July 29, 2004


First, a heartfelt thanks to Brian Ulrich, Stygius and Ghost of a Flea for their kind words about and links to my Qutb efforts; I've added the latter two to the favorites list. I hadn't seen Stygius before, but Ghost of a Flea is a blog I've run into and admired on several occasions, and I'll look forward to being a regular reader.

I've been watching the Democratic Convention the past few nights, and while I don't have any particularly insightful commentary to offer, I will say this: Doing my civic duty tonight was particularly painful since From Russia With Love was on one of the cable networks. I've probably seen the film ten or fifteen times, but it's my favorite Bond film, and I can watch it over and over again. I'm particularly fond of the moment when Bond's asking for a cigarette saves his life.


The film is fairly faithful to the book, with a few exceptions: in the book, it's not SPECTRE, but the Russians, who have set up the trap, and Fleming ended From Russia With Love with a cliff hanger: Rosa Kleb succeeds in kicking Bond in the shins with her poisoned shoe, and he begins to pass out as the novel ends. I haven't read the next one in the series yet, but I assume 007 survived...

And that's about it for me tonight. Between work, collecting all the papers we needed to register the five year old for school this fall, and a thousand other odds and ends, I'm wiped out.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:27 AM | Comments (1)

July 28, 2004

What's in a name.

Chester Carlson. I'm not sure how many of my readers can place the name, but had I seen it a few days ago, say on a multiple choice quiz, I'm not sure how I would have answered:

____ A. Swedish prime minister, 1946-1951
____ B. Actor in "Keystone Kops"
____ C. American inventor
____ D. Current mayor of Dayton, Ohio

Even if you told me the correct answer (it's C), that the invention was a technological application of a bit of theoretical physics that many physicists thought wouldn't work, that it fundamentally revolutionized the way we work -- I still would have been stumped, despite having a little personal family history with the device.

My grandfather was a physicist by training who worked in the private sector, and had a fair number of patents to his name. In addition, he made a nice living in his later years by selling high tech equipment to businesses. A canny investor, he also had a frugal streak, so when he had the chance to invest in a company that promised to market a product that cost somewhere between $15,000 and $29,500 (in 1959 dollars!) to replace a carbon sheet that cost a quarter of a cent and could be used in a typewriter multiple times, my grandfather passed. The new product was the Xerox 914 copying machine, invented by Chester Carlson.

There's a wonderful article by David Owen in the latest issue of the Smithsonian magazine about Carlson and his invention; Owen has also written a book about the subject. In the Smithsonian, Owen writes,

One of the most significant inventions of the 20th century was developed by an obscure photographic-supply company founded in 1906 as the Haloid Company. It is known today as the Xerox Corporation. In 1959, it introduced a machine that made sharp, permanent copies on ordinary paper—a huge breakthrough. The process, which Haloid called xerography (based on Greek words meaning "dry" and "writing"), was so unusual that physicists who visited the drafty warehouses where the first machines were built sometimes expressed doubt that it was even theoretically feasible.

Remarkably, xerography was conceived by one person—Chester Carlson, a shy, soft-spoken patent attorney, who grew up in almost unspeakable poverty and worked his way through college. He made his discovery in solitude in 1937 and offered it to more than 20 major corporations. All turned him down, thereby passing up the opportunity to manufacture what Fortune magazine would describe as "the most successful product ever marketed in America."

The article doesn't mention it, but the marketing of the machine was crucial to its success -- Haloid leased them for $100 a month, and charged a penny a copy, making the device practical for offices. The ability to copy a document, cleanly and in seconds, on plain paper, fundamentally changed the way offices work. And, as someone whose first significant publication was a xeroxed high school underground paper, I can attest to its liberating qualities. It's also interesting to note that modern laser printers rely on the same technology. and speaking of modern technology, I also liked this bit at the end of Owen's article, which demonstrates Carlson's peculiar genius:

And Carlson’s invention is still evolving. One of the most advanced machines today is the Xerox DocuColor iGen3, introduced in 2001. It is a digital printing system rather than a copier but operates xerographically. It produces 6,000 fullcolor, 8-1/2- by 11-inch offset-quality impressions per hour, and those impressions can be customized on the fly. Its four “imaging stations” lay down cyan, magenta, yellow and black toners on an electrostatically charged photoconductive belt, from which the powders are transferred, all at once, onto paper. The underlying imaging technology, by which a monochromatic process makes full-color prints, is hard to explain, but essentially it involves separating a polychromatic image into the three complementary colors (plus black) in order to “enable one color to be recorded, and then developing with colored powder to produce a copy of that color, then repeating for each other color and superimposing the dust images on the same copy sheet.”

That, at any rate, is how Chester Carlson described it in his second xerography patent, which he filed on April 4, 1939.

What's fairly amazing to me is that, while Xerox for a time had become, like Kleenex, a generic noun (and, in the former case, a verb)(this seems to have given way now -- I haven't heard anyone in my office say, "I have to xerox the meeting agenda" or whatnot -- it's now "copy the agenda"), the name of Chester Carlson remains obscure. The Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges noted in an essay on Herman Melville, who at the time of his death was an all but forgotten minor novelist, that "Vast populations, towering cities, erroneous and clamorous publicity have conspired to make unknown great men one of America's traditions." That truth is not limited to our artists.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)

July 27, 2004

3 Qutb -- America

I haven't gotten around to reading the 9/11 Commission Report, but I did take a peak at the online searchable version to see what they had to say about Sayyid Qutb; the commission cited Qutb's work What I saw in America, published in translation in this volume, America in An Arab Mirror : Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature: An Anthology, as being emblematic of Qutb's mixing "Islamic scholarship with a very superficial acquaintance with Western history and thought."

That's interesting, because in the eighth chapter of Milestones, Qutb assures us,

The person who is writing these lines has spent forty years of his life in reading books and in research in almost all aspects of human knowledge. He specialized in some branches of knowledge and he studied others due to personal interest. Then he turned to the fountainhead of his faith. He came to feel that whatever he had read so far was as nothing in comparison to what he found here. He does not regret spending forty years of his life in the pursuit of these sciences, because he came to know the nature of Jahiliyyah, its deviations, its errors and its ignorance, as well as its pomp and noise, its arrogant and boastful claims. Finally, he was convinced that a Muslim cannot combine these two sources-the source of Divine guidance and the source of Jahiliyyah - for his education.

I think it's a little unfair to Qutb to cite only his American travelog -- in which he complains that he never find a really good hair stylist and that muscular young American boys seem to be oddly attracted to those brazen hussies (American girls, if you couldn't figure that out) -- as demonstrative of his superficial acquaintance with Western knowledge and thought. Qutb demonstrates such superficiality (which is actually too kind a word) throughout his works. See, for example, this prior post on Milestones, in which Qutb avers that the idea that culture is a universal human heritage -- that Gilgamesh or Aesop's Fables or the Upanishads or Huckleberry Finn have cross cultural value -- is a conspiracy of World Jewry. Still, perhaps it's worth spending a little time with "What I saw in America" -- which I happen to have.

The work is divided into three major sections, each of which consists of short paragraphs (only one is longer than a page) with headings like, "The Deformed Birth of the American Man," "The Secret of the Deformed American Character," "An American Woman Carouses while Her Husband's Corpse Lies at Home," and "The Appearance of the American Temptress." The latter entry tells us,

The American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, in the expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it. She knows it lies in clothes: in bright colors that awaken primal sensations, and in designs that reveal the temptations of the body -- and in American girls these are sometimes live, screaming temptations! Then she adds to all this the fetching laugh, the naked looks, and the bold moves, and she does not ignore this for one moment or forget it!

Lest there's any doubt, Qutb regards all this as a bad thing (and remember, he's writing about his time in the U.S. in the late 1940s -- we're not talking Britney Spears here). I can well imagine that this and a few of the other passages on bobby socksers may have been popular among young Egyptian men, although perhaps not for the high-minded reasons Qutb intended.

Altogether, there are 54 of these short observations. Probably half of them are based on some anecdote Qutb wants to tell -- the widow who talks about her financial situation rather than her grief or the man at the hospital who makes fun of the victim of an elevator accident -- from which he extracts some universal characterization of Americans (they do not mourn the dead, they mock the injured). Others display a complete lack of understanding of American history -- Qutb suggests that the Civil War was not fought to preserve the Union or to end slavery, but rather because the South, thanks to slavery, had economically outstripped the North (he also thinks that African Americans were "fragile and could not withstand the cold climate in the North," thus explaining why some states were slave and others free...). He is horrified by American football (so am I, although it's largely because I'm a Philadelphia Eagles fan) and food, complains that for every "Gone with the Wind" Hollywood produces dozens of b-movies, and that Americans have no fashion sense.

I'm being flip -- but it's an uneven work. At various other times Qutb contrasts American mores (as he imagines them) with the animal world, and finds Americans to be lower than animals, and, if there's any doubt as to the implications of this, he titles one section, "The Americans Are Free of Humanity." The implications of such a statement are fairly clear.

I could say more -- Qutb's description of the pilgrims, for example, is such that, to paraphrase Wilde, only someone with a head of stone could read it and not burst out laughing -- but I'll close with one short entry from Qutb which once again displays his utter ignorance. He is writing about a quintessentially American art form:

The American is primitive in his artistic tastes, whether in his judgment of art or his own artistic works. Jazz music is his music of choice. It is this music that the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires, and their desire for noise on the one hand, and the abundance of animal noises on the other. The American's enjoyment of jazz does not full begin until he couples it with singing like crude screaming. And the louder the noise of the voices and instruments, until it rings in the ears to an unbearable degree, the greater the appreciation of the listeners. The voices of appreciation are raised, and palms are raised in continuous clapping that could deafen ears.

Duke Ellington. Jelly Roll Morton. Miles Davis. Benny Goodman. Dave Brubeck. Savage bushmen???


All by himself, Louis Armstrong did a whole hell of a lot more good in terms of integration, racial understanding, freedom and of course good ol' fun than anything to come off of Sayyid Qutb's poisoned pen.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:53 AM | Comments (5)

July 25, 2004

2 Qutb 11b

Through rest of the eleventh chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones, the brain of bin Laden dwells on the superiority of the believer, as Qutb defines him, to the milieu in which he finds himself. I imagine the language is very effective, and Qutb several times reinforces the idea that the believer, as he defines him, "from his height looks at the people drowning in dirt and mud." By "the people," Qutb here is including Muslims who do not share his own theocratic vision. I can well imagine that a zealot reading this would draw a great deal of emotional sustenance from it -- again, Qutb addressed Milestones to his vanguard of the Islamofasciteriat.

I found this passage of interest, where Qutb is trying to reinforce the vanguardi's ardor in the face of society's approbation:

A society has a governing logic and a common mode, its pressure is strong and its weight heavy on anyone who is not protected by some powerful member of the society or who challenges it without a strong force. Accepted concepts and current ideas have a climate of their own, and it is difficult to get rid of them without a deep sense of truth, in the light of which all these concepts and ideas shrink to nothingness, and without the help of a source which is superior, greater and stronger than the source of these concepts and ideas.

I find it a little hard to discern a governing logic in a free society. Take the United States, as one example: where is the common mode that joins, say, Jerry Falwell and Hugh Hefner? I think Qutb is probably drawing on German romantic notions here -- and for my part I think Ulrich's Austrian virtue, as noted in Robert Musil's great novel The Man Without Qualities, of just muddling through is far more worthy goal to aspire to than the destiny of the nation or race or class or Ummah, but of course that goes without saying.

The ability to adapt to new situations, new technology, new knowledge, is for Qutb not a strength of society, but a weakness:

The Believer is most superior in his values and standards, by means of which he measures life, events, things and persons. The source of his belief is the knowledge of God and His attributes as described by Islam, and the knowledge of the realities prevalent in the universe at large, not merely on the small earth. This belief with its grandeur provides the Believer with values which are superior to and firmer than the defective standards made by men, who do not know anything except what is under their feet. They do not agree on the same standard within the same generation; even the same person changes his standard from moment to moment.

I'm reminded of the Groucho Marx line: "I've got principles, and if you don't like them, I've got other principles," which is apparently what Qutb thinks of those of us who have a certain amount of intellectual flexibility. And he has little patience for those who don't have that flexibility:

The picture of the world which this Faith presents is far above the heaps of concepts, beliefs and religions, and is not reached by any great philosophers, ancient or modern, nor attained by idolaters or the followers of distorted scriptures, nor approached by the base materialists.

For Qutb there can be no compromise, and one can well understand why those disposed to self-detonation would find his message appealing. Of the believer he says,

Even if death is his portion, he will never bow his head. Death comes to all, but for him there is martyrdom.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:52 PM | Comments (0)

July 23, 2004

Lost films

It probably wasn't among the greatest works of art or even the greatest of silent horror films, but watching the reconstructed version of London After Midnight, the 1927 film directed by Tod Browning (Dracula) and starring Lon Chaney (The Phantom of the Opera) with the five year old tonight (who likes all things monsters), I wished a full print had survived. The production stills, on which the reproduction is based, exude a menacing atmosphere, and even without the motion of a normal silent film, we both felt a bit of chill on this otherwise humid day. I thought the plot was incoherent, but reading what I think is the script from the film, I suspect that the incoherence was part and parcel of the original. Still -- a mysterious murder, ghosts haunting an abandoned mansion, a vampiric stranger and his bat girl companion, and an intrepid detective (who, like the vampire, was played by Chaney) proved eerily fascinating.


Posted by Ideofact at 11:15 PM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2004

Prisca sapientia

Years ago, I shared an elevator with a major daily newspaper columnist on Middle Eastern affairs; this worthy was lamenting the lack of expertise of reporters on the same subject. "They have no idea," the columnist asserted, "that the Druze trace their origins back to the 1960s."

I was in my early 20s then, not nearly as aware of my ignorance as I am now (an aside: a professor once told me that the measure of a good liberal arts education is that, upon graduation, you know just how ignorant you really are), but even then I knew that the Druze were a faction of considerably earlier origins.

Nevertheless, this pundit's sentiment, if not expertise, is certainly laudable, and reporters would do well to heed the admonition. They could avoid, to cite one trifling example, lead paragraphs like this one from a recent piece in Al Ahram:

Ever since the King Tut exhibition began its foreign tours in the 1970s, Europeans have been enthralled by Egyptian history.

The tour of the Tut artefacts in the 1970s was a seminal event -- I recall waiting in line to see them as a kid -- but one might well suspect that Europe's fascination with Egypt began much earlier. After all, it was European fascination with Egyptian antiquities that led Howard Carter to the discovery of the artefacts in the first place. (An American magician, who went by the name of Carter the Great, capitalized on the common surname -- American audiences confused him with the archaeologist, and he was happy to encourage the the confusion -- it sold tickets, after all.)


Even prior to Howard Carter's remarkable discovery, Egyptmania was a feature of American and European culture, high and low. In the latter category, regrettably, we could place the sultry Theda Bara's lost 1917 film Cleopatra; in the former, the great Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra from 1913. (It's no contest -- Shaw may have the brains, but I'd rather go with Theda Bara's looks):


I grant you -- neither Shaw's play nor Bara's film had much to do with Egypt's actual history, but I would argue that the popularity of both entertainments was spurred in part by the fascination for the legitimate history of Egypt, about which much had been learned thanks to ongoing European efforts, spurred initially by Napoleon's campaign there in the 18th century, which led to the discovery of the Rosetta stone and the deciphering of hieroglyphic writing in the 19th.

And even before that, there was a fascination with Egypt. In the 17th Century, the Harry Potters of the day, the most anticipated series of books, were one Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegypticus, which promised to unravel the mysteries of Egypt, and to recover the lost language of the Pharoahs. Kircher is easy enough to lampoon -- he got quite a lot wrong, from his attempt to square the circle (which had all of Europe's mathematicians in stitches) to his epistemology (in which everything is a symbol for some other symbol) -- and Umberto Eco does an admirable job of it in Foucault's Pendulum, but wrong though he may have been, his errors inspired quite a few others, including Leibniz, to get things right.


In any case, Kircher's work on Egypt was admirably described in Paula Findlen's introductory essay to Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything:

Kircher's Egypt was a veritable hieroglyph of the world, an ancient civilization of knowledge that contained true wisdom, prisca sapientia, even as it succumbed to the temptations of idolatry. It was the beginning of the forked path of truth and error, containing both the most sublime secrets that God had left humankind and evidence of the deep roots of human folly and arrogance in the face of the divine. Most importantly, however, the Oedipus provided a historical point of departure for understanding the history of civilizations and faiths. Jewish Kabbalah, Persian magic, Islamic alchemy, Chaldean astrology, Zoroastrian mysteries, and many other ancient sciences all crowded the pages of this dense encyclopedia. But antiquity was not Kircher's only point of reference, nor did he confine his remarks to the territory of ancient Egypt. The Oedipus traced the fate of hieroglyphic wisdom in virtually every known society. In an age when reports of Aztec temples, Mayan calendars, Brazilian cannibals, Chinese mandarins, and Japanese Buddhists inspired European curiosity about other cultures, Kircher helped his readers to see the commonalities within the overwhelming diversity of languages, faiths, and cultures. He underscored the universality of Christianity, not only by upholding the argument -- already discredited by Isaac Casaubon at the beginning of the century -- that the Hermetic Corpus anticipated the truths of Christianity, but by finding analogous evidence of Christianity in far-flung parts of the world.

Though Kircher relied by and large on misconceptions about Egypt's history, fueled in part by the bogus Corpus Hermeticum, his project, to understand civilizations and faiths by studying the past, remains central to Western history, anthropology and archaeology. The fascination that Egypt's glorious past continues to exercise over the Western imagination is longstanding.

Other than that, however, the article is fine...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:29 PM | Comments (0)

July 21, 2004

Turkish tobecca

I think I may well be addicted to Ebay, or eBay, or however they spell it. Not so much buying (although I have done a small bit of that; couldn't resist a Bell 1970s era candlestick phone -- it looks great, works just fine and is now the official landline here at ideofact worldwide headquarters), but bouncing around looking at things.

Today, while looking up stuff on Theda Bara, I saw this item, sheet music from a tune that was popular (well, may have been popular) back in 1921. The seller provided some lyrics, which I found sort of amusing:

Across the way from where I live there lives a girl and her name is Rebecca, she's twenty three
She saw an oriental show and then decided she would go to Mecca across the sea.
And so she went one day to Turkey far away, and she lived near the Sultan's den;
She stayed just two years, got full of new ideas, and now she's back home again.

Since Rebecca came back from Mecca all day long she keeps on smoking Turkish tobecca;
With her veil upon her face, she keeps dancing 'round the place
And yesterday her father found her with a Turkish tow'l around her
Oh! Oh! Ev'ry one's worried so; They think she's crazy in the dome;
She's as bold as Theda Bara, Theda's bare but Becky's barer
Since Rebecca came back home.

Amazing, the slices of popular culture of the past that turn up there. And as for the phone (there are some authentic ones here) -- at least my son will understand why we say "dial" a number rather than "punch" it.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:42 PM | Comments (2)

July 20, 2004

Don't work that hard

From my undergraduate days, I recall a story (I don't know if my recollection of it is entirely accurate) about anthropologists in the 1930s being parachuted in to observe a culture for a year at a time -- no doubt trying to duplicate Bronislaw Malinowski's work (Malinowski was stranded by World War I in New Guinea). Some of his would-be successors, immersed in the radically different Weltanschauung of their hosts, suffered mental breakdowns. The long separation from their own culture's frame of reference and their attempts to understand and think like their hosts was enough to break them.

I'm not nearly so far gone, but I sometimes can sympathize when reading Sayyid Qutb, to whom this blog seems to devote far too much attention. The other day I found that portions of his massive work In the Shade of the Qur'an is online -- I thought about an approach contrasting Qutb's views on some of the Suras to those of some other writers whose works I have on hand, letting the texts speak for themselves, but I'm not all that eager to take it up.

Incidentally, I found this reader review of interest:

Sayid qutb was an influential member of the muslim brotherhood who's writings still to this day misguide many.
Sayed qutb strips the verses from many of its colours so he can twist its neck around & mould it into whatever suits his groups aim. By what is called the expression generalization you can almost contort any verse to suit any purpose or goal. Sayed qutbs tafseer or writing isnt only antiquated or obsolete,it only values with fanatics. Its a real pity that such a name is read by many yet other moderate religious thinkers such as sheikh Mohamed Abdou are forgotton.
to those who think much of sayed qutb, i advise them to read what a past compatriot of the muslim brotherhood had to say about qutbs writings, the sheikhs name is Khalil Abdel Karim.

I googled Khalil Abdel Karim, and found this interesting piece:

There's no such thing as Islamic government, he argues -- the early caliphate was a civil, rather than a religious regime. Sharia's a moral code, not a legal system. And you have to interpret Quranic injunctions liberally, because they were addressed to a society that is totally different than ours today. These kinds of ideas can get you in trouble with a state that still enforces a degree of Islamic orthodoxy. Cairo University professor Nasser Hamed Abu Zeid's been declared apostate by an Egyptian court, and is now living in exile. Former judge Said Al Ashmawi and historian Sayed Al Qimany have both had their books seized. But though Islamist publications might rail against "The Red Sheikh" or the "Mufti of Marxism," as they dub him, Abdel Karim didn't have any serious problems until this year. This might be because of his look, but more likely it's because his most famous book,Qureish from Tribe to State, was mostly targeted at political Islam. But when he started to delve into social issues with The Society of Yathrib or The Situation at the Time of the Prophet's Companions, that's when he had problems. The Islamic Research Academy of Al Azhar, Egypt's main doctrinal watchdog, published a report condemning the books last May. On 14 January, State Security officers raided Karim's publisher and seized copies of the two books. They're still banned today.

Karem's intention wasn't particularly blasphemous, he says -- all he wanted to do was explore the society into which the Quran was revealed. "We need to understand this society before we understand the texts. It was different in every way from our society today. I wanted to shed light" -- here he flicks on a desklamp -- "on aspects that have never been considered before." The problem, Abdel Karim says, was that he didn't approach the topic with the proper reverance. "The style in which I wrote the books is not a style that they were used to. They only know the classical style, praise-writing. But we cannot understand that society if we only focus on the beautiful things." For example, Karem repeats a tradition that the Caliph Omar condemned the payment of exhorbitant bride prices, but then went on to shell out 40,000 dirhams to marry a young girl. "I wanted to show that the Companions of the Prophet were normal human beings. They were not saints. The only one who is sacred in Islam is the Prophet."

Pointing out the Companions' moments of weakness, however, is not just about reasserting human fallibility. It's also a subtle attack on salafism, the belief that the past was perfect, and that early Muslims should be imitated in as many ways as possible.

I'd advise clicking on the link -- there are portions of the article (including sentences in the passage I quoted) that appear in red type -- these were cut by the Egyptian censor. Nice to see free speech and open inquiry thriving in that part of the world.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:44 PM | Comments (1)

July 18, 2004

2 Qutb 11a

The eleventh chapter of Sayyid Qutb's Islamist handbook Milestones begins with an exegesis from this line from the Qur'an:

"Do not be dejected nor grieve. You shall be the uppermost if you are Believers." (3: 139)

In his first three paragraphs commenting on it, Qutb writes,

The first thought which comes to mind on reading this verse is that it relates to the form of Jihaad which is actual fighting; but the spirit of this message and its application, with its manifold implications, is greater and wider than this particular aspect. Indeed, it describes that eternal state of mind which ought to inspire the Believer's consciousness, his thoughts, his estimates of things, events, values and persons.

It describes a triumphant state which should remain fixed in the Believer's heart in the face of every thing, every condition, every standard and every person; the superiority of the Faith and its value above all values which are derived from a source other than the source of the Faith.

It means to be above all the powers of the earth which have deviated from the way of the Faith, above all the values of the earth not derived from the source of the Faith, above all the customs of the earth not colored with the coloring of the Faith, above all the laws of the laws of the earth not sanctioned by the Faith, and above all traditions not originating in the Faith.

One can well imagine the emotional appeal of this, just as it must have been a source of pride for Germans to be told that racial science proved they were a master race, just as Soviet thugs were convinced that they were the vanguard of the proletariat. This way leads only to madness.

Qutb is not unique in this. One of my long-time readers (for whose many thoughtful emails I offer a thanks) wrote in recently to note,

Reading your post of 12 July, Western Roots of Islamism (more), I was struck by the idea that the link between Eric Hobsbawm, Qutb, McVeigh, and many others is they all agree "that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified." They disagree only in what the "radiant tomorrow" should be. This all reminds me of the Millenarianist movements in Europe in the 13th and 14th C -- their goal was to build the "New Jerusalem," and any suffering by the revolutionaries, their opponents, and innocent bystanders (of course, Millenarianist thinking does not usually acknowledge innocent bystanders) is justified by the "radiant tomorrow." The end, being supremely good, always justifies the means.

The thing is, the futures usually *are* radient -- if the Soviets had built the Worker's Paradise, wouldn't that have been, well paradise? If a perfectly moral state could be constructed by following strict Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist law, wouldn't that be great? The temptation to believe that radiance worth the sacrifice is understandable and tragic.

One piece of this, which the Christian Millenarianists, Hobsbawm and his ilk, and Qutb all share, is the license given to followers. Because the end is so transcendent, any means are justified -- the believer is above the conventional morality of his peers, and need not follow the laws made by the Jahiliyyah, the rulers who follow the antichrist or the tools of the capitalists oppressing the masses.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:55 PM | Comments (7)

July 13, 2004

All-Star break

I didn't watch the game tonight -- All Star games, regardless of sport, just don't do it for me. But I decided, in the spirit of the break, to take the night off. Instead of thinking about Qutb and his ideology (about one aspect of the western roots of same, see this excellent post by Thomas Nephew of the equally excellent Newsrack blog), I watched A Fool There Was, the 1915 Fox Feature that gave the world Theda Bara and the term "vamp." It's a silent melodrama, with all the subtltety of a penny dreadful, and yet I found it strangely affecting. Not so much for Bara's performance -- there are only a few, fleeting scenes that give us any idea of her sex appeal; for the most part, she nags, nags, nags, and one can't help wondering at times why the fool left his rather kindly wife for her. No, the affecting performance is that of Edward Jose, the fool, who manages to transform himself from a hearty man of affairs to a wretched, broken shell of a man -- his face seems to gradually collapse as the film goes on.

I've also been accumulating unread books at an alarming rate. I'm currently working my way through Lisa Jardine's Erasmus, Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print, which is delightful, even if part of Jardine's premise is that Erasmus's reputation rested on a good deal of self-promotion. For what it's worth, I'd never doubted that this was the case -- he certainly used the new medium of print incredibly skillfully. But Jardine's account of how he did it -- down to the letters he wrote about the portraits he sat for -- is nonetheless engaging reading.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)

July 12, 2004

Western Roots of Islamism (more)

Now Athena of Terrorism Unveiled is weighing in on the question of whether there are Western roots of Islamist doctrine. She refers to the article linked in the Samizdata post to which I referred last night, and writes,

Not only do I find the article baseless from Islamist doctrine, I also think it is a cheap attempt at placing more blame on the Left when the culpability ultimately lies with the Islamist perpetrators of these horrendous acts. This is no better than an apologist tactic by the Left to blame America as the root of terrorism.

Islamists have not completely distorted the religion of Islam as we'd like to imagine (that would certainly make ourselves feel more PC and more armed to fight this threat), but are actually traditionalists in nature.

I'm not sure where to begin with this, so I'll fall back on an old standby. This is from an interview, cited by the magisterial Robert Conquest in his excellent work Reflections on a Ravaged Century:

For a useful, almost classical demonstration of the revolutionary mind-warp, the motivation behind the totalitarian Idea, we turn to an interview given by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm on "The Late Show," 24 October 1994 (see TLS, 28 October 1994). When Michael Ignatieff asked him to justify his long membership in the Communist Party, he replied: "You didn't have the option. You see, either there was going to be a future or there wasn't going to be a future and this was the only thing that offered an acceptable future."

Ignatieff then asked: "In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?"

Hobsbawm answered: "This is a sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible. Erm ... I don't actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have to say, 'Probably not.'"

Ignatieff asked: "Why?"

Hobsbawm explained: "Because in a period in which, as you might say, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as a historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous, they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure."

Ignatieff then said: "What that comes down to saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?"

Hobsbawm immediately said: "Yes."

It will be seen that, first, Hobsbawm acccepted the Soviet project not merely on the emotional ground of "hope" but on the transcendantal one of its being the "only" hope. Then, that he was justified because, although it turned out wrong, it might have turned out right (and it was not only a matter of deaths, but also of mass torture, falsification, slave labor). Finally, that the believes this style of chiliastic, absolutist approach to reality is valid in principle.

I believe this is the sort of left referred to in the article to which Athena objects, and it should be added that Hobsbawm is an eminently respected fellow, having earned academic, journalistic and even governmental accolades for his histories -- written in the service of the monstrous ideal that would sacrifice 20 million people to create its paradise.

I for one could easily imagine, some thirty or forty years hence, an interview with an eminently respectable Islamist historian with an endowed chair at a U.S. university, explaining that while the nuclear warhead launched from Iran that wiped Tel Aviv off the map, or the one detonated in downtown Washington, failed to usher in the golden age of the Ummah, had it done so, it would have been well worth the lives of those who were killed. It all comes down to whether the only possible acceptable future could be realized or not, after all.

Athena suggests,

Osama writes and speaks from the same fundamental viewpoint as Mawdudi, Taymiyyah and ultimately Qutb.

...as if these three are, in fact, the mainstream of Islam, as if Averroes and Ataturk and Izetbegovic are not also Islamic. The fact that Qutb argues that Islam as he conceives of it does not exist does not seem to register with Athena. For those curious, here is the quote:

From this point of view, we can say that the Muslim community has been extinct for a few centuries, for this Muslim community does not denote the name of a land in which Islam resides, nor is it a people whose forefathers lived under the Islamic system at some earlier time. It is the name of a group of people whose manners, ideas and concepts, rules and regulations, values and criteria, are all derived from the Islamic source. The Muslim community with these characteristics vanished at the moment the laws of God became suspended on earth.

I'm not persuaded that Qutb speaks for Islam, but if Athena is right, and I'm wrong, and the Islamism of Qutb is demanded by Islam, then we have a much bigger problem on our hands. But my own reading and experience suggests that Qutbism is an aberration; tracing its intellectual roots (and finding that some of them come from outside of Islam) is not an act of appeasement, but rather a worthwhile endeavor in the context of the broader war that was joined on September 11.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:55 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

July 11, 2004

Western roots of Islamism (cont)

I noticed that Samizdata had a post on the subject over the weekend; the piece seems to be short on specifics; I suggested some potential lines of transmission below.

In this context, it's worth considering that ideas have histories, and are subject to historical forces as well. I proposed that perhaps Sayyid Qutb's Islamist ideology had been determined in part by what he was reacting to and competing with: the Arab Nationalist doctrine as espoused by Sati' al-Husri, which derived fairly directly from the likes of Fichte and Herder.

I vaguely recalled reading something in Nahiz Ayubi's Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World which seemed to bear this out. Here's the passage:

...it should not be forgotten that Sayyid Qutb was not outsider to the revolution. He had met Nasser before the coup, and pinned great hopes on his movement. Indeed he had cooperated directly with the revolution from the beginning and had an office at the headquarters of the Revolutionary Command Council, where he was in charge of restructuring school curricula for the new regime. He was also later appointed as secretary-general to the Liberation Rally which had been announced in 1953 as the regime's first experiment with the single political organization formula. Qutb also knew Kamal al-Din Husain, the Free Officer with Ikhwan (that is, Muslim Brotherhood--ideofact) sympathies who proposed him as a Minister of Education and who required the teaching of his nationalist hymns in government schools. Indeed, Qutb's support for the revolution was so strong that he sent an open letter to Muhammad Nagib asking the latter to establish a 'just dictatorship' in the land through the revolution...

Thus, when the Free Officers and the Muslim Brothers fell out with each other, Qutb's frustration at the mutual accusations of treason and despair over the regime's execution, torture and imprisonment (presumably not in that order -- ideofact) of the Ikhwan must have been shattering. The confrontation between the two forces developed not as a religious disagreement, for example over interpretations, but as a political struggle over power.

Ayubi says that Qutb, who soon was imprisoned himself (his health was such that he was in a hospital far more than a cell), grew disillusioned and embittered and ever more radical, adding that if the Nasserist state sanctified the political, Qutb's response was to politicize the divine.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:54 PM | Comments (0)

Plugging plog

I don't know whether it's standard for all its customers, but Amazon.com has launched something it calls a "plog." The only thing blog-like about it is the reverse chronological order of posts; otherwise, it's more or less a marketing tool. In some ways its useful -- it shows when one's most recent purchases have shipped, for example, saving one the trouble of clicking through several pages to get to the "Where's my stuff" page. In others, though, it leaves something to be desired.

Some months ago, I ordered The Jewel of the Seven Stars by Bram Stoker, who of course is best known for writing Dracula. The Jewel of the Seven Stars was Stoker's mummy novel; I bought it out of curiosity but still haven't gotten around to reading it. (I'm not a big Stoker fan -- I don't care for his style, and, unlike Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Stoker's ideas and preoccupations don't engage me as a reader). In any case, here's the Ingram summary of Stoker's mummy book:

An Egyptologist, attempting to raise from the dead the mummy of Tera, an ancient Egyptian queen, finds a fabulous gem and is stricken senseless by an unknown force. Amid bloody and eerie scenes, his daughter is possessed by Tera's soul, and her fate depends upon bringing Tera's mummified body to life.

So, my Amazon plog tells me, on the basis of my purchase of The Jewel of the Seven Stars, that there's another book, recently published, that might interest me:

We thought you'd be interested because you bought The Jewel of Seven Stars.

Amazon.com: An exhaustive, soul-searching memoir, Bill Clinton's My Life is a refreshingly candid look at the former president as a son, brother, teacher, father, husband, and public figure. Clinton painstakingly outlines the history behind his greatest successes and failures, including his dedication to educational and economic reform, his war against a "vast right-wing operation" determined to destroy him, and the "morally indefensible" acts for which he was nearly impeached. My Life is autobiography as therapy--a personal history written by a man trying to face and banish his private demons.... read more.

Obviously, the "p" in "plog" stands for "plug."

Posted by Ideofact at 11:27 PM | Comments (4)

July 09, 2004

Qutb & al-Husri

As a few of Armed Liberal's commenters have pointed out in comments to this post suggesting Western philosophical roots for the Islamist project, the quotes he's relying upon, from Bernard Lewis' new collection of essays, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, refer to the Pan-Arabist project, which has a different genesis from the Islamists. Armed Liberal, I should add, is interested, much as Paul Berman was in Terror and Liberalism, in the Western philosophical roots of Islamism. I think there are such roots, and I think they are related to those that A.L. hints at in his post.

But first, some background. Adeed Dawisha, in his excellent work Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair, considers some of the earliest Islamists -- like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), Muhamed 'Abdu (1849-1905) and Rashid Rida (2865-1935) -- to be precursors to the Arab nationalists. They were all critical of the Ottoman Sultanate, for example. But Dawisha concedes that their central concerns were with the relative backwardness of the Ummah, for which they blamed the Turks primarily, and what the Turks had done to Islam. It's worth noting that al-Afghani and 'Abdu argued that

the arsenal of the West's undbouted contemporary superiority -- philosophy, reason, and science -- were not only compatible with Islam, they were imbedded in the very essence of the Muslim faith. To Afghani, "Islam was in harmony with the principles discovered by scientific reason, was indeed the religion demanded by reason."

It's worth noting that Afghani was Persian by birth, and 'Abdu's nationalism, according to Dawisha, was of a specifically Egyptian character. As for Rida, his contribution to Arab nationalism (it was not a particularly original idea) was the centrality of Arabic to the Islamic experience; yet Daiwisha tells us that Rida remained a loyal defender of the Ottoman Empire up to its collapse after World War I, and was particularly proud that the Arabs were among the last people to catch the nationalist bug.

I'd go into more detail about the likes of Negib (Najib) Azoury, the Christian Syrian Pan-Arabist mentioned by Lewis in one of the passages quoted by Armed Liberal, or Ibrahim al-Yaziji (1847-1906) or George Antonius, all Arab Christians who argued for a secular, democratic Arab state. Suffice it to say that the Islamists had a very different view of what a pan-Islamic state would look like; here's Sayyid Qutb from the seventh chapter of Milestones on the horrors of secular society:

In this society, people are permitted to go to mosques, churches and synagogues; yet it does not tolerate people's demanding that the Shari'ah of God be applied in their daily affairs. Thus, such a society denies or suspends God's sovereignty on earth...

Now, while I could end this discussion here, I think a closer look is worthwhile. Sayyid Qutb wasn't some backwater Imam, he had, as it were, one foot in the pan-Arabist camp and one in the Islamist side of the equation through much of the 1940s and early 1950s. He could have, had he so chosen, had a prominent position in the Nasser government -- the avatar of political pan-Arabism until the 1967 Six Days War (which, in addition to being a serious blow to Egypt's prestige, sent the pan-Arab notion into decline). As it was, Qutb worked for a time in the Egyptian education ministry, before he was imprisoned for his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

I bring this up because I suspect that Qutb must have, in his pedagogical career, have become acquainted with, either at first or second hand, the ideas of Sati' al-Husri -- the Syrian born in Yemen who learned Turkish and French at Constantinople before he could speak Arabic, who was educated in Europe, who was one of the prime twentieth century authors of the Arab nationalist project, whom I mentioned last night. While in Europe, Dawisha tells us, al-Husri imbibed the ideas of the German nationalist philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried von Herder. Like them, he believed that the nation was defined linguistically and historically (but significantly, not religiously), that the Arabs constituted a unique nation, that the individual should sublimate his own desires to serve the nation, and that nationality was immutable -- one couldn't choose not to be an Arab. He was contemptuous of the nationalism of the French polymath Ernest Renan, who defined the nation as a "daily plebiscite," dependent upon the free will and choice of individuals to sustain it. Al-Husri wasn't above advocating force to make Arabs with "false consciousness" -- that is, those who didn't accept his program with enough enthusiasm -- see the light, even if they were non-Arab peoples like Kurds or Berbers. Al-Husri, who was the top education official in Iraq in the 1920s, emphasized historical studies, but these followed a pattern also seen in Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. The point of history was to construct a narrative of national greatness, idealizing the past so that present generations would recapture its glory. It didn't particularly matter whether this history was accurate or not, the main purpose it served was to inculcate into Arab youth the notion of Arab greatness.

Al-Husri's political ideas, derived from these German Romantic philosophers, were decidedly illiberal and anti-individualistic. He sought to make the Arab nation great again, by first achieving Arab political unity (as the Germans had done, as the Italians had done, in the previous century). While you and I may never have heard of him before, Dawisha notes that he was the most influential of the Arab nationalist theorists, widely quoted, and intensively studied. Again, it seems almost impossible that Sayyid Qutb -- the theorist par excellence of modern Islamism -- was unacquainted with his writings.

Qutb, of course, rejected al-Husri's secularism, and made Islam, rather than Arab ethnicity, the central focus of his ideology (and he probably did so out of conviction rather than expediency). Yet, as far as I can tell from his writings, he didn't reject al-Husri's goals or methods. Like al-Husri, Qutb advocated, in Social Justice in Islam, that controlling the educational curriculum to stress past Islamic greatness was central to his project. He shared al-Husri's contempt for liberal ideas and consensual government. There are even moments in some of Qutb's writings when he sounds like an Arab nationalist, calling the Turks, who created a vibrant Islamic empire that rivaled that of the Abbasids, one of the calamaties that befell Islam.

I think that Qutb, in attempting to counter the pan-Arabists, co-opted a lot of their attitudes and ideas. In constructing his Islamist ideology, he accepted a number of their assumptions, and I think these can be demonstrated with reference to his works. I don't know if Qutb actually read Fichte or Herder, but his ideology is a variation on theirs, substituting religion for language and history.

In any case, I've gone on too long here -- I'll pick up this interesting question in a future post.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

July 08, 2004


I'll finish the post I promised immediately below tomorrow. I've written about half of it, but it's badly in need of an edit and I'm badly in need of a good night's sleep. To give a short version, I'm not entirely sure one can draw a bright line between the pan-Arab ideology and the Islamist ideology, which competed with one another in Egpyt. The Islamists appeared to have lost, until the 1967 Six Days War, when Nasser's Egypt was humiliated, and the pan Arab project fell apart. But the competition between the two led to some interesting cross-polination, and the key figures in this, as far as I can tell, are Sayyid Qutb (who for a time straddled both movements before opting for full bore Islamism) and Sati' al-Husri -- a Syrian born in Yemen who learned Turkish and French at Constantinople before he could speak Arabic, who was educated in Europe, and who was one of the prime twentieth century authors of the Arab nationalist project. I'll finish it tomorrow -- promise.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:42 PM | Comments (0)

Islamism and Nihilism

Armed Liberal had an intriguing post over at the always engaging Winds of Change on the Western roots of Islamism that I missed because I didn't want to risk taking my iBook poolside -- he posted it on July 4. I'll have more to say on it tomorrow, but some of it seems a bit off.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:39 AM | Comments (2)

Kiss me, my fool

Speaking of skeletons, I think it's time for another Theda Bara picture:


At the end of the 1915 film A Fool There Was, which introduced both Bara and the vamp to the American public, she leans over her dead lover -- perhaps plaything is more descriptive -- and mouths the words, captured on the intertitle, "Kiss me, my fool." I'm not sure if the above photo was inspired by the scene...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:15 AM | Comments (0)

July 07, 2004

Curiouser and curioser

Last night, I noted the curious circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library -- the collection of Gnostic texts that date to roughly the middle of the fourth century. Googling today, I came across this interview with Elaine Pagels that goes into some detail about the find:

ELAINE PAGELS: What happened is that one day in December 1945 some villagers from the small town of Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, were going out to the cliff to dig for birdlime to fertilize the crops. Muhammad Ali al-Samman hit something underground with his spade and as he dug down he found a six foot jar with a corpse buried next to it. He was afraid to break open the jar because he thought there might be a jinn…

BLVR: A genie?

EP: Right. This is the land of Arabian nights, after all. But then he thought that it might be buried treasure so he smashed it open and realized to his disappointment that it was filled with ancient papyrus. He took it home and threw it on the ground near the stove and later his mother said that she used some of the papyrus to start a fire to make some bread. Not too long after his discovery, Muhammad Ali al-Samman was arrested for murder because he had killed the man who had killed his father in a blood feud. He and his brothers were waiting for the man, attacked him, actually cut him open, and ate his heart. It was blood revenge.

BLVR: Literally.

EP: They knew the police would be coming to take them to prison, so they decided to hide the books because having illegal antiquities was another crime. So Muhammad asked a local history teacher to take care of them while he was away. It turns out the history teacher took them to Cairo to see what he could sell them for on the black market. They were seen there by a French archaeologist who realized one of them was the Gospel of Thomas. There were many other secret gospels as
well, over fifty in that bunch.

It doesn't particularly bother me that Pagels omits from her account that, before the high school teacher got the codexes, they were first given to one al-Qummus Basiliyus Abd al-Masih, a priest, who in turn gave one or more to the high school teacher, who in turn took them to Cairo -- this is, after all, an interview, and some omission of detail is understandable. What struck me as odd is the presence of the corpse.

Pagels does not mention it in her account of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in her work The Gnostic Gospels. James M. Robinson, who wrote a more thorough account of the circumstances of the find, doesn't mention the corpse either. Obviously, this raises a host of questions -- was it a corpse or skeleton? If it hadn't decomposed completely, was it mummified (perhaps naturally) or was it of recent vintage? And if so, could the codexes have been buried alongside the corpse fairly recently?

If, as Pagels suggests, the Nag Hammadi codexes were buried by Christian monks to preserve them from the flames, it's unlikely they similarly would have buried one of their brothers with the books for the same reason. If Muhammad 'Ali did claim the books were found with a corpse --skeletal or otherwise (and there's no reason to credit his account), then it suggests rather different circumstances of burial than Pagels contends. It's also possible, of course, that the interviewer may well have misunderstood Pagels in transcribing her words, in which case I'd be very interested to hear what else was buried alongside the famous jar.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:56 PM | Comments (0)

July 06, 2004


One of the oddities about the Nag Hammadi Library -- the 50-odd Gnostic gospels that date to roughly the middle fourth century -- is the circumstances of their discovery. As I understand the story from James M. Robinson's introduction to the library and from the account in Elaine Pagels' work The Gnostic Gospels, a group of brothers digging for a kind of soil they used in agriculture came across a large jar. One brother broke it open, and found within the codexes, which he brought back to his home. The brothers were involved in some sort of blood feud over the death of their father; after killing the man they held responsible, one brother spirited the books away to a priest, who in turn gave one to a school teacher who later sold it on the black market; the remainder were eventually seized by the Egyptian government and deposited in the Coptic Museum there.

From a strictly archaeological standpoint, the discovery is totally useless. There's a term in archaeology -- provenience -- which refers to the disposition of an artifact in a site. A great deal of useful information can be gleaned not only from what you find, but where you find it, and what else you find with it. Case in point: finding a bronze figure of the Buddha dating from the 6th or 7th century in a Swedish shop devoted to fine arts is one thing; finding one buried with coins from the Caliphate and the Carolingians is an entirely different matter. The former tells us almost nothing of value; the latter indicates the extent of globalization in the age of the Vikings. (Such a Buddha, it's worth noting, was found.)

In the case of the Nag Hammadi find -- if it can be called that (I'm not entirely sure I believe the story, for reasons I'll get to in a moment) -- all provenience was apparently lost. It is very difficult to tell whether the sealed jar that contained the manuscripts was ever discovered or analyzed, for example -- neither Pagels nor Robinson mention this, which is odd, because potterty types are, generally speaking, fairly good chronological indicators, and might shed some light on when the Nag Hammadi gospels were buried.

I mention all this because a minor theme in both Pagels and, to a much a lesser extent, in Robinson's introduction to the collection of Gnostic texts is the motive of the unknown person or persons who took some pains to seal the codexes in a jar, transport them to the desert and bury them. Pagels rather explicitly suggests the reason was a desire to preserve them from being burnt as heretical texts by either Constantinian or post-Constantinian Christian persecutions; in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, for example, she writes of a potential reaction to Athanasius's Festal Letter XXXIX, which explicitly named the canon of accepted Old and New Testament books:

It is likely that one or more of the monks who heard his letter read at their monastery near the town of Nag Hammadi decided to defy Athanasius's order and removed more than fifty books from the monastery library, hid them in a jar to preserve them, and buried them near the cliff where Muhammad 'Ali would find them sixteen hundred years later.

Now, the texts themselves date from the mid-fourth century; but, unless I'm missing something (I may very well be -- Pagels is not an archaeologist, and there may be some archaeological research on the find of which I'm unaware), it does not necessarily follow that the texts were copied out in the mid-Fourth Century only to be buried almost immediately. It's equally possible that they were buried a century or more later. Absent the provenience, it's very hard to determine the date they were buried, and hence the circumstances that led to their burial (assuming, of course, that they were buried).

I mentioned some doubts about the story of the find, and the source of these doubts is Pagels' own account of it. In the aforementioned Gnostic Gospels, she wrote that Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman discovered the famed jar, "...near the town of Naj 'Hammadi at the Jabal al-Tarif, a mountain honeycombed with more than 150 caves. Originally natural, some of these caves were cut and painted and used as grave sites as early as the sixth dynasty, some 4,300 years ago." This passage suggests to me that perhaps the brothers were looking for something other than good soil for farming -- that perhaps they were looking for Egyptian antiquities. Perhaps Muhammad 'Ali had professional reasons for obscuring the circumstances surrounding his discovery of the jar.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:43 PM | Comments (2)

July 05, 2004

The skin I'm in

We traveled to my ancestral homestead over the weekend, and had a wonderful time, drawing the full measure of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I've quoted this several times before, but it always seems to be an apt passage (and not just because I spent a fair amount of time in a heated pool this weekend) on the uniqueness of these United States. It's from a novella called Proofs, now regrettably out of print, by George Steiner -- the British literary critic, novelist, and all around compelling thinker. The year is 1989; the wall has fallen, Communism has been shown not just to be a failure, but to be reviled by those workers whose paradise it was said to be constructing. A committed Italian communist, disoriented by the shattering of what he believed to be certainties, bemoans the dark age descending to a priest now that America has won the Cold War. The priest replies:

About which, I mean American, you and I really know very little. To me it sounds like the society that says to every man and woman: “Be what you want to be. Be yourself. The world was not made only for geniuses and neurotics, for the obsessed and the inspired. It was made for you and you and you. If you choose to try and be an artist or a thinker or a pure scholar, that’s fine. We will neither inhibit you nor put you on a pedestal. If you prefer to be a couch-potato, an auto-mechanic, a break-dancer, a mile-runner, a broker, if you prefer to be a truck-driver or even a drifter, that’s fine too. Perhaps even better. Because it so happens that ideological passion and ascetic illumination, that dogma and sacrifice, have not brought only light and aid to this approximate world of ours. They have sown interminable hatred and self-destruction.” And when America says, “Just be yourself,” it is not saying, “Do not better yourself.” It is saying: “Go after that Nobel Prize if that’s what fires your soul. Or that heated swimming pool.” Not because America believes that heated swimming-pools are the Parthenon or even a necessity. But because they do seem to bring pleasure, and not very much harm. “Move up the ladder, if you can,” says America, “because the desire to live decently, to give your family a comfortable home, to send your children to schools better than those you attended yourself, to earn the regard of your neighbors, is not some capitalist vice, but a universal desire. Do you know, Professore, America is just about the first nation and society in human history to encourage common, fallible, frightened humanity to feel at home in its skin.

The whole novella is worth reading -- it captures quite a bit that's ugly in the human intellect (and while I'm at it, let me recommend two other Steiner books I've found myself thinking about quite a bit over the years -- Real Presences and Antigones). The committed communist in Proofs always makes me think of a line from The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Lord Henry advises Dorian that one should never engage in serious intellectual activity -- as soon as one does, he becomes all nose or all forehead. The protagonist of Proofs might be well caricatured as being all nose and forehead.

Add to the caricature of the nose and forehead a pair of boots stomping on a human face, and you have the system over whose collapse the "Professore" was despondent. Robert Conquest, in the excellent Harvest of Sorrow, traces one chapter of this history -- the terror famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s that left 7 million dead. In one passage, Conquest explains how this was accomplished:

The necessary hatreds were inflamed; the activists who helped the GPU in the arrests and deportations

were all people who knew one another well, and knew their victims, but in carrying out this task they became dazed, stupefied...

They would threaten people with guns, as if they were under a spell, calling small children 'kulak bastards', screaming 'bloodsuckers!' ... They had sold themselves on the idea that the so-called 'kulaks' were pariahs, untouchables, vermin. They would not sit down at a 'parasite's' table; the 'kulak' child was loathsome, the young 'kulak' girl was lower than a louse. They looked on the so-called 'kulaks' as cattle, swine, loathsome, repulsive: they had no souls; they stank; they all had venereal diseases; they were enemies of the people and exploited the labour of others... And there was no pity for them. They were not human beings; one had a hard time making out what they were -- vermin, evidently.

This last paragraph is from Vasily Grossman. Himself Jewish, and the Soviet Union's leading writer on Hitler's Holocaust, he draws the analogy with the Nazis and the Jews. A woman activist explains, 'What I said to myself at the time was "they are not human beings, they are kulaks" ... Who thought up this word "kulak" anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings'.

An article I read tonight notes,

Researchers trace all genocides back to one common feature which is the hate campaign that preludes the actual killing. This has been true for the Jewish holocaust, Armenian genocide, Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing and southern Sudanese massacres. None of these atrocities were and overnight policy but took a long time for preparation because no human being can kill or maim another without some way of rationalizing that act of violence. That rationalization is achieved through the saturation of the mind with hate towards the targeted community.

The article is from KurdishMedia.com, and notes a series of statements and episodes that sugges that such a climate of hatred is being fostered against the Kurds in the Middle East. One of the statements that caught my eye was this one:

Syrian foreign minister Faruk Alshar’e declared that the American lead Iraq Freedom Operation was beneficial only to American imperialism, Israel and Kurds. It is no secret, Americans and Israelis in the middle east are considered top enemies and therefore equating Kurds with them is a code for justifying the killing of Kurds too.

There is, of course, no shortage of vitriol directed at Israelis and Americans. I belong to the latter category only -- it's sobering to think that there's no shortage of people like the good Professore, like those who plotted September 11, who, nose and forehead predominant, would like nothing more than to stomp their boots on our faces to consummate their hatred.

These thoughts, of course, were far away from me as I enjoyed the heated swimming pool on the Fourth of July, playing with my son and my nephew, or talked baseball and politics and movies and tennis with my siblings and parents...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:44 PM | Comments (0)

July 02, 2004

Codex, book

A lovely way to start the holiday weekend. I've been putting the last of my books on the shelves here at Ideofact world headquarters. The Germans always seem to overrun their shelves, driving the Poles into exile and encroaching even on the Russians, but we are just talking about books here, and it's been pleasant to go through them, dust them, handle them, then find some sort of logical order for them.

I was thinking of seguing into a weird analysis made in the introduction to the Nag Hammadi Library by the work's editor, James M. Robinson, to the effect that since the thirteen odd codexes containing some 52 Gnostic texts in Coptic appear to also contain a few orthodox writings, that each book must be a compilation put together for a monk or adept to study. This rather flies in the face of the history of books -- compilations up to the Renaissance were common, but generally the texts assembled were bound together for convenience sake. The idea of a logical compilation organized according to an editorial plan, like, say, the excellent Postwar Polish Poetry edited by the great Czeslaw Milosz -- hadn't been conceived of in the Fourth Century, when the books were compiled.

I was going to write about that, but it's late and I'm tired, and I think I'll call it a night.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:54 PM | Comments (0)

July 01, 2004


Having read, and enjoyed, Constantine and Eusebius, by Timothy D. Barnes, I moved on to his Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire, which deals more directly with Athanasius's role in combatting the Arian heresy and establishing orthodoxy. One observation: Athanasius had his hands full with his Arian opponents, and at times it appeared that he might not prevail (given the rise of the Monophysites in roughly the same area after Athanasius's death, one might well argue that his victory was short lived.)

What I find curious, given all the Councils and anathemas hurled and disputed ecclesiastical successions and the bitter rivalry over questions that we might regard as entirely unimportant -- whether Christ was of the same nature or a different nature than God the Father, whether he existed later than God the Father temporally but in a nontemporal sense existed as long as God the Father (if I'm not expressing this well, it's because, with my sensibilities formed in the twentieth century, the argument appears to be exceedingly obscure, and based not on Scripture but rather theological semantics) -- is what has been missing from both of Barnes's books (or at least, all of Eusebius and what portion of Athanasius I've waded through). Now, this may well be another case of my having spoken too soon -- that it would be better if I shut up and finished the book -- but there's little reference in either the work on Athanasius or Eusebius to gnostic gospels of the sort found at Nag Hammadi. Yet as I noted here, the erudite Elaine Pagels, whose various works on the Gnostics I've found well worth reading and pondering, argued that the during the 4th Century -- specifically from the Council of Nicea and its aftermath -- works like the Gospel of Thomas were suppressed by avatars of Orthodoxy like Athanasius, in conjunction with the Roman state. Odd, then, that in two histories of the period (both of which, I should add, are cited by Pagels to support her characterization of events in the fourth century -- see pp. 223-4, footnote 81, of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas), those works are not mentioned. Further odd, that while Athanasius devoted considerable energy to attacking and defending himself against the Arians, it appears that he references spurious gospels (to an Orthodox believer like Athanasius) in a single Festal letter.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:27 PM | Comments (2)