Friday, January 31, 2014

Ag dul go Londain aríst, cuid a dó

Dhúisigh muid suas go déanach le "scaird mhoill." Thosaigh muid Dé Déardaoin ag dul go Cearnach Trafalgar. Ith Léna lón lena chara Rosemary agus chuir mé suas go seirbhís na hAidbhinte ina hEaglais na Naomh Máirtín ina Garraí. 

Ansin, chuaigh Léna agus mé go ár n-chúis go príomha. Chónaic muid taispéaint ealaine ó An Cogadh Mór le Stanley Spencer i dTeach Somerset.  Go nádúrtha, bhí sé cumhtachach ann; nuair chonáic mé an múrmhaisiú, mo shúile thaisrítear mar a shuigh mé os a comhair ar feadh i bhfad ann.

Titeann óiche tapa in aice an gheimridh thuas. Líonraidh scátálaithe rinc. Caith uair leis ealaine Ollainis agus Pléimennaí ina Gailearai Náisiúnta sula ndúntar.

Bhí an t-ádh orainn, mar sin féin. Bhí ag oscailte luath an Gailearaí Portráid Náisiúnta béal dorais. Tá sé lán de aghaideannaí gcuimhne, ó Risteard II go dtí Seámus Ó hEanai.

Ar deireadh, ith muid dinnéar pizza simplí ach blásta ag caifé in aice leis Stáisiún Bóthar Gloucester. Bhí sé in aice leis ár óstan. Bhí óicheannaí fuacht leis fuarach ó artach, deirtear go raibh sé.

To London again, part two. 

We woke up late with jet lag. We started Wednesday going to Trafalgar Square. Layne ate lunch with her friend Rosemary and I went up to an Advent service at The Church of St. Martin in the Fields. 

Then, Layne and I went for our primary reason. We saw the WWI art exhibition by Stanley Spencer in Somerset House. Naturally, it was powerful; when I saw this mural there, my eyes moistened as I sat before it a long time.

Night falls rapidly near a northern winter. Skaters filled a rink. We spent an hour with Dutch and Flemish art in the National Gallery before closing.

We were in luck, all the same. The National Portrait Gallery next door was open late. It's full of memorable faces, from Richard II to Seamus Heaney.

Finally, we ate a simple but tasty pizza dinner at a cafe near Gloucester Road Station. It was near our hotel. Nights were cold and chilly from the Arctic, it was said. (Pictiúr le Spencer: An Aiséiri na Saighdiúrí i tSéipéal Chuimhneacháin i tSandham/Resurrection of the Soldiers in the Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere; cuireadh seo réamh-mheasta i Londain/ this was projected in London)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mark Larrimore's "The Book of Job: A Biography": Book Review

This biblical story's always troubled me, so Mark Larrimore's energetic and pithy survey of its "multiplicity of voices" and the puzzles this oddly edited text generates is a welcome introduction. The complex history of how interpreters (starting with the book's own Elihu and Job's friends who try to counsel him) have reacted to the legend, in Larrimore's understanding, resists "closure" no less than the themes it raises, of "providence and evil, the meaning of innocent suffering, the nature of God and humanity's place in creation." Rabbinical, early Christian, medieval, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romantic, fundamentalist, New Critical, and post-Holocaust readings of the text all gain attention, as well as how the book is "performed" in liturgy.

Chapter 1 looks at ancient interpretations--oral and legendary--and Larrimore wonders if Job himself is Jewish or a Gentile, for instance, another complication for a text with such obscure characters.  Chapter 2 looks at disputations, the medieval debates where philosophers (especially Maimonides but also Aquinas and Calvin) followed the example of Job and his friends as they disputed among themselves. Chapter 3 takes on the medieval burials of the dead and how the book of Job "enacted" itself beyond the text itself in liturgy and in a French mystery play, "La Pacience de Job."

Theodicy may not be as popular as it once was, but for centuries, Job's predicament allowed a confrontation with belief as "the model of an anguished but fervent modern religiosity." As the professor's previous book dealt with the problem of evil, Chapter 4 fits Larrimore's expertise. William Blake's illustrations show another way Job's story has been transformed, and Larrimore notes the uses of Blake's depictions on the covers of studies and novels, for instance, another point that even if an aside shows the perpetuation of Job's anguish. I wish more popular culture contexts such as this were delved into, as these spark much interest.

The post-Shoah struggle with Job's lessons, themselves a tangle of textual cruxes and confusing shifts, show the "exile" of Job for the fifth chapter. Not only Kant or Leibniz, Voltaire or Herder, but Elie Weisel and Richard Rubenstein, and a provocative comparison between G.K. Chesterton and Slavoj Zizek (albeit too brief a one for me for these last two pairings) demonstrate the range of Larrimore's examples. Similarly, his conclusion touches (I wish more here too was provided, as cinematic connections stimulate curiosity) on "The Tree of Life" and "A Serious Man" as two different, and typical, takes on the positive and negative aspects of Job's dealing with his troubles.

"In its jarring polyphony and its silences," Larrimore concludes, the Book of Job "speaks to and for the broken." Larrimore notes (he teaches at The New School) that the book has in the academy become detached from "monotheism which is now in exile in our secular age," a universalized one that we seek when "stepping outside the rest of salvation history" or the rest of Scripture. Again, these observations merited much more depth, but Larrimore finds provocative insights, a value to any inquirer. Therefore, as reacting to this morally troubling and poetically bold biblical book, both atheists and "the remnants of the covenantal monotheisms" might seek solace for their suffering as shared by Job and those in this tragic, bold, strangely conceived and unconventionally arranged story.
(Amazon US 12-14-13)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Alan Lightman's "The Accidental Universe": Book Review

What this MIT physicist and humanist (he holds a joint professorship, and this leads as he notes crossing his campus to some mental adjustment as he bridges the gaps) brings to familiar Big Questions is a gentle sense of wonder tempered with a scientific rigor. Both qualities are enhanced by his humility, and he accepts that we may not be able to answer what some of his colleagues anticipate as the Unified Theory that explains (after the Higgs Boson) everything. Instead, he cautions us to keep balancing in a humane (if still rational and certainly secular) approach our dual capacity of exacting and verifiable measurement and very cautious speculation. 

As these linked essays show, the universe can be conceived as alternately or respectively accidental, temporary, spiritual, symmetrical, gargantuan, lawful, or disembodied. He applies his life's moments gently to enrich his lessons. I like reading books for popular audiences about cosmology, so I found Alan Lightman's style engaging and accessible. He brings in his daughter's wedding on the Maine coast, his beloved pair of wingtip shoes, the amazing hexagonal symmetry of a honeycomb, or the disturbing harbinger of a world where our young appear to be wired, shut off from conversation, and online all the time. However, as his last chapter predicts, even those who try to flee the virtual realm as it takes over our physical and spiritual worlds may find themselves shut off from yet another universe now evolving.

Provocatively, Lightman compares how insignificant we are, stuck in a minor galaxy on a middling planet in a marginal status, yet we have figured out so much about the universe that surrounds us, if not the next stage, which we may never be able to discern to our satisfaction, that of multiverses. He tells us that our little worlds on a similarly infinitesimal level may elude our grasp. He imagines us as captains of a ship, up on a bridge, unable to discern fully from our perch what tumult lies below deck.

This sort of deft analogy, modest and never drawing too much attention to itself, characterizes Lightman's approach. Unlike some of his colleagues who write such essays, he keeps the math to a minimum while accentuating the verbal and visual images that he hones to remind us of the sheer amount we know now about our origins, back to the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. But, as we cannot penetrate that first moment of the Big Bang, that too stands to teach us of our own small stature, and how much the universe, big or small in these essays, continues to keep from our eager investigation. All the same, people such as Lightman inspire us to keep asking why.  
( 1-14-14 to Amazon US)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Julie Peakman's "The Pleasure's All Mine": Book Review

Last May, the new DSM-V, the standard for medical and psychological professions in classifying sexual disorders, admitted that there now exists "a subtle but crucial difference that makes it possible for an individual to engage in consensual atypical sexual behavior without making being labelled with a mental disorder". This shift away from deviance accompanied a rejection by the American Psychiatric Association of a new category of "hypersexual disorder"; but pressure groups, London-based historian Julie Peakman reports as she introduces her survey of what has often been called perversion, had managed previously to finally remove homosexuality from the list of diagnosed disorders. This struggle to define what is acceptable and what is deviant comprises this study, promoted as the first one-volume summary of "perverse sex".

Following Peakman's scholarship on eighteenth-century British prostitution and pornography, this European-centered presentation peers beyond English shores to look back to classical and biblical reactions to varieties of sex, and--given the limits of firsthand evidence for much of history, often relying upon court testimony and scientific or religious examination--personal accounts when a few dare or boast or are coerced into admitting their own indulgences. Peakman's argument remains clear throughout a dozen thematic chapters. "Normal" does not always equate with heterosexual, male-dominated activities. Standards keep changing. The abnormal alters over time and space.

Despite the unreliability of much of ancient literary or artistic evidence, and the scarcity of trustworthy medieval and early modern accounts for, understandably, a topic prone to secrecy more than display by many of its adherents, the sexual practices uncovered do reveal a similar pattern. For instance, as Peakman lists early on, "oral sex, masturbation, homosexuality, lesbianism, transvestism, flagellation, exhibitionism, voyeurism" all have been accepted by ancient peoples, then condemned by Christian societies, and denigrated by those who in recent centuries began to replace the labels attached to such behaviors. As Western culture secularized, these actions were not so much "sinful" as "irrational"; the medical profession rushed to prevent the acceptance of such activities as normal.

Changes in the past few centuries show this process unfolding. Around 1710, Onania was published. This purported to prove the harm of masturbation. A first, this pamphlet (which by its sixteenth edition tripled in length) warned women as well as men about the practice. Yet, two centuries later, the leading sexologist Richard von Kraft-Ebbing dismissed threats to females. "Woman, if physically and mentally normal, and properly educated, has but little sensual desire." At the same time, Sigmund Freud purported to diagnose women and their orgasm with his own pet theory. After observation and interpretation by Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson by the middle of the last century, masturbation by either sex became classified as normal again. What Greek or Roman doctors recommended to patients, what Christians condemned, what Enlightenment-era or Victorian physicians diagnosed as a physical or mental disorder, and what modern counterparts judge as "a healthy and necessary alternative to procreative sex" typifies the "life cycle of a sexual perversion".

Peakman examines same-sex male and female sexuality, and she distinguishes differences in social or cultural reactions. Men tended to, in the ancient world, be accepted if they dominated the homosexual coupling, while the passive partner was seen as weak, often a slave or a boy trapped, perhaps in a power differential. Women were also regarded as passive, and therefore dismissed as subservient. For lesbians, the sanctioned intimacy many females of any sexual preference tended to demonstrate among themselves allowed women to pursue same-sex relationships with less scrutiny by authorities and less danger than homosexuals. In 1921, an act of Parliament banning lesbianism was never passed. It seemed better to overlook the practice rather than to draw attention by prosecuting it.

A provocative chapter on bestiality enlivens the range of invention. Peakman muses whether this practice was more a question of preference or of opportunity, for what until the last century was a European population with many people growing up much more closely in contact with animals next to them on farms or nearby in villages. Size mattered. Men worked in barns, dairies and fields. As meticulous court documents support, they tended to be caught with their breeches down among mares or sheep, which fit with the males more neatly. Women snuggled in their own rooms in town, cradling smaller cats or dogs. As with homosexuals and masturbators, those who clung to critters were often exposed by peeping Toms and Tammies, who spied through holes in the walls or windows upon their misbehaving neighbors. The crime was often punished by death, both to the creature and the human.

One legendary spin on this, when the fear of the hybrid half-animal/ half-human persisted over many centuries, was the case of Mary Toft. A serving girl of twenty-six, in 1726 she gained the notice of the king's surgeon, who came to investigate. "In search of fame and fortune, she had inserted various rabbit parts into her vagina with the intention of duping her doctor. She had called in her local physician, claiming to be in labour, and, to his astonishment, out popped the various bits of rabbit." Understandably, doctors were puzzled and amazed. She later confessed; she served four months.

Peakman returns at the conclusion of many chapters to the need for consent. This proves the crux of the matter. Partners may be assumed to agree, but in BDSM, can one legally go along with one's own assault? If an animal is a participant in sexual activity, can that creature be said to agree? If so, what does that mean, and how could such consent be determined? As for necrophilia, the dead partner certainly lost any say in the matter. Pedophilia has had its recent advocates who claim consent exists by those who perhaps may be at the legal age of consent (which varies), but as Peakman notes, attempts by that faction to come out and gain acceptance during the 1980s in the wake of gay rights movements only resulted in more persecution, as child-lovers were marched back to the closet.

The Marquis de Sade emerges as an inevitable spokesman in this debate. In his epigram to Juliette (1797-1801), "he defended its publication stating that he saw 'unnatural vices' as 'the strange vices inspired by Nature'. 'Natural' for Sade were all the perversions he described." Peakman sums up this twist: Sadeian philosophy asserts natural origins for all our actions, so they all logically are natural.

But, as the words sadist and masochist capture for two centuries since, those men who originated these terms celebrated a brutality and an exchange of power where consent may not always be arranged. Peakman reminds us of the Roman males who took sex rather than asked for it. She turns to the plight of the Victorian or Edwardian child unable to resist the predicament of his or her exploitation. "Men had no need to rape starving victims; they merely needed a few pence in their pockets and an eye for a starving child." As with the desperate or lonely, the inventive or deluded who sought release or comfort in grasping a horse or a cat, so Peakman draws the reader's attention to those who have been at the receiving end or found a blunt slap regarding bold sexual relationships.

With exhibitionism and voyeurism, the question of victimization now recedes; ironically, Peakman shows how until very recently with the advent of the Internet and mass-media, these two activities often depended on the lack of consent of those on display for the delight of Peeping Toms. Their female equivalents in public (and here we can include printed material--this book itself is illustrated with many period examples--and the media) may increasingly show off their vaginas and labias, Peakman finds, but the respective amount of depictions of the erect male phallus lags far behind. The gender imbalance, she mentions if only as an aside, as to who is looking at whom appears throughout much of the West; one limit of this book is that it does not examine global cultures to offer a broader perspective for comparison and contrast. This is admittedly a hefty volume as it is, yet her coverage for all its lively details rushes by, leaving the reader wanting much more than her many casual remarks when the need to interpret material and not only to collate and paraphrase it arises so often.

As these contents testify, millennia of visual arousal certainly continues to stimulate, even as market demands change and new interests bloom. Research opportunities beckon. "'Chubby-chasing' became a hobby for those obsessed with fat. Whether this has to do with the after-effects of post-Second World War rationing or with the current preoccupation with diet has yet to be ascertained." For all the inherent verve in this subject matter, Peakman keeps a firm control of its impacts, and its contexts.

Near the conclusion, this cultural historian of sexuality wonders if any taboos are left. I learned a new one. Forty or so people, it is claimed, have "loving relationships with objects" and call themselves "objectum sexuals". Two of these "OS" women fought over who deserved the Berlin Wall, and they, being polyamorous, agreed to share the wall "as a lover". Amy had fallen for both the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, "and grieved the loss of the latter as one would a lover". Peakman records that these women had in common trauma, rejection, and types of dysfunction.

Therefore, as definitions of (arguably) accepted practice expand to include buildings as objects of affection, the challenge for scholars to comprehend sexual behavior which is not nowadays accepted also grows. Peakman avers how it is "now reasonably common for people to incorporate fellating, fetishism, infibulating or fisting (or at least one of these activities) into their usual role play". When (nearly?) no part of the anatomy, the natural realm, or inanimate objects may appear beyond the embrace of somebody needing a catch and release, are any areas out of bounds?

In a too terse but necessary epilogue, Peakman considers harmful sex "to the degree of death or bodily harm between consenting adults (sexual cannibalism or sadomasochism); second, vulnerable adults [e.g., those with learning difficulties or Down's syndrome]; and, third, the age of consent." As I hinted above, the final category has always varied. While she does not delve into some of these areas with sufficient detail, Peakman advises more monitoring of institutions against abuse, and better support for those who may be at risk of coercion or manipulation.

Finally, as procreation at last appears to be "no longer a sexual necessity (or hazard)" for more men and women, sexual acts themselves gain parity. Peakman judges that any kind of sex becomes a matter of preference. We now enjoy freedom of choice, extended and abetted by a mediating Internet. We redraw intimate boundaries, beyond those of one's own body and a willing partner (or two?) close at hand. (PopMatters 12-9-13; 11-19-13 to Amazon US in shorter form)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Katherine Frank's "Plays Well in Groups": Book Review

For her dissertation, cultural anthropologist Katherine Frank worked as a stripper. Now, as a participant-observer into the realm of shared sexual encounters, this sociologist reveals her first-hand experiences along with survey findings and interviews into “various possible configurations” of socio-erotic exchanges by those who watch and those who act, when more than two people are involved. 

Given the difficulty of reliable findings for such a sensitive topic, notoriously exaggerated and suspiciously interpreted from ancient times on, Dr. Frank cautiously sifts through reports from classical times and traditional and tribal rites today, whether a fraternity, a bachelor party in Las Vegas, gang rape in Darfur or the Balkans, or aboriginal practices studied in New Guinea, Australia, and Brazil.  She extracts the moral within many sensationalist tales from the Roman empress Messalina down through Sade, Brave New World, Last Exit to Brooklyn, to the Playboy Mansion and Annabel Chong’s filmed attempt to surpass Messalina’s marathon couplings: “The dangerous forces of sexuality are contagious, and when unleashed en masse, the risk to one’s individuality and humanity is multiplied.” 

Emotional connections to others may break under such social and mental pressure by those who seek out group sex. The thrill of orgiastic transgression, its persistent charge from its daring energy, depends on a taboo to violate. This search for personal, political, or spiritual liberation may peter out. Rules change: “after all, the bikini was once transgressive”, Dr. Frank notes.  

Countering facile assumptions of girls or guys gone wild, she analyzes occurrences such as mass rape by soldiers, initiation rites in clans, bathhouse behaviors, and sex clubs, as well as Craigslist encounters and the leisure industry for swingers-- increasingly mainstreamed and marketed recently as lifestyle conventions.  Rituals are followed and routines established. Katherine Frank, nodding to her own ethnographic training as she scrutinizes such events and situations, argues that seasoned initiates tend towards the banal. “Even libertines who try to harness the power of the orgy, believing that participation is a route to social transformation or that it leads to an experiences of the sublime, can find a sudden stray foot to the face or accidentally falling off the bed are the most immediate sources of jeopardy to be faced.”

As this passage demonstrates, the author often takes an affectionate or wry stance towards the theme, while never minimizing the danger and degradation certain forms of capitulation to power or coercion may exact. Disgust, shame, and guilt receive in-depth investigation. Media coverage, which persists in pursuing the more attractive of those involved in group sex, denigrates those who do not fit the youthful, voluptuous, buff, or preening figures idolized. Those who defy monogamy, public nudity, and “dyadic sex” elicit the discomfort of those watching such acts transmitted for the delectation of others, even if the depiction of such acts markets itself as a moral revulsion against depravity or promiscuity. 

Those who prefer to stay with one partner, in private, chance “habituation”; group sex tempts by “differentiation” some who seek fulfillment and arousal by competition, pitting one mate against others at the same time. The danger generated by stress or stimulation heightens dopamine, and novelty jolts passion.  Some claim that the “sacred kink” produces “cosmic ecstasy”: Dr. Frank in a very detailed book does gloss over this aspect of peak experiences, preferring to focus upon the anthropological structures exposed and the norms enforced in groups. 

Ethnography proves lively; the Orgy Tent at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert and the virtual realm of Second Life entertain and enlighten. Online, as she stumbles with her own digital persona among the predators and seducers, she “rarely saw an overweight avatar. No one buys a small penis.”  Although chastened by the encounters at Second Life, Dr. Frank emphasizes the element of play often ignored by her academic colleagues intent on reducing sex to identity and control. Whether for religious or secular aims, she reasons that “sexual excitement draws strength from power differentials, prohibitions, and contradictions” and that boundaries crossed complicate emotions, no matter the culture or the setting for intimacy enacted between partners and within groups. 

She peers into gay subcultures, but detaches such sexual encounters from a basis bent on establishing “identity”; for Dr. Frank, context for modern expressions of group sex matters as a “new kind of sexual and political expression” that when it evades the morality police’s gaze in Iran must evolve differently than at a strip club, a Vegas hotel, a frat party, a Minnesota Vikings boat excursion, a Rwanda tribal civil war, a Bosnian atrocity, South African “jackrolling”, or British “dogging”. For all of these, no total breakdown of loss of control occurs. Group sex keeps its meanings by bonding, by force or by cooperation, an uneasy mixture of behaviors irreducible to homophobia, misogyny, facile claims to political rebellion, or lust. 

Gazing into recent reactions internationally and domestically to last year’s Nude Photo Revolutionaries campaign in the Muslim world and to Pussy Riot’s provocations in a Russian cathedral and in group sex staged on video, Dr. Frank reminds readers it’s easier to cheer on transgression when one’s own values are not the taboos being violated. She shows how the U.S. government has cracked down on pornographic films made that desecrate American symbols, and how these have not received the spirited defenses mounted by Bjork or Madonna.

Ultimately, Katherine Frank avers that risk-taking, danger, and addiction may compete within the drives and psyches of a comparative few who must find release in group sex. Yet eager revolutionaries may find that just as rock and roll became commodified, so does multi-partner participation.  Shame and guilt may lure a swinger to bolder behaviors, but when the shame diminishes and the guilt is overcome, what lies ahead for the swinger as a routine “lifestyle”? 

Additionally, she warns of the fixation of sexual practices around one person’s transgressive (or normative) experience. What works for one may not for another.  Without taboos, a transgression shrivels. If no rules are left to break, or no more opportunities to desecrate or shock, sex may fail as a liberating impulse. “Maybe nobody is watching.” Exile, insanity, or death may replace sex as the final limits to be sought by the seeker who finds erotic potency diminished. 

“Bliss or ecstasy is followed by the wreckage at the end of a party, the dirty sheets and come-down after a night of sex and cocaine, or heavy Goth makeup in the daylight.” The sacred and the profane might be mingled, and the liminal lines crossed, but the mundane keeps edging back in. “The edge looks different when one is actually standing on it.” 

Dr. Frank concludes this evocative work on a provocative subject carefully. She acknowledges that “transgressive sex” as with any other sexual practice might ease ennui or affirm one’s belonging with another or others. Yet this liberation does not have to depend only on sex, for so many of our myriad hopes or fears. (5-15-13 to New York Journal of Books)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lawrence R. Samuel's "Death, American Style": Book Review

We lack an ability to cope with death. As ten thousand baby boomers will daily turn sixty-five for the next nineteen years, Lawrence R. Samuel warns of the “social crisis” Americans face unless they come to terms with mortality. In this cultural history from the 1920s to the present, he compresses summations and paraphrases and many quotes from a variety of primary sources. Gleaning data from magazines, movies, government and medical reports, and popular culture, Dr. Samuel compiles how Americans have resisted a confrontation with death. 

While the nineteenth century found many Americans still familiar with death as people often died at home or at work, and were waked and buried by the family, this cyclical understanding of how the dead returned to the earth faded as urbanization and capitalism combined to encourage the death industry. Progress urged Americans to look forward, as a linear orientation replaced the cyclical model. This led to what Dr. Samuel laments as he begins Death, American Style: “We are surprised when it takes place, an ironic thing given it is the only certainty in life. Like our national debt, perhaps, we have borrowed against the moment, making our dying that much more difficult when it does come due.” Trying to enhance our lives by ignoring death, we lose the rich appreciation of life gained by an honest assessment of its fragile duration. 

In 1929, Bertrand Russell classified human reactions to death three ways. People ignore it, they obsess over it, or they assert a religious belief in a superior hereafter. The problem remains. Belief persists as a mostly “conscious mechanism” while “fear of death resided in the much deeper unconscious”. Dr. Samuel often quotes Freudians; repression appears to dominate the academic explanation popularized for many Americans during the past century. While this aspect subsists as more contextual than as examined (often, the reliance on rephrasing sources as the author’s own words occludes what the author adds to shape or interpret his digest of diverse sources from his wide research), it fits into the detachment Americans after WWI began to adapt as they drifted away from encounters with death firsthand. 

Undertakers became morticians; coffins transformed into caskets. Mortuary science replaced the family who interred a loved one in their local graveyard. Stress during the Depression, Dr. Samuel observes, weakened many generations; death often accompanied or hastened hard times. With WWII, “violent death” returned, inescapable in headlines and on broadcasts. Families received a dreaded two-star telegram: “The War Department regrets to inform you…” 

However, as Lawrence Samuel sifts through the responses of insurance companies, widows, grieving parents, curious children, and dogged Freudians, he demonstrates life’s persistence. Between 1942 and 1945, for every battle death, twelve births occurred, an increase of thirty percent in fecundity. The facts of life dominated; mourners found themselves marginalized. Death’s segregation in the post-war years showed a “social pressure to quickly move on from the unfortunate experience”. 

Optimism reigned. In 1958, Dr. Joseph Still argued, as many of his colleagues specializing in the “disease of aging”, against death’s inevitability. Dr. Samuel acknowledges the difficulty of defeating such “circular logic”: as Dr. Still insisted: “The only factor which prevents our living forever is death.” In a secularizing and rational mindset, positive thinking’s power directed medical training: “a cured patient represented success while a dying patient signaled failure, a strange point of view given the inevitability and normalcy of death”. Contrarily, a subsection titled “Death Watch” documents in unsettling fashion the routines by which a city or county hospital’s harried staff hastened (one wonders if the past tense is all that is needed) the demise of patients judged near their end. As technology improved, the rush for organ transplants accelerated the demand for a post-mortem grab of coveted body parts from many of these admitted one final time. 

By the 1970s, social and scientific tensions worsened. The longer people could be kept alive, the greater the anxiety became for both staff and loved ones charged with making tough decisions. Individualism weakened the comforts many Americans once cherished about the immortality of the soul, and progress brought threats of environmental degradation and technocratic dominance. Life and death, thanatologists argued, might not be a continuum; death-with-dignity and a right-to-die became catch phrases. So did Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ “five stages of dying” and the plight of Karen Ann Quinlan, trapped within the competing decisions of the law, medical machinery, and her family’s wishes. 

Demographics began to shift, and boomer families grappled with how to care for their children and their parents at the same time. Lawrence Samuel reminds us how insurance companies long have taken advantage of a child’s birth to initiate a sale of a policy. The emotional and financial tensions stoked by the competing demands of parenting and dealing with parents reduced often by medical advances to childlike regression complicate the situation for millions who must work and raise families on both sides of middle age, far greater than ever before. 

AIDS, “conscious dying” advocates, the battle over “death education” in schools, “living wills”, hospices speckle the chronicle of the 1980s and 1990s. The Me Generation acted the same way about death as it had about sex. As if nobody had discovered either one before.  Hollywood, always attentive to popular culture’s unease, capitalized on films promising “the green pastures” of the hereafter and near-death experiences resulting in fulfillment. Widowed dads, also a mainstay of Disney product as a reliable plot device, starred in four television series.

Near the millennium, as sexual taboos diminished, those shrouding death demanded a warmer, fuzzier affirmation of life. New Age caregivers, “funeral webcasts”, online immortality by undead accounts, “death bonds” on Wall Street, “creative disposals of ashes” as cremation took hold, and boomers’ reliable “self-absorption” might tempt satire. Yet, Dr. Samuel comprehends our current, eternal difficulty with our common fate, unimaginable for many of us, always inevitable. 

While today’s “radical life-extension” promoters peddle another version of miracle cures, the majority less able to afford such nostrums must get over any expectation of special treatment, Dr. Samuel concludes. No longer avoided by the “eternally young”, he sketches (yet frustratingly, he leaves all but blank this last storyboard) a dire fate for American society if it refuses to deny death’s arrival. (7-14-13 to New York Journal of Books)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Prue Shaw's "Reading Dante": Book Review

This veteran expert on Dante guides us through thematic chapters rather than a chronological commentary through the Commedia or a critical biography introducing us to the highlights of his life. The results can be challenging, but if you can keep the Guelphs from the Ghibellines straight--and this Cambridge professor makes sure we do--this study may reward those new to Dante, or those, like myself, looking for a broader overview of his career, and his influences, than a footnoted edition of The Divine Comedy might provide.

Dr. Shaw appears to have spent half a century examining Dante. Therefore, she knows every facet of the poet's considerable erudition, his complicated political entanglements (we are reminded he faced torture and death for his allegiance), and the dramatic achievement that made the vernacular, after the poet had his way with Tuscan dialect and his own nimble invention of so many more words that he recorded in his verse, the standard for the emerging language of Italian, from an era when regional variations proliferated. None, as Shaw shows, as good as Dante's own, as he agrees in a show-off comparison he set down to display his own Florentine expertise. This type of confidence, growing as Dante took on more challenging models after 1300, resulted in those famed hundred masterful cantos.

Reading Dante progresses by chapters on friendship, power, his life, love, time, numbers, and words. I found to my surprise those on time and numbers as engrossing as those on love and words. For, Shaw sharpens her gaze when delving into the textual acumen that displays Dante's talents at their best. You come away convinced that the more Dante took on--the journey down to hell, up past purgatory, and to the Beatific Vision and that surpassing expression itself on a human plane--the more he rose to the occasion and found language worthy of the subject, certainly one to humble any one.

A few highlights from Shaw's take on Dante: he's a "good Catholic but an independent thinker," and humanity's place in the cosmos and the individual's place in society occupy his center stage. His journey downward and upward is also "the story of becoming capable of writing the poem about the journey." In examining for me the unexpected presence of public non-believers in medieval Florence, condemned to suffer infernally, we note Dante's typical symmetry, the punishments he often invents that match or invert the crime perpetrated above on earth. "Those who thought life ended in the grave are destined to spend eternity in a tomb."

However, the Commedia isn't a political tract any more than it is a sermon, for Shaw promotes Dante's primary concern within the "power of words" to chastise his contemporaries and to correct the many flaws of his troubled city and a compromised Church. The vanity of Pope Boniface VIII gains special note, for his massive statue as a memorial--shown in one of the helpful illustrations throughout this volume (although on a Kindle I had to enlarge many to make out their detail, as in the delicate Botticelli line drawings of the cantos)--finds few admirers today, certainly. Shaw contrasts this with a statue of Dante she glimpsed in New York City behind shrubbery. Elsewhere she brings in Catholic schoolgirls in 1950s Australia, UN sanctions, and Siena-Florence soccer rivalries as apropos. She connects the controversies of Dante's era, often in the political realm ones that feel very distant from our own, by revealing a poet who strives to fix his society's woes by honest poetic craft.

While his masterpiece may also appear arcane, Shaw notes how it's "not an account of a dream" as were other visions of the time, "but of something that happened when the poet woke up" at the start of the cantos, intriguingly. We are charmed by some of those whom Dante and Virgil meet in hell, but the moral scrutiny persists. Ulysses or Francesca may inspire our sympathy, but we must keep our guard, for Dante presents an ethical strategy that keeps ambiguity alive along with dispassionate judgment, reflecting after all divine justice as well as human frailty.

The epic spirals down into earth, where Satan burrowed after he fell from heaven, only to claw itself up the slope of the soil displaces from the center of the earth, as purgatory carries Dante to its summit. And, since the cantos end with the heavenly light, and language must stop trying to capture this scene, it's a poignant "dream that one cannot recall on waking" which "leaves a trace of the emotions experienced in it. Snow melting in sunlight retains a faint tracing of an imprint on it. The oracles of the Sibyl are lost on the winds that blow away the pages they were written on."

Thus, referring to dazzling images employed by Dante in his writings, Shaw leaves us with our own wonder at Dante's bold ambition and the courage taken to put down honestly his revulsion against so much corruption clerical, personal, and political around him. He also undertakes a redemptive task, to make his everyday language, enhanced by his talent and coinages, capable of taking on the next world, not to mention this one. From Here to Eternity is her aptly chosen subtitle for this study.

Supplemented by notes and a very extensive bibliography, told in scholarly but engaging language, Shaw's survey of Dante should reward anyone wanting to learn more about him and his times. She makes a strong case for his linguistic range and his dogged ambition, and one will close her own book more convinced than ever, most likely, that Dante's legacy deserves to sustain its lofty power.
(Amazon US 2-6-14)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Nicholas J. Higham + Martin J. Ryan's "The Anglo-Saxon World": Book Review

If you can read this sentence, you owe a debt to Anglo-Saxons. Much of our basic language, perhaps bits of our law, and likely some of your former if not present neighbors if you live in the English-speaking world perpetuated and augmented a social cohesion based upon early medieval foundations of their roots. The peoples who formed the English kingdom forged it first from the elite if intrusive identities of fifth-century Saxons, Angles, and Jutes who confronted the remnants of Romano-British culture.

Before the Angles and Saxons, Brittania did not attract much attention. Although it took a tenth of Rome's legions to occupy its contested realm, it did not supply much wealth. Career opportunities for its Celtic natives, as Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan tally them, proved limited: laborers, recruits for the military, slaves, and prostitutes. They begin their survey with an examination of Britain, as a fusion of Roman rule, adapted by native British peoples, characterized the first few centuries after its occupation in the middle of the first century C.E.  Dealing with a distant land, and increasingly beset by barbarian incursions, Rome did not sustain its dominance. Its power had faded from the island before the end of the fourth century, as the imperial legions gradually withdrew to defend the Western Empire, and the sea raiders surrounding the coasts of Britain had stormed in.

While Higham and Ryan, after paraphrasing recent research, remain hesitant to calculate how many Saxons, Angles, and Jutes left their German, Frisian, and Danish homes to settle in Britain, it appears a "high-prestige" contingent convinced or coerced the Romanized and indigenous lowland Britons to adapt Old English by the middle of the fifth century. Few words we speak in its modern descendent come from Celtic tongues, and this imbalance demonstrates the replacement of ancient languages by that new import as its popularity and status spread rapidly. A sort of "apartheid" may have accompanied this Germanic regime, so that those loyal to Celtic culture and leadership found themselves increasingly marginalized. The "wergild" or man-price value varied when restitution was sought in a violent society where invaders and resisters battled among themselves and against many occupiers: a Briton was worth half of the value of those who made the laws as Angles and Saxons.

Compounding this imposition, over the next two centuries, came Christianity. A Celtic version had endured if in a persecuted manner (as the invaders were pagan for a considerable if varying time initially) among some natives, but Saxons and Angles found that a revival of the Roman version (first introduced under later imperial occupation of Britain, intriguingly) suited martial rule and mental constructs well. Catholicism imported by missionaries from the former empire delivered clerical administration, militarized models, and continental learning. By 730, Britain had been Christianized, at least officially. As Beowulf shows, still puzzling scholars today, pagan elements lingered long.

For the Germanic peoples imposing control over fractious and divided Celtic kingdoms, the importance of family, lineage, and kindred enabled "kingship" (from the same root as "kin") to combine not only spatial advantage in territory conquered but tribal alliances negotiated to expand the dynasties of Northumbria, Mercia, Anglia, Kent, and the Saxon lands of Essex, Wessex, and Sussex. Eventually, seven kingdoms fought for dominance. Given the bloody conflicts against internal and foreign rivals, its rulers took a long time before settling on the name of England (the Latin on coinage as King Alfred craftily minted ca. 875 to call himself "rex anglorum" is an elusive phrase as it may mean king of the Angles or of the English, as they came to label themselves later). This review necessarily simplifies what "The Anglo-Saxon World" conveys in complicated chapters full of formidable names in many languages and what proves for dutiful stretches relentless strife.

This depth, compressed into density, may weigh down even a reader as fascinated by this era as this reviewer. Higham and Ryan present in nearly five hundred pages a necessarily thorough account, if one while accessibly written will be consulted more in history seminars than airport lounges. Given the scarcity of evidence for much of this period, the relative lack of social history, lively anecdotes, or everyday life as it was endured can exact demands on those looking for the past made popular, but the rather old-fashioned top-down dominant approach of names, dates, and reports does result in a trusted resource, open-ended and able to weigh and sift contested evidence.

The fact that it interprets specialist lore and scientific findings adds to its value. Its heft and generous inclusion of charts, maps, tables, and illustrations (many from archeological excavations, monuments, manuscripts, the engrossing Bayeux Tapestry, and especially coins--not sure if these depictions will be in color as I have a galley proof) will ease your learning curve; the authors supply a list of sources in a running series of endnotes, but they keep the text itself free of parenthetical citations or superscription, which lightens their academic tone.

What's admirable about this wide-ranging presentation? The asides as to how Anglo-Saxon terms and inventions echo down to us. For instance, shire-reeve incorporates the establishment of this territorial division with the man who patrolled it as a royal agent by the late tenth century, a "sheriff". And as for if not law or order, then their lack; certainly when the Vikings arrive ca. 800, the pace quickens.

The "St. Brice's Day Massacre" of November 13, 1002, may be unknown to gangland aficionados today, but it anticipates what any brutal leader who needed to crack down on his rivals and defend his turf might do. Aethelred, although denigrated in his own parlous reign as the "unready" (literally "ill-counseled" as this very term denotes linguistic shifts over a thousand years), endures as an English king determined to launch a pre-emptive strike against Danish mercenaries. After two centuries of Viking raids, then occupation, Aethelred (unlike some of his Germanic predecessors) tried to rally against the Scandinavian raiders--and their English allies, as warlords and collaborators.

When some Danes fled into St. Frideswide's Church in Oxford, the king ordered their sanctuary to be burnt down, and those within it. All over the realm, on royal command the Danes were slain, as digs over the past decade reveal. Carbon-dating and isotope analysis of skeletons now can pinpoint Scandinavian origins for the bones dug up from mass graves: many young men with multiple wounds not suffered in battle, decapitated, attacked from behind while prone, or hit in the back of the skull.

Emma, Aethelred's second wife, found herself willingly or wisely married off to his Danish successor, Cnut, who in 1016 took over England. Game of Thrones comes often to mind when reflecting on the internecine revenge and diplomatic contentions filling many paragraphs here. The hard bargain apparently driven by Emma herself hints at this sort of lively inspiration for tale tellers. 

The next year Cnut divided England among himself and three rivals, only to kill off one the same year, while eliminating three more leaders. Furthermore, consider the fate of Aethelred's sons and grandsons. "Eadwig, the son of Aethelred by his first consort Aelfgifu of York, was driven into exile in 1017 and killed soon afterwards, while Edward and Alfred, Aethelred's sons by Emma, went into exile in Normandy. Edmund Ironside's sons, Edward and Edmund, were likewise exiled to the Continent, ending up eventually in Hungary having escaped attempts by Cnut to have them murdered." One reflects upon the distance needed to flee to what was the edge of Europe, and a barbaric enclave itself, to elude vengeance of a Viking made uneasy king.

Unsurprisingly, the authors find Cnut's long reign intriguing; they trace the derivation of our meaning for "rich" to the OE "rice" which by this time melded the older meaning of "power" with the newer one of "wealth" to symbolize the fusion of the two for an ambitious set of social climbers. Among these was Cnut's favorite Godwine, who'd enter the jockeying for the throne after Cnut's death in 1035. No wonder both King Alfred and Harold II would stamp "pax" (Latin for "peace") on their coinage alongside their regal profiles: the Vikings kept pressing their advantages while the English fought or bought them off. The issue of succession defies brevity: the authors' chart of the English, Norwegian, and Danish claimants to or inheritors of the English crown, and the Norman dukes who would soon seize it, records nearly sixty progenitors, spouses, siblings, and/or descendants, with fifteen kings controlling some or all of England between the tenth and the twelfth centuries. 

The "some or all" proves the sticking point. Harold Godwineson's less than ten months as ruler found him driving back Norwegian invaders--then immediately hastening south to fend off William of Normandy, to an end every student used to know if no other date in English lore. 1066 represents the "biggest land grab" in the kingdom's history. Monasteries were given over to the newcomers; castles loomed over the angry inhabitants of besieged cities and insurgent borders. Heavy cavalry had won the Norman battle at Hastings; armed might bested the resistance put up by Harold's feebler allies.

The conclusion of this sprawling narrative may be less familiar that that preceding scene. Normans decimated those they hated as Saxons. England's elite rebelled repeatedly; William imposed a scorched-earth policy over much of the restive north of his vast but hostile kingdom. The peasants and villagers had nowhere to run. Far fewer in numbers than the fifth-century Anglo-Saxon elite who had conquered what they finally called England, the "barely one percent" of Normans swept in to take over the ninety-nine percent, its mixed peoples calling themselves now the English. The island's newest (and last successful) invaders first had settled down in France and turned from Viking Northmen into Normans. Then, emboldened to rush into an England under Scandinavian attack, and embittered by what they saw as Harold's unlawful taking of the crown against William's own claim, they killed, expelled, or drove off the ruling class among their Saxon predecessors. Ironically, many from this displaced English elite joined the Vikings as they continued in their raids--if elsewhere. (A 6-25-13; PopMatters 6-7-13)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ag dul go Londain aríst, cuid amháin

D'imigh muid go Cathair na hÁingeal go dtí Londain an chéad Dé Máirt i mí na Nollaig luath. Fhág Léna agus mé le linn na h-óiche. Bhí Léna ansuid le linn samhraidh seo caite, ach ní raibh mé ansin ach uair amháin (nó níos lú!) sa deich mbliana chomh fásta: beagán i Meitheamh-Iúil 1979, 1989 agus 2003 mar i gcéanna.

D'fhán muid i gKensington Thios ina h-Óstán de Blacam. Is áit iontach, agus fuair muid úasghrádú chun seomra mór i stíl na Fraince. Bhí maith linn a léamh dhá nó trí nuachtán (íomlán ar an bháis na Mandela agus an triail na Nigella Lawson) áitiuilaí go brea gach maidin le bricfeasta ann, fós.

Thosaigh muid ár tseachtaine seisean féin Dé Ceadaoin leis cuairt go Músaem na Londain ag an balla Rómhánach. Tá sé ag dul chun cinn ó amannaí neoiliteach go Céilteach go Rómánach go meanaoiseach go nAthbheochana. Ansin, théann tú go síos go dtí an t-úrlar thíos a fheiceáil an ré nua-aimseartha dtí an lá inniu.

Chónaic mé ar léarscáil na Músaem na Ord Naomh Eoin. D'fhóglaim muid faoi na Ord i gclós an-stairiúl air i gClerkenwell ó meanaoiseach go anois mar sheirbhis otharchairr. Ith muid dinnéar Mharocó blasta i tStráide Grégis, Soho, ag Maison Touareg.

Ar deireadh, bhreatnaigh muid drámaíocht "Mojo" ag Amharclann Harold Pinter in aice leis Cearnach Leicester, iomlán de carnabhail geal. Bhí an-tuirseach, ar ndóigh. Ní raibh mé a thuiscint go leor de.

Going to London again, part one.

We went from Los Angeles to London early in December. Layne and I left during the night. Layne had been over there during this past summer, but I had not been there but once (or less!) decade as an adult: a bit in June-July 1979, the same 1989 and 2003.

We stayed in South Kensington at Blake's Hotel. It's a wonderful place, and we got an upgrade to a big room in French style. We liked reading two or three fine local newspapers at breakfast there, too.

We started our week itself on Wednesday with a visit to the London Museum at the Roman Wall. It goes from neolithic times to Celtic to Roman to medieval to the Renaissance. Then, you go down to the first floor to see the early modern times to the present.

I saw on a map The Museum of the Order of St. John. We learned about the Order in its very historic courtyard in Clerkenwell from medieval times to now as an ambulance service. We ate a tasty Moroccan dinner in Greek Street, Soho, at Maison Touareg.

Finally, we saw the drama "Mojo" at the Harold Pinter Theatre near Leicester Square, full of a bright carnival. I was very tired, however. I didn't understand much of it. (Grianghraf/Photo: St John's Gate at night/Geata Naomh Eoin i n-óiche)