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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

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.