Monday, May 30, 2011

Carn Ghórta Mór

Bás a fháil den ghórta mór duine Éireannach go leor. Chuir mé cuairt an leacht i ómós orthu. Chuaigh mé go dtí Nua-Eabhrac an deireadh tseachtain seo caite, agus ar feadh lá chéad go iomhlan ansin, shiúl mé ansiúd.

Coinníonn leacht ag imeall im bPairc Cathair Bhataire i Manhattan iseal i gcuimhne an Gorta Mór na hÉireann. Bhí é an Drochshaol go cinnte. Cuirim achainí faoi bhráid "an gorta a bhuail Éire ón mbliain 1845 ar aghaidh agus a mharaigh is a ruaig as an tír cupla milliún Éireannach" de réir Vicipéid as Gaeilge.

Cheap Brian Tolle é. Deanamh sé ó aolchloch. Is leachtán cloch cósulacht créthulach adhlactha anallód.

Thug an ailtire seo na clocha briste le Contae Mhaigh Eo go raibh ag dulta i léig ina bhfothracha ann. Ath-thóg siad na baillte folamh sin ar an mullach os cionn an bealach siúil a fhágail suas. Tá baile ó Ceathreamhadh di Dhubhagain soir na hÁth Tí an Mheasaigh. Bhí an teach bunaithe na chlann Slack na céile fir na Tolle fadó. 

Chuir siad gort leath-acra a chur faoi fásra sa thir dhúchais suas ansin. D'oscail sé ina samraidh 2002. Tá áit dhá bloc siar go díreach ó suíomh ar Lár Trádáil Dhomhan. Tá tú ábalta feicéail ar an láithaireach ath-tógála sin ina grianghraf le Roger Shepherd go socair suas anseo. 

Vicipéid (as Béarla) le Leacht Ghórta Mór Éireannach ag imeall im bParc Cathair Bhataire i Manhattan iseal.
Ghrianghrafaí súil i Nua-Eabhrac
Ghrianghrafaí níos mó le Weblicist ó Manhattan
aiste le Roberta Smith ina Amannaí Nua-Eabhrac faoi tiomhnú ina dhiadh 9/11.
Leabhrán & learscáil.
Tá aiste-ghriangraf le Roger Shepherd ó Teist Ailtireacht

Irish Hunger Memorial

Many Irish people were taken by death in the great famine. I paid a visit to the memorial-stone in homage to them. I went to New York this past weekend, and during my first full day there, I walked over there.

This monument for the Irish Hunger Memorial near Battery City Park in lower Manhattan commemorates the Great Hunger of Ireland. It was the "bad time" surely. It memorializes "the famine that hit Ireland from the year 1845 on and killed across the land a couple million of the Irish" according to Irish-language Wikipedia.

Brian Tolle designed it. It was made from limestone. It's a grave-stone site resembling a passage tomb in ancient times. 

This architect took the broken stones from County Mayo gone to ruin there. They rebuilt those empty walls on the top above the passage way as entrance below. The house is from Carradoogan to the east of Attymass. It was the family home of the Slack clan of Tolle's life-partner long ago. 

They planted the half-acre field with native flora up there. It was opened in the summer of 2002. The place is two blocks straight westward from the site of the World Trade Center. You're able to look at that re-building site in the photograph by Roger Shepherd easily, above here. 

Wikipedia for the Irish Hunger Memorial near Battery City Park, lower Manhattan.
New York City Walk Photos.               
More photos by Weblicist of Manhattan
Roberta Smith 2002 New York Times article on post-9/11 dedication.
Brochure & map.
Architectural Record photo-essay by Roger Shepherd.

Scríobh mé seo/I wrote this 12ú/th Aibreal/April 2011. Grianghraf le/Photo by Roger Shepherd.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

David Jones' "Friars' Tales": Book Review

Chaucer's conniving Pardoner and crafty friars may linger longer in memory, but real-life counterparts of those who preached sermons and promoted indulgences have long been relegated to manuscripts. The last quarter-century has produced more accessible, if still pricy and academic, studies of how sermons worked to convince their audiences, and how clerics organized their contents. Jones, with an affordable, accessible small volume, offers today's audience a chance to read what their ancestors may have heard eight centuries ago.

He annotates brisk, fluid translations of the two earliest known British Isles collections of exempla, illustrative stories that preachers used to grab the attention of their congregants. Relentlessly moral, these hard-sell tales also allow us to glimpse what sustained a listener--who likely had little to no literacy if a layperson--as to what beliefs and attitudes of popular culture survived in towns and on farms away from the quill-penned parchment. These two collections originated in the late thirteenth century. An edition of the first, the Latin anthology Liber Exemplorum, was edited by A.G. Little in 1908; it was organized by an English Franciscan friar, who later worked in Ireland, trained in Paris alongside his famous confrere Roger Bacon.

Unfortunately, the 213 exempla contained in this Franciscan manuscript represent probably just over half of what was intended-- we only have the first volume that ends with "M" in alphabetical order of its thematic contents. (The original survives in one copy, now at Durham Cathedral.) Still, the value of this anthology remains, for an eighth of the stories can be found in no other source that we know of. This friar adds useful asides to his fellow friars, commanded to spread the Word with careful words, as the lively stories interspersed might offend or scandalize or tempt the laity-- for clerics, more candor is allowed them as insiders into the difficulties within the cloister. 

Viewing what captured the ears of audiences in medieval Ireland and Britain reminds us of what techniques endure in rhetoric and advertising today. Listeners constantly are assured by names, places, and "I heard this from so-and-so who witnessed it in the presence of this-and-that..." of the veracity of the miracles, sins, visions, and dangers which assailed the deluded, the vain, and the unwary. Sermons are meant to convince the Catholic of the efficacy of the sacraments, the mechanisms of hell and purgatory, indulgences, and Masses that constituted late-medieval Church teaching, and to stimulate constant repentance. Countless miscreants delay confession in these vignettes only to choke, writhe, and collapse before a priest can be found to shrive them. 

Therefore, the impression of urgency upon the listener to act now, a mainstay of salesmanship, endures. The friars charged with evangelizing the everyday folks who flocked to their sermons were enjoined to do so by the necessity of this task to save souls, and the practicality of continuing an intricate economy which sustained their own Orders and their own upkeep. Their listeners had to attend Mass, but they also might come upon friars as they held forth at festivals, markets, and frequent feast days. Throughout the Franciscan's collection, reminders to the clergy are given on how to modify, emphasize, or rework a story so as to stick in the minds of their impressionable audiences. Jones in his introduction notes how these sermons "indicate what preachers thought a congregation might find plausible, and they therefore constitute an important source for the mentalités of the past." 

Scholar Alan E. Bernstein is quoted by Jones as to how exempla demonstrate a "clerical calculation of popular concerns," and how preachers had to keep their credibility about the most astonishing reports shared. The Franciscan author notes more than once his own presence at the recital of amazing stories, or vouches for them as seen or heard or endured by others. By such referrals to authority, appeals to truth prove convincing.

For instance, one example elaborating the impact of prayer comes from the very village where his own father lives, he relates. A clerk named John tramped out in the middle of the night to visit his concubine. (The friar knows them both.) As the errant clerk sneaked out to his lover's neighboring village, a large dog loomed. The dog whirls around and challenges him in English: "Give me your sword!" The clerk refuses, gripping the weapon while defying his adversary, replying "still more fiercely in English, 'You lie, by the death of Christ!'" The articulate enemy is shown then to be the devil in canine disguise. But the beast disappears instantly to attest to the power of prayer--even when by a sinner Christ's name is invoked. 

The accompanying collection now in the British Library, by a Dominican friar based likely at Cambridge, fills its contents with similar tales. Even if Jones eschews comment on the differences in tone or emphases between the two manuscripts as literature, the latter anthology to me appears slightly more elevated in style, if equally dense in everyday name-date-fact stolidly arrayed to prove that the fantastic contents are not fevered fiction.

Jones selects fifty-two of its 315 stories. These are less helpfully arranged than the Franciscan edition, which itself by contrast reveals valuable insight into the nature of how such material could be packaged for users. The Dominican does not intersperse advice about the adaptation of the stories but lets them follow one another without comment or headings. About forty percent of its contents expound upon dogmatic matters, and the rest treat of sins and vices. 

One example, the last exemplum included, tells of a Norwich bailiff--a profession proverbially treated along with lawyers as avaricious, rapacious, and cruel. It conveys this slight shift in style. The "still hard-hearted bailiff" dies, and his son asks how he fares above, or below. His father replies: "The Son of God denied me and took me up most harshly and placed me at the centre of His wheel, where the axle of a cart or wagon is always turning, where there is never any rest but always toil and travail while the cart is drawn by animals." The careful phrasing, the extended syntax, and the humiliating nature of the haughty bailiff's punishment all illustrate the use of a typical image and inclusion of dialogue to drive home the moral of a typical tale. 

This book, intended for seminars on medieval religion and popular culture, may benefit also any reader eager to find out more about how men and women once may have conceived their world and the next world. Jones in his introduction explains the contexts for sermonizing and for the imperative upon priests to educate the unlettered and the common folk as well as their fellow clergy, depending on the adaptation of the contents. Finally, an up-to-date bibliography allows scholars to learn still more about the wide range of themes and applications employed by those who incorporated sermons and stories into their own efforts to save souls.
(Posted to New York Journal of Books 5-11-11.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

James Blish's "Doctor Mirabilis": Book Review

Along with Helen Waddell's "Peter Abelard," this novel recreates the struggle for individual conscience against clerical conformity marvelously and movingly. It is not easy; more difficult than Waddell if as ambitious as the previous [Amazon US] reviewer's nod to "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco in its intellectual range and intricate themes. As a "trained medievalist" myself I found Blish's research impressively integrated into his evocation of the times when Roger Bacon fought the political and ecclesiastical powers to advance experimental science, and the need for the forces of reason to assert themselves, however hesitantly due to the lack of scientific progress, during the thirteenth century. [Blish was renowned for science fiction eminence, but this 1971 novel deserves its place in his pantheon. I like the pulp paperback subtitle!]

As Blish tells in his preface, he captures the syntax and flavor of Middle English in passages where characters would have reverted to it rather than the French of court and diplomat, or the Latin of friars and scholars. The earlier chapters can take, therefore, a while to sink in as you adjust your mind to a different dialect, a different mode of expression. But this then allows you deeper immersion into the mentalities of the characters, often taken from real life chronicles, in an era where friars and inquisitors, kings and barons, heirs and bishops, all contended for the prizes that Church and State contended to control.

Blish expands the little we may know of Bacon's personal story and mixes in the ideas of his era. He captures what Paris and Oxford must have felt like as the universities grew larger and less tolerant. This makes a nice companion with Waddell for the scene since Abelard, and with Eco for the twist on the controversies that while shelved under philosophy or theology now back then drew partisans and protesters to take sides as vehemently as would Marxists or neo-cons in our own time.

Roger outwits his temporal masters, and he learns how to practice disguise. He inquires into alchemy and takes on Thomistic doctrines in the name of greater fidelity to innovation, even as he must rein in his own tendencies under an Order and Papacy who fear schism and heresy, as well it seems as any independence of thought. You find yourself eager to see who wins the Parisian disputation of Roger with Albertus Magnus, you watch as the chained mastiff at a decaying castle snarls as Roger talks with a forlorn noblewoman, you witness the interrogation of radicals by those in charge. You enter the prison cell where dissident friars seeking the apocalyptic reforms and Holy Poverty are jailed, and you are there, somehow, at this dogged English Franciscan's last moments.

For all its challenges, this book proved a valuable testimony to Blish's ability to make us care about the plight of an inquirer whose name now, if barely recalled, is shrouded in magic and hearsay. Blish separates what may well have happened, and he brings us as close to the what-if reality as we can come. Highly recommended for the undaunted reader willing to rise up to a level demanding attention and rewarding concentration. (Posted to Amazon US without brackets, 7-11-10)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ben Howard's "Entering Zen": Book Review

Fixing a sewer pipe, buying paint, wielding a chainsaw, riding a motorcycle, and changing a diaper: Zen moments can arrive anytime. Poet and critic Ben Howard shows us, in seventy-five essays about a thousand words each, how to learn to perceive the passing moment as the immediate entry into deeper awareness. He eschews sentimentality, avoids bromides, and shares compassion. 

While never drifting into cliches or gliding into the ether, Howard's commonsense, steady, and alert gaze at what he sees from the vantage point of a retired professor of English in upstate New York reveals the insights he has gleaned from decades of "just sitting"-- and from moving about his neighborhood and writing for his small-town paper what he sees that can help readers learn more about Zen, and perhaps to take up some of its practices for themselves. With this collection, what first appeared in the local paper and on his "One Time, One Meeting" blog can be consulted easily, and returned to frequently for inspiration and stimulation. 

I first found out about his essays via a web search for images of a fountain pen to accompany a blog entry of my own. His piece, on how a fountain pen's disassembly taught one about the Heart Sutra teaching that "form and emptiness" define each other, stuck with me, as a lover of pens (mine was canary while his was plum, the same Sailor brand as it happened) and as someone starting to learn about Zen when I happened upon the website. Since then, for over two years, I've followed these pieces as they've appeared every other week. 

In each, he opens with an observation, on Alex Rodriguez, a poem by Jane Hirshfield or Seamus Heaney or Basho, the classified ads that nestle near the column itself in its first incarnation, a heard fragment of conversation, a scene from the news, or getting smacked by a Delaware wave, among dozens of possibilities in these pages. Then, he moves from its lesson to a parallel in Zen. He may cite a venerable Japanese teaching-- he is a longtime student in the Rinzai Zen tradition-- or a contemporary master. One citation that stuck? Charlotte Joko Beck's admonition to "give up hope," for a Zen practitioner does not sit or act in hopes of a goal, in search of equanimity let alone enlightenment. He or she takes up the discipline for its own sake.

Howard possesses empathy, and unlike some Zen expounders he does not berate or chide the reader for a lack of gumption. Instead, many of his pieces end by suggesting, more gently, to the reader to take up a simple meditation exercise and to try it out for a month or two to see if it makes a difference. This aligns for me with the Buddha's instruction to not accept any teaching unless it jibes with one's own understanding and makes sense for one's own outlook. 

In "Back to School," he tries to sum up Zen's reminder to shake us free from habit. Or, as Hirshfield defines it in seven words he cites of hers: "everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention." Howard explains: "To cultivate direct, intuitive perception is the real work of the Zen practitioner." He warns of too much book-learning without practical experience to temper words with action, or lack of action. "Practicing Zen is not a process of acquisition, nor is its aim the mastery of a body of knowledge. On the contrary, it is in large part a process of unlearning, of becoming aware of our layers of conditioning rather than adding another layer."

My favorite examples of Howard's guidance come from a few entries later in this collection, which begins the end of January 2008 and concludes two years later (but his blog continues at its usual rate of production since then). In "Children of the Sun," he takes up Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson's use of the Irish language to explore the meaning of the titular phrase in a poignant fashion. (I go on record that I favor but one of the two readings of a particular Gaelic phrase pondered therein, however!) 

"Pursuing the Real" tells how one Ginny Lou, an Aussie greyhound, took off from her track to pursue a real rabbit and not the mechanical one. This illustrates the steady nature of Zen, focused on the physical roots of our breathing self, from which we can never be sidetracked for long. "Leaning into the Curves" compares how to ride a motorcycle with how Pema Chodron advises to get unhooked from negativity. Finally, "Effortless Effort" neatly begins with the contemplation of an Aero Press coffee maker and segues into the President's reaction to the shootings in Tucson earlier this year. 

I have shared that last piece with my Technology, Culture & Society students; I have sent the helpful one on making green tea to my tea-drinking dharma friends; I have posted many more on Facebook or sent them to readers I sense may share my enthusiasm. Without any pretension, but with careful prose and a subtle poetic skill, Howard reminds me here of what I first encountered (years before) in his essays on Irish writing "The Pressed Melodeon" and more recently in his "Leaf, Sunlight, Asphalt" (2009; sample poem, info and part of my review here) verses: the calm, recollected power of tranquility amidst energy. 

(Posted to Amazon US & without these links, 5-23-11, I reviewed "Leaf" alongside Eamon Carr's complementary "The Origami Crow" in Estudios Irlandeses 5 [2009]). 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Eamonn Wall's "Writing the Irish West": Book Review

This Irish poet-critic teaches in St. Louis and frequently summers in Colorado. His continental crossings led him to connect writers from the West of Ireland with those of the American landscapes he visited. This book collects seven essays about seven authors from Ireland who explore on the page the scenes that resemble those of the plains and mountains--and the oceans missing from the interiors which their American counterparts generally inhabit. 

He starts with Tim Robinson, a Yorkshire-born, Cambridge-educated mathematician and visual artist turned literary cartographer of the Aran Islands, Connemara, and the Burren along Ireland's Atlantic coasts. Wall compares Robinson's "deepmap" with that drawn in William Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth over a Kansas county. His careful maps and his intricate travel narratives continue to construct an intimate and exacting record that makes out of the lack of previous Irish mapping a strength. By "tracing" his paths inch-by-inch, Wall finds, Robinson shows how he continues the tradition of the oral place-name stories and verbal accounts left by previous walkers on this ancient terrain.

Gary Snyder's impact upon the Beats and the Buddhists they spawned has a long reverberation. Wall connects his retreat to an "island" on a ridge in the Sierra Nevada with the Ardilaun island redoubt where Richard Murphy resides off the Irish coast. Their common roots in ecological sensibilities enrich their poetry.

Mary O'Malley's poetry also comes from the coast, but further north, in the shrinking Irish-speaking communities of Connemara. Her County Galway home, in an area both depopulating as natives leave and repopulating as second-home owners and exurban city dwellers move in, straddles a bilingual region, where the Irish drifts across the English vernacular. Her poetry, infused by her feminist sensibilities, Wall argues, also enters a liminal realm, where the frontiers give way to less-fixed lines, about a people whose allegiances may lie closer to New York City than Dublin.

This western orientation characterizes the late John McGahern's novels. Considered, as Wall notes, perhaps the successor to Beckett and Joyce for his spare, searing fiction, McGahern's based more inland, but he connects with O'Malley's interest in the clash between imagination and reality. Wall quotes Larry McMurtry: "the romance of the West was always more potent than the truth". Owen Wister, Alice Munro, and Wallace Stegner enter Wall's chapter, as he links rural isolation and emotional resilience or its lack to the characters in McGahern's third collection of stories, 1985's High Ground. McGahern's sullen protagonists simmer and do a slow burn; some burst into rage, others come to terms with mortality, and a few even seek awkward grace.

London-born Martin McDonagh's "Dante Dodge City" mirrors Quentin Tarantino's mayhem and Sam Peckinpah's showdowns, as Wall forges bonds to Peckinpah's own influence, John Ford, son of Galway immigrants. Their cinematic sagas drew on mythic heroes allowed to kill. Peckinpah and McDonagh place their bloody battles just over the border, in Mexico or in the Irish West.

McDonagh, like Tarantino, appears an "anteater" in the way he sucks up popular culture, rock music, film and television predecessors into what appears to be not only horrifying but humorous scenarios of tragicomic chaos. He breaks down boundaries of taste and decorum. He claims to bring the energy of punk into his plays. However, Wall doubts that McDonagh for all his manufactured outrage is as original a force as he's hyped. Wall reminds us that Hollywood's visions--as witnessed by McDonagh's shift into film with his short Six Shooter and the full-length In Bruges--dominate the London-raised but Connemara-connected playwright's sensibilities, and that gore goes back to the Greeks. Since the Aran plays of Synge and the reveries of Yeats, the Irish from somewhere else have entered the West to caricature its unrepentant, unreformed natives.

Twice, Wall quotes Richard White's "nationally imagined" vs. "locally imagined" concepts of the West. Wall adds that, for such as McDonagh, the international distinction vs. the national one works for Ireland, as it did for White for America. The notion of a "simultaneously savage and beautiful" domain captivates ticket buyers for McDonagh's string of plays and for films.

For those outside this garish spotlight, such as Sean Lysaght, a more solid meaning rests in the modest flora rather than the more advanced, or regressive, fauna stalking McDonagh's Irish bogs and island rocks. Lysaght's 1991 poem cycle follows the example, eighty years before The Clare Island Survey, of pioneering naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger, who roamed the same landscape. The Irish language floats into the names for the plants and flowers, contemplated by Lysaght or catalogued by Praeger.

Finally, Moya Cannon's Galway-city residence does not keep her from poetry which captures the bioregional. Wall sets Northern English poet Kathleen Raine's verse next to Cannon's to find similar longings. And, circling back, he also finds connections to Gary Snyder's examples.

The first three essays originally appeared as journal articles. They demonstrate the shift in tone from his easygoing preface, as Wall assumes the role of scholar confidently. He takes on considerable challenges in simplifying Robinson's admirable but dauntingly elaborate explorations of Irish landscapes. Wall stretches to include travel writers and two fellow countrymen and contemporaries of Robinson, Colin Thubron and Bruce Chatwin. Wall's perspective widens, but its depths demand close attention in this very ambitious article. The erudite and lofty reach extended by Wall in his pieces on Robinson, Murphy, and O'Malley means that the reader must cling to some rather attenuated tendrils which curl far from their Irish-American grafted roots.

I would have liked more inclusion of Irish-language authors. As Wall argues, these indigenous interpreters remain far less known, inevitably. This volume could have assisted in guiding a wider audience to the plays of Antoine Ó Flatharta, the many local storytellers and singers distributed by Cló Iar-Chonnachta, or the lyrics of sean-nós (old-style unaccompanied) singers such as Caítlin Maude or Róisín Elsafty. He does cite the better known poets Maírtín Ó Diréain, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, if largely in passing. Wall's admission of decayed fluency in Irish itself attests to the costs as well as the benefits of a long time abroad. 

Although pitched at an academic audience, readers familiar or not with these writers may wish to learn more. Wall integrates eco-critical foundations. He avoids theoretical jargon or literary theory-mongering. While stuffed with references and sprinkled with citations, he deploys his learning lightly, considering the usual contributions by most professors to criticism today. Professor Wall succeeds in directing attention to an innovative, cross-cultural field of earth-based, multidisciplinary research. ( 5-21-11 & Amazon US: 5-11-11; Posted 5-10-2011 to PopMatters)

Friday, May 20, 2011

William McGowan's "Only Man Is Vile": Book Review

This 1992 account on "the Tragedy of Sri Lanka" lives up (or down) to its title. Grim and dispiriting, nevertheless this American journalist seeks the truth about what, in 1988, already had been India's Vietnam, "in which the world's fourth-largest army was neutralized by a group of teenagers in sarongs and rubber slippers." (307)

Garbed in tiger-stripes, singer M.I.A.'s defended her father's role in the Tamil insurgency, comprised of such a determined cadre. Yet McGowan fills his book with atrocities done by "freedom fighters," against the Indian troops brought in as "peacekeepers" in the civil war fought between Tamils allied to 55 million mainland Indians and a resurgent Sinhalese nation determined to defend this Buddhist heartland against intrusive India. Buddhists confronted with the regime's role in sectarian chauvinism and ethnic cleansing need to admit that the aggression that the Sinhalese campaign by legal and illegal means to defeat the Tamil guerrillas (which took nearly two decades after this book appeared to occur) shows the debased condition-- when ideology cynically detaches from mercy-- of a cherished, yet here degraded, faith. When Buddhism's made a badge of identity and not a force for goodness, it's ugly.

McGowan explores both sides. The Indians caught in the middle, sympathizing with the Tamils often even as they are charged to punish them. The Sinhalese majority for McGowan's an object lesson in betrayal of their Buddhist legacy. On their island, they believe they are the truest heirs to Buddha; they also act as if the Tamils are a fifth column for Indian imperialism. The Sinhalese take over the independent nation as a "majority with an inferiority complex." (112)

Sinhala leaders punish dissent. Secular critics fear death, while schools bow to government dictates. Rather than nonviolent compassion, under post-colonial affirmative action the perils of multiculturalist favoritism emerge: race-normed college admissions, jingoistic curricula, linguistic promotions, and ethnic entitlements. Such "ideas shaped by a romantic infatuation with the idea of distinct cultural identities based on invidious scholarship and demagoguery" (8) display the downsides of identity-based political power and ethnically unethical social reform.

The results can be tedious, lots of names and factions and interviews that seem perfunctory, or insufficient. The book wanders about and sections appear to float untethered to any other chapter. The single map is ridiculously illegible as if photocopied from an Indian atlas.

Earliest colonists devastated native traditions but this got barely an aside in one sentence. I wanted to know the author of a biography of the late-Victorian reformer Dharmapala, but no name was given. The Jayanthi revival in 1956 that sparked the Buddhist resurgence seems under-analyzed. Photos would have been helpful. There's an index but no sources cited.

Many sections may be of more value to historians than casual readers such as myself. Yet, McGowan strives in his time there-- confronted by stonewalling from cowed intellectuals, feared by terrified peasants, under fire, amidst censorship, within rot and inertia-- to show us what he did manage to find. "There was a lot of construction going on almost everywhere, but it was hard to tell which things were being built and which things were falling apart. Everything seemed to slope" (17)

In battle, the fear hits him more than the weary natives. "The sounds of helicopters and shelling in the distance were no more threatening than locusts on a town green in Iowa." (75) As he tries to interview Tigers and the Indians they fight, you feel his terror-- the sense that life comes cheap heightens. Yet, "I found myself going out of peer pressure, an underrated force in the secret history of war correspondence." (83) After an attack in Colombo: "In the middle of a spreading bo tree near the police station was what I thought was an arm or a child's leg." (85)

The Tamils come off no better. The Tigers set off land mines near civilian settlements. The Indian forces or Sri Lankan troops will mount reprisals. As for those caught in the middle? "Better that they were killed, Father," a Jesuit priest is told by a Tiger. "More propaganda for us." (234) Tigers and Sri Lankan soldiers stage a firefight at a Sunday market in Batti. At the morgue, McGowan watches as the civilian casualties get displayed. "One grief-stricken woman was bent over her dead husband, with her fingers delicately placed in his ear, as if in love-making." (248)

The "National Ideology" evolving out of "national feeling" translated into Sinhala as "race consciousness" proves sobering. The JVP terrorizes Sinhalese unwilling to back terrorism and chauvinism as patriotism. I've read a lot about Northern Irish parallels to this insular trap. It shared the emphasis on shibboleths; in names used for people and places and causes; the tangle of political parties and militias; occupation troops from a nearby superpower siding with the paramilitaries they share an ethnic identity with: these contexts add up.

Similarly, it's insightful on the support exacted from those near the crossfire, even if they seek safety. As for grassroots backing of the Tigers: "Like Buddhists in the south who abhorred the slaughter of animals but heartily partook of what the butcher was selling, many Tamils disdained the intimidation and violence of the LTTE but would accept the rewards that violence brought them." na(325)

Finally, in the later chapters, McGowan tries to reconcile his early romanticism about Sri Lanka as a Buddhist paradise or tropical retreat with his harrowing experiences. He befriends "Mr. Crab," a teenaged beggar crippled by polio. Together, they try to climb Sri Pala, Adam's Peak, and through this curious representative of one figure transcending sectarian, conventional divisions, McGowan seeks to explore the loss of Buddhist tolerance and Western complicity. It makes for a thoughtful coda to a story needing the human touch, the moment of recovery, after so much pain. (Posted to Amazon US 5-17-10)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Richard Bernstein's "Ultimate Journey": Book Review

Can we find ourselves on the road? Or, does travel increase longing for home, loneliness, isolation? An experienced "China expert," New York-based journalist Bernstein subtitles his narrative: "Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment." But what he finds is less fulsome than many who go East from the West.

"The Buddha's actual birthplace is marked by an uninteresting stone shrine surrounded by fields buzzing with locusts. Nearby is a fetid pond where the baby was washed by his mother. Nobody was around except for a volunteer guide who tried hard but didn't speak English. I was feeling the onset of an intestinal pestilence." (205) It's 112 F/45 C. He's tired and a long way from NYC.

Published in 2001, this account comes while he traveled through the PRC in the wake of the Belgrade bombing by U.S. forces of the Chinese embassy, which arouses animosity among many who scrutinize him at the start of his seven-thousand mile journey. He follows Hsuan Tsang's 629 A.D. trail that took sixteen years. Restless, at 55 Bernstein, childless and never married, starts with his Chinese emigrant girlfriend from Xian onto the Road of Great Events into Central Asia towards India. Yet, he does not make a pilgrimage out of curiosity about Buddhism's origins, which compelled Hsuan Tsang, but out of restlessness, to leave routine before it is too late.
"A great part of travel, especially to places where you don't know anybody, consists of fatigue and lumpy mattresses and touts who cheat you and dinner by yourself in rooms full of people who are dining together. The Chinese have a saying: The wise man is he who can hear the dogs barking in the next village but has no desire to go there. Perhaps this is the same idea as Blaise Pascal's celebrated penséé about all human evil coming from man's inability to sit quietly in a room." (9)
This report lacks a lot of purple prose; Bernstein avoids description often and the results of his journey, particularly the Central Asian stretches, surprisingly prove mundane. I was surprised he found so little of interest for long passages on his trip. He goes off instead on tangents about his youth and the lack of depth in Hsuan Tsang's own often self-effacing chronicle makes a telling comparison between today's self-absorbed trekkers and ancient stoic seekers. But, Bernstein's ideas even if sporadically engaging do enrich the telling, uneven as it may be. I'd advise sticking with it, as the text's energy picks up once he enters the Indian subcontinent.

He can sum up culture clashes well. "There are countries where the cars stop for people and where the people stop for cars." (20) Americans "are uncomfortable seeing others labor physically while we are at ease," contrasted to post-colonial societies such as England, India, and China.

Religion for him as a secularized skeptic does not matter as much as identification with his people, and exploring the philosophical paradoxes of the Yogacara school that engrossed Hsuan Tsang. "The issue for a Christian or Jew is only secondarily: is it true? Primarily it is: what does God demand of me?" While in Hinduism and Buddhism, it's not so much "belief in a Supreme Being" in its manifestations as it is "the true nature of reality, the reality that lies behind appearances and whose apprehension will enable the devotee to escape the grip of earthly attachment and experience a higher happiness." (273)

On his adventure, Bernstein's interest appears to enliven as perhaps like Hsuan Tsang he enters India. This section's the most compelling, as Bernstein follows his predecessor into the heart of the Buddhist paradox: "that if all is illusion, then nothing can be known". (224) He's read about Buddhism but his stubbornness regarding its basic teachings about impermanence and not clinging to concepts appears almost willfully obstinate. He may never solve this famous crux, but he admits at least at last that letting go and being honest with one's own character proves a reliable path. He vows to return to his life with the woman who will be his fiancée and to settle down after a life of roaming Asia and reporting about it in Manhattan.

Bernstein intersperses his own upbringing as a Jewish boy born to immigrants on a Connecticut chicken farm with his struggles to figure out his place in a rootless upbringing. He gains subtle insights. In an orphanage in Amritsar, he takes photos (none are included strangely and the volume lacks illustrations) of the boys, but of one who's blind: "I left my camera in the bag where it belonged. To photograph him would be to announce that I could see what he couldn't-- himself." (195)

The search with Zhongmei-- and his departure from her when he must alone go past the Chinese borders-- to find his own identity impels his outward quest. It's often a slow and routine slog rather than a thrilling adventure. It may not please those used to travel tales full of colorful characters and wry mishaps, but as with Hsuan Tsang's example (however dimly pursued) the diligence Bernstein applies on and off makes this a thoughtful-- if stumbling and erratic-- journey. (Posted to Amazon 5-9-10)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

U Dhammaloka: the first Irish Buddhist monk?

I drove out to UC Riverside yesterday to hear a professor in from Cork talk about perhaps the first Irish Buddhist monk. At least the first one we know of--who took the robes in Burma-- fighting Christian incursions, and defending dharma after his ordination appointing himself "the Bishop of Rangoon." His real name may or not be known. His birth and death, to date, remain speculative. He's a predecessor, combative if genuine, of more refined and less cantankerous Western converts. His appearance, suddenly in 1900, and his fading out by 1914, makes up a rather Zelig-like hobo boho character in Asia, where he covered considerable territory. He garnered fervent press-- some generated by alter ego/ nom de plume "Captain Daylight." He's a character worth getting to know, if we can know him.

The 2011 issue of Contemporary Buddhism featured Brian Bocking's article alongside scholars Thomas Tweed, Alicia Turner, and Laurence Cox(see an earlier version of his initial research)  See a YouTube video by Prof. Bocking; he and his colleagues hosted a UC Cork Dhammaloka Day conference Feb. 19th 2011.] It highlights their research on U Dhammaloka (?1856 - ?1914).

"A migrant worker from Dublin, Dhammaloka was an autodidact, atheist and temperance campaigner who became known throughout colonial Asia as an implacable critic of Christian missionaries and a tireless transnational organiser of Asian Buddhists from Burma to Japan and from Singapore to Siam."

Pursuing rumors of Hibernians on the prototypical hippie trail a century before the Beatles and the Maharishi, independently Turner in Canada and Cox at Maynooth learned of this Irish emigre who in late Victorian times changed his name, having "gone native" in whatever passed as a predecessor for Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac's "dharma bums" fifty years later, roaming Goa, Kathmandu, or Benares as third-gen hippies today. Bocking caught a reference to UD, contacted the other two scholars, and the result became their founding of "Dhammaloka Studies."

I've been interested in this Irish-global spin too, by my own investigation into "the invention of the concept of 'Celtic Buddhism'" in the new edition of New Religious Movements in Ireland co-edited by Laurence Cox. He and Maria Griffin contributed a fine essay on the history of Irish Buddhism, which will blossom into his book; another on Dhammaloka (his name means "Light of the World") is also in the works by the trio. This late-Victorian/Edwardian anti-colonial, freethinking counterculture leaves long traces in what Thomas Tweed, expert on American Buddhism, calls "vernacular intellectualism" which leaves fewer books behind but echoes so many chats and campfires simmering from a vibrant oral culture, a streetwise autodidactic tradition, and maybe a bit of Irish anticlerical, anti-nomian, rabble-rousing.

The talk by Prof. Bocking proved worthwhile for my sixty-mile excursion (one way, at least). It also proved remarkably entertaining, for both professor and his elusive if emphatic (he used the powers of persuasion personally and in the press well as a predecessor of today's pundits on book tours and Twitter--I imagine him on Comedy Central) raconteur told tale tales enduring a hundred years on. PowerPoint danced as this scholar shared the joy and fascination of their pursuit of this globally slippery figure, who left behind a lot of press and a lot of mystery. That poster shows what may be the only photo-- so far-- of the man who may or not be Larry O'Rourke, William Colvin, or Lawrence Carroll, born maybe in Booterstown, Blackrock, Dublin.

Much more in terms of fact and still some possible fiction can be found in the CB journal, but suffice it to say even since its November 2010 appearance, data continue to be unearthed, or surmised, about this elusive, enigmatic, but formidable and somehow perhaps rather admirable, atheist, yet sincere and determined (if by any means necessary, bending the truth of who authored some of his many pamphlets from his Buddhist Tract Society-- attributed to him was a poetic hymn sung by Japanese Buddhists in San Francisco!) contrarian.

Sitting there on the third floor of the UCR Humanities building, overlooking a track field and biscuit-brown rocky hills out of a Western stage set, just before summer melts this Inland Empire outpost into searing smog, I welcomed the chance to be among a dozen intellectual types, however briefly. My 120-mile drive kept me "driven" to hear the results of Prof. Bocking and his colleagues. It reminded me of what I was trained for at another UC campus eighty-odd miles nearer the Pacific (if still not on it, damn it), and what inspires me to continue my own small steps in researching other aspects of Buddhism and the West, including Ireland but not excluding, say, punk rock and sobriety programs and other efflorecences as novel now as UD back then.

He claimed to work on a fruit-boat on the Sacramento River, the Acme, about the time of a great invention in the southern part of the Golden State. The naval orange was born in Riverside, a bit earlier than UD's appearance as "The Missionary (for Buddhism, against Christianity) of Burma"; the seedless fruit's cheerful appearance, so orange, I wonder might have been replicated in this monk's robes. The English came to Riverside and praised its salubrious climate as a resort. A century later, it's shorthand for once exurban, now suburban sprawl and dreary weather. I welcomed the glimpse from the freeway east of San Antonio winery, the last of its kind too (founded three years after UD's disappearance from the historical record), if under the powerpoles (I've been told by my parents upon sighting these that this was the first word I ever said) next to the freeway junction. I'll make my way out of the way to patronize it the next rare time out there; I pass their downtown L.A. branch, which survived Prohibition, a few miles away from my home on my commute.

Crossing UCR for another, less familiar commute as I had to then head off to work, I found a windfall. Still, despite the sprawling postwar campus, its agricultural origins as a study station for horticulture remains as experimental groves surround the southern edge of UCR., the last remnant of what once was the world's center for this sweet orb. Near the Barn, an old theatre converted that reminded me of my beloved childhood Claremont's final days as a citrus producer, a few handsome trees flourished among cement paths. On the ground, a perfect globe in color, two leaves still attached, fresh. I picked it up and carried it back to my florescent-lit cubby at my far more humble campus, before I had to teach nights, sixty miles away the other direction in rush-hour traffic. There, I enjoyed the best orange I ever tasted.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Pósadh ach níl dhá sochraid?

Fhreastail mé pósadh agus dhá chomthíonol cuimhne faoi deireanach. Bhí pósadh gharneacht na mbean cheile agam ar feadh mhean an mhí hAibreal ann. Ansin, chuaigh mé ar an maidín Lá Bealtaine go cnocadoireacht i gcuimhne an scribhneoir áituilta Jack Smith; chruinnigh mé ina thráthnóna sin ar trasna an cathair céanna ina seirbhis Giúdach i omos na mathair chara a fuair bás go tobann í. 

Lhabhairt mo bhean cheile ar son beirt phósadh, Marlene agus Caoimhin. Is amhlaigh, fheidmithe sisean ag seirbhis ina halla in aice leis an lámh leis an cathair lár. Bhain sult as ár teaghlach a feicéail Marlene níos sona.

Dhá tseachtaine seo chugainn, shiúil Léna agus mé suas an mullach Sléibhe Washington leis feadain bheag. Lhean bailiú an slí féin na Jack Smith nuair ag síúlta ag imeall an bótharín agus bealachaí i gceantar air. Fhás an lá is te go tapaidh ach bhí maith liom an radharc ar thuaidh go halainn na sliabhraon Naomh Gabriel mór leis bricin de sneachta ar barr beann shléibhe Naomh Antoine agus slisnín an tAigéan Ciúin ansíud siar fiú.
Go luath, caith muid ag dul go raibh a sochraid duine an iarnoin sin. D'eag sí gan rabhadh, gan fógra. Líon  slua an sionagóg.  

Ní raibh faire go cruinnithe, mar sin féin. Déarfaí "tórramh" de réir Giúdachas ach níl focal féin as beasa agus bealaí Eirinn. Ní bhfuair "seirbhis i gcuimhne" i mo foclóir. 

Ceapaim faoi difríocht a idir-dhealú a dheanamh idir dhá traidisiúin. Tagann an muintir na chorp ina Eirinn agus fanann drong go ceann tamaill eile. Ar ndóigh, níor fhán cuideachta Giúdacht i láthair chorp níos mo an lá. Adhlacaim é go díreach agus ní thaispéanfaidh é, go fírinne.

"Ar dheis Dé go raibh siad."

A wedding and not two funerals?

I attended a wedding and two memorial gatherings recently. There was the wedding of a grandniece of my wife during the middle of April. Then, I went on May Day morning hill-walking in commemoration of the local writer Jack Smith; I gathered that afternoon across the same city in a Jewish service in honor of the mother of a friend whom death took suddenly. 

My wife said good words for the married couple, Marlene and Kevin.  In fact, she herself officiated at the service in a hall near on hand to the heart of the city.  Our family took pleasure to see Marlene so happy. 

Two weeks after, Layne and I walked up the summit of Mount Washington with a small troop. The band followed the same way of Jack Smith when he hiked around the lanes and trails in his district. The day grew quite warm rapidly but the beautiful northerly view pleased me of the great San Gabriel Mountain range with a speck of snow on the peak of Mount San Antonio and the tiny slice of Pacific Ocean even far off westward.

Soon after, we had to go to attend a funeral for a person that afternoon. She died without warning, without notice. A crowd filled the synagogue. 

There was not a wake exactly, all the same.  Somebody may say a "wake" on account of Judaism but there is not the same word for the manners and customs of Ireland. I did not find "memorial service in my dictionary. 

I think this difference distinguishes the two traditions.  The mourners come in Ireland and a crowd stays for a while after. Of course, the Jewish congregation does not wait by the side of a body more than a day. It's buried straightaway and it's not displayed, certainly.

"May their souls rest with God." (Grianghraf/photo: le/by Laura Randall: Slí Jack Smith/Trail.)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Christopher Newfield's "The Unmaking of the Public University": Book Review

Has the American right-wing conspired to take down state universities? Does a “multiracial, worker-inclusive majority” benefiting from higher education that is funded by taxpayers threaten conservative politicians and corporate managers? The author of Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, a University of California, Santa Barbara, professor of English, argues that the past 25 years of advances by a “college-educated economic majority” threaten the establishment. Christopher Newfield, who came up through California’s once-vibrant university system to achieve tenure at one of its respected campuses, reports from his own research with faculty committees on a “roundabout weapon” which the reactionary culture warriors bent on taking down the “mass middle class” have brandished to disenfranchise a restive, assertive, and diverse majority.

This lengthy study follows Newfield’s Ivy and Industry as a history of what happens when humanists meet industrial (and now post-industrial) knowledge managers and technocrats. As markets and profits demanded increasing attention in the ‘80s, the humanities faltered. Business schools, defense grants, marketing opportunities—spurred by shifts from factories to information—asserted their power over universities. These turned “privatized knowledge factories” as public funding dipped. For Newfield’s argument, this shift represents an oblique strategy by the Right to undermine a class-based, earnest, insurgent cadre determined to replace “traditional business values” with an alliance of students turned managers and leaders, schooled in the civil rights movement and anti-authoritarian attitudes.

Part One, “The Meaning of a Majoritarian Society”, analyzes this challenge. “Inventing PC: The War on Equality” presents the conflict of “political correctness” in the late 20th century “culture wars”. Those angered at diversity are determined to resegregate student bodies along class and racial lines—which recalls the stratifications of earlier decades. We now see “Market Substitutes for General Development” studies, industry-collegiate links, donor reliance, and the weakening of English departments. Funding favored technological fields as public money and political support declined for the radicalized liberal arts and social sciences. Finally, “The New War—and After” brings the transfer of power into the past decade, when what Newfield interprets as “poor data poorly interpreted” exaggerated the post-9/11 dangers of “subversive faculty” and assumed radical bias.

Allow my autobiographical digression. I’m also a Dodger fan from Newfield’s generation and hometown; I’m from a blue-collar family that our state’s postwar UC Master Plan was meant to assist as I pursued my own higher education at a “public Ivy” campus with a world-renowned reputation. I attended a sister campus to Newfield’s UCSB, down the coast at UCLA in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I taught six years (the limit) at UCLA as a teaching assistant, and then in Los Angeles public schools, as I finished my doctorate in English literature. I have taught since then at a non-public (but “minimally selective”) institution serving mainly immigrant and first-generation Southern Californian students from largely non-traditional backgrounds, albeit often older than a typical UC undergraduate. My students represent a pragmatic cohort often less academically prepared but arguably more career-focused than some UC liberal-arts majors.

Chapter 9 of Part III, “English’s Market Retreat”, scrutinizes the literary and cultural study (LCS) field. Newfield and I attended graduate school during the post-1970 collapse of lifelong job opportunities for English PhDs. As jobs increased for non-tenure track applicants like me, jobs decreased for tenure hires like him. English departments responded to this “contingent” or adjunct (and less often, full-time without tenure) trend in a hesitant manner. Humanists denounced the labor shift; then they adapted it.

The Modern Language Association (MLA) failed to offer practical reforms.  A 2001-2001 MLA analysis of the LCS job market defended “oversupply” as the norm. Fatalism, the public’s growing sense that the humanities lacked utility, and demands for required composition rather than LCS courses all weakened humanists, who tended to resist commercialism. They resented downsizing, while budgets shifted expenses through a reliance on teaching assistants and “visiting” rather than full-time (and tenured) faculty—who tended to resent teaching composition or language-learning classes to lower-level students or even undergraduates, as such tedium distracted them from rarified research, I may add.

Critics of austerity succumbed to market forces. Peter Drucker’s “knowledge management” innovations applied tough entrepreneurial theory to those bearing “intellectual capital”. This set of principles clashed with those employed increasingly by humanists to justify their reaction to such political blocs, erected to suppress dissent. However, Foucault and Lacan provide fewer principles to assist English professors charged with meeting expenses. Newfield examines this lack of a strong defense as weak offense, but his dry chapter, which might have benefited from campus accounts from those who were there to balance his reliance on “subtle and conflicted formulations”, fails to dramatize the transition over these 35 years, as enacted by thousands of my fellow students and professors.

Elsewhere, he provides a valuable resource in compiling data, inevitably dry but carefully collected, that document how the humanities and social sciences must beg for money that they generated, which is used by universities for engineers or medicine. Drama and music departments decay while MBA programs may enjoy gleaming facilities. While his account passes over the lot of those assigned or resigned to attend such venues, this book appears aimed at administrators of—rather than everyday users of—such spaces.

Newfield, as expected, questions the lack of what he regards as racial diversity in many departments, which he sees as skewed as those for “underrepresented” populations at many public universities. He shows, if too broadly and rapidly, how integration does not always follow demographic change. Economic restratification may solidify after social change. The frenzy for admissions, funds, and research grants increases. Newfield asserts this as a “professional-middle class self-defense”, but I would question his view that this “self-defense” while “apparently color-blind and supportive of diversity” is targeted intentionally against the “racialized masses”.

There may be think-tanks and corporate entities engaged in shadowy subversion; the Koch brothers come to mind (this study first appeared in hardcover in 2008 before they were exposed as funding Tea Party and climate-change denial “grassroots” movements).  Yet on an everyday level, labeling this as a “decentralized and complex campaign to discredit” those progressives challenging business and political elites appears more sensible than to label this a coordinated assault against “racialized masses”—those who aspire to UC admissions appear to me as diverse as Los Angeles itself.

The Price of Admission

Newfield subtitles his account as a “forty-year assault on the middle class”; this amorphous entity itself is more and more a “multiracial” one, comprising immigrants from hundreds of nations and their increasingly intermarried and blended families. The class stratification of this global, entrepreneurial elite, as it settles in the US and seeks inclusion within (or parallels to) admissions programs designed for historically disadvantaged American groups, complicates Newfield’s colleagues’ delineations. Also, the rapid increase in tutors, intensive and pricy SAT preparation, and counselors-for-hire gaming the entry process (as often as neo-con reactionaries) challenges Newfield’s model.

As an observer of the admissions frenzy (and a now a parent of two teens) I suggest that this escalating competition is driven by a corporate-funded tutorial industry—and a desire to attain an affordable, respected degree. In an increasingly multicultural state, most residents outside the affluent or those courted for rare talents face this “brute selectivity”.  Newfield relegates most of his few mentions of Asian American students, who far outnumber at UC their parity in the state population, to a couple of footnotes; he also does not include Indian or Middle Eastern American students in his study.  More consideration of how such “minority” but often markedly “overrepresented” populations effect his findings might have enriched their relevance, for many students seeking technical and business degrees come from these backgrounds, which throw off his assumptions based on a rear-guard action by managers from a conspiratorial “white” cabal. They certainly prove to be capitalists, but they draw from allies worldwide, often with degrees earned here.

Furthermore, the affirmative action programs in which I taught at UCLA in the late ‘80s often enrolled those from upper-middle class suburbs, rather than those from inner-city or rural high schools from where few students entered the UC system, and from which far fewer graduated. A few Asians qualified based on the national origin of their families; most were denied this “bridge program” as based on university-mandated categories relating to “race” more than class. Today, perhaps more than a quarter-century ago, the majority of those applying to UC, I’m guessing, come from weaker-income families. These parents suffer job instability, often regardless of what “ethnicity” or combinations thereof they checked off on an application.

Newfield criticizes the lack of parity as to faculty and diversity. Meritocracy and equality contend. He admits that integration succeeds better at more selective schools. He notes how less elite workplaces integrated as whites “retreat upmarket”, yet he overlooks how those ambitious or motivated students from among non-white populations also follow this migration to more lucrative careers.  At my less prestigious institution, I observe how far more students from “non-traditional” backgrounds seek careers in business, high-tech, management, or in the professions. They rarely enter an unstable, underpaid, overworked occupation reliant on adjunct classes and multiple campuses, amidst “the declining status and working conditions of large sections of college teaching”. 

Regardless of the complexion or gender of those behind the lectern or in the seats, the public university system relies upon quality. Newfield warns of Michigan’s “privatization” and reliance on philanthropy as a harbinger of what happens (as the UC system now proposes) when out-of-state (or international) students paying higher tuition gain a greater share of admissions. When global markets and not state access determine who enters a flagship institution, its reputation as a state-wide system established for local advancement may concomitantly decline.

This message reminds us, as taxpayers, parents, neighbors, colleagues, and coworkers of those enrolled and graduated from the land-grant and state-funded universities, of their importance. If professors questioned the complicity of the US corporate system in angering those who attacked on 9/11, then, after all, these professors were doing their job: to encourage criticism, and to foment debate. Newfield applauds the professoriate for its resistance to revenge, flag-waving, and jingoism. “They refused right judgment and clear action. Or to put another way, they taught.”  Unpopular opinions wilt when unprotected at work, at home, off campus; this makes their shelter on campus all the more urgent.

All the same (here Newfield argues against a former UCLA classmate of mine), I think that he downplays the liberal tendency in the humanities and social sciences to dominate a department by hiring and promotion and course content. What Stanley Fish calls “impaired liberalism” emerges as a challenge to the academic freedom afforded students as well as professors. That is, pressure persists within classrooms for those with less power to accept the positions advocated by those with tenure, who enjoy a protection denied, suppressed, or less likely to be appealed to by the term-paper or dissertation writer, the T.A., the adjunct.

Taxpayers must fund the universities which may and which should question our own ways of making a living, of conducting wars, of denying climate change. Yet I see no contradiction in demanding accountability from institutions founded to serve those from my state, paid for by those of us from our state. Those of us outside the public universities must assure their perpetuation—-for all who seek to learn and to assert facts as distinguished from opinions and cant. This may be a more nuanced position than Newfield and his colleagues may understand. I sympathize as do many humanists with liberal concepts, yet my own eclectic thinking compels me to question arguments arrayed by my peers, students, colleagues, and mentors. That too is part of the higher education I earned in part at UCLA.

Certainly Newfield’s call for remedies restoring the liberal arts and social sciences to their once-respected ranks should be heard. It may be idealistic by definition, but as an interested bystander in the professoriate’s less exalted echelon, I concur that this makes it no less necessary. The problem embeds itself in the institution, funded by a government with whom it often argues.

Universities can’t be capitalist. They need to balance their books, but they need to teach from books, and produce more books, that challenge profit as the price of everything and the value of nothing. Teaching, Newfield concludes, remains “labor-intensive, craft-based creation” which is noncapitalist. “Since capitalism will continue to insist on bottom-line measures of their output, universities will at those times need to be frankly noncapitalist”.  We should be able to afford this ideal of a lively campus, not so much as an ivory tower, but as an open arena for battles even against us, who pay for admission. (PopMatters featured at RePrint: 5-6-11.)

Christopher Robbins' "Apples Are From Kazakhstan": Book Review

First off, "Borat" only earns two asides. Second, this is not as "hilarious" as one prominent blurb promises, but for a solid, rather self-effacing narrative in straightforward journalistic style, it fulfills the need for a serious introduction to this massive ex-Soviet republic. There's not a lot of excitement, but this dignified study, enhanced by Bob Gale's illustrations, reminds us of the golden era of British travelogues through Central Asia.

Robbins, while not a showy writer, conveys efficiently a lot of information from past visitors-- not all of whom traveled there willingly. He sums up Tolstoy's forced stay, Dostoevsky's harrowing brush with the firing squad, tsarist imprisonment and internal exile, Solzhenitsyn's Stalinist gulag and post-independence resentment at Kazakh national pride, and Frederick Burnaby's dogged Victorian treks at 70 below. Robbins at his best conveys the visceral thrill of each of these storied predecessors.

His own prose I found more serviceable; he rarely draws our attention to it. But it subtly works to steadily roam these forbidding steppes. Near Tolstoy's old flat, he finds his own: in true Soviet fashion it's "unfinished, but in an advanced state of decay." (52) I vaguely had heard of the WWII mass deportation/genocide of Chechens. Robbins cites a postwar report the "head of the Department of Special Deportees" reporting to Moscow on the survivors starving through two winters by eating grass: "The absence of clothes and footwear in winter could have a fatal effect on their ability to work." (qtd. 162)

Andrei Sakharov's own brush with fatality as he watched the nuclear testing that decimated much of Kazakhstan also finds the telling phrase: thousands of birds died at each explosion: "They take wing at the flash, but then fall to earth, burned and blinded." (qtd. 195) Poplars, however, flourished by the roadside of one labor camp. Political prisoners distinguished Karaganda's landscape, for each tree "had the corpses of five prisoners to feed it." (qtd. 216)

I would have liked less of Almaty the capital, formerly awash with the original apples from which it takes its name, but the gravitation of the author towards the cities and the steppes, for this is where he gets to go for his travels, is understandable. What suffered was the lack of attention to the mountains along the southern borders, but geopolitical sensitivity might be to blame. We get to see the Charyn Gorge, the answer to the Grand Canyon, but not enough for me of Mount Belukha in the Altaic range, near the fabled Shambhala. But I learned of King Arthur's possible origins with Lucius Artorius Castus, prefect of a legion quartered at York. commanding the Sarmatian cavalry, heirs to the mounted Scythian warriors who came via Pannonia, today's Hungary. Somehow, this connects Kazakhstan to Lancelot-- read pp. 91-5.

More can be found about the influx of oil money, the brave invention of Kazakh's own currency vs. the ruble after the breakup of the USSR, and the Kazakh Beatles. It concludes with a somewhat ginger (if understandably so) look at how the president, Nursultan Nazerbayev, gains over 90% of the popular vote. Robbins gets close to the ruler of this somehow 60% Slav but Sunni Muslim nation, whose multiethnic descendents of the Golden Horde, of exiles, of oilmen, of deportees manages to make petrodollars replace caviar in this vast, still little-known, region. (Posted to Amazon US 4-18-10)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Shusaku Endo's "Silence": Book Review

With 71 earlier reviews [Amazon US] most praise this incisive, painful novel's merits. I'm adding a note about translator Fr. William Johnston, S.J. Born in Belfast in 1925, he died in October 2010. With the attention to this book perhaps surging as news of it as a Martin Scorsese film with Daniel Day-Lewis & Benicio del Toro spreads, I wanted to alert you to this context, relevant for a Western audience and for Endo's theme about trying to overcome cultural and religious barriers to understanding.

When I read this (it flows seamlessly and often sparely and peacefully despite its subject, in English) shortly after it appeared around 1980, I heard about it via Graham Greene's acclaim. Then, I read it via a very Catholic mindset. I remembered it for very graphic, very brutal depictions of martyrdom.

In fact, the descriptions are hinted at, not shown in detail. They linger more often as threat, rumor, report, or murmur than observed reality, and therefore remain all the more frightening. I decided to re-read this, despite its grimness, after finding a mention of the real-life Jesuit apostate, Christovao Ferreira, in Michel Onfray's polemic, "Atheist Manifesto" (reviewed by me recently). Onfray notes Ferreira's contribution, one of the earliest published, to anti-Christian debate, but he dismisses him for not being "atheist" enough, as he adopted Zen. I couldn't find this denouement explicitly mentioned in Endo's details (it may well be hinted), but I was spurred to relive this powerful, grueling narrative myself.

Since I last read it, I've the past few years been reading a lot about Asia and Buddhism, so my perspective shifted. I better appreciated the defense against the Jesuit incursion, even as I sympathized with the liberating potential of Christianity for those converts, brutalized by the feudal system of their native Japan. Endo came to this material out of his own baptism, at 12, after his then-widowed mother went to live with their Christian aunt. Endo's own ambivalence, about his Japanese loyalty vs. his Catholic allegiance, can be felt on every page.

"Now you are going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed." (258-9) Fr. Ferreira tells this to his former student, Fr. Rodrigues, near the climax of this unforgettable (and this may be in a harrowing sense more than an uplifting one) story.

What lingers, as the leitmotif, is the face of Christ. Fr. Rodrigues meditates on it constantly, and this quest to find it out for himself reaches its utter transformation near the conclusion. We learn what separates the strong from the weak, and remember that Jesus came to save the weak. The parallels to Judas, and what Jesus knew about his betrayal by his comrade, intertwines ineradicably as the plot reaches its resolution, if not release.

Fr. Johnston, from Belfast, knew about being the minority, about what it means in one culture to assert another one seen as disloyal to the dominant mentality. Sent to teach at Sophia U. in Tokyo, he became a Zen practitioner, and remained a faithful Jesuit. Pasted from the Irish Jesuit AMDG website after he died 12 Oct 2010:

"We agreed that the clash of civilisations continues in the hearts of the people, particularly in the hearts of Japanese Christians. It is described dramatically by the distinguished Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. A committed Catholic with a personal love for Jesus Christ, Endo brought many Japanese to baptism, yet he felt uncomfortable with the exterior trappings of Western Christianity. He, a Japanese, was wearing Western clothing. His vocation in life was to change that Western suit into a Japanese kimono.

Asked concretely what the problem was, Endo replied that Christianity was too much a Western religion. It was dogmatic, uncompromising, patriarchal. It saw reality in terms of black-and-white. Its history was full of "I am right and you are wrong", bringing inquisitions, intolerance, punishment of dissidents and downright lack of compassion.

Asian thought, on the other hand, was "grey", flexible, tolerant. It stressed "both-and" rather than "either-or". Above all, Asian thought was feminine, grounded in a predominantly yin culture. Endo often said that his faith came through his mother. I recall showing him a book about Julian of Norwich and "the motherly love of Jesus". He smiled enthusiastically. "Father, give me that book!" he said.

The clash of civilisations in Asia has indeed been fierce. Colonialism and religion are at its core.

As we move into the third millennium, however, one great event gives ground for optimism: the clash between Buddhism and Christianity is becoming a powerful dialogue in which both religions are mutually enriched. Christians listen attentively to the wise words of the Dalai Lama and Sogyal Rinpoche; they learn meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen teachers. Likewise, Buddhist teachers quote the gospels, and Buddhist scholars in Kyoto have made profound studies of the Christian mystics, particularly Meister Eckhart. And all this is complemented by cooperation in helping the poor and in working for world peace. Here there is real friendship."

(Please read it all! Excerpted from the AMDG site, archived 12 Oct. 2011 obit for Fr. Johnston. Part of an article he wrote "The Path from Hate to Love" in "The Tablet.")

[Posted in different versions to Amazon US 5-8-11 without the links & in another form to]

Monday, May 9, 2011

Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct": Book Review

Wade seeks "to try to understand religious behavior from an evolutionary perspective." That our minds carry an instinct "to believe in gods neither proves nor disproves their existence." (5) We're descended from those who, 50,000 years ago, began to develop, in slow order: dance, music, proto-religion based on ritual, language, and then "religion based on shared beliefs about the supernatural." (92) Against external threats, religion binds together a tribe or clan or nation to protect itself; against internal freeloaders, religion provides a deterrence against those who dare to violate the dictates of "a stern overseer of their actions": divine enforcers who can read the thoughts of the guilty and punish those who resist subordinating their gain so as to help the common good. (52)

Pleasures of prayer or goodness may fill the believer, but these, Wade reasons, are secondary to the evolutionary rationale for religion. It's not to provide personal satisfaction so much as to bind people together, to make them "put the group's interests ahead of their own." (58) Those who disobey are punished, now and in the retributory afterlife; those who obey tap into a reward system that, unlike fundamental and primal drives for eating and reproduction, are relatively recent in evolution. Therefore, rewards for faith are "pitched at a far higher cognitive level," and religious behavior gets perceived as sensually satisfying, enhanced by communal celebrations passed down over thousands of years full of music, dance, and ritual.

Wade shows how after the prehistoric traces, often surmised due to lack of material evidence from studies of traditional cultures surviving today (he fills the book with case studies), a tension between ancient ecstatic expressions of spontaneous or dramatic faith and civilized ecclesiastical insitutions of doctrine and order persisted, and why it still does today. We're wired for the revivalist tent more than the upright pew, it seems.

The middle of his narrative steers us past familiar landmarks: the three monotheisms. But, in each, Wade finds fresh insights. Judaism is shown to be a Canaanite tribe's late invention, in the Bible texts "found" when the Temple was renovated. The concepts now packaged as Judaism were backdated to the Pentateuch and other sacred texts from around the 7th c BCE, to justify the attempts of Judah to reclaim the destroyed kingdom of Israel and to build a nation based on one god and not the many who once were shared by the Hebrews and their neighbors in what's now Palestine and the Middle East. The Exodus may have happened if it did to a few stragglers; archeological and historical evidence asserts that Hebrews barely invaded any of their Promised Land, practiced polytheism for centuries, and lagged long before asserting their Torah as law.

Wade illustrates how rare a totally new religion is if it wants to survive. Even the Mormons follow the three monotheisms somewhat, grafted onto their own innovations. Converts generally seek out a religion to enter that provides advantages, and familiarity, so it's usually related to their marital or social networks. Those who accept converts may raise the bar high-- as with circumcision, kosher, and prohibitions on exogamy-- to keep out spies and freeloaders.

Christians benefited from their affinities with Jews until the Jesus-followers, among those still practicing Judaism who did not accept a divine Christ-- were decimated in the destruction of Jerusalem and their community in 70 CE. Then, the Christ-followers triumphed, and Paul's letters, written if genuine between 49-55, carried Greek notions into the new faith, which accepted Gentiles. The Gospels then followed into print, all after the Temple had been destroyed, and then Jesus' predictions were retroactively written into the tales told of Jewish perfidy and punishment meted out to their former nation. The break with Jewish tradition enabled then Christianity to appeal as a transformed mystery cult of sacrifice, resurrection and messianic promise to Hellenized cultures and across Roman lands to all nations.

In turn, in what for me was a new revelation, Wade spends a lot of time discussing recent theories about the origins of Islam not in Arabia, but in the Syriac-Christian regions around Palestine. He suggests according to one scholar who understandably writes under a pseudonym of "Christoph Luxenberg" that the very word "muhammed" is not a proper name but is "servant of God, his messenger" (184) referring (and only named four times in the Qu'ran compared to 24 for Jesus, 79 for Abraham, and 136 of Moses) to Christ and not a prophet from the then backwater of the Hijaz.

Wade cites Michael Cook and Patricia Crone's studies that support an accretionary process of the earliest Islamic writings, one rejected by the Muslims themselves, but advanced by Western revisionist scholars. Islam we know it may not have appeared until a dynastic change long after 632, perhaps under the Abbasid caliph who ruled 813-833. Similar to what the higher criticism of the Bible did for Jews and Christians, fundamentalists reject it, but as with mainstream believers, perhaps in time, Muslims may accept another version of how their attenuated, orally transmitted long before written around 800, foundations are set more in myth as "salvation history," less in fact as if a documentary chronicle.

Later chapters survey anthropological research among primitive peoples and religious denominations. Morality, trust, trade, ecology, warfare, and nationalism all find analysis, if often via case studies rather than extended treatments as theories. Wade keeps these sections short, and sometimes he lurches from sub-topic to sub-topic with little preparation but for a general reader, he presents lots of information accessibly.

In passing, he may make points meriting elaboration he does not offer. Yet, reminders that religion can serve, as in the Middle East now, as the only "robust" force able to challenge autocracy when secular institutions are weak remain more relevant than ever. In an aside, he observes how-- unlike bilingualism and multiethnic identity-- a religious allegiance resists fission, and how emotionally binding it can be for those who grow up with it, or who take it on. It responds to deep-seated behaviors that all of us share, even if we deny them.

Those who now deny this religious impulse keep growing worldwide. As with music, some may refuse to tap into an instinctive appeal that others promote. Modern people appear to be losing their "innate propensity for religious behavior." (284) They grow up unfulfilled, for better or worse, with the lack of this capability for what their ancestors passed down to all of us; those refusing or unable to accept the faith instinct died off or were killed off. Those who accepted faith passed on their genes to all of us, thousands of years ago. But an atavistic leaning towards faith may no longer flourish in a secular, scientific mindset. We may grow out of it.

Therefore, the spirit of a once lively religion languishes when its structures and worldviews are unable to keep up with social complexity and intellectual advances in organized knowledge. Wade cites the Pew 2008 Survey that tallies American Catholics as 24% of the population, while 31% were born into that faith; this is the sharpest decline of any group, and this may show the inability of a faith to keep up with cultural shifts, as perhaps "ill-considered reforms" of Vatican II weakened the cultural distinctiveness of Catholicism while also refusing to adjust to contemporary attitudes about sexuality and clerical inclusion. (258)

Still, billions say they believe. No society ever managed to suppress religion, and Wade finds it a universal trait that we all inherit, whether or not we choose to indulge in its mysterious promptings within our very being. "In the progression from tribe to nation to civilization, religion has remained the most fundamental and binding of all social binding mechanisms. Rationality and security may moderate the expression of religious behavior. Warfare and uncertainty may fill the pews. Religion sustains the essential means whereby people associate in solidarity with one another and in defense against their adversaries."(274-5)

God is still called upon to guide the destiny of one very modern nation. American Civil Religion, the invocation of a semi-Protestant, somewhat secularized Deity and Power to guide citizens and informed leaders, Wade shows, serves as a case study in a modern religion that to those who observe it, even as it appears almost invisible in our culture. The tension between "legal secularists" enforcing a separate status for believers and those advocating a fundamentalist resurgence continues, even as the marketplace theory of religion (take it or leave it, switch brands, mix and match) competes more and more globally. (See my review of Olivier Roy's recent study on how culture and religion part ways, "Holy Ignorance.")

A "propensity for religious behavior" appears "genetically embedded in the human neural circuitry." (270) Oddly, Wade answers Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris but not the evolutionary biologist Daniel Dennett, whose "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (all three authors reviewed by me) is a glaring absence from this narrative. Dennett shares with Wade a detached, careful examination of why so many varieties of religious experience persist, whether atheists, skeptics, and believers like it or not. The problem, Wade concludes, is that religions have not kept up with culture; by refusing to yield on values or principles, the "three monotheisms" risk losing their tenacious hold on modern folks. They may not last forever, as today's religious adherents and leaders who could negotiate adjustment to culture often refuse to evolve.

I found this a stimulating book. I wish a bibliography and not only an end-note list had been given, for ease of reference. Also, the index does not cover every fact entered or source cited. Stiil, this is a diverse collection of ideas from scientists and scholars who have advanced what we know about why we are drawn to belief.

(Posted to Amazon US 4-4-11. See also my review of Michel Onfray's barbed counterpart, speared with venom if wit as "Atheist Manifesto: the Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam" in PopMatters Re:Print featured 4-28-11 and a review in a simpler, shorter version the same day at or Amazon US.)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Michel Onfray's "Atheist Manifesto": Book Review

French philosopher Michel Onfray argues that God won’t go away soon given our wish-fulfillment fantasies. But monotheism, based on denial of the material and flight to the spiritual should erode: lest we increase ignorance and blood sacrifice. Onfray contrasts how monotheisms born from desert sands conjure lush paradises. Celestial visions rouse crusaders, raise or raze walls, seduce suicide bombers. “By aiming for paradise, we lose sight of earth. Hope of a beyond and aspiration to an afterlife engender a sense of futility in the present. If the prospect of getting taken up to paradise generates joy, it is the mindless joy of a baby picked up from his crib”.

This brisk study encompasses vast learning, marshaled with much wit, considerable venom, and steady argument, doled out in differing amounts. Onfray rapidly reviews the failure of prominent Enlightenment thinkers to sufficiently replace theology with “atheology”, a system based not on a slavish replacement of secular pieties and rational practices imitating Judeo-Christian habits of thought and action, but an anti-philosophy that rejects these embedded patterns imprinted deeply upon personal and political life.

While he spends far more energy dismantling this system’s ramshackle foundations in myth, fear, and incoherence than he does constructing a post-secular replacement based on irreverence, atheism, and the material world, Onfray succeeds in his relentless deconstruction of the facades of “the theological scenery” built “on a world stage saturated with monotheism”. He proposes atheology as “a countercurrent to theology, a channel to carry us past discourse on God and flow upstream to the source”, to scrutinize “the mechanisms of theology up close”.

The atheological quest beckons us forward, not backwards as does religion or even the dominant tendencies of Enlightenment reformers, Onfray opines. He admits that God cannot be exterminated, “for we cannot assassinate or kill an illusion”, but this illusory deity may kill off the best in humanity. God’s irrational, ignorant, and petulant reactions to whomever opposes him mean that theocracy threatens anyone who opposes, by democratic principles, the reign of One who withers the one life we possess into a preparation for death, a triumph in this life only of the nihilistic powers of extinction.

Michel Foucault’s attempt at epistemological innovations which examine how we sort out our patterns of thought to organize our worldviews support Onfray’s project. He seeks to dissect “frozen postures” which lock people into how they respond, in a secularized society, to Judeo-Christian concepts of our body images and our legal logic. These brief sections reveal Onfray’s potentially revolutionary contribution (perhaps hinting at a future work?), in examining this theological construction of mentalities and concepts pervading daily life, by tinkering more with its atheological dismantling.

For now, in a brief book that combines density with levity, Onfray prefers to scatter hints of his ambitions. This may frustrate a reader wishing for a solid alternative to emerge, but Onfray’s atheological attacks accentuate the negative, not the positive. He shifts after an historical overview of atheists (however hesitantly proclaimed, given the usual suppression of dissent) to confront three challenges as the bulk of his study.

First, he analyzes (I recall its Greek derivation in “dissolve”) the three dominant monotheisms to show their similarities. They all set up violent “waves of hatred” against their foes. They reject reason, the here and now, the body, women, sexuality, and life itself.  They deny lasting joy gained from earthly delights. They reward soulful fulfillment as delayed into an eternal afterlife.

Next, Onfray dismantles Christianity to reveal its mythical framework, forged by Paul as a “hysteric” on the ghosted teachings from an “ectoplasm”, an ahistorical Jesus. Pauline Christianity adapted by “dictator” Constantine expands. This new Roman Empire mingled the temporal with the spiritual. Eradicating pagan opposition, its Christian heirs then crushed global foes. Against this bloody “totalitarian” imposition, Onfray attempts to counter “a guiding principle less obsessed with the death wish than with love of life”. Intelligence, pleasure, women, sex, life: morality could be based on affirming these, not as fearing these as divine punishments or traps hidden for sinners.

The second half of this study moves vigorously, if given the daunting purview of his task rather erratically, along a dizzying path. Onfray sifts the ruins left by varieties of the three monotheisms, as they erase persistent opponents, pagan or gentile, Marxist or atheist, tribal or polytheist, infidel or Christian, Jewish or Muslim. The God of the Hebrews, “a tribal war leader promoted to cosmic rank”, resembles Muhammed’s Allah, whereas the Christian version proves no less terrible. The blood sacrifice demanded by this figure, as Onfray steadily documents, tallies up body counts in the millions, and the verses in the Bible or in the Koran which promote peace over war, he finds, remain few. The trouble, as he notes with anti-semitic verses in the suras, is that the pervasive calls to exterminate or enslave one’s opponents embed themselves in sacred scripture as ineradicably as the lines advocating lamblike rather than leonine stances taken in the defense of Yahweh, Christ, or Allah against his irrepressible enemies, who continue to be many, for each religion finds no shortage of righteous, often now monotheistic, foes.

Escalating mayhem, Onfray skillfully explains regarding the Fifth Commandment (“thou shalt not kill”), deploys sophistry against a firm prohibition transmitted down to Moses. Competing admonitions in the Torah justify genocide against not only rival tribes, but I may add by eliminating Hebrews who defy the divinity’s countless rules. This warps Jewish logic, as it must support murder, while nearby an injunction by the divine commander prohibits it. Onfray muses how this irreconcilable irrationality resembles Leon Trotsky’s “morality of combat”: one ethic for one’s own side, another for one’s enemies. Instead of a universal ban on killing, the Fifth Commandment endures as a hypothetical imperative for one’s own “local, sectarian, and communal recommendation”: don’t kill a fellow Jew (unless the Torah, I add again, sanctions a miscreant’s execution).

Mayhem Must First Be Blessed by Holy Books

This preferential treatment, followed by Christians and Muslims in turn against their foes, monotheistic, denominational, or otherwise, worsens strife. Mayhem must be blessed by holy books. Scriptural incoherency—as forgeries, back-dating, tall tales—stretches the Hebrew canon over a thousand years of composition, the Christian testament over 20 centuries, and the Islamic message “theoretically dictated to an illiterate camel herdsman” by the Angel Gabriel". These provide abundant amounts of irrational claims via irrefutable impositions claimed from on high, but via fallible human authors.

Onfray weaves through this treacherous terrain with verve. Jeremy Leggatt’s translation conveys the vibrancy of Onfray’s arguments clearly: this reads as if transparent. While an annotated bibliography relies mainly on French-language sources, English-speaking audiences may find guidance for their own resolute forays into rational counterpoint.

This professor finds fresh insights. He compares how Jesus earned promotional publicity in the Gospels with rhetorical tropes employed for classical sages by biographer Diogenes Laërtius. He reminds us how Hitler’s Mein Kampf approved of particular Christian interpretations. He collates fascist with Islamic ideologies. He compiles Catholic complicity in defending Rwanda’s Tutsi murderers against Hutu justice.

Regarding certain cultural displays of religious admonitions, Onfray’s tone turns shrill. While his condemnation of male as well as female circumcision remains unsurprising, he sounds too strident. He argues repeatedly for a menstrual period as one allowing uninhibited license by libidinous if infertile females; this appears to contrast with the constrained condition commonly endured by many women, at least of my acquaintance.

He denigrates keeping kosher or halal as illogical, yet he never considers that some self-identified (however illogically for Onfray) liberal or secular Jews or Muslims nonetheless adapt such practices for self-discipline or solidarity, without adhering to these choices as divinely imposed. In passing, he relegates Buddhism to his heap of irrational claptrap, yet some of its practitioners articulate an agnostic or atheistic approach, which they argue may define a philosophy stripped of its theistic overlay, for contemporary seekers of an alternative to monotheism. Onfray overlooks attempts to culturally sustain a post-Christian culture which respects religious contributions as its legacy. He may regard this approach as pointless, compared to resolute denial. However, he confronts the impossibility of a feminist or secular Islam, as these revisions represent their own irrationality.

I’m not sure that those of us who are heirs of a Judeo-Christian ethos can jettison its attitudes so quickly. After all, Onfrey began his book acknowledging God’s durability as long as humans survived. “You cannot kill a breeze, a wind, a fragrance, you cannot kill a dream or an ambition”. Onfrey’s radical ambitions to eliminate any vestiges of religious practice as reinvented or reconstructed by unbelieving dissenters led me to wonder if men and women can survive without manufacturing God. Perhaps as a transition, they may perpetuate a humanistic integration of traditions from their believing ancestors (and billions of pious or sinning neighbors who persist in prayer) into a secularized society.

All this philosophy professor leaves us with as an alternative comprises two pages. Yet, he ends this book by exemplifying his perspective and his command of his own rhetoric at its best. He fears that the Enlightenment’s victories “against magical prepositions” have been lost; a post-Christian secularism must rally around a third choice. That is, neither Islamic nor Judeo-Christian adversaries, but philosophy. He champions “the laughers, materialists, radicals, cynics, hedonists, atheists, sensualists, voluptuaries. They know that there is only one world, and that promotion of an afterlife deprives us of the enjoyment and benefit of the only one there is. A genuinely deadly sin”.

As a guided tour in the ruins of theology rather than as an intricate blueprint for an atheological community, Onfray deserves acclaim. He dismantles three thousand years of monotheistic incoherence and sorts the fragments into neat piles, brisk chapters under provocative titles that invite the bold thinker today to contemplate Onfray’s challenging exposé. He lacks enough evidence for a systematic philosophy that will replace monotheism. As with many books by fellow atheists, a short shelf admittedly, compared with the burgeoning “theological” and even more “inspirational” titles crowding any bookstore, Onfray succeeds in taking the system he opposes apart rather than rebuilding one not from theological fragments (warped by contact with religion’s pressure) but from scratch.

Perhaps, as Onfray admits at the start of his demolition, people are too imprinted with theology after three millennia to evolve yet into a post-Christian, secular humanism. But this title points in that direction.

[P.S. PopMatters Re:Print feature 4-28-11. See also my edited and slightly simplified review at and at Amazon US of Onfray the same day. Compare 4-4-11 at Amazon US  or 5-9-11 on my blog my take on NYT science writer Nicholas Wade's complementary if calmer work, "The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures."]