Wednesday, March 31, 2010

See no evil

One of the things I've learned from my friend C is that you can't really just read a play. I mean, you can, but you learn so much more about it if you see a production - even a very very bad one - and even if you just have some people sit around and read it aloud. So I was surprised to hear her say today, of what seems to be her favorite play in our syllabus, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, that it's one she'd rather read than see. This surprised me the more as this is the play where I've felt most keenly the need to see (or at least imagine) a staging! What's going on?

I don't think it's that scholar Faustus makes more sense to me - in fact, I find him pretty uninteresting on the page. I feel the need of an actor to make Faustus' combination of bravado, skepticism, joy and blindness work from scene to scene, indeed, from line to line. And there I find I can imagine wonders - well, imagine a gifted actor working wonders. In the production I imagine, Faustus - like us in the audience - doesn't know if his story (and the world) is as Catholicism, Calvinism, Aristotelian tragedy, skepticism or libertinism claims it is. Is he free? Are there second chances? Is hell a fable?

But I need an actual actor (and a production) to show me if Faustus is testing things out, joyriding, feinting, or learning at each point. Two examples. First, when Mephistopheles parades the seven deadly sins before him (in the A version), what is Faustus' body language reaction? Do they attract him or repel him? Are the reactions similar or differ with the vice in question? Does he move toward them or turn away from them? Is he aware of his reactions? A good actor should be able to do all of this and then some, but I'd need to see how he does it to know if I thought it was right. Second, as Faustus approaches the end of his contract, and starts to understand (or think) that hell may be real after all, he tries to save himself through repentance but it fails. Why, how? Does he not believe his own words? Did he think these words would work (like the magic words he thinks brought Mephistopheles to him) and then discovers with horror then terror that they don't? And I'd need an actual production around this (especially the devils, of course), echoing or mocking his progress...

But this doesn't explain why C is content to let the words on the page do all the work. Perhaps she thinks even the most subtle performance will be a flattening, didactic or nihilistic. Or perhaps the big metaphysical questions seem clearer on the page than they would on the stage. Maybe my needing to see a particular actor take it in a particular direction, however subtle, is compatible with a sense that the play's possibilities cannot all be on display in a single production.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Isn't nature amazing. A mere splash of hot water on a butcher's block...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday really is a dramatic experience. What starts bright and festive, with a procession with palms and hosannas, darkens, and by the end the church is bare, the story told - and the cheerers have become jeerers, cries of welcome become calls for crucifixion.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Yours in anarchy!

Remember that talk I gave on the history of The New School, which corrected the exclusive attention to "founding fathers" by inserting a picture of Emily James Putnam between Charles Beard, John Dewey, James Robinson and Thorstein Veblen, and told of Clara Mayer, etc.? Well, it was worth it. A colleague who commented on that presentation is director of our new Gender Studies Program here, and although she's been at New School for decades she'd never heard of Putnam and her sisters. Well: the conference to kick of the New School Gender Studies Program began this morning with a report on women's contributions to the founding and defining and supporting of the school - news to most everyone there! Next to the panel was a big photo enlargement of Putnam! And they'd found a picture of Clara Mayer. Glad to have helped set the record straight!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Almost berbere

One teaspoon each of cayenne, ground coriander, ground cardamom, allspice and fenugreek, mixed with two tablespoons of paprika.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Among friends

A single class on Aquinas on Job is as absurd as, well, Monday's single class on Maimonides. (We'll be looking back at both of them next week.) But we got pretty far, including a useful discussion of the powers and limits of the literal and allegorical senses (using ST Ia., Q. 1, A. 10), and the shocker that, if you attend to the literal meaning of "laid the foundations of the earth" in Job 38:4, you find that the theophany is an argument, not just bluster or sublime poetry. But I want to talk about something else which makes Aquinas' interpretation distinctive and dear.

Aquinas sees the Book of Job as a disputation on providence among friends. He suggests Job was probably a historical character but this doesn't matter so much, as the intent lies in the argument(ation): as important as what is said is how it's said: the dynamic of the exchanges between Job and his friends. As Aquinas sees it (reading from 19:25-27 that Job knows his redeemer lives), Job knows of the afterlife. His friends don't. For this reason, they are forced - by their own best intentions - to false conclusions about Job's innocence and also about providence. If another life in which just men are rewarded and evil men are punished ... is not posited, no reason can be given for the trial of just men, who, it is certain, are sometimes troubled in this world. (trans. Anthony Damico [Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989],194; on Job 10:22)

Job is trying to show them the error of their ways, but since what they don't know is so huge and transformative a thing, he's taking it slow: first showing contradictions in their views in his responses to them (a sort of immanent criticism), rather than springing the truth of immortality on them without preparation. Only in chapter 19 - and signaled by his wish that his words, unlike those which came before, be recorded permanently and for posterity - does he introduce this saving difference. (They don't get it. Perhaps because of the pain shortening his patience, his pedagogical and rhetorical efforts fall short: he causes affront in his friends rather than illumination - until backed up by the intervention of Authority.)

I've been impressed in the past by the centrality of friendship to Aquinas' account of the relationship of Job, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar (very unlike modern readings which see them as hypocrites, false in their friendship as well as their piety). The dynamics of disputation among friends are crucial to Aquinas' argument, which isn't just about the answer to questions about providence, but how to address them, how to discuss them, how to avoid error in them, how to guide - or learn from - your friends in them. But I had not noticed that Aquinas' first reference to friendship comes in referring to Job as a friend of God: Now it is the mark of friends to want and to reject the same things. Hence, if it proceeds from divine good pleasure that someone be despoiled of his temporal goods, if he loves God he ought to conform his own will to the divine will, so that considering this he should not be engrossed by sadness. (89; on Job 1:21)
Picture source.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Titanic events

The Religion & Theater students have their second "religious observance" to attend this weekend: Palm Sunday. (The first was a Purim service or Purimshpil.) Explaining its significance and its place on the cusp of Holy Week, I came up with a perhaps inspired analogy. James Cameron's blockbuster film "Titanic" (1997) started with a scene in the present in which a computer simulation showed how the ship went down and how long it took. I recall swooning reviewers noting that something which one might have thought would lessen the suspense of the film actually made it that much dramatic. At every point in the ensuing (long) film, you felt you were somewhere along the way to that tragic but also precisely definable sinking. That, I said, is what Palm Sunday does for Holy Week. (Until Easter.)

This seemed to work for a lot of students, not just those unfamiliar with the idea but also some who know it. It also let me make the distinction between (some) contemporary and pre-Shoah theologies clear. "What's the boat that goes down?" I asked. In contemporary services, it's the church, it's all of us (all of us who do the palm business but quickly turn on Jesus, and need to be reminded on Ash Wednesday, with the ashes of last year's palms, that we are dust), so unworthy to have been saved by Christ's redemptive sacrifice. But not so long ago it wasn't us (or just us) but them: "the Jews."

The analogy works well, almost too well, in forcing an acknowledgment of the anti-Judaism which structured so much of traditional Christianity.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Toles'd you so

Whatever - just hope he has more in the pipeline!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Between the Lands of East and West

One of the things I seem to do particularly well as a teacher (in part because not many others even try) is to let students experience the give and take of the history of ideas. Instead of reading a summary of thinkers A and B and C, we read a text by A, then one by B explicitly responding to the first text, and then a third responding to the first two. To me this seems the natural way to teach - and to get students to understand the importance of reading primary texts, how the history of thought happens, and even to imagine themselves a part of this history.
Had a chance to do this for the Religion & Theater crew today. We read three Noh plays (Utô, Sotoba Komachi and Sumidagawa), the third chosen as you know because it was the one Benjamin Britten heard in Tokyo in 1956 which inspired him to write his "parable for church performance" Curlew River. There's no way to experience what Britten experienced - even films of Noh performances are hard to find, though I did find three minutes from a recent (2005) production in Tokyo. And Southwestern University in Texas recreated the 1964 production. But we were also able to share the experience of his librettist William Plomer as he wrote the adaptation, who worked not from the memory of live performance but from the UNESCO-sponsored English translation of Sumidagawa, which appeared in 1955. The UNESCO translation has the further advantage that it includes drawings of actors' movements, which likely inspired the director of the first production of Curlew River, Colin Graham, to accompany his notes with little drawings too (by a Mark Livingston). (The notes are appended to the score, published by Faber Music in 1964). What fun to be able to explore all these together, along with all the issues in cross-cultural and cross-religious adaptation.

Curlew River, smoothly flowing
Between the Lands of East and West,
Dividing person from person!
Ah, ferryman,
Row your ferry-boat,
Bring nearer, nearer,
Person to person,
By chance or misfortune,
Time, death, or misfortune
Divided asunder!

William Plomer and Benjamin Britten, Curlew River: A Parable for Church Performance (London: Faber & Faber, 1964), 24, 27. The illustrated translation: Kanze Motomasa, Sumidagawa in The Noh Drama: Ten Plays from the Japanese, trans. Special Noh Committee, Japanese Classics Translation Committee (Rutland, VT & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1955), 147-59.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reconciled to change

Hard to believe, but it's really happening, the "Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010"! The century- long struggle. I'm at a loss for words. What could it mean? All is not lost? The US might come around to recognizing the human right to health care? Our president may not be a lame duck? Democracy may work? We can believe ... I'm stammering ... in change after all?! Glory halleluiah!

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Just a quick post (now that night has fallen) to say I joined the National Day of Unplugging, a sort of cyber-sabbath. My Saturdays are pretty unplugged as it is, but it's been remarkably restful to make it deliberate - and know that others are doing the same. At first, I kept twitching with vague desires to check e-mail, listen to news on the radio, look up something online. Within a few hours... peace.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Finally made it to the Old Europe exhibition I read about last year. Very glad I did. (It redeemed a trip uptown whose other part - the aimless Otto Dix show at the Neue Galerie - didn't do it for me.) Amazing artifacts, some 7000 years old, from museums in Romania, Moldova and
Ukraine, attest to a civilization which apparently had the largest settlements anywhere in the world at the time. The pottery was what set my friend J and me atitter with its remarkable geometrical patterns, like the Globular Vessel With Lid (Cucuteni, Scânteia, 4200-4050 BCE) and the Biconical Vessel (Cucuteni, Şipeniţ, 3700-3500 BCE) below:
(We were struck by the eyepopping parallels with ancient Chinese and Native American pottery.) Wish I could show you more, but the Times article, only source of images I could find, doesn't have many more. (This Cucuteni pot and "Architectural Model" are from a very helpful map.) The slide show includes another Architectural Model (Gumelniţa, Căscioarele, 4600-3900 BCE) which might give a sense of what dwellings looked like. Most remarkable in their way were the doll-sized figurines, mysterious and in places tender and even witty. The set of 21 Figurines and 13 Chairs at the top of this post (Cucuteni, Poduri-Dealul Ghindaru, 4900-4750 BCE) was described in the exhibit itself as a Council of Goddesses! The figure above (Gumelniţa, Sultana, 4600-3900 BCE), in what's apparently a recurring arm position - he has his chin in one hand, his elbow in the other - is young compared to the "screaming" Anthropomorphic Vessel below (Banat, Parţa, 5300-5000 BCE):

The stars of the show, however, are unquestionably the expressive and super-elegant 'Thinker' and Female Figurine (Hamangia, Cernavodă, 5000-4600 BCE) - also fired clay but looking like carved obsidian. It's always thrilling to see that the earliest forms of art were stylized, not realistic, suggesting that modern art is no decadent flight from reality but a recovery of long (actually not so long) obscured forms of experience. "The Thinker" is probably mourning, but if he were thinking be might be thinking this land was Brancusi land long before Brancusi!

Ethics offsets?

The Guardian reports a new study, published in Psychological Science, purporting to show that people who buy organic food are more likely, given the chance, to steal and cheat. Researchers Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong

found that those in their study who bought green products appeared less willing to share with others a set amount of money than those who bought conventional products. When the green consumers were given the chance to boost their money by cheating on a computer game and then given the opportunity to lie about it – in other words, steal – they did, while the conventional consumers did not. Later, in an honour system in which participants were asked to take money from an envelope to pay themselves their spoils, the greens were six times more likely to steal than the conventionals.

Wow! The study suggests that when people feel they have been morally virtuous by saving the planet through their purchases of organic baby food, for example, it leads to the "licensing [of] selfish and morally questionable behaviour", otherwise known as "moral balancing" or "compensatory ethics".

I've never heard of "moral balancing" or "compensatory ethics" - sounds to me like "ethical offset." Perhaps there's a whole literature on it, and what the study finds is not that green people are somehow exceptional but that they are like other smug do-gooders? That's the the conclusion to which Guardian columnist Julian Baggini comes. I'm not sure the complacency of the holier-than-thou can quite explain what the study shows, though: the reported behavior goes beyond complacency into immorality. (Baggini is right, though, to observe: the feeling of being pure is a moral contaminant. In ethical terms, the best never think that they are the best, and those that believe themselves to be on the side of the angels are often the worst devils. But there aren't that many of the "worst devils" around, not enough to show up in psychological studies, which at most show the ordinary devils we all are.)

My hunch is that the case of the green consumer is special (if not necessarily unique). The environmentally aware think more systemically, and so may value and judge actions differently than deontologists, utilitarians, etc. Making the environmentally right choice isn't just about you or your values or even the Moral Law but part of structures of behavior which either despoil or save the world. At the same time, because it takes extra effort (and money) to go green, it feels not just like a good thing to do but supererogatory. Everyone ought to be environmentally aware in their consumption, but since most people aren't, actually doing what everyone should do but doesn't makes you exceptional, even prophetic. As such, it merits if not a reward at least some praise. Or more leniency when you fall off the wagon - at least you do the good thing most of the time, unlike most people.

I can imagine ethical offsetting being part of the phenomenon - I observe it in myself. But again I think the cheating and stealing require further analysis. It's one thing to let yourself binge after purging (especially if this just takes you briefly back to the mediocre norm), quite another to take what's not yours. The interesting thing might have been to ask those test subjects who did steal and cheat about their behavior. My guess (just a guess! but maybe someone can get a grant to test it?) is that they would say they thought everyone cut corners, given the chance. Immoral it perhaps was, but not exceptional.

This might or might not be because they thought the "conventionals" cut moral corners every day already, in shirking their obligation to buy green. (Presumably the test subjects didn't know that green behaviors were what the test was about in the first place. But in the lab, as opposed to the supermarket checkout line where you can see how your purchases compare with those of others, people aren't reacting to others' choices.) In any case, it might have done them good to learn that the conventionals are, well, really more conventional, not ethical free spirits and high flyers who define their own curve but also not selfish sell-outs.

Incidentally, the Guardian report covers only half of what Mazar and Zhong's study showed, which seems from the abstract to show something more complicated than that some do-gooders are hypocrites. There appears to be "moral balancing" on the part both of the green and the conventional consumers in response to the green option:

Consumer choices not only reflect price and quality preferences but also social and moral values as witnessed in the remarkable growth of the global market for organic and environmentally friendly products. Building on recent research on behavioral priming and moral regulation, we find that mere exposure to green products and the purchase of them lead to markedly different behavioral consequences. In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products. Together, the studies show that consumption is more tightly connected to our social and ethical behaviors in directions and domains other than previously thought.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Art in the subway

Beatrice Coron's contribution to the MTA's series of fanciful representations of the subway and the city it undergirds. Peter Sis' picture of Manhattan as a whale from 2001 is still my favorite, tho'.


Is it just me, or do there seem to be a lot of earthquakes happening recently? (This is from the last 8-30 days; I can't find earlier ones for comparison.)

Monday, March 15, 2010


Are Americans happier than other people? They say they are happy in surveys, and more so than people in most other countries. Should we believe them? Anna Wierzbicka, a Polish-born linguist at the ANU in Canberra, gives some pretty compelling reasons to be skeptical.

[I]f 14 percent of Germans declare themselves to be sehr glücklich whereas 31 percent of Americans declare themselves to be very happy, can these reports be meaningfully compared if glücklich does not mean the same thing as happy? ("'Happiness' in cross-linguistic & cross-cultural perspective," Daedalus, Spring 2004, 34-43: 35)

In fact, Wierzbicka argues, the English happiness (and even more so the adjectival happy), doesn't match up with apparently similar words in other languages. Happiness is a feeling, which might be momentary. It also allows of degrees - the happiness surveys ask people if they're "very happy, fairly happy or not too happy" - while the words heureux, felice, and scastlivyj are not gradable. They all refer to something absolute, to a peak experience or condition that is not considered a matter of degree. To be asked to measure one's bonheur or one's scastie on a scale from one to ten is like being asked to measure one's bliss on such a scale. (39)

By contrast with these other concepts, it turns out happy is pretty unambitious - or has become so: it has come to be seen not as something rare or unusual, but as altogether ordinary. Happiness can still mean something rare (as Darrin McMahon argues it was until the Enlightenment), but happy has drifted away from happiness so far that it can almost be said to be halfway between happiness and okay; syntactic frames such as "I'm happy with this arrangement" reflect this semantic weakening. This weakening, in turn, can be seen as a manifestation of an overall process of the dampening of the emotions - modern Anglo-American culture's trend against emotional intensity. (38)

Wierzbicka cites a number of Poles who have found the "compulsory" cheerfulness of Americans frustrating. English conversational routines like "How are you, I'm just fine" constitute barriers to genuine heart-t-heart communication - and ... so does the wide use of the word happy. (43) I get that (I generally try to put a spanner in the works of the meaningless "How are you?" question by replying with the conspicuously ungrammatical "good") ... but who's protesting too much here? Have we trivialized happiness, or found the way to mass-produce it?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sing a new song

A friend of mine in graduate school told me she'd lost her faith (she was raised Methodist) but so missed the singing that she wanted to go back to church. She did - and now she's a professor of theology! I didn't understand at the time, but I do now. How good for the soul it is to sing together, in four-part harmony or in unison! (Here are two hymns we sang today, both of relatively recent vintage.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010


By the end of this wet gusty day, the wrecks of defeated umbrellas were piling up on street corners. (My little blue collapsible, too, broke a rib.)

Friday, March 12, 2010


"The world is full of Christian ideas gone mad," G. K. Chesterton once observed. It is worth thinking of modern happiness as one of those ideas. The heir to not only the metaphysics of the classical world but to the promise of Christian salvation, happiness received Christianity's legacy of universal hope, charging it with a powerful democratic potential and missionary appeal.
Darrin M. McMahon, Happiness: A History
(NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), 265

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Well, there seems to be a deep reason why it's hard to make headway on the "religion and happiness" question. People who care abour one tend to be skeptical of the other; happiness researchers tend to be pretty secular-minded, and scholars of religion find other, more tradition-specific categories more useful (blessedness, enlightenment, etc.). My article, when I finish it, will be about that mutual indifference; the challenge is arguing that it is a significant phenomenon! In the meantime, here are 8 generalizations culled from the relatively few "happiness studies" which bother to consider religious variables at all:
Rodney Stark and Jared Maier (in "Faith and Happiness," Review of Religious Research 50/1 (2008): 120-25) find that only the first and last of these generalizations are conclusively established by these studies. In other case the evidence is inconclusive, tending if anything against the generalization. Least inconclusive is 6, but it turns out the "religious effect" for both Protestants and Catholics is weaker than that for Jews.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

As the foolish women speak

Sometimes I really do think the feminist moment is over. This often happens when I bring a feminist text to class, like today's "Translating Job as Female," a brilliant analysis by Ann W. Astell of tensions in Gregory the Great's attempt to understand Job as a classical hero, and how they are brought to the surface by Chaucer's imagining a female Job in "The Clerke's Tale." The argument's too complicated to summarize here, but in essence Astell argues that Job is a figure more complex than an implicitly gendered conception of heroism or patience can make sense of. Recovering those parts which are pushed aside because they don't fit (or inverted by allegorical reading) takes us closer to Job, a figure who, like much in the "paradoxical language of Scripture" (69), can take us beyond our limiting categories.

Astell's argument (and its incisiveness) should have been plain to see - we've just come from reading just those passages in Gregory and Chaucer which she analyzes. But something didn't compute. Although she was doing what all interpreters of Job do (criticize earlier intepreters for getting him wrong) students had a hard time understanding "where she was coming from." Translation problem! For instance Astell didn't feel the need to signal her distance (perhaps through use of scare-quotes) from the gender dichotomies of medieval analysis in claims like:

In order to interpret the Book of Job as a whole as a heroicum carmen ... medieval readers necessarily had to subordinate the feminine text of the Dialogue to the masculine text of the frame story and interpret the former from the perspective of the latter. (61-62)

Is it that hard to imagine that a scholar writing in the late 1990s would not be endorsing these binaries, that it's the gender assumptions of Gregory and his readers to which she refers by "feminine" and "masculine," not anything she herself accepts or endorses? (In the 9os at least "feminine" and "masculine" came with built-in scare-quotes.)

Perhaps it is. In the 1990s (as evidently no longer) it would have gone without saying that gendered assumptions permeate western culture (as they do all cultures) and that one thing scholarship can do is make those assumptions explicit and help us think beyond them. Along the way, what was celebrated as virtuous is often found to be problematic and restricted to men, while what has been coded female and inferior is often found to be commendable and even liberating. That's what's happening in Astell's analysis, who must have taken some pleasure in the knowledge that the "impatient" Job celebrated by modern readers had been so unacceptable to Gregory that he'd argued it couldn't be taken literally. Bully for him! Freed from medieval gender assumptions, we can hear Job's true voice. And women are free to be Job, maybe even freer than men are, something even Chaucer probably didn't really think possible.

So why didn't all my students get this? Why was the idea of a female Job unwelcome? (We have happily rehabilitated Mrs. Job, several times over.) Several said that Job's story is universal, and so gender analysis adds nothing. While the author of Job surely didn't consider the possibility of a female Job, the story is so powerful that it transcends such distinctions. We know better than to think of any characteristics in the gendered terms of Gregory and his times; why bring all that back? Job's is a human story, available and inspiring for all people.

Perhaps they're right, perhaps my views are warped by the 1990s. But to my warped sensibilities, parts of our discussion sounded pre-feminist. If the truly human has no gender but is virtually always represented by a man, don't women have to shed their gender to imagine themselves fully human? (Men of course have to do no such shedding.) Job is an interesting case here, actually, since he does seem to have been stripped of all social ties and identities by his afflictions... his persistence and vindication tell us that even when all else is taken away, our integrity can survive. Perhaps his transcendence (through loss) of gender makes him a particular source of comfort to women in a post-feminist time.

Ann W. Astell, "Translating Job as Female," in Translation Theory and Practice in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeanette Beer (Studies in Medieval Culture XXXVIII) (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Press/Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), 59-69

Tuesday, March 09, 2010


It's the turn again of Kan'ami's Noh play "Sotoba Komachi" in Religion & Theater. I've enthused about it before, a marvel of pathos - with extra helpings of medieval Japanese Buddhism too. The ancient beggar two Shingon priests encounter on their way - she sits down on a stupa thinking it just a tree stump - turns out to be the wreck of a poetess who was once the most beautiful of women. They find this out through an exchange about the stupa.

FIRST PRIEST: Excuse me, old lady, but don't you know that's a stupa there you're sitting on? the holy image of the Buddha's incarnation? You'd better come away and rest some other place.
KOMACHI: The holy image of the Buddha, you say? But I saw no words or carvings on it. I took it for a tree stump merely.
FIRST PRIEST: "Withered stumps
Are known as pine or cherry still
On the loneliest mountain."
KOMACHI: I, too, am a fallen tree ...

Taking the stupa for a dead tree stump, known only for what it once was, makes deep sense, as the play is from the period of 末法 mappô, the decline of the law, when the saving teachings of the Buddha were thought no longer to be understood by anyone.

SECOND PRIEST: The Buddha that was is gone away.
The Buddha to be has not yet come to the world. (264)

The priests explain to the old woman that the stupa is the body of Kongosatta Buddha, the Diamond Lord, of whom Earth and Water and Wind and Fire and Space are all manifestations, to which she replies, rather profoundly: The same five elements as man. (266)

It is, in fact, the stupa which has brought these three together (KOMACHI: It was because I felt it that I came perhaps) not just to utter truths of nonduality ...

FIRST PRIEST: [Your sitting on the stupa] was an act of discord.
KOMACHI: "Even from discord salvation springs."
SECOND PRIEST: From the evils of Daiba...
...Or the love of Kannon.
FIRST PRIEST: From the folly of Handoku...
...Or the wisdom of Monju.
FIRST PRIEST: What we call evil...
KOMACHI: ...Is also good.
FIRST PRIEST: Illusion...
KOMACHI: ...Is Salvation. ... (268)

... but to prove them, and for her to be released from her suffering. Amazed by her erudition, the priests demand to know who the old woman is. The court poetess Ono no Komachi, she explains, now aged, self-banished from society, and possessed by the curse of the nobleman Shii no Shosho who had courted her. Proud and cruel she told him she would be his if he came one hundred times to see her, but on the ninety-ninth, he died, his spirit of frustrated longing now possessing her. As she tells this story, his voice emerges, and later the actor changes into his splendid clothes for the final cathartic dance... which frees them both.

KOMACHI: It was his unsatisfied love possessed me so
His anger that turned my wits.
In the face of this I will pray
For life in the worlds to come
The sands of goodness I will pile
Into a towering hill.
Before the golden, gentle Buddha I will lay
Poems as my flowers
Entering in the Way
Entering in the Way. (270)

It is the hundredth visit. His love, turned to hatred, and her cruelty, turned to sorrow, give way to compassion. An endless task designed to frustrate - a hundred visits - gives way to an endless task - piling a mountain of sand - which releases. Ono no Komachi-Shii no Shosho is an object lesson in nonduality: of Buddha and human, of love and hatred, of path and attainment, of discord and salvation. And it's an object lesson in the power of performance, in the right spot, for the right audience, even in the age of Mappô. You don't have to be a Buddhist to feel at least some of the story's mysterious powers, and to be grateful at the Buddha's compassion in helping them enter in the way.

But what if there is no such thing as salvation? Yukio Mishima, while still in his twenties, wrote adaptations of five classic Noh plays, "Sotoba Komachi" among them, without salvation. In his "Sotoba Komachi," the priests' role is played by a sickly poet who sees an old hag (99 years old!) in a public park, learns she was once a great beauty, and asks her to tell of her glory days. The set changes behind them to the Rokumei dance hall in the 1880s, and he plays the part of her suitor (though neither he nor she changes costume). Echoes of Kan'ami's text resound, but the story is slightly different. Her fate it is to remain a virgin forever, as every man who has declared her beautiful has died. She tries to stop the poet, who has lost himself in the past and claims not to see her old body and ragged clothing, from declaring it, but fails; he falls dead before her, back in the park in the 1950s. The saving encounter has not happened, and we have a sense that it has not-happened to her many times, and will not-happen again and again.

Kinda grim, huh, the Mishima aesthetics of death and beauty already in full form. Must have been as devastating in its way for audiences familiar with the Noh as the "death of God" happening at the same time in Europe. Could one perform his version today to the same effect? I'm not sure. Sad we would be, but we would not expect an exit from her curse in the first place - curses are easier to imagine believing in than release from them.

A somewhat analogous challenge arose in our college's recent production of Tolstoy's "Realm of Darkness," a story of an unexpected and transcendent confession in a morally bleak world. The director had the actors play the final confession scene three times, first with a stage miracle (the roof of the house opened up), a second time as if caught in a loop (the roof stayed open), a third time sped up like an old tape. After this, the actors froze in their places until the audience had left. The point, I gather, was to hollow out the stage miracle, and our sense that redemption through confession is possible. Time may stop, but nothing changes. But does anyone expect otherwise these days, even from the theater?

Nothing but tree-stumps around here...

Sources: Kan'ami Kiyotsugu, "Sotoba Komachi," trans. Sam Houston Brock, in Anthology of Japanese Literature, ed. Donald Keene (NY: Grove, 1955), 264-70 • Five Modern Nô Plays by Yukio Mishima, trans. Donald Keene (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle, 1957), 3-34 • First pictureSecond picture • B&W photos in the Mishima translation

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Teacher's aids

Artist R. Kikuo Johnson provided these wise and witty illustrations for an article in the Times Sunday Magazine on whether good teaching can be taught. Would that these products didn't all have to be home-made!

Saturday, March 06, 2010


On one of my favorite programs on NPR, "On the Media," there was a segment this morning on something called "The Uncanny Valley." The term was coined forty years ago by the Japanese roboticist Mori Masahiro (in Japanese: bukimi na tani gensho, 不気味な谷現象), and describes a deep plunge in favorable response to various human simulacra, robots, etc. as they approach serious human-likeness. If you can make it to the other side of the "valley," approval bounces back. The segment was mainly about "uncanny valley" phenomena in film and video games - apparently the animated human beings in films like "Polar Express" and games like "Final Fantasy," while more "realistic" than earlier work, creeped viewers out. A princess in "Shrek" was found to be too human-like in one film, so in a sequel was made more obviously a fairy tale figure, and all was well. The "Na'vi" in "Avatar" clearly aren't meant to be human, so their human-likeness is something we enjoy, we learned - but the chill I felt at the so fully realized 3-D landscapes, one I didn't feel at the clearly imaginary 3-D landscape of "Coraline," seems like an uncanny valley phenomenon.

The graph above is from Wikipedia; interesting that bunraku puppets are safely beyond the valley (at least in Japan!). Perhaps because their movements are known to be worked by human beings (the viewer knows s/he is screening the black-clad puppeteers out of view). But I suspect that Noh masks (and many other masks) have their fearsome fascinating power because they seem to move independently of us; that they seem to direct or even possess the people wearing them is as uncanny as it comes! I wonder why unmasked theater isn't uncanny this way...

And another front... I know it's just a hypothesis to start with, but it seems like it could be used to discern what kinds of people are understand as fully human, which of course may not be the same for different people or different cultures. I know I'm not the only person to have gone through something like an "uncanny valley" when I first heard a woman priest say mass (so glad to be on the other side now!), and perhaps part of the redemptive excitement of the Obama campaign had something "uncanny valleyish" about it. As for full inclusion for gay and lesbian people, I'm struck - now I have a term for it - that the "uncanny valley" seems to lie in such different places for Americans (marriage) and for Europeans (adoption, what the French call homoparentalité).

Friday, March 05, 2010

Here's looking at you

While taken with my camera, this picture wasn't taken by me. Rather,
it's the work of a new friend, M, a seven (or perhaps eight) year old Ethiopian girl who has just started a new life in New York as the daughter of my dear friend L. (I can't show you a picture of M but that's her baby doll Helen above.) While M's been in this country for most of a fortnight, this was my first time meeting her. But we got on almost like family - I knew her from photos, and, it turns out, she knew me the same way. I took a suite of photos of her mother-to-be in this very park in November to be sent to M at the orphanage - and her mother took a picture of me and included it. So when M heard she was going to meet Mark (roll that r), she suggested this same park/playground at 22nd and Tenth Ave.! We're clearly going to be very good friends, I can feel it.
A propos park, it was there also that I noticed this first proof of Spring...

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Of human bondage

Theater spilled into the Job course today. I'd given students Robert Frost's wise and wicked "A Masque of Reason" (1945), a short play for Job, Mrs. Job, God and Satan long after the end of the Book of Job (the "forty-third chapter"). Sensing that the students might be low energy (a paper was due today, which can produce a mix of sullenness and unpreparedness) I decided we'd perform it, or at least read it aloud. To add drama, I had a theologically-minded colleague whose voice has a certain godlike timbre hide just outside the door, so when a student speaking Job's lines asked God if He remembered him, expecting me to speak for God (as I'd said I would), this response came instead from outside the room:

I’ve had you on my mind a thousand years
To thank you some day for the way you helped me
Establish once for all the principle
There’s no connection man can reason out
Between his just deserts and what he gets.
Virtue may fail and wickedness succeed.
T’was a great demonstration we put on.
I should have spoken sooner had I found
The word I wanted. You would have supposed
One who in the beginning WAS the Word
Would be in a position to command it.
I have to wait for words like anyone.
Too long I’ve owed you this apology
For the apparently unmeaning sorrow
You were afflicted with in those old days.
But it was of the essence of the trial
You shouldn’t understand it at the time.
It had to seem unmeaning to have meaning.
And it came out all right. I have no doubt
You realize by now the part you played
To stultify the Deuteronomist
And change the tenor of religious thought.
My thanks are to you for releasing me
From moral bondage to the human race.
The only free will there at first was man’s,
Who could do good or evil as he chose.
I had no choice but I must follow him
With forfeits and rewards he understood–
Unless I liked to suffer loss of worship.
I had to prosper good and punish evil.
You changed all that. You set me free to reign.
You are the Emancipator of your God,
And as such I promote you to a Saint.

We had a ball! Frost really wants to be read aloud (I hope you just did), such a master of the cadences of ordinary speech is he. And the "Masque" is full of wit, high and low... There's serious theology in it, however wryly presented, and also a serious engagement with the Job story as a story: it ends with Mrs. Job pulling out her Kodak and posing God, Job and a pale Satan for a picture - which also explains why she's not in the picture.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Une merveille

A wondrous film, Jessica Hausner's "Lourdes." I won't say more, just: see it if you can.