Friday, March 31, 2017


The National Finalist of the 2016 Google Doodle competition takes the
eponymous multifaith bumper sticker COEXIST and expands it. Sweet!

Thursday, March 30, 2017


An interesting work of art on display at Lang. An artist who spent time at a seed bank devoted to understanding the ways in which plants adapt to human-caused climate change and dislocation asked 200 people to name objects and living creatures that didn't go together, then represented them together on used Metro Cards, stitched together in the colors of the subway lines. I'm not sure how it all fits together (that may be the point) but it makes for an engaging work!

Perfect containers

Delayed a fortnight because of Snow Day and Spring Break, we've arrived finally at Xunzi, who's wonderful! To remind students that he was still working within the framework of Kongzi (Confucius), our discussion traversed two Odes, each referred to twice in the text, and ended with a more general reference to the importance of the Odes. Somehow it makes most sense to describe our trajectory in reverse. We ended here:

Music is joy, an unavoidable human disposition. So, people cannot be without music; if they feel joy, they must express it in sound and give it shape in movement. The way of human beings is that changes in the motions of their nature are completely contained in those sounds and movements. So, people cannot be without joy, and their joy cannot be without shape, but if it takes she and does not accord with the Way, then there will inevitably be chaos. (284)

This chaos the ancient Sage Kings forestalled by assembling the Odes, whose fully embodied performance perfectly expresses joy. For while it is a thing to be welcomed, joy can distract us from the Way. The Odes ritualize the expression, and even the experience of joy. In every case, ritual begins in that which must be released, reaches full development in giving it proper form, and finishes in providing it satisfaction. (276)

The Xunzi's discussion of joy comes after the chapter on ritual, whose focus is not joy but grief. Grief, too, is an "unavoidable human disposition." It too is to be welcomed and ritualized. Xunzi eloquently and quite movingly describes sacrificial funeral rites as the refined expression of remembrance and longing (284). They operate primarily (if not necessarily exclusively) for the benefit of the living, whose haphazard expressions of grief would otherwise leave all unsatisfied.

They are the utmost in loyalty, trustworthiness, love, and respect. They are the fullest manifestation of ritual, proper regulation, good form, and proper appearance. If one is not a sage, then one will not be able to understand them. The sage clearly understands them. The well-bred man and the gentleman are at ease in carrying them out. The officials take them as things to be preserved. The common people take them as their set customs. The gentleman regards them as the way to be a proper human being. The common people regard them as serving the ghosts… (284)

Much to discuss there! The second of the Odes we read was #209, which describes the arc of a sacrificial rite; the line Xunzi twice cites refers to the appropriateness of even the laughter and words during ceremonial feasting. Ritualized joy even as part of mourning! It's fascinating, and surprisingly persuasive, as ritual theory - and as psychology. But if it's the way to be a proper human more than it is part of a relationship with the dead, that doesn't mean it's only about currently living human beings. For Xunzi sees human beings living out the Way as providing the true pattern and indeed the refined expression of all the ten thousand things. The first Ode we read, #241, described Heaven's pleasure at an early King who cleared the dead wood out of forests, etc. This isn't just a metaphor for the work one must do on oneself, but an indication that nature is incomplete until cultivated by human beings. It's a shocking idea for Americans raised to think of nature as opposed to human use or at least independent of it.

But the human's place isn't above nature, as is arguably the case in the Genesis narratives. There's a deep kinship between human beings and the ten thousand things. You find it, for instance, in the dispositions whose perfected expression makes human culture. Like mourning!

Among all the living things between Heaven and earth, those that have blood and qi are sure to have awareness, and of those that have awareness, none does not love its own kind. Now if one of the great birds or beasts loses its group of companions, then after a month or a season has passed, it is sure to retrace its former path and go by its old home. When it does, it is sure to pace back and forth, cry out, stomp the ground, pause hesitatingly, and only then is it able to leave the place. Even among smaller creatures such as swallows and sparrows, they will still screech for a moment before being able to leave. (283)

It's all quite beautiful, I think, profound. Even as I'm still a little sorry to see Mencius left behind, I can see why Xunzi seems to speak more to us today. He's every bit as committed to ritual and the classics as the other Confucians, but, perhaps because he offers a theory of why they work, he allows one to imagine new containers beyond those of ancient China which might also do the precious work he describes.

"Xunzi," trans. Eric L. Hutton, in Philip J, Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd. ed. (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2001)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Conference tutorial

An experiment...

Monday, March 27, 2017

Sign of age

Daniel Dennett is profiled in current The New Yorker. I liked his response to the young philosophers of mind who think there must be something more than - well, than everything we experience:

You shouldn't trust your intuitions. Conceivability or inconceivability is a life's work - it's not something where you just screw up your head for a second! (55)

12th and Sixth Ave, Monday morning

Not unbeautiful... 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Friday, March 24, 2017

Good thinking

I'm reading the new book by the wonderful Elizabeth Minnich, a vindication and updating of her teacher Hannah Arendt's arguments about the "banality of evil" for our times. I think she's probably right that Arendt would have spared herself lots of controversy if she's spoken instead of the "evil of banality," which Minnich unpacks as our own dumbest, densest, out-of-touch, compartmentalized, autopilot, clichéd, conventional, inattentive, greedy, careerist, and, enabling all that, thoughtless selves (122).

I'll have more to say about the book when I've finished reading it, but for now let me express my delight that Minnich includes a whole section on Goodness. The central distinction of the book is between the "intensive evil" of spectacular individuals and the "extensive evil" engaged in by great numbers for extended periods of time which is what really enables and enacts the greatest evils. Good comes in both sorts, too, Minnich argues, and imagining good only in its supererogatory saintly heroic "intensive" forms obscures the value of "extensive good." (The points on 126, below, are key.)

[E]ducating more of us to be prepared to martyr ourselves sadly means only that we will continue to need martyrs. (140)

She cites the work of Philip Hallie (who was at the center of one of my very first classes at The New School), but favors a less awestruck understanding of the "banality of good." It doesn't just seem ordinary and natural to those practiced in it. The work of good is itself banal. Resisting the blandishments of "extensive evil" is a demanding, even exhausting practice, requiring a complicated mix of attention, effort, collaboration and persistence.

To be and do good is more work than to be bad, even evil: you have to stay awake, and you have to practice both independence of mind and cooperative action, both open attentiveness and active reflection, direct simplicity and understanding of complex, changing contexts. (160)

I haven't thought about my own unfinished work on what I was calling "the problem of good," then "the problem with good," for a long time, but it's coming back to me as I read Minnich. I'd part ways with her at some point, because, while both feminist thinkers, she's less interested than I am in the ethics of care, which seems to me central to the theoretical elusiveness of good. But I haven't finished her book yet!

Elizabeth Minnich, The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death
Importance of Thinking (NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

American care

The rich white pseudo-Christians in Washington are gathering their forces to undo the belated act of civic decency which was the Affordable Care Act. That the cruel and feckless replacement is called the American Health Care Act tells you all you need to know about their view of "care" - and of "America." Exclusion and exploitation are their apple pie. I hope it will be sooner rather than later that we look back at the Obama years as the start of the more perfect union which eventually emerges, and the current racist frenzy to erase all trace of them as the last gasp of an exhausted narrowness, a failure to see that American democracy is all about care for all.

(F-R-O-G, incidentally, just means fig, raspberry, orange peel and ginger, nothing like feckless Republican overlord gridlock.)


My New School co-historian J and I gave a talk at Staff Development Day last year called "What Does it Mean to be a Progressive University?" We did the usual historian's thing - finding the past unfamiliar, at once disconcerting and inspiring, allowing distance, humility and a new vantage on the present - and it was a great hit. Staff, we concluded, have a greater investment in the school than students, passing through, or faculty, with communities and loyalties beyond the particular institution. We've never had as interested an audience! (And the video of the talk circulated well beyond the day.)

Today was Staff Development Day 2017, and they invited us back, this time to share the stage with the university's dynamic Vice President for Social Justice, the theme "Social Justice at The New School, Then and Now." Our impulse was to do for "social justice" what we'd done for "progressive" - it didn't mean then what it means now - but isn't "social justice" a term of our new century? J checked the digitized course catalogs and found the story was more complicated. "The Idea of Social Justice" shows up as a topic in a course already in Fall 1925! By 1936 a course was touching on "changing concepts of social justice" - but not before social justice cropped up in a lecture on Götterdämmerung!

Always so much (more) to learn!

For instance about Wagner teacher Adele T. Katz, an intriguing figure. Born in California and studying in her forties at Mannes, the conservatory now part of New School; in 1935 she published the first English language article on Schenkerian analysis, the theoretical base of Mannes' pedagogy. She wrote the music and staged the plays for the Schools Settlement Association for several years. She taught at New School but more at our shadow, the Rand School of Social Science. Yet it was at TNS she taught about theories of social reform in Wagner in Spring 1934 - affected, perhaps, by the atmosphere of the place:
David Carson Berry, "The Role of Adele T. Katz in the Early Expansion of the
New York 'Schenker School,'" Current Musicology 74 (Fall 2002): 103-151, 116

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


This picture will have to stand in for (it can't do justice to) the landscapes we drove through on our little trip up to Saratoga Springs, across to Bennington, and back to Brooklyn. Early or late on a bright cloudless day, these wooded hills blanketed smooth in clean snow offer contrasts of white and near-black lines of a dazzling beauty and precision. Beholding them I felt I had seen such loveliness in art. But where? Grandma Moses? Currier and Ives? Brueghel? Hiroshige? Nope... It's like the clarity of a print with the fulness of oils.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chance encounter

Had the great pleasure today of visiting my friend L's class at Bennington College. The course is called "Chance" and populated mostly by students studying economics (L, too, is an economist), but my assignment was to talk about chance (a) and John Cage, (b) and religion. It worked better than I thought it might... curious students and an enthusiastic host make all the difference!

I won't tire you with the details but we went from Cage's challenge to the distinction between sound (or music) and noise to the discovery that we can make sound of noise through attention (as we do when attending a concert with the right attitude) to the potential for unprecedented creativity in seeking out what we would otherwise dismiss as noise through "chance operations" to... religion? What is it not just to recognize chance, uncertainty, chaos, contingency as in their own way significant or true (even as every effort to articulate it traduces it) but to find (and give yourself to) God, Buddha nature or the Dao in it?

This is all quite different from the overall aim of L's class, which is to survey the way probability can (to the extent it can) compass chance events, but everyone seemed engaged, busily making sense of what we'd billed as a chance - or chancy - inter-disciplinary encounter. Part of a lovely sojourn in Bennington!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Together we prosper

Manifesto on the wall of one of the few establishment in Bennington (town) that seems to be on the way in rather than on its way out.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Visitor views

Saratoga Springs is one of America's oldest tourist destinations - natural mineral springs and horse racing, proximity to the site of an important battle early in the war of independence, early connected to NYC by train. The cracking paint in this now illegible map, in the century-old station now converted into a visitors center, gives a sense of hoary age.
The view from Saratoga National Historical Park's visitor center.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Off the grid

We're heading to our friend's place in Bennington for the start of Spring Break. North of NYC there's no sign of Spring! But there were these amazing inverted icicle cities in the carpark of a service station of I-87.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Longue durée

To commemorate Women's History Month, The New School today screened a documentary about Gerda Lerner (1920-2013), the historian who studied here - and, while still studying, taught the first course in women's history at this or any other university. (It was anthropologist May Edel, one of her teachers at The New School, who pointed Lerner toward history, a field she went on to reshape in significant ways.) A most inspiring story, and sobering. Nobody gave us anything, she insisted. Women worked hard for all their rights. Seventy-two years for suffrage in the US. Seventy-two years! What kept them going?

It's always good to be reminded how very recent it is that young women now grow up with women role models, heroes and models in history as well as the present. (Young boys, too!) Not much longer than my lifetime, in fact... though, Lerner would point out, women have in fact been making history all along, even without the aid of histories, which used to focus only on (and exaggerate) the history-making of men.

During the three days of interviews in 2012 that form the center of the documentary, film maker Renata Keller got to be the one to tell Lerner that one of her heroes, Hildegard of Bingen, had just been canonized by Benedict XVI. Nine hundred years it took, Lerner said. Thirty-nine abbesses, thirty-nine generations of nuns!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ply visible

Another marvel from Nan Shepherd...

The freezing of running water is another mystery. The strong white stuff, whose power I have felt in swollen streams, which I have watched pour over ledges in endless ease, is itself held and punished. But the struggle between frost and the force in running water is not quickly over. The battle fluctuates, and at the point of fluctuation between the motion of water and the immobility of frost, strange and beautiful forms are evolved. Until I spent a whole midwinter day wandering from one burn to another watching them, I had no idea how many fantastic shapes the freezing of running water took. In each whorl and spike one catches the moment of equilibrium between two elemental forces. (29) avid reader, I've learned, of Daoist and Buddhist texts!

Since then I have watched many burns in the process of freezing, but I do not know if description can describe these delicate manifestations. Each is an interplay between two movements in simultaneous action, the freezing of frost and the running of water. Sometimes a third force, the blowing of wind, complicates the forms still further. The ice may be crystal clear, but more probably is translucent; crimpled, crackled or bubbled; green throughout or at the edges. Where the water comes wreathing over stones the ice is opaque, in broken circular structure. Where the water runs thinly over a line of stones right across the bed and freezes in crinkled green cascades of ice, then a dam forms further up of half frozen slush, green, though colourless if lifted out, solid at its margins, foliated, with the edges all separate, like untrimmed hand-made paper, and each edge a vivid green. Where water drips steadily from an overhang, undeflected by wind, almost perfect sphere of clear transparent ice result. They look unreal, in this world of wayward undulations, too regular, as though man had made them. Spray splashing off a stone cuts into the slowly freezing snow on the bank and flutes it with crystal, or drenches a sprig of heather that hardens to a tree of purest glass, like an ingenious toy. Water running over a rock face freezes in ropes, with the ply visible. Where the water fell clear of the rock, icicles hang, thick as a thigh, many feet in length, and sometimes when the wind blows the falling water askew as it freezes, the icicles are squint. I have seen icicles like a scimitar blade in shape, firm and solid in their place. For once, even the wind has been fixed. Sometimes a smooth portion of stream is covered with a thin coat of ice that, not quite meeting in the middle, shows the level of the water several inches below; since the freezing began, the water upstream has frozen and less water is flowing. When a level surface has frozen hard from bank to bank, one may hear at times a loud knocking, as the stream, rushing below the ice, flings a stone up against its roof. In boggy parts by the burnside one treads on what seems solid frozen snow, to find only a thin crisp crust that gives way to reveal massed thousands of needle crystals of ice, fluted columns four or five inches deep. And if one can look below the covering ice on a frozen burn, a lovely pattern of fluted indentations is found, arched and chiselled, the obverse of the water's surface, with the subtle shift of emphasis and superimposed design that occurs between a painting and the landscape that it represents. In short, there is no end to the lovely things that frost and the running of water can create between them. (31-32)

Copying this out word for word was my own act of attention; the congealing of her words is as mysterious as the processes she describes.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

After the snow

Because of the snow day, the Religious Studies roundtable has had to be rescheduled (probably to April 27th). But tomorrow's opening of the art exhibit curated by one of my Kailash fellow yatris is still happening!

You'll notice a second event in the poster, too. On March 30th, the New School participants in last year's Kailash kora will be getting together to share reflections on our experiences together. The event will include photo highlights of the expedition.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Cairngorm see-er

If I teach the Sacred Mountains class again, Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain will be the reading after the essay assignment on the the perils and advantages of seeing mountain from a distance. Shepherd never went "up" but always "into" her beloved Cairngorms.

[C]hanging of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one's sense of outer reality. Then static things may be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one's head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become! From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches it back, and each layer of landscape bristles - though bristles is a word of too much commotion for it. Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.

How sweet a riposte to the hubris of "To see the greatness of a mountain one must keep one's distance from it" is this:

No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it.

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (Edinburgh and London: Canongate,
2011 [1977, but actually written 30 years before that]), 11, 90

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Winter warmth

Ottolonghi's ultimate winter couscous again as another blizzard beckons 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Another cruelest month

Not sure how these fellows - spotted at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on Wednesday - are faring under the newest snowfall. Somehow the return of snow, when we'd already started to sense the arrival of Spring, feels like the creeping awareness that, although it should be collapsing under the weight of its own turpitude, the Republican onslaught continues. Somehow I'm also remembering Judith Shklar's insistence that what defined liberalism, and distinguished it especially from religious alternatives, was "putting cruelty first" - that is, seeing it as "the worst thing." The White House, its secretaries and its congressional lackeys seems to traffic in cruelty, as a means and even as an end. 

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Kailash confession (karaoke!)

I was part of our college's first annual "Research Karaoke" session this evening. Eight faculty members each provided a brief, light-hearted snapshot of our work (we have no other forum for such sharing) as our colleagues enjoyed snacks and drinks, including a specially concocted cocktail called the Looming Deadline. I decided to devote my five minutes to my forays into Kailash research. As ever (as the only religious studies person here I'm always representing) it was also an apologia pro vita sua for my field. But it also gave me a chance to provide a synthetic account of where I stand with relation to the holy mountain.
I framed it with some karaoke background to Donovan's "First there is a mountain..." but my highlight was the clip above, taken from a beautifully made documentary about the trip to Kailash by a Russian yoga group. It was ravishing on the enormous screen. "That wasn't me," I confessed. "And I didn't see the trident of Shiva like that. But I have been there, on that path going around the mountain, and I can tell you that Kailash wasn't in the distance ahead but just to the right."
I've had the privilege of going to Kailash twice, I continued, showing this silly picture of me at the visitor's center in Darchen, next to the words 世界的中心岗仁波齐, World Center Kailash. The first time, having only recently learned that it wasn't just mythical, I tried to do what Roland Barthes did when he went to Japan, making of my unpreparedness a virtue. I would forget what little I knew and just see what was there, with help from others who knew what they were doing. But triangulating from the experience of others just got me a third-hand experience. It was a waste of the mountain's time. To get something from the yatra Kailash needs to be a preexisting condition for you. By the time of
my second trip it was for me, too. What did it for me wasn't yoga or the lore of one of the religious traditions for which Kailas is important, but the first critical study of Kailas, Alex McKay's Kailas Histories. (I was very pleased with the layout of my slide.) As you know, this book argues that the Western Tibetan mountain we circumambulated has not been connected to the ancient mythology around Kailas for very long - and isn't the only Himalayan peak to be known, and venerated, as "Kailash."
But what does it say about me that this was what I needed - something cutting through the myth (the mountain which four world religions see as the center of the universe) to make Kailas yet another site of human myth-making? Jonathan Z. Smith would approve: only by seeing Kailash as a mountain among others - as a mountain - could I be scholarly about it. The academic study of religion, my preexisting condition! But going around it - and especially going around it again, the second time - was significant for me, too. Kailash, experienced through circumambulation, spins. Indeed, it spins in two directions at once, with Hindus and Buddhists going clockwise, Bönpo counterclockwise. A paradox?
My current favorite image, I wound up, shows Kailash in a busy scene full of characters, being spun in both directions. The ancient Hindu story - the churning of the ocean of milk - isn't even mainly a Shiva story; although Shiva will step in later to take care of some poison, it's Vishnu's serpent wrapped around the mountain pulled back and forth by gods and asuras, like a giant butter churn. And the mountain in question, Mandana, has not been associated traditionally even with the mythical Kailas, let alone our Western Himalayan peak. And yet, as this painting by a young Nepali (partpart of our group last summer) shows, it is now.

First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain. Then there is.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Spring roundtable

Should you find yourself in the neighborhood, this will be fun!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Canon ball

The course on Confucian ethics for which Lang students didn't sign up is unfolding quite nicely! We intrepid few are reading a lot of Confucian material, but reading it in ways which are truer to the tradition than many treatments - we've been reading and thinking about readings of these texts, too, including our own. (It's a commentarial tradition, after all, and in our own vaguely vicarious way we're participating in that.) I'm working out the details as we go along, but here's what we've done so far.

We started with a mini-lecture on the Confucianism problem in religious studies. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith famously quipped in The Meaning and End of Religion half a century ago, "the question 'Is Confucianism a religion?' is one that the West has never been able to answer, and China never able to ask." Why would it matter? Can we ask better questions - about ethics, religion, traditions, and the place of rujia (儒家) in Chinese culture? And why are we asking? What's in it for non-Chinese inquirers in 2017?

Our first reading was the influential recent celebration of the continued relevance of Chinese philosophy, Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh's The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life. We concentrated on the discussions of Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi but explored the book's larger argument and stakes, and got our first crumbs of Confucius, too. What can a Chinese tradition teach American students today, and what does it take to open yourself to it? Since one of the students is a philosophy student we also tossed around the chestnut of "what is philosophy?" - good to get that out of our system.

Then it was into the Analects (論語)! But not just any Analects. Our main text has been The Four Texts: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, which reproduces the structure of the Confucian canon established in the 12th century by Zhuxi, and we read not just Gardner's selections but the snibbets of Zhuxi's commentary he includes with it. We didn't focus on Zhu's take, just on the fact that nobody in classical China would ever have encountered Analects on its own, without interlinear commentary. The main focus of our discussion was the situated character of Confucius' remarks: what out of context look like general principles are always couched in particular terms in response to questions from very particular people. I also brought in the first poem from the Book of Odes (詩經), the cornerstone of the learning Confucius practiced and recommended to others.

For a second session on the Analects I had students read other modern repackagings of the Analects: Tsai Chih Chung's Confucius Speaks: Words to Live By, Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred and Yu Dan's Confucius from the Heart. Together with The Path that gave us two American and two Chinese takes, and let us start asking questions about how each in their own setting appropriated Confucius. All imply that Analects can profitably be read as a stand-alone text, and resituated Confucius' claims in contemporary contexts.

It was all a little too easy for me, so I moved forward some critical readings for the next session, Richard Madsen's "Obstacles to the Globalization of Confucianism" from Confucianism: A Habit of the Heart and Eske Møllgaard's "Chinese Ethics?" from the Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics. Unlike our other readings, these were critical. Møllgaard thinks all Chinese ethical traditions authoritarian in a dangerously mystifying way, while Madsen suggests that various elements of Confucian tradition and recent history make it unappealing beyond the sinosphere. By contrast with these readings, our earlier interpretations were revealed to be perhaps culpably apolitical, as if public service and political advice weren't central to the tradition - including the Analects. We also read the short "Great Learning" (大學) which Zhu Xi placed first in his Four Classics, which makes it more understandable that one might think the tradition essentially about moral self-cultivation and only in an ancillary way about public service.

Time, then for Mencius (孟子), again in Gardner's selections with Zhu Xi's commentary. How was this different from Analects, we inquired? Mencius is defending a philosophy against specific others, asserts the goodness of human nature, and gives a much richer sense of the king's duties to his people. But as a reminder that this was still a tradition which studied the classics, I brought in another Ode. This one, #101, is cited in a much-cited passage (5A2) about how Shun exemplified filial piety by marrying without telling his father, as his father would not have permitted him to wed. It's an interesting and involved case, made only more complicated by the use of the Ode. (Image from Mencius Speaks: The Cure for Chaos, 69 - the only part of 5A2 Tsai Chih-Chung sees fit to include.)

And today we closed the circle. Well, we read excerpts from the last of Zhu Xi's Four Masters, what Gardner renders as "Maintaining Perfect Balance" (中庸), along with Gardner's account of Zhu Xi's crafting the new "core curriculum" of the Four Books - displacing the Five Classics. Zhu was insistent not only that scholars should start with the Four, but that they do so in a very specific order (Gardner xxv):

We didn't read them in that order, but that enabled us today to see the contrivance of Zhu's editing. Placing Analects in a Mencian frame given Neoconfucian resonance by his glosses on "Great Learning" and capping it all with suggestions in "Maintaining Perfect Balance" that the Sage has an almost divine capacity to unite Heaven and the Ten Thousand Things, Zhu presents a coherent tradition uniting statecraft, family, cosmos and ritual, basing it all in cultivation of the "inborn luminous virtue" ("Great Learning" 1, Gardner, 3) shared by all.

You might not arrive at these understandings of these texts - let alone see them as flowing seamlessly into each other - if you took them on their own... which was just my point. It's important to know Zhu's canon, since it was this which centered Chinese culture for the next six centuries. It's valuable to appreciate the iconoclastic nature of tearing Analects out of this context, without Zhu's commentary or the companions he chose for it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing. One should know what one is doing.

Perhaps it all makes more sense to me than to the students. We have been swooping and looping around a lot in time, from our time to that of Confucius and Mencius, back from there to the time of the Odes and forward to the time of the Neoconfucians... who take us back to the Great Learning, etc. It'll either clinch things or break the camel's back when, next week, we read Xunzi - who chronologically comes after Mencius and long before Xhu. Xunzi was valued as an interpreter of Confucius in the Han, was marginalized by the Neoconfucians, but has returned to favor in the aftermath of the heyday of Zhu's canon. It's the perspective The Path ends up finding most congenial. What will we think?

Monday, March 06, 2017

Purple mountain majesties

Ruskin is a wonder. Just read his account of the colors mountains give us - the "grave tenderness" of purple, violet, deep ultramarine blue. He sees purples nestled in flatland trees and fields too (impressionists would see them), but they can't compare to the hues of the hills.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Don't look down

I hadn't noticed that the two most significant mountain experiences of Jesus' ministry are celebrated so close to each other, and just as we move into Lent. (I'm not saying the Sermon on the Mount isn't important, or Golgotha; elevated places are where the sacred happens in biblical traditions.) One is the Transfiguration, celebrated the last Sunday before Lent, and the other is the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, marking the first Sunday of Lent, which culminates in a high place often figured as a mountain. (Images from the website of the RCL)
These episodes are not contiguous in Scripture, the former appearing at the end of Jesus' ministry, the latter at its start. (This year it's Matthew 17:1-9 and 4:1-11; in Year B it's Mark 9:2-9, 1:9-15; in Year C Luke 9:28-36[, 37-43a]), 4:1-13.) The Temptation's a suitable text for the start of Lent, but is there something to be learned from the juxtaposition of mountains with the Transfiguration? In the former, the disciples Jesus takes with himself are looking upward; if there's a view down, it's not important. The latter is all about the view down, and the devilish temptation to assume mastery over all one oversees. The mountain is a place the sacred manifests itself, where the human - or a few, select humans - can see the divine. However it's also a place where the human is tempted (by the "God's eye view" above the plane of the plain) to think itself divine. Perhaps that's why Jesus, in the Transfiguration story, shuts down Peter's idea of building structures on the mountain. Even if devoted to the human encounter with the divine, they tempt the human to forget that we are not rendered divine by that encounter.

On Tuesday, my colleague F came to the Sacred Mountains class and told us why the physical location of Sinai - if indeed there ever was a Mount Sinai - doesn't matter to Jews. Certainly it was the place where a decisive encounter between Yahweh and his people happened (though not by the people's ascending the mountain; had they even touched its perimeter they would die). But the encounter is manifested not in the mountain but in the Torah which Yahweh used Sinai to send down to his people. The Israelites take the Teachings with them, and while they remember them as having been sent down a mountain, they move on into time, leaving the mountain behind. F's diagram, skilfully assembled piece by piece over the course of the class, ended with the line along the bottom, an arrow from the past (in Egypt, from which the Israelites emerged like a newborn) to the future. Mountains, like the sacred, are places where time is frozen, she suggested, not a place for living.

[Update, March 12th: Transfiguration is celebrated on the eve of Lent in the traditions using the Revised Common Lectionary, not the Catholic, who hear the story today, the second Sunday of Lent.]

Friday, March 03, 2017

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Research karaoke

A week from today. Keeping it light in dark times...!


First blush of Spring in the Lang courtyard trees!

Wednesday, March 01, 2017


An artist friend, who spent a year in Del Mar in his childhood, was back for a visit, and took this photo. Eat your heart out, John Baldessari!