Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A dream

It isn't often that one gets to say "That may have been the most beautiful thing I've ever seen" with tears in one's eyes, but I had the opportunity tonight, after American Ballet Theater's performance of Frederick Ashton's 1964 "A Dream," to Mendelssohn's incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Everything about it is exquisite. I got tickets for this cast - Gillian Murphy, David Hallberg, and Herman Cornejo as Titania, Oberon and Puck, respectively - because of a glowing review in the Times three weeks, and am so glad I did. Magic, pathos, humor, love, all with such beauty!

(It's available on DVD in a 2004 production, though not on Netflix.)

(The Times' Alastair MaCauley found it "the highlight of the season"!)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


How did medievals read the Book of Job? Through authoritative commentaries. In the 12th century this was made visible in the "Glossa Ordinaria." You can't read even a sentence without help. Below Job 3 from a late edition, explaining why Job's cursing the day of his birth can not be read literally.
Oxford Bodleian Library MS Laud Lat. 9, fols. 14v-15r (Proverbs); in Lesley Smith, The "Glossa Ordinaria": The Making of a Medieval Bible Commentary (Leiden & Boston, Brill, 2009). Job 1 and 3 from a Biblia Latina cum Glossa Ordinaria (1480/1481 Editio Princeps of Adolph Rusch of Strassburg; facsimile Brepols: Turnhout, 1992)

Monday, June 28, 2010


When doing IB Economics I remember learning about the East Coast zucchini wars: everyone's gardens produce so many that people were desperate to get rid of them, sometimes leaving enormous piles of unwanted harvest on each other's doorsteps in the dead of night. The rare case where demand is in fact negative! Surely this was an urban (indeed suburban!) legend, I thought: nothing grows that fast! Well, behold what the zucchini plants in the half-bed I'm using at the community garden have got up to in a mere two weeks! (Notice the first squash blossom at lower right, cracking a Little Shop of Horrors grin.)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

That sinking feeling

I'm struggling with Calvin. What do you do with a statement like this?

Like as God’s goodness is endless and a bottomless pit: so also are his wisdom and righteousness, and the same is to be said of his power.

Sermons on Job
, Sermon 110 (on Job 30:11-21) - 1574 ed., page 514a

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dictation time!

Something is different about this blog post. I'm not writing it. Rather, I am talking into a microphone! Friends have told me about dictation software before but this is my first experience with it… it's amazing! You have to read a certain text into it for a few minutes for it to recognize the way you speak and then you're good to go - even if you talk really fast like I do! (Indeed, it does best when you just rattle on; it knows how to pick out sentence structure, and can generally distinguish homonyms from each other this way. The transcription comes out not word by word but string of words by string of words.)

I ordered it to help me with the book, needless to say. Anything which can get the words out of the ether and on to the page is a welcome friend. I'm not sure it will help me write the damn thing, but it's already been an enormous help in note-taking. For instance, imagine my delight in discovering that I could dictate even from that 1574 translation of Calvin's sermons on Job! (I tried to modernize as I read, but a few times I forgot and it did it for me: the dictator has [I said "hath"] cause to rejoice.)

So far there have been only a few words and names it simply could not recognize. Some are archaic, like “mislike" for “dislike”; others which I would have thought were archaic, such as "behooves,” it recognizes (in a sentence: for the software to work, it behooves you to speak quickly)! As for names, Job often becomes just Joe. Eliphaz for some reason is in the database, but build that, so far, and Ellie who are not. (Got that?) Other Bible names as well as Aristotle, Maimonides, and Aquinas are in there, but the first few times I mentioned Calvin the dictation software heard Taliban! The software stumbles over "hiddenness"; sometimes it writes “hit or miss" and others "hipness"! Meanwhile the noun form of the allegorical usually comes out as Bill Clinton's vice president. And "wholly obey" came out as - "totally okay"!?! It's too wise by half!

But I'm not complaining, not really. It's possible to read things allowed without really processing what you're saying, so having to go over it one more time to make sure that everything has come out right taxi helps me digest it. (You'll have guessed that I didn't mean allowed in that sense and wasn't, actually, hailing a taxi…) I generally do pretty well in dictating, perhaps because of experience teaching English. (I also read aloud quite often, both in classes and for my own edification.) But I do occasionally mumble… maybe this will help me with that too!

[Just for the fun of it I'll try reading the text from a few days ago: So then, when soever God gives us the knowledge of his word, let us learn to receive it with such reverence, as a (our) receiving of it may not be to deface good things, nor to set the (a) color upon evil things, as oftentimes those of the most sharp wit (that be most sharpwitted) and cunning, do overshoot themselves, and abuse the knowledge that God has given them, under deceit and knocking us, turning all things topsy-turvy, in such wise as they do nothing but snarl themselves. Considering therefore how all men are given to such infirmity: it stands us so much the more on hand, to pray God give us the grace to apply his word to such use as he has ordained it: that is to it (wit), to pureness and simplicity. And thus you see what we ought to consider in effect. But now that we understand what is in this book: we must lay forth these matters more at length, in such sort as the things that we have but lightly touched, maybe (may be) laid forth at large according to the process of the history. – not bad, not bad at all!!]

Friday, June 25, 2010

Surfaces and depths

At the Henri Cartier-Bresson show at MoMA (which closes this weekend), I was blown away again by this picture, shot in Sevilla in 1933. At once so three-dimensional - as if a world had broken through the surface of the paper - and also so like a collage, each boy on a different scale and as if cut from another context. There are lots of unfamiliar photos, too, like this one (from Dessau in 1945), to which there can be no words.

Turkey redux

Remember how round about this time last year I was in Turkey, and how a bit later I found I'd accidentally deleted most of my pictures? Well, I just found a lot of the pictures I thought I'd deleted!

Thursday, June 24, 2010


How's your sixteenth century English orthography? This is from a facsimile of the 1574 English version of Calvin's sermons on the Book of Job. With u for v, f for s, y for i - it's topsy-turvy indeed!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Unexpected fruit

More out of a sense of duty than hope, I put some tomato plants in a pot on my fire escape. No sun ever comes into my room, so I was sure not much would happen. Think again! Turns out sun does hit the fire escape for a short burst from the left just before sunset, and that seems to have been enough to bring a fruit, and now to make it (and me) blush!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Scene from the life of a religious studies professor

(a writing major)

Mark, you work in non-fiction, right?


That's a ticklish question...

(and not just because he's spent the day
thinking about Aquinas' theory of analogy)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Beauty of air travel

A thing of beauty (and carbon emissions) by digital artist Aaron Koblin. See how those red-eyes from the west coast bring the day to the east! (Watch in higher def, perhaps for more carbon emission, here.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Diet of Worms

Did you know that Job was afflicted by worms? See and believe! (Or read about it in the "Testament of Job" and Septuagint.) Even more impressive in full color, with gilt backgrounds! (But the page below, from the end of Revelations, is the only one of which I have a color picture.)
But don't suppose you can understand any of these images on its own. In a "Bible Moralisée" like this, each Old Testament scene is paired with a New Testament scene which it prefigures. (Just don't ask me which scene goes with which, though I'd sorely like to know - if you can figure it out, I'd be happy to learn!) This is from a version dating perhaps to the early 1220s, and resides in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna. Sometimes "Bible Moralisée" pairings are horizontal, but usually, as here, they are vertical. From the same page:

Vienna 1179, folio 147r and 246r (color), in John Lowden, The Making of the “Bibles Moralisées” (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), vol. 1.

Dusky skyline

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Garlic scapes!

Just say no

As I settle into this Job project, I go from panic (Maimonides in two thousand words? An impossibility, a travesty!) to relief (Maimonides in two thousand words? A possibility!) - and back and forth a few more times. My word limit permits me to resist the temptation to be superscholarly, every paragraph suspended above stalactite caverns of references. Meanwhile the need to be telling a story from one miniature to another is crystallizing something of its own - a recurrent set of questions which, I realize more with each section, are my own. The central interpretive angle in my book proposal was that Job offers a fascinating context for thinking about books and arguments: it wants to be a book (Oh that my words were now written, oh that they were printed in a book! - 19:23 [KJV]) but resists readers' efforts to make it one. But a second theme is emerging: the significance of Job's friends. I suppose I knew that was part of it too - the picture I'm hoping will appear on the cover is of the friends, after all. But I didn't think it would lead me to new interpretive discoveries...

Like this one, which looks like it will have to be part of the two thousand words on Maimonides! Maimonides' interpretation of the Book of Job in The Guide of the Perplexed is part of an extended discussion of divine providence, and the views on providence expressed by Job and his friends are explicitly linked to ancient discussions:

The opinion attributed to Job is in keeping with the opinion of Aristotle; the opinion of Eliphaz is in keeping with the opinion of our Law; the opinion of Bildad is in keeping with the doctrine of the Mu‘tazila; the opinion of Zophar is in keeping with the doctrine of the Ash‘ariyya. These were the ancient opinions concerning providence. (III.23; 494)

The Mu‘tazilites and Ash‘arites are Islamic sects, discussed, along with Aristotle, "our Law" and Epicurus, a few sections before, where we're told that there are only five possible opinions on providence, all of them ancient (III.17; 464). So the "parable" which is the Book of Job (III.22; 486) tells us that all human efforts to conceptualize providence are inadequate, silenced by the theophany - which makes its point by not being about what we take providence to be! [I]n the prophetic revelation which came to Job and through which his error in everything that he had imagined became clear to him, there is no going beyond the description of natural matters. (III.23; 496) The conclusion is clear:

[O]ur intellects do not reach the point of apprehending how these natural things that exist in the world of generation and corruption are produced in time and of conceiving how the existence of the natural force within them has originated them. They are not things that resemble what we make. How then can we wish that His governance of, and providence for, them, may He be exalted, should resemble our governance of, and providence for, the things we do govern and provide for? ... [T]he notion of His providence is not the same as the notion of our providence; nor is the notion of His governance of the things created by Him the same as the notion of our governance of that which we govern. The two notions are not comprised in one definition, contrary to what is thought by all those who are confused, and there is nothing in common between the two except the name alone. (III.23; 496)

So far so good; this I knew was part of the story before. It's entirely in keeping with Maimonides' negative theology: the description of God, may He be cherished and exalted, by means of negations is the correct description (I.58; 134).

But what I've recently noticed comes from my interest in the friends. Maimonides says that in some parables every word matters, while in others the meaning is only in the whole, and once you've found it the rest should be left aside (Introduction; 12). Job is of the second kind, and Maimonides claims to have told us all it is there to say, nothing being left aside except such matters as figure there because of the arrangement of the discourse and the continuation of the parables (III.23; 497). That line appears where an account of Job's restoration would appear - evidently not important to the message of the parable!

But Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu get lots of attention - more than in modern readings, which tend to assume they're hypocritical windbags and all saying the same thing. Indeed, Maimonides acknowledges that to the untrained eye they do all seem to be saying the same thing: If you consider the discourse of the five [E, B, Z, E and Job] in the course of their conversation, you may almost think that whatever one of them says is said also by all the others, so that the same notions are repeated and overlap. (III.23; 491) But the discerning eye sees farther. The differences matter.

Letting the friends represent the gamut of philosophical views of providence, all transcended by the prophetic vision of the theophany, fits Maimonides' larger project. But the apparent overlap of their views matters, too. To see this, you need to go back to the descriptions of the ancient opinions, which are presented not as distinct views but each (except the Epicurean denial of all providence, which forces the conversation) as an attempt to avoid the problems of another. While each was then pushed into "incongruities and contradictions" of its own, it is primarily concerned to avoid an error.

To my mind no one among the partisans of these three opinions concerning providence should be blamed, for every one of them was impelled by strong necessity to say what he did. Aristotle followed what is manifest in the nature of that which exists. The Ash‘ariyya tried to avoid having to ascribe to Him, may He be exalted, ignorance with regard to anything … The Mu‘tazila also tried to avoid having to ascribe to Him, may He be exalted, injustice and wrongdoing.” (III.17, 468)

Why does this matter? Well, it explains why the disputation between Job and his friends is important to the Book of Job - why we need the friends. And more fundamentally (since we're no longer interested in Aristotelian vs. Ash'ariyya, etc.) why a debate, often spilling over into anger and recrimination, could matters. It's not in its affirmations but in its negations that debate takes us closer to an understanding of God (well, farther from misapprehensions). To say that God's providence is unlike ours in every way but the word takes you nowhere, and may unattended lead you to fall back into thinking in human terms. To avoid these dangers, study natural philosophy and read Job's exchanges with his friends - making sure to understand what drives them - and you'll understand anew what Maimonides described in the closest thing to a discussion of providence in the negative theology section of the Guide:

we say of Him … that He is powerful and knowing and willing. The intention in ascribing these attributes to Him is to signify that He is neither powerless nor ignorant nor inattentive nor negligent. (I.58, 146)

I haven't seen other interpreters link Maimonides' reading of Job with his negative theology. It's only because of my dogged commitment to his friends that I've seen that one might. It makes good sense that an apophatic theology might be as interested in the sparring of human debate as in the silencing of the human by the prophetic - and find the Book of Job a compelling way of showing this.

Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago, 1963)
Images from a 1347 Hebrew translation of the Guide from Catalunya, now in Copenhagen

Friday, June 18, 2010


Not all New Yorkers are human. Some of the cuter ones: a cardinal and a squirrel from our community garden; a pair of turtles and a duck family in Central Park.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

American dream

A, my long-lost high school friend from Southern Africa, was in town today! (We haven't seen each other in 23 years, but it felt more like 23 hours.) From her hotel we walked through Central Park, where she decided to sit for a charcoal sketch - something she's always wanted to do. The sketcher was an old Chinese man who spoke no English; his wife, who spoke little more, was his handler. He started with the eyes, which he did well but something about the final sketch wasn't quite right. "I've got it," A said when she saw the final product, "it's what I'd look like if I were white." Indeed, since the shape of the face was more Sarah Jessica Parker than my friend, she concluded with a smile "it's my long-lost Jewish sister!" A perfect New York souvenir...!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


It's always fun to go to the Met, but today's was my least satisfying visit. Partly it was my fault - the exhibits I wanted to see closed recently (so recently that there's nothing new in their places yet - the Viennese silver service below was merely diverting). And partly it was theirs - to sign up for one of
the guided walks up into "Big Bambú," the still-growing sculpture on the roof, you have to go through endless security and legal hoops... and the thing itself? It makes for cool photos, yes, but seems a stunt for a park or zoo, not an art museum... No comparison with its sublime predecessor, Roxy Paine's "Maelstrom."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Eating local

I've mentioned that I've joined the community garden across the block, right? Well, at present its huge mulberry (you know it) is driving everyone crazy. In the tree the berries - white, then red, then black - are as pretty as one of those Chinese trees fashioned of semiprecious stones. But when ripe the black berries fall squishily everywhere, soiling everything. But when life give you lemons... I took home a bag of them, and found a yummy cobbler-like recipe - on a local blog! (The pink is anjou pear, added for contrast.)


Seismometer reading from Borrego Springs during last night's 5.7 quake.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Was treated today to two wonderful examples of Christian thought in action and a third in movement. First a socko sermon by Mother Liz at Holy Apostles (I'll post a link when it's available). Then the pastoral letter Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori sent out in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury's Pentecost message. It's called "Pentecost continues!" and argues for the continued value of the founding Anglican willingness to live in tension with a variety of efforts to discern the biddings of the Spirit, and the related conviction that the Body of Christ is only found when such diversity is welcomed with abundant and radical hospitality. Schori illuminates the larger context of disagreements over "human sexuality" with extraordinary theological seriousness and intelligence. It makes me proud to be part of the Episcopal Church, and grateful for its continuing witness.

And then this afternoon I went to a performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at BAM, which included its eponymous signature piece, "Revelations," which marries black church traditions and music with modern dance. (Above is a video of its opening scene, filmed in 1982; more's on Youtube, including the wondrous "Fix me.") It must have been the fourth or fifth time I've seen it, but it's fresh and moving each time. Yet somehow it only clicked for me today that it was premiered in 1960 - the year of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, when civil rights was only just getting started. How far we've come. And how recently.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


One of the challenges - some might say cruelties - of the story of Job is that he never finds out why he suffers. The prologue in heaven is never explained. But at least he is vindicated by God in 42:7, no?

And it was so, that after the LORD had spoken these words unto Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath. (King James Version)

Job's having "spoken of me what is right" (NRSV) is central to most all readings of the book. (Except where, as in the Septuagint and in Saadiah's commentary, it is rendered "spoken rightly of my servant Job"!) It generates a few problems - didn't God just reprove Job in 38:2?

"Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?"

(Accordingly some, like Gregory the Great and Aquinas, decided on the basis of 42:7 that 38:2 must have been addressed to Elihu.) But God's public praise of Job does cohere with the restitution of Job's goods which follows. Surely it's part of the restitution, and decisive for distinguishing the prosperity of the prologue from that of the epilogue.

And yet. As Terrence Tilley points out, the words of 42:7 are directed to Eliphaz, not to Job! "God never lets Job know he spoke rightly." (Terrence W. Tilley, The Evils of Theodicy [Washington, DC: Georgetown UP, 1991], 91)

NY loves trees

Did you now that street trees reduce temperatures, pollution, asthma, heating and cooling costs, crime, vehicular speeds and domestic violence? Even just looking at a picture of a tree lowers blood pressure in a matter of minutes! I learned all this and more at a workshop connected to Million Trees NYC campaign at my local community garden (pardon me, Prospect Heights Community Farm) this morning. They've overseen the planting of 310,000 trees and counting!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Another enchanted evening

Some visiting friend from Australia gave me an excuse to go see "South Pacific" again tonight (and I was able to get $125 tickets for $35). It is a hell of a show, musically opulent and as startling in its seriousness about the problem of racial prejudice as ever. And the production really is a wonder.

The cast has changed a little since I saw it last March. Laura Osnes (left) is still perfect as Nellie Forbush from Little Rock, and Danny Burstein as entrepreneurial Luther Billis from Brooklyn. Tonight's de Becque #4 was a bit less intense than #3, but still plenty good. Not sure why they keep on the actor playing the Princetonian Joseph Cable: he mumbles when he talks and squeaks when he sings (of course you might not want to sing "You've got to be properly taught" with a full voice) but I guess that's what a Broadway tenor sounds like these days.

Since last time, I've become de Becque's age. (Cable thinks 44 is over the hill. Ha!) High time for me to see a stranger across a crowded room.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010


I was delighted when the US Postal Service put out its sheet of American Expressionism stamps in March: Hans Hoffmann, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell. They're gorgeous and, for stamps, huge. But something definitely goes wrong when the stamps are used, as this postmarked Rothko I got in the mail shows. (I suppose it could work for Jasper Johns, perhaps!)