Friday, April 29, 2016


The not-quite-smooth line tells of regular turbulence and, more dis- appointingly, as good as no views. But we're in San Diego, open vistas!

Thursday, April 28, 2016


Updates on my two window views - our street in Prospect Heights and my office view of the Lang courtyard. The lush greens of summer can't be far off...

Yours in anarchy

This gentleman came up in "Exploring Religious Ethics" today, twice. J. M. Hinton didn't look like this when I knew him, of course. The photo's from 1955 and he was my philosophy tutor at Worcester College, Oxford three decades later.

He might be bemused to have cropped up in a course on religion, being non-religious himself, and delighted at his second cameo. The first came, surprisingly enough, in a discussion of Zen koans. A grievously literal-minded philosophy student wanted to know if koans were solved, and what that meant. I said that from my understanding they were designed not to be solved, or dissolved, but to nag, indigestible, until - until whatever was supposed to happen happened: not something I was in a position to know about. Koans aren't aspirin, but administered in an entirely individualized way by a master to different students, responding (as we learned from Thomas Kasulis) "not to the student's question but to the student's question."

She was unimpressed, so I said I thought the well-chosen koan (chosen by teacher, not student) had to work as language that refused to be sense or nonsense. A bit like - I said, going out on a limb and saying so - my experience as an undergraduate with the ontological proof for the existence of God: the claim that the existence of the idea of a being greater than which could not be conceived proved the reality of such - since to exist is greater than not to. J. M. Hinton had had me read the standard refutations (notably Kant's "existence is not a predicate") but I wasn't buying it. I thought the refutation missed the point. If logic rejects this insight, I said, so much the worse for logic! Mr. Hinton - who knew me to be no more a theist than he at the time - said he didn't agree with me, but that I should keep with it. Perhaps Hinton encouraged my passionate and confused response because he was an anarchist.

One of the anarchists he had me read (in another tutorial, Moral and Political Philosophy I think it was, though he was probably the only tutor to assign anarchism, and I may have been the only one he assigned it to at the time) came up later in today's class. It was time again for "Ethics Diaries," when one of the students leads the class in discussion of an ethical topic or situation of their choice for half an hour, as I sit back, take notes, and try not to take sides. Today's topic was stealing, which was introduced through an anecdote about a shoplifter and the famous "Heinz's dilemma" - may a man whose wife will otherwise die steal a cancer medication he cannot afford, and which the pharmacist, whom he approached, refuses to sell him at a discount?

The oddly paired topics led the discussion to move toward queries about fair prices for things, and before long students were talking about employers who steal from their employees; how smart businesses control for a certain amount of theft; kleptomania, greed and need; cellphone insurance fraud; intellectual property and patents; and whether someone who needed shoes should steal the cheapest shoes she could find or the ones likely to last her the longest. As in "Ethics Diaries" discussions past, the discussion was centrifugal. Usually I just let it spin out of control, but this time the spirit of Michael Hinton inspired me to write a few words on the board:

Proudhon: "Property is theft!"

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Suffering too insignificant to see

Sometimes I think I'm kind of an awesome teacher. Sometimes I feel like a dolt for taking years to understand something that's been staring me in the face all along. Today I experienced both of these things, together! What made me feel on top of things was the pleasure my whole discussion section (for "Performing the Problem of Suffering: The Book of Job and the Arts") has taken at a somewhat unusual assignment:

Recitation (5%), performed in Discussion Section weeks 12-13. Memorize a 10-line section from the Book of Job (in any translation, language, adaptation you choose) and recite it, with a brief explanation for your choice of passage and version.

Students selected the most fascinating range of passages, and delivered them with tenderness, vulnerability, confidence, delight... (Nobody just phoned it in.) One student had rendered the start of Job 3 a song, which he sang to guitar in his native Hebrew. Another held up the painting above as she recited the scene where Job is about to lose his health - in Korean. We had two more in Korean, two in Spanish, one in Urdu and one in Hindi (both original translations), and one in Norwegian. The ones in English, native and not, were lovely too. Hearing the melody of our languages was a way of honoring, indeed celebrating how international a group we are, even as students' choices of passages of defiance, despair, hope, threat and comfort allowed them to express something important about themselves. (And the Book of Job, which might seem very old hat by this time in the semester, was new again!)

The feeling of doltishness had to do with the wife of Job, whom I've always thought I was attentive to. Don't I have people read the "Testament of Job," where Job's wife (there given the name Sitidos) seems the true star of the drama, or the dramatic versions of Robert Frost and Archibald MacLeish (Thyatira and Sarah, respectively), where Job's wife practically gets equal airtime as her husband, or Blake's "Illustrations," where Job is never seen without his wife by his side? Yes, well, but. These are all stories by men, telling a story about a man. Who is this woman, Job's wife? What's her story?

What enabled me to see further - finally - was a play by Canadian Native playwright Yvette Nolan, which was one of two I assigned this week. The play tells of God appearing, in the form of a Native healer, to a woman who is unhappily pregnant. It is called Job's Wife, or the deliverance of Grace but the play has no other references, even hidden ones, to the Book of Job. I suggested in lecture that the title functions as a question.

But what is the question? It's about "Suffering too insignificant for the majority to see" (I read from Alice Walker's talk of this name): it's right there when you have eyes to see it. But after today's discussions, I feel like I barely saw anything before. As has happened before, my breakthrough came when I asked students to do something and did it myself. The prompt: "Tell a story about/called Job's Wife." And suddenly I was wondering about her back story. About her friends - surely she has some: what might their exchanges have been like? And if they might not come together to take over the end of the story.

Next time I teach this class - and I'm certain it needs to be taught again - she won't be discovered as an afterthought, a reminder of the marginalized and voiceless. Maybe - as Nolan was perhaps trying to do - we can make the phrase "Job's wife" as significant as "patience of Job" or "friends of Job." 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Religious bouquet of the West Village

For "Lived Religion in New York" today I reused a little walking tour I developed seven years ago for Religious Geography of New York. To make it more interesting, I had student teams spend 15 minutes in class first becoming an "instant expert" on one of five sites we were to pass, and then letting the students talk about the places as we got there. So students told us about the Village Presbyterian Church, The Church in the Village, Integral Yoga, the Salvation Army, and, at the end, the second cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel.

We learned that the first is no more than a landmarked façade, its congregation having to give it up after a spat over the Yom Kippur War led a Jewish congregation which had been sharing it to leave them with a budget they couldn't manage, that the second houses what had been three congregations, that the third started on the UWS, that the fourth preferred meeting on the street noisily rather than solemnly in sacred spaces, that the last - across the street from Lang - used to be much bigger, still contains the grave of someone who fought in the Revolutionary War, and shows us the contours of a grid older than The Grid - a mini-education in New York religious history. But there was more. All the places we went were alive. Okay, so Village Presbyterian is now condos called "The Portico." But Church in the Village was in the midst of their weekly food pantry service, and Integral Yoga's bookstore was closed for a lunchtime meditation. We noticed (well, I noticed and drew the class' attention) to the books in the window, beneath the Hindu statues: Rachel Carson and Rumi.

Abingdon Square, where the Salvation Army had had large open-air gatherings in the 1890s, wis now a little park whose flowers so delighted us all that I took a detour past the Jefferson Market garden, where one of the volunteers at the gate who, on learning who we were, said: If you wonder if there is a God, look here!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Better than a tempest in a teacup, a Kusama Yayoi in a cup of coffee!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Rockaway Beach

 It's almost beach time again - glad nobody else has noticed!
 Manhattan from Jacob Riis Park, so close yet so far away! 

Saturday, April 23, 2016


My friend M, channeling his Sicilian grandmother, made his famous canoli today. Here are some, crumbly while keeping their form, filled with a lemon cream which miraculously doesn't shoot back out the sides, confectioner's sugar just this side of airborne... As he says: mystical.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The tulips at Jefferson Market Community Garden are out of this world

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Divine dowser

One of the TAs for "Performing the Problem of Suffering" gave a terrific lecture on Archibald Macleish's drama in verse "J. B." today. It really is a brilliant work of art, a profound articulation of mid-century existentialism.

And, as I like telling people, "J. B." was probably my first exposure to the Book of Job, in a production at Torrey Pines High School in 1981 or 1982. I was none of the characters whose names you know, but "First Messenger," the one who (in several scenes) leads Second Messenger, the one who actually witnessed the calamity, to tell JB and his wife Sarah the awful news as their children, one by one, are felled by modern accidents. (Second Messenger gets the italicized line I only am escaped alone to tell thee...)

In the context of this course I've thought more about staging it than I have in a long time. Having Zuss and Nickles, failed old actors now selling balloons and popcorn in a big tent circus, donning and doffing God and Satan masks allows for remarkably subtle ambivalences - not to mention the unexplained and unnamed prompter who nudges them on. Preparing it for class today I was struck by the conceit that the hapless man who walks into the play of Job doesn't know it's a play: he's not acting. (Sarah seems more aware that she might be.) The player has to seem entirely unfeigned - his character happy but also good, maintaining a faith that's not the smug American Calvinist faith that success shows your merit with the divine. Here's how he describes his good fortune:

It isn't luck when God is good to you.
It's something more. It's like those dizzy
Daft old lads who dowse for water.
They feel the alder twig twist down
And know they've got it and they have:
They've got it. Blast the ledge and water
Gushes at you. And you knew.
It wasn't luck, They knew. They felt the
Gush go shuddering through their shoulders, huge
As some mysterious certainty of opulence.
They couldn't hold it. I can't hold it.
I've always known that God was with me.
I've tried to show I knew it ... (37-38)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


I'm teaching the Bodhicaryavatara in "Exploring Religious Ethics" again, a text I remember really enjoying working with last time. I'm no more qualified now than I was then, of course. My colleague C, who works in just that tradition, told me that nobody in Tibet thinks the  text (known in English sometimes as Guide to the Bodhisattva Way) can be read without several lengthy commentaries. I wing it, Great Books style (as the existence of a Oxford World Classics edition suggests). Focal point of today's class, was the bodhisattva vow, which starts may I allay the suffering of every living being. I am medicine for the sick. May I be both the doctor and the nurse, until the sickness does not recur. (3.6-7) and assumes its classic form As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world (10.55). I dwelt on the insanity of such a pledge, which nobody in her right mind could make. The text says as much:

I have promised to liberate the universe from the defilements, to the limits of space in the ten directions, but even my own self is not freed from the defilements!
At that time I was intoxicated, speaking without realizing my own limitations. After that I can never turn back from destroying the defilements. (4:41-42)

We explored the "intoxication" - the roller coaster rush coming from contemplating the wondrous work of enlightened beings as well as one's own abjectness, against the backdrop of the discovery of the extent of suffering needing release - but also how, in retrospect, the bodhisattva has found his "limitations" to be illusory. (The rest of the book shows how that was done.) Forced by an improvident (providently improvident!) promise to do the humanly impossible, a promise he finds he can't unmake, the bodhisattva has to unlearn what it means to be an agent, on the way to discovering a different kind of agency - one which can end the sufferings of the world...

The students aren't buying it. They think Buddhism doesn't traffic in intoxications of this kind. Revealingly, one recalled from the preface a story about Santideva the editor indicated looked to be no more than a trope - the idea he must have been of royalty, who renounced kinship for the religious life (the story told of Gautama the Buddha). She didn't remember the Tibetan tale the editor tells next:

Santideva - although he was an advanced practitioner who had visions of Manjusri and received direct teachings from him - seemed to the other monks simply to laze around and do nothing ... The other monks decided to humiliate him  by showing his lack of learning, and asked him to give a recitation before the monastery from the scriptures. Santideva initially refused, but assented when they insisted and agreed to erect a teaching-seat for him to sit on. The first stage of the humiliation was to erect the seat so high that he could not reach it. One can imagine the monks whispering and giggling as he approached, but it is said that with one hand - plus the magical powers which seem to descend on saints - he lowered the seat, sat on it, and asked what they wanted him to recite, something old or something new.At the request for something new he began to recite the Bodhicaryavatara. When he reached Chapter 9 ... it is said that he ascended into the air and disappeared, though his voice could still be heard. Santideva then refused to return to the monastery which had not understood that spiritual depth may not always be obvious, and that we can never tell who may or may not be saints working in their own way for the benefit of others. (ix-x)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Comfort and affliction

Had the chance today to see one of the other projects of Outside the Wire, the program whose Job readings I've told you about, and whose director Bryan Doerries came to speak to my class. Today's event, part of their "End of Life" series, was at Sloan Kettering, one of New York's research hospitals, the audience mostly people in palliative care. The play read from was Sophocles' little-known "Women of Trachis," which ends with the hero Herakles, dying in agony of poisonous centaur's blood administered to him by a wife who thought it would revive him (and in horror kills herself), demanding that his son end his life - at one point calling him to "be a doctor" to him. (The story's a lot more complicated, and awful.) Its final line, spoken perhaps by someone in the chorus, is something like "everything you have seen here is God [Zeus]."

The structure of the event was like the readings of "Ajax" and "Philoctetes" which Doerries has taken to tens of thousands of veterans and their families (he writes about it in his recent The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies can Teach Us Today), as well as the Job readings. Well-known actors read scenes, then cede their places at the table to representative community members who offer first reactions. Doerries then leads a discussion, organized around a sequence of questions, ending with some quips about tragedy's comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. It all works very well, and today's discussion, although abbreviated for reasons of time, opened up much.

Our friend the Book of Job showed up, too. In response to Doerries' final question, which inquired about the audience's sense of the meaning and significance of the final line of the play, one of the two doctors who'd started the discussion said it reminded him of the last lines of Job!
Pink and green and red and yellow and blue, and more to come!

Sunday, April 17, 2016


Saw the fabled Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia today. I'd been looking forward to a pleasure like that in the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston, where the joy of great art was enhanced and refracted by the inspired curation of a collector unconstrained by museum conventions. Alfred C. Barnes' collection, which had long languished in a hard to access villa, arrived in Phillie not quite four years ago after epic legal wrangling with a will which, like Gardiner's, insisted that the layout of the exposition could never be changed. The new Barnes recreates the
rather pokey rooms of the old. The ceilings have been raised to allow more light, which is a blessing, as the burlap walls, wooden floors and gilt frames still make for an oppressive experience of faded warmth. Or is it oppressive because there's so much art, jammed together in Barnes' distinctive manner of symmetrical "ensembles," leavened by a collection of antique metalwork which accompanies the stacks of works like diacrtitics from a forgotten language? Or the fact that the ensembles deliberately scramble context and history, in aid of a democratic understanding of artistic creation evidently shaped by John Dewey's ideas? Or that you make your way through the dozen rooms of the ground floor, thinking you've cased the joint, only to find an upstairs with almost as many rooms - and rooms with more stuff, ancient sculptures in glass cases, furniture, etc.? Or is it that there are so very many Renoirs (usually not my fave)? The delirious incredulity attending the discovery of each new room started to feel more and more deranged as we went on. I felt I was going mad a little, trapped in Barnes' head.

I wrote that yesterday. Today, I find I'm already looking forward to another visit, if not right away. I'm not sure if it's Barnes' ideas about art I'd like to learn about and see at work, or if it's works of art I'd like to rescue them from his clutches by giving them individualized attention.

City of love

In West Philadelphia again, to see our friend R - this time to celebrate his official reception into the Jewish community at Kol Tzedek. We stayed again at the Gables, a Victorian B&B stuffed to the gills with antiques - though the cherry tree our front was so splendid we almost forgot to go in. The festivities were Friday night, joyful, inspiring.
Saturday, resplendently Springlike, we took a few hours to walk from West Phillie to the Barnes Foundation, which we viewed with R. Like our last trip, this one made us wonder why people put up with the stress of New York when the living's so good so close by... This is R, rising star.

Friday, April 15, 2016

My story

At the MetroCITI pedagogy seminar I've been attending at Teachers' College, a visitor who works with young people in multi-media modes - especially stories - posed an interesting question today. It wasn't: What is your story? but rather: If someone wanted to tell your story, what sources should they consult - whom should they talk to, where should they go, what should they look at, etc.? It's quite profound, really! (I was surprised to find an odd scholarly-ism tripping me up: who, I thought she was asking, could provide a more accurate, objective, balanced, complete account of my life than I?)

Earlier in the session - as an opening ice-breaker, in fact - she'd asked us to name something you know in your bones to be true. If my response in the later was unsure, mine to this wasn't. Where my fellow participants by and large said things like I know that I could be wrong, that it's complicated, that each person has their own truth, that I have questions (which all seemed to me a little flip, though also true) I said I know that people are made for love. Later she asked us for our sources of our opening claims and I could only say that the "in your bones" prompt led me to think about my values rather than my knowledge, values I might help make true by uttering them.

I was relieved that our seminar leader, A, gave a response of a similar kind: I know that there is goodness in the world. That's something I might have said a few years ago, and still know in my bones to be true, too. What occasioned my change of focus? Who could tell the story?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


On the way to Classic Stage Company for their production of Lessing's "Nathan the Wise," passed by what remains of St. Ann's Shrine - one of perhaps only two sites in Manhattan which was home to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations at different times. (Along with Baptists, Congregation Emannu-El and Armenian Catholics, it also housed a theater, and an upholstery factory.) Now all that remains is the landmarked tower, the unlandmarked rest having been skilfully stripped away by real estate lawyers for NYU, which built that wall of a dorm right behind it. I took this picture to get the reflected lights, so it's not optimal for showing that this is now a freestanding portal to nowhere (there is no space beween the six-storey brick building and the NYU hulk), its doors permanently shut. (I have some pictures somewhere of its demolition in 2005, predating this blog; I'll post them if I find them.)

As for "Nathan the Wise," well, I should be happy it's being performed in America at all, and it's a pleasing plea for religious comity, and so as timely as ever. But I'm spoiled by familiarity (and indeed love), and having seen a spectacular production in the original German (one of Georg Peymann's first at the Burgtheater in Vienna). This production frames it as a play which a slightly fractious group of friends (against an unexplained photo of a ruined contemporary streetscape, perhaps in Syria) puts on, but that takes the danger out of it - and the hope which comes from Nathan's ability, through gentleness and reason, to tame the prejudice and hatred around him. to make real friends of what had been real enemies. (Bizarrely, the director describes Saladin's putting Nathan on the spot with the question of the true religion as a way "to ease tensions"!) This production fits better with the second part of the story, in which revelations prove that people aren't what they seem to be, that we are all already one family, though we don't appreciate it.


The topic in today's "Performing the Problem of Suffering: The Book of Job and the Arts" was "Preaching Job," and I was delighted to host an old friend, L, the first female pastor of a historic African American Baptist church in Philadelphia, to guest-lecture. I'd contacted her last Fall to ask if she ever thought about the Book of Job, and it turned out she'd recently preached two sermons on it. They were called "God on Trial," a reference to Wiesel, whom we've read. Videos are available on her church's website, and I asked the class to watch them. They are the "performative" events I wanted students to encounter, but also remarkably interesting engagements with Job, and through Job with questioning as part of religious life. Among many other things the first sermon argues that a good question is better than a bad answer (something Job's friends needed to learn), the second prays that God give us the strength to ask the right questions (as Job learned from God). Introducing her I was able to repeat my quip that religion seems to outsiders about answers, when to practitioners it's perhaps more about questions.

But L's lecture for my class was about preaching, and, more specifically, about pastoring. Being a good pastor, she said, is like - and as hard as! - being a good friend. This made what could otherwise have been an inaccessible topic immediately relatable. And of course it took us right back to the Book of Job... A good friend, we learned, listens to her friend's questions, especially in moments of grief and confusion. Job's friends were good friends until they started to speak - or perhaps until their speaking started trying to shut him down. But how can a preacher listen? How can her preaching not have the effect of shutting down her listeners? L showed as well as told (even though, she insisted, she was not preaching). In the Q&A which followed, my most vocal students - skeptics - tried to get her to make general pronouncements, and were frustrated when she wouldn't. I wonder if they've noticed that at the end of the day she had let their questions stand?

*  *  *

In other Job-related pastor-related news, one of my colleagues posted an interesting article on our Religious Studies Program FaceBook page about the first openly transgender Baptist minister, Allyson Dylan Robinson. Robinson's "theology of survival" challenges theologies and traditions which left her close to suicide: I determined to keep those only that keep me alive, she's said. I’ve learned that theology as survival relies on very few predecessors to inform its shape or its framing. Because frankly very few have survived to pass on their learning to the next generation. One of those predecessors is our man from Uz:

Frankly I consider Job, Gautama Buddha, Joan of Arc, Rumi and Johnny Cash to be my spiritual predecessors far more than Augustine, Aquinas or Barth. My hymnal has a lot less Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby, but it’s full of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tupac and Beyonce.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


We were twenty-four at the Lang Religious Spring Roundtable, "Literary Studies in Religion II," and what a treat it was. Three of our faculty, in a discussion moderated by a fourth - what talent we have! I'm sure I wasn't the only who wished he could drop everything and immerse himself in rabbinic literature clarified by a feminist lens, or medieval
Saivite cosmogonic poetics, or early Christian ideas of rhetoric, conversion and the pantomime. What a feast of erudition, insight, and wit too. Comparative sparks flew! Also: two of the speakers and the moderator have successfully defended doctoral dissertations since the last roundtable, so we had a round of pro secco during the break.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Something fishy

Well, do I ever feel the fool! When someone shared this story from Episcopal Cafe a week and a half ago I didn't pay attention to the date. I've been telling people about it ever since... what a cool idea, I thought, recalling the morning meal of grilled fish to which the risen Jesus invited his disciples, recalling also some discussions I encountered in China about how basic Christian symbolism doesn't work well outside of wheat and grape cultures, etc. And wasn't the fish an ancient Christian symbol? Oh well.

The story of the morning meal was today's gospel, and the priest (after noting the April Fools prank - how I finally found out) drew attention to the story's repeated references to feeding - in fact to loving and feeding. Eat this fish, Jesus says, love me, and feed my sheep.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Friday, April 08, 2016


Our campus newspaper, now fully digital, has just published an interesting series of articles called "10,000 Little Pieces: A Portrait of Diversity at The New School." They start it with a sort of self-study, which includes this interesting artifact of religious identity. I'm going to bring this to my "Lived Religion" class to see what sense they make of it.
One thing is clear: these are self-ascriptions. Otherwise they wouldn't be quite so incoherent! But another interesting thing emerges, too. To the extent the Free Press students (the 2/3 available for polling) are representative of Lang students, we're not as aggressively anti-religious a place as we think we are. No self-described atheists! (We'd also want a lot more information about just what is being reported here - practice, family heritage, belief? how much and how measured?) But still, Lang is by all accounts an environment in which religion is difficult to discuss, and in which ignorant atheist platitudes often hold sway. The Free
Press series includes a plaint by an "openly Christian" student driven to find comfort in Saint Paul's experiences of persecution. A similar alarm was raised by a religious studies major four years ago in a brilliant opinion piece called "The New School for Religious Suppression." I can even remember, a few year before that, when some student imagined forming a club called Out Christians at New School, abbreviated OUCH. I'm not sure our experiences here are so very different from many liberal arts colleges, nor that it's an environment which pushes people away from religion. I posted the recent piece on the religious studies alum FaceBook page, and a major from a few years back commented:

If it's any consolation to the writer, I came into Lang as an agnostic and I truly believe that studying under adversarial conditions forced me to acknowledge my own Christianity more so, I think, than if I was studying religion in a more Christian-friendly environment. It was frustrating, sure. However, there's immense value in being forced to articulate what you value about your beliefs and what perspectives others may be missing by being so dismissive. And then there's always the comfort of the other RelStuds and amazing professors to getcha through it. To which another (a minor) added: 100% this. 

I just wonder why so few of our students, whether "non-religious" or "openly Christian," avail themselves of the Religious Studies curriculum!
smile emoticon

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Pussy willow blossoms!

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Blake's job on Job

It was Job beyond words in "Performing the Problem of Suffering" today - which didn't stop me from talking, of course! (Often, though, the words were "listen!" and "what do you see?") The main focus was William Blake's "Illustrations of the Book of Job" (more Job than problem of suffering, but nobody noticed), but our way in was Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Job: A Masque for Dancing," a musical adaptation for ballet of Blakes' "Illustrations" which was first performed in 1931. It's not been much performed since, though, so I wasn't able to show the class dance... Instead, I played some of the music - Scenes IV and V - while following the orchestral score and reading aloud the stage directions

as we came to them. "Imagine a dance!" It worked pretty well. There was an attentive stillness in the room. At least some of the class were seeing a stage bare but for a prone Job slowly filled by groups of wild dancers representing calamities eventually forming a circle around him before vanishing (IV), or Job coming to only to notice three messengers approaching as a somber procession along the back of the stage turns out to be the funeral cortège for Job's sons and their wives (V).

I segued to Blake by way of an anecdote mentioned in a discussion prefacing a performance of the Vaughan Williams at the BBC Proms in 2014. Apparently Vaughan Williams had sent the Blake Illustrations and his imagined scenario to Diaghilev several years earlier. Diaghilev returned them with enthusiasm for the images but rejecting the story as too old-fashioned. "So imagine you're Diaghilev," I said, "if that helps, and let's look at the Blake images." Forget the Job story. What do the images themselves say?

I started us off with the image at the top of this post, flipping back and forth with the watercolor original (now at the Morgan Library).

The image is known usually as "Job's Evil Dream" (It's the main inspiration for Scene IV in Vaughan Williams' ballet) but when I asked the class what they thought it represented, they of course concluded it must be Satan. Serpent, cloven hoof?! I played along, just nudging "if you didn't know this were the story of the Book of Job, what would you think was going on?" Next came this image, commonly associated with "Job's Evil Dream," preceding it by several years and confirming that Blake's telling a broader story of which the Job Illustrations are but one of several variants. "What do you see? What's happening here?"
Students noticed that the serpent here was coiled around the man, that the being above had wings... One eventually figured it out. "Is it Adam?" Bingo! Has the creation ever looked less happy? Adam's being forced into the distortive world represented by inhuman religion. True Christianity is about the Divine Infinite in humanity, and most of religion is an oppressive projection of failure and negation of human imagination. Blake's work uses lots of Biblical motifs but it's telling a story quite different from orthodox Christianity. I put up three Blake snibbets
to confirm this and we were off!!


Less than a week away, the Lang Religious Studies Spring Roundtable! It continues last semester's enjoyable and edifying discussion of the use of literary methods, as well as literary materials, in the study of religion.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Women of The New School

At the office of the Dean of the New School for Social Research (once upon a time Graduate Faculty for Social and Political Science) today
I was pleased and amused to find the portrait of Clara Mayer. Pleased because she deserves the recognition, amused because this was a division she had little to do with. Amused and pleased in a similar way to find the watercolor of the opening of the Ecole Libre in 1942. (I hadn't noticed the blonde co-eds waiting in the wings for the almost entirely male eminence grise fracophone before. Or Hunter College!)

Sunday, April 03, 2016


A possibility of snow was forecast with today's high winds...

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Feast for eyes and palate

Yotam strikes again! This begins with carrot cubes and caraway seeds and keeps getting better - blanched chard, chickpeas, garlic, mint, cilantro, lemon... Serve with Greek yogurt mixed with olive oil, s&p.

Friday, April 01, 2016


The Met is using the brutalist building Marcel Breuer designed for the Whitney for its modern art. It has just opened with a fascinating survey of "unfinished art." This comprises a floor of Renaissance to Impressionism ranging from works interrupted to others left without "finish" for effect - and some where it's hard to say. The former kind promise more to me (and have been thus seen at least since Pliny), a somewhat voyeuristic disclosure of the artist's method - as well, often, as a melancholy reflection on what will never be. Not all artists have kept their process hidden, of course, and not a few, I gather, claimed not to know when a painting was finished until it was. Sir Thomas Lawrence's charming painting of sometime actress Emilia, Lady Cahir in two roles above is
finished as un- finished - the artist might one day have com- pleted it but he left such unfin- ished-looking works in his studio precise- ly to impress clients with his craft. Perhaps this knowingness was especially appropriate for an actor, in fact. Still I was convinced that the women at the right had a body, was in a whole scene of green accidentally covered by a beige paper: more power to the artist! A second floor of the exhibition features modern and contemporary works which strive for infinity or indeterminacy or endless process or erosion: finish, come modern art, is finished. This stuff didn't quite follow from what came before, though perhaps it helps explain the anachronistic ways I found myself winking at the earlier works... But there was the marvelous Cézanne above. And then there was the sensation of a painting by Titian of an unidentified mother and daughter which, left unfinished at his death, was turned into something entirely different - Tobias and the angel! Restorers only recently discovered this, and returned the work to its unfinished finish.
Among the contemporary works, Robert Smithson's "Mirrors and Shelly Sand" (1969-70) most charmed me, though I'm not sure it's because of any insight into incompleteness or unfinalizability but something more like a phenomenology of time - the time of our lives seems continuous and linear but in face what seems like looking forward is often a looking back - and vice versa. On the other hand, maybe this exhibition's vague but interesting premise did help me appreciate it. I think I've seen it, or another work like it, before, but then it seemed merely clever, cute.