Monday, June 25, 2007

My Birthday & Myles Keogh

June 25. National Catfish Day. Missed the solstice, that dreamy Midsummer's Night, and by one day St. John the Baptist. George Orwell's birthday, as well as the same year as me, another dramatizer of the dystopian culture of conformity in its personal management guise, Ricky Gervais. The Korean War began on this date, as did the French surrender to the Nazis, not to mention the Battle of Little Big Horn. Not only Custer but two of his brothers and a brother-in-law died that day in 1876. Recovering from eye surgery, half-blind, fumbling about for cassettes as I had to stay stock still to listen on a Walkman in Echo Park lying on the old sofa in the sunroom to the nuanced reading of Evan Connell's magnificent "Son of the Morning Star," the story within the story of a Fenian's son turned cavalryman Myles Keogh still reverberates from sixteen summers ago (as does the actor's voice who entertained Layne and I one long car ride up North even further back, a quirky choice we both love, John Dos Passos' "USA"). His father fought in 1798; his uncle was executed. Barely twenty, Myles served as a Papal Count in the Irish division of Catholic volunteers from across Europe failing to defend Pius IX and the Papal States against Garibaldi's victorious rebellion.

Joining the US Army in 1862, he fought at Shenandoah, Fredericksburg, Chancellorville, Gettsysburg where he became a Major, and marched with Sherman. After the Civil War and a failed love--a young widow of a colleague who had been killed in the war-- who died before he could marry her, he entered the 4th Cavalry under "boy general" Custer and went out West.

Melancholy despite a flamboyant dandyish persona, he sensed that the campaign with Custer in 1876 would be doomed. Senior Captain of the five companies under Custer, he wrote before the battle a farewell letter. He died surrounded in a miniature last stand of his comrades in Company One. His men had been shot down around him; he lay in the center, presumably last to stand.

His horse also had been wounded with the same bullet that had shattered Keogh's left knee, but "Comanche" was nursed back to health and became regimental mascot. "Last Survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn," he lived until 29 and was indulged in his habit of drinking beer. Myles was stripped but escaped the customary mutilation by the warriors. His "Agnus Dei" medal was found around his neck, and this "medicine" may have spared him this fate.

Did the Major believe he fought for the side of the Army as he did for the Pope, against the swarthy inhabitants, on the side of manifest destiny, Christian imperialism, and divine righteousness? I wonder, from a Fenian family of insurgents during the quixotic rising in the "Year of the French," what this "Lamb of God" thought of in his last moments. Another midsummer's midday heat. June 25: full of buckshot, the tall mustachioed soldier falling-- failing to defeat an guerrilla assault by defiant natives against overwhelming attacks upon their ancient land.

"The Wild Geese" Brian Poholka writes on Keogh:

"Equine Heroes" Diane Linkous writes on Comanche:

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Noah's Ark & Wrathful Deity?

The comment by "harry" on my Anniversary #16 rant I find typically astute. Yes, Wrathful Deity could have been female (I did allow this hedge but went for the male), and I guess letting this Red SUV full-figured creature have his/her say allowed them to vent and me to let out hot air to pass along, blowing the invective into the compromised ozone.

Here's a related piece, by the reviewer Carina Chocano, whose name sounds like a Mexican chocolate bar, a MEChA activist, or a Culture Clash character, but who in replacing Manohla Dargis (what's with these monikers?) provides equally readable, if less PC-feminist, commentary on films for the increasingly dismal L.A. Times. Along with Tim Rutten, about whom I wrote recently, and longtime rock journalist Ann Powers who I guess has been delegated to replace Bob (I love U2! Best performances since Dylan. If not Elvis. Brian Wilson: what a genius. And did I tell you about these beat groups the Beatles and the Stones?) Hilburn as resident pop music guru, the Calendar section survives if not thrives. At least compared to Kalefa Sanneh (names!) for pop at the NY Times, along with eloquent Virginia Heffernan (the other day she gave a rather generous take on Rosie O'Donnell's video blog), ruminative Edward Rothstein's "Connections," and testy John Tierney (a Joe Queenan- Penn Jillette for neo-cons; Like Penn & Teller's BS, I may not agree with his methods but his skewering of sacred PC cows I find a delight. But Penn swears every ^&^#(*ing sentence.) makes the Paper of Record a must-read.

Chocano reviews "Evan Almighty," which while in the trailer I saw (Leo says that's basically the whole movie) looks dull if not as disastrous as "License to Wed" with unctuous "Rev. Frank" played by Robin Williams stretched out between erstwhile newlyweds disguised as Mandy Moore and some guy-- so funny that the commercial has the groom-to-be hit in the head by a football. So hard that he falls over! The hijinks in "Evan" aspires to wisdom cloaked in wit. Leo caught one joke embedded about a marquee for a film, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin Mary." "Evan," a honcho laments in Nikke Finke's column in the also increasingly dismal (although it never had risen much to fall from) LA Weekly that this $210 million comedy, the most expensive of its genre ever, has "Awareness" buzz but falters in "Unaided Awareness"-- alas, how can a movie with God, Steve Carell, and 3,000 animals NOT get parents to take their children, whines the unnamed Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man. (Who now could be a Woman. Apologies to "harry" and Jagger-Richards or Nanker Phelge. Names!)

The movie combines a scripted and visualized Bodhi Tree infusion concocted by such puffy flacks, easy on guilt, heavy on saccharine, and nix a Wrathful Deity who'd destroy all us vermin due to our fornicating and infidelities. Better to have an emasculated Morgan Freeman putter about, as if at home amidst the chakras and tisanes. My wife at dinner, where I politely chose $10 milk & cookies rather than a tisane, last night for our anniversary let me know that despite being racist and classist, at least I am not sexist and embrace in spirit those of any preference.

GOD may be in all things, but lately he seems especially at home in a certain kind of big-budget studio comedy aimed at a very particular market. That would be, apparently, the market that loves its zingy Bible puns and its adorable CGI versions of all God's creatures but doesn't want to be made to feel too bad about driving that SUV or heating 6,000 square feet in a just-sprouted development.

In Tom Shadyac's "Evan Almighty," as in its predecessor, "Bruce Almighty," the supreme being spends a lot of time adjusting the attitudes of middle-class everymen who have strayed from the path of righteousness. Not that they've strayed very far, mind you — the God of studio comedies is not really all that judgmental, preferring to overlook the lighter, middle-class sins so as not to alienate his core fan base.

Here, he's once again portrayed by Morgan Freeman as one part groovy yoga instructor, one part Vegas magician and one part high-end New Age life coach in Deepak Chopra pajamas. No part of him, however, suggests the Old Testament deity who, upon deciding that his creation is a big, fat disappointment, wipes it out and starts all over again. A God that vengeful and cranky may be OK for the Bible, but nobody expects him to carry a $175-million movie.

The eminently lovable Steve Carell, on the other hand, is just the man for that job, no matter how schmucky the character. Carell plays Evan, the preening, buffoonish Buffalo, N.Y., anchorman despised by Bruce in the first movie. He's just been elected to Congress on the "change the world" ticket, and the movie gets going as he piles his family — wife Joan ("Gilmore Girls' " Lauren Graham, minus her personality) and three standard-issue movie sons — into a shiny new Hummer. No sooner has he settled into his new northern Virginia home, a day-old McMansion (with kitchen counters lined with old-growth Brazilian cherrywood) in the brand-new development of Prestige Crest, than Evan starts receiving divine hints (a Bible verse on the clock radio, a crate of antediluvian tools on the doorstep and a pallet of lumber on the lawn). Then God shows up and orders a custom boat.

[. . . .]

It would help if we had any idea what Evan is supposed to be converting to. Will he renounce the suburban assault vehicle and the neo-Colonial ego monument, buy a Prius and settle into a more modest, say, 1,200 square feet of solar-paneled eco-living? Well, no. Will he sponsor bills to abolish the teaching of evolution in schools? Not that either.

He will, however, adopt a stray dog. And not just any dog. A dog that went potty on his lawn! This, God tells him, is what it's all about. Clearly, the God of "Evan Almighty" is a loving God, a forgiving God, a God who knows better than to discuss politics or religion at the box office, a God with unbelievably low expectations of humanity.

So what, then, is with the very impressive computer-generated wall of water that arrives as promised? That would be a public reprimand to the bad guy whose comeuppance is nigh. Though, given the limited scope of destruction, it's unclear why rhinos and elephants are called upon to board the ship. Then again, there's so much that doesn't make sense in "Evan Almighty" that the issue of wherefore the African fauna feels like a quibble. On the one hand, it's a thoroughly hedged pro-environment message. On the other, it's a Christian parable without an ethical center or moral lesson — it's zeitgeisty!

My P.S. The image is from Googling the review, I find four out of the five "sponsored links" about God. Two invite me to find out more about Him. Two threaten me with the End Times although one predicts the Rapture.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Anniversary #16: Death, Deities & Dullards

Married on a blisteringly hot day, as it tends to get in June, duh, one week out of detached retina surgery, I got out of the dancing Layne had paid for us, that was forced upon us in the party, to practice at Pickwick. What do I remember? A giant plate of poached salmon. A cool, in multiple senses, house full of wood and Victorian glass. The crackheads across the street on Alvarado Terrace at the little park. My kippah and my mother's hissed "take it off." How proud Ana looked! A crowd of happy friends (if not all my family). The few minutes Layne and I had alone immediately after the ceremony-- a Jewish tradition that originally meant a quickie deflowering after all that pent-up energy, so as to be released and the couple could get back to the serious business of having fun with the caravansarai and slaughtering fatted calves. (She did wear white, but decorum prevents me from sharing more intimate details!)

Yesterday, I parked at the Pasadena library. There was some shindig on so only one spot was open. Two giant SUVs meant little room for my Volvo to duck between the spaces marked Compact, for which I qualified if not my supersized neighboring vehicles. I parked very carefully. I walked into the library, dropped off Leo's tapes, and thus fulfilled my obligation as a patron earning parking privileges. I exited the other side, past City Hall and the handsome Spanish-style 1925 civic center square, crossed Colorado, and attended graduation at the auditorium.

Back at the library later, I browsed the new books. I could not check any out, however, as I will be in Ireland still when they turn due. A new translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead beckoned. Perusing it, I read the Dalai Lama's assurance that our present life would be exchanged for a new one at death, and no less worrisome this trade than replacing a worn set of clothes with a fresh outfit. I envy his faith.

Later that night, at dinner, Niall did not want to discuss death with his eager mother, who insisted that the transience of our time here on the planet enriched what we do. A very Jewish perspective. Perhaps, however, my younger son inherits his paternal fatalism mixed with stubborn despondency. He did not want to pursue the topic, and shut off all further discussion.

But I contrarily, due to my fear of the afterlife or its lack, have always been engaged with its possibilities at least as we imagine it. Thus my dissertation. My daily thoughts. And those keeping me up at night. The illustrations in the TBD came in two color inserts. Wondering why the deities coupling vigorously were all angry, their tongues close but not intertwined as their bodies, the females (hard to tell they were such really) clad in leopard-skin loincloths over their writhing derrieres, the males all grimacing and glowering and gasping. Some otherworld to anticipate. Red, gold, fire, blue, glare, fists and gestures. But, that's the lama's secret.

That is, the great liberation from those bardo(s) depends on our recognition of their illusion. Those sneering copulators: they're only puppets and props. The other plates showed peaceful silks worn by the consorts, flowing soft patterns draping the female backsides. They clasped just as acrobatically but with more contentment their male mates. The colors were blues and greens, but soft landscape hues, not furnaces. But, I do not know: if all is maya, evanescent, than are the peaceful deities too only imaginary? I can see why the 72 houri with recurring virginity entice male Muslims.

The introduction I skimmed told how we need to take the energy that we put into our fear of death and use it to guide the passage of those who go before us into the procession of bardos. The Tibetans, as I stated early on in that dissertation (to the surprise of my advisor, who did not expect a thesis to begin on such a mystical note), were as Uma's dad Robert Thurman coins them, "psychonauts." Along with the Hindus, they seem to me to have penetrated the farthest into the Great Beyond. This book, full of allusions and difficult concepts, nonetheless tries to share what they found, and how to overcome our natural resistance to that we cannot fathom-- Hamlet's "undiscovered country" from which no traveller returns.

Typical of me to begin about my anniversary and end with death and literature. I end on an ironic note. From the window of my car when I returned, thinking about Great Liberation and ecstatic coupling and their symbolic unities, I extracted a printed card. I paraphrase, not bothering for verbatim accuracy considering the source. "Thanks asshole for not leaving any space next to me when you parked. You F[#$&*]ers should leave me a can opener so I can get in my door." The evident discrepancy that the red SUV that took up a compact spot was to blame-- not the Volvo that perfectly fit between the lines, and had me as its skinny driver who had no problem as to his egress-- escaped our invective-spewing presumably male "fierce deity," at least in his own mind. The fact that he carries around printed cards with this puerile message makes me wonder about his frame of mind, his ecological and consuming selfishness, and the odds that he lugs around his own lard-assed avoirdupois. I wonder where his quest will take him after his own departure from a world of gluttony and great ego.

Not to end on bad karma, however, on this day of happiness. So, here's an image credit, with a note below. (N.B.: this illustration favors black and white, subtler blue and gold. It lacks the vibrancy of the TBD pictures I saw, but offers a more contrasting monochrome tension, and a subtler background trim. She's nude, too. As Kenneth Clark distinguished, we all look in the mirror and are naked. The perfect bodies we admire, contrarily for all but probably 2,568 of the people on the planet, are to the rest of us "nude." Yet, if we seeking Unadorned Truth in sex or spirit and their mingling release ourselves from the limits of our touch and vision, perhaps we too can see each other as nude, not merely naked. The TBD depicts the consorts all partially clothed. Like lovers, the decision to bare the body as the soul, in that "knowing in the biblical sense," demands its own harsh but rewarding truth.)

The other diagram shows the Tibetan path to reincarnation. Taking that on-ramp, let's hope Mr. Wrathful Deity in his own ample driver's seat earns his own liberation from attachment to material goods inside his reptile brain and outside his own girth.

Better stop my own dependence on smug rhetoric while I'm at it. Layne and I, in our union, early on discovered a shared fascination with Tibet, and this too in its own esoteric manner brings us closer. But I cannot sit, let alone contemplate other activities, in the lotus position, unlike those Male Deities. They don't have a bad knee for yab/yum. To borrow a term from the other side of the Himalayas, Namaste!

Guru and yidam - Primordial Mother of all the Buddhas

Samantabhadri (Kuntuzangmo in Tibetan) is the consort and female counterpart of Samantabhadra/Kuntuzangpo, the primordial Buddha of the older schools of Tibetan Buddhism. They are usually shown in sexual union (yab/yum in Tibetan), the blue male figure and white female figure embracing each other in lotus position. Samantabhadri is sometimes shown alone, in which case she is seated in lotus posture with her hands in meditation posture in her lap. Samantabhadri is always shown naked (as is her consort) to demonstrate the unadorned nature of Absolute Truth, the emptiness of all phenomena.

Female Buddhist Scholars:

Friday, June 22, 2007

Old Irish Online: Compert Con Culainn

U. of Texas, Linguistics Research Center, has a webpage with the Compert Con Culainn ("The Conception of Chú Chulainn"), a beginner's text offering we daunted novices scholarly assistance with this daunting tongue. The UT's LRC's founded by Winifred P. Lehmann (a "he!") a fine translator of OI. His wife, Ruth P.M. Lehmann, crafted an accurate Beowulf. (Ruth's version's one of the closest to the feel of the Old English, along with the looser but readable Kevin Crossley-Holland; Seamus Heaney's quite fluent with the Anglo-Saxon rhythm, but as with many renowned poets, his own prize-winning power of verse transforms the original's severe stomp into his own mellifluous medium, whereas Lehmann allows the clanging clash of the OE via ModE vocal volume.) Both letter-loving L's collaborated on the brave but for me still too technical MLA "Introduction to Old Irish."

Scholarly collaboration. Heaney and his brother-in-law Barry Devlin in Horslips retelling deeds of medieval heroes. (The image from the UDA's mural in Belfast, the complicated legacy that allows factions to compete over heroic lineage and, as Horslips sang about Ferdia and Cú Chulainn, to meet in battle over control of the same small turf.) Our debate over Ulster's cycles of tale-telling and of violence bear witness, I may add as an academic and diasporic outlier but still an indie scholar of both Irish language and pop culture, to the need for instruction in these sources, whether at UCD, UT, or here via the Web and Come Back Horslips and HorsLit.

Me and my wife have our own pillow talk, shades of the Táin, not of bigger bulls but perhaps grander b.s., over the future impact of secular doubt and spiritual certitude that we witness. Come to think of it, day before my anniversary #16, my wife's name sort of fits "lainn" and mine, naturally, the "cú" not to mention my nom de plume meets birth surname as Fionn. So, fittingly, we match up with this OI conflation in terms of their term for our hero CC.

Thanks to googling for an image for "Old Irish myth," which you can see in the post immediately prior to this one today, I stumbled serendipitously upon a (now newly linked) blog, Atalanta Fvgiens, and its own OI entries, which directed me hither to Austin's cyber archive. There's ten OI texts, all brief with translations and annotations. Including two that Horslips fans will enjoy: Lebor Gábala Érinn, a.k.a. Book of Invasions, and a wee Táin, this one not from Cualnge but a Táin Bo Regamna. Also here, a map of the Isles, language family overviews, and connections with other Indo-European groups. Well done. I'd been looking for such, but never found this until now. Perhaps my former classmate The Digital Medievalist (searchable via earlier mentions on my blog) can add a UT tag to her own blog to guide the Net's OI learners in turn?

Downgrading of Old Irish at UCD

Letter to the editor, Irish Times, 22 June 2007. This eloquently defends the study of OI against budget cuts and UCD's ill-considered (lack of) judgment about relevance of medieval and classically based education. Surely the economy of an Ireland lavishing tax breaks for corporate comers and inviting a half-million immigrants can afford to fund the foundation of their national heritage. Surely?

By the way, this image comes, another blogger tells me (I update the original entry here 6/25) from googling "Irish Australia." I am adding that blogger to my links, in fact. It's by one Bo, gin-soaked at Oxford (wonder if he knows a post-grad peer, my pal Jessica March over at St. John's?) who posts at Atalanta Fvgiens. Sort of a Brideshead Revisited character for the post-Christian age. (Update: too "hobbit-like" for that, he demurs. Stuffed bear's the only tolerable character in the novel; although I liked Pheobe in the BBC-TV series as youthful spinster. I can applaud any Middle Earth preference within reason, and better staunch Tolkien, my own role model as a twelve-year-old finding out that Old English existed at least in academia, than prissy Evelyn Waugh, as the new family bio by son Alexander W. testifies.) Although Waugh too wrote in the dawn of the same. Doubtless both old boys dutifully share the proviso that the Latins had no "v."

My childhood Claremont, smoggy imitator of Oxbridge, had over its little classical-style stone library a carving "Pvblic" that always reminded me of another word, even though I was not even 12 when forcibly deported from that college town into the Valley of the Dirt People, as a couple of shock-joke local d.j.s call what's now the 909 & 818 area codes, especially the former one, which in turn once was the 714's eastern lands of citrus, stucco, chaparral, and once upon a time pre-big-box stores and endless malls and red-tiled subdivisions even far more dirt.

Back to the land of Banba, Eriu, and Fodhla now. Let's hope that if Cambridge can keep OI thriving alongside OE, that the premiere campus of the National University of Ireland can keep pace. Fifty billion dollars invested in Ireland by multinationals lately-- can't Bertie spare a few euro for an OI degree at UCD?

22ú Meitheamh 2007

Downgrading of Old Irish at UCD

Madam, - As a Briton of Irish extraction, who proudly bears a family name not unknown in the field of Old Irish, I have been labouring hard over the past 20 years to persuade the British Archaeological Establishment that the remarkable corpus of Old Irish Literature is a unique window into the culture of the Iron and Bronze Ages of Europe. In consequence I have been following the debate in your columns with some concern. If a body as great as UCD downgrades Old Irish from a full degree subject to a mere module, it necessarily signals a lack of respect for a great and ancient tradition.

The history, law, placenames and poetry of Old Irish are unrivalled in Western Europe, and the law in particular demonstrates the underlying Indo-European Common Law which predates (and gave rise to) the Roman Ius Non Scriptum of the early Republic, as well as the English Common Law.

The majestic appreciation of this rich culture can never, in my view, be replaced by any regime for "contextualising the subject anew" in a broader 'modern' degree. In these circumstances I cannot help but give what support I can to Prof Liam Breatnach (June 19th) and the other distinguished signatories to the letter March 13th. To paraphrase the tenth century poet Eochaid Ua Flainn: "Listen, learned men, so glad,/ with a stout ship of knowledge,/ till I have told what I have learned/ of every generation who took Ireland."

Without a grounding in Old Irish, I greatly fear that a degree in 'Celtic Civilisation' would be a Bád gan stiúr nó cú gan eireabul (a boat without a rudder or a hound without a tail). - Yours, etc,

TIMOTHY CONCANNON, Buriton, Hampshire, England.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill & the Whirlwind

Charles McGlinchey, in "The Last of the Name," his memoir of traditional life on Inishowen in the extreme north of Co Donegal, tells his father's story of Finn Mc Cool, or however you render him. The image is from an earlier encounter with another elder figure of wisdom, when Finnéigeas ["fair" + seer/ sage/ scholar/ poet] tutors him; the young warrior blisters his thumb on the Salmon of Knowledge. That story can be read here:

Now, for today's tale. McGlinchey lived 1861-1954. He died without heirs, thus the title of this brief narrative edited by Brian Friel, published 1999. Imagine this told by another bearded grey one, to fresh faces and weary ones in a damp smoky cottage. Think of how Oisin and Fionn, his Fianna, Cú Chulainn, Conor and Fergus along with hosts of fairies, giants, witches, and folks once like you and me came alive for these excited or exhausted listeners on long lonely firelit nights. Bring yourself into an era of hardship and pleasure that McGlinchey knows as ephemeral now as the whirlwind the tale conjures up. "A house with young children was a noisy place many a time, our own as well as the rest. But it's a long while now since the music of children was heard in this house. It'll be eighty years and more." (104)

Will my children gain delight in their visualized and all too graphic games, their vivid depictions of superheroes and war machines, fighters and bombs, epic contests again pitting doughty good vs. cunning evil, life's flicker against death's darkness?

I'm writing now my conference presentations about Horslips, and how they enlivened the Ulster Cycle and the Book of Invasions for hippies and even shorter-haired punkish teens as myself in the 1970s. My inspiration in turn's from HorsLit and Come Back Horslips under Lee Templeton's direction on the Net. Bold tech, venerable sagas. Derided by many trad musicians and insulted by rock critics, Horslips' legacy today, as with Jim Fitzpatrick's graphic arts counterparts, restored ancient myth and medieval narrative for modern audiences. So, the predictions of woe may be premature, same as it ever was. If I can get my somnolent students this past term into Shakespeare, overcoming their doubt and boredom, perhaps miracles can still occur. By course's end, two students borrowed the Branagh and Hawke videos to view in full; two enjoyed the South Coast Rep's current performance of Hamlet.

Are we literary types the last of our name? Or, as I wonder when teaching my students (including majors in "Gaming & Simulation Programming") will they bridge past print with future fandom? Bibliophiles or video game addicts: any real difference? What will pop culture's scholars and media critics celebrate a century after my birth, those to be tenured in turn a century after that of McGlinchey?

Fionn, lost in the forest, rests by a tree trunk. A "sidhe-gaoithe" or whirlwind (literally a fairy-wind) blows up about him and when it clears he sees a little hut directly ahead. Seeking bed and board, he enters. A grey-bearded man sits in the corner, a big black cat on the other side of the hearth. A beautiful girl appears as Fionn steps in. She puts a meal for him on the table. But a ram leaps up to gobble up the food before Fionn can. The cat grabs the ram by the throat to drag the hoofed one back to the cat's corner. Fionn sups. The girl directs him to his sleeping area. He falls in love with her. Usual entreaties of eternal fidelity and nuptial bliss follow, but she refuses. "You had me before and you did not think much of me and threw me aside. You cannot have me again." (qtd. 109)

Although our confounded swain tries to explain he'd never before set eyes on her, she counters his courting. She only smiles, then leaves him. Next morning, breakfast laid out, he eats. Before he leaves, he asks the old man "what was the meaning of the strange household that he kept." (109-110) The man answers. He's Father Time, who sits and watches. The ram's the World. The black cat keeps the world in its place. It's Death.

As for the comely colleen, she's Youth. "You had her once, but you can never have her again." (110) The old man ascends, the sidhe-gaoithe gusts, the hut and all its contents vanish. Fionn's again seated, his back against the tree amidst the forest.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Judaism & the Culture of Outburst

Jay Michaelson writes in the May 11 Forward, that I finally got around to unearthing in the clutter amidst remodeling, this article about the recent hypocritical contretemps and manufactured outrage around the remarks by Ann Coulter, Don Imus, and Michael Allen among others. Frankly, the Forverts in our mamaloshen needs to take more credit itself. It first covered the Allen "macaca" remark, tracing it back to a Tunisian Sephardic term of mild abuse, made the linguistic connection with Allen's own less than haimishe mama, and her own evident secrecy over What Did You Do In the (Second) Great War? Allen's own fumbling of the matter amidst "I ate a ham sandwich today" and "my mom boy does she love her pork chops" when confronted with the matter of his own matrilineal links forged with the lost tribes of Israel caused him to freefall in the polls, losing his safe GOP Virginia seat and thus the control of the Senate.

Well, my wife mentioned this article that I did leave out for her. Since I am the Green Party member (but as well as granola I do eat meat, recycle but am not a bicyclist, hate solicitations on doorstep or phone due to this political affiliation) and suspect the purported candidate who ran to show the need for a third party, blame me for Al Gore's loss (while he didn't carry even his own Volunteer State) and all else that's gone wrong in the era of Lil' Bush. Everyone complains about the lack of an alternative. Without voters on the rolls, however, the party cannot keep its presence on the state ballot. Miniscule and quixotic, yet the Greens represent a possibility. And, they even formed with Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fail a coalition in Ireland last week. Like Irish politics, the curse of the craven hangs low over our own elected reps. But, don't expect changes if we get millionaires in office like Hilary or Edwards or even Obama, as they too are all beholden to the same rubber chicken circuit that funds Nancy Pelosi mayor's daughter, and all the silver spoon Rodham- Clinton- Gore- Kennedy Dem dynastic successions themselves. Barring tactical nuclear strikes on the Capitol and fifty state legislatures, no ordinary folks will ever get elected president again. None can afford it.

Those who do pretend to feel our pain love cheap labor illegal or legal. I wonder if the reforms up for debate will only result in another 20 million crossing our borders once the 12 million are legalized. Remember, legality means minimum wages, and business and you and I and anyone needing inexpensive maids or desparate gardeners or cash-paid drywallers will simply drive up to Home Depot or the "hiring center" established for "undocumented" women. Underground economy, that of swap meets and taco trucks and ATMs for payroll, has been estimated at 15-20% of our city's economy. So, who pays for the services these people demand? Teaching and caring for them and their children? America, caught between financial greed and humanitarian morality. Daddy Warbucks loves this situation, can threaten the rest of us with outsourcing or let us off as hired hands by the hour, sans benefits, if we remaining gainfully and legally employed natives raise a fuss. Dems love the new voters, and GOP gets the profiteers.

Yes, Michaelson here tells the truth. This populist, anti-capitalist, pro-American, middle-class position gets nothing but contempt from those who call racist what many ordinary people here want. Yesterday, my speech students decided on a class debate on immigration policy for their final exam. Both illegal and legal immigrants spoke, as well as many whose families fled Pol Pot, or left Malaysia, El Salvador, or India in search of that dream we all share. Mexico, using la frontera as its escape valve, tidily gains $60 billion, at least according to one immigrant who spoke up, sent back that we Americans do not see, either in taxes or investment or profits going into the communities were these immigrants live. One part of me resents this loss to our coffers, the other part hopes this will entice people to stay at home to better themselves rather than make the trek that 10% of all Mexicans already have to El Norte.

Meanwhile, our hospitals totter, our schools groan, and our freeways clog. Many of my students related what they thought was unfair, that they had to learn English right away to survive while millions stay in their enclaves and never fit in. I told them about the matricula consular and the legal fiction that allows illegal residents here to acquire all the accoutrements of our lifestyle. A Belizean woman described how the government gives back tax money paid by illegal immigrants for their children, by allowing numbers to replace non-existent Social Security numbers. Another student spoke of his parents' motel in Bakersfield. Yes, his surname was Patel. They never could take vacations, the workers they hired stole the petty cash, and the parents looked forward to going back to India after three decades here. But, with the wealth they amassed, they would live like rajahs in India while being able to live in the U.S. on and off in retirement, so as to be close to the Americanized kids. The student drives a $90k Mercedes. A Mexican student told that while his father wanted to go back home, he would not. He had to be near his family here. This anchors so many homesick immigrant matriarchs and patriarchs here.

Another student from Cambodia who served in the U.S. military told of the sanctuary movement that gave a cousin his first chance after he got here illegally. One student from Santa Rosa told of his aunt's job in the courthouse processing summonses for those arrested without papers to show up again in court. None ever bother to return; they skip bail to vanish. I doubt if the immigration bill now under debate will improve this chaos.

Tax credits for the rich, subsidies for the poor, and those of us in between get the squeeze. Get your war on. Housing: yesterday I arrived home (after standing up on all three train lines due to overcrowding) to see on our once-empty hillside two new lots for sale. Looming over our vista ten feet away and a hundred yards away, the skies will end and shadows will glow.

Glass & stucco, garishly designed nightmares, supersized sloth to house the new teeming masses. Demographic growth: equivalent of two Chicagos moving or already here by 2025 or so. 100,000 new residents a year in L.A. County alone. In my class of three dozen that I teach at night, none of us had even one grandparent born in Southern California. I know, I live here, I benefit from the labor savings, I drive (but except when stuck with that night class, I do take the bus and train to commute!), and I plug my snout up the cornucopia that we all pig out on, Zayde Allen's trayf or kosher-style, in America. Guilty as charged, j'me accuse, mon frere.

But lately, getting back to my more rarified, idealistic, other blog post today, I do find myself craving less the new CD, the book I have to acquire, the latest this or that. Perhaps this is age. Perhaps wisdom. Perhaps, as the fate of that May 11 Forward shows, too much junk.

I'll let Michaelson shut up my rant with these snippets:

[Speaking of Imus, Michael Richards, & Allen but not Coulter] these offenders were found guilty in the court of public opinion, no matter the profuseness of their apologies — not because they offended American public opinion, but because they expressed it: These celebrities expressed anger, fear and prejudice that many people feel, and feel guilty about feeling, and in language that we, like frightened schoolchildren terrified of punishment, have been sternly warned not to use. Indeed, we have a very Jewish system of condemning certain acts, and a very Christian one of implying evil intents. The result? A cultural moment of intense anger roiling under ubiquitous false speech. And when someone’s ire comes bursting to the surface so publicly, we can’t help but stop and stare.

Consider first the rage, which transcends political ideology. For those on the Left, the reasons include a lost and pointless war, unstoppable globalization, an inept president, climate change, the homogenization of American culture and a shocking erosion of civil liberties. For those on the Right, they include a loss of American prestige, an implacable and barbaric enemy, the “pornographication” of American society, the loss of traditional values and, not least, the loss of European-American hegemony: Classical music and classic rock both giving way to the barbaric beats of rap. Indeed, fully a quarter of the nation thinks that we are trapped in a doomsday war of civilizations, and that “American culture” is being destroyed by unchecked immigration and loss of “values.”

Yet on both the Right and the Left, the rage that is at the heart of these concerns goes unaddressed, even unspoken. Not since Barry Goldwater (or perhaps Pat Buchanan) has a mainstream conservative politician “told it like it is” and given voice to anti-multiculturalist rage — unlike in Europe, where French, Dutch and German elites do so all the time. And on the Left, the last politician to seriously criticize American imperialism, hyper-capitalism and globalization was Ralph Nader, and we all know how that turned out. With mainstream public figures having calibrated their message for maximum inoffensiveness, to actually give voice to any of these deep concerns relegates one to the blogosphere.

. . .

Juxtaposed with this infuriating cocktail of rage and repression is a pervasive culture of B.S., surrounding us with meaningless nonspeech and pointless legalism. By now we’re all used to endless phone trees (“To ensure customer service, this call may be recorded”); operators in Bangalore pretending to be from Topeka; divesting ourselves of shoes and fluids at the airport; flight attendants reciting legal formulae from rote and ubiquitous “customer service” initiatives.

Enter the outburst. Again, the press tends to treat these explosions as if they’re offenses against the American way, but really they’re expressions of it. These bigoted outbursts are angry, honest and against the rules — rules with which many, many people do not agree. No wonder we can’t help but watch; we get both the frisson of a taboo being transgressed and the sense that there but for the grace of God go I.

Americans have never much liked double-talk, at least in theory; “fancy speech” is for the Europeans, and “Give ’em hell, Harry” Truman is the kind of hero only this country could produce. But our current culture offends an even deeper norm: that people are supposed to be judged not by how best they conform to a set of written rules, but by the truth of their souls. In our idealized town squares, courtrooms and homes, we’re meant to be judged on who we really are, not just on what we say or do. After all, aren’t we supposed to evaluate our fellow citizens by “the content of their character”?

If this sounds religious, it’s because it is. Our current agon around political correctness is a direct repetition of one of the fundamental struggles of Judaism and Christianity: the great debate between Paul and the talmudic rabbis. In Jewish law, the emphasis is on acts, not intentions; deed, not creed; external duties, not internal predilections — circumcise the flesh; avoid forbidden foods; do not do work on the Sabbath. Early Christianity, in contrast, places the emphasis on the internal rather than the external — circumcise the heart, not the flesh (“Real circumcision,” said Paul in Romans 2:29, “is a matter of the heart — it is spiritual and not literal”); act with love, not with ritual purity; have faith. The Talmud spelled out the details of tort law, but Jesus asked us to love our enemies. Jewish law governs the body (what you say, what you do), Christian faith the soul (what you feel, what you believe). For biblical and talmudic Judaism, there is no “who we really are” apart from what we actually do, but Jesus called the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs, which on the outside are beautiful, but inside… full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27)

Today we have cooked up a toxic brew of the Jewish and the Protestant. On the one hand, our taboos are very “Jewish.” They govern the external (what one says), not the internal (what one feels); in the hyper-PC world, you can be as racist or communist as you like, as long as you keep your mouth shut. (Indeed, the whole post-outburst conversation is like some political parody of “Seinfeld,” parsing the meanings of “nappy-headed” and “macaca,” condemning the utterers of these talismanic phrases.) On the other hand, our response to these Old Testament transgressions is a New Testament assumption that racist speech means a racist heart. At the risk of oversimplification, the Jewish approach is “Thou shalt not say this word.” The Christian approach is “Thou shalt not have this thought.” And our current approach is “If you say this word, you probably have this thought, and so we condemn you.” Thus by necessity we’ve all become whitewashed tombs, ever on the lookout for the slightest trace of filth.

. . .

Without a respectable forum for conservative concerns about race, sexuality and ethnicity, or liberal ones about economic and social justice, we’re reduced to a nation of pathetic and puritanical detectives, looking for hints of animus in cryptic utterances, and ever more closely holding the reins of what we are and are not allowed to say. Yes, our Pharisaic system of speech-patrol has made hate speech unacceptable in polite circles. But is enforced politeness really the way to truth — or reconciliation?

St. Romauld's Brief Rule

Latin, hundred words, this expresses the core of spirituality for a monastic reform movement a thousand years ago. Today's St. Romauld's feast day. Romauld founded the Camaldolese in Italy; they established the retreat of New Camaldoli, the Immaculate Heart hermitage, on a hilltop two miles up and a mile high-- or so it seemed the one evening my wife and I drove up (it had closed already) at sunset-- overlooking Big Sur. The aerial photo shows the design; you can see the innovative (a millennium ago) arrangement for the Order: common, or cenobitic, buildings surrounded by hermit's cells. Lay people and monks live there together, some folks permanently, some on retreats.

This "village" or what the desert fathers called a "laura," reminds me of the Celtic practice of the pre-Roman dictates. Open to all faiths and notably reaching out to Anglican, Hindu, and Jewish tradition, New Camaldoli's a welcoming haven where I hope to visit, and perhaps stay at, soon. Meanwhile, as my wife prepares to live in a tent and drink mojitos with MOTs and one Canadienne in the shadow of the hermits, perhaps she too can partake of the elusive lessons of learned solitude and inner peace amidst this lovely outer wonderland.

Camaldolese Spirituality

Here is the hundred-word Latin text of this bright gem of eremitical
spirituality, recorded about 1006 twenty years before Romuald's death by
Saint Bruno of Querfurt in his *Life of the Five Brothers*. It was as
reported to him by one of those martyrs named John, who, like Bruno, knew
Romuald well.

And he received this brief rule from Master Romuald, which he was very
careful to practice throughout his life:

1. Sit in the cell as in paradise;

2. cast all memory of the world behind you;

3. cautiously watching your thoughts, as a good fisher watches the fish.

4. In the Psalms there is one way. Do not abandon it. If you who have come
with the fervor of a novice cannot understand everything, strive to recite
with understanding of spirit and mind, now here, now there, and when you
begin to wander while reading, do not stop, but hasten to correct yourself
by concentrating.

5. Above all, place yourself in the presence of God with fear and trembling,
like someone who stands in the sight of the emperor;

6. destroy yourself completely,

7. and sit like a chick, content with the grace of God, for unless its
mother gives it something, it tastes nothing and has nothing to eat.

In summary, Saint Romuald's seven-step Brief Rule for novice-hermits
comprises a surprisingly rich set of exercises for training in contemplation
which succinctly cover the following topics:

(1) posture, place, solitude, inner peace, and joy;

(2) detachment and liberation for concentration;

(3) self-observation and analysis for purity of mind and heart;

(4) attentively praying the Psalms as seeds of meditation;

(5) reverent, compunctious practice of the presence of God;

(6) intensive ascetical inner overcoming of faults;

(7) childlike humility and receptivity to grace.

My blog has a bit about the Camadolese, as do my Amazon reviews, or better yet sites from where this rule can be found placed with much more by the Camaldolese from their two American hermitages.



Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Patrick McCabe: "The Dead School"

Horslips, in McCabe's 1995 novel, gets a couple of shout-outs as representative both of a send-up of Irish rock in the age of Philo & Thin Lizzy and the band in these pages The Electric Strangers; Jimi Slevin and Peggy's Leg also get a mention as does repeatedly a stereotypical bogman's show The Walton Programme, replaced by what sounds like Gay Byrne on amphetamines, The Terry Krash Show. Lee Templeton's unflagging efforts to recall every mention of H. from every source for Come Back Horslips dot-com can be traced to this very reference to H. And, indirectly, HorsLit as the spin-off for the literati more than the musos? So, ten years at least later, I looked up the citations and, of course, had to read the whole novel again. Here's my take on it for posterity, posted to you-know-where today. By the way, I heard McCabe's newest novel, unread yet by me, Winterwood, may be more near Banville's sort of plot, if not his prose?

Having read, and reviewed for Amazon, The Butcher Boy, Breakfast on Pluto, and Call Me the Breeze, I acknowledge that McCabe keeps plowing deeper along this same furrow: a lyrical narrative voice that tells relentlessly but as if charmingly of horror and madness. A difficult p-o-v to carry off, time and time again. Although few would immediately compare McCabe to his compatriot John Banville with his more middle-class, literate, and repressed Irish taletellers, still both authors strive to depict men at war within themselves, scarred by an often adolescent or boyhood experience that they can never escape. Banville prefers nuance, McCabe selects vertigo.

I had read this a decade ago but remembered little of it. I thought that I had not liked it that much compared to Butch Boy or the later B on P. I gave DS another chance, and find that the gradual onset of "an early retirement from both the schoolroom and sanity" in both Raphael Bell and Malachy Dudgeon is handled at its best in poignant and restrained fashion. The angelic contrast obvious in the names I leave to the lit crit gang to decipher. But, it's not as formulaic as I feared. For example, as Malachy haunts the Grand Canal, under a sky of lead and a city the color of dishwater, he stands near the bench with its statue of Patrick Kavanagh. The canal, however, clogged with green scum, reveals none of the sylvan peace that comforted McCabe's Ulster-born predecessor. Similarly, Malachy in his collapsing relationship with Marion shows surprising moments-- given that this is a McCabe novel-- of isolation and the need for consoling words that cannot come to Malachy's lips, even as he tries to make amends and seek comfort from his girlfriend.

Raphael and Malachy share trauma rooted in a childhood moment of a parent's revelation to their son. One is intentionally attempted and one is witnessed at secondhand. Without giving away the scenes or the plot, these vignettes show again McCabe's skill at giving the reader real unfeigned agony and heartache beneath the rather smirking, smart-aleck tone that dominates the omniscient narrator's own voice as the tale is told, as if to another group of sniggering students.

The trouble is that as troubles accumulate in 1970s Ireland, and ones that have far less directly to do with the Troubles in the North and more with the collapse of Catholic and patriotic ideologies in the Republic, their sheer weight tends to weary the reader about 60% of the way through the book. This is three hundred pages of practically no likeable characters, despite the blurb above on Amazon. Marie Evans as drawn here appears all too familiar as an exemplar of the Mary Robinson type of figure who would lead the transformation of Ireland-- the children replace a trip to Kilmainham Jail to honor the 1916 martyr-rebels with a day out at Waterword theme park. But, Raphael's hatred for Evans and the Terry Krash show and all the harbingers of today's secularizing Ireland would have gained intensity if they did not have hundreds of pages to burn through in their rage. Malachy's stint as a Withnail and I type of layabout in London again gets plaudits in its portrayal, but the detail is both too vague and too mundane for the years to register fully. I know part of this diffusion for both protagonists is their own mental decay, but this long slide downhill, unrelieved by much humor or relief, adds up to a wearisome trudge through the cobwebs of both men's vacant skulls.

I fail to find the whimsical light touch in this narrative, which stacks depressingly a series of increasingly miserable setbacks upon its frail schoolteacher pair. The narrator's voice from the start stays stoic and resigned. Fatalism pervades the book. True, a critique of Irish culture emerges, but no respite from the malaise arrives.

While the book probes deep into the damaged psyches of both men, and their antagonisms against each other and against the system that has failed them in a liberalizing society, these relevant and sociologically stimulating points are drawn out in this fiction to near tedium. As a portrait of a changing Irish psyche under the onslaught of the 60s and 70s, the novel has merit. But as a gripping read, more than Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto-- which for all their verve also followed rather predictable arcs akin to this novel-- The Dead School offers a place few may care to seek out even for a first read, unless enamored of every word McCabe has published. The talent remains, but the energy dissipates in a narrative that amounts to entrapment within the imploded mind. These labyrinths, as Beckett, Flann O'Brien, William Burroughs, Celine, Kafka and Philip K. Dick all found, challenge even the most imaginative fantasists when stretched into full-length novels.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pragmatism or Practicality?

Edward Rothstein in "Connections," like his colleague in the Arts section who reviews TV, Virginia Heffernan, makes the NY Times worth reading. This on a day that the wife and I ponder whether to simply dump the LA Times, which announced it cannot even keep its "Parade"-level Sunday supplement, once grandly named the Los Angeles Times Magazine in imitation of you know who before reverting to the retro 70s moniker that it used to assume (when the paper also had "Home" as a separate magazine), "West." I do read Tim Rutten in the LAT Calendar section, although I often disagree with him, as he gets to review Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson's poetry collections and has a rare background these days in what used to be called Western civ. Still PC as to be expected from nearly any but the jokey conservative or the serious one they have goofing on the Op-Ed pages as a tag-team white boy Washington Capitols vs. the journalists of a Harlem Globetrotters people of colors not pink or swarthy. An earnest and properly liberal ESL teacher I knew (who was a WASP who posed once for Israeli Playboy in that halcyon era post-Six Day and pre-Yom Kippur Wars) fulminated against the shade labelled on old Crayola 64 as "flesh."

This leads me, actually, to this article comparing a formidable pair of heavyweights in any PC ring the past couple of generations, at least on campuses that may be more like the U of Chicago than, well, USC. (Had to get that dig in as a Bruin. See my photo on the profile!) Richard Rorty vs. Claude Levi-Strauss, as seen through the p-o-v of Rothstein, might have different ideas about variable truths and live and let die if they met the haughty Caduveo, a decidedly non-noble lot of sauvages who lorded over all whom they met, despising nature itself, in Brazilian Amazonia.

Rothstein then cites Rorty, who reacted as I did, after the initial surprise, on hearing what occurred Sept. 11, 2001. The journalist appears to criticize Rorty for his remark, but it seems perfectly sensible to me. Internal failure of G. W. Bush, in this case, to step aside from the attack on our nation may be immediately understandable, given our collective and individual shock, but the consistency of the past nearly six years now of Patriot Acts and zero tolerance and excuses to pump up our military-industrial complex both psychologically and, well, pragmatically appear to bear Rorty's own "first thought" out all too well.

One tendency of pragmatism might be to so focus on the ways in which one’s own worldview is flawed that trauma is more readily attributed to internal failure than to external challenges. In one of his last interviews Mr. Rorty recalled the events of 9/11: “When I heard the news about the twin towers, my first thought was: ‘Oh, God. Bush will use this the way Hitler used the Reichstag fire.’ ”

If that really was his first thought, it reflects a certain amount of reluctance to comprehend forces lying beyond the boundaries of his familiar world, an inability fully to imagine what confrontations over truth might look like, possibly even a resistance to stepping outside of one’s skin or mental habits.

Look, it's a very young, and fetching, Ms. Heffernan, according to her picture. I find she has a blog, "Screens," but I cannot get it to permalink here. It wants me to comment instead. Prefer to cut-and-paste her intro from June 18, "What Died When Rorty Died?", sans the You Tube epitaph! But she recommends it highly, so go for it.

Screens plans to go broke overestimating everyone’s intelligence today, including its own.
Here goes.

There is a poem by Philip Larkin that Richard Rorty liked. Here is how it ends:
And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.
And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,
On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

Citing this poem in the book “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity,” Mr. Rorty, the great American philosopher, urged us to create ourselves, invent our own vocabularies and thereby form something rich and interesting that — as he put it — will die when we die.

On June 8, he himself died.
What follows is a droll and meandering discussion of Mr. Rorty: a well-tailored film cut down for YouTube. Watch it to see his amazing repose and hear his unimpeachable sonority. Just try to doubt a word he says. Richard Rorty — pragmatist, ironist, skeptic, moralist — was brilliant, brave and funny, and what he said made sense and it mattered.

I turn now back to (tonight's electronic version of this morning's) printed page, favoring ink over streams for my imagery, and read confirmation of Rorty's philosophical refusal to place as paramount any truth verifiable or universal, in a secular worldview of course. These rules mark the game we play in our modern NYT-reading, PC-worshipping, "we are the world" mentality when we go to the U of Chicago. I am not sure about where I teach or USC, for that matter. The acceptance of nominalism rather than realism, to put it in 12c terms that Abelard might have understood, remains our destiny once Church and mullah and rabbi become caretakers of their houses of worship rather than arbiters of the state, kingmakers, and masters of puppets. This polity-- and no less powerful does it reign over universities and the NYT and LAT-- has been colonized by the resurgent mandarins such as Rorty led into philosophy and, I note, lit crit and the humanities, the position of professorship in which he retired being the latter categories...blurred for and by such intellectual whirlwinds. After all, as I pondered in this blog last week about the fatwa article in the NYT-- once we in the West have dethroned Queen Theologia, we wind up along with Pilate asking "quod est veritas?"

Alessandra Stanley reviews a TV series for the hip (naturally) "Simon Schama's Power of Art." Note placement of the presenter before the subject matter. Harvard prof, educated at Cambridge and Oxford, he's primo PBS, for us what Sir Kenneth Clarke was to 1969. Re-enactments of angry Rothko, Nazi jackboots, what Stanley calls genially "the Bob Barker of art criticism" beckons us to come on down and leap into the embrace of Van Gogh and Picasso. Why not start there?

Schama's an intriguing case of the shift from servant to Queen Theology to ruler as Tenured Philosopher, having grown up Orthodox in postwar London of Dutch Sephardic descent. Child of the 60s, he went to Oxbridge and decided one day keeping kosher was silly, so thus began his "enlightenment," at least in his own estimation. His segment about "Guernica" sounds promising; a possibly apocryphal anecdote dramatizes Picasso denying that the artwork was "his." No, he tells the helmeted goon, "it was yours." The fearless artist, the voice of the fragile against the fury. That cliché about speaking truth to power didn't work so well, however, a year and a half after 9/11 forced the US to make good its unwise vow to end the war on terror.

Mr. Schama ends the segment with another anecdote, describing the moment in 2003 when Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, went to the United Nations to make the case for war against Saddam Hussein, and United Nations officials covered the tapestry version of “Guernica” with a large blue cloth, concerned that Picasso’s dead children, weeping mothers and screaming horses might clash with Mr. Powell’s message.

Mr. Schama says this is proof that art has a power that even a superpower cannot defuse. “You’re the mightiest country in the world, you can throw your armies around, you can get rid of dictators,” he says. “But, hey, don’t tangle with a masterpiece.”

The power of the pen vs. the sword, Dept. of Homeland Security vs. my blog. My humanities education applied daily to a working class, hardscrabble classroom level that Rorty never had to survive in, for all his desire in his later years, after the excesses of the radical movement, to make his teaching relevant. What do my charges know about art and politics and their confrontation?

Typing this, I prepare for my own tiny bit of research frantically completed in the midst of teaching 45 weeks annually. Having been the victim of name-caused holdups whenever flying the past few years, I received in response to my inquiry to our guardians of liberty my own form letter from the TSA. Telling me in dense paragraphs of bureaucratese that Orwell could have cited in "Politics & the English Language" as models that they could or could not remove me from the "don't make life easy when this guy tries to board and forget about any self-check kiosk" list. My military vets in class assure me the government's fifteen to twenty years ahead in the tech that I peck away at this evening. I only hope my tax dollars at work give my children a reason to sleep better at night, for the debt that they will inherit.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

"Gaeilge Na Seachtaine": Kay Ui Cheinneide

She runs this friendly website on "Irish for the Week" of podcasts, grammar help, and learner's lessons. A pioneering use of technology to assist Gaeltacht na h-Idirlion, Irish speaking community on the Internet. Responding to my mention of her site in an earlier blog entry about looking for files downloadable for iTunes, here is the note I received from her yesterday. I added from her page "Kay ag a chistin," as the photo's titled: "Kay at her kitchen." A hot day brewing here in Los Angeles, a cool day there, I imagine.

P.S. (
iarscribhinn) I will try Audacity to "speaker capture" WWW sound transmission; this was recommended by students, who naturally know much more than I do, they living on their laptops. And, falling asleep with them at night in bed, as one confessed recently in class discussion; she often wakes up with a glowing keyboard cradled in her arms.

A chara,

I found your comments about Gaeilge Na Seachtaine just now, and I thank you. I am sorry you couldn't download the sound files on your ipod. I need to fill in some forms for itunes, then downloading would be possible. I'll email you if and when I do. Elsewhere in your blog you mention verbs. I have a program on my site which conjugates verbs for you -quite a number of verbs. I hope you find it useful. I have some unusual features in my dictionaries as well. I hope they are of help to you. I work on my site in my spare time now as I am in full time employment. I realize that I still have a lot to do to make my site better. Coming across comments such as yours is encouraging.

Go raibh míle maith agat as na rudaí deasa a dúirt tú agus go n-éirí leat ag foghlaim na Gaeilge idir sean is nua.


Kay Uí Chinnéide

Friday, June 15, 2007

Endangered Species: Irish Gaelic?

Bloomsday today. "Cyclops" remains my favorite, if not the most moving or memorable chapter of "Ulysses," with The Citizen (imbibing the spirit of the fearsomely bearded GAA founder Michael Cusack whose image graces today's blog) and Garryowen squaring off against our man Poldy. Via, this letter from the Irish Independent may cause some to recall the fulminations of the man against the alien hordes at Davy Byrne's door. Yet, when Polish is the second language rather than Irish of the country today, does Gaeilge have a future when Leaving Certs are now examining fluent graduates in Lithuanian and Chinese?

Michael Cronin, of whom I have written on my blog earlier this year within the context of my eco-critical essay on language learners, calls for renewed attention to save endangered languages as we would fragile fauna or threatened flora. Surrounded as I type this today by three homes being gouged out of the delicate hillsides around my home, and another lot of shade trees and bird nests to be razed soon for a stucco monstrosity only ten feet from our house, I live in the actual landscape under continued stress as we humans enlarge our carbon footprints, our concrete sensibility, and our own demands to settle here and move wherever we damn well please. How our human freedom will co-exist, and how long, with the draught scorched, pollutant clogged, and constant construction confounds me. My academic thinking, then, as with the professor whose letter is featured today below, flows into my own experiences. As it should be.

My essay can be found here, in html at the link or also pdf from the site.

If a half million people enter Ireland the past few years, 10% of the population, how many, realistically, will wish to learn Gaeilge? Annette Byrne's primer for grown-ups in our multicultural contexts, "Gaeilge agus Fáilte," (reviewed by me here and on Amazon US) presents an opportunity for learners in and out of Ireland. This is to be abundantly praised. I know immigrants, both native English and non-native English speakers, who have contributed much to their new Irish homeland. As a student stranded far away myself from the heartland, I share this welcome to engage with the language. But I also fear that the sheer numbers of arrivals into Ireland, or the native habitat vs. transplanted species analogy made by Dr. David Barnwell below, may choke off the resources that Irish needs to survive. This difficult language requiring an adaptive mindset offers its rewards sparingly to those of us pampered by cognates, Romance languages, or sloth in assuming all we need is English to express us, wherever whenever however.

"Yu Ming is ainm dom," that I posted about a few weeks past, is one vision. It's a film both idealistic and acerbic in its concise and witty commentary on the parlous state of the "first official language." You might say that Yu Ming finds a happy ending which I will not spoil, but surely the very charm of Daniel O'Hara's deservedly prizewinning work is its novelty compared with the reality of most of those in Ireland today, newly off the plane or there for a dozen millennia. This reply to such fictional depictions forces us to see Ireland through the eyes of a professor of Spanish, who should know, from NUI Maynooth. It will not win prizes. But it's another vision, likelier than Yu Ming's heroic gesture. Does Ireland invite a perilous future if many of his compatriots native or immigrant spread appealingly anglicized values that, however Joyce ridiculed them (failed student of Pearse's night classes though he picked up the language, as
Finnegans Wake shows to be sure, and like Leopold an eloquent foil to the bigotry he--- perhaps exaggeratedly for many of his real-life counterparts of the Celtic Revival?-- attributed to Cusack and his antisemitic Citizen), impel real Yu Mings to resist with their own devotion to reviving, restoring, and using in daily life Gaeilge?

Yu Ming sees a Dublin that the Citizen never could have predicted nor could we have thought of such fifteen years ago. It's the city we all have to deal with in an Ireland that looks more and more like the rest of the world it longed to become and helped create. Now it's the turn of the Irish, like the British and the American, to redefine their identity, their complexion, their culture. But, as with the Welsh and the Scots, let us hope that this rush into globalization preserves the language, and does not become, as with the decimation of Cornish and Manx, the remains of Elmet (see Ted Hughes' poetry) and the defeat of the Gododdin, the dwindling chants of Algonquin and Arapaho but an imperial epitaph, a remnant of voice among the offramps to chain stores and blare of CNN.

13ú Meitheamh 2007

The threat to language

In welcoming the provision of Leaving Cert exams in languages not taught in Ireland, Gaeltacht Minister Eamon O'Cuiv declares that the arrival to our country of tens of thousands of speakers of these and other foreign languages is beneficial to Irish. The minister provides no evidence for his assertion, nor could he.

In a lifetime of studying language and linguistics I have yet to see a case where an already debilitate minority language is reinvigorated by the coming of throngs of users of other languages. Ireland shows no exception to the rule that strong languages overrun weak languages. Just a decade ago Irish was the second most commonly spoken language in this country. Today it has been supplanted by Polish. Nor is Irish now in third position, nor in fourth, not even in fifth.

Indeed one needs no expertise in philology to know that weak native species are imperiled by the arrival of strong outsiders. Has the red squirrel benefited from the arrival of the grey, would the Irish hare survive as distinct species if tens of thousands of foreign hares were imported onto Bull Island?

This is not to imply that the threat to the language comes as a result of malice on the part of immigrants. The fact is merely that the great majority (more than 99pc, surely) of migrant workers simply have no interest in Irish nor any desire to learn it. They exhibit as much curiosity about the ancient language of this nation as Americans show about Arapaho, Allegany or Algonquin.

The immigration of the past ten years or so has been unplanned in its execution, unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere on the face of the globe. Governments and employer organisations have had their own reasons for promoting the mass importation of migrant workers. But please Mr O'Cuiv, don't insult our intelligence by claiming that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of speakers of Polish, Chinese etc. is somehow going to aid our ailing ancestral tongue.

Dr David Barnwell
Roinn na Spainnise,
Ollscoil na hEireann,
Ma Nuad, Co. Chill Dara

Irish Independent - Lthch:
Letter to the Editor.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Peccata quotidiana:Handling Sin

Canon lawyers, Talmudists, and local imams all wrestle as strenously as the late Richard Rorty from his ivory tower with making relevant centuries of arcane and often contradictory legal and moral issues. "Handling Synne" was a Middle English text for confessors and penitents; today its author would be a psychiatrist hawking his twelve-steps to recovery on "Oprah" & "Dr. Phil." How do we deal with our "daily failings," what canonists defined once as "venial sins""? Theology, in the medieval seven arts, was the Church's Queen, dethroning philosophy. Now, although the secular usurpation among many who read blogs like this has been achieved and the ancient claimant parades under protection of tenure or license the skeptical scepter and banishes the upstart (only two millennia at best) who try still to rule by crozier, the need we mortals have for Information, Please, shows how we compete to get out of Jeopardy by paying for answers to our 64,000 Questions. This article "A Compass That Can Clash With Modern Life" from the NY Times by Michael Slackman, June 12, deals with Egyptian "experts" who-- as the curate dispensed in his drafty confessional, the rabbi advised from his shetl shop, or the shrink nods from her Aeron chair-- has to deal with integrating quodlibetal, midrashic, or hadith learning into life's chaotic challenges.

Here's excerpts. After you smirk, as I admit I did at first, think about how the "expert" from whom you seek advice in person or a self-help book or a talk show doctor. The problem differs not in essence, despite the superficial subject matter.

If Islamists insist for us dar-el-harb (we in the war zone, opposite Dar-as-Salaam, not only as the pleasantly named capital of Tanzania but representing the realm of peace under Muslim submission) to be converted, I would suggest that prosletyzers soft-sell of the urine imbibing and missionaries preach more the breast-feeding. My question: How can a woman who is unmarried nourish men in her company by suckling? She presumably should not be lactating, as that comes with birth, which follows pregnancy, after conception, following intercourse, sanctioned only within wedlock, right? Any shariah scholars to weigh in on this conundrum?

A more earthy dilemma than angels dancing on a head of a pin. Certainly the lack of celibacy as a calling in Judaism and Islam makes for more family-oriented doctrine, with all its confusion about how to get men and women to couple together, but apart otherwise, but only for awhile before together-- at least up to one man, four wives!

CAIRO, June 11 — First came the breast-feeding fatwa. It declared that the Islamic restriction on unmarried men and women being together could be lifted at work if the woman breast-fed her male colleagues five times, to establish family ties. Then came the urine fatwa. It said that drinking the urine of the Prophet Muhammad was deemed a blessing.

For the past few weeks, the breast-feeding and urine fatwas have proved a source of national embarrassment in Egypt, not least because they were issued by representatives of the highest religious authorities in the land.
[. . . .]

For many Muslims, fatwas, or religious edicts, are the bridge between the principles of their faith and modern life. They are supposed to be issued by religious scholars who look to the Koran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad for guidance. While the more sensational pronouncements grab attention, the bulk of the fatwas involve the routine of daily life. In Egypt alone, thousands are issued every month. [. . . .]

The conflict in Egypt served as a difficult reminder of a central challenge facing Islamic communities as they debate the true nature of the faith and how to accommodate modernity. The fatwa is the front line in the theological battle between often opposing worldviews. It is where interpretation meets daily life.

“It is a very critical issue for us,” said Abdullah Megawer, the former head of the Fatwa Committee at Al Azhar University, the centuries-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning in Egypt. “You are explaining God’s message in ways that really affect people’s lives.”

Technically, the fatwa is nonbinding and recipients are free to look elsewhere for a better ruling. In a faith with no central doctrinal authority, there has been an explosion of places offering fatwas, from Web sites that respond to written queries, to satellite television shows that take phone calls, to radical and terrorist organizations that set up their own fatwa committees.
[. . . .]

[Despite a debate over whether those issuing fatwas are tools of the state, and whether such rulings have clout,] everyone acknowledges that those who issue fatwas serve as mediators between faith and modernity and as arbiters of morality. They are supposed to consider not only religious teachings, but the circumstances of the time.

The position is without parallel in the West, and it combines the role of social worker, therapist, lawyer and religious adviser.

In fact, the relationship between the Koran and a fatwa is a matter of dispute. Some Muslim scholars view the Koran’s words and ideas as fixed, with little room for maneuvering. Others see their job as reconciling modern life with the text by gently bending the text to fit new circumstances.
[. . . .]

A couple approached. The man’s clothes were tattered, and his wife looked distressed. Their 9-year-old son’s clothing was clean, his hair gelled, his smile bright. The man explained that they had adopted the child when he was 9 months old, and that they had just heard that under Islam their son had to be put out of the house, because the mother had not given birth to him or breast-fed him.

He would reach puberty as an outsider, and could not, technically, be around the woman he knew as his mother. The imam at their local mosque said it was haram — forbidden under Islam — to live with the boy.

The sheik said yes, that was right, that the boy could not live with them. The father leaned in, disturbed, and said, “And that’s it.”

The sheik seemed stuck and referred them to another sheik for another opinion

[Rulings are free of charge; those counselling are rotated under a state board to serve as advisers to those coming in for guidance. Controversy swirls over the amount of fatwas issued with the explosion of communication options. I add myself here that in a state religion- legal system- social hegemony attempted by Islam, the lack of a strict hierarchical chain of command leaves the Muslim world analagous to billions of Jews and millions of rabbis contending as opposed to the billion Catholics under episcopal and papal direction-- for better or worse! Like the old joke about the three shuls on the desert island for the two stranded Jews.]

[. . . .]In his own role and practice, the grand mufti embodies many of the issues that have arisen around the fatwa practice. He has issued rulings that have been deemed by some as so progressive that they were offensive, and others that were so literal as to be considered offensive.

Sheik Ali issued the urine fatwa, now notorious, in a book, “Religion and Life.” It was published six years ago and told the story of a woman who drank the prophet’s urine. He had his own book taken off the shelves, and said the controversial statement was not a fatwa but his opinion, which was offered in response to a question.

“The reality is that the mufti is now ‘burned’ and lost religious recognition and the trust of the Muslims and his fatwas will not gain anything but carelessness from all the Muslims; as some will hate it as they hate drinking urine,” wrote Hamdy Rizk in an opposition newspaper.

But he was also criticized — and praised — earlier this year after he had issued a fatwa saying that it was permissible for women to have reconstructive hymen surgery before marriage to conceal that they were no longer virgins. He said that since it was impossible to tell whether a man was a virgin, women should have the same option.

But he took his opinion a step further, when he said that if a married woman had sex with another man, regretted her action and asked God for forgiveness, she should not tell her husband. The goal, he reportedly said, was to preserve the family.

The breast-feeding fatwa came in mid-May. A religious scholar, who headed a department that studies the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings at the Foundation of Religion College of Al Azhar University, wrote that there had been instances in the time of the prophet when adult women breast-fed adult men in order to avoid the need for women to wear a veil in front of them.

“Breast-feeding an adult puts an end to the problem of the private meeting, and does not ban marriage,” wrote the scholar, Izat Atiyah. “A woman at work can take off the veil or reveal her hair in front of someone whom she breast-fed.”

The ruling was mocked on satellite television shows around the region, and was quickly condemned at home. Mr. Atiyah was suspended from his job, mocked in newspapers and within days issued a retraction, saying it was a “bad interpretation of a particular case.”

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tova Reich defends "My Holocaust"

Continuing the unfortunate if understandable tradition that enables writers to respond publicly to critics in the same journal, possibly ad infinitum, Tova Reich faces her foe. Her second time up at the plate. She bemoans the fastballs that struck her out hurled by David Margolick in the NY Times Book Review. Its letters page today unintentionally reveals how leaden her "My Holocaust" score-setting satire must be. Her husband was an ousted director of the National H. Museum. She attacks the exploiters of the Shoah in a send-up of the PR that both inflates the sufferings of competing groups and demeans the memory of the six million. I reviewed (see Amazon) Francine Prose's "A Changed Man" last year that explored similarly mined terrain. Reich defends her novel against David Margolick's critique, first in her own voice, then under a separate letter as if sent by a character from her novel. The NYTBR gave the book the mixed reaction this earnestly churned but not cleverly sustained revenge fantasy has received in the press that I have read. The Forward was lukewarm, and I think only Entertainment Weekly of all the opinions I've encountered actually praised it unreservedly.

Praising "My H.," Judith Plotz sends her letter: "Because Reich is so deeply ironic a writer, it's just barely possible for a willfully inattentive reader to miss the righteous anger" that Plotz finds at the core of Reich's story. Perhaps, although I doubt that Margolick's oblivious to the particularly difficult situation. Reich in her own voice complains that the review "reflected no understanding of either fiction or satire," surely a doubtful claim against a NYT scribe no matter how aggrieved Reich or Plotz or a third, less self-righteous correspondent may cry foul.

Reich in the NYTBR pretends to have taken dictation from a voice of a character in "My Holocaust" who writes letters in this dated Catskill schmaltzy spiel. Reich's clumsy rejoinder from its salutation "Esteemed Mr. Editor" on makes you wonder how much of the novel's as labored and stereotyped. Fewer rather than more readers may pick up the book in question after "Lipman Krakowski" rushes into print to cover his creator's tuchas. The schlemiel spills the soup, the schlamazel gets the borscht in his lap. Playing both Laverne & Shirley, herself and "Lipman," it seems to me Reich's juggling a bowl that tips dangerously.

The handling of the invective here makes "Krakowski" in his rant more punchline of a rabbi's rote schtick than dignified representative speaking for the saving remnant of Yiddishkeit. Dangerously mined fields for any of us to brave. Yet Reich's scaling the electric fence again. Doubling the danger as she hunts down Margolick to avenge her honor through her belletristic character. This lacks the skill of Flann O'Brien, Kafka, or Philip Roth. Yet, Reich rushes in. A "professional letters-to-the-editor writer," (how can I become one and earn my living?) "Krakowski" claims "already 3,647 published letters to my credit." Her conceit is that he rouses up a cri-de-coeur against Margolick on behalf of our aggrieved Mrs. Reich. "The authoress has promised to write it down word for word."

What follows does make a proper plea against romanticizing survivors. "I don't want my claim to fame to be that someone tried to exterminate me." Yet Krakowski exaggerates Margolick's cogent critique into a "Jewish fatwa," roared by a "Jewish ayatollah boxer." As if a normal review turns into an ad hominem attack on fellow tribesman, who is chastised by the way by a third (real) letter writer, who's signed off as rabbi of "Ohev Shalom-- The National Synagogue." Curious: Reich lives in Chevy Chase MD, "Krakowski" in "Wheaton MD," Plotz and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld both in Washington DC! Coincidence of contiguity? A cabal of the Beltway MOT?

Margolick's mocked for this "fatwa." In "Krakowski"'s phrase, the critic's issuing what amounts to a death threat against Reich, "telling her what she can and can not write because of how it looks to the goyim?" I know that the fake letter writer indulges in puffing up the NYTBR reaction in order to deflate it, but Reich's underlying bitterness and recrimination appears disproportionate. All this moralizing fulmination over a bad review? This self-aggrandizement betrays Reich's inability to focus her defense as offense. She as "dear friend" of herself (some ego!) wanders into a dead-end analogy. She betrays her lack of grace in tossing out fistfuls of lumpish irony (so perhaps Plotz in right and Margolick missed it as ladled out so haplessly by Reich herself!). Her tone-deaf renditions of insult try to riff off a NYTBR credit line for Margolick on his work on Joe Louis. This bluster dilutes the punch of the intended letter. It weakens the moral grievance of "Lipman." (Get the name?) This earnest caricature may be witty for Reich, but she's no Swift or Voltaire. Or even Mel Brooks or Woody Allen. This move at outflanking the attacker topples. Splats flat as a stale latke-- against my admittedly and obviously goyishe kopf.

(See blogger's profile mugshot. Snapped on Pesach, I'll have you know. Small paper seder plate in white made by ex-JCC son evident taped to hutch visible; unbottled kosher wine from Carmel, eretz Israel, in background. So much for your stereotypes.) We can never fully understand who can claim membership in such a vexed tribe or its particularly persecuted clan of survivors from the whirlwind. Or, why such murder and torment occurred among those deemed most rational among nations. It's beyond even Bet Din and Nuremberg laws to rule who belongs and who does not. DNA for the soul cannot be traced. Some never born Jewish embrace the "gilgul" and consummate their longing within the Shekinah's presence. Some MOTs begrudge no emotion for their heritage whatsoever, or so they boast in daylight or before they stretch out on their deathbed. Among such a confusing mishmosh, why do some left out demand for recognition surpassing this tribe's tattooed clan? Others meanwhile escape its mark. They vanish into the other 70 nations who rejected a call at Sinai.

We all try, and perhaps must fail, to understand the dark rationality of the Shoah. Not only rabbis confront the enigma of a deity who was called for then and did not appear. Margolick, Reich, her defenders, and her critics all might agree here?)