Saturday, August 29, 2009

Normative Philhellenism and its fate

“Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth! Immortal, though no more.” Lord Byron.

My interrogation of the fortunes of philhellenism begins in medias res, so to speak--with the figure of Hölderlin. Neglected through most of the nineteenth century, Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) is now recognized as one of the greatest German poets. Demanding and difficult, his poems offer a special kind of transcendence, unavailable, as far as I know, in any other modern language

Of an overly sensitive nature, Hölderlin's mental state deteriorated after 1802, partly due to his mother's incessant pressure that he become a minister. He was briefly confined to a mental institution in 1806 and spent the rest of his life in the care of Ernst Zimmer, a carpenter living in Tübingen.

Hölderlin studied protestant theology at Tübingen, where his fellow-students included G. F. W. Hegel and Friedrich Schelling. It was probably Hölderlin who brought to Hegel's attention the ideas of Heraclitus about the union of opposites, which the philosopher would develop into his concept of dialectics. While the poet resisted family pressures to become a clergyman, it seems that at this time Hölderlin developed a pronounced mystical tendency. This gave his enthusiasm for the ancient Greek gods a holistic and nonconfrontational quality that is intrinsic to the fascination of his poetry. His hymnic “Bread and Wine” posits a synthesis of Christianity and paganism.

In 1793-94 Hölderlin met Schiller and Goethe and began writing his epistolary novel "Hyperion." During 1795 he enrolled for a while at the University of Jena where he attended Fichte's classes and met Novalis. He was thus thoroughly embedded in the brilliant constellation of German thought and creativity of the years around 1800.

As a tutor in Frankfurt from 1796 to 1798 he fell in love with Susette Gontard, the wife of his employer, the banker Jakob Gontard. Susette figures in his poetry under the name of Diotima. Their affair was discovered and Hölderlin was harshly dismissed.

At the end of 1800 he found employment as a tutor in Hauptwyl, Switzerland, and then, in 1802, in Bordeaux, France, in the household of the Hamburg consul. After a few months, however, he returned home on foot via Paris (where he saw Greek sculptures for the only time in his life).

In many ways, Hölderlin was a man of his time. In his youth at the Tübingen seminary he was an early supporter of the French Revolution. Joining with some colleagues to form a "republican club," they planted a Tree of Freedom in the market square, prompting a rebuke from the grand-duke himself. Like Beethoven, the poet was at first carried away by Napoleon, whom he honors in one of his lyrics.

Together with Goethe and Schiller, his older contemporaries, Hölderlin was a fervent admirer of ancient Greek culture, but he cherished a very personal understanding of it. Much later, Friedrich Nietzsche would recognize in him the poet who first acknowledged the Orphic and Dionysian Greece of the mysteries, which he would fuse with the Pietism of his native Swabia to produce a highly original religious ethos.

Unlike Goethe and other contemporaries, Holderlin refused to relegate the Greek gods to the status of a mere literary device, for he experienced them in deeply personal terms. This approach has been termed aesthetic paganism. He understood the Greek idea of the tragic fall, which he expressed movingly in the last stanza of his "Hyperions Schicksalslied" ("Hyperion's Song of Destiny"). Hölderlin's hymnic style--dependent as it is on a genuine belief in divinity--creates a deeply personal fusion of Greek mythic figures and romantic nature mysticism, which can appear both strange and enticing.

The purpose of this post is to exhibit the poet’s Hellenism as a prism whereby to address the status of philhellenism, its rise, efflorescence, and (especially in these latter days) its twilight.

We turn now to his epistolary novel “Hyperion, or the Hermit in Greece,” which appeared in two volumes in 1797 and 1799. In this prose work the outer events are subordinate to a lyrical evocation of the hero’s sensibility. In his letters to his German friend Bellarmin, Hyperion looks back on his earlier life. He grew up in southern Greece in the middle of the eighteenth century. There he was early impressed by peace and harmony of nature. While his wise teacher Adamas introduced him to the world of the Greek gods, his patriotic friend Alabanda drew him into the cause of national independence. In Kalaurea he met his muse Diotima, whose support gave him the courage to act. The uprising against the Ottoman Turks failed, and Hyperion fled to Germany. Finding life there unsympathetic, he returned to Greece, where he lived as a hermit.

The novel offers a revealing insight into Hölderlin’s youthful idealism, in which nature appeared as suffused by the presence of the gods The depiction of Greece (which of course the writer had never seen) blends past and future, dream and expectation. He sought to measure contemporary Germany against this imagined ideal of Greece, finding his own nation wanting.

Although Hölderlin responded to the French Revolution, he did not follow its lead in transposing his Hellenism into a political register in the manner of Jacques-Louis David. And for good reason, as an important feature of the political role of Antiquity in the nascent revolutionary society of France is that it combined Greece with Rome. The continuing relevance of Rome in France is underlined by the career of Napoleon, initially First Consul, and then Emperor, both Roman titles. The American example was somewhat similar in that guidance was sought from Rome as well as Greece. (On this subject, see Caroline Winterer, “The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910,” Baltimore, 2002.) For their own part, from the late eighteenth century onwards German thinkers simply assumed that ancient Greece was sui generis, so much so that it took an English scholar, Eliza Marian Butler to explain the matter, which she did in her invaluable 1935 monograph, “The Tyranny of Greece over Germany.”

As is well known, the Italian Renaissance saw the revival of the normative concept of Antiquity. Yet the Antiquity that was evoked was not a simple unity, but consisted of a quartet of Rome, Greece, Etruria, and Egypt. (For the importance of Egypt--despite the fact that the hieroglyphs were misunderstood--see now the substantial work of Brian Curran, “The Egyptian Renaissance: The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt in Early Modern Italy,” 2007.)

With the demonstration that the “Etruscan” vases were actually Greek, that component fell by the wayside. The extraction of ancient Egypt was more complicated, but the development was eventually confirmed by Champollion’s decipherment of 1822, which vanquished the fanciful earlier interpretations of the hieroglyphs. With the severing of Etruria and Egypt, the four became two--and in Germany most often one only.

The German exaltation of the ancient Greeks is due in the first instance to the archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768). This monism quickly rose to dominance in Germany, influenced in part by the association of ancient Rome with France, from whose domination Germans sought to escape.

The exclusivism was occasionally mirrored elsewhere, as in the outspoken Hellenism of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Viewed with today’s sober lenses, the English poet’s propagandistic zeal, sadly contrasting with Hölderlin’s subtlety, misses its mark. In her monograph “Shelley and Greece” (1997), Jennifer Wallace argues that Shelley’s apparent assurance masked deep anxieties about Greece. As is often the case with such bravado, the elevation of the grandeur and magnificence of an inimitable past, which the present can never equal, engendered an inferiority complex. Moreover, Shelley was torn between his longing to affirm normative Hellenism and his tendency to challenge authority. British elites of his day rallied to Neoclassicism (one need only recall their reception of the Elgin Marbles) because they saw it as buttressing their conservative model of permanence. While seeking to retain the normative principle, Shelley simultaneously cherished the disruptive potential of Hellenism as the catalyst for dissenting politics, religious skepticism, and subversive sensualism. There was also the problem of the orientalism and purported degradation of contemporary Greece in contrast with its awesome legacy. Like most philhellenes of his day, Shelley never traveled to Greece, so that, apart from some travelers’ reports, he had to rely mostly on ancient Greek literary texts, ignoring evidence that could be gathered on the spot. As one commentator observes, he was “unable to detach himself completely from his mainstream, culturally dominant, British education, and deal with an Eastern Europe that [did] not conform to the marble-white standards incorporated in British intellectual culture.”

Distinctly different were the Greek enthusiasms of J. A. Symonds, Oscar Wilde, and some other Victorian Philhellenes, whose homoeroticism played a major part in the allegiance. In this they looked back to the example of Winckelmann, who was also homosexual. On this trend, see Linda Dowling, “Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford,” Ithaca, NY, 1994.

The “Greece-alone” principle did not triumph everywhere. As Edgar Allan Poe’s mantra “the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome” (“To Helen,” 1845) shows, the old coupling of the two leading classical cultures was not extinguished. In many quarters it long continued, supported as it was by the continued teaching of Latin, always more popular than Greek.

A decisive step in undermining the normative status of ancient Greece was taken by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his "The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music" (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, 1872).

Originally trained as a philologist, Nietzsche posits an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. He presents life as suffused by a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the existence of humanity. In Nietzsche's words, "Wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was checked and destroyed.... wherever the first Dionysian onslaught was successfully withstood, the authority and majesty of the Delphic god Apollo exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever." Yet neither side can ever prevail because each harbors the other in an eternal natural check, or balance.

Nietzsche argues that the tragedy of Ancient Greece was the highest form of art due to its fusion of Apollonian and Dionysian elements into one seamless whole, allowing the spectator to experience the full spectrum of the human condition. The Dionysiac element came to the fore in the musical chanting of the chorus, while the Apollonian element was found in the dialogue.

In ancient Greek culture, the Dionysian element burst forth in the wild revelry of festivals and drunkenness. Its most important embodiment, however, was in music.

Challenging the typical Enlightenment view of ancient Greek culture as noble, simple, elegant, and grandiose, Nietzsche held the Greeks were grappling with pessimism, which they strove, with only partial success, to keep at bay. The universe in which we live is pervaded by great interacting forces; but we are precluded from adequately observing or knowing these as such.

Initially, “The Birth of Tragedy encountered great resistance in the world of professional scholars of Greek literature. For daring to assert these unwelcome truths, Nietzche paid a huge personal price. “The Birth of Tragedy” presented a view of the Greeks so alien to the zeitgeist and to the established ideals of scholarship that it blighted Nietzsche's entire academic career.

Even today, some cling to the older unitary notion of the ancient Greeks as creatures of sweetness and light. That is to say, they perceive only the Apollonian aspects. Most who have pondered the book, however, agree that Nietzsche had made an essential contribution by exposing the dark side of ancient Greece. In setting forth his binary conception, he made it much more difficult to exalt ancient Greece as a unique and imperishable model. To be sure, maintaining a balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian forces is a perennial problem. However, each age must strive to achieve this fragile synthesis on its own terms.

Another challenge came from archaeology. During the 1880s German excavators working at the Athenian Acropolis began to uncover masses of early statues that did not conform to the idealized beauty characterizing the familiar works of the fifth and fourth century. With its almost strident directness the harsh stylization of this work, which came to be dubbed Archaic, struck a chord with Europeans who were beginning to appreciate the rise of abstraction and expressionism in their own culture. Even earlier and more abstract were the Geometric objects that began to appear at various sites. These discoveries upset existing notions of the unity of ancient Greek art. An art that exhibited such diversity could no longer be regarded as a model because it did not speak with one voice. (For the role of these discoveries, see Suzanne L. Marchand, “Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970,” Princeton, 1996.)

By 1910 or so, the old Hellenism had come to seem stale and outdated. Progressive architects like Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier ruthlessly eliminated classical components from their repertoire. In the schools both Greek and Latin had to yield before the advance of modern languages, deemed essential for business, diplomacy, and travel. In the global context the exclusive Eurocentrism of earlier times seemed inadequate. The rise of Japan, in particular, showed that neither Christianity (pace Max Weber) nor the Classical heritage were required for economic and military success.

The rapid pace of archaeological discovery in Egypt and the Middle East eroded the earlier perceptions of the “Greek miracle” as self-generating. The older civilizations provided much for the Greeks to draw on, a mass of influences that even today has not been fully evaluated.

While the Winckelmannian idealization of Greece lingered in some quarters, the subversive critique of Friedrich Nietzsche had done its work of eroding the foundations. In due course, modern ethical standards began to be deployed, pointing up some further unpleasant realities of ancient Greece. While slavery was not exclusive to ancient Greece, the sophistic defenses of it found in Aristotle and other writers tended to undermine the authority of the purported cultural ideal. The rise of the women’s movement pointed up the fact that ancient Greece was an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, and therefore, in the eyes of many, deeply misogynistic. The labeling of virtually all foreigners as “barbarians” revealed the fatal flaw of ethnocentrism.

To this roster of drawbacks many would add pederasty--though that is something that must be mentioned as little as possible. That silence, which seems to mask a deep disapproval, prevails even now among the remaining proponents of the “Greek miracle.” Needless to say, I do not agree with this particular condemnation. However, my views are beside the point, as many see pederasty as an unfortunate legacy, a legacy further tainted by its perceived association with misogyny.

Taken together, these critiques have served to "normalize" ancient Greece, as one civilization among many. Like them it possesses its strengths and weaknesses. But ancient Greece no longer looms as a unique, unsurpassable paragon.

TEXTUAL NOTE. The situation regarding the text of Hölderlin's poems is complex, even baffling. Only in the twentieth century did editors begin to cope with the problem of producing a "final text." That goal may be impossible to achieve, because the poet kept revising his texts, even during his years of mental impairment (which may have not been so impaired after all). A first multivolume effort was made by Beissner and Beck (the Stuttgart Edition). Then when this monster was found wanting, D.E. Sattler began an even more ambitious undertaking (the Frankfurt edition), which has now reached its 20th volume. More information about these editions will be found in a review by Charlie Louth, which appears in the August 7 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. As Louth observes. the Frankfurt edition reproduces Hölderlin's major manuscripts in color facsimiles "whose clarity of definition perhaps exceeds the originals and [which] show how much care Hölderlin bestowed on the fair copies of his poems: they are things of beauty, their balance and proportion intrinsic to their meaning."

I am thinking of digging deep, and ordering this set. For the present I am making do with a volume of the Collected Poems edited by Jochen Schmidt for the prestigious Deutscher Klassiker Verlag. This book of more than 1100 pages is now available as a bargain paperback for only 20 euros.

Because of the difficulty of the poems I sometimes resort to an English crib. In my experience the best of these is the Penguin bilingual book produced by the poet Michael Hamburger. The texts therein, I suppose, are hopelessly dated. Also useful is the French Pleiade edition of most of the poet's work (French only) edited by the Germanist Philippe Jaccottet.

Eleven years ago Charlie Louth published a monograph on the problems of translating Hölderlin. This task is tempting, but ultimately impossible.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Libertarianism and gay marriage

Dale Carpenter is a brilliant law professor whose most important issue is gay marriage. He’s for it--as a social conservative. Some will regard this stance as wayward and anomalous, but I find it refreshing. (Disclosure: Dale has been a sparring partner of mine on the Internet for some years.)

At any rate, Carpenter has an interesting background piece at the Volokh Conspiracy site ( for August 19. I reproduce the part pertaining to Libertarians:

“[It seems that by and large[ libertarians support gay marriage. I think that's descriptively true: libertarians are far more likely than traditional conservatives to support same-sex marriage. But as a substantive policy matter, it's hard to see same-sex marriage as a genuinely libertarian cause. It enlarges the empire of marriage, and thus of state regulation. It's true that one voluntarily enters this system of regulation, but the government offers many special advantages and inducements to enter it. From a libertarian perspective, marriage is a subsidy made available to encourage us to lead a certain kind of life favored by the government, just as the state encourages us to own a home, go to college, contribute to charity, buy fuel-efficient cars, etc. In part because of its channelling and traditionalizing potential, same-sex marriage is a conservative cause, in my view, though I appear to be one of about five people in the country who actually believes this.
“So what explains libertarian support for SSM? Libertarians have been more willing than traditional conservatives to oppose government-sponsored discrimination against gays and lesbians. Libertarians are also less likely to allow their religious views to dictate their public-policy preferences and are also less likely to presume that traditional practices should enjoy any presumption.

“These considerations might lead a libertarian to support same-sex marriage as long as state-sponsored marriage remains, as seems likely. But I would think that's a second-best world for most libertarians, who would prefer a more privately ordered state of, shall we say, affairs.

“It's also possible that some libertarians might support same-sex marriage as enlarging the "liberty" or choices of gay persons. But again this libertarian gain should be qualified: same-sex marriage is an induced choice to enjoy "liberty" within a very constrained and state-designed system of official recognition and obligation. In the popular conception, libertarianism is often confused with libertinism, perhaps because libertarians tend to support things like legalized prostitution and drug decriminalization. At the same time, gay marriage is sometimes identified with "sexual liberty," as one prominent academic supporter recently characterized it. But marriage would provide no sexual liberty gays do not already enjoy. Married gays are not really "free at last." They're more aptly described as unfree at last.

“So I would not identify support for same-sex marriage with libertarian squishiness, or libertarian firmness, or libertarian anything. That doesn't especially bother me, since I'm not a libertarian. I'm at most a conservative with libertarian leanings, a faint-hearted libertarian. But I am curious about how actual libertarians arrive at their support for same-sex marriage, at least on libertarian grounds.”

So far Dale Carpenter, succinct and persuasive as always.

For the record I regard myself as a libertarian with sanity. I do not agree with Harry Browne that a five-year old should be able to go into a drugstore and buy heroin. Children are Persons in Need of Supervision, and achieve full citizenship only when they become adults. To pretend otherwise is pure sentimentality.

The problem of standing (so to speak) does not end there. A problem of searing intensity is whether every adult is capable of acting as a fully rational being, as libertarians assume. To be sure, everyone should be encouraged to do so, but some will inevitably fall short. Given this disparity, does not libertarianism encourage a kind of elitism in which, when all is said and done, only some are chosen? If so, that prospect must be firmly embraced, even though it will not be popular to do so. In many instances, unpopularity (“defending the indefensible”) has not fazed libertarians in the past. This issue, though, may be an exception.

Depending on one’s point of view, libertarians seem at times quite adept at bending their principles. For the life of me I could not see how invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq could be defended on libertarian grounds. But many soi-disant libertarians have done so. In the midst of the countless disasters that conflict has brought in its train is a drastically reduced sphere of liberty for women and for gays. The latter are now being hunted down by death squads.

To be sure there are a number of varieties of libertarianism. To me an attractive alternative to the libertarian absolutism of the five-year old buying heroin is what is called the night-watchman concept of the state. People are free to do as they please, but every once and while the night watchman has to step in. Moreover, his or her very presence will cause people to behave differently than they might otherwise do.

Since people are likely to continue to make marriage contracts, whether on religious grounds or not, it would seem that the state has the obligation--as a night watchman, if you will--to guarantee that such contracts are fair and equitable. This responsiblity should include the provision that such contracts are available to all, including gay and lesbian couples.

In all likelihood, we will never achieve the paradise--or nightmare, if you will--of Full Lib ertarianism. Looking back over our history, it would seem that the closest we came to this putative ideal was the era of the American Founding. And in that time, our first landmark document enjoined “life, liberty, and the p u r s u i t o f h a p p i n e s s.” Government cannot produce happiness; only individuals and affinity groups can do that. However, government must promote what my friend at Gay Species terms “human flourishing.”

Let me conclude these fragmentary observations with another example. When asked how I can continue to live in a cheap apartment covered by rent control, I reply that under present circumstances libertarians are entitled to take advantage of whatever benefits are available. In an ideal society things would be different. But we are not there. In the meantime libertarianism is not a suicide pact


Dionysus in 2009

In recent years my concern with ancient Greece, once lively, has diminished, as other interests have elbowed their way to the fore. Regrettably perhaps, I am not alone in this indifference. Far from it. Most people, I suspect, read translations of ancient Greek works--there are some excellent ones--only in college, never to open the books again.

With depressing regularity, classical allusions miss their mark with modern readers and audiences. Efforts to gin up the classical machine are usually futile. Many find Roberto Calasso’s lightweight postmodern retelling of certain myths in “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” too difficult. Of course, they will turn out for a chiton-flick if it stars Brad Pitt--but that hardly counts.

Last night I attended a spectacular production of Euripides “Bacchae” at the Delacorte in New York’s Central Park. Despite the appalling heat wave, the outdoor theater was packed. So am I wrong about the fading of ancient Greece? I don’t think so, as the popularity of this particular shocker is the exception that tests the rule--without breaking it.

Traceable in the last instance to Friedrich Nietzsche, in our own day the fascination with explorating the dark side of Greek culture stems mainly from the work of the English classicist E. R. Dodds, especially his fascinating 1951 book, “The Greeks and the Irrational.”

In the world of American theater, the turning point was Richard Schechner’s groundbreaking production called “Dionysus in 69” in a now defunct off-Broadway performance space. I was lucky enough to see it. Theater historians rank this event of forty years ago as the breakthrough that opened the way to a radical new approach to Greek drama. In its wake, imaginative directors revitalized the tradition by choosing suitable plays, and then subjecting them to a wrenching reinterpretation in a contemporary vein.

I do not have statistics attesting relative popularity of Greek tragedies in recent decades. However, one can get a general idea from the list in the weighty essay collection “Dionysus Since 69: Greek Tragedy at the Dawn of the Third Millennium” (Oxford, 2004), pp. 369-418. I heartily commend this book: it is an eye opener.

Quite possibly, the most commonly produced Greek tragedy fifty years ago was Antigone, honored since Hegel's time as an exemplary presentation of the conflict between two types of duty: to one's family vs. to the state. (See George Steiner's little book on the changing fortunes of Sophocles' play.)

Duty, duty, duty--that is a stuffy refrain that since the sixties many have not care to hear. And The Bacchae seems to meet the demands of that aversion, since the hopeless prig Pentheus, the enforcer of morality according to his lights, must needs meet a gory end. I don't know if the Marquis de Sade ever read this particular play, but I feel certain that he would have approved.

At all events in a little over a year I have seen two modern versions of The Bacchae. The first was in July of 2008 at the Rose Theater at Columbus Circle, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. This was an import of the National Theatre of Scotland production, using an adaptation of Euripides' text by the Scottish playwright David Greig. Featuring ten soul-singing followers in place of the traditional Greek chorus, this event starred the noted actor Alan Cumming as Dionysus. Having cultivated an image as “pansexual”--reputedly he dates men and women--Cumming is also a gay activist, and contributor to AIDS causes. In the play the actor chose to play Dionysus as a flaming queen--certainly one plausible modern take on the role (and the play).

The Central Park production also had a singing chorus, with fine music by the noted minimalist Philip Glass. There the resemblence ends. Jonathan Groff, the newcomer who played the lead, elected another model, quite different from the one chosen by Cumming. Following on the heels, perhaps, of his appearance in last year’s sensational revival of “Hair!” (now continuing on Broadway with a different cast), the charismatic Groff played Dionysus as a sixties-style hippie, complete with swagger, long hair, jeans, and a leather jacket. Nothing gay about him.

In fact if this were not New York City, and the West Side of Manhattan at that, I would say that this production bordered on the homophobic, or at any rate transphobic. Poor Pentheus underwent a demasculinization ritual by being forcibly decked out in drag. This humiliation was the prelude to his death by dismemberment at the hands of the Bacchantes.

Question: now what’s humiliating about assuming drag? Don’t give the wrong answer, or I’ll send RuPaul to get you.

Since the actor cast as the doomed Pentheus was black, I suppose that one could go further and say that this production was racist as well.

Of course, this is Manhattan, so we don’t ever have to worry about such accusations. They couldn’t possibly be so. : - )


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Islamic origins: the Critical School

I am not an expert on Islam. By no means. My principal reason for concerning myself with this religion--its texts, origins, and character--has to do with my overall project of seeking to discern the intertextual relations linking the three Abrahamic faiths. For an illustration of the rewards this approach affords, see my latest piece on Gog and Magog, below.

I would point out, though, that if an outsider like myself can readily assemble the materials making up the main elements of the new critical approach to Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an, then other writers--such as Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong--can do so as well. As to why they have not attempted to do this, I cannot say.

The conventional account recites a number of ostensibly well-established facts marking the origins of Islam. Among these is the datum that the historical Muhammad was born in Mecca ca. 570 C.E. of the tribe of Quraysh. When he was about forty years of age, he accepted his calling as a prophet of God, to whom the texts known as the Qur’an were confided, ostensibly through the agency of the Archangel Gabriel. In the year 622 he made his hijra, or flight to Medina. He reconquered Mecca in 630. By his death in 632 Muhammad had won all of Arabia to his beliefs.

Like their Muslim counterparts, Western scholars have generally accepted this litany. Yet a new school of critical scholars has challenged these seemingly solid findings. These scholars, most of whom reside outside Islamic countries, base their case on the application of the principles of the Higher Criticism to Islamic documents. This method, beginning with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) and others in nineteenth-century Germany, established the parameters of all serious study of the body of Judeo-Christian scriptures known as the Bible. The Pentateuch, for example, is not the unitary production of the mythical figure known as Moses, but a combination of the work of four writers known to scholars as J, E, D. and P.

These critical methods are of enormous proven value for the Jewish and Christian scriptures. That being the case, why should such techniques not be applicable to the Qur’an and the other foundational documents of Islam?

A few revisionists have gone so far as to assert that Muhammad never lived. This claim goes too far. Still, the results of this new investigation raise doubts as to the existence of any reliable evidence that would securely connect Muhammad with either Mecca or Medina. Quite possibly, the association with Mecca was invented in order to link the faith with the cult of the sacred meteorite housed in that city, the Ka'ba. It may be that the historical Muhammad was a military leader active on the northern borderlands of Arabia, where he came into contact with sophisticated Christian and Jewish ideas. As is well known, the Qur’an contains many reminiscences of events recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

The earliest cryptic mentions of the name of Muhammad begin to appear no earlier than two generations after his death. From the later biographical sketches many sought to retroject the basic facts of his existence into the Qur’an. Yet even a brief examination of that book reveals that it bears no comparison with the Christian gospels, which are lives of Jesus. The Qur’an was never intended to be a biography of Muhammad, and in view of the probable late date of its compilation we cannot cannot take on face value such details of the prophet’s life that appear there.

The earliest surviving biographies are the two recensions of Ibn Ishaq's (d. 768) Life of the Apostle of God compiled by Ibn Hisham (d. 834) and Yunus b. Bukayr (d.814-815). According to Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq wrote his biography some 120 to 130 years after Muhammad's death. While many scholars accept the authenticity of these biographies, their accuracy is in fact unascertainable. After Ibn Ishaq, the most widely used biographies of Muhammad are al-Waqidi's (d. 822) and then Ibn Sa'd's (d. 844-5). Even Muslim scholars are not in accord as to the reliability of these texts; Al-Waqidi is often criticized by Muslim writers who claim that the author is unreliable.

These accounts are hardly biographies in the modern sense. The writers did not seek to create an objective account of the life of Muhammad, but rather to describe Muhammad's military expeditions and to preserve stories about Muhammad, his sayings, and the traditional interpretations of verses of the Qur'an. Then there are the hadith collections, which include accounts of the verbal and physical traditions pertaining to Muhammad. These date from several generations after the death of the prophet. Western academics view the hadiths with caution as historical sources.

In fact there is no critical edition of the Qur’an, and it is unlikely that such a thing will appear any time soon. Interpretation of the work presents many difficulties. As is typical of early texts in Semitic languages, the earliest versions of the Qur'an offer only the consonantal skeleton of the text. Not only are no vowels marked, many consonants can also be read in a number of ways due to the absence of diacritical marks. It is claimed that we can rely on the stability of the oral tradition to supply us with the correct reading. Comparative studies suggest, however, that oral traditions are anything but stable. They are unreliable because of the so-called “telephone effect,” in which each reciter tends to introduce subtle changes that are in turn passed on to the next reciter. Nowadays this problem is obviated by the control of a standardized text, but this was not the case in the earliest generations. We are told that Muhammad was illiterate, and so too must have been many of his followers.

The Qur'an is often highly obscure. The style is allusive, and the text employs expressions unfamiliar even to the earliest exegetes, or words that do not seem to fit. Some passages seem to present fragments wrested from a larger context that is no longer available.

One explanation that has been advanced for these hermetic features would be that the prophet formulated his message in the liturgical language current in the religious community in which he grew up, adapting and imitating hallowed texts such as hymns, recitations, and prayers, many of theme derived from another Semitic language.

One scholar has termed the Qur’an a “cocktail of texts.” If one assumes that the individual segments were produced individually over many generations--some perhaps originating a hundred years before Muhammad, others considerably after his death--the heterogeneity of these scriptures becomes understandable, even if one cannot adequately analyze the component liqueurs, as it were, of the cocktail.

A continuing source of difficulty is the geographical problem. Byzantine and Persian writers focused on the northern and the southern ends of the Arabian peninsula, regions that provide considerable ancillary inscriptional evidence. The middle part, where the Islamic tradition places Mohammed's career, was essentially a blank. Everything that we know, or think we know, that was going on there stems from Islamic tradition.

As Patricia Crone remarks, “[it] is difficult not to suspect that the tradition places the prophet's career in Mecca for the same reason that it insists that he was illiterate: the only way he could have acquired his knowledge of all the things that God had previously told the Jews and the Christians was by revelation from God himself. Mecca was virgin territory; it had neither Jewish nor Christian communities.”

Oddly, the Qur'an describes Muhammad’s local adversaries as agriculturalists who cultivated wheat, grapes, olives, and date palms. Yet wheat, grapes and olives are three staples of the Mediterranean. Date palms flourished further southwards. However, Mecca was inhospitable to any kind of agriculture, and olives could not have been produced there.

I continue with Crone’s account. “In addition, the Qur'an twice describes its opponents as living in the site of a vanished nation, that is to say a town destroyed by God for its sins. There were many such ruined sites in northwest Arabia. The prophet frequently tells his opponents to consider their significance and on one occasion remarks, with reference to the remains of Lot's people, that "you pass by them in the morning and in the evening". This takes us to somewhere in the Dead Sea region. Respect for the traditional account has prevailed to such an extent among modern historians that the first two points have passed unnoticed until quite recently, while the third has been ignored. The exegetes said that the Quraysh passed by Lot's remains on their annual journeys to Syria, but the only way in which one can pass by a place in the morning and the evening is evidently by living somewhere in the vicinity.”

All this suggests a considerable degree of transposition from Arabia Felix in the north to Arabia Deserta, the terra incognita in the center of the peninsula. Whether this puzzle authorizes us to conclude that Muhammad was a resident of northern Arabia who never saw Mecca and Medina--as some critical scholars assert--cannot be resolved at present. But the evidence suffices to raise considerable suspicion.


Now for some some bibliographical data. In recent years Prometheus Books of Amherst has taken the lead in making much of the Islamo-critical material available. Three collections edited by Ibn Warraq provide selections of older scholarship, some dating from the nineteenth century and showing that doubts about the conventional wisdom are hardly new.

Some of the findings of the pioneers of the critical approach to Islamic studies appear in The Quest of the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus Books, 2000), an aptly titled volume. For the task these scholars have addressed really does resemble the Quest for the Historical Jesus, as conducted by Albert Schweitzer and others.

Another volume edited by Ibn Warraq deals with The Origins of the Koran (Prometheus Books, 1998). The essays in this volume show that the individual suras or segments of the Qur’anic text make up a disparate collection, whose components originated at different times over a long period. They assumed their present canonical form as late as two hundred years after the death of Muhammad. Thus the text we have can in no sense be regarded as a unity, whether delivered by the Archangel Gabriel or not. Many of the events described in this amalgam are of questionable authenticity.

The third volume edited by Ibn Warraq, What the Koran Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002), contains papers of a more technical nature.

[Of Pakistani origin, Ibn Warraq was born in 1946, and educated in England and Scotland. He chose the pen name Ibn Warraq ("son of a papermaker") due to concern for his personal safety. He adopted the pseudonym in 1995 when he completed his first book, entitled Why I Am Not a Muslim.]

I turn now to some profiles of leading modern scholars of the critical school. Note that there are differences among them. Yet this fact in no way undermines the overall project. There are also many differences among those who apply the Higher Criticism to Jewish and Christian documents. Yet there is no doubt that this is the most fruitful way of addressing the problem.

The dean of the modern critical approach is John Edward Wansbrough (1928-2002), an American historian who taught at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

He garnered much attention in the 1970s when his research on early Islamic manuscripts, including the analysis of the repeated use of monotheistic Judeo-Christian imagery found in the Qur'an, led him to conclude that the rise of Islam was a mutation of what was originally a Judeo-Christian sect seeking to spread in Arab lands. As time evolved, the Judeo-Christian substratum was gradually adjusted to an Arab perspective, mutating into what became the Qur'an. This document, far from being complete in the time of Muhammad, grew over the centuries with contributions from various Arab tribal sources. Wansbrough's iconoclastic research yielded the view that much of the traditional history of Islam appeared to be a fabrication of later generations seeking to forge and justify a unique religious identity. Within this context, the personality of Muhammad stood forth as a manufactured myth created to provide the Arab tribes with their own counterpart of the Judeo-Christian prophets.

Patricia Crone (born 1945) is a scholar of early Islamic history currentlyworking at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Early in her carer she established herself as a trenchant critic of the established narrative of the early history of Islam. More recently her views seem to have moderated.

In their 1977 book Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, Patricia Crone and her coauthor Michael Cook offered an analysis of early Islamic history by looking at the somewhat meager surviving contemporary accounts of the rise of Islam, written in Armenian, Greek, Aramaic and Syriac. Cone and Cook concluded that Islam, as represented by contemporary, non-Muslim sources, was in essence a tribal rebellion against the Byzantine and Persian empires with deep roots in Judaism, and that Arabs and Jews were allies in these conquering communities.

Günter Lüling (born 1928) is a German Protestant theologian and philologist, who specializes in the study of early Islamic origins..A student of Albert Schweitzer and Martin Werner, he sought to demonstrate the textual link between pre-Islamic Christian hymnody in the Middle East to the composition of the Qur'an. In the view of some observers, his reconstructions yielded new insights into the rise and early development of Islam. Lüling posited that the early believers of what later became Orthodox Islam emerged from communities retaining the original, pre-Trinitarian Christian creed. Reshaped by later generations, this material was transformed into an ethnocentric religion, ostensibly purely Arab in character.

His major work, Über den Ur-Koran, which first appeared in 1974, has been translated into English as A Challenge to Islam for Reformation: the rediscovery and reliable reconstruction of a comprehensive pre-Islamic Christian hymnal hidden in the Koran under earliest Islamic reinterpretations (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers 2003).

Tilman Nagel (born 1942) is one of the leading contemporary German orientalists and scholars of Islam. His magnum opus is a 2008 biography of Muhammad consisting of more than 1000 pages. This book is not intended as a biography in the conventional sense but as a historiographical analysis of his character and influence, set against the cultural background of the Late Antique Middle East. The book also treats the rise and development of the Muslim belief systems.

Christoph Luxenberg (pseud.) is a scholar of Semitic languages residing in Germany, who is possibly of Lebanese origin. He retains his psedonym because he fears reprisals against him from the Islamic world because of his views.

Several sensational press reports followed the 2000 appearance of the German original of his book The Syro-Aramaic Reading Of The Koran: a contribution to the decoding of the language of the Qur'an (English trrans., 2007). Therein he asserted that the language of the earliest versions of the Qur'an was not exclusively Arabic, as assumed by the classical commentators, but rather is rooted in a Syro-Aramaic fusion dialect of the seventh= century Meccan Quraysh tribe. Luxenberg holds that the Aramaic language--the lingua franca prevalent throughout the Middle East and during the early period of Islam was the language of culture and Christian liturgy--and had a profound influence on the scriptural composition and meaning of the contents of the Koran. Luxenberg charges that by and large Western scholars of the Qur'an have adopted a timid and imitative approach, relying too heavily on the biased work of Muslim scholars. He argues that Muhammad was preaching concepts that were new to many of his Arab hearers, concepts that Muhammad had gleaned from his conversations with Arabian Jews and Christians, or from the Christians of Syria (where he is believed to have traveled). Hence, if a particular Quranic word or phrase seems meaningless in Arabic, or can be given meaning only by tortured conjectures, it makes sense -- he thinks -- to look to the Aramaic and Syriac languages as well as Arabic.

Agreeing with some other critical scholars, Luxenberg also argues that the Qur'an relies on earlier texts, namely lectionaries used in the Christian churches of Syria, and that it required the work of several generations to remould these texts into the Qur'an we know today.

Journalistic reports of Luxenberg’s work have overemphasized certain details, notoriously his reinterpretation of the virgins who are supposedly awaiting good Islamic martyrs as their reward in paradise. In reality, he asserts, these are "white raisins" of crystal clarity, and not fair maidens. The passage in question is based on the word hur, which is an adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply "white." Islamic tradition insists that the term hur stands for houri, which means "virgin," but Luxenberg maintains that this is a forced misreading of the text. In both ancient Aramaic, and in at last one respected dictionary of early Arabic, hur means "white raisin."

SUPPLEMENTARY NOTE. After considerable work, some mystery still surrounds the fragmentary early Qur'an manuscripts preserved in Sana'a, Yemen.

Gerd Puin (b. 1940), professor at the University of the Saarland, headed a restoration project, commissioned by the Yemeni government, devoted to examining the ancient Qur'anic manuscripts discovered in Sana'a, Yemen, in 1972. According to writer Toby Lester, his examination revealed "unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment." The scriptures were written in the early Hijazi Arabic script, matching the pieces of the earliest Qur'ans known to exist. The papyrus on which some of the texts appear shows clear signs of earlier use. That is, they are palimpsests, where previous, partially erased writing shows through. In the view of the investigators, this practice "does not necessarily demonstrate modification" of the overall text of the Qur'an. But perhaps it does indicate modification. Pending a full display of the evidence, I would remark, how can we exclude this possibility?

We are told that more than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Qur'ans have painstakingly been cleaned, treated, sorted, and photographed, and 35,000 microfilmed photos have been made of the manuscripts. Some of Puin's initial conclusions on his findings appear in his essay titled the "Observations on Early Qur'an Manuscripts in San'a," which has been republished in the book What the Koran Really Says, edited by Ibn Warraq, noted above.

Progress on this project seems to have stalled, in all likelihood because of its "sensitivity."

In Toby Lester's still useful 1999 Atlantic Monthly article, Gerd Puin is quoted as saying that:

"My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad. Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants. The Qur’an claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or clear, but if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Qur’anic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Qur’an is not comprehensible, if it can’t even be understood in Arabic, then it’s not translatable into any language. That is why Muslims are afraid. Since the Qur’an claims repeatedly to be clear but is not—there is an obvious and serious contradiction. Something else must be going on."


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Robert Wrong

Shamelessly, the journalist Robert Wright continues to plug his recent feel-good book on religion in stints in the "Daily Dish," under the auspices of Atlantic Magazine. (Andrew Sullivan is taking a much-needed vacation.)

In a previous posting, I had striven (uncharacteristically some will say) to give Wright's book "The Evolution of God" the benefit of the doubt. With this latest effort, however, he has shown pretty clearly how shallow his scholarship actually is. The passage I am citing comes at the end of a tranche in which he seeking, quixotically, to reconcile Jews and Arabs by retelling the story of Hagar and Ishmael.

"In Muhammad’s account Abraham and Ishmael somehow wind up in Mecca together, where they build and purify the Ka’ba so that the God of Abraham can be worshipped there. What’s more, this was part of a “covenant” God had made with Ishmael and Abraham.
"Talk about a grand unifying narrative! By making Abraham co-builder of the Ka’ba, Muhammad had taken the most ancient sacred figure in Jewish and Christian tradition and linked him to the most sacred shrine for Arab polytheists. Just about every religious tradition represented in Muhammad’s vicinity could find a touchstone in the religion he was creating. It was an ingenious way to try to bring all the peoples in the area under a single roof."

This account fails on two opposite grounds. First, it is not in accord with the orthodox Muslim interpretation, which it amends without notice. Second, it shows no knowledge of the abundant recent critical scholarship.

In the received view Muhammad did not write the Qur'an, but simply became its vessel when it was dictated to him by the Archangel Gabriel. Not mentioned here is the transfer--one might almost say purloining-- of the sacrifice of Isaac, the Akedah, from the son born by Sarah to Hagar's son Ishmael, the purported ancestor of the Arabs. Again in the received view Muhammad had no intention of creating a syncretistic stew of religions. Instead, he sought to restore the primordial monotheism of Arabia, sealing it off from the polytheistic corruptions that had done so much damage over the centuries.

Then there is the neglect of recent scholarship, which applies the textual principles of the Higher Criticism to the key Islamic documents. For example, this scholarship regards the historical Muhammad as a military leader in northern Arabia, who probably never saw Mecca and Medina. The Holy Qur'an was probably compiled no earlier than 150 years after the death of the Prophet.

Having examined this scholarship, one may chose to reject its findings. Hovever, Robert Wright shows no sign of having the slightest awareness of the new work.

As a longtime college professor, I would say that this effort deserves a grade of F.

UPDATE. Robert Wright is at it again. In a new morsel, proffered as part of his stint on the Daily
Dish (Aug. 14), he seeks to instruct us on the proper interpretation of the Qur'an--in particular sura 9, which lays out various options as to how one is to deal with a particular category of unbelievers. Depending on the circumstances, these groups of individuals may be attacked and killed, or permitted to live in peace, provided that they observe certain restrictions.

Translations often render this inferiorized group as "polytheists." Wright follows this practice.

However, that rendering, suggesting that the offenders in question are the old idolaters of pre-Islamic Arabia, is mistaken. The Arabic word is "mushrikun," or associaters. These are individuals whose beliefs admit rivals or associates alongside Allah. Read in context, it is clear that these passages are meant primarily to address Trinitarian Chiristians. These are individuals who have diluted their monotheism by admitting two associates alongside the high God, that is, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Muslim tradition honors Jesus, but only as a prophet, not as divine. The doctrine of the Incarnation was decisively rejected.

It is evident then that read in context the passages permitting killing or temporizing with the mushrikun (according to circumstance) are aimed primarily at the mainstream Christians of the day. There are indications that Muhammad or whoever formulated the incipient Muslim theology was acquainted with pre-Trinitarian Christianity--much to be preferred to the current corrupted version. Not much more than a memory in the seventh century, this untrammeled monotheism was almost certainly the original form of Christian belief. See my posting on the Fable of the Holy Trinity, below.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

Gog and Magog again

The dog days of August are upon us again. Our military is still not out of Iraq (maybe it will be by 2015, though I doubt it), and our government is escalating its commitment in Afghanistan. I see no change I can believe in.

The blogosphere is now currently in an uproar, rightly so, as information trickles in about a revealing conversation George W. Bush had with Jacques Chirac in 2003. As you will recall from my own blog piece two months ago, Bush advanced a bizarre rationale for launching a war against Iraq. Seeking to enlist the support of his French counterpart, Bush made it all perfectly clear. He explained that the sinister biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the Middle East; they must be defeated at all costs.

Astonished, Chirac asked his advisers to consult a Swiss theologian about the matter; the scholar spilled the beans in a magazine article of 2007, which was little noticed at the time. After a long passage across the Atlantic, the news has now made its way into the American blogosphere--though not much I think in the mainstream media, lagging behind as always. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, who kindly noted my earlier piece in his superb blog, The Daily Dish.)

Assuming that it has been correctly reported, this oracular utterance is a rare instance of Bush’s playing this particular card. He must have realized that it would be controversial. Just out of curiosity, has anyone ever confronted George Bush with the evidence of his 2003 conversation with Chirac? Well no, because the mainstream media still has its head in the sand.

At all events, the mythology about Gog and Magog is a subset of a vast realm of apocalyptic and eschatological thought, Jewish and Christian. As we shall see shortly, there is are significant Islamic parallels as well.

Let us step back for a moment. The notion of the identity of Israeli and US interests can be argued on two grounds. The first is secularist, asserting that these are two democracies who share a common enemy in Islam--while ignoring the fact that the geopolitical situations of the two countries are entirely different. Other arguments rely on biblical prophecy, which reveals, so it is said, that the End Times are coming very soon. In this cosmic drama, the Holy Land will play a special role as Christ returns to Jerusalem to reign for one-thousand years. The formation and survival of the state of Israel constitute a necessary prelude to this desirable outcome.

In the ruling circles of Israel, overtures from Christian evangelicals have elicited a welcoming response. After all, millions of these folks vote in American elections. Some bring money. By contrast, American Jews, aware that some Christian apocalyptic scenarios require the conversion or death of the Jews, tend to be much more circumspect.

Given that several significant texts regarding Gog and Magog appear in the Hebrew Bible, it might be expected that the motif would serve to cement the linkage of evangelical Christians and tradition-minded Jews, at least with those who are open to the alliance. Yet that presumed foundation may not be there, for the traditional Jewish approach to these portentous figures has been generally cautious. Commenting on Ezekiel 38, the Jewish Study Bible puts the matter well: “[t]he original identity of Gog matters little as later [Jewish[ ingterpreters have understood hi to be a transnational symbol of evil, much like Edom and Egypt . . . or Chaos monsters such as Leviathan or Behemoth.”

In fact there are very serious obstacles that stand in the way of a full alliance of evangelical Christians and Jews. For example, in 1999 Jerry Falwell opined that the Antichrist must be a Jew, who will appear in ten years’ time. Falwell has not been alone. On March 16, 2003, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, the Texas pastor John Hagee took up the theme. In his sermon, "The Final Dictator," Hagee limned the Antichrist as a seductive figure with "fierce features." He will be "a blasphemer and a homosexual," the pastor announced. Then Hagee ominously intoned, "[t]here's a phrase in Scripture used solely to identify the Jewish people. It suggests that this man [the Antichrist] is at least going to be partially Jewish, as was Adolph Hitler [sic], as was Karl Marx."

According to Hagee, this "fierce" gay Jew would "slaughter one-third of the Earth's population.” No particular candidates for the position were named. Apart from everything else, Hagee's comments identifying the Antichrist as a partly Jewish homosexual were poorly timed. They came in the wake of a furor the pastor had provoked by characterizing the Holocaust as an act of God. This outrageous view did not prevent Senator Joe Lieberman from praising Hagee as a loyal ally of the state of Israel.

We return to the theme of Gog and Magog, this time in the Islamic context. The theme has excited particular interest among popular interpreters and agitators in the wake of the disastrous sectarian occupation of the holy places in Mecca in 1979, followed by other turmoil in the Islamic world.

First let us look at the Koran, which incorporates two relevant passages--in suras 18 and 21. In the first, a mysterious figure called Zul-Qarnain erects a great dam between two palisades to block the incursion of the destructive forces of Gog and Magog. Ultimately, however, Allah will cause the dam to crumble, and humanity will have to deal with the consequences. In sura 21 the text goes as follows: “It is forbidden for any community we had annihilated to return. Not until Gog and Magog reappear will they return--they will come from every direction. That is when the inevitable prophecy will come to pass, and the disbelievers will stare in horror: ‘Woe to us; we have been oblivious. Indeed, we have been wicked.’”

As with the Christian scriptures, the Last Judgment has a prominent place in the Koran. This culminating event of the End Time will be preceded by an epic struggle, a series of episodes inaugurated by the coming of the Mahdi, a kind of apocalyptic redeemer figure, who will be a direct descendent of the Prophet. Not mentioned in the Koran, but cited in the hadiths (oral sayings attributed to Muhammad), is the Antichrist (al-Dajjal), who will be defeated by the intervention of Jesus Christ himself. Gog and Magog will also be prominently arrayed among the forces of evil. In the end all will be well, however, and order will be restored in the Last Judgment.

Through most of Islam’s history, mainstream thinkers and theologians tended to treat these events as belonging to the future, and as almost theoretical. During the 1980s, however, a mass of pamphlets and books began to appear that told a different story. These writings stemmed mainly from journalists and amateur scholars, and have not received official sanction, though they were (and are) widely read. These authors hold that the apocalyptic sequence is already cascading down upon us. The warning signs range from too many tall buildings and women's equality to UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. In this light, the Believers must not be discouraged by Western incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq, for these are indicators that the cosmic machinery has begun to operate. Gog and Magog are of course identified with the West, both Christian and Jewish. As with Falwell (who is sometimes cited) and Hagee, the Antichrist has specifically Jewish features, grossly caricatured on the covers of the books. The strand of anti-Semitism that is now prominent in the Islamic world found reinforcement in the wide circulation of an extra-Islamic text, the odious forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This groundswell of apocalyptic writings has been thoroughly documented in Jean-Pierre Filiu, “L’Apocalypse dans l’Islam,” Paris: Fayard, 2008.

In many ways, then, the current Muslim apocalyptic literature parallels the similar upsurge in the Christian West. Here too we find a series of fictionalized best-sellers produced by such writers as Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and Joel Rosenberg.

Let us look at these matters in a broader perspective. All these currents, whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic, belong to the general realm of eschatology. Eschatology (from the Greek eschatos meaning "last" and -logy meaning "the study of") is a part of theology and philosophy addressing what is believed to be the final events in world history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity, commonly referred to as the end of the world. As a rule, the Abrahamic religions regard this culmination as an actual future event prophesied in sacred texts (enhanced by later interpretations and by folklore) More broadly, the umbrella term eschatology encompasses related concepts such as apocalypticism, the Messiah or Messianic Age, the Millennium, the End Time, and the end of days.

Much modern eschatology and apocalypticism, both religious and secular, emphasize the violent disruption or destruction of the world, whereas Christian and Islamic (as well as to some extent Jewish) eschatologies view the end times as the consummation or perfection of God's creation of the world. That the yearning for knowledge of the future, specifically in the form of a final cataclysm, is not limited to these contexts transpires from the current popularity of the supposed Maya prophecy that the world will end in the year 2012.

Some of these ideas require further elaboration.

The term apocalypse originally referred to a revelation of God's will, and by extension to sacred books (such as Revelation, the last book of the Christian bible) that purport to represent this, often in the form of a kind of time table permitting one to access future events. The term apocalypticism now usually references the belief that the world will enter the End Time (or Aeon) very soon, possibly within one's own lifetime. This esoteric notion is usually accompanied by the idea that civilization as we know it will soon come to a disastrous end with some sort of global event such as war. Apocalypticism typically bonds with a scenario that will play itself out in a major confrontation between good and evil forces, destined to change the course of history.

Broadly speaking, Messianism may be defined as the belief in a messiah, a savior or redeemer. Many religions have a messiah concept, including the Zoroastrian Saoshyant, the Jewish Messiah, the Christian Christ, the Buddhist Maitreya, and the Hindu Kalki. The world is seen as so hopelessly flawed --beyond normal human powers of correction--that divine intervention working through specially selected human agency becomes imperative.

Some scholars hold that seemingly secular political movements, such as Marxism and Zionism, also incorporate elements of messianic provenance. In these belief systems religious motifs are replaced with "scientific" or "historical" claims.

The term Messiah [Hebrew: משיח‎; mashiah, moshiah, mashiach, or moshiach, ("anointed [one]"] originally served in the Hebrew Bible to describe priests and kings, who were traditionally anointed. For example, Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia, is referred to as "God's anointed" (Messiah) in the Bible.

In Jewish messianic tradition and eschatology, the term came to refer to a future Jewish King from the Davidic line, who will be "anointed" with holy anointing oil and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age.

Today, the various Jewish denominations have sharp disagreements about the nature of the Messiah and the Messianic Age, with some groups holding that the Messiah will be a person and other groups maintaining that the Messiah is simply a stand-in for the Messianic Age itself.

Traditional Jewish opinion and current Orthodox thought has mainly taken the view that the Messiah will be an anointed one (messiah), descended from his father through the Davidic line of King David, a leader who will gather the Jews back into the Land of Israel and usher in an era of peace.

In Christianity, the Second Coming (or Parousia) is the anticipated return of Jesus from the heavens to the earth, an event that will trigger the fulfillment of other components of Messianic prophecy, such as the general resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment of the living and the dead, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth (also called the "Reign of God"), including the Messianic Age. Today this thinking flourishes most abundantly among evangelical Christian groups.

In Islamic eschatology the Mahdi (مهدي Mahdī, also Mehdi; "Guided One") is the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will stay on earth seven, nine, or nineteen years (depending on the interpretation) before the coming of Yaum al-Qiyamah (literally "Day of the Resurrection" or "Day of the Standing"). Muslims believe the Mahdi will rid the world of error, injustice, and tyranny inn concert with Jesus. Since the concept of Mahdi is not mentioned in the Koran or in the hadiths, many orthodox Sunnī theologians question Mahdist beliefs. Yet such beliefs now seem deeply rooted in Shīʿī doctrine.

The Arabic word Masih literally means "The anointed one," and in Islam, Issa son of Mariam, al-Masih (the Messiah Jesus son of Virgin Mary) is believed to have been anointed from birth by Allah with the specific task of being a prophet and a king. Orthodox Muslim thought holds that Issa has the task of slaying the false messiah al-Dajjal, the Antichrist. After he has destroyed al-Dajjal, he will assume the leadership of the Muslims. Adhering to his true character, Issa will unify the Muslim faithful under the common purpose of worshipping Allah alone, thereby ending divisions and deviations among the adherents. Mainstream Muslims believe that at that time Issa will dispel erroneous Christian and Jewish claims about him.

Typically Christian is the concept of millennialism (from millennium, Latin for "thousand years"), or chiliasm in Greek. This is the belief held by some Christian denominations that there will be a Golden Age or Paradise on Earth in which "Christ will reign" prior to the final judgment and future eternal state (the New Heavens and New Earth). This belief stems primarily from the book of Revelation 20:1-6.

Among Christians who hold this view, the Millennium is not specifically part of the "end of the world", but rather constitutes the penultimate age, the era just prior to the end of the world when the present heavens and earth will flee away (Rev. 21:1). Some believe that between the Millennium proper and the end of the world there will be a period of strife and tribulation in which a final battle with Satan will take place. After this follows the Last Judgment.

If the reader has continued this far, a little more detail will be helpful. Today, Protestants who are concerned about these matters distinguish amongst Post-tribulational Premillennialism, Pre-tribulational (dispensational) Premillennialism, Postmilennialism, Amillennialism. The first three refer to different views of the relationship between the "millennial Kingdom" and Christ's second coming. Premillennialism (which has two varieties) sees Christ's second advent as preceding the Millennium, thereby separating the second coming from the Last Judgment. In this view, "Christ's reign" will be physical. Postmillennialism regards Christ's second coming as subsequent to the Millennium, synchronizing with the Last Judgment. In this view "Christ's reign" (during the Millennium) will be spiritual in and through the church. Standing apart from the others, Amillennialism basically denies a future literal 1000-year Kingdom and sees the church age metaphorically described in Rev. 20:1-6. In this view, "Christ's reign" is current in and through the church (this view is sometimes termed “realized eschatology”). Thankfully it is not necessary to be well-versed in these distinctions to get a general sense of the doctrine.

Beliefs such as those just outlined are commonly ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed in the mainstream thought of our own time. Yet this was not the case during the formative stages of such major religions as Christianity and Islam. Nor should the power of such ideas be discounted today, when the bestsellers of such writers as Hal Lindsey; Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins; and Joel Rosenberg enjoy enormous resonance. Since its appearance in 1970, Lindsey’ “Late Great Planet Earth” has sold 18 million copies, not counting translations into at least 44 foreign languages. The apocalyptic series of books by LaHaye and Jenkins, “Left Behind,” has sold at least 65 million copies. In fact the "Left Behind" series may be the immediate source of Bush's simulation of biblical erudition, for if begins with a description of the fulfillment of the battle of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38–39. ("Frustrated at their inability to profit from Israel’s fortune and determined to dominate and occupy the Holy Land, the Russians had launched an attack against Israel in the middle of the night. The assault became known as the Russian Pearl Harbor . . . The number of aircraft and warheads made it clear their mission was annihilation. . . . Miraculously, not one casualty was reported in all of Israel . . . {W[itnesses reported that it had been a firestorm, along with rain and hail and an earthquake, that consumed the entire offensive effort. . . . Editors and readers had their own explanations for the phenomenon, but Buck admitted, if only to himself, that he became a believer in God that day. Jewish scholars pointed out passages from the Bible that talked about God destroying Israel’s enemies with a firestorm, earthquake, hail, and rain. Buck was stunned when he read Ezekiel 38 and 39 about a great enemy from the north invading Israel with the help of Persia, Libya, and Ethiopia.")

The consequences are inescapable. Stark realism compels one to accept that these trends rank also as a major political force, for the Republican base has become the domain of the apocalyptics. Serious conservative theorists--and there are quite a few--have long looked the other way when it comes to the millions of wackos they are allied with. It is time to wake up and smell the sulphur.


Friday, August 07, 2009


Lewis H. Lapham (born January 8, 1935) was the editor of the American monthly Harper's Magazine from 1976 until 1981, and from 1983 until 2006. Since formally leaving that post, he has founded a publication about history and literature entitled Lapham's Quarterly, which continues to appear as a stand-alone enterprise.

While he was still running Harper’s, Lapham committed a notorious gaffe that has given rise to a new noun, Laphamization. Claiming to have attended the Republican National Convention in New York City, he included the following paragraph in his regular column in the magazine, for the issue bearing the date of September 2004:

“The speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal--government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maiden's prayer--and while listening to the hollow rattle of the rhetorical brass and tin, I remembered the question that [Richard] Hofstadter didn't stay to answer. How did a set of ideas both archaic and bizarre make its way into the center ring of the American political circus?”

This is the gist of his critique responding to the speeches at the Republican Convention--except that it was written and published before the Convention occurred. Unluckily for the overconfident pundit-editor, that particular issue of his magazine came out a little early, before any of the speeches had been delivered. Of course Lapham could probably assume that he would dislike the GOP speeches as they were being made. Still, as one commentator pointed out, “reviewing concerts you haven't attended, books you haven't read and movies you've never seen is right out of Unethical Journalism 101, and publishing the review of a speech before the speech is made is a sure way to flunk the course.”

Not surprisingly, Lapham’s deception attracted quite a bit of attention, and he apologized, or seemed to do so:

“… the rhetorical invention was silly. The mistake, however, is a serious one, and if I'd had my wits about me as an editor, I wouldn't have let the author mix up his tenses in manuscript or allowed him in page proof to lapse into poetic license. Both of us regret the injury done to the magazine and apologize, wholeheartedly, to its readers.”

OK, then. Well, I am afraid not, because of the nonsense about “a rhetorical device.” His piece was in a magazine dated September, and would reach most readers after the Convention was over--or so he thought. Is he saying that the phony commentary on the speeches he hadn’t heard (because they hadn’t occurred when he wrote about them) was never intended to imply that he had heard them? This really won’t do.

In his commentaries in Harper’s and elsewhere Lapham has consistently adhered to the left-liberal side of the spectrum. I would have no problem with this orientation, except for his self-righteousness and arrogant sense of entitlement.

A son of Lewis A. Lapham and his wife, the former Jane Foster, Lapham was born and grew up in San Francisco. His grandfather Roger Lapham was mayor of San Francisco, and his great grandfather Lewis P. Lapham was a founder of Texaco. He was educated at the Hotchkiss School, Yale University, where he joined the literary society St. Anthony Hall, and Magdalene College, Cambridge.

In 1972, Lapham married Joan Brooke Reeves, the daughter of Edward J. Reeves, a stockbroker and grocery heir, and his wife, the former Elizabeth M. Brooke (formerly the wife of Thomas Wilton Phipps, a nephew of Nancy Astor). Of their three children, one, Delphina, married an Italian prince; another, Andrew, married Caroline Mulroney, a daughter of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

His background has lent a sense of entitlement and privilege, which he wears like a suit of armor. Hence his insufferable self-righteousness.

While bolstering his outsized ego, Lewis Lapham's family background and connections nonetheless did not suffice to maintain him in the style he deemed appropriate. In fact, no great family fortune has passed down to him, sadly enough. Referring to his perch at Harper’s he remarked, “I lived off this gig.” In 1997 his annual compensation from the magazine was $246,000; in 2004, $315,000

Lapham’s book “Pretensions to Empire” is a typical scissors-and-paste job, recycling old columns. According to Publishers’ Weekly “this book is a lament for the state of our society and a bitter condemnation of the Republican hold on power and the machinations with which that grip has been cultivated and sustained. Lapham's dense and self-assured style is rivaled only by that of William F. Buckley Jr. in delivering a whopping dose of sanctimony and affectation with each paragraph. Though more erudite than Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly, Lapham's essays are similarly bereft of a sustained line of argument. He also shares their irredeemably dark view of human nature, or at least of Americans, who we learn are ‘[w]arfaring people, unique in our gift for violence... killing anyone and anything.’ Above all, he seems to enjoy nothing more than to display his boundless contempt for all those who are not him.”

I would add a further comparison with an overrated scribbler, that mountebank Gore Vidal, whose political views more directly track those of his "patrician" companion in literary excess.

Lewis Lapham’s gaffe of 2004 has given rise to a new term, "Laphamization," defined by the online Urban Dictionary as “giving a dramatic eyewitness report of an event that hasn't happened yet. Laphamizers get busted either when the event goes down differently than reported or the article goes to print before the event happens. [The term is n]amed after notorious journalistic fabulist -- or talented psychic -- Lewis Lapham.”

Another observer has concluded that Lapham has perfected time travel. How else could he get to an event in the future, and then return to report on it? This being the case, Lapham need have no further financial worries: a quick trip to an upcoming horserace, then back to place a lucrative bet. Repeat as often as desired.

To be sure, there have been many examples of Laphamization before L.H.L. One instance I recall is when a noted Ezra Pound scholar gave an account of the poet’s funeral in Venice that read as if he had attended it, which he had not. There have been several cases where a music reviewer turned in a review of a concert, only to find the next day that the soloist had canceled because of illness.

Possibly there are degrees of Laphamization. Most would agree that the term is fully appropriate when someone publishes a full-scale review of a book he or she has not read. Still, in preparation for a review it is surely permissible to skip over dull or repetitive parts so as to focus on the actual argument of the work.

At all events, the term Laphamization is here to stay. It will last as the permanent marker of an arrogant, pretentious windbag.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

Purported heroization of Judas

Scholars have long recognized that the four “canonical” gospels ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John are not the only ones we have. This hallowed quartet represents a mere selection from a much larger body of available gospels and memoirs of the life of Jesus. No one knows--or can ever know given the losses of fragile papyrus--how many members of this special company once existed. Yet today at least sixteen noncanonicals are extant. The texts of most of these can be read in translation, as for example in the book edited by J. K. Elliott, “The Apocryphal New Testament” (Oxford University Press, 1993). In fact scholars have been pouring over these texts for the better part of two centuries.

During the 1970s a leather-bound Coptic papyrus was discovered near Beni Masah in Egypt. The codex has four parts: the Letter of Peter to Philip, already known from the Nag Hammadi Library; the First Apocalypse of James, also known from the Nag Hammadi Library; the first few pages of a work related to, but not the same as, the Nag Hammadi work Allogenes; and the Gospel of Judas. About a third of the codex is currently illegible. Since the other three texts were previously known, interest has focused on the last, the Gospel of Judas. This document is not claimed to have been written by Judas himself, but rather by Gnostic followers of Jesus.

After many vicissitudes, this intriguing manuscript came into the possession of the National Geographic Society, which sponsored a 2006 translation of the text (a translation that has proved defective in some respects). The Gospel is an esoteric account of an arrangement between Jesus and Judas, who in this telling are Gnostic enlightened beings, with Jesus asking Judas to turn him in to the Romans in order to allow Jesus finish his appointed task from God.

As has been noted, currently the text is extant in only one manuscript, a late-third or fourth-century Coptic compilation known as the Codex Tchacos, which surfaced in the 1970s, after languishing some sixteen centuries in the desert of Egypt. (Rumors that another version resides in the Vatican Library are unsubstantiated.) The existing manuscript has been dated "between the third and fourth century," according to Timothy Jull, a radiocarbon-dating expert at the University of Arizona's physics centre. That means, of course, that the present text was written some 250 years after the death of Jesus. It is generally assumed that it is the Coptic rendering of a Greek original, but there is no way of determining the date of that.

Some scholars detect a possible clue to the origin of the Greek original in a reference to a “Gospel of Judas” by the early Christian writer Irenaeus of Lyons, who, in arguing against Gnosticism about 180 CE, called the text a "fictitious history" (Refutation of Gnosticism, 1:31). Still, it is not certain that the text Irenaeus mentioned is in fact the same text as the Coptic “Gospel of Judas,” which in its present form must be at least a century later. Thus there remains no solid evidence for an early Greek prototype.

Unlike the four canonical gospels, which employ narrative accounts of the last year of life of Jesus (in the case of John, three years) and of his birth (in the case of Luke and Matthew), the Gospel of Judas takes the form of dialogues between Jesus and Judas, and Jesus and the twelve disciples, without embedding these in any narrative framework or working them into any overt philosophical or rhetorical context. Such "dialogue gospels" were popular during the early decades of Christianity, and indeed the four canonical gospels are the only surviving gospels in narrative form. The New Testament apocrypha contain several examples of the dialogue form, an example being the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Owing to poor treatment after its exhumation, today the manuscript is in over a thousand pieces, with many sections missing. For some passages, there are only scattered words; for others, many lines. According to Rodolphe Kasser, the codex originally contained 31 pages, with writing on front and back; when it came to the market in 1999, only 13 pages, with writing on front and back, remained. It is thought that individual pages had been removed and sold.

According to the canonical Gospels of the New Testament, Judas betrayed Jesus to Jerusalem's Temple authorities, who handed Jesus over to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate for crucifixion. The Gospel of Judas, on the other hand, portrays Judas in a very different light, for the newly recovered text seems to present Judas's act not as betrayal, but rather as an act of obedience to the instructions of Jesus. It seems that Jesus required a second agent to set in motion a course of events which he had planned. In that way Judas acted as a catalyst. The action of Judas, then, constituted a critical juncture, triggering a series of pre-orchestrated events.

This depiction seems to accord with a notion current in some forms of Gnosticism, that the human body is a kind of prison of the spirit. In this view Judas served Christ by helping to release Christ's spirit from its corporeal bondage. The action of Judas allowed him to do that which he could not do directly. The Gospel of Judas does not claim that the other disciples knew Gnostic teachings. In fact, the Gospel implies that Judas was the only one of Jesus’ followers to fully understand the Gnostic teachings: "Knowing that Judas was reflecting upon something that was exalted, Jesus said to him: Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve disciples may again come to completion with their God."

Moreover, the Gospel of Judas shows Jesus in various instances criticizing the other disciples for their ignorance and their followers of immorality.

When they tell Jesus about a vision, he points out its true meaning as follows: "Those you have seen receiving the offerings at the altar — that is who you are. That is the God you serve, and you are those twelve men you have seen. The cattle you saw brought for sacrifice are the many people you lead astray before that altar. (. . .) will stand and make use of my name in this way, and generations of the pious will remain loyal to Him."

The early conclusions stemming from the find have not gone unchallenged. April D. DeConick, a professor of Biblical studies at Rice University, has emerged as a major critic of the translation sponsored by the National Geographic. She maintains that this version is faulty in many substantial respects. Based on a corrected translation, Judas was actually a demon, truly betraying Jesus, rather than following his orders.

Having retranslating the text, DeConick published “The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says” to assert that Judas was not a daimon in the Greek sense, but that "the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon”, as she wrote in The New York Times, 1 December 2007. "Judas is not set apart 'for' the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says." Instead, DeConick asserted, "he is separated 'from' it." A negative that was dropped from a crucial sentence, an error National Geographic admits, changes the import.. "Were they genuine errors or was something more deliberate going on?" DeConick asked in the Op-Ed page of the Times.

DeConick has stated her views more fully in her monograph, "The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says" (London: Continuum, 2007 [1st ed.]; 2009 [rev. ed.]).

In the first edition of this book, DeConick challenged the idea that the Gospel of Judas presented the traditionally infamous disciple in a favorable light, as the scholars who published the edition sponsored by the National Geographic maintained. DeConick has concluded that the recently recovered gospel was, in fact, “an ancient Gnostic parody.” The publisher’s website quotes her as saying:

“I didn’t find the sublime Judas, at least not in Coptic. What I found were a series of English translation choices made by the National Geographic team, choices that permitted a different Judas to emerge in the English translation than in the Coptic original. Judas was not only not sublime, he was far more demonic than any Judas I know in any other piece of early Christian literature, Gnostic or otherwise.”

For the second edition, DeConick reports in a personal post:

“I revised this book substantially, including two new chapters - one on Judas and astrology (my paper from the Codex Judas Congress) and another on Judas and ancient magic (I cover the magic gem that I think is related to the ideology put forth in the Gospel of Judas). I also have a new preface, covering what has been happening with the Gospel of Judas since its initial release, and I added a section on Thomasine church in the chapter on early Christianity.”

In short, DeConick has clearly established herself as one of the leading proponents of the “Judas as villain” position. The matter is still disputed, but it is no longer possible simply to maintain the hero view--especially since it seems to be based in part on mistranslation and wishful thinking. Thus the purported heroization of Judas seems to have ground to a halt.

Another issue concerns salvation. The first commentators held that the Gospel of Judas teaches that access to the Kingdom will be widely available. Later consideration, however, shows that this boon will be accorded only to a select few.

Stung by these criticisms the National Geographic editors have seen fit to issue a second edition of their version. This text corrects some, but not all the errors.

In an insightful piece, “Betrayal,” just published in The New Yorker (August 3, 2007), Joan Acocella asks why this battered papyrus book should have generated so much excitement. She sees the interest as reflecting a concern about the persistence of evangelical and fundamentalist views. I would go somewhat further. For some time now a group of dissident Christian intellectuals, with Elaine Pagels at their head, has been seeking to construct a kind of Christianity II from the surviving body of material that did not make it into the New Testament. This new (or they would say old) version of Christianity would be tolerant, pluralistic, proerotic, and feminist (perhaps even progay).

A good example of this selectivity is the purported feminism of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. At the end of this text, however, it says that a woman must become a man in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Another instance comes from the Gospel of Judas itself, where Jesus denounces the priests of the Temple for the sins of murder and homosexuality (“lying with males").

In a nutshell, the problem with this hopeful project is that it is a modern fabrication, not a convincing reconstruction of a lost ancient faith. Granted that the orthodox view embodied in the now-canonical Christian scriptures is the result of a process of selection, why would a different selection enjoy any authority? There could be many such creations. The fact that the current amalgam is modern-friendly would seem to count against it, since one of the enduring characteristics of ancient documents is that they are, in many respects, profoundly alien from our own way of thinking.

My sense is that the Gospel of Judas has proved something of a dead end. Still, the figure of Judas continues to fascinate. As Acocella points out, one reason is that he became a focus for Christian anti-Semitism. Acocella also notes a new book by the feminist scholar Susan Gubar, which attempts to trace the evolution of the Judas figure in Western culture. Apparently, “Judas: A Biography” offers some interesting observations about works of art.

Not having read Gubar's book, I cannot say whether her survey includes the following scabrous episode from a late medieval Jewish work, the Toledot Jusu. According to this account, the miracle-working powers of Jesus derive from his having stolen the Name of God from the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus goes to Galilee, where he brings clay birds to life and makes a millstone float. Jesus is thus a sorcerer. Nefariously, Judas Iscariot learns the Divine Name as well, and so Jesus and Judas fly through the sky engaged in aerial combat. As the winner, Judas sodomizes Jesus, whereupon both fall to the ground. The now powerless Jesus is arrested and put to death by being hung upon a carob tree, and buried.

The past yields many curious relics. A passage from Gubar’s book reveals the far shores onto which this kind of speculation can lead, even in these latter days:

“A male Eve, Judas—rejecting or accepting, promoting or curtailing Jesus’ potency—inhabits a decidedly queer place in the Western imaginary. To the extent that Judas stands for the poser or passer—a person who is not what he seems to be—he reflects anxieties about all sorts of banned or ostracized groups, not just Jews. An apostle in an all-male circle, associated with anality and with the disclosure of secrets, Judas retains his masculinity. . . . At other times and in diverse contexts, though, Judas represents a range of quite various and variously stigmatized populations—criminals, heretics, foreigners, Africans, dissidents, the disabled, the suicidal, the insane, the incurably ill, the agnostic. Members of these groups, too, have been faulted for posing or passing as (alien) insiders. Potentially convertible, all such outcasts might be thought to be using camouflaging techniques to infiltrate, hide out, assimilate, and thereby turn a treacherous trick.”


Saturday, August 01, 2009

Queer Studies marches on

The following paragraphs announce the forthcoming International Queer Studies Conference.

“Queering Paradigms II
Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. April 7-9, 2010

“Following the success of the First International Queer Studies Conference, which was held in February 2009 at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK, The Faculty of Law, QUT, is proud to announce the 2010 conference, Queering Paradigms II. The aim of this conference is to examine the current state and future challenges in Queer Studies from a broad, trans-disciplinary and polythetic perspective.

“Participants will present papers and panels from the whole spectrum of academia. We invite speakers from disciplines as diverse as (and not confined to) Law, Linguistics, Sociology, Anthropology, Criminology, Cultural Studies and Creative Industries to embark on an exploration of Queer Issues and Themes. We adopt a holistic definition of ‘Queer’ along the lines of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's explanation in her essay “Queer and Now.”

“That's one of the things that 'queer' can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically.

“'Queerness' is therefore conceptualised as querying, contrasting, challenging, and transforming heteronormativity.”

The above statement succinctly characterizes two features of the Queer Studies project. The first is the Derridian idea of slippage (“gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses”). This emphasis on indeterminacy resonates throughout postmodernism. Note the scare word “monolithic.” “Holistic” is good, though. What’s the difference? (What, however, is "polythetic"? A new spelling of prosthetic? or merely pathetic?)

Then there is the more specific demon of heteronormativity, which must be (we are told) queried, contrasted, challenged, and transformed. Whatever happens, don’t let this evil critter get away! Incidentally, the relatively recent term “heteronormativity” encompasses and absorbs the older labels of “sexism” and “homophobia.”

Omitted from this enumeration are some of the problems Queer Theory poses. These include the obsession with the writings and ideas of Michel Foucault, whose sententious deliverances are fortified with a sprinkling of borrowings from other French theorists. The excessive reliance on Foucault and his epigones recalls the recent vogue of Freud and Marx. Younger people, it seems, have a recurrent need to worship at the shrine of some Universal Guru, whose writings purportedly contain the answers to all out problems.

At its best, the French tradition cultivated the virtue of "clear and distinct ideas." (Descartes). Beginning with Sartrean existentialism, a repackaging of the oracular work of Martin Heidegger (who is hardly ever clear), the leading French intellectuals jettisoned the venerable ideal of their civilization. Now their folly has penetrated the Anglo-Saxon world. I speak as a disappointed Francophile--one who still reveres the French classics, which still offer an incomparable refuge from Foucault and his misguided followers.

The writers of the proposal do not acknowledge their colleagues' pervasive addiction to jargon, whereby rather commonplace ideas are endowed with an air of profundity and mystery. A few pages of the appalling Judith Butler will suffice to demonstrate the truth of this observation.

This linguistic self-indulgence bonds with the weakness that must ultimately doom the project: that is, that its typically weasel wordings are designed to elude any outside scrutiny. Typically, the Queerist statements flout the criterion of refutability. What if this or that pronouncement of a particular Queer Theorist were simply not so? There is no allowance for that possibility; it is simply excluded on principle, for "anything goes."

Such insouciance is ironic, given the way in which Queer Theorists claim to embrace querying and challenge. Standing over against what they regard as the conventional wisdom, the QTrs seek to immunize themselves from that necessary process of Popperian scrutiny. In their own eyes, of course, they are the very essence of transgressiveness. Nothing is sacred--except of course for the that mountebank Michel Foucault. This evasiveness (dare one call it slippage?) is not a sign of a healthy and productive intellectual enterprise.

In the meantime, Queer Studies and Queer Theory are surging on. (Is it, as a friend remarked, worse than HIV/AIDS? Well, not really--it just seems that way sometimes.)

It is interesting that the first international congress was held in Britain, while the second is to be staged in Australia. Having begun in the US, Queer Theory is now spreading its tentacles across the globe. At least up to a point. In his excellent recent book “Hererosexual Africa?,” Marc Epprecht observes that with respect to Africa, Queer Theory mainly appeals to outside investigators, together with some whites who reside on the continent, particularly in South Africa. However, its obscurities hinder communicating with the gay and lesbian people who belong to the black majority. They just find it incomprehensible. So should we all.