Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Work in progress: brief status report

Usually the work distracting me from this blog is just pen-on-paper writing in the notebook. But these days I have a specific project which I decided I could post some brief notes on.

I take my text from Aristides Quintilianus, a neoplatonic philosopher whose On Music in three books is one of the very few complete musicological treatises to have reached us from antiquity. In the passage in question (Book III sec. 8), Aristides has just gone over a litany of instances from history, politics, medicine, and other fields, in which mathematical proportions play a prominent role. Then he moves to the crux of the matter:
τὸ δὴ ταῦτα μὲν οὕτως ἐναργῶς δι´ ἀριθμῶν καὶ μεσοτήτων συνεστάναι, μουσικὴν δὲ μὴ ἂν ὑπονοεῖν παντελῶς ἀμαθοῦς καὶ ἀμούσου τὴν φύσιν ἐστίν.

"To have organized these things so palpably through numbers and means but not music, is to suspect nature of being wholly ignorant and unrefined." (tr. Thomas Mathiessen)
Mathiessen's translation is not without its problems, which is (let scholars and/or pedants please note) one of the points to be addressed. But the main issue here is more global by far. I can think of no more succinct summation of the difference between the ancients and the moderns than this, that in the modern world (pace Latour) we do indeed imagine things to be organized palpably through number and mean, but not through music. And we do, eo ipso, suspect (and far more than suspect) nature of being "ignorant and unrefined." (Dawkins' anti-Paleyan "Blind watchmaker" is in fact a fairly weak trope for this, for nature is, on Dawkins' assumptions, not merely blind, plan-less, and indeed fundamentally incapable of either vision or plan, to make a watch or anything else.)

Aristides goes on to lay out further analogies between music and the cosmos as a whole, which culminate (in Book III sec. 26) in a parallelism between certain melodic modes (on the one hand) and (on the other) his Stoic-inflected distinction between the sublunary world, where chance (and by the same token, freedom) has a foothold, and the higher heavens where necessity reigns supreme. These exemplify, for Aristides, two sorts of time, and especially two sorts of future: a future that is in some wise "up to us," and one that is inflexible and inevitable. These Aristides calls (in Mathiessen's rendering) what may be and what will be, and respectively they concern what is, he says, either contingent in part or contingent in general.

These last terms caught my attention, for Meillassoux characterizes necessity in exactly the same way: what is necessary is, in the last instance (to appropriate a Laruellism), simply that something contingent be. So one can (somewhat surprisingly) read a Meillassouxian account of hyperchaos through the lens of the Ptolemaic cosmology, and vice-versa; but the hinge of this is the analogy between "two kinds of future" on the one hand, and Aristides' musical modes. Of course, all kinds of things get weirdly transformed in this set of inversions, especially the distinction between the sub- and super-lunary spheres and the supposed decisiveness of the "Gallilean event" which abolished, we are told, this partition.

It's important to recognize that in Aristides, the comparison of the musical figure to either of the two sorts of future is not metaphorical; rather, the relevant aural musical figure is of two sorts because there are two sorts of future.

One issue, then, is: On Meillassoux's terms, in the last instance, Contingency cannot be opposed to Necessity; "Contingency in general" simply is Necessity. In Aristides, the opposition is between the "What will be" and the "What may be," but this latter is also the realm of agential perogative; thus in an Aristidean key, the oppositional term turns out to be Freedom. But this opposition in turn is bound up with a wholly different casting of the mathematical and its relation to both necessity and contingency -- in which, finally, the mathematical is a species of music, rather than vice-versa. It then turns out to be quite telling that Meillassoux's account (in "Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition") of mathematics as grounded in the "meaningless sign" hinges on the possibility of "iteration" which Meillassoux expressly contrasts with Bergson's account of the musical tone, and in particular to the musical tone's accute sensitivity to temporal meaning.

Not sure how much room there will be to lay all this out and expand upon it in the final paper, but these are the initial terms.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Some stray notes on Meillassoux

Am pouring a lot of energy into other writing projects, and I've been neglecting the blog. But I thought I would post briefly about the reading group a few friends and I have been convening studying Meillassoux's After Finitude. First of all (although I am unsure whether everyone in the group would agree with me), I think this is an extremely good book for getting a philosophy mini-seminar off the ground. Unlike a number of other short works that one might choose for a summer philosophy reading group (say, Descartes' Meditations, Kant's Prolegomena, or some of Plato's dialogues), it is less likely that people have accidentally absorbed prejudical second-hand impressions of it. It opens up many possible further directions of study should people decide to go further, either into the tradition (Hume, Kant, Locke...), or into various problematics (the relation of philosophy to science or to religion, the formulation of laws of nature, the meaning of "know", the nature of time and chance, and so on). It largely evades easy pigeon-holing in terms of the over-arching "traditions" of the last century or so (i.e. "Analytical" and "Continental") -- important in our case, since the reading group is diverse, albeit small. It's been a good mix: some of us were completely new to the book, and some of us have read it before (even more than once). Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a work of real philosophy, repaying repeated attention. In short, I do not think the importance of After Finitude has been exaggerated during its honeymoon with the Speculative Realist movement.

A few insights (I think) which I have come away with so far (and apologies for not attributing all these insights by name to the various members of the reading group):

Like many readers, I've thought before that the whole problematic in the first chapter about Ancestrality is something of a red herring; to put it more positively, I concluded that it's the way Meillassoux thinks his way into the general critique of correlationism -- the way he initially presses home its urgency -- and I had begun to guess that it was probably the biographical source of the critique for Meillassoux himself: the way the question had, in fact, arisen for him, and so the way he chose to present it; but perhaps it was not, structurally speaking, really the most crucial aspect of the argument. During re-reading, I have begun to modify this conclusion. The question of the status of ancestral claims recurs frequently in numerous places in the book; it is clearly not just a matter of setting the stage. This obviously has much to do with Meillassoux's concern over time, as opposed to space. While Meillassoux's avowed goal is to justify the ways of scientism to men, I begin to wonder just how effectively he can think the diastema, or interval, as such. This has something to do with relativity and quantum mechanics, but because these are scientific accounts, they can assign a scientific meaning to "observer-dependence," which is not the same as the correlationist position; but exactly how it differs needs spelling out. More generally, however -- and I know I am not the first to say this -- the temporal diastema of the past which so occupies Meillassoux (the problem of events which pre-date the advent of life) is not inherently different from other "gaps" in our capacity to observe, based on scale, or happenstance, or (most obviously) space -- or even, as for Brassier, the future (post-extinction of thought). Of course one can read the argument about the temporal diastema as simply structural -- it just shows up a problem for correlationism, which then must be addressed -- but one can also see it as a symptom of something about Meillassoux's own thought -- namely, that time is deeply bound up with hyperchaos, because time = change.

Second (and this is purely anecdotal and unscientific), my experience has thus far been that, while continental philosophers (especially Heideggerians but phenomenologists generally) are often quite willing to see Meillassoux's point and tend to be interested in how to press beyond (while not necessarily granting him everything), Analytic philosophers prove far more recalcitrant. I mention this not because I want to score points here, but because it is almost exactly the opposite of what I expected. I would have presumed the Analytic camp to be far more invested in the claims and grammar of science, and phenomenologists to be far more invested in the maintenance of the correlation. I'm not yet sure that my impression is accurate, and if so, what it means. Its meaning (if any) may of course be purely "sociological," or it may be an index of a deeper logic to the positions concerned. I am very interested in others' experience and impressions about this.

A third point concerns the two principles of thinking with which Meillassoux is concerned in the middle part of the book: Sufficient Reason, and Non-contradiction. Meillassoux spells out a combinatoric which can be depicted in the form of a diagram of four philosophical possibilities (though Meillassoux himself does not sketch such a chart):

The one who is usually credited with first laying out these principles (though not, obviously, all these permutations) is not Kant, but Leibniz. While Kant is usually cast as the thinker to whom the critique of correlationism is responding, there may be a strong case for reopening the Kant-Eberhard controversy and pointing to Leibniz as the ancestor of the broader algebra whose permutations modernity has been playing out for 300-ish years. Eberhard contended that whatever was of import in the Critique of Pure Reason was already to be found in Leibniz, and that Kantianism amounted only to a special form of dogmatism; Kant, as one might expect, took some umbrage at this, and the ensuing argument forms an interesting chapter in the history of the reception of Kantianism. (See Allison's book on the subject -- pdf here (for now).) Why should we care about this? Because if the Kantian account only repeats, perhaps in a different key, notions already sounded, then the thematization of the relation between thinking and reality gets a much more venerable pedigree*. (I have argued before that it really goes back to Parmenides). Meillassoux indeed in one sense recognizes this, since he conceives of the Gallilean-Copernican revolution as a revolution, and Kantianism as reactionary.

Note that, in the chart, correlationism is the position which ultimately suspends both principles; but elsewhere (p 63), Meillassoux argues that correlationism in fact remains deeply committed to Sufficient Reason. Indeed, this is, he says, why correlationism winds up legitimating fideism, "faith as such", albeit no particular faith. This makes for a very interesting mirror-image to his account whereby philosophy invents "strange" argumentations "bordering on sophistry" (p 76).

Meillassoux's contention that the defense of Sufficient Reason ultimately amounts to a defense of fideism is of course anticipated by Chesterton, who famously quipped that when one stops believing in God, one is on the brink of believing in anything. Zizek likes to think that this means claiming God as a kind of "founding exception," an irrational omphalos from which all rationality springs; but of course Zizek also maintains that the "founding exception" is simply the ontological rupture of subjectivity. Neither of those are acceptable to Meillassoux (he will, I presume, see the one as dogmatism, the other as idealism). But for Meillassoux, correlationism has pressed SR so far that it has become an unknowable "reason", unknowable in principle. A Chestertonian faith, on the other hand, is grounded in a Thomistic and Patristic expectation of knowability, and indeed of reciprocal knowability: "Then we shall know even as we are known." (I Corinthians, 13;12). One can argue that this is nothing but a McGuffin-in-the-future, or that the ontology of contingency Meillassoux has set up can still outflank it; but one can't, I think, argue that it involves an inherent in-principle agnosticism.

* Robert Miner has argued (in Truth in the Making) that this is to be found in the teaching of Vico that the true and the made are convertible (vreum et factum convertuntur), and indeed describes his position as holding that "knowing is most adequately described in relation to making. It is not bewitched by the fear that human making is inevitably arbitrary." And this has a corollary in the way Kant established the limits of reason "to make room for faith." For this too is a more ancient task.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"...given that I believe in secrecy..."

Have been thinking a bit about Deleuze and considering the ways in which he is to be read as a practicioner of esotericism. I believe this can be glimpsed in at least two ways. One is the pride of place he gives to the "Christ of philosophy," Spinoza. Indeed this way of talking about Spinoza is already quite divergent from the way that the academicians do (but then, so is the way he talks about magma or blood or Kafka). Of course the great champion of the "esotericist" reading of Spinoza is Leo Strauss. At first i was inclined to doubt that this was influenced by Strauss at all, I'm beginning to reconsider -- Deleuze was profoundly sensitive to all sorts of "minority reports" among his contemporaries (he is one of the only philosophers to mention Souriau at all). I don't know of any evidence that he read Strauss, but I am not a Deleuze scholar. In any case, someone really should do a book on Strauss and Deleuze vis-a-vis Spinoza.

Deleuze is very attentive to how carefully Spinoza plays his cards. Consider, e.g., his remarks in a lecture:
Spinoza didn't entitle his book "Ontology," he's too shrewd for that, he entitles it Ethics. Which is a way of saying that, whatever the importance of my speculative propositions may be, you can only judge them at the level of the ethics that they envelope or imply.
Of course, none of this means that Deleuze's reading of Spinoza's esotericism is correct -- simply that he was aware of it.

The second thread in an esotericist reading of Deleuze is the fact that he seems to draw, from beginning to end, upon an underground stream of expressly "esoteric" work. This is not just the fear-of-persecution esotericism (as in Strauss), but philosophy as initiation. This material has begun to be unpacked by Christian Kerslake (see his two books on Deleuze, or chapter 9 of this collection on Deleuze's precursors), and by Joshua Ramey (The Hermetic Deleuze). This work seems to me somewhat similar to Verene's reading of the Phenomenology of Spirit in Hegel's Recollection or Cyril O'Regan's enormous project (who also follows Voegelin -- albeit somewhat critically, refining the point). (His book on Hegel here.) This work by Kerslake and Ramey is some of the only secondary material I have read so far which has both deepened my understanding of Deleuze and helped me think about philosophy per se. (There is a very fine set of exchanges (here, in reverse chronological order) about Ramey's book at An Und Fur Sich, for starters; see also, for a dissenting view, Adrian Romero Farias' post at schizosophy, which, among other objections, takes exception to some Derridiean moves at the outset of Ramey's reading.)

There are a number of places in Deleuze's work where this esotericism seems to me to be expressly referenced. Deleuze and Guattari seem to make a revelatory gesture in What is Philosophy?, when they act as if here they will say outright what has been hitherto between the lines. But as lucid as this book is, I think it is fair to say it reveals by re-veiling. In the essay on Meliville's "Bartleby," Deleuze plays on the Melvilliean-Borgesian notion that "a great book is always the inverse of another book that could only be written in the soul, with silence and blood."* In his "Letter to a Harsh Critic" Deleuze also announces his deployment of decoys and misleading appearances, but this does not have the effect of showing his hand, only of showing that he is hiding it:
What do you know of me, given that I believe in secrecy, that is, in the power of falsity, rather than in representing things in a way that manifests a lamentable faith in accuracy and truth? ...I make my inner journeys that I can only measure by my emotions, and express very obliquely and circuitously in what I write. ... why shouldn't I invent some way, however fantastic and contrived, of talking about something, without someone having to ask whether I'm qualified to talk like that? (Negotiations, p 11)
Probably second only to Spinoza in Deleuze's pantheon is Nietzsche (who of course was startled by discovering his own precursor -- "And what a precursor!", he exclaimed -- in Spinoza). One pretty easily recognizes a Nietzschean energy ("why not, after all, untruth?") in this outburst of Deleuze's. And since Nietzsche's great (if not always remarked) antagonist is Socrates, who insisted that Protagoras or Ion had no business speaking of military leadership or ship-building or medicine since they had no expertise, one can see here too Deleuze's inversion of the Platonic project. But if, as I contend, there is always at least as much going on in Plato between the lines as there is in the overt argument, this inversion, too, might be misleading.

A great deal has been made of Deleuze's refusal of the general or universal concept of "Life," in preference of his famous insistence on the Zukofskyan indefinite article: "a life." But what if the relation between Life and a life were itself a matter of secrecy?

* C.f. Melville, Pierre, or, the Ambiguities, ch.4:
That which now absorbs the time and the life of Pierre, is not the book, but the primitive elementalizing of the strange stuff, which in the act of attempting that book, have upheaved and upgushed in his soul. Two books are being writ; of which the world shall only see one, and that the bungled one. The larger book, and the infinitely better, is for Pierre’s own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink. But circumstances have so decreed, that the one can not be composed on the paper, but only as the other is writ down in his soul.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


I have a few thoughts on the question of essentialism in Plato, pursuant to the discussion in the comments to my last post. They take the form of a very small argumentative knot. Because it is brief, it risks seeming glib. I do not believe it is some kind of magic bullet or gotcha. I do believe it is true to the spirit of Plato.

Alf argues that the Socratic opening moves by which he asks for a definition of X (piety, friendship, justice, imitation, love, etc) entails what he calls "essentialism." I think that this means, for Alf, that asking after definitions the way Plato shows Socrates doing it (i.e., trying out one after another, running with each until one bumps into a contradiction, then starting over, examining premises and so on), entails reifying the object of the word in question, so that there is imagined, or projected, a kind of perfect friendship (for example) that somehow in principle pre-exists all instances of actual friends Most classically, the Republic's account of art imitating an imitation courts disaster, Alf thinks:
The theory of mimesis -- in its *grammar*, not just its particular application or vocabulary -- can be a royal road to fascistic thinking because it privileges a hypostasized "one" over the many -- a rigid blueprint for what "qualifies" and what is marginalized, a logic of domination: origin/imitation or "authentic/perverse." Such thinking comes out in religion as "God's Plan," in science as "Natural Law" or "Evolution," in politics as "National Security," or many other versions of the "Big Other" that see multiplicity as threatening to "the plan."
Now I frankly deny that the Republic presents us with anything like "Plato's ontology," but Alf contends that I am, in this, "too eager to pull Plato off the hook for the implications of essentialism and its accompanying theory of representation (and of being)," the implications being the afore-quoted "logic of domination." It is also true that I don't see these effects themselves following from the Socratic example with anything approaching rigorous necessity, and I believe the onus is upon those who do to demonstrate the necessity. If the case made is that it is consistent with Plato or (empirically, historically) correlates with apparent Platonic influence, that is fine, but one has not thereby demonstrated that these pernicious effects (we are stipulating the perniciousness, for the sake of argument) are Platonic. I, on the other hand, am arguing that the "logic of domination" is not Platonic; that it cannot non-tendenciously be applied to Plato; that in the dialogues, it is not accidental that for every quest for definition at the beginning there is aporia at the end; and that a crucial fact about all those "footnotes to Plato" for the last twenty-four hundred years is that this aporia tends to be lost in them while the definition-search is not. In brief, just as Kojève argued, more or less, that the political destiny of the West depended upon competing readings of Hegel, I believe that the "essentialism" of these abuses-of-power Alf lists -- and, hence, much of the political history of the West -- constitutes a mis-reading of Plato.

All of that by way of preamble. Now for the knot. Either the search for a definition, for a "what do you mean by that word you keep using," can be "worn lightly," or it cannot. Either it "in its grammar" gives rise to an imagined blueprint-in-the-sky, or it does not. In short, either it is of the "essence" of the definition-quest, or it is not. If it is, then it is; but this will be seen to be so because we have established, precisely, an essence of the definition; and so, discovering that essentializing is apparently inevitable, we will be in no position to fault Socrates for it. On the other hand, if our own critique here has not named any eternal necessity, no "definition-in-itself," well and good, but we can then not establish that Socrates also is not involved in this "looser" quest.

"Oh boy," I can hear the objections beginning. "Yeah, sure. What you're saying is, Yes, it's true and tragic that Plato, or Christianity, or Marxism, had all these sad accidental effects, but that isn't their fault! Don't blame them for the failures of their followers (or those who say they are their followers)! That wasn't "true platonism," or "real christianity," or whatever. All the anti-semitism was just the sin of the church, not the church. The gulag, that ain't Communism, that's "just" Stalinism. All that two-world schizophrenia is just an accident, a misunderstanding -- not "the real Plato" -- not the essence of Plato, huh? That what you're saying?"

Ah, special pleading. I am mindful, however, that many arguments in Plato as well seem, on the face of them, to be open to just such obvious objections. I'm also mindful of the fact that, when it comes down to it, it is not the exegesis of Plato that matters. In light of this, I am very tempted, in spite of every risk, to answer the question "is that what you're saying?" with "In essence, yes. But -- loosely."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

In Memoriam Ernest G. McClain

One of the spiritual antediluvians of the past century, Ernest McClain, has died. Beginning in the 1970s, starting with three extraordinarily dense books and continuing in a stream of essays and correspondence that lasted until the day of his death, McClain propounded a thesis, notable equally for its profundity and its simplicity, which read the archaic mythico-speculative inheritance of the West "from the Rg Veda to Plato" and beyond, as a musical cosmology. His work never gained anything like mainstream recognition (a fact which in later years he occasionally noted with bemused resignation), but for a small cadre of researchers, McClain is (as Joscelyn Godwin called him), "one of the most original and ingenious researchers of our time."

Each of McClain's books -- The Myth of Invariance, The Pythagorean Plato, and Meditations through the Quran -- is a set of closely-argued excurses through a body of literature as if through an underground mine, looking for the telltale glint of something sparkling in the walls. That sparkle is number, and McClain demonstrated over and over that numbers are not scattered randomly throughout ancient texts. There is a preponderance of multiples of very low primes -- notably 2, 3, and 5; and very often, when a number that cannot be so reduced does occur (say, 37), looking to the context with the small primes in mind will yield a plausible rationale. The books have been noted for the density of their presentation. ("Obscure," "hard to understand," "inaccessible," are terms that come up in the (positive!) reviews on Amazon).This is only partly due to their mathematics. It is more that, once McClain has a numerical trope established, he frequently runs with it, employing it just as the ancients (he held) did: as an extremely abbreviated figure of thought, which could be adapted to many different situations. And yet, he insisted repeatedly, the mathematics involved was itself not difficult. "A child can learn it," he claimed, and he implied moreover that in the era of the pocket calculator, no one, not even the math-averse, had any excuse. (All three of McClain's books are available in pdf from his website, www.ernestmcclain.net , as well as numerous essays. The shortest, most accessible, and least tendentious introduction to McClain's basic insights, however, may be the third chapter of Jay Kappraff's excellent popular mathematics book Beyond Measure.)

McClain's work altered the whole apparent shape of the Platonic dialogues for me. For years I had known (ever since reading Voegelin) that I did not know how to read Plato. The stupid caricature of the body-denier, the philosopher who invented "another world" since "this" one was so changeable and disappointing (and, let's not forget, who "banished the poets"!), had always rang false -- a whipping-philosopher dragged out whenever we needed to blame someone for "essentialism." This was very big in the early '90s. There was obviously a tremendous amount going on between the lines in Plato that was going right over my head. No doubt much of this was due to the fact that it was written in 2,300-year-old Greek. And yet, Plato was so obviously concerned to transcend the particular, to reach beyond the limitations of a given setting -- not to deny them, but to refuse to be ruled by them. So where was the way in?

The Pythagorean Plato pointed out that the way in was right where we had always known it was. The door to the Academy famously had on its welcome mat the phrase, Some Geometry Required (loosely translated). "Platonism" was, as Badiou never tires of reminding us, defined by its coupling to the mathematical truth-condition. But the actual mathematics that occurs in the dialogues is very frequently ignored by commentators. (One stark example of this is found in the 1947 translation of the Republic by F.M. Cornford, in which Cornford permitted himself to omit entirely Plato's "extremely obscure" account (at 8.546b) of the so-called ruling or nuptial number, and also to "simplify" the text (at 9.587b) concerning the number of the Tyrant. But even when scholars do not give themselves such free rein, they very often let the mathematics pass by without much comment.)

McClain himself did find the clues in some commentary, including some very old commentary -- above all, Albert von Thimus, to whom he was pointed by his colleagues Ernst Levy and Siegmund Levarie; but also James Adam, Thomas Taylor, Plutarch, Proclus, Aristotle. Really, though, we might have guessed, for it is obvious once you think of it: Plato's mathematics is musical -- not accidentally, but essentially so. McClain understood the stakes of this interpretation as reaching far beyond the exegetical:
From Philolaus in the fifth century BC, through Plato and Aristoxenus in the fourth, and down to Ptolemy in the second century AD and Aristides in the third or fourth, Greek acoustical theorists moved confidently between two modes of expression: the absolutely precise and the conveniently approximate. ... There is an urgent need for a review of all these ancient materials, not simply for their intrinsic interest to musicians and historians of science, but for their wider relevance to the philosophical foundations of Western culture.
Indeed, (though this is perhaps not quite so obvious), this tradition is itself part of a great tradition of musico-mythical cosmology, which McClain worked very hard to unpack, stretching back to the Vedas (and likely before) and forward as late as the Quran. The most obvious "fossil record" of this tradition is the recurrence not just of very specific numbers -- numbers which are usually multiples only of very small primes (mostly not higher than 7) -- in cosmological and visionary contexts, but of various sets of numbers which can be seen to "go together" in a way that indicates that writers knew the provenance of the numbers, or at least that certain numbers called for certain other numbers, even when the surface meaning of the text has nothing overly to do with music -- aside from, say, the mention of a number of harpists or trumpeters attending the celestial court.

All throughout a largely misunderstood (when not ignored) career of four decades, McClain never tired of insisting upon the tremendous import of this project. He himself declined to write philosophy in any but the most occasional or offhand modes -- he was unpacking a prelude to philosophy, he said. It was, I came to see, not just that the numbers were a sort of scaffolding for a widely various but shared cultural background. The numbers were symptomatic of something else. They were features of a whole way of looking at the world -- not an artificially schematized worldview parsed out in multiples of 2, 3, and 5, but a world in which the "metaphor" of cosmic harmony came perfectly naturally, and indeed was no metaphor. (Indeed, the phrase "cosmic harmony" may make us cringe in reaction to Newagey overtones, but did no such thing for the ancients).

In saying this much, I've already gone beyond what McClain himself explicitly argued. He restricted himself to a rigorously empirical program. His numbers were all there on the surface of the text itself, or in a very few cases, easily derivable from those that were. No one ever disputed this. It was the rationale he deduced that earned him occasional rebuke and eventually either polite disregard or largely misapprehending fandom. Early on, Gilbert Ryle set the tone. "Plato would never," he informed McClain, "have planted all that musicology for you to find." To which one rejoinder must surely be, well then, how do you account for the numbers, the very specific numbers, in (for example) Plato's texts? The Tyrant is held, in the Republic, to be exactly 729 times less fortunate than the good ruler. Not "about 700," not 730. There are exactly thirty-seven guardians of the city Magnesia in the Laws, a city which Plato repeatedly insists will be composed of 5,040 citizens.

McClain's conclusion was not that Plato really "supposed that the well-being of the city depended almost as much on the number 5040 as on justice and moderation," (as Jowett remarks). Nor did he believe, as Ryle feared, that Plato had played a kind of nudge-wink game of find-the-tuning-theory with his readers for the fun of a few initiates. It was, rather, that his exposition of justice and moderation found a completely natural expression in terms that privileged this musical and numerical grammar, and did not find it distracting. Far from being some private diversion on the part of Plato, it was an inherited vocabulary shared across a wide spectrum of wisdom texts descending from a common tradition, which lasted in oral culture even until the early strata of the Quranic tradition.

Even among his disciples, there has been significant breadth of opinion about the nature of the nature of the importance of McClain's work, and much of this variation is occasioned by this wide-net approach which drew in a vast range of background, beginning with the Rg Veda (on which his friend Antonio de Nicholas had written a book, Four Dimensional Man, whose importance for his own work-- and for his serious students -- McClain frequently emphasized). Some readers seized upon McClain as grist for anti-modern contentions, trying to recover an ostensibly lost tradition capable of producing something like "real magic." Some imagined that McClain's numbers would provide something like the resonant frequencies of the soul, a means for opening the crown chakra by just the right solfeggio. Others were intrigued enough by the musical ramifications to build instruments aligned to various tunings derived from McClain's work. And some were content to multiply contexts in which McClain's tonal harmonics could be plausibly applied, but without raising larger questions as to why.

My own interpretation is, no doubt, no less idiosyncratic. Tuning a musical instrument is a continual practical exercise in letting good enough be good enough, in making one adjustment here and then a counter-adjustment there. The great paradox is that this became the flowering seedbed of an effort to understand the whole. Because there are incommensurables built into the theory, the theory becomes a self-referential exercise in showing how theory itself fails to account for the whole, but in a way that weirdly manages to show the whole as needing no accounting. Approximation and precision become the warp and woof of cosmology and indeed of ascesis. (And, I will add, Plato is especially significant in this account because he comes at an historical moment when, under the inexorable influence of writing, the complete naturalness of this way of thinking is no longer so evident, but has become itself a problem.)

McClain kept a respectful engagement with all contacts and the disclaimers of all interpretations, never disdaining them, often profiting from their suggestions while insisting that what he was talking about was not "secret" and never had been, in the esoteric sense; it was all out on the surface of the texts; you just had to learn to think like the authors. He had warm and deep correspondence with giants like John Bremer and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and with young and eager readers who had discovered his books or his website on their own and sometimes had no credentials aside from being intellectually alive and not risk-averse. In the last two decades of his life he carried on an almost daily exchange via email with Duane Christensen's BIBAL forum and many other colleagues and friends, throwing out variations on the book of Ezekiel one day, a Sufi poem the next, always ready to make mistakes in public, and insisting both that no one believe him "until you must," and that whatever your own work was, you did it "your way". These relationships have borne fruit in recent years in the form of several books by others which draw on McClain's work, including Christensen's Anchor Bible translation and commentary of the Prophet Nahum, and a presentation of an overview of his work at the prestigious annual ICONEA symposium. (See too, among others, Schatz's work in the context of the Jewish Kabbalah here and here; Kurtz and Driscoll's reading of the Atlantis legend here; and, for those who want to jump right in, Heath's extremely useful website here.) McClain was invigorated by this late-blooming attention, whether marginal or mainstream. I think it helped fuel the optimism with which he continued to believe that a breakthrough insight could easily surprise him and force revision of everything he'd written. I've never known anyone with more intellectual gumption.

For me he was an invaluable (and now keenly missed) friend and mentor, a never-flagging enthusiast of "adventures in ideas" (a Whiteheadian phrase he loved), who took with great seriousness the ancients' love of play and their easy-shifting referents. I slowly came to see that he had indeed learned to think like them. The density of his books is a function of the extreme compression with which he was accustomed to think, the way he could pack whole clusters of "contradictory meaning" into root-metaphors. To the outsider this is bewildering, and looks like either eye-glazing calculus or word salad. But after spending enough time with him, one came to see that the details, while ready to open up if you did the work (which in every case turned out to be almost as easy as he promised), were actually part of the "precision" that took its accustomed place within approximation's relaxed mode. In short, McClain taught me that the law was always already included within grace.

To that wider grace he has now gone. Memory Eternal.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

ɸ among the integers

The series of integers is an ordered series, whose properties may strike one as trivial. For instance, any given element [n] of the series occurs once and only once, and in a specifiable location, i.e., the nth place. Thus, e.g., 5 occurs only in the 5th place and nowhere else in the series of integers. These characteristics practically constitute a definition of the series of integers. Listed off in a series, each of the integers has two immediate neighbors, N+1 and N-1. But what if we imagine each integer N having precisely N “neighbors”?

To determine this, we’ll sketch the first few stages of a process by which the integers are imagined as “generated” out of each other. This thought-experiment is based on John Conway’s in On Numbers and Games and on Donald Knuth’s exposition of Conway’s notions, in which numbers are imagined as being born discretely, one at a time. Conway’s constructions take us very quickly to the infinitieth step and well beyond. We, however, will stay well within the finite. We are after a different phenomenon.

The integers will generate each other by a specific mechanism. Each element [N] of the series is entitled to have precisely N “links” to other elements of the series. We will see that this produces an interesting pattern.

In the graphics below, the colors here are not indicative of any absolute differences. The element [N] whose "turn" it is will be shown in gold. Each new element will in turn link to other elements, generating new elements as necessary until it has the number of connections specified for it by the rule that it have precisely N such connections.

When an element first is generated, it will be shown linked in red to the element that has generated it. Pre-existing links between an element [N] whose turn it is and other elements -- that is links which come into being before a given turn -- will be shown in green. (This means that green links will always be to elements less than N.) New links to pre-existing elements will be shown in blue. New links to new elements, i.e., "generating" links, will be in red, as mentioned. Blue and red links will therefore be to elements greater than N. (Any links to an element whose turn is not current will be in black.)

We begin with element [1].

This first element [1] needs to be connected to precisely one other element. We will establish these connections in order; so the first element [1] now “generates” a second element [2]. This generation (shown in red) also suffices as the “link” between [1] and [2].

This second element [2], in turn, needs to be connected to two other elements of the series (two, precisely because it is the second element). One connection already exists (shown in green) – its connection with [1]. It therefore generates a further element of the series, element [3], and is thus linked to both [1] and [3].

“The Tao produced One; one produced Two; Two produced Three. And three produced the Ten Thousand Things,” says the Tao Te Ching (ch. 42). And if we read “the ten thousand things” as “more than one,” this is what happens.

[3], as the third element of the series, requires connections to three other elements. It is already linked to [2] (shown in green), but it needs two more links. It cannot link to [1] (because [1] already has the single connection which exhausts its quota). So [3] generates, and is thereby linked with, [4] and [5].

[4] in turn requires four connections. One exists already, to [3]. It cannot link to [1], nor can it link to [2], because [2] already has two connections, but it can link to [5], which is does forthwith. (In the graphic, a new link to a pre-existing element is shown in blue.) That makes two links. To get it to its requisite four, [4] then generates [6] and [7].

By now you are probably starting to see how things work. We cannot skip on to [6] or [7] yet – it is not their turn. Before we get to them, we must see to [5].

[5] already has two (green) links – to [3] and to [4]. It needs three more. [6] and [7] are both available, so [5] links (in blue this time, because these elements are already there) to [6] and to [7], and then, to finish off its fifth link to which it is entitled, it generates (in red) a new element, [8].

Now we may proceed with [6]. [6] has pre-existing links to [4] and [5]. It forges two new links, to [7] and to [8] respectively, and then generates elements [9] and [10].

[7] has links to [4], [5], and [6]. It makes links to [8], [9] and [10] and then generates a new link to [11].

[8] has pre-existing links to [5], [6], and [7]. It establishes links to [9], [10], and [11] and then makes new links to [12] and to [13].

You have almost certainly glimpsed something in the graphics by now. Whenever an element generates a new element (the ones in red here) (as opposed to linking to an element that has already been generated), it generates either one or two of them. In our graphics, these are always put to the right of the “parent” element whose turn it is. These pile up, until the turn moves back down to the bottom of the next stack, and the piling-up starts over. This process always leaves a top element in any given pile, and those numbers probably look familiar. [1], [2], [3], [5], [8], [13]. . . that’s right, you in front waving your hand! It is indeed the Fibonacci series. Very good.

The Fibonacci series, as you know, generates each next term by summing the two previous terms. So (3+2)=5, (5+3)=8, (8+5)=13, and so on. The ratio between any two adjacent terms converges, as the series goes on, upon the golden ratio, that splendid number also known by the letter phi, ɸ, the ratio defined by (a+b)/a = a/b, whose decimal expression is 1.618033988. . ., and which is also expressible as (1+√5)/2, the value of the lovely continued fraction 1 + (1/(1+(1/(1+(1/1+…)))), and any number of other nifty tricks.

I have in fact traced our linked-integer series a few steps further, just for fun, but as you can imagine, the graph gets pretty tangled and hard to follow after this stage. However, the Fibonacci pattern remains for as far as I followed, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t. I presume it is a trivial implication of the mathematics involved, and that this way of deriving the series is well-known in relevant circles. I don’t move or read in those circles; all I can report is that in those popular-mathematics accounts with which I am familiar, this way of deriving the golden section is not described. (I'd love to hear of any references.) I find it of interest because it shows how the series emerges from the overlay of two ways of construing the integers – as cardinals (one, two, three…) and as ordinals (first, second, third…). It is, moreover, interesting to see the Fibonacci numbers emerge from a set of well- (and minimally-) defined relations (a.k.a. “links”, above).

As mentioned, new elements are generated either singly or in pairs. Fans of recreational mathematics may find it interesting to trace the pattern that emerges in the way these variations continue to play out.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Imagine yourself effortlessly floating on your back in a warm sea, perfectly calm and content. The vague sound of the surf is just audible, a soothing husssh in your ear; the sky above is a deep and soothing blue streaked with white and golden cloud. The day is perfect. It is as if you have been here from eternity. You are at ease and at peace.

You turn your head gently to one side; something catches your eye among the sparkles on the water. You focus on its movement, and it becomes clear: about twenty feet away from your face, and twice as big as your face, the obvious and unmistakable curve of a dorsal fin. Shark. Huge. Shark.

If you are like me, it doesn’t even register in words. It’s a electro-chemical bolt of lightning through your chest. Get out, get out, fuck, fuck get OUT GET OUT—MY GOD GET OUT NOW , GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!!!!


I had gone through an excruciating break-up. My life, which during the affair had been up-ended in delirium and zero-gravity awe, had suddenly short-circuited. It had happened in about two days, a vertigo-making implosion that I’d helped precipitate without being able to stop myself, always thinking the next thing I did would fix everything, always being sickeningly wrong, until I was more abjectly undone than I would have thought possible. My ego had been pulped; the regret and utter incapacity I felt left me stupid and barely communicative. Each evening, after barely pretending to work all day, I limped home feeling like I had been run over in the street. Every muscle was tightened into a grimace of denial and fear. I ran the hottest bath the plumbing would produce and soaked for hours, trying to induce the slightest relaxation.

After a week or two or seven of this, something slightly more normal reasserted itself. Slowly and inconsistently at first, I began to be able to think again. I was sitting on the bus one day, trying helplessly for the nth time to go over what had happened. I believed then and I believe now that, corniness or sentimentality notwithstanding, love is the experience which bestows our lives with meaning. The hallmark-card sense of this does not make it false. I was reflecting on this when it occurred to me that, nonetheless, it is obviously only half the story. It was so obvious as to be an algorithm: If you love, you will also, and inevitably, hurt and be hurt. It’s a pop song, it’s a Hallmark card, it’s a stupid slogan, and it’s true. If and insofar as you love, you will cause the one you love pain, great pain, probably the worst pain, and you will be caused it, tipped as I had been into one of the outer levels of Hell. Which means: the thing that makes life worth living is the same thing that makes life Hell. Not as a corollary; as an identity.

In another mood I might have been struck by this as if it were a kind of thought-provoking paradox, a sparkly toy to amuse the mind. That wasn’t how I felt. It struck me in my stomach, with the same hammer-force as if I had realized there was a shark in the water: GET OUT GET OUT NOW FUCK FUCK GET OUT! It wasn’t the fear (or reality) of emotional pain, but the identity of the meaning-bestowing and Hell-making, that was so shockingly intolerable, un-processable. I can’t live here. Unacceptable. I wanted and desperately needed to leap physically, in a direction perpendicular to the human condition, out of the world.


Many months passed, turning into a year and two years. I meditated on this strange identity. I knew very well that the notion of “leaping out” was nonsensical. “The thought of suicide”, Nietzsche remarked, gets a man through many a difficult night, and I have often thought that if I really felt I had cause to complain, well, I knew where the Exit door was -- but in truth I don’t believe that there is an Exit, not like that. The shark is real, and the water is real; what isn’t real is escape. You can despair, or you can make friends with the shark. There is no getting out of the water, I thought.

This little improvised koan became the object of much meditation. It appeared on my screen-saver, trailing across in (of course) red.

For a while, I thought I had solved it. What had actually happened, though, was that I had mistakenly elided a crucial detail, and in so doing I had tamed the shocking truth into a maxim; I had in fact Hallmark-ised it. Little by little, I began to lose grasp of the brute insight that had sparked the koan. I had slowly come to identify the shark with the suffering occasioned by love, instead of the fact that it is love which causes and undergoes suffering. The shark is the necessary coincidence of the occasion of suffering with the site of meaning. But this is confusing and difficult to keep firmly before the mind. I slid into a lazy if still twitchy distraction, content with having reached a comfortable resting-place.

Occasionally, as the months turned into years and then into a decade, I did remember the full koan. I meditated on it a great deal when I fell in love again; when I got married, it wove its way between the lines of the vows my wife and I wrote. But in fact, usually the water is warm and comfortable, or else there’s a lot of swimming to do and I forget.


Two months ago my father died after a brief and unexpected illness. I made it to his bedside for the last eighteen hours of his life. He was sedated and unconscious, and although I tell myself that he could hear what we said, or at least knew we were there, I do not know. Towards the end, as his heart was failing, it seemed to me that its rate would slow and it would slide into a non-sinus rhythm as long as I kept speaking to him. My mother, albeit exhausted from being awake for two nights in a row, had managed to get a blessed hour of sleep and was able to feel present and undistracted. As she held his hand and told him, “It’s all right, honey; we love you. You can go,” I was watching his heart monitor and watched his heart rate fall to zero immediately. (My sister noted at the funeral that my father always waited for my mother.) Although this is the sort of thing that calls to mind the phrase “anecdotal evidence,” in the end it is that sort of evidence of which our experience is made.

My mother went home. She thought she would fall asleep immediately. But it wasn’t what happened. Instead, she said, when she began to cry, she couldn’t stop. “It was like a banshee wail. It kept coming and coming. It was terrifying.” The cry went through her like a hailstorm. The next day, when she told me about it, she recalled a Buddhist friend’s husband’s funeral; nothing in my mother’s Mormon background had readied her for the fifteen-minute long ritual wail her friend made. My mother looked into my eye and said, “I was a good Buddhist yesterday.” Afterwards, she had looked in the mirror, frightened by her own grief-reddened face; but then she did sleep, and after she awoke, there was a great calm. “I’ve cried since then, but not like that,” she told me. “There’s a widow’s cry. It’s not like any other cry. I’ve cried it.”

And with that I felt the shark brush by my side.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Peter Kingsley: tone versus vision

Peter Kingsley's vision of philosophy is as a spiritual practice; an interweaving of discourses and exercises that induced trance, altered consciousness, all aimed at cultivating insight, transforming one's experience of the ordinary world, and preparing the human being for the ultimate journey of death (and rebirth). Kingsley is capable of making the case for this with forthrightness and formidable scholarship. His first book (Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic) is a powerful and well-argued re-reading of the tradition, mainly centered on Empedocles, but moving backward and forward with care, and trawling a broad set of data (scholarly, historical, anthropological, philosophical) to make his case. This was an exciting book, similar to but different from the work of Hadot, for instance. Those who, like myself, were already well-disposed to the notion of philosophy as a tradition, were eager to see what Kingsley would do next.

What he did next was change horses. In the Dark Places of Wisdom shows just as much comfort with the ancients and with scholarship as Ancient Philosophy, but it is written in a different key, a popular key; Kingsley was taking his message to the masses. He traces the lineage of Empedocles and Parmenides back through Greek religious and oracular practice, marshaling archaeology and textual analysis along the way, but clearly trying to keep this potentially intimidating array of evidence in its right proportion compared to the real issue, which is for him always the living possibility of philosophical insight now.

I liked this new tone, and I certainly liked the project; In the dark Places of Wisdom is still I think the best place to enter Kingsley's writings unless you are immune to being impressed by and intimidated by scholarship. But there was something else about Kingsley's second book that I didn't like so much, but couldn't quite place until I read -- on my second or third attempt -- his next one, the enormous tome Reality. Almost from the first of its six hundred pages, I felt a mounting sense of irritation, which did not diminish. It was like what I sometimes feel when reading Derek Jensen, another thinker I so often agree with and yet whose knowing fury I find painful to tread through (though Jensen is a better writer). There was a smugness, and simultaneously a weird defensiveness, as if every sentence were accompanied by a "what are you staring at" attitude, a unilateral "what? what?" that oozed out. And at the same time, a missionary zeal undercut the aggression, a plaintive petition for fair hearing; but always accompanied by this too-sure separation of receptive sheep from dubious goats.

It wears on one. Just how often can one read sentences like "Of course, these conclusions are scoffed at, or more often ignored, and nothing is easier if you want to close your eyes to the truth... but if you have willingness to see, you'll have your life transformed..."?

To be fair, I made that last one up, but if you open Reality at random, you'll find plenty pretty much like it. And the same is true, alas, of Kingsley's most recent book A Story Waiting to Pierce You. This is a pity, for it is in some ways his most accessible and (despite its slenderness) most ambitious work. (A sympathetic review is here.) Kingsley here traces, or tries to trace, the Pythagorean roots of Western philosophy via Mongolian shamanism to Tibetan Bön and the proto-tradition of the Amerindians. The main hinge in Kingsley's case is the textual record pertaining to Abaris the Hyperborean, a figure who came from the north walking in a great circle and carrying a golden arrow; we know of Abaris from scattered references in a number of ancient writers, and Kingsley's footnotes refer one to Herodotus, Pausanius, Iamblichus (especially), and all the other testimonia, but also (and this it seems is the more original part of the thesis) to anthropological literature on shamanism, especially from Siberia and Mongolia, where he finds many telling parallels. Here Kingsley makes a decent case, and one could come away convinced if it were not for the sense that one was being bullied into it. His prickliness at the ancients when they exhibit skepticism (Herodotus especially) and at the moderns when they are, well, modern, makes even the best-disposed of readers (and I am already three-quarters convinced before I open his book) turn skeptical in turn. He breezes past some difficulties and lingers over others, but always with the same belaboring "he-with-eyes-to-see" attitude. For instance, pesky chronology is barely acknowledged (the fact that Abaris and Pythagoras are said to have encountered each other despite being, by other reckonings, as much as six centuries apart), in order to contest, if that is the word, the Pythagoreans' assertions about what happened in that alleged meeting. Kingsley wants to make Abaris out as a kind of link between an ancient shamanic tradition and Pythagorean theurgy, so it is important to downplay or dismiss Greek claims that the recognition or initiation was the other way around. Despite this tendentiousness, his arguments here and elsewhere are plausible and his vision is inspiring. As he makes his case for cultural diffusion, he traces particular motifs (the theme of a five-arrow bundle being unbreakable in comparison to a single arrow, for instance) from the Mongols to Greece in one direction and to the Iroquois in the other; this geographical breadth is matched by the urgency and relevance he clearly believes the tradition has (or can have) to us now. This mission notwithstanding, Kingsley is not moved by mere enthusiasm; he is confident of his ground, and the apparatus makes it clear that he knows what he's doing with this material (though I have heard occasional complaints that he does not always credit all his sources). The endnotes, at least as long as the main text, are better-written (and often less tendentious) than the book itself, and many of them are little essays. They remind me of some of Ken Wilber's good ones in the last third of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.

I don't know what success Kingsley is likely to get, or has got, with his popularizing strategies. I certainly do not think that philosophy is obliged to be polite, and certainly not to confirm people in their prejudices. Philosophy will confuse you, irritate you, scare you; tell you you are wrong, tell you to change your life. If it doesn't get you in trouble, it's not philosophy. God knows Socrates pissed some people off. But to my ears, Kingsley lacks (at least on the page) a certain Socratic balance and humility, to say nothing of good humor. (This may not distress him overmuch, as Kingsley -- like Nietzsche, now that I think of it -- seems to think Socrates is about where things started to go wrong.) Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic is a fine piece of work, admirably free from his later three books' growing stylistic faults. The mix in the later work of annoying alteration between cloying congratulation (if you buy in) and brusque Bulverism (if you don't) risks burying in bluster their central urgent insight.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews Recap

Looking back at the twelve- or thirteen-part series as a whole, I find:
* Two reviews of Christian theology (Just Thomism, Glory to God for All Things)

* Two reviews of literary criticism and poetics (Isola di Rifiuti, Poems and Poetics).

* Two reviews of socio-political history and current events, one respectably mainstream, one fringey (Duck of Minerva, Disinformation)

* Two reviews of philosophy (Meaningness and Noir Realism)

* One review of Jewish thought (The Talmud Blog).

* One review of music (Rate Your Music)

* One review of cuisine (Smitten Kitchen)

* One attempted review of Occultism (Light of a Golden Day, but you're out of luck on that one -- the site's gone)

* One review of general smart-person topical writing about things that interest him (Slate Star Codex)
This is actually not a bad rough sketch of my general interests, in something approaching realistic (if not very fine-grained) proportion.

A lot got left out. A more fine-tuned self-portrait would include more more scholarship -- classical, medieval, modern. Also Anthropology ("hard" and "soft"), contemporary science from neurobiology to cosmology and physics, and mathematics, which I read as the interested layperson I am. But of course mostly what was left out was more philosophy. To remind anyone who may care, the original notion was to mention blogs I had not already mentioned in other connections. This automatically excluded a scad or more (how much is a scad?) of philosophy blogs, and I'm not sure I didn't cheat a little when I snuck in Noir Realism.

The series kept me writing and posting, but it was also a little distracting, and I'm not sure whether I'll attempt anything similar next year. But I do find it interesting, in retrospect, to see that someone could get a fairly good idea of my concerns and interests just from the list of what's included in this series, and yet wouldn't have a clue about what I actually thought. What they'd know is a rough idea of where I thought the interesting issues were; but not my own poor attempts at the answers. There's a reason for that. It's the same reason Plato mentions in the Seventh Letter.

Mandelstam did not say, "It suffices to recount the blogs he has read, and his biography is complete." It is interesting to think about why this would completely deform what he meant.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"This was to fulfill..."

I wrote earlier about the way the Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent seems to undercut its setting. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, something similar (and different) occurs. Much of the Gospel (Matthew 1:18-25) attends to St. Joseph:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Joseph and Mary are bound by marriage (the text is usually translated with some reference to "engagement" but the culture at the time considered an engaged couple "married," for legal purposes, even though the ceremony was in the future); the Law permits Joseph to call for a public tribunal inquiry into whether Mary has become pregnant as a result of a liaison she entered into willingly, or whether she was forced. Joseph's decision to forego all such investigation shows him to be a man who is not simply observant of the Law but fully attuned to its spirit; he does not insist on his rights, he does not bank on the privilege his position gives him; he is ready to do everything he feels called upon to do. It is after this readiness that his dream says to him: something further, something orthagonal to the Law, is transpiring. And yet in it, both the law and the prophets are fulfilled. It is via Joseph that Jesus' connection to the Davidic promise derives; Joseph is Jesus' father in the eyes of the Law by virtue of having named Him. Modern commentators worry over the words that get rendered as "virgin," the Masoretic text's almah (strictly speaking this is inexact; lexicographers assure us that the word more precisely means "young woman") and the LXX's (accurate) parthenos, but Matthew is not concerned with these. What is all the more striking is that Matthew provides the explicit gloss on "Emmanuel," and an implicit one on "Jesus", i.e., "Joshua", but he passes over in silence the obvious fact that these names are not the same name -- this despite his presenting the one narrative as the fulfillment of the other.

So the Law is thus not abrogated, but its fulfillment in letter and spirit point beyond it, to something strange and new. And prophecy is presented as fulfilled in a manner that clearly is not "literal" (it is precisely the letter which is not fulfilled), but in such a way that the writer does not bat an eye at any discrepancy.

The first Sunday of Advent, the reading (in the liturgical context of the beginning of the Year): you cannot measure time accurately, you cannot know the times. It is about the future exceeding the present. The fourth Sunday of Advent, the Gospel is about the present exceeding the past. This puts the matter far too schematically; the point however is that whatever scheme we have in place is fulfilled precisely in being shown to fail as too schematic.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews XII: Smitten Kitchen

This twelfth and last of the Brief Blog Reviews is devoted to the hedonistic art of cooking. It was one of Plato's favorite discourses to borrow from; it was, W.H. Auden said, the only art in which the 20th century had truly excelled. And so I commend to you this culinary gem, Smitten Kitchen.

Besides featuring really lovely photographs, a calming cream-white and dusk web design reminiscent of blue china plates, and a charming across-the-table conversational style, Smitten Kitchen casts as wide a net as ever I have found on a cooking blog, presenting recipes from as many culinary styles as I can name. (As an experiment, I typed as many "-ese" and "-ish" and "-ian" ethnic names into the search function as I could think of, one after another. I finally pretty much stumped it with 'Sudanese'. Some of those hits come from the comments section, but I'm reviewing the blog as a whole, and its community of readers is part of that -- especially when they report their own variations on the recipes.) There is savory, there is salty, there is spicy, there is hot, there is sweet, there is sour, there is umami. Soup, salad, sandwich, pastry, pasta, casserole, cocktail, canape, main course, or weird in-between cross-over, every third day or so you can find a new recipe, sometimes a whole new menu or a whole new family of food. All you need is the resolution to attempt it.

There's an element of privilege in concerning oneself with cuisine. That issue is the matter for a separate post, but I would argue that anyone who struggles to put food on the table (and that's been me, more than once in my life) ought to care about what happens next -- indeed, insisting on that care is one of the ways to keep hold of the self-respect poverty can drain away. And the good news is that Smitten Kitchen is as economically smart as it is enthusiastic.

Her catholicity notwithstanding (maybe that's a funny word to use for a Jewish cook, but I stand by it), Deb Perelman (Smitten's chef and writer) declines to present "fussy foods" which require ultra-specific parameters or ingredients (say, those infused oils or special varieties of pepper you can only get at some out of the way snooty specialty store, or via catalog). She likes food that is comfortable and easy to prepare (as is necessary in her very small kitchen). But this does not prevent her from making chocolate souffle cupcakes or hollandaise sauce, or poaching an egg (which is not as easy as you might think); and she knows there is a difference between organic produce and what comes from factory farms. She scrupulously credits her sources, acknowledges her tweaks, and shamelessly enjoys her results, which are presented in such succulent and juicy graphic splendor that, though it be cliché, I am tempted to write you can almost taste them from the photos. I think you can smell them, anyway. She writes writes about these with style and aplomb and self-deprecating humor, and with the unobtrusive confidence of a good teacher -- the confidence that makes you think, "I could try that." Go. Try that. I assure you it's a good idea.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge

I am always bemused by the Gospel reading at the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year: Matthew 24:36-44:
"But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him."
This is the Gospel with which the year commences; it occurs in its precisely calibrated position of an intricate system of days and their correlated readings, meant to align a seven-day cycle with a 365-day solar cycle, complicated by a lunar calendar on which it has been overlaid. In this elaborate apparatus of timekeeping and ritual observance, every feast of the church finds its place, and is observed with ordained scripture, prayer, and psalmody. Obligation to feast or to fast is specified. Colors of vestments, melodies for chant, kinds of incense, are indicated for different seasons. All is mapped out with extraordinary attention to detail (although there is also great local variation). And prefacing the entire cycle, in pride of place as the first Gospel reading of the year, is a warning that none of our careful calibration will suffice to indicate when the hour will come for which we wait. It will intervene (if the future-tense "will" even makes sense in this connection) from a plane orthagonal to all mortal timekeeping whatsoever. Our painstaking and precise calendar, this product of human ingenuity and refinement, has seen to it that this reminder of its own short-circuiting is built in to its recurrent initial moment.