I love the language, that soft bastard Latin,
Which melts like kisses from a female mouth
I've had a busy month. A conference, a couple of projects to get out the door, the usual amount of drinking, reading, cigar smoking and musing, a new effort to recapture my lost high school Latin -- well, something had to give. Except for two bills that are due in the middle of the month, I let my mail go. It piled up. And up. And up.
Tonight I went through it. I figured it would take, at most, 45 minutes to separate the bills from the junk mail, get rid of the crap, write checks, and then get back to tonight's Latin lesson. I started around 9:30. I just finished -- three hours later.
The most disturbing thing, I think, are the envelopes from companies I have no relationship with (Prudential, Discover, and others) with printed checks and up to $20,000 that can be spent merely by signing them -- there were dozens of these.
Normally I tear them up, by hand, the day they arrive, but I wonder -- how much of my life is wasted dealing with this unwanted crap? Should I buy a shredder? Would it save much time? Would I still have to open the envelopes, flatten the paper, and feed them in a page at a time?
And how much further would I be into my Latin if I didn't have to waste my time on this? Might I also have the time to begin learning ancient Greek?
Lately I've been reading Washington Irving. His short story, The Adventure of the German Student, was in some ways my introduction to literature -- it was the first story I read in which I had the delicious sensation of discovering new and novel things in a text that was 150 years old. (One of the other joys was a sensation that, although this was a short story written by one of the greatest American writers, I was reading something barely known and obscure, even esoteric--a tribute to Irving's skill.
His description of the unfortunate Wolfgang's reading habits is priceless:
Gottfried Wolfgang was a young man of good family. He had studied for some time at Göttingen, but being of a visionary and enthusiastic character, he had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students. His secluded life, his intense application, and the singular nature of his studies, had an effect on both mind and body. His health was impaired; his imagination diseased. He had been indulging in fanciful speculations on spiritual essences, until, like Swedenborg, he had an ideal world of his own around him. He took up a notion, I do not know from what cause, that there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition. Such an idea working on his melancholy temperament produced the most gloomy effects. He became haggard and desponding. His friends discovered the mental malady preying upon him, and determined that the best cure was a change of scene; he was sent, therefore, to finish his studies amidst the splendors and gayeties of Paris.
Wolfgang arrived at Paris at the breaking out of the revolution. The popular delirium at first caught his enthusiastic mind, and he was captivated by the political and philosophical theories of the day: but the scenes of blood which followed shocked his sensitive nature, disgusted him with society and the world, and made him more than ever a recluse. He shut himself up in a solitary apartment in the Pays Latin, the quarter of students. There, in a gloomy street not far from the monastic walls of the Sorbonne, he pursued his favorite speculations. Sometimes he spend hours together in the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the charnel-house of decayed literature.
The Adventure of the German Student is just one of the Tales of a Traveler; like Pushkin, Irving provides elaborate frames to tell his stories. Unlike in Pushkin, the frames puzzle and give the stories additional depth; for example, like the opening of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the narrator of the Adventure of the German Student is a man with a haunted head, that is, one who had the side of his head bashed in. Irving never explains the character; all we know is that he met the German student in a madhouse (perhaps that suffices for explanation).
The post immediately below reminds me of an episode of one of my favorite childhood shows (I saw it in repeats) -- the Addams Family. In one episode, one of the Addams's neighbors is putting on airs on the basis of his superior ancestry--his heritage is one of distinction whereas the Addamses have a more checkered past.
Understandably outraged, Gomez orders a full report on the impertinent rival's genealogy. His researchers uncover an unsavory past -- traitors, pirates, witches, cutthroats, train robbers, assassins, embezzlers -- and Gomez is chastised. After horrifying the man with these revelations as to his background, Gomez says, "Old man, I misjudged you -- you do have an illustrious past that measures up to anyone's." He says this with such warmth and generosity and human feeling -- it's a wonderful scene.
In today's mail was the latest Smithsonian Magazine; the highlight for me (regrettably, the piece does not appear to be online yet) was a brief essay by Richard Conniff (author of The Ape in the Corner Office) about genealogy (and pedigree--the two seem to go hand in hand), which Conniff views with a fair amount of disdain:
I say my skepticism has more to do with arithmetric.
Go back just ten generations, to about 1700, and in theory I have more than 1,000 direct ancestors. Back 20 generations, the number climbs to well over a million.
The precise numbers (thank goodness for the exponential expression calculator) are 1,024 direct ancestors (that is, tracing oneself backwards to mother and father, and their mothers and fathers, and so on) in around 1700 (assuming 30 year generations) and 1,048,576 direct ancestors around 1400. Go back to 1400 years before that, to the era of Greek cosmopolitanism and Roman rationalism, and the number rises to a staggering 73,786,976,294,838,210,000 direct ancestors, scattered across two millennia.
Imagine who may well have numbered among them -- soldiers and pirates, priestesses and prostitutes, heretics and inquisitors, realists and surrealists, romantics and logical positivists -- the possibilities are endless. It is comforting to know that chances are, I carry some genetic trace of accuser and condemned, of persecutor and persecuted, of sinner and censor, reactionary and radical, and an unknowable number of faceless, nameless forgottens who now have title to nothing -- not even their own dust.
Bernard Shaw (for me things always seem to come back to Shaw) once wrote, "I understand everyone and everything and I am nothing and no one." Perhaps it would have been more accurate to replace the first verb with the first person, present tense singular of "to be."
The synoptic Gospels all relate the tale -- no more than a sentence in each -- of Jesus entering the temple and casting out the money changers. William Tyndale, in his brilliant translation, renders the passage from Luke this way:
And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought, saying unto them, it is written: my house is the house of prayer, but ye have made it into a den of thieves.
The money changers exchanged foreign currencies -- Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Nabatean, and so on, for shekels that could be offered to the temple. They provided a service for a fee--like modern currency exchanges, they made a small percentage on each transaction. They had to know the value of shekels relative to drachmas, piasters and dinars, compete with one another on rates, and still make a profit. The premise--that buying and selling, that mutually determining value through open exchange--is the equivalent of a den of thieves suggests, first, that Jesus wasn't much of an economist, and second, that the act of accurately assessing worldly value -- material value -- represented a threat to the ethereal kingdom of heaven Jesus hoped to inaugurate. Knowing the price of things did mean one knew their value; Jesus, who intended to impose his own arbitrary values on things, naturally viewed them as a threat.
Let me offer a clearer example of divines clashing with accountants, to better illustrate that the values prophets promote are inevitably poorer than those on which money changers insist. In an appendix to Mormonism Unveiled--the rather self-serving account of the John D. Lee, the only man convicted of murder for the Mountain Meadows Massacre--Lee's attorney, William W. Bishop, relates the following tale:
Soon after the return from Missouri, Joe Smith, Brigham Young, and Sidney Rigdon organized a bank at Kirtland, which they called the "Safety Society Bank," and began to issue notes in unlimited quantities, "for the relief of the Saints." The names of Joseph Smith as cashier and Sidney Rigdon as president, were signed to the beautifully engraved bank notes, and those who saw the notes with these names attached supposed the bank to be simply a savings institution in which the "saints" could deposit their earnings, which would be invested to pay interest, and that the notes represented actual money in the bank. The result was that the confidence of the people was gained, and the paper of the Safety Society Bank became a favorite medium of circulation with both saint and sinner.
Finally, however, other banks began to lose confidence in these notes, and the bankers of Pittsburgh deputed one of their number to visit Kirtland and learn the real condition of the Safety Society Bank. This agent was a Mr. Jones, and his account of his interview with President Rigdon was decidedly racy. He first inquired about the success of "the Lord's cause," and evinced considerable interest in the Latter-Day religion. This he claimed was a matter of courtesy, but it was unfortunate, for upon opening his satchel and producing a huge number of Safety Society Bank paper, which he desired to have redeemed, the whole proceeding was denounced by brother Rigdon as the "march of a wolf in sheep's clothing." He flew into a passion and asserted that the paper of the bank had been put out as a "circulating medium for the accommodation of the people, that it would be an injury to them for the notes to come home and be redeemed, as they would then have no circulating medium! His bank would redeem nothing!" Mr. Jones pleaded for a deviation from the rule in his case, and pledged himself never again to return with any more of the notes for redemption if he could only get his money this time. But Rigdon was faithful to the programme of the bank, and coolly informed Mr. Jones that they had never asked him or anyone else to take their paper, and referred him to that important epoch in Biblical history where the profession to which Mr. Jones belonged were scourged out of the temple at Jerusalem.
Jones reported back to the Pittsburgh bank; the Safety Society Bank's notes rapidly lost their value, and Joe Smith, Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon shut down the bank and fled. The money changer--the man concerned with actual value as opposed to the counterfeit spiritual sort--drove the thieves from the temple.
I am a tremendous fan of Scott Fitzgerald. Few writers better captured all the paradoxes of American culture -- which can be larger than life as twice ugly, but also mastered by native intelligence and will. Fitzgerald's blind spot (perhaps it was wishful thinking on his part, lending finality to characters who were just beginning) was his notion that there are no second acts in American life. Richard Nixon disproves this, as does Mark Furman (and countless others as well).
This afternoon, I watched the humiliation that Mike Nifong, the Durham D.A. who falsely accused a trio of students of a heinous crime, justly endured for his actions. It is hard to imagine a more pathetic figure: the Duke players -- who suffered greatly, make no mistake -- at least knew they were innocent, and had to have hope that the truth would come out. For Nifong, sitting in that North Carolina State Bar disciplinary hearing, the truth was his enemy.
I wonder though: Does he have an agent? In two or three weeks, will he be appearing on Larry King or Nancy Grace, admitting to some sins (I never should have spoken to the media; I was naive) while committing new ones (the full evidence was never aired; those three students were guilty of something)? Will he write a self-serving tome, admitting his ineptness as a politician and media spokesman, but insisting on his probity as a prosecutor trying to convict well-heeled clients who, ultimately, got away with something? Will he appear as an expert on cable news when some other unfortunate innocents are caught up in the wheels of justice?
The question, ultimately, is how shameless is Mr. Nifong? His record to date is not reassuring...
I came across the above photo of actor Ramon Novarro (he had an interesting life and a sad end) while looking for images by George Hurrell (that's a collector's site; the estate site is here), about whom Virginia Postrel writes in the latest Atlantic.
I think the most interesting thing about Postrel's article is the indication of changing fashions in Hollywood -- Hurrell made his subjects look almost otherworldly (this seemed obvious to me while looking through some of photos in the galleries on IMDB). It makes an interesting contrast to today's celebrity photographers, who capture starlets vomiting or sobbing on their way to jail.
It also says a lot about us, because the latter photos would not be taken were there not a thriving market for them.
Oh, and an aside -- I'm not sure that the above photo was taken by Hurrell.
This looks really cool:
Ancient Rome has been brought back to life through a unique digital reconstruction project, said to be the world's biggest computer simulation. An international team of architects, archaeologists and experts spent 10 years working on a real-time 3D model of the city called Rome Reborn.
Some 7,000 buildings were scanned and reproduced using a model of the city kept at a Rome museum.
Users enter the city at the time of Constantine and see inside buildings.
The simulation takes place in AD320, which is said to be the city's peak, when it had grown to a million inhabitants.
"We can take people under the Colosseum and show them how the elevators worked to bring the animals up from underground chambers for the animal hunts they held," said Bernard Frischer, the project's leader who heads Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.
The simulation reconstructs the interior of about 30 buildings - including the Senate, the Colosseum and the basilica built by the emperor Maxentius - complete with frescoes and decorations.
It is rare for me to think of this line, but when I read it, it made quite an impression on me, and I have never quite forgotten it, though the words themselves have often eluded me:
As quickly as a tiny woman in a group on the cinema screen is followed by the woman's face in close-up six times life size, Germaine's face filled the world...
I've always liked the notion, particularly the idea of surprise: From a group of undifferentiated people--strangers, friends, acquaintances--there suddenly looms one, six times life size. How this happens does strike me as something of a mystery, no matter what Gang of Four said in Anthrax.
Business trips, actual work, and a dying battery (left the power cord at work) means that the line from Jean Cocteau's The Miscreant is it for tonight -- time to listen to some Enrico Caruso while relearning my Latin...
Maybe it's my own quirky expectations, but I found the following passage from Seneca to be extremely depressing:
Do you think it is the same thing thing whether you are overseeing the transfer of corn into granaries, unspoilt by the dishonesty and carelessness of the shippers, and taking care that it does not get damp and then ruined through heat, and that it tallies in measure and weight; or whether you take up these sacred and lofty studies, from which you will learn the substance of god, and his will, his mode of life, his shape; what fate awaits your soul; where nature lays us to rest when released from our bodies; what is the force which supports all the heaviest elements of this world at the centre, suspends the light elements above, carries fire to the highest part, and sets the stars in motion with their proper changes -- and learn other things in succession which are full of tremendous marvels?
Seneca is addressing a friend, Paulinus, who was an official involved in one of the man-made miracles of the ancient world -- the trade and distribution system that supported vast urban populations, providing them with their daily bread. For Seneca, such mundane feats as preventing famine by dealing with all the vagaries of ancient trade -- droughts, crop failures, irregular deliveries, budget problems -- were worthless as compared to idle speculation on what cannot be known.
It seems to me that a stoic should accept and relish duty, should understand the thanklessness of the task, and give his best effort to accomplish it (c.f., Camus' Plague). Does the world need one more idle man, or one more who uses his talents to help feed people?
At 8:30, I'm usually just about starting rounding up the eight-year-old to get him ready for bed, a process that involves dragging him away from whatever activity he's involved in (tonight it was copying the text of the Italian national anthem -- in Italian, of course, into a notebook--why this project was so important to him I've yet to determine), getting him upstairs, getting him into his pajamas and into the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face, then reading him something (these days it's Through the Looking Glass, though I'm surprised he likes it -- the last book we read was U-Boats of the Kaiser's Navy, which was very dry for me to read but fascinated him...
In any case, it's not a good time to watch a movie, which is too bad, because around 9:15 or so I caught the end of The Monster on Turner Classic Movies, a 1925 silent starring the great Lon Chaney. I wish I'd seen the whole thing -- who could resist a scenario like this:
A mad scientist engineers car wrecks so he can experiment on the survivors.
It was wonderfully creepy.
Don't miss this Q&A with Christopher Hitchens, and the good sense (it's about time!) he offers on whether multiculturalism (I prefer the terms "civilization" or "cosmopolitanism") forces us to accept bigots and killers in the tent:
But multiculturalism makes room for just such people.
I don't want to concede that at all. I think it is surely much more positive to say that multiculturalism must be defended from what is really a racist fanaticism. The objection of these people is not really to Judaism, or even to Zionism. It's anti-Semitism pure and simple. The other name for which is racism, of the deadliest kind because it's accompanied by a direct incitement to murder. Not just discrimination, but murder. If someone can tell me how that can be squared with multiculturalism, I'll do all the listening that I feel I have to. But not much.
In the Berman quotations linked below, he writes, "Qutb shows no embarrassment at all in noting the seventh-century barbarities whenever they seem apropos--the cruel amputations and other punishments ordained by huddud, the penal code, which he carefully discusses ... The barbarous passages add a peculiar thrill to his writings, a frisson of the weird and the forbidden that seems all the more powerful because his tone of voice never changes: the tone of a man speaking with tranquility and confidence about things that are cosmically true."
This reminds me a bit of something Qutb wrote in Social Justice in Islam (described here), in which Qutb relates a hadith about a couple who confess their adultery to the prophet, begging to be purified (that is, stoned to death). This quote, from the seventh chapter of Qutb's Social Justice in Islam, pretty much describes what Berman is talking about. To set the scene, Ma'iz bin Malik has asked the prophet to purify him, the sin being adultery. Muhammad asks if he's drunk or a looney, knowing full well the punishment he'll have to inflict. Bin Malik continues to insist on his adultery, and he's stoned to death. Shortly thereafter, a woman comes:
Thereupon there came to him a woman of the Ghamidi clan of Azd, and said, "O Messenger of Allah, purify me." "Woe unto you," he said to her. "Go and ask pardon of Allah, and repent towards him." She said, "Do you intend to repulse me as you did Ma'iz ibn Malik? For I am with child by fornication with him." "You!" siad the Prophet and she answered, "Yes." Then he commanded her, "Wait till you have brought forth your child," and one of the Helpers volunteered to care for her unitl the time of the birth. When this happened, he came and told the Prophet, "The Ghamidi woman has had her child." Then said the Prophet, "We cannot stone her, and leave her helpless child without a nurse"; but one of the Helpers at once said, "I will be responsible for a nurse, O Prophet of Allah." So they stoned the woman to death."
I think this is the "peculiar thrill" of seventh century barbarity to which Berman refers; here is the lesson Qutb draws from the passage:
Now neither Ma'iz bin Malik nor his partner in crime were ignorant of the dreadful penalty that the would have to pay or of the shameful end that they would have to face. No one had seen them, to establish the fact of their crime. Nevertheless, they pressed the Messenger importunately, no matter what was dictated by his mercy and by that of Islam, to deny them the benefit of any doubt; they closed all possible ways against their own escape; indeed the woman even confronted Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, with wanting to repulse her as he had repulsed Ma'iz. She almost accused Allah's Messenger of neglecting his own religion.
Why did they do these things? The answer lies in their request, "Purify me, O Messenger of Allah." This betrays the true impulse that was strong enough to overcome love of life -- a watchful conscience and a keen moral sense. It was the desire to be purified of a crime which none save Allah was cognizant; it was the shame of meeting Allah unpurified from a sin which they had committed.
This is Islam. Its keen moral perception appears in the conscience of the offender, and its profound mercy appears in Muhammad's repulsion of these two people and in his effort to provide a way to escape for them. Its resolution appears in the carrying out of the stipulated punishment when the charge had been proven, despite the nobility of the confession and the intensity of the repentance; for on this point the sinner and the Prophet find common ground -- that the faith must stand by its basic tenets.
I think another interpretation is possible, and perhaps preferable. Ma'iz bin Malik is put to death, not for adultery, but for talking about it in public, as is his paramour. If one thinks of the milieu of Mohammad -- a rough culture riven by blood feuds, in which violence and vendetta were a way of life -- the sin wasn't adultery (which was expected and normal and tolerated and perhaps even condoned) but rather openly avowing it. Mohammad makes no effort to discover who bin Malik had been sleeping with; if adultery were the sin, surely the Prophet would have, at the very least, asked him. Bin Malik is stoned to death by the community to prevent his being killed by, perhaps, a jealous husband or outraged father (either of or not of the Ghamidi clan), which in turn would have led to Bin Malik's family knocking off a Ghamidi, and so on. (Such blood feuds continue to the present day, suggesting the Islam wasn't quite the corrective Qutb argues it was.)
Apparently, archaeologists are too distracted by first century softcore porn to focus on potsherds:
Residents of Pompeii ate their meals on the run, just like many Americans do today, according to a new archaeological study of how households functioned in the ancient Roman city buried by volcanic ash.
Completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Pompeii is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. Besides its risqué statues and frisky frescoes, however, few of its artifacts have been studied in depth. (emphasis added)
That's a rather bizarre claim, not supported by the evidence...
So I noticed that there are a few books by and about Sayyid Qutb now available on Amazon.com. I ordered Basic Principles of Islamic Worldview -- I don't know if I'll blog it chapter by chapter, but I might...
For previous posts on Qutb, click here.