Sunday, February 28, 2010


I met a remarkable person today, named Emmanuel. Raised in Paris of a Haitian family, he worked for the UN in crisis area from Burundi to Kosovo to East Timor. His sister told of his kindness to his many younger siblings, and his generosity and enterprise, organizing his own Olympics in a Parisian banlieu to which all neighborhood kids were invited, even the mean ones. A Cameroonian friend, who had his first tour with a UN mission at the same time as Emmanuel, described how 'Manu' had been the sophisticated petit-frère who taught him the meaning of the UN family - and how he had learned from him to love Haiti. An Italian friend described Emmanuel's love for his three daughters, and his pride when the eldest, Kofie, took a Haitian flag to bed with her...

I met the remarkable Emmanuel today even though - because - he is soon to be laid to rest, with two of his daughters, Kofie and Zenzie; they were killed in the earthquake in Haiti last month. His sister R is a friend of mine, and this evening we had a memorial gathering for him and his girls, joined by friends of R's and of his. (As we met here in Brooklyn, a larger group, including his widow and surviving daughter, gathered in a cathedral in New Zealand; we heard also about a hundred-strong gathering in his memory in Rwanda.) Emmanuel and his family spent last summer here in Brooklyn. The Italian friend spent the evening when Kofie made her father so happy by taking the flag to bed with her with them in Port-au-Prince, the day before the earthquake. Zenzie, Kofie and Emmanuel will be buried tomorrow in New Zealand.

I've heard tell of how people live on in the love, in the hearts, in the memories of others, but tonight I felt it, felt Emmanuel's generous spirit drawing us together into his big international family.

May he rest in peace, and Kofie and Zenzie. And all the others...

Saturday, February 27, 2010


The New York Times' "Beliefs" column is back! I guess I wasn't the only one to write to the editor protesting its announced end last December.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Proceed with caution

More snow! Or rather, "winter mix," making for a sticky squidgy mess.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Allegorical truth

Today's class in the Job class was devoted to book 3 of Gregory the Great's Morals in Job, one of the best-sellers of the Christian middle ages and a second example of Job interpretation guided by what Kugel calls the "Four Assumptions," the more familiar and unfamiliar for coming right after our reading from Baba Batra.

Gregory's Moralia in Iob became so significant because it's really a sprawly compendium of Christian teaching, from Bible interpretation through Christology through ethics. It can seem to be only accidentally about Job - if you're presenting all useful knowledge in a Bible ever referring to and interpreting itself, you could conceivably enter from any point. But Job isn't incidental. As an Old Testament type of Christ and as a moral exemplar whose experience of apparently unwarranted suffering is general enough to apply to most people, as a faithful man tormented by Satan and confronted by well-meaning but heretically-inclined friends whose various speeches are metaphorical enough to provide a segue for any topic, Job suggests that it all fits together.

Every passage is discussed in either its "historical," "allegorical" or "moral" sense - and often in more than one. Organizing interpretation - or theology - in this way suggests (Gregory would say shows) that you can't do moral theology without Christology, and you can't do either without the Bible. Which isn't to privilege the historical (literal) sense, as recognizing some passages as obscure, unlikely or even impossible at the literal level (Gregory thinks Job couldn't have cursed the day of his birth, for instance, since the likes of Job don't curse, and if they did, they wouldn't make curse something which already doesn't exist (IV.pref)) - is the way into the deeper meanings of the text.

We spent a good part of class just looking at Gregory's three discussions of the "potsherd" with which Job scraped his wounds - a detail of the story none of us had spent time thinking about before. At the historical level, the potsherd is taken up by Job as a reminder that he too is mud, as well as broken (III.vii.9). At the allegorical level, it is Christ taking on the "clay of our nature" (III.xvii.33), a clay which having "received firmness by fire" (the Passion) is able to scrape away the mud of sin:

And so the Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus Christ, in giving up His Body into the hands of those who persecuted Him, scraped the humour with a potsherd, forasmuch as He put away sin by flesh; for He came, as it is written, in the likeness of sinful flesh, that He might condemn sin of sin [Rom. 8:3, Vulg]. And whilst He presented the purity of His own Flesh to the enemy, He cleansed away the defilements of ours. And by means of that flesh whereby the enemy held us captive, He made atonement for us whom He set free. For that which was made an instrument of sin by us, was by our Mediator converted for us into the instrument of righteousness.

In the moral reading, finally (, the potsherd represents the "severity" with which we should examine ourselves, its edge given, as it were, by its reminder that we are mortal. "The humour is soon cleansed away if the frailty of our nature be taken up in thought, like a potsherd in the hand."

The three senses echo and enrich each other in various ways, making each word of the Biblical text seem to shine forth with arpeggios of significance. It's not that the Bible contains three levels, each on a different topic but all literally true once decoded or translated to that level. (A is B, but A is also C, so C is B...) The very understanding of meaning and truth is different. No word is or means just one thing, or even just three things. It resonates and harmonizes with other words and other usages of that same word. You could say it vibrates with significance. A isn't even just A.

The same is true, indeed, of every thing in creation.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Flowers left by my friend H brighten our kitchen and promise Spring.

Monday, February 22, 2010

No misreadings here!

And in the Job course today we were swimming in the sea of Talmud! With the help of my colleague F, a specialist in midrash, we made our way through the section of the Baba Batra (part of the Babylonian Talmud) which contains the most concentrated discussion of the Book of Job in rabbinic literature (including this gloss). It's bewildering and then intoxicating, so different are its way of making arguments - philological, conjectural, anecdotal and often far-far-fetched - and its refusal to adjudicate between them. Is Job a parable, or did he live in the time of the Babylonian exile, or of Moses, or of Ruth? - Yes, quite possibly! Was Job as pious as Abraham, or less so, or more so? - Indeed, not unlikely!

I found one part particularly interesting, an extended passage in which God's speech to Job (the theophany) is read as an argument. Too often, especially in our time, God's speeches are understood as anything but argument, no more than so much noise, bluster, bullying; Job is shouted down; his questions - indeed all human questions - are blithely or brutally ignored as God revels in the enumeration of things bigger and stranger than humankind can fathom. Yet here, some of these claims are interpreted as responses to Job's questions and, along the way, proofs that God is as attentive to the tiniest detail as to the big picture.

To understand it, though, you'll need to understand that Job's question is construed as the accusation that God has mistaken him for an enemy, perhaps because things like tempests interfere with His perception. The argument rests on - or plays with - the close resemblance of the words Job [בויא, Iyob] and enemy [ביוא, Oyeb]. (The other thing to know is that the word for tempest apparently sounds like that for hair.)

Job said to God: Perhaps a tempest has passed before thee, and caused thee to confuse Iyob [Job] and Oyeb [enemy]. He was answered through a tempest, as it is written, Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, … Gird up now thy loins like a man, for I will demand of thee and declare thou unto me [38:1,3] 'I have created many hairs in man, and for every hair I have created a separate groove, so that two should not suck from the same groove, for if two were to suck from the same groove they would impair the sight of a man. I do not confuse one groove with another; and shall I then confuse Iyob with Oyeb? Who hath cleft a channel for the waterflood? [38:25] Many drops have I created in the clouds, and for every drop a separate mould, so that two drops should not issue from the same mould, since if two drops issued from the same mould they would wash away the soil, and it would not produce fruit. I do not confuse one drop with another, and shall I confuse Iyob and Oyeb?' … Or a way for the lightning of the thunder. [38:25] Many thunderclaps have I created in the clouds, and for each clap a separate path, so that two claps should not travel by the same path, since if two claps travelled by the same path they would devastate the world. I do not confuse one thunderclap with another, and shall I confuse Iyob with Oyeb? Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth, or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve? [39:1] This wild goat is heartless towards her young. When she crouches for delivery, she goes up to the top of a mountain so that the young shall fall down and be killed, and I prepare an eagle to catch it in his wings and set it before her, and if he were one second too soon or too late it would be killed. I do not confuse one moment with another, and shall I confuse Iyob with Oyeb? Or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve? This hind has a narrow womb. When she crouches for delivery, I prepare a serpent which bites her at the opening of the womb, and she is delivered of her offspring; and were it one second too soon or too late, she would die. I do not confuse one moment with another, and shall I confuse Iyob with Oyeb? (16a-16b)

What's wonderful in this is not just the image of a God attentive to the smallest detail, who's engaged with the welfare of each individual thing in nature, no matter how tiny, in its individuality - and so of course also about each human being - but the suggestion that it's all about (or at least like) reading. God hasn't misread Job's name. His prodigious and meticulous care of His creation is like the rabbis' care for the text of Scripture - including seemingly heartless and narrow-wombed ones like the Book of Job! (Images from here)

Bali hai

We had a mask workshop in Religion & Theater this morning, led by a Dane, who's spent many years going "forth and back" to Bali, and his American assistant. The masks are carved and lacquered in Bali by a native mask-maker, but to the Dane's own designs. While inspired by religious dances, they are not themselves religious but rather influenced by Michael Chekhov's "archetypes." We thought it would be useful for students to experience the power of masks - important in the ancient Greek, egungun, Purim and Nôh traditions which are our topics for the first third of the course - and these acting teachers' religion-inspired-but-not-religious approach sounded ideal for our purposes. One very interesting thing they did was place masks over students' faces without letting the students see the masks first. Had they first seen them, we were told, they'd be thinking about the mask rather than responding with feeling and will. But responding to what? In some cases it was surely responding to others' responses to the mask you couldn't yourself see, but increasingly we were led to believe that it was the power of the masks, that is, the intention of their maker. ("I could make a mask that killed you if I wanted," the Dane said at one point.) This is where I'm not sure anymore. Every tradition has tales of masks which possess their wearers, and the workshop played on our susceptibility to this superstition, our desire to be possessed. Did I just say superstition?!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Blow me down

Charles M. Blow has another column on the weirdness that is religious life in America. Turns out that those who answered "Unaffiliated" in a recent Pew survey of the religious views of "millennials" (about one in four) still believe all manner of things which smug skeptics like Blow think they shouldn't - and even more than older unaffiliateds in similar polls, too! It's painful for some to realize that "unaffiliated" and "agnostic" in America are usually not "atheists" (as we've seen before). Some results Blow presents, with "Unaffiliated, ages 18 to 29 (Millennials)" left and "Unaffiliated, ages 30 and older" right:

Absolutely certain belief in God

Life after death


Go figure!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Enemy of wisdom?

Finished Kugel's How to Read the Bible (and updated my first post). It is a tour de force, a demonstration of how the "ancient interpreters" made the Bible into the Bible, and a sustained argument for why contemporary Jews and Christians should learn to see the values of their traditions in those of the interpreters, not in the "pre-Bible" disclosed by modern biblical scholarship. As he sees it, there's really no alternative, if you're going to continue to have a Bible.

But there's an interesting blind spot in his view - our old friend Job! The chapter on Job is the shortest in Kugel's book (admittedly other books of the Bible are often bundled into chapters, but this is conspicuously and perhaps intentionally the shortest chapter). Job's supposedly eternal questions aren't mentioned. Kugel doesn't even mention the familiar compositional questions of frame story and poem of Job. And Kugel dismisses the book's celebrated poetic language as phony baloney, a language no real person ever spoke (641)!

I think I know why. Job is a sustained assault on wisdom literature. But, Kugel will argue in the next chapter, wisdom is the attitude of the "ancient interpreters" whose stance he is commending to us: It is really the wisdom mind-set that made so many ancient texts become a series of eternally valid lessons, the wisdom of the ages (671). But wisdom doesn't know what to do with Job, whose author both entertains and lampoons wisdom arguments, indeed "plays both sides against the middle." But once the Bible had become a great book of lessons, the question "What am I to learn from this?" had to have a straightforward answer (642)! The Book of Job won't play that game.

Friday, February 19, 2010


What is this cover trying to say? It's in the rather stylishly designed HarperPerennial ModernThought series, and contains the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the Blue and Brown Books and On Certainty. Is the message that Wittgenstein didn't have major works, or that these aren't those major works, or that he didn't believe in major works? Each of these contains an element of truth. Or is it that his was a debunking, disenchanting, deconstructing philosophy? There's some truth to that, too, but it's less than half the truth about especially the later work. Yet there's no apparatus to explain - not even a one-page editor's preface indicating when these works appeared! Only on the back cover is the reader told that the works selected are from the "early, middle, and later career of this revolutionary thinker," but without followup inside it hardly seems significant. Pity the reader who doesn't already know that Wittgenstein repudiated the project of his earlier work in the later philosophy rather than building on it!
Olive oil calligraphy.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


What dry goods are in your kitchen? Are they as colorful as mine?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

World theater

Excitingly global moments in Religion & Theater today. E, one of our colleagues from the literature department, talked about "Death and the King's Horseman" - she directed the second production of the play ever, in Barbados, after having been in Nigeria at the time Wole Soyinka was establishing himself. ("Don't think you can do postcolonial studies without leaving the United States," she warned.)

The play is off-puttingly difficult for first-time readers, but she showed several ways in, such as that the story is not just about British colonial Nigeria but Soyinka's frustration at being invited to Cambridge by well-meaning dons who regretfully placed him in the Anthropology department as "there is no such thing as African literature"! (I'll show you Yoruba literature, I'll show you its depth, and its distinctive and profound tradition of tragedy!) And she showed us how the play explores a number of competing conceptions of death in Yoruba culture, a death relativized (to an extent) by reincarnation, which may indeed mean that the ancestors are not only present in some general way but might be reincarnated in you, and a quite different meaningless death which is the shadow of the losses to slavery; meanwhile all these views are condemned as "primitive" by the colonizer, whose religion promises eternal life if you reject the "deathiness" of your traditions...

Hearing about this from a white English woman who had spent time in Africa and the West Indies brought the global context in which Soyinka writes into our classroom. Even more came from my visiting Japanese friend H - have I mentioned that she's an actor and theater director? - who came to the class. She told me that Soyinka's play (which she saw in rehearsal in London in the mid-'70s, and again a decade ago in a Russian production in Tokyo) is highly regarded in Japan, where its concern with honorable suicide in the service of a lord is a familiar theme (indeed, one of the main themes of kabuki!). She and E communed over the insufficiency of language and thinking to convey what Soyinka's after; what's needed is live performance and, even more, dance and music (drumming).

Did any of this make the play more accessible to our students? I hope so, but we'll have to see. It is a lot to ask them to understand foreign concepts of death (and undeath, for the dead are present in the world, and on the stage, in masks, etc.), but we do have a whole semester to get them to see theater as broader than western concepts of performance. Religion too. Our next unit is on Noh drama, so I'm sure to use the Japan-Soyinka connection and keep on plugging understandings of religion that are neither theistic nor merely humanistic.

I leave you with one of the pivotal speeches in "Death and the King's Horseman," in which a wise woman explains the "death of death" on which everything depends. (An "elesin" is the "horseman" who leads a dead king through the transition back to rebirth; without the elesin, the king can't find his way, and the whole community's survival is in jeopardy. But his voluntary "committing death" also shows humanity's metaphysical superiority to death.)

It is the death of war that kills the valiant,
Death of water is how the swimmer goes
It is the death of markets that kills the trader
And death of indecision takes the idle away
The trade of the cutlass blunts its edge
And the beautiful die the death of beauty.
It takes an Elesin to die the death of death . . .
Only Elesin . . . dies the unknowable death of death . . .
Gracefully, gracefully does the horseman regain
The stables at the end of day, gracefully . . .

(Norton Critical Edition, 35)
(Egungun mask pics from here, here and here)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy now?

I agreed to submit an article to the special issue of a journal on happiness. My brief, very brief indeed: religion and happiness. Which I interpreted as some angle on religion-and-happiness, but even that's turning out to be difficult. What is happiness? What would make a person think there was such a thing, a single thing, unchanging and accessible in every time and place? (Don't get me started on "religion"!) But it's no fun simply to point that out, huh! Suggestions, anyone?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cryptic, relevant, perfect, and divinely granted

I'm reading a fantastic book, a wonderfully accessible introduction to the minefield - or is that the roller-coaster - that is Biblical studies, James Kugel's rather boldly entitled tome How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (Free Press, 2007). Kugel's point of departure is that what we think the Bible is, is in fact the work not of the writers of the Bible (whoever they may have been) but of "ancient interpreters" living from the 3rd century BCE to the 2nd century CE, whose "four assumptions" (14-15) continue to shape the reading of the Bible for most Jews and Christians today:

1. They assumed that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, it often really meant B....
2. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. It may seem to talk about the past, but it is not funda- mentally history. It is instruction, telling us what to do…
3. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes. It is perfectly harmonious, despite being an anthology; in fact, they also believed that everything the Bible says ought to be in accord with the interpreters’ own religious beliefs and practices (since they believed these to have been ordained by God).
4. Lastly, they believed that the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through His prophets.

Kugel weaves back and forth between the interpretations of rabbis (and some New Testament and early Christian church figures) on the one hand, and the discoveries and hypotheses of historical scholars of the last two centuries. As he makes clear early on, they do not converge - the "documentary hypothesis" is particularly poisonous for traditionalist views - nor are they ever likely to. But he also doesn't force a choice on the reader (at least not in the first 300 pages). It may be that he's also leaving open the choice to anchor one's religious life and practice not in the world of the writers and editors of the Tanakh (which ain't what it used to be), but in that of the interpreters who made the Bible into the Bible around which our traditions grew. Is that really an option?

PS I've finished it now (20/2), and Kugel does indeed argue that it is the ancient interpreters who made the Bible, and that their "supreme mission of of serving God, of being God's familiar servants" (685) - of which fashioning Scripture was part - is what a religious person should reproduce; scholarship leaves no other really "biblical" alternative. What modern scholarship has excavated "is not so much the Bible as the pre-Bible ... [and] if indeed the Bible has changed again" because of modern scholarship "it has actually turned into something the Bible never was" (766n20). "[M]odern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are and must always remain completely irreconcilable" (681), and the same, by extension, goes for most Christianity.

Without [the ancient interpreters'] changes, would there even have been a Bible? That seems most unlikely. Why should anyone seeking to worship God devote himself or herself to reading the etiological narratives and political self-puffery of a civilization long dead, the guerilla tactics and court shenanigans of various ancient kings, law codes endorsing herem and the stoning of a rebellious child, or statutes forbidding Molech worship and similarly outdated concerns, psalms specifically designed to accompany the sacrificing of animals at a cultic site, or erotic love poetry? All these texts underwent a radical change in meaning when they began to be interpreted in the somewhat quirky, highly creative, and altogether God-centered approach of ancient scholars in the late biblical period? The original meaning of these texts disappeared. In a sense, ancient interpreters rewrote every one of them, even though they did not change a word. (518)

We need to own the work of the ancient interpreters, who made the Bible into scripture, for whom

Scripture is, and always has been ... the beginning of a manual entitled To Serve God ... The very idea of Scripture, I wish to say, was at its origin an expression of a certain way of apprehending God - not the fleeting, frightening way in which the God of Old was encountered, but the way of coming before Him in constancy as His familiar servants. (685)

But of course - I feel I must add - there isn't just one Bible. Precisely because of the approach of the "four assumptions," Christians and Jews shouldn't read even those texts they share in the same way...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Billy Elliot is queer

My friend H treated me to "Billy Elliot: The Musical" today. We had a grand time. It deserves all its accolades - it's well done in every way. Based on a film I so loved I haven't dared watch it again, it will surely inspire many young people to take up the dance. (My only complaint is that it - perhaps inevitably - celebrates Broadway rather than the ballet as terminus of Billy's strivings.) Other kids will be inspired too. It's very queer, as the red herring line "Billy Elliot is queer" - the hero's misreading of "Billy Elliot, Esquire" on the letter of acceptance from the Royal Ballet School, read in a half-knowing way and followed by a long pause for it to sink in - marks. Is Billy gay? The question is skirted (!) as deftly as in the film. But the show sure is. The only kiss - a peck on the cheek - is between boys, the only pas de deux - from "Swan Lake" - is between a man and a boy (well, grown-up Billy and boy Billy in a dream), and everyone ends up in a tutu at curtain call. Even the coal miners sing:

All out together,
All out as one,
All out for victory,
Till we’ve won.

What a marvelous thing it would be to have seen as a boy...

Incidentally there's an Aussie connection, too. Our Billy was a very talented young Australian (from Penrith, west of Sydney) named Dayton Tavares, who came to ballet from hip hop and tae kwon do. There's even a parallel with Billy's story: Dayton learned ballet on the sly at the instigation of a teacher, telling his father nothing of it for six months... And it's true: he's on Broadway, not the ballet.

Friday, February 12, 2010


The Rubin Museum worked with the American Museum of Natural History to produce a quite amazing film. It comes at the end of an exhibition of cosmogonic bodies, maps, spheres and orbits from east and west, brilliantly put together to bring science and religion (especially of course Buddhism) into conversation. Enjoy!
The film's out-to-the-cosmos-and-back movement is one I recall being led through in an esoteric Buddhist meditation at a Shingon temple in Tokyo four years ago, though at the Rubin, of course, home is Tibet!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Free verse

Snow poetry

- by day (out the window in Brooklyn, around a wood sculpture from Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu) and

- by night (from the café at Alice Tully Hall).

Both pics were taken yesterday. Today was bright and clear, and the snow was crunchy and soggy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Diana Damrau banzai!

My friend H, visiting from Japan, and I had a blast at the Met's "La Fille du Régiment" tonight, thanks in large part to the comic genius and singing prowess of German coloratura soprano Damrau, perfect in Laurent Pelly's witty production. But the cameo by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who was supposedly only appearing in a speaking part, nearly stole the show - in the midst of a scene with a deliberately banal minuet, representing the stultifying boredom of aristocratic life, she broke into words and harmonies from another place and time - a song by Ginastera sung like "My heart belongs to daddy"! Donizetti would have loved it.

City- wide snow day!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Just enough

I've heard many accounts of what and how students should learn in college, but today I heard a new one - new to me at least. What's to be learned is to know when you've learned enough to make a decision. Makes sense, I suppose, from a business school dean (which he was). As a pragmatist, I should agree with this - thinking, as Peirce taught us, is generated by a puzzlement and subsides as soon as the puzzlement abates - but there's something about this way of putting it which makes me think of "We need a commander in chief, not a professor of law."

The business school dean was proposing a new way of organizing knowledge, which was all about speed and relevance. Force (!) faculty to teach what they're working on, and the need to make their work intelligible to more than a small number of other experts will broaden their research and make it more relevant. And do everything you can to promote new interdisciplinary ventures; there are problems in every field whose solutions probably lie outside its received view of itself, and the sooner these problems are solved the better! The process is, he said, evolutionary - the more efforts at innovative connecting, the sooner we'll get to the answers, and to new questions. (This was the context in which he mentioned learning enough to act.

Now does what works for business or design (he was a designer before going the business track) work for more conventional academic concerns? I can see ways in which it does - you want students to be able to see when evidence adds up to an argument, etc. - but it still seems too populist. Aren't there problems worth pursuing which most people won't understand? Don't interdisciplinary projects rely on more conventional bodies of knowledge, maintained and elaborated by scholars solving problems specific to their disciplines? More fundamentally, isn't (as Stanley Fish insists) liberal arts incompatible with such bald notions of utility? A higher utility more like uselessness, whether you see it as preparation for a lifetime of problem-solving (including problems you and your teachers couldn't have anticipated), as part of a life well lived... or even as preparation for dealing with the problems you can't solve?

Monday, February 08, 2010

You are not here

Here's another diagram from Religion & Theater, this a map of the religious world of Nigerian play- wright Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horse- man.

The play is about a man whose hereditary role is to be "horseman" (elesin) to the king: when kings dies, the horsemen (as also the king's horse and dog) precede them into the other world. This means, they die before the king is buried. But what makes the king's horseman more important, in his way, than even the king is the fact that he goes freely. As another character says, it is not the horseman who dies but death. And through this voluntary dying, the horseman proves for all that human beings are stronger than death.

The story is based on an actual event in 1946, when British colonial administrators prevented a king's horseman from performing the act for which he was born, and it's tempting to see the play as about a confrontation of cultures - Elesin Oba and entourage vs. Simon Pilkings, the District Officer and his wife Jane. Indeed, many critics have praised the play for just this. Soyinka wants nothing of it, and the text starts with a note saying so:

[T]he facile tag of ‘clash of cultures [is] a prejudicial label which ... presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter. … The Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely. The confrontation in the play is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle which is Elesin and the universe of the Yoruba mind—the world of the living, the dead and the unborn, and the numinous passage which links all: transition. (Norton Critical Edition, 3; map above is on 70)

How do we prevent a culture-clash reading, how do we present the play as metaphysical (and not a metaphysics-clash either)? It's not easy. I tried today to suggest that students imagine the story with a different catalytic incident than an English colonial administrator - say, a Muslim ruler a few centuries ago; who the disrupter is really doesn't matter that much. That sounded to some students like I was trying to avoid the colonialism question, I think, so I'll try to make the point another way on Wednesday. Look at this map of the Yoruba cosmos, I'll say, pointing to the one at the top of this post; where do the Brits fit here?

Nowhere, of course. That doesn't mean Pilkings and his ilk are not in Yorubaland, getting in the way of things. But unless and until things are prevented from taking their proper course, they're not really there - not as Brits. They're not from some other world - there is no other world for them to be from. They're intruders, that's all, who don't belong here, and cause nothing but harm. To avoid a culture clash reading and its implicit imperialism, we need to understand them as characters in the Yoruba world, not establish a truce between them and the Yoruba on the territory of the play.

The play signals the metaphysical insubstantiality of the Brits by having the colonial administrator and his wife first appear in traditional Yoruba clothes and masks - impounded from egungun mourners for the dead king, in fact - which they think will make an amusing impression at a dress-up ball at the European club. At first, they just look ridiculous (indeed, they're rehearsing a tango!). But eventually we learn that they look like the dead or not- quite- dead whom egungun dancers embody, lost, liminal beings...

At the National Theatre in London last year, an even more radical effort was made to desubstan- tialize the Brits: they were played by African actors in whiteface!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sometimes, for a minute or so, the setting sun reflects from Manhattan.

Friday, February 05, 2010

I'm with stupid

The subway station at West 4th is blanketed in billboards from Diesel Jeans' "Be Stupid" campaign. Most of them do nothing for me, but I find I actually really like being watched by this one. Go, lateral unthinking!

Thursday, February 04, 2010


In Religion & Theater yesterday, we had students perform scenes from Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Groups had half an hour to prepare, but (so!) the staged readings had a real freshness about them. Few of the students knew the play - we hadn't asked them to read it, and gave each group only the scene it was charged with presenting. I don't imagine many more were more familiar with Ovid.

No matter, the scenes played out beautifully to an unusually appreciative audience. And as the students brought them to life, I was back in the Circle in the Square Theater, where I saw the original New York production in December 2002, with its large pool of water in which transformations happened, the cast narrating and acting out and commenting on a bunch of Ovid's stories in witty ways which then, suddenly, became heart-breakingly beautiful or sad. One laughed then wept, and wept more, at the fragility and pain and nobility of human life, of human embodiment and love.

The friend who took me to see Metamorphoses was one of many New Yorkers who had gone to see it in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (it opened in New York just before that fateful day), many going several times. I felt the grief and pained solidarity of the city then, and felt it again seeing the scenes performed by our students.

Ceyx's plea, as his ship sinks, that at least his body be washed ashore to his beloved Ceyx (who knew he would die), must have resonated unbelievably at a time when so many beloveds' bodies had disappeared, most never to be recovered. (One thinks now also of all those still trapped in the rubble in Haiti, and their mourning families.) And the gods' mercy by which he is revived and they become a pair of sea birds. And the final scene, where two generous old people, Baucus and Philemon, are given a wish by the gods and ask: May I die when my love dies, may I live as long as my love, that is, may I live for ever... It gets me every time.

Zimmerman didn't write the piece for 9/11 of course (it was developed and premiered in Chicago). But this only makes it a clearer demonstration of the powerful ache and consolation of those tales, and of theater.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A light dusting...

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Truth to power

This semester I have fewer obligations as chair of the first year program than last semester, when I had to shepherd the teams of seminar fellows (peer advisers) and faculty advisers greeting an incoming class of 250+, even while putting together the curriculum for 2010-11. The faculty advisers pretty much took care of themselves, but I facilitated a weekly meeting of the seminar fellows which taught me lots about student experiences and concerns. All that's left for the Spring is overseeing seven "Reading NYC" courses and helping them put up a final exhibition, finalizing the course offerings for next year, and eventually starting the selection process for a new squad of seminar fellows.

Except for the 18 new first years, who for various and variously interesting reasons have just started this semester. They meet weekly with a seminar fellow, who comes to see me each week too. We met today, and he gave me a reflection on his experiences so far. One remark caught me unprepared: I have already explained to them that some teachers think that their class is the most important event in their students' lives. This is obviously not true, and probably will not ever be true. The key is to balance social life with academic life, and to understand that the two are not mutually exclusive. Obviously? Ouch!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Testament to something

In class today we discussed the Testament of Job, a rendering of the Job story from two millennia ago, plus or minus a century or two. It's frustrating for me, a modernist used to pretty easy dating of texts, not to know more, especially as it might seem that plus or minus a century makes all the difference here: pre-Christian or post?! It seems wiser to say that the Testament of Job, along with the Septuagint translation and the Aramaic Targum of Job found at Qumran, are all part of a larger tradition of Job interpretation, a mostly oral tradition sometimes known as the "legend of Job," which influenced artistic representations of the Job story into the early modern period, and which may well even be older than the canonical text. They tell a story subtly but profoundly different.

The differences from the canonical Book of Job are many. The main ones seem to be an enlarged role for Job's wife and, related to this, a quite different cognitive situation for Job. Let me take the latter first, as it enables us to see what role the enhanced Mrs. Job plays. (There are other differences too: the satan has become Satan, and Job has a second wife who, like him, is an Israelite, for instance...)

The Job of the Testament knows exactly what will happen to him, and indeed knowingly brings it on himself. After wondering if a much-venerated idol's temple ... [c]an really be [to] the God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and us ourselves (II), he has a dream in which a loud voice with a very great light informs him: He to whom they bring the whole burnt-offerings and pour out milk-offerings is not God but the power of the Devil. Indignant, Job asks for authority to go out and cleanse this sanctuary (III).

And the light answered me and said, You can indeed cleanse this sanctuary, but I must let you know everything the Lord has commanded me to tell you. ... If you do attempt to cleanse Satan's sanctuary, he will turn against you in anger and fight against you; but although he will afflict you with many calamities, he will not be able to kill you. He will take your possessions away: he will destroy your children. But if you endure, I will make your name famous among all generations on earth until the end of time. And I will return your possessions to you, and double shall be restored to you, so that you may know that the Lord has no favourites and richly repays everyone who obeys him. And you will be raised up at the resurrection; for you will be like a boxer in the games who keeps the struggle up and gains his crown. (IV)

Job razes the temple to the ground, and the promised afflictions arrive, described in far greater detail and taking much longer than seems to be implied in the canonical book. Eventually, Satan relents (though the sufferings go on at least another three years):

Lo, Job, I am exhausted, and I give in to you, though you are human and I am a spirit: you are smitten by disease, but I am in great distress as well. For it is as if two athletes were wrestling, and one threw the other; and the one that was on top silenced the one underneath by filling his mouth with sand and twisting his every limb. But the one underneath bore it all with patient endurance, and did not give in, and it was the one on top that at last shouted out that he was beaten. (XXVII)

Eventually his friends (all kings in this version - Job, too) come and Elihu speaks too (actually a refreshed Satan speaks through him), but the dialogue is abbreviated. God's speech is briefer still: After he [Elihu] has ceased his fine words, the Lord apeared to me and spoke through whirlwind and clouds. And he censured Elihu... (XLII) Restoration soon follows, Job is healed and all is well.

But is this Job's ordeal anything like that of the protagonist of the canonical book, who has no idea what is happening to him - doesn't precipitate it, and certainly has no assurance that the suffering has a meaning or an end? We concluded not. The Testament's Job knows exactly what's going on, and has his eyes on the prize, as when he responds to his hard-working but demoralized and humiliated wife's complaint:

Lo, I have been afflicted by diseases for seventeen years, and I have submitted patiently to the worms in my body. But I have never been so dispirited by the pains as by the words you have just uttered, Curse [lit: Speak a word against] the Lord and die. This is a burden we both of us bear together - the loss of our children and possessions: would you have us now curse the Lord and so deprive ourselves of the great wealth that is to be? (XXVI)

The Biblical Job has no such assurance. At no point in his speeches does he demand, let alone expect, a restoration of wealth and happiness. So the quality of patience (if it is patience), endurance, persistence that he shows is an entirely different animal than that of the Job of the Testament.

Strikingly, the cognitive situation of the Biblical Job is more like that of the Testament's Mrs. Job, who - as we just saw - has not been told what's going on, and has certainly not chosen her fate. Indeed, the relationship between the Testament's Job (who knows of the test, that he can withstand it, and initiates it) and Mrs. Job (who doesn't know any such thing) is remarkably like that between God and Job in the canonical book! Yes, she stumbles a few times - the canonical Job too comes close to blasphemy - but she persists, and is celebrated when she dies. In fascinating ways the Testament's Mrs. Job is the true vehicle of the message, or the challenge, of the canonical Book of Job.

There's much more one might say about her. Why, for instance, must she die, however happily (on seeing that her children are not dead but were transported bodily into heaven), mourned by humans as well as animals (XL), rather than sharing in Job's restoration? She has a far better image than the wife of the Biblical Job (though she has to work harder for it, supporting her diseased and ostracized husband by begging and drudgery for people who were once her servants, eventually even selling her hair for bread) - might she be giving him a run for his money? What role do gender roles play in the story more generally?

I don't think that the author of the Testament of Job deliberately or even knowingly displaced the God-Job relationship to Job-Mrs. Job. The story he (presumably) wrote was surely one he'd heard before, the same story which led the translators of the Septuagint to add a Testament-like speech for Mrs. Job to the Greek translation of the Book of Job. So how might this displacement have happened?

It may be that the far more disconcerting story of the biblical Job, abandoned (for all he knew) by his God, haunts the legend of Job. The true story of Job will out!

Or maybe it's that the Bible's story of Job is truer to the experiences we actually know. Even if one were assured that God is in control, that no suffering happens by accident or for no reason - that one's affliction were actually a vote of confidence from God! - there's a cognitive gap between this faith and an actual life of apparently meaningless loss and devastation. A story which didn't include that gap wouldn't ring true in the same way. Further, true patience, or endurance, or persistence, or faith, or integrity - whatever it is that Job is thought to exemplify - arguably requires just such a gap.

Perhaps thinking about the importance of this gap can help explain why the apparent tension between the prose tale and the poetic center of the Biblical Book of Job didn't raise eyebrows until recently, and even why the legend of Job persisted as long a it did - to keep the two parts in a balance threatened by the greater weight of the poem of Job. It can also perhaps help explain why Mrs. Job, a one-line walk-on in the Book of Job, persistently endures in dramatic and artistic retellings - and in some of them, at least, is more human and more impressive than he.

(Translation of the "Legend of Job" by R. Thornhill is from The Apocryphal Old Testament, ed. H. F. D. Sparks (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984)