Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ 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.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
September 29, The Feast of St Michael and All Angels:
In the Gospel mandated by the Lectionary for today, John 1:45-51, Philip tells Nathanael that "We have found the Messiah... Jesus of Nazareth;" Nathanael replies with what sounds like a proverb: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" When Jesus sees Nathanael approach, he calls him "an Israelite in whom there is no guile." "Where did you get to know me?" Nathanael asks. "I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you." This is apparently enough to get Nathanael to exclaim, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus asks: "You believe because I told you, I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this: you will see the angels of heaven ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
This little exchange attached to today's Feast often strikes one as a bit of a stretch at first; the story of Nathanael's call is the main point, and the bit about the angels seems an afterthought. It's widely taken to be an intentional echo of the passage in Genesis 28:10–19, in which Jacob dreams of a ladder or stairway between earth and heaven, with the angels going to and fro upon it; Jesus implicitly declares himself to be this ladder in some fashion, but just what this identity means is obscure.
Nathanael is often identified with the synoptics' Batholomew, (who, like Nathanael, is always paired with Philip), since John and only John mentions Nathanael and only the synoptics refer to Batholomew; but of course this has not kept many (including St Augustine) from thinking there are two people here. I am, myself, a Nathanael=Bartholomew guy, and I'll try to show why a bit later.
There is a hymn frequently sung on Michaelmas: Allelulia to Jesus, Who died on the tree, / and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me, / and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me. The tree on which Christ died, the cross, is itself a ladder between heaven and earth, and as tree it recapitulated the tree in the center of the garden, which is also the world tree, the tree whose roots are in the underworld and whose branches are in heaven. (Sometimes, mythologically, this is inverted). This tree, axis mundi, comes with fruit (of knowledge, of immortality, or both), a woman, a spring, and serpent. I'm not going to list the occasions of this motif; it is ubiquitous, and one does not need to be a slave to pop Jungianism to accept that this widespread occurrence is significant.
Since we are in the matrix of the Hebrew scriptures, the tree which most concerns us is the one in Eden. In Genesis 3, the serpent is called "the most subtle of all the creatures," "subtle" here being a pun (in Hebrew) on smoothness, a connotation which even then bore on the serpent's smooth-tongued capacity to deceive; but it is also a pun on the nakedness of the man and the woman. These two are "smooth" because their skin is exposed; and the snake's smoothness, too, involves its ability to shed its old, rough skin for a shiny, slick new one.
Jesus' description of Nathanael as "an Israelite in whom there is no guile" refers to this entire complex of notions. What is an Israelite? A descendant of Israel, of course; Israel being Jacob, who saw the ladder and all those angels going up and down. Nathanael's name means "God has given," and what God had given was understood above all to be the particular land upon which they lived, a bequest whose legacy we know to this day. It is in the ladder dream that Jacob hears the voice of God declaring this gift for the first time: "the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants."
But what distinguished Jacob was precisely his smoothness; not only his trickery with Esau--a trickery which is turned back on him by Laban--but also the literal smoothness of his skin, which he and Rebekkah must guilefully disguise in order to deceive blind Isaac, in the story immediately preceding the dream of the ladder. "An Israelite in whom there is no guile" is thus (to put the matter no doubt too strongly) a kind of counter-Jacob. "An Israelite in whom there is no guile" is a kind of colloquial rejoinder to Nathanael's skepticism that there could be "anything good from Nazareth."
How this skepticism is broken through is strange. "Where did you get to know me?" "I saw you under the fig tree." "Rabbi! You are the messiah!" What on earth is going on here? I won't claim to provide the answer to this question, but I hope to explicate what I think are come relevant bits of its context, and perhaps to its pertinence to the Feast of St Michael.
The fig tree is perhaps not the Tree (of Knowledge), but it is the only fruit mentioned by name and genus in the Genesis account: "And they knew that they were naked (="smooth"); and they took fig leaves and wove aprons for themselves." The fig tree thus provides that under which one hides one's smoothness. These aprons (they still figure in the LDS Temple ceremony) are replaced later by "garments of skin" given by God. But Nathanael is not "smooth" in this way; he has no deceit, "no guile."
"Under the fig tree," according to some exegetes, also implies prayer and the study of Torah; according to this line of reading, the subtext is that Nathanael was engaged in some devotional piety when Jesus observed him. This may involve angelic mediation, as later elements of synagogue liturgy imply. Jewish tradition is ambivalent about angels, but Christianity is eloquent on them and sees (I contend) the angels as not just mediators between Heaven and Earth but as, in some sense, the very media of prayer or even of theological vision itself; the liturgy is seen as recapitulating or becoming one with the worship given by angels in the presence of God, who are frequently said (e.g. by Evagrios of Pontos in his 153 texts on Prayer) to be the agents of the "energization" of our prayers (see, e.g., text 76).
To be sure, neither Jewish nor Christian tradition is especially interested in angels for their own sake. Evagrios tells an anecdote of a monk who remained steadfast at prayer, even though two angels appeared to him; and the desire to head off any such interest clearly motivates the aforementioned ambivalence of the Rabbis (I believe there is, for instance, not a single mention of angels in the Mishnah). But the image of angels "ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" clearly identifies Jesus himself with the link--tree or ladder--which makes this concourse of energies between earth and heaven possible.
There is a further association, which I mention despite its cultural distance: the Bodhi tree, sacred in Vedic and Buddhist tradition, is also a fig, ficus religiosa; so "under the fig tree" is also where Gautama Buddha attained his enlightenment. This will of course rightly strike many as coming from far afield, but the archetypal emblem of the ascent of awareness from the base of the tree is bound up with the previously-mentioned set of images. It is here that Newagey enthusiasts will rummage about for the kundalini serpent rising from the base of the spine; or (closer to the Judaic matrix of the New Testament) of the ascent from the lower state of the soul called nefesh (frequently interpreted as the serpent in the Kabbalah) up the Sephirotic Tree of Life. These correspondences are indisputably inspired by free-association; whether they ought to be dismissed as "mere" free-association is a different question, but a methodological argument defending them would be a separate blog post.
The last connection that belongs here hinges on the aforementioned identity between Nathanael and Bartholomew. There is a famous depiction of Bartholomew by Michaelangelo in his Sistine Chapel Last Judgment. He is holding his own skin. This is because tradition has it that he was martyred by being flayed. That is, the tradition has preserved a connection between Bartholomew/Nathanael and the shedding skin motif, which thus connects directly to the Genesis story of the Fall. It should be noted that not every version says that Bartholomew was flayed--some stories speak only of his beheading--so there is some reason to think that this detail was intended to resonate with this wider constellation of notions going back to the Hebrew connotations of guile/smoothness.
I might mention, too, that Michaelangelo is painted a recognizable self-portrait on the skin of Bartholomew. Considering the artist's name, this may not just be the painter's exercise of his artistic prerogative. It is possible he knew what he was doing.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Occupy Wall Streetis a very loose movement initially called by AdBusters, publicized by Anonymous, and motivated by everything from an itch for a moment of spectacle to the desire to see CEOs behind bars. It may be the Arab spring belatedly come to Manhattan; it may be the Invisible Committee's shot across the bow of America; it may be a bunch of naïve wannabes, sorry that they missed the Battle of Seattle, and trying to jump-start another manning of the barricades with a page out of Abbie Hoffman. One thing's for sure, you won't get much guidance from those institutions whose job it is to report the news with their mandated, university-intellectual-approved left-leaning bias. Because chances are you haven't even heard of Occupy Wall Street. On September 23, a full week after the protests began, the famously liberal New York Times managed a piece oozing with condescension. It took NPR, that hotbed of wobblies and fellow-travelers and whatever, nine days to deign to so much as mention the movement, and then only in response to listeners' indignation. This is after over
Are the protests big? (Maybe getting bigger, anyway; see here.) Are they likely to really shake things up? Will it look like Tahrir Square? Will activists flood into New York and make the stock market freeze? Not if the "left-leaning" press have anything to do with it.
[UPDATE 10/1/2011 The first link in this post, for the moment, makes my virus-detection software break out in hives. So someone somehow has either poisoned the OWS site, or Norton is providing a service for the Power Elite. Current comments on safeweb.norton.com offer variations on "WTF?" Ain't live conspiracy theory fun? Stay tuned.]
[UPDATE 10/2/2011 Decent coverage from Al Jazeera. Meanwhile, the NT Times again does a two-step on the Brooklyn Bridge (this is really just a shift in emphasis--the same facts are reported lower down in the article.)]
Thursday, September 15, 2011
If I may be permitted a self-referential moment:
There is a secret link between this fear and the boredom we spoke of earlier: boredom secretes fear as a kind of attempt at self-cure. One can see this quite clearly in contemporary western culture, which has grown more fearful as it has grown more secure, for the periodic upsettings of security become more traumatic and they leave a viral half-life of unsettling phantoms, traumatic enough to drive one back into the arms of a comfortable boredom, in a terrible cycle.This, a propos last post, where I was voicing my expectation that the blah-banal ironism of the '90s will make its resurgence as the "trauma" of 9/11 fades. This ennui should also serve as a palliative while America dwindles into the twilight of its historical significance.
(Incidentally, some of this feedback-loop has also been described by Lars Svendsen in his The Philosophy of Boredom and The Philosophy of Fear.)
It should always raise one's suspicions when someone claims world-shaking significance for their own field, but I truly believe that philosophy is the cure of this addictive cycle of boredom and fear. It has been fighting the Noonday Demon from the very beginning. It is, to be sure, a homeopathic cure; Socrates' words stun and numb at first.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
I keep hearing how September 11th, 2001, made irony go out of the world or something. It's true that before, during the first Bush administration especially and then all through Clinton (ever notice how we tend to date things just like Bronze Age chroniclers, "in the second year of the reign of Sennacherib son of Sargon..."?) there was that crippling "hipness-unto-death"*, as some wit called it, spreading everywhere. It made especially TV commercials give off this evil glow of you-love-being-manipulated-by-this, sure-it's-all-lies-but-you're-kind-of-in-on-the-joke, making everyone complicit in their own cooption. One nadir of this, among many, was Madonna's Truth or Dare, the whole miserable glamorama of Yes-I-yank-your-chain, but I'm-telling-you-I'm-yanking-it; look at me, being all honest and forthcoming! Yeah, yeah, (wink), you're not fooled, you clever one.
This meta-meta-metastasizing of culture was often noted by commentators, of course, either applauding it, or resigning to it, or denouncing it, but it was on a runaway course that seemed unstoppable. (The very best, bar none, send-up of it I know is David Foster Wallace's short story "My Appearance", in Girl with Curious Hair.) Then.... then what? Then "the world changed forever"? Then we came "face to face" with some indigestible something that couldn't be assimilated into the snide, the trite, the in-jokey?
Even as the sirens wailed, and the smoke billowed up above the buildings, before anyone even knew just what had occurred, people in the street catching each others' eye were exchanging a secret, a half-acknowledged, dares-not-speak-it's-name recognition: "Something big is happening right now"--(this no matter where you were, Manhattan or elsewhere)--"and I'm here for it." Almost a jealousy of those who were on the spot. 9/11 was the ultimate in-crowd maker. "We are all New Yorkers," the T-shirts declared, wishfully. If you were conscious ten years ago, you are, whether you will or no, in the club of "Everyone remembers where they were when they heard." Later, by a week or so, we divided into camps: "Why do they hate us?" vs. "They hate our freedoms" vs. "Inside job," mutually-incomprehensible languages, but even this schism did not prevent unheard-of popularity ratings for a President who could not competently read from a teleprompter. It took seven more years of shame to grind that inexorably down to the 20-percent basement where it belonged. (Which more or less tells you how significant popularity polls are.)
Amod has some pertinent thoughts on how "never forget" has slowly started to be...forgotten. The fact that 9/11 has begun to "fade" somewhat from the foreground of national consciousness is no doubt all to the good, given the points he makes; but I fear it has not much to do with the balm of forgetfulness. The racism Amod names is still, to our shame, alive and well; so is the righteous indignation; and so is the pain for those who lost loved ones that day or in the wars that followed. But capitalism has moved on, as it must, not without a tear for the lost. What we've seen in the past ten years is the inevitable commodification of 9/11: the digestion of the event into a few stock images and some memes of patriotism, terrorism, "where-were-you-that-day," and so on. It started the moment someone called it "our finest hour" without cringing.
It may be the war that has slowed the resurgence of so-hip-of-you-to-know-it's-a-lie commercialism which went out of fashion for a brief time. It's telling that it arose and flourished as the long post-Vietnam era went on, as wars became TV events and, importantly, as America's economy continued to prosper. But the acidic corrosion of ironism is already picking up right where it slowed down, and it will be a triumph of capitalism when said ironism can flourish in the midst of a war and in the face of record-high unemployment. Slavery is Freedom, War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, and being borderline culturally literate enough to recognize (or make) an Orwell reference is a bulwark against tyranny.
* I apologize for the surfeit of hyphenated phrases in this post. Really.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
So during a month of "fasting" from the blog, I discovered to my great relief that I could still think with a pen in my hand. Typing words on a screen and writing on paper are very disparate modes of composition for me, more different than I can even articulate. There's something about the instant revisability of pixels that makes composition slower and more unsure, for me. I've found this translates to how I read online as well: on a screen, I am always scrolling down, before I've finished the paragraph; always looking for the bullet points, the money quote. After months and years of this, I began to get the queasy worry that something impatient and lazy had my mind its slovenly den. Would I be able to write anymore? Well, yes, as it happens, yes it is kind of like riding a bike. But the experiment demonstrated something more to me. I'm just plain happier composing on paper. The words covering the page in their indelible lines gives a shape to my thinking that the discrete increments of typing and the cut-and-paste-able blocks of computer text completely up-end. It's plain that this is an idiosyncracy of my own. Others have their own mental and creative hygiene, other conditions in which they can reach "flow," as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the state of optimal creativity and production; for me, nothing beats a smooth-flowing, extra-fine-point rollerball, on the unlined white pages of a hardbound notebook. The lines are laid down indelibly; I can cross them out but I can't select-and-cut to make them vanish, or scoop them up and replant them three paragraphs later, and these restraints help me produce: without them, I'm just floundering. But of course transferring this to a blog post involves typing and transcribing, which besides being extra work always invites the revisionary demon, the "inner editor," who yes does valuable service but needs to learn how to be a little less pushy. The point here is that my posts will be fewer, not because I'm writing less but because I'm writing more. What I post will likely be shorter and just an indication of what I am thinking about off-screen. Questions are still welcome, more than welcome, because I think best of all when I'm actually engaging with a live person whose thoughts I can't anticipate because, well, they aren't mine.