Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Well, discussion of Swidler's "Dialogue Decalogue" went well today (except for the student who kept calling him "swindler," and then observed that perhaps it was more than just a slip). We discussed the ten "commandments" avidly for more than an hour, surprising each other (or at least me!) by our reactions. While I wasn't surprised at who understood that Swidler's concerned with a broader reality than you or me or your tradition or mine and who didn't, I wouldn't have been able to predict who would find him idealistic and who naive, who would understand that he's describing a process rather than a mere attitude or outcome, or who would interpret the call to quasi-convert to the other tradition as "blasphemous" and to whom it would be the most obviously true thing. Guess it all goes to show that dialogue's a gift that keeps on giving. It was the 25th class session but we're still learning about each other! (Picture source)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Do not disturb

In Religion in Dialogue tomorrow, we're discussing Leonard Swidler's "Dialogue Decalogue," a much-used platform for interreligious dialogue. The fruit of much experience, it is an interesting mix of idealism and realism. I'm curious to see what my students make of its demands for dialogue participants' complete honesty and sincerity (3rd commandment) and mutual trust (#8), an attitude at least minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions (#9), and commitments to strive to agree with the dialogue partner as far as is possible while still maintaining integrity with his own tradition (#6) and to experience the partner's religion or ideology "from within" (#10).

I'm puzzled by curious turns of phrase in the preamble and epilogue. Swidler defines dialogue as a conversation on a common subject between two or more persons with differing views, the primary purpose of which is for each participant to learn from the other so that s/he can change and grow. The dialoguer's attitude, Swidler adds, automatically includes the assumption that at any point we might find the partner's position so persuasive that, if we would act with integrity, we would have to change, and change can be disturbing. So, change or don't change? Are we not committing ourselves to be changed, risking being disturbed in our pieties? Isn't it all about "acting with integrity"?

The disturbance in the surface of this otherwise delightful-sounding project comes from the fact that traditions' "integrity" must always be respected. It's not just that an interreligious dialoguer must be in constant touch with her/his tradition (#2), but that, when all is said and done, s/he must stay what she started as: the Jew will be authentically Jewish and the Christian will be authentically Christian, not despite the fact that Judaism and/or Christianity have been profoundly "Buddhized" [by dialogue], but because of it. And the same is true of a Judaized and/or Christianized Buddhism. There can be no talk of a syncretism here, for syncretism means amalgamating various elements of different religions into some kind of a (con)fused whole without concern for the integrity of the religions involved - which is not the case with authentic dialogue (end of the epilogue).

So can we, in fact, be changed by dialogue or not? Should we?

You'll recognize one of my pet peeves here, the interreligious pluralist's dismissal of a caricatured "syncretism." Is fused inevitably (con)fused? (Diana Eck has the same blind spot.) If we must enter dialogue open to the possibility of being changed, even in disturbing ways, how could we commit at the outset to avoid "syncretism," even if it's defined as violating the sacred "integrity" of religious traditions? If the primary purpose of dialogue ... is to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly (#1), how could we exclude from the get-go the possibility - even the likelihood - that we might be impelled to move beyond the boundaries of inherited traditions to new understandings? (This is what Paul Knitter does, who's honest enough to raise the question whether 40 years of dialogue has left him a Buddhist - not "Buddhized" - Christian or a Christian Buddhist... But of course surveys confirm more and more of us bridge traditions every day, something you might have noticed I can't make up my mind whether to celebrate or scorn.)

I suppose the integrity of dialogue requires that dialogue continue, and in this way dialogue has a structural commitment to the survival of the difference of the dialogue partners.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


First Sunday of Advent - and third day of the Christmas shopping season! Because the subway was wonky I got to see an uneasy coupling of God and mammon today, a church/marketplace. A favorite topic in my Religious Geography of New York class, the erstwhile Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, shuttered as Chelsea lost interest in religion, had become a nightclub called the Limelight (later Avalon). Now it's a cramped boutique shopping center called the Limelight Marketplace.
The stained glass (at unexpected eye-level or below) looks on in bemused bewilderment.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


At the suggestion of a Catholic priest/Zen teacher (!) who will be visiting my "Religion in Dialogue" class next week - as a living embodiment of interreligious dialogue) - I've been reading his friend Paul Knitter's newest book, the provocatively titled Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian (Oxford: OneWorld, 2009).

Knitter, a Catholic theologian (and a priest for 25 years until he left the priesthood and married), is one of the guiding spirits behind the Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, and in this autobiographical work he explains the interesting place to which four decades of this dialogue have taken him. He's disarmingly honest, to the point of posing the question whether he's a Buddhist Christian or Christian Buddhist, and his deliberate use of clichéd phrases grates on me a bit. But his argument that most Christians' religion is stuck at a grade school level, hard to take seriously as they grow into adulthood without further religious development rings true. It's a bit uncomfortable as he names things he has difficulty believing: a transcendent God, a personal God, and all the exclusivist "only" claims of Christianity, among them.

He suggests that Buddhist understandings of Emptiness (which is really a readiness for fullness, not a void) resonate with trinitarian ideas as well as with the experiences of Christian mystics, and appropriates Thich Nhat Hanh's translation f emptiness, "InterBeing," as a name for God (18). God seems to him more the energy field of all that happens than a distant unmoved Mover. And yet, having "passed over" into Buddhism, in each of his discussions he "passes back" to Christianity. The Buddhist interludes enables him to see with new eyes, often discovering and reviving neglected Christian traditions, and also a new sense of what's central to Christianity - like that God is love.

[F]or me God is no longer a Person, but God is definitely, and all the more engagingly, personal. … When I say “personally present,” I mean that I have sensed that this Mystery touches me and affects me in ways that I can, and must, describe as personal. The kinds of experiences that have stimulated my awareness of being part of the energy field of InterBeing have also made me aware that this energy is not blind, and its field is not inanimate. The energy is, as it were, up to something. There is something personal about it, even though I can’t call it a person. … The two principal fruits or characteristics that Buddhists discover in Enlightenment, wisdom and compassion, have enabled me to focus the two most fundamental experiences by which I know that the Spirit, while not a person, is a personal presence in my life: a sense of groundedness that produces peace within myself, and a sense of connectedness that produces caring for others. (41-42)

It's been a while but I've been moved by many of the same mainly Mahayana Buddhist ideas as Knitter, and have felt in an inchoate way that they are harmonizable with Christianity... but haven't gone beyond that. Haven't had to - my conversations on religion are with other Christians, and with religious studies scholars and students. Risking inter-religious dialogue, as Knitter has done for so long, might take me where it has taken him. Let me read some more and get back to you!

Friday, November 26, 2010


WPA Murals in the McGraw Rotunda, part of the very grand home of the New York Public Library. Painted by Edward Laning 1938-42, they depict the "Story of the Recorded Word" from divine inscription to linotype.And overhead, Prometheus.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Happy Thanksgiving!

I suppose it's naive of me to be surprised, but I am surprised and somehow really saddened to learn that Thanksgiving has such different meanings for different people. Rush Limbaugh apparently derided the entirely conventional Thanksgiving message of President Obama, which said: "This Thanksgiving Day, we reflect on the compassion and contributions of Native Americans, whose skill in agriculture helped the early colonists survive, and whose rich culture continues to add to our Nation's heritage. ... This spirit brought together the newly arrived Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe - who had been living and thriving around Plymouth, Massachusetts for thousands of years - in an autumn harvest feast centuries ago."

Limbaugh's response? "Obama believes this nation is fatally flawed since its founding, even before its founding. ... [he] said that Thanksgiving is about the Indians saving us... The true story of Thanksgiving is how socialism failed. Of course we showed them gratitude. We shared our bounty with them. Not because we didn't know how to make it. It's because we first failed as socialists. Only when we turned capitalists did we have plenty. The Indians didn't teach us capitalism."
Thanksgiving's about the the failure of socialism? That's the story a certain kind of conservative has been telling for some time (since the Cold War, in fact): the Pilgrims tried communal living and nearly starved, only surviving and then thriving when they changed their rules to allow the principle of free enterprise - which made them so energetic and motivated that they prospered! They had enough even to share with the Injuns. Thank the God who rewards competition and self-interest!

When I first read about this version of Thanksgiving in a fascinating article by Kate Zernike in last week's "Week in Review" (source also of the illustration), I was bemused if also a little peeved: oh those ignorant Tea Partyers, do they have to politicize everything? But now that Thanksgiving is upon us I am offended and saddened. Take away the idea of mutual help and gratitude - thank God for your own effort, for competition, for capitalism? - and America's the poorer for it. But as I write this I'm aware that for many, not just Tea Partyers, America is God's Own Country because of its capitalist system, resplendently self-sufficient and proudly requiring help from noone. (Noone but God, who helps them that help themselves - including helping themselves to the Native Americans' land.) The Cold War Thanksgiving fits with self-righteous exceptionalism in international politics and callousness in the domestic sphere.

The first thanksgivings weren't about socialism or capitalism, but even if they were: no God I know would bless a land which gives thanks for never having to give thanks.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A good idea

Full-page ad in today's Times - a nice idea though an unappealing design. (The wishbone looks better this size than full newspaper page-sized.)



No sooner does Thanksgiving end, than the chaotic shopping season begins - a monthlong compulsion to buy something, anything, for everyone.
We're pressed. We're stressed. And we waste time and money on gifts that might have little meaning.

Consider giving people donations to their favorite charities And request that they give a donation to your favorite charity.

Imagine if we did give to charities for Christmas instead of smothering each other with useless stuff. More, if we learned what charities our loved ones and friends support. What conversations this would start! How our understanding of the world's needs, and of our friends' and loved ones' most cherished values, would grow!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Arguing with an exhibition

When the "Religion in Dialogue" class went back to the "Embodying the Holy" exhibition at the Rubin last week, I asked students to write a reflection: "What is the argument of the exhibition? How does it make its case, and does it succeed?" Responses were not impressive - "it doesn't have an argument, but just puts two traditions together and lets you decide what it means" was representative - but they were illuminating. They confirm my growing sense that learning how to read an art exhibition may be a very useful liberal arts skill, and perhaps especially useful for religious studies.

Not that I can really read an exhibition, either, though I've seen many! But understanding how an exhibition is put together, and how it hangs together, could resonate in useful ways with research presentations, papers, and other student projects. In all these cases, one has to put together something defined from a larger field of possibilities. One has to have a principle of relevance, and, within one's resources and elegance, strives for comprehensiveness or representativeness - and the elusive "so what?" factor. One is probably building on or responding to earlier exhibitions or collections in books, and is judged in part for the part one plays in this conversation. One wants to avoid being criticized for being superficial, trivial, too broad, random, unrepresentative - or for abusing or misrepresenting the objects one is showing.

All of these have analogs in an essay's or presentation's use of "evidence." (The catalog of potential criticisms I just offered describes many of the student essays I see.) Perhaps students would see the point of avoiding them in the highly artificial context of a college essay better if they saw the analogy? Recognizing the artifice behind a successful exhibition, especially in our visually saturated age, might powerfully make the point that the essay as skilled artifice can be useful for learning, for thinking, for assessing, for communicating.

But such an analogy could do more, because the options for persuasive citation in a museum exhibition are different from those in an essay. In many ways they are more restricted - we can cite anything that's been published, not requiring permissions (let alone the original), and of course we can cite others' citations in footnotes and bibliographies! But in other ways, the exhibition has options we don't have: how pieces are positioned, the colors of walls and lights, the relationship to other objects and to explanatory sources... And then there's the language of art itself: the power and charm and persuasiveness of figure, composition, color and material.

What if we thought of the objects of our academic research as objects in this way? Opportunities and exciting new questions abound, starting with this: In what ways are aesthetic and argumentative persuasion similar and different? (This might have been why my students thought an exhibition need and indeed should have no "argument.") Well worth thinking through, especially in religious studies, where our research objects are often more like an artifact constructed and presented in a particular way than like words on a page!

Long story short, I'm pushing for a new course on Religion and Museums for 2011-12, and I'll be the first to enroll!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lost its mojo?

Went today to one of the jewels of religious architecture of New York, the gothic revival Episcopal Church of Saint Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights. (Like many a neogothic church it has lost its spire over the years.) On a radiant November morning, the somewhat gaudy stained glass windows (apparently the "first set of figural stained glass windows ever made in North America" and considered the finest early 19th century stained glass in the United States) bathe each other in color, islands of blurred brilliance in an otherwise grandly somber setting.

If only the life on the church floor were as lively! At their 11 o'clock - their only - Sunday service, there weren't more than a few dozen people, spread out shyly among the carved wooden pews. Mainline Protestantism in decline, I thought. And: Like Europe! I had to wince when the Priest-in-Charge (an interrim), in the midst of a sermon on leadership in and outside the church, mentioned the kinds of leadership books you could find on the tables at Barnes & Noble and added wryly that her "personal favorite" was Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back If You Lose It.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Difficult Job

How silly is this: The Times Book Review asks a presidential historian (Jon Meacham) to review The Wisdom Books, Robert Alter's exciting new translations of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The review is called "Obama and the Book of Job," and includes the illustration by June Mo Kang above - O logo meets William Blake! Here's how Meacham starts:

Unfortunately for the powerful, the plight of the biblical Job is a story with perennial resonance. A man seemingly rich in the gifts life has to offer, happy and blessed, finds himself — unjustly, from his perspective — bereft. Protected and apparently invincible one day, he is buffeted as God turns his back on his former beloved, producing rage, confusion and self-pity. In the history of the American presidency, reversal happens time and time again: Lyndon Johnson declining to run four years after his landslide victory in 1964, George H. W. Bush losing re-election after winning the Persian Gulf war of 1991, Bill Clinton in the 1994 midterms, and now Barack Obama.

If you want to say that Obama is suffering innocently, in ways that might make one wonder if there is a God or if he's paying attention, say so! If not, then don't trivialize with "unjustly, from his perspective," let alone framing it as a warning to all who enjoy power, whether justly or not. Our own perspective may be all we have, but Job offers more than Job's perspective on the matter. God isn't just unpredictable in an amoral grandeur, allowing the just to suffer with the unjust (Job's accusation at 7:22). In some way, justice is factored into God's grandeur, though not in ways we can fathom (Job's conclusion in 42). Job insists that justice be part of our thinking about power and prosperity, not that it is - however regrettably - irrelevant to it. But not if the theophany is explained:

This is how Dick Cheney's vision of unfettered executive power might sound if rendered in ancient Hebrew verse: The Unilateralist in the Whirlwind.

Meacham essentially reads Job as consonant with Ecclesiastes. I suppose this is something which a publication of the three translations as a single book might lead one to do. Job is Part I, raising questions but providing no satisfying answers. Proverbs, Part II, well - the less said of it the better (Meacham doesn't mention it.) And then, providing what closure is available, is the cynicism of Part III, Qohelet, and the somewhat ressentiment-driven hope which arises from it:

The Wisdom books force readers to face uncomfortable truths. ... The texts make for illuminating reading in a season of widespread economic pain and political upheaval. They should assuage the gloom of the defeated and temper the joy of the victors. ... ... And yet, and yet. All is not lost, which should give the president some hope amid the shadows, and should keep the Republicans from thinking that their own course will now be unimpeded. “And I saw that wisdom surpasses folly as light surpasses darkness,” says Ecclesiastes. “The wise man has eyes in his head, and the fool goes in darkness.” The world will never bend itself totally to our purposes, but Job’s example offers us some hope: endure in tribulation, and perhaps all may be well.

I doubt it was Alter's intention to allow Ecclesiastes to gloss Job.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dal baat

Had a Religious Studies party tonight, and tried to cook Nepali food - using ingredients I picked up in Kathmandu, or at least recipes from a cookbook I got there. (In fact, most of the pouches of dry goods I picked up at the Namaste Supermarket remain unrecognizable, despite Googling. What is Lapsy Powder? Five Forom? Siltimur? Are they even edible?) I made dal baat: rice, a buttery ginger turmeric dal, and cauliflower and potatoes in a fenugreek seed, cumin, coriander, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chili and tomato sauce. (On the side I managed to bake Graubrot too!) I made way too much: here below are the leftovers - after feeding 12!
A propos spices and Nepal, this is interesting (from here):
A 1984 Japanese study entitled The Study of Spices in Nepal has something intriguing to report under the heading: ‘Utilizations of spices by the Nepalese tribe people’:
* The Chhetri people usually use methi, besar, jeera, jwano, tejpat, lahsun, aduwa, khursani and rayo.
* The Newars use methi, besar, jeera, dhaniya, jwano, lahsun, aduwa, khursani, Nepali sunp, and tejpat.
* The Tamangs use methi, besar, jeera, dhaniya, jwano, lahsun, aduwa, and khursani.
* The Sherpas use lahsun, aduwa, khrusani, dhaniya, jeera, and methi, and also the wild spices ermarg, koma, and zimbu.
The study points out that while all Nepalese used the same kinds of spices; different castes and ethnic groups used them in different ways.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Falling, falling

I've been thinking for two days about the brave words of my dear friend B, who's started chemo for breast cancer: Hair coming out in wee fistsfull today. Maybe I should give it to the birds to make nests.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010


In "Religion in Dialogue" we are reading Martin Buber's iconic I and Thou (1923). I haven't taught it before, and am finding it rich and difficult... and much more complex than I remembered! (Why it's a good thing to teach what you think you know!)

The difficulty of I and Thou led Buber himself to offer some clarifications in the second edition (1957). Here's what he says about the question of relation with nature. His account of knowing a tree as a "thou"was already famous (for some infamous). It's not pantheism or mysticism.

[I]f we are to suppose that the beings and things in nature that we encounter as our You also grant us some sort of reciprocity, what is the character of this reciprocity, and what gives us the right to apply to it this basic concept?
Obviously, no sweeping answer can be given to this question. ... [W]e must consider [nature's] realms separately. ... Animals are not twofold, like man: the twofoldness of the basic words I-You and I-It is alien to them although they can both turn toward another being and contemplate objects. We may say that in them twofoldness is latent. In the perspective of our You-saying to animals, we may call this sphere the threshold of mutuality.
It is altogether different with those realms of nature which lack the spontaneity that we share with animals. It is part of our concept of the plant that it cannot react to our actions upon it, that it cannot "reply." Yet this does not mean that we meet with no reciprocity at all in this sphere. We find here not the deed of posture of an individual being but a reciprocity of being itself - a reciprocity that has nothing except being. The living wholeness and unity of a tree that denies itself to the eye, no matter how keen, of anyone who merely investigates, while it is manifest to those who say You, is present when they are present: they grant the tree the opportunity to manifest it, and now the tree that has being manifests it.Our habits of thought make it difficult for us to see that in such cases something is awakened by our attitudes and flashes toward us from that which has being. What matters in this sphere is that we should do justice with an open mind to the actuality that opens up before us. This huge sphere that reaches from the stones to the stars I should like to designate as the pre-threshold, meaning the step that comes before the threshold.
(trans. Walter Kaufman [NY: Scribners: 1970], 172-73)

Does this help? It helps him move on to the equally difficult relation with the divine, which he defines as an "over-threshold." I may be misreading it but I think part of Buber's gift to us is an understanding of relation which is neither humanist nor antihumanist. The human way of relating - to other humans but also to the nonhuman - is part of a broader spectrum of relations, in each part of which we also participate. This doesn't relativize the human, making it of value only under particular circumstances or only to us, but places it in a context which shows that being human is the human way of participating in the greater-than-human...

Earlier in the course we considered that words are not the only form of interpersonal dialogue or even necessary to it, though there is a sense in which words make explicit what dialogue is about even where it is wordless. With Buber we consider that the non- and superhuman may be part of the story too, even in human words.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


At last, and by accident! I have been seeking the most everyday of German bread - Roggenmischbrot or Graubrot, the kind you get with Wurst und Senf - all over New York, without success.(How can a city once so full of Germans now have no German bakeries?) Now I accidentally made it myself! Even better, it was a double accident. I've been baking with a food processor I got recently but not for that purpose: I didn't even know a food processor might knead. And yesterday I ran out of flour partway in. It being too late to abort (and being a restless kitchen experimenter anyway), I filled in as remainder some rye flour left over from a failed attempt at a spiced rye bread last month, and there it was. The taste of the old world!

New view

Now that I'm temporarily free to roam all over the apartment, I've been enjoying the unfamiliar view out across Prospect Place.

Friday, November 12, 2010


While I was in Nepal, the students in my "Religion in Dialogue" class had a Himalayan experience, too. The nearby Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art had just opened an exhibit pairing Russian Orthodox Christian icons with articles from their collection of mostly Tibetan Buddhist materials. They were guided through it by L, a gifted art historian who's teaching a course around iconography for us. L gave the class readings including Diana Eck on darsan, Pavel Florensky on how orthodox icons work, and Janet Gyatso on how tangka work. They loved it (I'm not surprised - my last first year seminar went to the Rubin too, and was wowed). In fact, the students asked if we could go again. I was happy to oblige - we're going again next week! In preparation, I went to see the exhibition today, with ever-generous L showing me around too. It's a beauty, like everything the Rubin does, and thought-provoking, like all their comparative exhibitions. (Remember the one on cosmogony.)

Primed by the readings on icons as windows to transcendence and tangka as devices for visualization, I was ready to be blown away - and was. The details, the colors, the layouts, the symbolism of each piece were fascinating. And the way they were exhibited, fascinating as well... and a bit disconcerting. When you notice a visual echoing of circular forms and feminine powers between a tangka of Tara and an icon of the Theotokos (first picture above), what are you seeing? Is it a superficial resemblance, aesthetic or archetypal, or is it a window onto something deeper? Is this inter-religious dialogue of some profound sort (the pretext for sending my class to see it), or something else? The captions of the exhibition sedulously avoid making strong claims, almost warning viewers not to draw conclusions from the juxtapositions... Do they protest too much, or too little?

(Pictures are taken from the Rubin's flickr page.)

Screwed without proper national health care

Someone I know just learned that, because he needed more medical care than expected in the first half of this year, his premium for next year will go up 69%. After negotiation, the insurance company (Aetna) agreed to lower the raise to a mere 59%. This still being impossible, he contacted other providers. Empire BlueCross BlueShield offered a premium equivalent to 55% higher than the current level, A third, Oxford, seemed like a deal with a premium only 30% higher than present. Going without a health plan not being an option, it's Oxford.

Horrendous! But don't think this is some poor freelancer, trying to survive in the individual health care market. Alas, it's not a person at all. It's my university!

President Obama's national health care overhaul - even if it survives the scalping promised by some of the victors of the recent election - won't help here. Since there's no public option, most people will get their health care through their employers. If the employers suffer highway robbery like New School just has, is there anything one can do?

Thursday, November 11, 2010


It's that time of year again! Although half the trees in the courtyard at school lost most of their leaves four months ago , the others have survived to put on this splendid show.

Fret not

A lovely concert last night in the steep-raked concert hall beneath the new wing of the Morgan Library: Fretwork performing most of Henry Purcell's Fantazias for viols, and two suites by his gifted predecessor by half a century, William Lawes. I had to go: a recording of Purcell's fantasias was the first CD I ever bought, in the music section at Blackwells in Oxford. It felt weirdly loopy and abstract to buy a CD - I only had cassette tapes in those days. But for some reason, I found I had to have a recording of this music, even if I couldn't listen to it. I must have heard these pieces performed, by London Baroque or even by Fretwork, founded about that time (behold the ghastly 80s cover art!).
Yes, that's right: I bought a CD before I had a CD player. What I didn't know until last night was that Purcell's Fantazias were the perfect music for such a gesture. In a pre-concert talk I learned that Purcell never heard the Fantazias performed, indeed couldn't have! The viol consort was a thing of the past by the time the young Purcell explored the history of English music in 1680. Indeed, there may have been no treble viols left in all of London! Knowing this made these mysteriously resonant pieces even more delectable. It was like being inside Purcell's head as he tried to get into Lawes' head - even as I was trying (with less luck) to get inside the head of Mark circa 1986.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


My housemate of the past three years has moved out. Know anyone in New York, or coming to New York in the next few months, in need of digs? (Picture from here)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Adaptations good and bad

My Japanese friend H has been in town for a quick visit. As ever, it's been chock full of theater (she's an actress and director who now runs a performing arts center). All the ones I'd picked were winners: "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson," "Brief Encounter" and "Penelope," the new play by an Irish playwright whose work we've enjoyed before, Enda Walsh. We also went to see the new musical "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," which one of her colleagues was involved in: A. Big. Flop. Chock full of stars and effects, it was tedious from the first note. Between yawns I found myself thinking (perhaps because of the performers stuck in this mire), "bad! no, sad." It was like watching the Titanic go down. There was less life in the crazy ladies of this ersatz Almodovar than in the four doomed men, marooned in an empty swimming pool, of Enda Walsh's dark, poetic comedy-tragedy (below).
It wasn't by design, but three of the four plays were adaptations - "Brief Encounter" and "Women on the Verge" are explicit adaptations of films, and "Penelope" is a Beckettian adaptation of Homer's "Odyssey." But H thought it wasn't a coincidence - considering the economically unsettled times in which we live - any more than it was an accident that all four involved elements of farce, music hall, burlesque.

Monday, November 08, 2010


Made dinner for two Japanese friends last night. As they both love risotto, I made the most unusual risotto I know - a リゾットらしくない リゾット(rizotto rashikunai rizotto = unrisotto-ish risotto): cauliflower, toasted almonds and brie (!). It's delicious! Pretty easy to make, too.(Sauté the cauliflower - I used golden but white is fine - with garlic and thyme, and toast the almonds, separately. Cook risotto with a thyme sprig; when it's done mix in brie, then the cauliflower, and top with almonds to serve.) The mix of flavors and textures is wonderful- and it went very nicely with late-season broccoli rabe, complete with flower, sautéd with garlic and hot pepper flakes, and home-made bread.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

It's a wrap

Only in America: candy sushi from a competition at the Good Taste Pittsburgh food festival. The judge was my housemate T, who's written books on lobster and sushi, and now travels the land discussing sustainable fisheries and guiding foodies through traditional sushi. It's fun hearing what the life of a professional writer is like... hard work!

Actually T will soon be my ex-housemate, as he and his wife have found a place of their own just on the other side of Prospect Park. If you know of someone seeking a pad in Prospect Heights, let me know!

Saturday, November 06, 2010


David Lean's 1945 "Brief Encounter," written by Noel Coward, is a great period piece. Laura and Alec, two married middle-class people fall in love in England in 1938, and are stunned by their emotions. The screen is filled with Celia Johnson's face, caught, paralyzed, in great distress at her great love; sharing a life with Alec doesn't seem an option. "I didn't think such violent things could happen to ordinary people," she narrates.

Nowadays, with divorce widely available, and marriage itself an option for at least a few of Coward's queer ilk, it's hard to know how to take it. Laura in particular seems hemmed in by her own fears, rather than by social restrictions. "Impossible love" - does that still exist?

A different tack is taken in the ingenious adaptation by the English theater company Kneehigh Theatre, triumphant on Broadway after an initial run at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse last year - postmodern multi-media music hall! The film is peopled with working class characters, involved in their own less dramatic (but consummated) love affairs. On this stagey stage adaptation, they become the center of the production. And what fun they have, flirting and singing and dancing! As Laura and Alec fumble their way through something they dare not name, the people around them know exactly what's going on.

It's sort of an "Ariadne auf Naxos" situation with Zerbinetta in charge.

Much of the script of the film is kept, but the line "I didn't think such violent things could happen to ordinary people" couldn't be part of this production. "Ordinary people," the others would ask? As for the violence of emotion, it's lampooned. "Oh, just get on with it," the comic characters seem to say, and get on with their less pretentious assignations.

There's an "Upstairs Downstairs" quality to it all. The servants knows human nature better than her supposed betters do - including, especially, the supposed betters, who don't understand even their own most basic feelings. (Hegel!) But there's no rancor here; characters like the amazing Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson, above) are too busy with their own lives to harbor class resentments. Despite Laura's and Alec's drama (accentuated and mocked by film footage of crashing waves, etc.), the overall experience is a happy one. Life goes on, as it always has. If you can't get on with it, there's a good chance you'll get over it.

Part of the pathos of Strauss' proto-postmodern "Ariadne auf Naxos" is the incommensurability of the tragic and comic modes, heightened by the grandeur of opera's Gesamtkunstwerkiness; in this "Brief Encounter" tragic and comic are happily wrapped up in the pleasures of parodistic performance. As Strauss sensed already, in our post-modern moment even Liebesschmerz is a performance.

I can't help feeling something gets lost here (the pathos of the closet, I suppose, or the more general idea of doomed lovers), but also can't deny that this version of "Brief Encounter" is a romp. And in its way, this way of telling the story offers Laura and Alec hope of life after love...

Friday, November 05, 2010


Over the course of a week of telling people about my Nepal trip, I found myself returning over and over to this spread of photos. It's from pages 66-67 of Kevin Bubriski and Keith Dowman's Power Places of Kathmandu: Hindu and Buddhist Holy Sites in the Sacred Valley of Nepal (Thames and Hudson, 1995) - a book recommended by my Rough Guide which I was happy to find in a used bookshop in Thamel - and shows a Parvati and a Hanuman from temples in Patan. (I didn't see them in situ.)
The book is remarkable for showing the places worshipers would focus on - there are few architectural shots, and no overviews. Most pictures instead, like these, take you right up close to figures of power - which you realize have been the object of much devotion. Hindu devotion can be seen as it takes the form of libations, pouring, smearing, sprinkling. The Parvati makes a gorgeous photograph, blissfully unaware of the residues of brightly colored powders and drops of water ... or is she aware? The Hanuman, by contrast, makes a disturbing image, his monkey features long since worn away by devoted hands. And yet, I've been telling people, that's what power looks like. A figure untouched by the needy ministrations of puja is just a figure. A figure transformed, even unto shapelessness, by these ministrations is a clearly a god.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


I suppose I should say something about the election. Instead (well...) let me recount to you an anecdote relayed by one of our Nepalese hosts at the start of our workshop in Godavari. Judging from conversations over the following days of the workshop, it worked as a sort of Rorschach test. Everyone (including me) thought he knew what it meant, but we all took it to be saying something different!

A Russian asked a Jesuit who had spent his life in Nepal, "Why do the Nepalese shower their idols with rice, when they don't have enough to eat themselves?"
The Jesuit replied, "When you understand that, you will be a Nepali."

Monday, November 01, 2010

Right back at you

Unexpected light this evening - I don't usually get direct light in my room at all - which turned out to be reflected directly from the Empire State Building 5 miles away!

It's nice to be home.


So about the workshop. It was the first big meeting of an ongoing research project called "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya," proposed by the New School's India China Institute (ICI) and funded by the Luce Foundation. Over the next three years, it will rally scholars from India, China, Himalayan nations and the US in shared research and meetings, sponsor smaller-scale research projects, and hire a post-doc to develop and teach courses at the intersection of religion, environmental studies and the Himalaya at New School. Sounds great, yes? Well, yes and no.

Where to begin, explaining this? My sense of the emergence of the project is that AG, the director of the India China Institute and a Nepali, had been trying for some time to interest foundations in a project on Himalayas and the environment. Why Himalayas for an institute devoted to fostering dialogue between scholars in India and China? That's the easy part: the threatened glaciers of the "third pole" are the source of the major rivers of China and India, on which 2.1 billion people depend. Wouldn't you want something like ICI on board for such a project? But foundations weren't giving, perhaps because New School has none of the science departments you'd need to do new environmental research; nor do we have actual Asian studies departments. But then one day AG bumped into a program officer of the Luce Foundation, who told him of a new program supporting research on religion, environment and policy, and it was a new day. AG called New School's religious studies program - that would be me. When I protested that I had neither competence nor even demonstrable interest in environment or Himalaya, he said it was no problem. And, somewhat unnervingly, he was right: the Luce Foundation evidently bought his gambit that, because we lack the resources to do the project on our own, we have no preconceived notions or agendas on these questions. That was certainly true of me, to an embarrassing extent.

And so it was that scholars and policy makers - five each from China and India, seven from Nepal, nine from the US, and one from Bhutan - met to raise broad research questions about ERSEH: "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya." (Couldn't someone find a better acronym? SEERH? HERSE?)

I should explain that I bear some responsibility for the vague notion of "everyday religion." I had told AG that I was interested in a movement in the study of Western religions which calls itself "lived religion," and that reference to that work might conceivably help a study of the often syncretistic religious practices of South Asia contribute to broader efforts to decolonize the study of religion.

I'm not sure why AG picked "everyday" over "lived." In any case, the concept of "everyday religion" freed conference participants otherwise disinclined by principle or training to engage with religion to explore... a bit. Most were social scientists, secular in method if not conviction. Many had in fact been trained at Marxist universities. But you wouldn't have guessed. Never defined, "everyday religion" turned out to be the part of religion anyone could love, and, more importantly, everyone should revere and promote. For it contained precious ecological knowledge, which could be translated straightforwardly into the language of science for policy-makers, but should be allowed to stay in the language of myth and ritual for "ordinary people" as it's perfectly on target - and besides, religion motivates better than science.

There were so many leaps of logic here that it took me a while to realize what was going on - and then another two days to figure out what was really going on. What was going on, I think, was that people were thinking fondly of their grandmothers or nursemaids, and of the local and indigenous practices, threatened by modernization, globalization and climate change, which are part of the very landscape of a vaguely remembered premodern past. In any case, people who should have known better blithely equated "ER" with "SE." It was a Himalayan holiday resort version of "nice religion." It went without saying that the rest of religion was a menace, as also, curiously, that "ER" could somehow easily be disentangled from its dangerous non-everyday namesake. As a religious studies person I was miffed that religion was getting too much and too little credit. There's little reason to think religion correlates with any regularity at all with ecological consciousness - that's a modern myth. And could it be that its value lies not in its pretended protoscientific awareness but in something, well, religious? I tried to bring this up once or twice, but found no takers.

As for what was really going on, besides a display of the blind spots of social science's hegemonic secularism, it took a discussion on the dynamics of local knowledge to open my eyes. Where can the kind of knowledge of environment and ecosystem we're supposedly after be found? What forms does it take? Well, not written down and perhaps rarely discussed in the abstract. It's lived knowledge, and learned through living - harvesting, building, maintaining wells, treating human and animal ailments, etc. Much of this is connected to livelihoods, and much is what's sometimes known as women's knowledge.

Before I quite knew it, "everyday religion" was exposed: not the benign folkloric sustainer of environments our discussions presupposed, but the familiar ideological sustainer of oppression and inequality. In celebrating the practices of the often disprivileged members of endangered communities as bulwarks against ecological disaster we were rationalizing the social structures that locked generations into drudgery, and, indeed, arguing that they must not be changed - for the sake of all our future! It took me longer than it should have to awaken from the pleasant stupor of secular tributes, however shallow and patronizing, to "everyday religion," but my eyes are wide open now. A kinder gentler secular class system knows that religion - at least one localized enough to pose no political or intellectual threat - is valuable for those whose care work sustains our world, and may be even more valuable for the rest of us: it's the best way of keeping them at that work. "Sustainable Himalayan Environments and Everyday Religion" - a SHEER drop.

I'm overreacting, a little. The feelings of moral vertigo came as much from witnessing Nepali poverty out the window as we bounced from cushy hotel to pretty religious site to peaceful resort conference center with view of Himalayan peaks and farmers, and from the discovery that Nepali society has until the 1960s been legally bound to the caste system. Maybe it's not an overreaction but a discovery. My next contribution for the project will be a review of the literature of "lived religion" in its Western context, flagging questions for its extension to - or complication by - Himalayan and environmental considerations.

(The fabulous beasties are from temples in Patan and Changu Narayan.)