascinating to explore. Blake's Job is quite different from the one you'll find in books like Gutenberg Bible, because his God is too. I can't pretend to understand Blake's personal mythology, but he seems to me some midway point between Gnosticism and Jung. Job's growth in insight is represented as a change in God - a God who accordingly looks lot like, well, Job. And when - in a scene added in 1821 - Job's words "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee" (42:5, KJV) - are interpreted as a "Vision of Christ," this Christ, too, looks an awful lot like God, and like Job. And in the next scene, when Job makes a sacrifice for his friends, he looks like God but stretches his arms out like Christ... There's much else of interest here, of course, even if (like me) you don't really like his drawings. It's always interesting to see how someone has pictured this intensely figurative text. Blake places the story in a sort of prehistoric Britain - lots of sheep but no camels, and isn't that Stonehenge? He is drawn to the text's several dreams and visions. And Mrs. Job is a major character. She's at Job's side throughout, even - unlike the friends - when God speaks from the whirlwind saying (as it were) "BE STILL!"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chop chop

A propos of nothing in particular - an eggplant I roasted last night for some baingan bhartaa. It looked cool, so I took a picture. I suppose it's part of series of scenes in the life of my plastic cutting boards, and reminiscent of this one from last April, which I thought I'd posted.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Religious literacy

Our college's Religious Studies Minor has just been officially approved!

I'm not sure why it's taken so long, but the point is: it's finally real! We hope and expect that many more students will be interested in a minor than in a major. But what should the minor require, and why? Our proposal suggested some distribution requirements - Theorizing Religion, one "western" and one "non-western" course and three more, of which two should be in the same area - but it would be nice to offer a broader rationale.

Today I was happy to discover a candidate in a definition of "religious literacy" proposed by Diane L. Moore:

The ability to discern and analyze the intersections of religion and social, political, and cultural life. A religiously literate person will possess a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs, practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world's religious traditions and religious expressions as they arose out of and continue to shape and be shaped by particular social, historical, historical, and cultural contexts. In addition, a religiously literate person will have the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social, and cultural expressions across time and place.

"Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach,"
in World History Connected, November 1996; qtd. in Diane L. Moore,
"American Academy of Religion Guidelines for Teaching about Religion
in K-12 Public Schools: Introduction and Parts One and Two,"
Religious Studies News 24/4 (October 2009), 27-28.

That this definition was developed in connection with K-12 education isn't a problem, though in a broader sense it's an embarrassment: students at American public schools are religiously illiterate on arriving in college. And actually, if you think about it at the college level, it's a pretty ambitious goal.

(The photo of Jefferson Market is unrelated, but it was taken today!)

Hanging in there

Had fun with William James in class today. Among other things we focused on (read aloud!) the old "oriental fable of the traveler surprised in the desert by a wild beast" he quotes Tolstoy recalling:

"Seeking to save himself from the fierce animal, the traveler jumps into a well with no water in it; but at the bottom of this well he sees a dragon waiting with open mouth to devour him. And the unhappy man, not daring to go out lest he should be the prey of the beast, not daring to jump to the bottom lest he should be devoured by the dragon, clings to the branches of a wild bush which grows out of one of the cracks of the well. His hands weaken, and he feels that he must soon give way to certain fate; but still he clings, and see two mice, one white, the other black, evenly moving round the bush to which he hangs, and gnawing off its roots

"The traveler sees this and knows that he must inevitably perish; but while thus hanging he looks about him and finds on the leaves of the bush some drops of honey. These he reaches with his tongue and licks them off with rapture.

"Thus I hang upon the boughs of life, knowing that the inevitable dragon of death is waiting ready to tear me, and I cannot comprehend why I am thus made a martyr. I try to suck the honey which formerly consoled me; but the honey pleases me no longer, and day and night the white mouse and the black mouse gnaw the branch to which I cling. I can see but one thing: the inevitable dragon and the mice--I cannot turn my gaze away from them.

"This is no fable, but the literal incontestable truth which every one may understand. What will be the outcome of what I do to-day? Of what I shall do to-morrow? What will be the outcome of all my life? Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there in life any purpose which the inevitable death which awaits me does not undo and destroy?

"These questions are the simplest in the world. From the stupid child to the wisest old man, they are in the soul of every human being. Without an answer to them, it is impossible, as I experienced, for life to go on.

"'But perhaps,' I often said to myself, 'there may be something I have failed to notice or to comprehend. It is not possible that this condition of despair should be natural to mankind.' And I sought for an explanation in all the branches of knowledge acquired by men. I questioned painfully and protractedly and with no idle curiosity. I sought, not with indolence, but laboriously and obstinately for days and nights together. I sought like a man who is lost and seeks to save himself--and I found nothing. I became convinced, moreover, that all those who before me had sought for an answer in the sciences have also found nothing. And not only this, but that they have recognized that the very thing which was leading me to despair--the meaningless absurdity of life--is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man." (Varieties, 154-55)

This "oriental fable" is in fact part of the story of Saints Barlaam and Josaphat - a wise hermit who converts an Indian prince - which has been shown to have antecedents and kin across the Eurasian continent from Japanese to Yiddish. The original Josaphat, descended from Greek Ioasaph, Georgian Iodasaph, Arabic Yudasaf and Manichee Bodisaf, was evidently none other than Gautama, the bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be), and the transformation-inducing story Tolstoy repeats seems to go back farther still. (Sometimes, as in the 15th century drawing above, the branch evidently becomes a tree, the beast the allegorically one-pointed unicorn.) It's certainly evocative, and you can sort of imagine how it will have found its way across religious traditions, naming and engendering dark nights of the soul and so conversions of various sorts. Tolstoy's on his way to describing his own conversion - the despair is mitigated, or braked, or leavened, by countervailing hopes derived from peasant cheer. James' own version of a comparable bleakness, given in his own voice a few pages earlier, is if anything more terrifying:

For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological speculations, mankind is in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature's portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation. (141)

More poignant and also quicker, for sun, bonfires and skating all hasten the breaking of the ice! How über-pessimistic - just what you'd expect from the person who had the epileptic patient experience. We talked a bit about James' own position outside religious experience but still somehow convinced that religion is "mankind's most important function." And I referred students back to a "healthy-minded" alternative to the old oriental fable which I'm sure is still in use.

A story which revivalist preachers often tell is that of a man who found himself at night slipping down the side of a precipice.

At last he caught a branch which stopped his fall, and remained clinging to it in misery for hours. But finally his fingers had to loose their hold, and with a despairing farewell to life, he let himself drop. He fell just six inches. If he had given up the struggle earlier, his agony would have been spared. As the mother earth received him, so, the preachers tell us, will the everlasting arms receive us if we confide absolutely in them, and give up the hereditary habit of relying on our personal strength, with its precautions that cannot shelter and safeguards that never save. (111)

James knows how to present a variety of views in striking ways! The "healthy-minded" thesis and "sick souled" or "morbid-minded" antithesis sure leave you wishing for some kind of Aufhebung, "the divided self and its unification," through "conversion."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hearing voices

I seem to be very interested in oral culture these days - stories you hear rather than read, like Job, for instance. This led me to do something new in what must be at least the tenth time I've taught William James' Varieties of Religious Experience on Tuesday. The Varieties is full of first-personal testimonials, accounts of feelings of dread and joy and relief and transformation, as one would expect for a project devoted to examining "the feelings, acts, and experienes of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine," a project, indeed, committed to showing that "out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow." Earlier theorists of religion had looked at creeds and scriptures and sermons and ritual manuals; James was among the first to listen to the voices of individuals - and what a remarkable bunch of individuals he found to quote! Here's the very first, George Fox, founder of the Quakers:

"As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head and saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house we were going to, I wished the friends to walk into the house, saying nothing to them of whither I was to go. As soon as they were gone I stept away, and went by my eye over hedge and ditch till I came within a mile of Lichfield where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter: but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying: Cry, 'Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!' So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! It being market day, I went into the market-place, and to and fro in the several parts of it, and made stands, crying as before, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! And no one laid hands on me. As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood. When I had declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace; and returning to the shepherds gave them some money, and took my shoes of them again. But the fire of the Lord was so on my feet, and all over me, that I did not matter to put on my shoes again, and was at a stand whether I should or no, till I felt freedom from the Lord so to do: then, after I had washed my feet, I put on my shoes again. After this a deep consideration came upon me, for what reason I should be sent to cry against that city, and call it The bloody city! For though the parliament had the minister one while, and the king another, and much blood had been shed in the town during the wars between them, yet there was no more than had befallen many other places. But afterwards I came to understand, that in the Emperor Diocletian's time a thousand Christians were martyr'd in Lichfield. So I was to go, without my shoes, through the channel of their blood, and into the pool of their blood in the market-place, that I might raise up the memorial of the blood of those martyrs, which had been shed above a thousand years before, and lay cold in their streets. So the sense of this blood was upon me, and I obeyed the word of the Lord."

What occurred to me this time through was that, while Fox was writing (all of James' sources are written, presumably in solitude...), the Varieties itself was a (hugely successful) series of lectures. That first day in Edinburgh in 1899, as James embarked on the first of that year's ten monthly lectures (a second cycle would complete the project) - the first American and the first psychologist to have been honored with an invitation to deliver Gifford Lectures - his audience heard Fox's voice. Through James' voice. James must have performed Fox, along with the scores of other religious geniuses and weirdos who make the Varieties such a remarkable work. William James' voice was the one heard crying, "Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!" And in order to make his point that these testimonials contained "facts" a scientist of religion must learn to learn from, he couldn't have done it with irony or distaste in his voice.

What must it have been like to hear these voices? I had some students try reading aloud some of James' sources, including Fox. An interesting experience! By enacting and enjoying the performative in these lectures in our class I was able to raise the necessary questions about the description and interpretation of supposedly ineffably individual experience. Can personal experience be communicated? Is it a problem that/how it's recollected, verbalized, written down, read, excerpted? The exercise of reading aloud becomes, indeed, an interesting hermeneutic and even ethical point: how should you give voice to someone else's arguments or experience if you are to understand and respond to them?

Part of the magic of the Varieties is that the other voices are more memorable than James' - by design, I think: while James believes he's making important contributions in collecting and interpreting experiences, no collecting or interpreting could take the place of the individual experiences where religion really lives. Tomorrow I'll start with a few more performances of James' sources, including a much discussed account from an unnamed Frenchman:

"Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them inclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian cat or Peruvian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non-human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other THAT SHAPE AM I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone."
"In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life. My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind (I have always thought that this experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing."

A few years later, it became clear that this experience was James' own. What to make of that?
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience:
A Study in Human Nature
(Penguin, 1982), 30, 7-8, 160-161.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

If I go forward, he is not there

Has anyone noticed Job in the Sunday liturgy? Everyone using the Revised Common Lectionary is now half-way through a four-Sunday sprint through the Book of Job, a book nobody I know can recall having appeared in this context before. (I'm trying to find out who gave Job this unprecedented prominence, if it is indeed unprecedented, and why.) This past Sunday's reading was really the nadir:

Then Job answered:
"Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
O that I knew where I might find him
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.

"If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
"God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!" (23:1-9, 16-17)

This isn't from Job's opening speech, where he curses the day he was born, but much farther along, most of the way through the cycles of speeches by his friends with Job's increasingly agitated responses. In the opening speech, he hasn't really tried to find God, but by now he has called out to him, pleaded and fumed and pressed charges, but found nothing. They're chilling words, even - especially - heard in church.

Come Sunday, Job will hear from God after all, speaking from the whirlwind (38:1-7 [34-41 optional]). And the Sunday after that, Job will respond and all will be restored (42:1-6, 10-17). It's really a remarkably apt digest of the story. (It began with 1:1, 2:1-10.) The friends and Job's protests are out, but it's far superior to the version of the Global Recording Network, capturing the terrifying mysteries of the book.

By an odd coincidence, I'm also halfway through a four-session exploration of the Book of Job I'm facilitating at my church. It was arranged last month (they've been after me to do one of these adult ed courses for years and I finally relented), nobody imagining that as we went forward, Job would be there with us in the Sunday liturgy. Along with an exhibition of Blake's illustrations to Job at the Morgan and the Coen Brothers' new movie, "A Serious Man," it feels particularly timely. Not that the economic crisis doesn't add timeliness too - or that Job's cries ever really go out of season.

Presenting material I've encountered in an academic context to a non-academic audience is a useful challenge for me. Presenting it in a church-related setting is yet another, and newer. (Not everyone there is a parishioner; several Soup Kitchen guests have come, and at least one angeheiratet member of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun.) It's making for some amazing discussion! I'm learning lots! Job is for these people an old friend, but most haven't read the Book of Job in a long time, if ever. The points I make till I'm weary in academic settings about how people live the Bible not in the solitude of reading but in liturgy and religious story-telling, etc., etc., are intuitive here. Job is very important to most of the people who've come, and it's enlightening and often humbling to hear about how and why.

I'll describe where we've gone in more detail some other time, but I'll give you the overview. The four sessions, called Patient Job, Impatient Job, Rich Job and Poor Job, try to raise different kinds of questions to the text and its meaning to us. The first session was about hearing Job (building on James 5:11's "you have heard of the patience of Job"), and I asked people to tell their neighbors the story of Job (giving them the Global Recording Network text and pictures as a crib sheet if needed) and then tell the group if they'd heard of that Job before. After some discussion of the way a multiplicity of tellings can, in some cases, deepen rather than blurring a story, we went through parts of the Burial Office, the main place where Christians will, from the 2nd century CE on, have heard Job. (We've heard it at two recent memorial services.) I think this angle got people thinking in a different way, and made a virtue of the fact that nobody had, at that point, read any Job in a very long time. The text floats in a sea of oral traditions, interpretations and liturgy.

Today was about reading, about the actual text of the Book of Job, and we looked over its rather ragged structure, dwelling especially on the question of how (or if) the frame story and the "poem of Job" fit together. Once I passed out the Revised Common Lectionary readings so we had a manageable shared text, though, discussion gravitated quickly to what God said to Job and what Job heard. Did God repair a relationship or decisively rupture it? What have the young lions, the ravens or even the morning stars which sing together to do with anything - was God changing the subject or giving a bigger picture? Was Job cowed or comforted? What did he mean when he recanted - if indeed he recanted? We certainly haven't exhausted these questions (as if one could!), but I think we're in a good place, ready to take on the retributionist theology Job seems to complicate but never quite rejects - the topic for next week's discussion.

I'm having so much fun I hope I can try this in other settings, too.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scratch that

There are some interesting things going on next week to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of The New School, including a talk Monday night by historian Peter Rutkoff entitled "What Would Dewey Do?" But I really don't like this poster. It intends, I know, to show a history of reinvention, but looks like a history of mistakes!

Has bean

Our favorite coffee shop has closed! The Bean, on Sixth Avenue between 10th and 11th, a near daily haunt on school days. Where do we go now?!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Doing the aftermath

Went this evening to say a play my mother heard about on PBS, the latest piece of documentary theater of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, most famous for "The Exonerated" (about people saved from death row by DNA vindications of their innocence). This one, called "Aftermath," brings to the stage the words of eight of 36 Iraqi refugees Blank and Jensen interviewed in Jordan in 2008 (and their translator, also a refugee). Their words are powerful, and for the most part very well played (I'm not sure what the right word is for documentary theater). Their stories are human and horrifying - the imam you see above was imprisoned at Abu Ghraib for two years (for having described the Americans as "occupiers," perhaps, though when he was brought to trial it was for having converted from Shi'a to Sunni Islam, which is not a crime) and, on release, lost many members of his family in raids on his mosque; apology wouldn't be enough for what America has caused Iraqis, he says, and predicts, with anger but also sadness, "your children will have to repay our children."

And yet I don't think the piece is entirely successful. We learn nothing about the conditions in which these refugees are now living (something I could probably picture because of an internship I had - sheesh, 24 years ago - at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, most of whom are in Jordan). The production - simple but beautiful, seven unmatching but all unblemished chairs and a few clean benches on an empty stage, spotlit or backlit as required - makes them seem to be floating in an abstract and only abstractly terrible limbo. Like ghosts. Blank and Jensen don't want to make them seem merely devastated victims, so let them smile and tell happy as well as sad stories, but this makes their predicament seem that much less pressing. They are haunted by what they have lost, but the implication that they are nothing but a personality and its memories, not struggling with these to make a new life (or refuse to make a new life, as refugees often do), makes them seem in the end merely theatrical characters.

That the aftermath of war, persecution, loss lasts forever was confirmed for me earlier in the day when I spent some time with the elderly neighbor of some of my friends - they visit her every day, and asked me to housesit for them this weekend while they were away and see her. I've told you about her before. She grew up in a multi-ethnic part of Romania taken over by the Soviets before and by the Germans soon after the start of WW2. Her father and brother were taken away by the Soviets and never seen again. She fled the approaching Germans with her mother (they were Jewish) and survived the war by remarkable resourcefulness and courage. I described her amazing survival last year. Today she told me her mother never recovered from the loss of her son, and that it was a mercy God let her die at 47, ostensibly of a kidney infection but really, her daughter was convinced, "of a broken heart." There's nothing as awful as losing a child, she said, "which is why I say: no children!" But her mother wasn't the only one who suffered. She told me she thanks God every day that her father and brother didn't have to suffer long, and even wishes she herself (who went on to emigrate from Romania, first to Italy and then to the US, raising a son of her own) had been taken with them. Speaking with her today it was clear part of her was still in 1940 - or maybe not part; in 1940 she was still whole.

Perhaps in 2008 the wounds of the American occupation of Iraq in 2003 were too fresh for anyone to know how deep they go, a depth which will only show itself as these survivors live on? Paradoxically, in letting their sources only describe what they lost and how they lost it, and not what they are doing now (however limbo-like), Blank and Jensen don't allow us to feel the lasting wounds of war.