Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Willful blindness

We realize, more or less clearly, the degree to which literate ‘common sense’, the acceptable limits of debate, the transmission of the generally agreed syllabus of major texts and works of art and of music, is an ideological process, a reflection of power-relations within a culture and society. The literate person is one who concurs with the reflexes of approval and aesthetic enjoyment which have been suggested and exemplified to him by the dominant legacy. But we dismiss such worries. We accept as inevitable and as adequate the merely statistical weight of ‘institutional consensus’, of common-sense authority. How else could we marshal our cultural choices and be at home in our pleasures?—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 26

Monday, April 29, 2019

Hermeneutics of reading

The act and art of serious reading comport two principal motions of spirit: that of interpretation (hermeneutics) and that of valuation (criticism, aesthetic judgement). The two are strictly inseparable. To interpret is to judge. No decipherment, however philological, however textual in the most technical sense, is value-free. Correspondingly, no critical assessment, no aesthetic commentary is not, at the same time, interpretative. The very word ‘interpretation’, encompassing as it does concepts of explication, of translation and of enactment (as in the interpretation of a dramatic part or musical score), tells us of this manifold interplay.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 25

Friday, April 26, 2019

A great emptiness

The alternatives are not reassuring: vulgarization and loud vacancies of intellect on the one hand, and the retreat of literature into museum cabinets on the other. The tawdry ‘plot outline’ or ‘predigested and trivialized version of the classic on the one hand, and the illegible variorum on the other. Literacy must strive to regain the middle ground. If it fails to do so, if une lecture bien faite becomes a dated artifice, a great emptiness will enter our lives.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 19

Thursday, April 25, 2019


Schooling today, notably in the United States, is planned amnesia.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 15

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Remember when?

The atrophy of memory is the commanding trait in mid and later twientieth-century education and culture. The great majority of us can no longer identify, let alone quote, even the central biblical or classical passages which not only are the underlying script of western literature (from Caxton to Robert Lowell, poetry in English has carried inside it the implicit echo of previous poetry), but have been the alphabet of our laws and public institutions. The most elementary allusions to Greek mythology, to the Old and the New Testament, to the classics, to ancient and to European history, have become hermetic. Short bits of text now lead precarious lives on great stilts of footnotes.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, pages 14–15

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The primacy of experience—or is it bankruptcy?

Current literacies are diffuse and irreverent. It is no longer a natural motion to turn to a book for oracular guidance. We distrust auctoritas—the commanding script or scripture, the core of the authoritarian in classical authorship—precisely because of immutability. We did not write the book. Even in our most intense penetrative encounter with it is experience at second hand. This is the crux. The legacy of romanticism is one of strenuous solipsism of the development of self out of immediacy. A single credo of vitalist spontaneity leads from Wordsworth’s assertion that ‘one impulse from a vernal wood’ outweighs the dusty sum of libraries to the slogan of radical students at the University of Frankfurt in 1968: ‘Let there be no more quotations.’ In both cases the polemic is that of the ‘life of life’ against the ‘life of the letter’, of the primacy of personal experience against the derivativeness of even the most deeply felt of literary emotions. To us, the phrase ‘the book of life’ is a sophistic antinomy or cliché. To Luther, who used it at a decisive point in his version of Revelation and, one suspects, to Chardin’s reader, it was a concrete verity.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, pages 11–12

<idle musing>
And we are the poorer for it. We cast aside thousands of years of aggregate experience as recorded, however imperfectly and stumblingly, in books, scrolls, or tablets for the sake of our tiny little microsecond of experience. And then we wonder why things go awry? Fools we are! Why reinvent the wheel all the time; we might just as well be illiterate. Ah, but we are! We may know how to read, but we haven't a clue on what to read or how to read well. We skim and call it reading. We rarely actually read, but when we do, we call it "close reading" or "deep reading" so that people will think some amazing thing is happening. Our predecessors would laugh at us. Hopefully, if we have successors (which is looking less and less likely with each rise in temperature), they too will laugh at us. Heaven knows we deserve it!
</idle musing>

Monday, April 22, 2019

Do you read with a pencil in hand?

But the principal truth is this: latent in every act of complete reading is the compulsion to write a book in reply. The intellectual is, quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 8

<idle musing>
The person who loaned me this book always has a pencil behind his ear. Me, I always have a pen attached to the collar of my t-shirt—yes, always.
</idle musing>

Friday, April 19, 2019

Printing errors!

He who passes over printing errors without correcting them is no mere philistine: he is a perjurer of spirit and sense. It may well be that in a secular culture the best way to define a condition of grace is to say that it is one in which one leaves uncorrected neither literal nor substantive errata in the texts one reads and hands on to those who come after us.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 7

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Reading well

To read well is to answer the text, to be answerable to the text, ‘answerability’ comprising the crucial elements of response and of responsibility. To read well is to enter into answerable reciprocity with the book being read; it is to embark on total exchange (‘ripe for commerce’ says Geoffrey Hill). The dual compaction of light on the page and on the reader’s cheek enacts Chardin’s perception of the primal fact: to read well is to be read by that which we read. It is to be answerable to it. The obsolete word ‘responsion’, signifying, as it still does at Oxford, the process of examination and reply, may be used to shorthand the several and complex stages of active reading inherent in the quill.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 6

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The call of unread books

Even the most obsessed of bookmen can read only a minute fraction of the world’s totality of texts. He is no true reader, no philosophe lisant, who has not experienced the reproachful fascination of the great shelves of unread books, of the libraries at night of which Borges is the fabulist. He is no reader who has not heard, in his inward ear, the call of the hundreds of thousands, of the millions of volumes which stand in the stacks of the British Library or of Widener asking to be read. For there is in each book a gamble against oblivion, a wager against silence, which can be won only when the book is opened again (but in contrast to man, the book can wait centuries for the hazard of resurrection). Every authentic reader, in the sense of Chardin’s delineation, carries within him a nagging weight of omission, of the shelves he has hurried past, of the books whose spine his fingers have brushed across in blind haste.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, pages 3–4

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

How about you? What's your fitness level?

Bicycling Magazine has a new article out about fitness and longevity. In it they link to a fun site, World FitnessLevel that estimates your fitness level and fitness age based on some questions. They also are conducting a study, so you can answer a long list of questions if you wish.

So, given that I ride (indoors in the winter) three times a week and walk three to six plus miles a day with a resting heart rate of about 45 (national average for my age is 72), they say my fitness age is:

What about you? How are you doing?

The enduring power of writing

Marble crumbles, bronze decays, but written words—seemingly the most fragile of media—survive.—No Passion Spent, page 3

Friday, April 12, 2019

Propaganda for whom?

Historiography in Israel was driven by the covenant, not by the king. In the rest of the ancient Near East, historiography had the function of promoting and legitimating the king. Divine sponsorship of the king was revealed in the activities of the gods in the human world, and historiography gave voice to that reality. Israelite historiography was more often negative toward the king and focused on divine faithfulness to the covenant (its blessings and curses). Historiography gave voice to that reality as it offered a divinely revealed interpretation of Yahweh’s activities.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 315

<idle musing>
That's the final excerpt from this book. I hope you enjoyed it. Personally, I think it is a vast improvement over the (already very good) previous edition. Monday we start an older book that a friend loaned me about two years back that I finally got around to reading recently. I think you'll enjoy it. It's a bit of a change of pace: George Steiner, No Passion Spent. It's a collection of his essays on literary criticism and other such things.
</idle musing>

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The supernatural is real…

As many haye commented, necromancy was not forbidden in Israel on the premise that it did not work but because its efficacy was recognized and deemed illicit and contradictory to normative Yahwistic theology.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 306

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Job and his friends

The procedure that Job’s friends were suggesting, rather than advising discovery divination, urges Job to appease God through a procedure of blanket confession, thus more in line with Shurpu than with Murshili’s procedure, though all show the importance of appeasement. In this aspect Job’s friends were representatives of a revered ancient Near Eastern wisdom tradition and also, unbeknown to them, the representatives for the case that the adversary was pressing. That is, if they had persuaded Job to follow their advice and make a blanket confession just to appease Deity and be restored to favor, the adversary’s contention would have been confirmed: righteousness was not the issue, only reward. Instead, the integrity that Job maintained (Job 27:1—6) was one that insisted that his righteous standing be considered rather than just his favor restored. If this interpretation is accurate, the book of Job argues pointedly against the theodicy philosophies in the ancient world and represents an Israelite modification. This modification, rather than offering a revised theodicy, seeks to reinterpret the justice of God from something that may be debated to something that is a given. In Yahweh’s speech it is not his justice that is defended but his wisdom. The inference to be drawn from this is that if it is determined that God is wise, then it can be accepted that he is just, even if not all the information to evaluate his justice is available.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 288

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Let's drop this silly Christian stuff and go back to pure paganism!

Those of you who want to get back to the pure paganism of the pre-Christian world need to remember this about the gods:
The minds of the gods were not easily penetrated.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 287
<idle musing>
If you really want to get back to "pure" paganism, you need to drop those silly Christian ideas about justice. If you've been following this series at all, you have seen how the gods can be very capricious—and you certainly don't want to disagree with them! Unless of course you want to end up like Odysseus and wander for 10 years, lost at sea. Or, like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, fighting the bull of heaven. They won, but I doubt you would! And Enkidu ended up dying for their crimes.

No, pure paganism isn't bothered by the stupid, petty things that Christianity is. Power is what's important and of course using that power! And, of course staying on the good side of the gods! And, as the myths and history both show, that's a tough one. Search the stars, search the entrails, watch the flight of birds, watch for strange portents. our out libations before drinking or eating. Keep you personal god happy! And watch out for the other person who might just have a more powerful personal god than you do!

Me, I'll stick to Christianity. I might not comprehend all that God is doing, but I know he isn't capricious and his love conquers all evil—even the evil inside me!
</idle musing>

How do I get out of this mess?

Since the ancients typically believed that their suffering was the result of the god’s anger, they naturally sought to appease that anger. Appeasement could theoretically be accomplished by the identification of the offense and the offering of an appropriate sacrifice. A clear example of this procedure is found in the Hittite Plague Prayers of Murshili II. In response to the severe plague that decimated his kingdom over several decades, he asked the gods the reason for the disastrous conditions. The results of divinations eventually allowed him to identify offenses both in the cultic realm and in treaty violations by his father. His plea to the gods shows the appeasement mentality. “If the servant has incurred a guilt, but confesses his guilt to his master, his master may do with him as he likes. But because he has confessed..., his master’s heart is satisfied, and he will not punish that servant. I have now confessed ... the sin; ... restitution has been made twenty fold.... If you demand additional restitution from me, just tell me about it in a dream, and I will give it.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 287

Monday, April 08, 2019

And what does the LORD require of you?

[E]vil was associated with demons rather than with other gods. The gods could be vengeful or malicious (e.g., Ishtar’s response to Gilgamesh’s rejection of her, Erra’s destructive behavior), but the gods were not generally characterized in that way. The gods were interested in justice being maintained in the human realm, but they were not necessarily committed to doing justice themselves. Even so, the retribution principle goes beyond a god doing justice, because it also involves how righteous and wicked behavior that merits the deity’s response is defined. For the gods of the ancient Near East, social order was important, but human ethical or moral goodness was not as highly valued by the deity as cultic conscientiousness.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 286

<idle musing>
Pretty stark contrast to Micah 6:8: "He has shown you, O human, what is good. And what does LORD require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your god." But, it would seem that many who even bother to think about a god and what that god might require of them haven't moved beyond the do ut des (I give in order that you give) principle. In other words, I can do whatever ethically, but if I tick the correct boxes by giving money to the right things, or saying the correct things, nothing bad can happen to me and the god(s) will be fine with me.

I think we see that behavior among some christians, whether on the right or left, who will accept the shortcomings (sins isn't too strong a word here) of their favored candidate—as long as they say the correct things and do certain ritual things that fulfill whatever unwritten or written laws govern the subcommunity to which they belong. Or at least that's the only way I can figure that a certain occupant of a white house in Washington, DC, can continue to be morally corrupt in every imaginable way and still maintain a support base among a large group of christians.
</idle musing>

Friday, April 05, 2019

Divine right of kings

In Mesopotamia there was significantly more fretting about this [discerning the will of the gods] and more effort extended into the enterprise of learning the will of the gods. The gravity of the concern and the angst that surrounded it are reflected in the prominence of divination in the court and in the reports of the king’s advisors as they attempted to help him discern the will of the gods. If kings lost touch with deity, divine sponsorship could be forfeit and divine authority withdrawn. This system was governed by an agreement that existed between the king and the sponsoring god(s)—a kingship covenant of sorts.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

He's not a tame lion

Passive deductive divination does not intrinsically imply beliefs about deity that are contrary_to Israelite theology. Communication by means of celestial or terrestrial omens is not beneath Yahweh's dignity, nor do the Israelites assume the existence of other gods or powers. But, of course, the system does not stop there. Mesopotamians also believed that rituals and incantations could reverse signs. This moves from the realm of knowledge being communicated to power being exercised. Here is where the theology breaks down and the differences emerge.

In passive deductive divination, then, the semiotic and hermeneutical principles mirror what we found for extispicy, and they provide the most likely explanation for why these divinatory practices were forbidden in lsrael. Yahweh could speak (inspired divination), he could choose (provoked simple binary deductive divination), but he did not ”write" his messages in the entrails of animals or in the movement of the heavenly bodies (provoked nonbinary or complex binary deductive divination, nonprovoked deductive divination). Israel believed that they could gain information about divine activity just as their ancient Near Eastern compatriots did, but the list of divinatory means they acknowledged semiotically/hermeneutically acceptable was much more limited.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 249

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Look out! Here it comes! (Maybe)

Thus the king would also be careful to heed the warnings that divination offered. But just as a positive omen would not be understood as a guarantee of success, so a negative omen could often be reversed. “The gods send the signs; but what these signs announce is not unavoidable fate. A sign in a Babylonian text is not an absolute cause of a coming event, but a warning. By appropriate actions one can prevent the predicted event from _ happening. The idea of determinism is not inherent in this concept of sign.” [Hunger and Pingree, Astral Science, 5] Consequently, the evidence suggests that the function of divination was to provide divine endorsement or Warning concerning an action that the king had already undertaken or was contemplating in order to assure the king of the continuing support by the deity.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 245

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Look around you

Divination produced the only divine revelation known in the ancient Near East. Through its mechanisms, the ancients believed not that they could know deity but that they could get a glimpse of the designs and will of deity. “The signs did not cause the future—the gods did—but they revealed what was to come, and the gods left them everywhere.” [Van de Mieroop, Philosophy before the Greeks, 89]—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 243

Monday, April 01, 2019

Read those entrails!

Deductive divination is no less initiated [than prophecy, etc.] from the divine realm, but its revelation is communicated through events and phenomena that can be observed. Note that in Israelite thinking that which is in the category of inspired divination is allowed—God speaks, but that which is in the category of deductive divination is forbidden—Yahweh does not write that way (e.g., on entrails). The latter type of divination is found in Mesopotamia as early as the third millennium.—Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed., page 224