The Blind Swordsman

Some years ago I watched the movie The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi and enjoyed it, though it did not match my expectations.  I watch martial arts movies from time to time, but usually not for the plot or character development.  As a kid, I watched any movie I could with big explosions.  Now I am a sucker for the balletic action common in many great kung-fu movies from the east.

Certainly the movie has its share of sword fights, but the style of fighting surprised me, ignorant as I was (and am) of Japanese fighting styles.  I expected long, drawn out battles.  In fact, the fights lasted mere seconds as the combatants focused on short, intense stabs.  Towards the end of the movie the best swordsman of the bad guys and Zatoichi face off alone.  “Ah, here we go,” I thought.  No . . . this was the shortest fight of all, consisting of each man doing only one move.

I thought of this movie reading Japanese Destroyer Captain* by Captain Temeichi Hara of the Japanese Imperial navy.  During W.W. II his record made him Japan’s best captain of destroyers, if not one of their top captains in the whole navy.  Much of his memoir reads like I suppose an American or British naval man would recount the war.  I hoped also to glean something of the culture of Japan that would help illumine the war beyond the narrow confines Hara discusses.

Captain Hara avoids using too much military jargon.  At times I had to strain to understand the battles he describes, but usually not.  He writes openly without any obvious agenda.  He has criticism and praise alike for certain American actions, and even sharply criticizes certain member of Japanese high command (I believe he was the first to do so after the war).

I mentioned The Blind Swordsman because the whole atmosphere of Hara’s account has its roots in samurai lore.  Hara often references maxim’s from different literature and famous swordsmen, but he seems to do more than just quote them.  He gives evidence of living inside of them.  His grandfather actually was a samurai and he speaks at the beginning of the book of his deep connection with his grandfather.  He obviously sought to live out this connection in battle.  Often his thoughts on tactics and strategy come couched in aphorisms of the samurai, especially Mushashi Miyamoto.

But this applies to the whole Japanese naval effort.  Certainly Japan faced certain strategic limitations given their relatively small industrial capacity, but their tactics reminded me of the final sword battle of Zatoichi.  The best samurai win with one stroke.  The Japanese developed torpedoes that had longer range and ran without leaving a distinct trail in the water.  This gave them an advantage that they attempted to exploit in samurai like fashion.  They sought to fire first from long range, well before U.S. ships could fire.  If successful, the naval battle would over immediately.  But if not–and the long ranges from which they fired made this less than likely–the advantage would immediately swing to the Americans.  On the one hand, their concepts make sense apart from samurai lore.  If you have a smaller chance of winning a close-fought battle (Americans never had to worry about supplies of ammo) try and win it from long-range.  Even so, we still see the samurai connection.

We this seeking after a decisive final-blow in other aspects of Hara’s account.  He frequently criticized any effort of Japan that failed to use its forces en masse in decisive faction, citing the adage, “A lion uses all its strength when catching a rabbit.”  Even in April of 1945, with no chance of victory, Hara seems strangely at peace with their final naval assault.  Many eagerly sought death in samurai fashion in an entirely hopeless battle.  Hara, if I may venture  a guess, seems pleased in a more detached sense that the navy had marshaled all its remaining ships and at least would now use them all at once.  In this last moment for the Japanese navy we see the Zatoichi sword fight connection.  Rather than keep their ships back to defend Japan, they sought a grand offensive thrust at our beachhead in Okinawa (which also mirrors how they used their torpedos).**

When discussing Guadalcanal Hara shows a keen understanding of strategic and tactical success.  The Japanese at one point won a key battle by sinking several U.S. ships.  The Japanese celebrated.  Hara did not.  He noted that nothing about the situation in Guadalcanal had fundamentally changed.  The U.S. could still supply its men, and the Japanese still could not supply their own.  Soon after the Japanese evacuated their troops.

I thought of this earlier section of the book when reading the last paragraph.  Hara writes,

The powerful navy which had launched the Pacific war 40 months before with the attack on Pearl Harbor had at last been struck down.  On April 7, 1945, the Japanese Navy died.

That’s it?  After giving many opinions and demonstrating time and again the ability and courage to criticize and analyze situations, I found myself mystified that he offered no general conclusions.   Why?  Again, I am guessing . . . but in the midst of battle, Hara dedicated himself to victory at (almost) any cost.^  Part of this ‘cost’ came in the form of even criticizing high command.  But once the war ended, perhaps Hara thought of himself as a ronin, masterless and without purpose.  Reflection about some grand meaning after the fact might for him resemble one hand clapping in a void of space–what would be the point?  Perhaps . . . perhaps, Hara resembled Zatoichi in more than just a sense of samurai vocation.  Perhaps his field of psychological vision was likewise obscured.

Dave

*I assume this is a poor translation and the title in Japanese is not so wooden.

**Perhaps another connection . . . Hara laments that the Japanese could not build small torpedo boats akin to our PT class ships.  They had the requisite physical capability, of course, but not, it seems, the ability to match the mental will and physical capacity.  Hara offers no explanation for this so my guess will be exceedingly tentative . . . the PT boat offered nothing that would produce a decisive and grand blow.  No samurai wanted to inflict a death of 1000 cuts.

I mentioned one effect of the democratization of the samurai ethos in this post.  In a more mild vein, Hara mentions a samurai drinking ceremony related to battle.  Now, with all supposed to embody the samurai spirit, all would drink as the samurai did.  But, there are many more men in the navy than there were samurai.  Hara recounts several amusing instances when he “had” to drink many many toasts with his men, with almost any occasion an excuse to drink.

^Hara felt that too many in Japan’s military applied the bushido ethic too far and too liberally, merely seeking death as preferable to life.  Hara did not fundamentally object to suicide missions, but he did believe that they must serve some purpose beyond the merely symbolic.  He objected to the final sortie to Okinawa not because it would involve the destruction of the fleet, but because it would needlessly destroy the fleet.  Hara wanted instead to sell his life attacking supply and transport ships, to do at least some damage to the U.S.

The Burma Campaign

My grandfather fought with the 101st Airborne Division in Europe during W.W. II, and received a Silver Star for bravery in action.  But I remember on more than one occasion him saying that he was grateful he fought in Europe instead of the Pacific/Asian theater.  The jungle, he said, might have been too much for him.

I couldn’t agree more.  Jungle warfare sounds like a nightmare to me.  Frank McLynn’s fine book does nothing to dispel my notions.

For jungle warfare, how about Burma? — home to large amounts of man-eating crocodiles and tigers.  Of the 2500 known species of snakes in the world, only about 200 pose any threat to mankind.  But just about all of them can be found in Burma, a country with the largest known concentration of deadly snakes on the planet.  True, most of them avoid mankind if they can.  Alas, not the small krait, the most feared of all Burmese snakes.  Called “The Two Step” (that’s as far as you can walk if bitten before you collapse and die), these snakes had no problem hiding themselves in the dark corners of tents, or in sleeping bags and boots.

All this to say nothing of the monsoon rains or the malaria infested mosquitos.

Perhaps its our general aversion to the jungle, or our familiarity with Europe, that has led us to overlook the massive war in Burma between 1942-1945, which at various times involved more than 600,000 allied troops.

I say to my students that. . .

  • Military problems are really political problems
  • Political problems are really cultural problems
  • Cultural problems are really religious problems.

I am 100% sure that I did not invent this idea, though I can’t place its origin.  And while I can’t prove it in every case, it sure sounds good, and I expect that it’s true.

But I do think one can see the above principle work itself out in most cases, including the Burma campaign.

For example, Japan had tremendous initial success in Burma as they had all over Southeast Asia in the early days of the war.  Their “bushido” mentality helped form a fearsome army that overwhelmed Allied forces initially.  But this same mentality led them towards an unrealistic view of themselves and their opponents.  Their rigid culture formed a rigid military that did not believe that their opponent could ever learn and adjust their tactics, because after all, they never adjusted their own.  British forces eventually climbed up the learning curve and started to hammer the Japanese by 1944.

Yet, the Japanese continue to do the only thing they know how to do — attack.  Bushido cares primarily about honor, not victory.  Perhaps what the Japanese sought most was not even honor, but an “honorable” death.  Their “attaque a outrance” over Asia seemed to court death and destruction.  As McLynn notes, by war’s end they had the United Kingdom, the U.S., the Soviets, and China as enemies.  Not even the Nazi’s showed such insanity.  Perhaps Japan worshipped death most of all, and as C.S. Lewis noted, we must be careful what we wish for, lest we actually receive it.  Japanese tactics did not change during the war, no doubt due in part to their rigid culture.  But it may also have to do with the fact that they pointed their car to head over the cliff.  The Imphal campaign, where the Japanese planned a massive attack knowing that they their troops would lack the necessary supplies to succeed, again illustrates this concept.

The book starts by describing England’s role in Burma, and their record left much to be desired.  Thankfully for them (though not the Burmese), the Japanese proved much worse landlords, and this I think relates to the paragraph above.  I am reminded of Chesterton’s comment that,

Thieves respect property.  They merely wish the property to become their property, that they may more perfectly respect it.

An attitude I think, that reflects the British and Japanese in Burma.  The Burmese in the end, could tell the differences between British respecters of property and the Japanese, who sought only destruction.

George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir of his time in Burma sheds additional light.  Strikingly to me, at least, he hardly mentions the snakes, tigers, and crocodiles, and mostly concentrated on the mosquitos.  He respects the Japanese, but certain anecdotes he relates make it clear that the Japanese did not seek military success above “honorable” death.  He tells tales of soldiers charging entrenched British positions with nothing more than a sword, yelling maniacally.  After Imphal the Japanese were surely beaten, but none of them ever surrendered.

Fraser’s account  also hints at the coming political transformation of Asia, especially regarding India.  Churchill feared using the Indian Army to fight in Burma since he wanted to keep the British empire intact after the war.  An army that fought to defend India would inevitably bring home a sense of pride that would translate into independence.  Of course the independence movement had begun before the war in India, but the war certainly accelerated it.  One Indian soldier, puffed with patriotism, flew too close the sun and insulted a Gurkha while exalting his own Indian people.  The gurkha needed a dozen men to prevent him from killing the Indian in reprisal (as a brief aside, what would one not believe about the exploits of Gurkhas?  Fraser tells of one Gurkha regiment, who, on a whim, attacked a lost and bewildered Japanese detachment with no guns — only knives — killing all and suffering no casualties themselves).  The Brits explained to the gurkha that if he killed the Indian he would be tried for murder and hang.  This did nothing to deter him.  One of them changed tactics and said that if he killed the Indian he would be thrown out of the army and he would never receive his officer’s commission.  That, and that only, did the trick.  The gurkha finally backed down after a long and profuse apology from the Indian.

Fraser doesn’t talk much about anyone higher than his immediate circle, but McLynn makes a few interesting observations about allied leaders in Burma.  Churchill was known for being impetuous, and he tended to like people with just that quality.  Just as Churchill’s political career survived numerous missteps and disasters, so too he supported Mountbatten and Windgate (leaders of the special forces in Burma, who specialized in dramatic, but possible ineffective campaigns).  All three had enormous self-confidence.  Churchill and Mountbatten had both been involved in political/military disasters that should have ended their careers.  But luckily for the Allied cause only Windgate may have actually bordered on insanity.  The jungle, perhaps, can do that to you.

Democracies and their Special Forces

Field Marshal Viscount Slim memoir Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India is generally regarded as one the finest, if not the finest military memoir.  Having read it (and not having read many others) I won’t dispute the claim.  I often have a hard time with books written by ex-officers, who I find usually bog down in details.  I also, to be fair, have a hard time with spatial relations and without solid maps right in front of me I often get lost.

Slim’s writing bears some marks of what usually gives me trouble with books like this.  What distinguishes this book is his sense of style and humor.  He shares many anecdotes that paint himself a bit poorly.  He shares honest introspection about his actions without getting too much inside his own head.  When he asserts opinions of people he likes or dislikes he admits that others have different opinions.  Finally, he seemed interested in the campaign as a whole, more so than his role in it.

One of his slightly controversial opinions involved Orde Wingate.  Wingate was just the sort of commander that would appeal to Churchill.  Like Churchill he loved the knight-errant approach to war, and so the Chindits, or special forces, of the Burma campaign, gave Wingate a chance to sally forth boldly behind enemy lines.  The direct military effectiveness of his operations seemed limited, though even Slim admits that he boosted morale through the exploits of his men in the aftermath of a complete defeat inflicted by Japan.

Slim’s concluding comments interested me most about this aspect of the Burma campaign.  He thought that England’s reliance on special forces, and the mythology surrounding special forces, did not serve an overall good purpose.  He mentions the variety of special forces the British used (i.e. mountain divisions, amphibious divisions, long-range penetration divisions, and so on).  He acknowledged that some showed great examples of courage but writes,

Yet I came firmly to the conclusion that such [special forces] . . . were wasteful.  They did not give, militarily, a worth-while return the resources in men, material, and time they absorbed.

To begin with, they were usually formed by attracting the best men from the normal units by better conditions, promises of excitement, and not a little propaganda.   . . . The result of these methods was to undoubtedly to lower the quality of the rest of the army, not only by drawing off the cream from it, but by encouraging the idea that certain of the normal operations of war were so difficult that only specially equipped elite corp could undertake them.  Anything, whatever short-cuts to victory it may promise, which thus weakens the army spirit is dangerous.

. . . The level of initiative, training, and weapon skill required in a commando is admirable; what is not admirable is that it should be confined to a few small units.  Any well-trained infantry battalion should be able to do what any commando can do . . .   This cult of special forces is as sensible as to form a Royal Corp of Tree Climbers and say that no soldier who does not wear its green hat with a bunch of oak leaves stuck in it should be allowed to climb a tree.

Slim retracts a wee bit of this statement when he acknowledges that certain special units devoted to intelligence and sabotage, which fall outside the duties of standard training for  a soldier, but reiterates his main point when he stresses that the multiplication of special forces in Burma made unified command difficult to attain.

Our current war on terrorism presents many political and military challenges.  We have responded in part by significantly increasing the prominence of our special forces, both in budgets, deployments, and perhaps also in a surrounding “mythos” about them.  Like Slim, I am grateful for their courage and dedication.  Perhaps unlike him, I am not willing to apply his thoughts wholesale to our current situation just yet.  We face different sorts of military challenges now as opposed to W.W. II.  But we should not assume that we can do whatever we like militarily without it  having consequences on our values and political practices.   We should at least ask whether or not the increase of special forces may distance the military from the general public, or whether or not the military will be for “the common man” in the near future.

Special Forces demand, among other things, a great deal more secrecy, something else Slim abhorred.  Along with drones, they can be used with less public notice and oversight.  Democracies do not thrive with a populace disconnected from its government.  Is there a parallel between the increase of special forces use and the recent NSA scandals?  In other words, a military disconnected from a general democratic population may work (even unconsciously) to undermine the political application of democratic values.

Other wars have brought about shifts in our country’s values, sometimes for the better.  Maybe this current war will lead us into a better place as well.  Whatever the case, we cannot escape some kind of social and political change if we continue to fight in almost exclusively in a clandestine manner, and these changes will likely alter how we practice democracy at home.

9th/10th Grade: The Social Revolution of the Longbow

Greetings,

This week we looked at the beginning of the 100 Years War (1337-1453), and especially the Battle of Crecy in 1346. The battle, though a major victory for England, did not prove decisive in the long run.  However, it is perhaps the most famous battle of the war because it foreshadowed the beginning of the end of chivalry, and with it, the feudal system as a whole.

As we noted a few weeks ago, the Church in particular, and the feudal system in general, tried to limit the possibility of conflict.  So, only a certain group of people should fight, and then, fight in a certain way with certain weapons.  Riding on horseback with lance and sword required a great deal of training, which in itself restricted who could possibly fight.

This is part of the reason why the Church tried to prevent the widespread use of the crossbow.  The simplicity of the design meant that anyone could use this weapon, a kind of medieval version of point and click.  And, at close enough range, a powerful crossbow could pierce a knight’s armor.  Some suggest that the Church sought only to protect the privileges of the nobility in their attempt to ban the crossbow, but I believe it’s more than that.  The crossbow posed a threat to limited warfare, restricted to a narrow class.  With a crossbow almost anyone could join the fight.

The English had a tradition of using the longbow.  Though simpler in design, longbows had much more power than crossbows, and could be fired more quickly.

Another difference between them, however, is that longbows require much more developed skill than a crossbow.  Like riding and swordsmanship, it required time and practice to attain proficiency.  Hence, longbowmen, though peasants, became a kind of privileged nobility.

At Crecy the English had longbows, but the French did not, and this proved decisive in the battle.  Muddy ground, combined with French disorganization gave the English bowmen plenty of shots at the French forces.  The French suffered untold thousands of casualties and had to flee the field.  We might be tempted to chalk this up to the ‘fortunes of war, but if we peel back layers, we see that it was no coincidence that the English had longbows and the French did not.  Armies that take the field are a byproduct of specific political cultures, and the battle at Crecy was no exception to this.

Longbows posed an even greater threat to the knightly nobility than crossbows, and the longbow could be expected to meet with the resistance of the nobility.  It would take a strong central government to allow for the longbows development.  The king would need a great deal of authority over local nobility to make this happen.

Since the Norman conquest, England had in fact this tradition of strong kingship, starting with William the Conqueror himself, but also Henry II, Edward I, and Edward III, who many believe started the 100 Years War.  These kings created special laws to further ensure the longbow’s use, including

  • Protecting forests with yew trees
  • Giving peasants with longbows time off from certain feudal duties to practice their skill
  • Giving longbow hunters the right to hunt in some normally protected forests
  • Finally, those who accidentally killed or injured others with the longbow were exempt from legal punishments.

Clearly, the longbow was not just a technological innovation, it was an innovation of a particular political environment.  To raise the longbow to the status of the sword meant elevating the status of peasants, or at least some peasants.  The longbow was not just a weapon, it foreshadowed a social revolution.

The Church found out that stemming innovation is a fruitless endeavor, but they correctly judged the consequences of the introduction of these weapons.  The feudal system could approach fairness if each group in society served legitimate needs of other groups.  The nobility had certain privileges, but also difficult military duties that endangered their lives, took them away from home frequently, and so on.  But if the peasants did not really need them for protection anymore, what was the reason for the existence of the nobility and their privileges?

Next week we will look at how Crecy may have spurred on peasant revolts in France, and the devastation of the Black Plague.

Thanks so much,

Dave

Traditional Strengths

About a month ago Jordan Peterson returned to the public eye after a long period of dealing with his own personal and family medical issues. Controversy followed him in his earlier rise to prominence, and sure enough, controversy picked up where it left off with his first major interview in years with the Sunday Times. It appears that the published interview, and the unpublished edited transcript, show that the Times performed something of a hit piece. Given the mainstream media’s general dislike of Peterson (I also am critical of certain aspects of his message, and appreciative of others), some called into question why he would give the interview at all. One could easily assume that it came from weakness–a desire to correct the “embarrassment” of his departure from the public eye and subsequent issues with medication. Others questioned why he would, even with the best of motives, open himself up to the “jackals” of leftist media.

Peterson acknowledged the issues and explained some of his motivation on his website, writing,

So, what would a wise man do?

Learn my lesson, and avoid the press at all cost? But I don’t know how to distinguish that from turning my tail and hiding, and I think that would be worse for me, even in my currently compromised state, than continuing to engage as I have.

Only choose to make myself available to outlets that will produce positive coverage? First, how do I know which outlets are trustworthy. I could only talk to people with whom I have become friendly, such as David Rubin and Joe Rogan. But I don’t think it’s right to stay inside what risks becoming a mere echo chamber.

Was it a mistake for me to conduct the now-infamous Channel Four interview with Cathy Newman? Or the almost equally-viewed GQ interview with Helen Lewis? Both of those were markedly hostile. Were they failures, or successes? I don’t think it is unreasonable to note that they are markedly of our time, and perhaps indicate something important–whatever that might be–about our time. Both have garnered some 25 million views. There’s something of broad public interest about the tension that characterizes both conversations….

GQ, motivated by the success (?) of the Helen Lewis interview, plans to produce a profile on me in the near future. I have been asked to make myself available for an interview. Should I do it? I haven’t decided. If it goes badly, will I only have myself to blame? Should I therefore avoid it?

I hope to be judicious in my decisions about when and where to speak. I hope that I can stick to the truth when I do so, and believe that there is no better defense (and, indeed, no better offense) than that? Do I trust myself to tell the truth? Will my ego invariably get in the way? Has that already happened?

As the man says: You pays your money and you takes your chances.

I have no idea if Peterson should continue to give such interviews. But his “staying the course” I feel shows at least some strength. He gave such interviews before, which people interpreted in different ways. He can continue to give such interviews, with likely the same result–people will continue to disagree about him, perhaps even sharply so. But if he chooses the path of more mainstream interviews I will not condemn him. The temptation invariably will tend, however, towards seeing that choice as a weakness–as a love of attention, as an attempt to cover over his illness, etc. We love to break down narratives and deconstruct.

Within the Pseudepigrapha there exists a delightful story called “Joseph and Aseneth,” which details the marriage between the biblical Joseph and the daughter of the priest of On (Gen. 41:45). Essentially, Aseneth has great beauty and is much desired throughout the land of Egypt, but refuses to consider marriage to the great Joseph. Joseph, for his part, wants nothing to do with someone devoted to idols. But Aseneth repents, forsakes her gods, and marries Joseph, all the while preventing a clash between Joseph’s brothers and the Pharoah’s eldest son.

What struck me in particular the means whereby the editor (someone named C. Burchard) of the text framed the story. First, we have the insinuation that the story is designed to cover over an embarrassment–“How could Joseph–the model of chastity, piety, and statesmanship, marry a foreign Hamitic girl, daughter of an idolatrous priest?”* Rather–should we not see the story in terms of the triumph of the whole biblical narrative? If we read the Old Testament from Christ backwards, we should expect to see marriages to foreigners as a foreshadowing of Christ “wooing” the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God.

Second, despite the clear statement that, “The book is an author’s work, not a folk tale which has no progenitor,” the editor seeks here and there for textual origins of the story. I apologize, for I have little stomach for the minutiae of scholars on such questions, though I admit the minutiae has its place at times. I feel, however, that often we make things too complicated. He sees the origin of the story’s framework in various kinds of Greek literature, writing, “More helpful is hellenistic romance [most agree that the story was originally written in Greek], especially the erotic variety as represented by the Great Five, “Chariton’s ‘Chaereas and Calirrrhoe,’ Xenophon of Ephesus . . . [etc.]” I confess I have no idea who these authors are, but again–might we not be trying too hard for the sake of trying too hard? Isn’t there plenty of “origin” within the Old Testament itself, i.e., the Song of Songs, Hosea and Gomer, or the Book of Ruth for such romantic tales?

Though I lack all of the technical knowledge possessed by the editor, and therefore perhaps should not judge–yet–what bothers me is

  • The idea that tales such as “Joseph and Aseneth” present themselves to cover gaps, to explain away embarrassments, etc. rather than expand/magnify the existing tradition.
  • The idea that traditions are inherently weak, that they must constantly fill from the outside in

Essentially, the problem I encounter at times (though perhaps I judge the editor C. Burchard too harshly) involves focusing so much on the bark of one tree that no one sees the forest.^

Rachel Hallote’s Death, Burial, and Afterlife in the Biblical World suffers from a similar problem. Her main thesis involves showing that the burial practices she uncovered show that the Israelites borrowed heavily from pagan practices in other peoples, and therefore failed to follow Mosaic law in their attitude towards the dead. Well, given the many denuniciations found in the prophets and elsewhere, the fact that Israel broke various commandments should not surprise us. We do not need an archaeologist to tell us this, though some of the burial details could illumine how they broke biblical law and whom they might have borrowed from. But, hearkening back to my earlier point, many scholars see themselves in the role of breaking down traditions by finding smoking guns in the historical record. When they do so, they sometimes miss the forest, as I think Rachel Hallote has in her book.

Hallote’s central point revolves around her observations that, while the Mosaic Law seems to mandate a definitive break between the living and dead, and that Israelite burial practices show a much more fluid relationship between them. Her main observations include:

  • Evidence of family members buried in agricultural fields, and not strictly formal graves. While at first glance this may seem disrespectful, Hallote and others speculate that the dead were to function as sentinels, in a sense, of fields laying fallow. Israel practiced this, as did other Middle Bronze Age cultures.
  • Iron and Bronze age burials of family members also took place under houses, indicating a continued relationship with the departed. The members buried under houses might be those still thought in need of care in some way, such as children or the elderly–not those in between, who might be buried in fields.
  • A strong suggestion that alternate forms of burial, such as placing a body under a stone mound, likely indicated that such a person was to receive no offerings, prayers, etc. It was a way of marking that person as ‘cursed’ in some way (i.e., Josh. 8:29, 10:27).

I see her chapter “The Cult of the Dead in Ancient Israel ” as central to her thesis. She cites various proscriptions about not participating in “sacrifices” to the dead, common among the Canaanites. She then goes on to point out that various Old Testament texts show that Israelites participated in such practices, such as Ps. 106:28. Certain particular archaeological finds certainly can illumine these texts for us. But she puts all of her eggs into the archaeology basket–everything similar from the Israelites and the Canaanites regarding their dead for her must mean an unbiblical syncretism. She cites a variety of passages from 1 Samuel to show that Israelites conducted yearly worship service families for their dead (1 Sm. 1:21, 2:19, 20:6, 20:29), which apparently the Canaanites also held. Yet no condemnation exists that I am aware of for such services (one of the references involves the soon to be crowned David and the family of Jesse).

Where Hallote sees embarrassment, I see strength. Some time ago my wife knew a lady that attended a particular church with a distinct fundamentalist leaning. Our friends’ skirts were inevitably the length of her shins. Obviously, skirts too short would be immodest. But at that time, long flowing skirts were very much in fashion. Thus, to avoid “worldliness” one had to wear modest skirts that out of fashion–to wear something modest but “fashionable” would not cut it. Should shin length skirts shoot up in popularity, her church would switch to those of a longer length. When one tacks so much to the world around them, “strength” is not the word most would use. Ideally one has such confidence in their way of life, that the world around them fades as a reference point. So in Deut. 26:13-14, Hallote sees evidence of Mosaic law making a concession to existing practices that Israelite leaders cannot control, rather than establishing a clear delineation between having a relationship with the dead and offering them sacrifices. She sees weakness where she should see strength.

So, not every Canaanite practice is “wrong,” just as not every fashion choice the “world” makes Christians need to avoid. A further distinction Hallote misses shows the limits of what archaeology can prove. To praise the dead is not worship. To remember the dead is not worship. To pray for them is not to worship them (i.e, 2 Macc. 12). To ask them to pray for us is not worshiping them. To offer sacrifices to them–that is worship, and that the Law and the Prophets condemns.

Archaeology deals with “facts,” with observational, physical data. So when Hallote observes practices that allow for a narrowly “physical” meaning, that is what she puts forth. So the Israelites used spices for the dead because of the smell of decomposition in the hot weather. Or, they buried people under trees to provide a kind of fertilization. To her credit, when such a narrow interpretation would lead into absurdity, she backs off (as in the above cited examples about burials in fields, for example). But why not apply that same symbolic understanding to all of what she sees? Surely, a trees at least have a great deal of rich layers of meaning attached to them. Surely death itself is a great mystery and only the barest minority of us deals with it in a strictly physical manner.

Archaeology can give wonderful insights into particular matters, and the strengths of Hallote’s work share in the strengths of that field. But trees can never show you the forest.

Dave

*After writing this, upon reflection and a re-read, I may have read the editor’s intro to the story (C. Burchard, found in Charlesworth’s collection of the Pseudepigrapha, p. 177 ff.) too critically. A week later I am not as confident in my interpretation above–the idea of the editor that the story meant to cover an embarrassment. I still think it likely given the tone and content of the intro, but I may be over-sensitive. If anyone else reads it for themselves and wants to offer a correction, my ears are open. Of course, this initial reading of the Burchard’s intro formed the basis of this haphazard post, so naturally I cannot question my initial reading too substantially.

**The story may be of Christian or Jewish origin. Either way, there is the fascinating renaming of Aseneth to “City of Refuge.” If the story is of Jewish origin, it shows that Marian typology, i.e., Mary as the “City of God” has its roots within Jewish tradition. If the story is of Christian origin, it shows us how to read back into stories “types of Mary” just as we can read back “types of Christ.”

^I find it perfectly natural that western scholars should seek to deconstruct traditions, for they would naturally view traditions as weak. Modern western civilization is built on a rejection of tradition. It is in our cultural DNA to assume that traditions are weak because we naturally assume a kind of unreality about them. Thus, it seems we must continually find underdogs to keep our culture moving at all.

“Social Theories of the Middle Ages”

There is the idea touted by some that “a thing can be known only by its opposite.” Perhaps this idea has more cache in today’s parlance due to the rise of eastern philosophies in the west. However attractive the idea sounds on the most important questions it doesn’t hold up.  The Devil does indeed need God, but God has no need of the Devil.  Adam and Eve had every chance of knowing God perfectly before the presence of sin — of course sin prevents us from knowing God as we ought.

Still, on lesser questions the aphorism has its usefulness, including in History.  We rarely can see the nose on our face, and so it’s hard to understand one’s own society just by looking at one’s own society.  Instead we need perspective, and history can provide this.  Of course we should not look at history merely as a vehicle for understanding our own time.  Rather we can say that good history both opens up new worlds to us and sheds light on our own.  Such is the accomplishment of Bede Jarrett’s Social Theories of the Middle Ages.  His chosen title fails to inspire, and at times his writing follows his title and gets bogged down and technical.  But all in all Jarrett succeeds in his stated aim of fairly portraying a world strangely familiar to us and yet not so familiar.

Jarrett divides his examination by category, and so we have chapters on Law, Education, Women, and son on.  Right away in his first chapter on “Law” we see differences between us and them. Before thinking about particular laws the medievals thought in terms of their proper “ends” or to use the Greek term, the “telos” of a particular law.  No law made sense unless put in a larger theological context.  In order to know this context we need to know not just our ends as human beings in general, but also our origins.  So any medieval theory of law must first start by talking about creation, natural law, sin, and so on.  Then they move on to questions about salvation, and the role of law as an aid to that process.  Having done this, now we can move on to actual laws.  So while the medievals often focused on the big picture, they had a rigid categorical exactness about their thinking.

This had two seemingly different kinds of consequences.  One is that specific laws might matter much less than the theory behind the laws, and so law itself disappears in the shuffle.  We see this in one medieval Welsh code of “law” where a woman could be remitted for a particular offense if she paid a fine of “a penny as wide as her behind.”  In other words, we need not worry about law at all.  On the other hand, medieval thinkers consistently mentioned that law “must adhere to the bones of the people” — it had to fit a time and context (again we see the medieval exactitude at work) to have real validity.

I said these attitudes presented only a seeming difference.  What held them together, I think, is that for them laws had validity only because of our temporal earthly existence.  When “History” serves its purpose we shall have no need of law at all.  To understand the place of law one must first understand the temporary nature of the state itself.  One then, can play with law, either to fit a particular occasion, or in the case of the Welsh, for our particular amusement.  It is this sense of distance from law the medievals had that differentiates our society and theirs.  Anyone who has been ticketed in a “Mandatory Headlight Use Area” though the sun shines brightly, or been caught in a speed trap on a road with a speed limit well below the road’s design, has felt the absolute nature of law in the modern west.  We treat the law thusly because we do not do as the medievals did — we have no “higher end ” in view, only the power of the consent of governed at our disposal.

But I should not give the impression that Jarrett romanticizes the Middle Ages, though I think he certainly is fond of them.  He wades into the controversy surrounding how to translate the Latin word “servus,” and has no qualms about rendering it as a “slave.”  He denies that slavery disappeared during the middle ages (though it did decrease significantly from Roman times) because a certain class of people had no legal freedoms.  In this he departs from the fiery Regine Pernoud, who called it the height of ignominious irresponsibility to render “servus,” as “slave.”*  The strict categorical methodology they used spilled over into their society at large at times to an unhealthy degree.

The modern perspective on such a social arrangement might incline towards tolerance — some might excuse it as a necessary stage to better things down the road (much as some might excuse the condition of the urban lower-class at the beginning of the industrial era).  They might be less willing to excuse the medieval view of women, at least at first glance.  Here Jarrett urges caution, for most often those that wrote were monks, because they had the best educations.  And monastic writing about women would have its own particular concerns apart from the larger community.  One gets a more robust picture of medieval women in the Canterbury Tales, for example.  Jarrett points out that,

  • Women who entered convents could receive a very similar kind of education as men.  That the education of men and women would be equal in any sense might have been a historical first.
  • “Their intelligence is more keen and more quick than that of a man.”  So said Franco Sanchetti, with general agreement from others.
  • Women had some opportunity to make a vital contribution to Christian culture at large, witness Christiana de Pisan.
  • Women had an honored place as nuturers and civilizers of men.
  • No era that gave such veneration to the Blessed Virgin Mary could be said to truly denigrate women.

But Jarrett also points out that women often got blamed for the Fall of mankind in general.  And many saw women as quicker to do evil than men — Sanchetti, quoted above, admired feminine intelligence but thought they used this intelligence to work more evil than men.

As Jarrett often does, he turns to Aquinas to help provide balance between these two seeming poles.  “The image of God in man in its principal signification — namely, the intellectual nature — is found both in man and in woman . . . .  But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman, as God is the beginning and end of all things.  So when the Apostle had said that man is the image and glory of God but woman is the glory of man (I Cor. 11:7), he adds this reason, ‘for man is not of woman, but woman of man; and man was not created for women, but women for men.'”  Again in Aquinas, as we see so often, the “telos” of things guided their thinking.

We moderns cringe at this, but the best medievals would not have seen secondary status (if we wish to call it that) as denigrating.  We tend to measure worth in accomplishments or opportunities to live as we wish.  The medievals found glory in living out one’s assigned role in the grand cosmic dance that led to salvation.  So St. Francis (a man who understood chivalry perfectly) in his glorious “Canticle of the Sun” (see below) exults in the feminine aspects of creation because the feminine exults in meekness, which leads to humility.  And without humility no one can receive salvation.  From the medieval perspective (here I speculate) Jesus does not say, “The poor will always be with you,” because of the inevitability of sin, or the intractable problems of just political and economic systems.  Rather, some must play the role of “poverty” so that others will have the chance of exercising charity, and thereby become more like God.

This leads to what might most interest our economically minded/obsessed age, the medieval attitude towards money and property (there is an extended chapter on the medieval attitude towards war as well, but that gets covered in large measure here for any who have interest).  We experience confusion in the modern world about such things because we have no proper sense of the “telos” of money.  Jesus gives us many warnings about money’s destructive power, and yet we need money to live.  Money therefore has a proper place in the scheme of things, but money must be subordinated to its proper “end.”  So we should have enough to provide for our family.  We should seek also to have enough to practice charity.  Such is the proper, though temporary “end” of money.  Some would probably argue that a few might have a lot more money than this, but why?  To better reflect the image of God to creation, in this case, that of munificence or “kingly joy.”  By custom, though not law, the wealthy were expected to royally “fete” the poor under their charge on the most prominent of feast days (indeed, the mingling of rich and poor would have been much more common then than now).^

Property ownership as well came with this same tension.  Since God truly owned all things, in what sense could we own anything?  Medieval concepts of ownership absented themselves from our modern absolute legal concepts.  Rather, medievals “had use” of certain things, and then only on a contingent basis.  So the king had power provided he upheld his oath.  Nobles could receive grants of land from the king provided they served him faithfully.  None owned anything absolutely. The right to use something depended on whether or not you used it faithfully, according to the telos of the thing used.  Jarrett points out that absolute concepts of ownership came to the modern west with a revival of classical ideas in the Renaissance.  For the Romans, Rome was the telos of all things, so Roman ownership of property or people could be absolute. They had nothing beyond themselves from which they could take their pulse.  Aesthetically too, the contingent complexities of the medievals created stained glass.  The clear simplicities of the Renaissance smashed many of these windows and replaced them with clear panes just as the clear, classical concepts of Roman law began to replace the complex labyrinth that was the medieval synthesis.

In the early 20th century a group of thinkers led by men like G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc attempted to revive medieval economic concepts for the modern world.  They failed to make much headway, and most of their admirers attribute this failure to a lack of a defined system or program adapted for the modern world.  I have a different idea as to their lack of success.

Many might admire medieval views on property and wealth, but they arose within a defined context.  Specifically, the medieval focus on contextualizing everything in light of its place in the scheme of salvation gave them a framework in which to place wealth and property.  We have rejected the context of medieval views on things, and without that context, we have no agreed upon telos for money and property as the medievals had.  Our society values maximizing freedom and opportunity for the individual, and so the more wealth, the more opportunities to extend the self into places yet unknown.  Again, the medievals valued stability much more than change, innovation, and the need for “forward momentum.”  Without the medieval theological and psychological context, medieval ideas about economics would be dead on arrival.  We often wish to have our cake and eat it as well, but societies can not be put together in such a hodge-podge fashion.  We must choose the telos we pursue.

Dave

*Solving this riddle depends largely on how one defines “slave.”  Medieval peasants at the very bottom of the social ladder were slaves in the sense that they had very very few freedoms they could exercise on their own.  Unlike the slaves of most other cultures, however, even those at the very bottom had certain engrained legal protections in law and from the Church.  Also medieval “slaves” were almost entirely bound to the soil, which meant certain periods of long hours, and certain extended periods of relative inactivity.  And they also would have been exempt from work on numerous medieval feast and saint days in the Church calendar.

^In his The Court Society, Norbert Elias mentions a few aristocratic Spanish families who bankrupted themselves by projects, gifts, and feasts for those in their charge, and gained glory thereby.  Their family had in a sense, fulfilled its place in society by demonstrating such largesse.

— Regarding the “Canticle of the Sun” . . .

I partially agree with those that regard St. Thomas and St. Francis as the best fulfillment of medieval society.  St. Thomas’ massive Summa Theologica stands as perhaps the greatest extended theological treatise in the history of the Church.  But St. Francis possibly had a greater degree of sanctity.  And in one fell swoop of poetic insight, St. Francis both perfectly expressed the medieval vision and revealed timeless truths.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

“A Land of Great Sinners, a Land of Great Saints”

If you can imagine a young, somewhat effete French aristocrat taking a trip to Russia to observe and perhaps even be instructed by their ways, then you can probably imagine the reaction of a colleague of mine who saw me reading the book.  He commented, “A French aristocrat observing Russians?  The poor man will be bound to say something like,’Oh, I can’t even!'”

Indeed, the Marquis von Custine found himself most unimpressed with the Russians and made that absolutely clear in his memoir of 1839, Empire of the Czar.

I feel for the Marquis.  His father perished in the French Revolution.  His mother survived only through good fortune.  He saw the rise of Napoleon and the attendant uncertainty following his fall.  Scarred by democracy and revolution, he came to Russia in hopes of finding an elixir to the political ills of the west.  Expecting so much, and indeed, too much, the crushing disappointment and disillusionment he expressed should not surprise us.

Obviously one can find much to critique about Russia.  The fact that Custine doesn’t like Russia should not bother the historian.  But Custine’s dislike is visceral and almost hysterical in nature.  Nearly everything disgusts him.  The lay of the land fills his soul with ennui, the architecture of the cities leave him cold.  The expressions of the people leave him perplexed and alienated.   It is not so much that he observes a kind of brutality, but that even the brutality seems lifeless.  He searches for explanations and finds none.  Those he encounters defend the situation by saying something like, “The soul of Russia is not veiled over or explained by any sort of doctrines,” which only enrage him all the more.  Inevitably he returns to his main theme, that Russia has no spontaneity, that all everywhere has a military bearing all the time, that no one ever laughs except on cue, and so on.  He lets himself go a bit and admits for a paragraph or two to admiring the Peterhof palace (pictured below), for example.  But then he inevitably returns to his theme–i.e., “yes it is grand and magnificent, but no one is happy here, one must force every gesture,” and so on.  His main lesson for all French parents boils down to, “If your children complain about France, send them to Russia.  They will return full of love for their native land.”

At roughly the same time as the Marquis went to Russia, Alexis de Tocqueville (another French aristocrat) came to America to observe democracy in action.  Tocqueville created an acknowledged masterpiece, in turn praising, critiquing, and giving deadpan analysis of nascent democratic practice.  Custine’s work strays nowhere near this.  Granted, sometimes he entertains his readers more than Tocqueville did.  His fits of astonishment and disgust provide a kind of comedy.

Though the book has obvious flaws, the Marquis provides something different than most historians.  He offers not analysis but a kind of poetry.  He offers to capture Russia in a painting rather than in prose.  He seeks to provide an interpretation even above seeking an understanding.

I don’t entirely fault him for this.  In fact I think we need more writers like him.  At least Custine dares greatly.

If one is an Orthodox Christian, as I am, one need not absolutely love Russia, but, one must at least come to know the Russians and appreciate them in some way. Their history bears witness to a great wisdom born from a great suffering.  The list of “new martyrs” under Communism is immeasurably long.  Their novelists write with an unmatched power to move the soul, as do their filmmakers.  I think it no coincidence that many of the greatest spiritual witnesses of the last century have been Russians.

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Icon of the “New Martyrs” under Soviet rule.

And yet the blunt brutality witnessed by Custine (not so much in specific acts but in demeanor and habits) shows up often in Russia’s history. The horrors of Stalin had much to do with ideology and the particular leaders in place.  But we must admit too that the gulags, murders, and martyrs could not have happened just anywhere.  I once heard an American Orthodox priest sigh and say, “Ah, Russia, a land of great sinners, a land of great saints,” and he said this with a mixture of admiration, frustration, and bewilderment.  Though he has visited Russia on a few occasions spanning multiple years, he too did not understand.

But, though he did not understand, still, he saw the different sides.  So while I don’t blame Custine for his poetic attempt at understanding, it fails–not because he is negative–but because he blinds himself to Russia’s virtues.  If everyone really existed at the level of misery he describes their civilization would have collapsed some time ago.  And yet, they not only keep going, they have found a way to maintain their identity in the face of several disasters dating back centuries, from the Mongol invasions, to the “Time of Troubles,” through Napoleon, World War II, and the like.  Clearly Russia has something that Custine failed to see.

But–I heartily approve of the nature of his project and the way he attempted to understand Russia.  Historians do their job well when they can hone in on something specific and use it to explain the whole.  They need the flair of an artist.  As one historian comments,

My answer is an hypothesis, and it can take form both simple and complex. Most simply: history was—and still is— becoming elusive as well as ever more uncomfortable. Poets and novelists are people whose vocation it is to see and say as much as possible the whole of things rather than their division into categories; they are sensitive to a wholeness they believe to be really there and really prepotent over appearances even if it can be grasped only by synoptic and symbolic vision attending to minute particulars.

When one tries to specify a little more this elusiveness of history, the same hypothesis takes a more complicated, more problematic, maybe even a more dubious form. This form has to do with the amazing growth of the scientific way of viewing the world, and with the corresponding growth of the technological way of changing the world that went along with it. Most plainly, the poets have never been happy under the reign of Newtonian mechanics and Kantian criticism. Their distrust of, their protests against, the consequences entailed upon life and thought by this physics and this philosophy form a major strand in the movement known as Romanticism, which indeed may not be over yet. For it was the effect of Newton to remove mind from the cosmos except as a passive recording instrument, and the effect of the dominance of Kant’s philosophy to remove from remaining mind any access whatever to ultimate reality. Whereas poetic thought can proceed beyond the minimal affirmation of parlor verse only upon the supposition that the world is equally and simultaneously perceivable as real and as transpicuous, or sacramental, and that no percept is ever divorced entirely from concept.

The best historians will not necessarily need gobs of data.  For some writers, data and not conclusions or interpretation form their main concern.  While obviously saying nothing against facts, historians should know how to find the right part that illumines the whole.

I’ll make my own attempt to sum up all things Russian–the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their religious revival, Putin swimming in icy lakes, and the like, via a story from the Russian Book of the Year for 2012 entitled Everyday Saints, which mainly tells stories about the monks in the one monastery the Soviets could not close.  The author relates an encounter between a group of monks and some drunken hooligans, which I paraphrase here.

The monks walked along a country road and came upon a few louts.  The foolish and loud youths threw mud and insults at them, calling them idlers, fools, black beetles, and other such names.

Still, the monks walked with heads bowed.

Then, “Getting no response, the idiots then took to blaspheming the Son of God and His Most Holy Mother in the foulest and most unnatural of ways.”

They stopped walking.  Their heads came up.

The priest at the head of the line stated, “I am a priest, and so may not answer.  Father Vassily is infirm, and Father Tikhon will look after him.  But Brother Alexander . . . he may answer.”

It turns out that Brother Alexander studied martial for years before entering the monastery.  He let out a ferocious yell and proceed to do some serious damage, easily taking all on at once, and leaving each man bloodied and a few with broken teeth behind him.

After checking to see that no one needed to go the hospital, the monks then continued on their way.

 

Dave

 

 

 

The Mirror Crack’d

Some years ago I saw a video about the emergence of Greek culture and the talking heads discussed the magnificent achievements of Greek drama.  Before talking about the drama itself, they mentioned the origins of drama, though only very briefly.  After all, Greek drama began in the worship of Dionysius, a confusing and strange subject for modern ears. I found it fascinating to watch the speakers deal with this aspect of Greek civilization.  They hated being on unfamiliar territory — unfamiliar not so much intellectually, that is, but emotionally and experientially.

Briefly,

  • Dionysian worship started with women sneaking off illegally, or at least shamefully, for their rites. Dionysius himself occupied, at minimum, the barest fringe of Greek religion.  Some of the commentators latched onto this, for it promised a narrative we could identify with.  “Aha!  A sisterhood of oppressed women, sharing radical beliefs! And observe the vital contribution they made to their society and the world at large, etc.”  But Dionysian rites also involved men, too, so they couldn’t press that narrative too far.
  • The Dionysian rites for women also seemed to involve ecstatic experiences invoking bulls, snakes, wine, and so on. This too got the barest mention, for the “oppressed sisterhood” narrative didn’t really match the fact that Dionysius was a fertility god, and so the women may have been praying and dancing furiously for the chance to have children, a very traditional “role” (ha!) for women to play.
  • To add insult to injury, male Dionysian worship may have invoked blessings to “survive ordeals.”  This got no mention at all.  It appears that these “rebels” danced around madly and got drunk to attempt to fulfill the most prosaic of traditional gender roles of “tough guy,” and “nurturing mother.”  This square peg had no place in their round hole interpretations.

So, after passing over all this in the quickest fashion, finally smiles came to their faces as they talked about the drama itself. Here they felt far more comfortable.  Greek drama “allows for the community to come together and deal with issues of importance,” or something like that.  Ah, yes, the “humanism” of the Greeks.  This we understand, so this they talked about at length.  Gone were any of the religious associations involving Dionysius.  The important thing to us is the emergence of drama, for without the emergence of drama, how could we watch Dumb and Dumber today instantly on Netflix?*  And we very naturally assume that what is important to us must have been of prime importance to the Greeks.  Dionysian worship, then, got relegated to a mere carrying device for what we understand and what we feel is important.  As a friend of mine stated, whenever we use a word to describe an ancient people that they themselves did not use (in this case, the word “humanism”), we will likely reach false conclusions. The talking heads are not unusual. Most of us unfortunately avoid confrontations with the “other.”

I don’t like anything Tennyson wrote (to be fair I’ve read very few of his works), but his poem “The Lady of Shallot” intrigues me in one way.  The Lady in question deals with a curse, and can only look at reflections in a mirror to ascertain reality.  The mirror of course serves as a poor substitute of reality, and later cracks upon her sad and untimely death.

Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson’s work came from the same spiritual place as the dreaded pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings reveal an intense desire to recover something of antiquity.  And yet the grossly over-dramatized version of the past in their eyes reveals far more about themselves, with their aspirations fit perhaps for the teenage soul more than an adult world (hence L.M. Montgomery has her young Anne of Green Gables grow fascinated with the “Lady of Shallot”).

All of us tend to distort reality to fit our own images of it, but the way the Parthenon has been interpreted over time stands as one of the more curious episodes of this typical human folly.  Joan Breton Connelly chronicles this and gives her own interpretation of the architectural masterpiece in her recent book, The Parthenon Enigma.  The building occupies pride of place in the history of western civilization.  Its marble facade inspired those who saw it to grand notions of ideal beauty.  The building’s perfect proportions inspired noble visions of clarity and a sense of true humanity.  Certain technical achievements of the building are practically unparalleled.

But we made the building in our own image, and Connelly writes to set the record straight.  Ever since the Enlightenment we have seen the Parthenon as reflecting the “humanism” of the Athenians.  We have some justification for this.  If you trace the religion of the Athenians one sees a clear descent from Aeschylus (who takes religion seriously) to Thucydides (who didn’t).  The Athenians elected Pericles to multiple terms of their highest office, and he certainly fits the humanist mold. Observers therefore assumed, as the Parthenon was Pericles’ project that it would reflect his values.  Then again, maybe not.

She has two main arguments, with the first drawn from the he Parthenon friezes, long thought to depict contemporary Athenians mingling with the gods.  Connelly has an ironclad argument that Athens instead hearkens to not to its present but its mythological past.  At Athens’ founding it had a king named Erechtheus, who had three daughters that sacrificed themselves that Athens might survive (images below on a Parthenon frieze).  Athens makes an explicit statement, and explicit prayer of hope, that death might come from life with the Parthenon.

Amidst our wondering at the architectural genius of the building and the democratic (and therefore mostly familiar) practices of the Athenians, we forget that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena.  Excavations show that they built the Parthenon on top of an older temple, so clearly the Parthenon was sacred space, and not merely civic space with a civic purpose.

Corinthian_Column_Head_JerashModern eyes miss many such death-life associations in Greece.  For example, look up any article on Corinthian columns and you will likely see something about their fancy, or perhaps excessive, ornamentation.  Certainly Corinthian columns do not fit with Enlightenment sensibilities about classical decorum and proportion — such people always prefer the Ionic column (I prefer the Ionic — to the right — as well so I don’t mean to cast stones).  But Connelly points out that the plants in Corinthian columns hearken back to ancient myths about death and rebirth in their city.  Articles may describe Corinthian columns as “one example of a Greek votive column” (as one site does) without paying any attention at all to the fact that “votive” columns, like votive candles, have a distinctly religious purpose.  It’s almost as if they use the big words to obscure the meaning.  We will have the Greeks be “humanists” by hook or crook.

A fascinating sub-plot is the length Victorian society went to deny that the Parthenon originally was painted.  Evidence after evidence turned up, mostly brushed aside and denied with too much protest.  A painted Parthenon would overturn all of their ideas of classical beauty and classical purity.  Whole artistic theories got erected on an unpainted Parthenon, and they could not let it go.  This in turn clouded their vision in other areas, and allowed false ideas about the Parthenon to persist well into the 20th century.

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Did the Parthenon have no contemporary political meaning?  Perhaps . . . perhaps Pericles wanted to heal the fractious wounds of a prosperous democracy.  Success has never sat well with democracies, and it would make sense that Athens would want to go back to its founding and a story of sacrifice for the common good.  All this rings partially true, but the bulk of the evidence makes the Parthenon an overtly religious shrine — one that seeks life from death.  Plenty of evidence exists that Athenians saw it this way themselves.  For example, during the plague that struck during the Peloponnesian War, sick Athenians came to the Parthenon for refuge, as well as for healing, and possibly, to die.  It would be hard to imagine them doing so if the Parthenon was their equivalent of our Capitol or Washington Monument.

But this interpretation also challenges my own thoughts regarding the Parthenon.  The “humanist” interpretation fit how I tended to see the late 5th century Athenians as essentially worshippers of themselves.  This view gets lots of support from seeing contemporary Athenians mixed with gods on the Parthenon friezes.  With the Parthenon cast in this new light, I think that interpretation gets challenged but not overthrown.  I think other evidence exists for seeing the Athenians as self-worshippers, and perhaps the Parthenon itself still supports that view.  But this will need rethinking on my part.

The lesson of this book is the peril of using history rather than receiving and letting it change you. Self-idolatry is alas, not only confined only to the Greeks, or the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.

Dave

*To be fair, this is actually a pretty good movie . . .

11th/12th Grade: The Nazi State and the Art of Purity

Greetings,

This week we looked at rise of the Nazi’s in Germany during the 1920’s and early 1930’s.

How can we make sense of the rise of the Nazi state?  While countries like Spain, Italy, the Soviet Union, Turkey, and Japan all experienced totalitarian regimes in varying degrees, none had quite the intensity and impact of Nazi Germany (though it would be fair to say that Stalin came close).  What distinguished the Nazi’s from other regimes?  How did a country with one of the richest cultural heritages in the world give themselves over to abject barbarism?

Naturally we think of the Nazi regime as one built on hatred and violence, and there is much truth to this.  But unless we see that the strongest appeal of the Nazi’s for people was their fervent hope, hope for better Germany and a better world, we will miss the fundamental basis of their appeal.

Germany, of course, had only recently been a nation (since 1871), but before that greater ‘Germany’ had often been the stomping grounds of Europe.  When the European powers wanted to fight they often came to the divided German principalities to do so, dating back to the 30 Years War in the early 1600’s.  As a political and national unit, “Germany” lacked the strength to prevent it. The Versailles Treaty made the incredibly foolish blunder of humiliating Germany with its war guilt clauses.  The Nazi’s vowed that they would erase the stain of humiliation the world had inflicted on Germany.   If we can remember what it feels like to be humiliated, we remember too the anger and desperation we felt, and the desire to do nearly anything to rid ourselves of that wretched feeling.  The Nazi’s claimed to be able to do just that.

Richard WagnerHitler was obviously a cruel man, but he also believed that he had ‘high’ taste in art.  Many in the Nazi party leadership, like Hitler himself, were either failed artists, minor poets, or small time authors of some sort or another.  We saw Friday how Hitler was a big fan of opera, especially Wagner.  Hitler himself said that one could not understand Nazism without understanding Wagner’s music.  He filled his operas with romantic visions, grandiose themes and sets, and an idealization of antiquity.  All this moved Hitler, but perhaps Wagner’s deepest appeal lie in his theme of purity and sacrifice, and escaping the bonds of this ‘sordid’ world to achieve perfection, a kind of worship of death.

In Wagner we see a link between fulfillment and extinction.  In his Tristan and Isolde the two take a love potion, which also causes their death.  Wagner’s mistress, Cosima von Bulow, styled their relationship as a “death-in-love.”  Wagner became enamored with King Ludwig of Bavaria, and Ludwig of him.  Ludwig promised Wagner, “Rest assured that I will do everything in my power to make up for what you have suffered.  . . .I will procure for you the peace you desire in order that you may be free to spread the mighty wings of your genius in the pure aether of rapturous art.”  Once again, we see in Wagner not only life imitating art, but the concept of art and purity.  Hitler’s own death recapitulates in some ways the finale of Wagner’s Reinzi, where the hero, betrayed by those he trusted, dies as the city is engulfed in flames.  So too did Hitler die, feeling ‘betrayed’ by his generals, in flames, as Berlin burned around him.

When we think of Nazi rallies, one can see links with Wagner.  Many have commented on the theatrical nature of the rallies, as well as their over-the-top production.  They are spectacles that seek to overwhelm and get people to ‘lose’ themselves in the experience.

For the Nazi’s a great culture needed great art to embody and inspire it.  They had this in the past, in the form of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, and so on.  They believed so strongly in this idea of a “healthy” culture that when the Nazi’s seized power, state doctors and ministers of culture often wore military uniforms.  Both doctors and artists had the charge of bringing ‘health’ back to Germany, be that health racial, moral, or cultural.  Doctors did not serve the individual, they served the “people,” the nation, the “race” as a whole, and this of course had horrible consequences later on.

In their eyes a ‘high’ culture would create a ‘healthy’ people, and a ‘healthy’ people would create an unbeatable army.  This is why they banned ‘mongrelized’ and ‘decadent’ culture like jazz (whose biggest stars tended to be either African-American or Jewish).  The Nazi’s didn’t just dislike the music, they viewed it as a threat to their national well-being.   But the same horrible logic applies to the euthanization of the mentally unfit.  Eventually we know that the ‘protection’ of the German nation meant the ‘protection’ of German blood.  Eradicating that threat meant eradicating the Jews, who had done more than anyone else to ‘pollute’ German blood over the years.  They had ‘infiltrated’ German society to a greater degree, and intermarried more than any other non-German ethnic or religious group.

Hitler, therefore, did not just promise an economic recovery, or to put people back to work.  He promised a kind of spiritual redemption on a national scale, one that primarily would touch the soul of the people.  Not surprisingly, he rose to power at a time when attendance in both Catholic and Protestant church had been in decline.  Spiritual power has always been more potent (for good or ill) than mere political power, and this helps us understand Hitler’s hold on Germany.  We know how great art and music can move us.  But when we ascend to such heights of feeling the possibility of good and evil both increase.  Perhaps this is why a nation with such a rich cultural heritage could fall so far so quickly.

This has been a ‘heavy’ post so if you wish, join me and Looney Tunes in poking fun at Wagner, who certainly deserved it:

8th Grade: The Possible Alexanders

Greetings,

This week we examined the brief and turbulent life of Alexander the Great, a man who has enthralled people for centuries.  No one conquered more people quicker than he.  Of course, his early death immortalized him and helps us tend to see his successes.

I offered the students four different ways of thinking about Alexander, adopted by different historians in different times and places.

  1. Historian J.F.C. Fuller sees in Alexander one the great men of the ancient world.  In him we see statesman, philosopher, and man of action all rolled into one.  He at times sunk to the morals of his time, but often rose above them.
  2. Some see Alexander as the embodiment of a romantic ideal, a young boy out to change the world, an idealist visionary.  A variation of this view would be one that does not see Alexander in primarily moral terms, but views him as a “force of nature.”  We do not call a tornado good or bad, but we cannot help but stand and stare, perhaps even in spite of ourselves.
  3. Some see him as a great military leader, but a failed statesman.  Great generals win battles, but great statesman get men to transform their view of the world.  Regardless of how we view Alexander’s desire to unite East and West, he failed to sell this to his men and his dream collapsed.
  4. Still others, like Victor Davis Hanson, see in Alexander a common thug, a man who lived to kill.  He massacred Thebans and most in Tyre after their defeats.  Like Stalin, most of those close to him ended up dead.  He demanded practices like prostration, and may have believed what his mother told him, that he was the Son of Zeus.  Hanson sees admiration for Alexander as dangerous, a symptom of boredom and our will to escape this boredom through death.

This image of Alexander, though made long after his death, captures something of his madness, focus, brilliance, and lust for conquest:

alex11

alexander2

The battle that defined Alexander’s life and career was Guagemela in 331 B.C.

He had already beaten the Persians decisively twice, but this time Darius III, king of Persia, seemed to have learned his lesson.  He choose a wide open plain for battle, which could maximize his numeric advantage which was probably at least 5-1.  He brought with him chariots, one of the fearsome weapons of the ancient world.  He gave more heavy weaponry to his infantry.

Many of Alexander’s advisors urged him to wait, to go around, or perhaps fight Darius at night.  Alexander would have none of it.  He would not, he argued, “steal his victory.”

How did an army of around 45,000 defeat an army at least 5x its size?

Part of understanding Alexander’s victory is to see that many problems that most generals traditionally worried about Alexander felt he could ignore.  For example, most generals would take troops to protect supplies, but Alexander didn’t mind if the Persians raided his supplies.  If he won the battle, he could march straight to Babylon and have all the supplies he needed.

Alexander also believed that he make up for his lack of numbers by speed.  In fact, he probably hoped that the deficiency in his own numbers might provoke the Persians to over-commit themselves in a certain area, leaving a gap in their lines.  By a lightning quick cavalry thrust from what may have been the best cavalry in the known world at the time, Alexander could cause panic and confusion in the ranks, and once that set in, Persia’s numbers would work against them.  Imagine a horrible accident on the interstate that forces people to turn around and redirect their route.  In that case, this redirection would be much more easily accomplished with fewer numbers.  The large amount of cars, or people in our case at Guagemela, would make for nightmarish confusion.

Here are a couple of depictions of how things went.

It was the gap in the Persians indicated by the map directly above, that gave Alexander the opening he needed.  He plunged through and rode right at Darius, who lost his nerve and fled.

I confess that I am cheating a bit with the image above, because most think that this mosaic depicted Darius’s flight at the Battle of Issus two years earlier.   But accurate or not, Darius fled the scene in both battles, and this, just as much as Alexander’s cavalry charge, cost the Persians the battle.

Guagemela stands for all time as Alexander’s most impressive victory and crowning achievement.  It also may have marked a turning point in his character.  Darker elements always latent in him rose to the surface much more often than before.

Dave

11th/12th Grade: Blitzkrieg and The Worship of Death

Greetings,

This week we began the fighting in World War II, which in many ways simply continued World War I.  It had many of the same combatants on nearly identical sides, but the stakes had increased as weapons got more powerful, and the ability of governments to mobilize their populations got stronger.  We looked at the fall of France, and the idea of blitzkrieg in general.

I believe that many false assumptions exist as to why France collapsed catastrophically in May-June of 1940.  Among them:

  • That France was ‘defeatist’ throughout the 1930’s, so when war came, they laid down and died for Germany.

On the contrary, they spent the 1930’s building up their armed forces, believing a conflict with Germany inevitable.  They had more modern weapons than Germany did, in general.

  • That France wrested strategic control from England, who had more “backbone” than the French.

On the contrary, France throughout the 1930’s pandered to England at their own cost, and adjusted their tactics to protect Belgium, and hence, England itself.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, England had much more to do with the “appeasement” of Hitler than the French.

  • That France was purely defensive minded, and never fought.

Again, not so fast.  They did go on the offensive (mistakenly) in Belgium, and they did suffer some 200,000+ casualties in their six week conflict with Germany.

The Germans shocked them through their swift movement through the Ardennes Forest, a terrible miscalculation by France.  But when the Germans broke out of the Ardennes the English decided to ‘abandon ship.’  In English lore the Dunkirk evacuation was a heroic moment of pluck and glory.  For the French, the English cowardly abandoned them in their hour of greatest need.

Well if these are not the reasons, why then did they collapse so dramatically?  No one in Germany, not even Hitler, believed that they could accomplish what they did so quickly?  We have to dig deeper.

France had the  military tradition in the whole of Europe.  From Charlemagne, to Wiliam the Conqueror, to Joan of Arc and Napoleon, no one could match the French fighting reputation.  In W.W. I they lived up to this reputation.  About 10% of their country suffered untold physical devastation.  French soldiers suffered in greater percentages than any other main combatant, yet still they emerged victorious.

Victorious, yes, but also exhausted.  The idea of France suffering what it did before could not be comprehended.  It must never happen again.  This mindset led to the elevation of the army in the national consciousness.  It became their crown jewel, set apart from the rest of society. “The army will save us.”  One sees this in tangible ways, such as French military HQ’s not even having direct phone lines to government leaders.  “You want to talk, you come to us.”  It manifested itself more directly when the Nazi’s invaded.  After the British left at Dunkirk, Marshal Petain wanted to surrender, at least partly to make sure  he could “preserve the French army,” France’s “my precious” (to channel Tolkien’s Gollum).

Understandably, the French did not want to fight the Germans in France.  So they built the Maginot Line, a vast network of forts along the French-German border.  And, they planned an offensive into Belgium to meet what they assumed would be the focal point of the German assault, just like it was in W.W. I.

But the Germans did not plan their main assault there.  Instead they went through the Ardennes Forest, where France had their weakest troops.

This was not merely bad luck.  The French suffered from what many victors suffer from, a belief that the next war will be like the last.  Their key miscalculation was in the area of tanks. In W.W. I tanks served as support, and not as spearheads.  But thanks to Heinz Guderian, the Germans thought of how to use tanks differently, in mass formation, not spread out like field kitchen units.  The Germans thought differently in part because they had to.  Nothing prevented the French from coming to Guderian’s conclusions, except their own short-sightedness.

We must also consider the nature of blitzkrieg itself, which sought to hit quickly and without mercy or pause. The idea arose from the concept that the Germans knew that they would be outmanned and outgunned in the coming war.  Victory needed to be quick if it was to come at all.  They stunned the French and never let them get their bearings.

Blitzkrieg also seems to fit with the mindset of the Germans, and also the Japanese.  Both sides felt humiliated by other western powers.  Both sides dealt with pent up anger for at least several years before they actually attacked.  ‘Lightning War’ allows you to vent all that anger in one go, so to speak.

But one wonders if the dramatic and complete nature of Germany and Japan’s early conquests did not work against them eventually.  The amount of territory they gobbled up gave them the dilemma of occupation.  How should they pacify their holdings?  They could have made friends and tried to integrate with them (as the Romans or Persians might have done), but Nazi and Japanese racial theories made that a non-starter, with the embarrassing exception of Vichy France.  The only way then to secure peace is to ‘beat-down’ the opponent to such a degree that they could not resist.  But blitzkrieg meant quick pincer thrusts to stun the opponent.  It was not a tactic geared towards controlling territory, but to destroying armies.  But if you want to ‘beat-down’ the opposition, that requires more force, which requires more resources, which might also inspire more resistance in the end.

But I think another issue at stake is the relationship between totalitarian ideologies (present in both Germany and Japan) and its relationship to the individual, something I touch on in this post, if you have interest.  Totalitarian society’s absorb individual identities into something larger, more abstract.  Maybe it’s the “German Race,” or “Japanese Honor,” or “The World Wide Class Revolution,” in the case of communism.  Whatever the cause, the individual subsumes themselves to the group.  Totalitarian movements have real appeal in part because they offer us something outside of ourselves.  After all, what could be a greater form of pride than having oneself be the only reality?

The danger comes when you reach beyond yourself and attach to something that denies and robs you of your individual identity. You graft yourself onto a leech that seeks to erase your uniqueness, your spiritual identity.

Destruction of the spiritual identity of the person is a mere precursor to the destruction of the physical person itself.  In the case of the Nazi’s they certainly did this to Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped, etc.  But some Nazi’s did it to themselves in the end. One sees in Hitler, the S.S., and the Japanese Kamikaze’s (to name a few) a worship of death itself, a will towards destruction.  I don’t want to hang too much on my non-existent ability to play arm-chair psychologist, but I wonder if subconsciously they courted their eventual destruction with their military strategy.  For blitzkrieg was a strategy rooted in anger and desperation.  It could not have long-term success, but gave one the exaltation of a “last stand,” a glorious death.

And this brings us to what may be the real roots of Japanese and German strategy.  Both countries espoused ideologies that looked to a distant past for inspiration, and sought some form of purity.  In other words, both had a strongly romantic strain.  The romantic loves the grand gesture, and as an idealist, does not think about results.  The Japanese looked towards the bygone era of samurai’s, who lived for glory.  The best way to achieve glory was death in battle.  The Nazi, as we discussed a few years ago, had direct inspiration from Wagner, where someone is always dying or something is always burning in the end.  But from this death could come rebirth.

Many 19th century romantic poets had a fascination with death, as did their progeny (think Jim Morrison, for example).  Did the Germans and the Japanese plan a strategy that subconsciously they thought would fail?  Did they seek glorious death instead of victory?

I do not mean to imply that “Romanticism” is bad, any more than idealism is bad.  In literature one only needs to think of C.S. Lewis’ Reepicheep the mouse to see romanticism oriented in positive ways.  But we should consider the possibility that there may be a reason why military strategists shake their heads at German and Japanese strategy in the war.   It did not make much sense, and maybe they did not want it to.

These dilemmas would prove the undoing of both Germany and Japan, and we’ll see how after Easter break.

Finally, thanks to The Toynbee Convector, I stumbled upon this death oriented totalitarian movement, if you are interested.

Many thanks,

Dave

8th Grade: The Parthenon

Greetings,

Recently we spent time looking at the Parthenon in Athens, in my opinion one of the greatest buildings ever constructed.  I think that looking at architecture is one of the best ways to gain insight into the past.  I didn’t come up with this idea, but borrowed it from the man to whom this site pays homage.  As I have said before, a civilization might throw a banking system together haphazardly, but would not do so with a sculpture.  And buildings, more so than individual works of genius, reveal more because they involve the mind and skills of whole civilizations.

Here is what the building probably looked like ca. 435 B.C.

Parthenon Original

They built it atop of their Acropolis, the highest point in the city which served as Athens’ religious epicenter.

Acropolis Recreation

The building as it looks today. . .

Of course most people when first gazing upon the Parthenon usually think, “Yes it’s good, but what’s the big deal?”  We understand instinctively perhaps the influence this style has had on western culture.  Banks, the Supreme Court, and almost any other building that wants to convey wisdom and trust copy this style.  That in itself should clue us in that the Athenians had something special in their design, but we have to look closely to see the real genius of the Athenians.

When we look at tall buildings like skyscrapers on the Washington Monument, at least from certain angles, the buildings do not appear straight.  Built with 90 degree right angles, our eyes fail to perceive the perfectly straight.  I don’t understand the science of why this happens, but we have all experienced it.  Part of it has to do with how our converging line of sight deceives us.  For example. . .

the top line appears longer, but is in fact the same size as the bottom line.  In this second image the middle lines appear bowed, but are perfectly straight.

The Athenians understood this and built the Parthenon to compensate for the tricks our eyes play.  Each column has extremely slight variations throughout its many cylinders, sometimes with fractions of a millimeter the only thing distinguishing one block from another.  But the cumulative effect compensates for our vision and always makes the columns appear perfectly straight.  The following images exaggerate the effect, but give us the basic idea of what the Greeks accomplished:

Parthenon Columns

In fact a close look at the Parthenon reveals few right angles.  Each of the thousands of column drums remains an unique construction to that particular column.  This is not a lego set of interchangeable parts, but each part of the building stands as work of art unto itself.  If you have the time and interest, this video, and especially the last 30 minutes, give a good overview of their techniques in creating this building.

We can and should marvel at its construction, but we should go one step further and ask what the Parthenon means, and whey the Athenians built it as they did.  In class we focused on a few key areas:

  • The Greek Ideal of Perfection

In much of their philosophy and politics, the Greeks searched for the abstract ideal beyond the visible, a trend that would not really shift until Aristotle.  The Romans, for example, or at least the early Republican Romans, rarely idealized people when depicting them,

Cato the Elder

but we can say with only slight exaggeration that the Greeks did nothing but idealize people in their sculpture.

The Athenians went to tremendous lengths to bring make this ideal of perfection at least  seem  real among them in stone.

  • A Theological Statement

In theory, the Athenians built the Parthenon as a temple to Athena.  Originally a huge 35 foot statue of Athena overlaid in gold stood right at the center inside the building.  But architecture rarely lies.  The figures on the outside of the Parthenon tell a different story.  Here the Athenians put sculptures of Athenian heroes, with the clear intent of showing that the gods and men can intermingle, that Athens itself can achieve the perfection the gods embody.

That, at least, is one interpretation.

But another interpretation argues that this “temple” to Athena merely served as a cover for their true (even if subconscious) intent to glorify themselves.  It would be as if we built a church and called it “Trinity Church,” but put images of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc. throughout (this actually begs the question of whether or not American flags should reside in churches, or perhaps whether or not the Capitol building is a church of sorts).

  • Mankind as the Measure

The Greek philosopher Protagoras has received a lot of bad press over the years for his comment that, “Man is the measure of all things,” and deservedly so.  But before we critique him we should understand the context of what he said and ask ourselves if the Greek gods were good “measures” of things.  Clearly, Protagoras and other philosophers had a measure of genuine spiritual insight in rejecting standard Greek religion as a guide for their lives.  The gods lived lives free of consequence, free of any restraint other than the power of other gods.

In the Parthenon the Greeks did not use the “eternal” or “mystical” dimensions as in the pyramids.  Some suggest that the proportions of the building in fact reflect the proportions found in the human body, as represented in Da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” (named after a famous Roman architect).

Vitruvian Man

What exactly the Greeks meant by this phrase, “man is the measure of all things” is not clear to me, at least. It may have been a statement of moral relativism, or it may have been a theological/cosmological assertion that mankind functioned as a “microcosm” of the cosmos itself.  After all, we have physical elements to our being and spiritual elements.   Our higher, “heavenly” aspect (the intellect) guides our “lower,” more earthly parts, and so on.  Again, I’m not sure how to unwrap this phrase, and I’m happy to add it to the list of mysteries surrounding the Parthenon.

Blessings,

Dave

Conversations with Stalin

Some might argue that history constrains us.  Certainly many teenagers keenly feel the question, “Why does it have to be this way?  Why must the world work as it does?”  The dynamism of youth and their imaginations certainly can do wonders for any society.

We may suppose that a world without historical awareness will create a glorious whole new world of possibilities.  But . . . history rather pedantically suggests that the opposite of the case.  Recall the French Revolution, for example.  They remade everything, even their sense of time.  But this confusion and disruption led to terrible tyranny and mass incarceration.  The communist regimes of the 20th century show this same tendency.   Only the most bold would call Soviet-era culture stimulating and full of possibilities.  Their narrowness of vision–a narrowness made possible and even likely by their disrespect to history–created a terrible tyranny.

Many comedians have commented that they no longer wish to perform at many college campuses.  Students in today’s climate seemingly cannot operate with dual levels of reality.  They cannot make distinctions between jokes and real life, assuming a 1-1 correlation of all aspects of reality, a flat world.  Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic wrote that,

Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”

When I attended the convention [The National Association for Campus Activities] in Minneapolis in February, I saw ample evidence of the repressive atmosphere that Rock and Seinfeld described, as well as another, not unrelated factor: the infantilization of the American undergraduate, and this character’s evolving status in the world of higher learning—less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed. To understand this change, it helps to think of college not as an institution of scholarly pursuit but as the all-inclusive resort that it has in recent years become—and then to think of the undergraduate who drops out or transfers as an early checkout. Keeping hold of that kid for all four years has become a central obsession of the higher-ed-industrial complex. How do you do it? In part, by importing enough jesters and bards to keep him from wandering away to someplace more entertaining, taking his Pell grant and his 529 plan and his student loans with him.

But which jesters, which bards? Ones who can handle the challenge. Because when you put all of these forces together—political correctness, coddling, and the need to keep kids at once amused and unoffended (not to mention the absence of a two-drink minimum and its crowd-lubricating effect)—the black-box theater of an obscure liberal-arts college deep in flyover territory may just be the toughest comedy room in the country.

In the same vein, Alex Tabborok recently commented that,

It has been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past.

I thought of this issue reading transcipt trials of two Soviet authors in the late 1960’s, Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky. The authors were not in trouble for any direct attacks against the state or against communist doctrine per se.  Obviously no writer who valued his safety would write in this way.  The problems with their work lay elsewhere.  Among the issues raised:

  • There are no clear good and bad characters in your stories.  How then can the people understand the story (i.e., the story alienates the masses, which is de-facto anti-communist)?
  • Which characters in the story definitively represent the author’s point of view?  In other words, which character speaks for the author, and which characters serve as foils?

This particular attack assumes that 1) The relationship between characters in the story and the author is always strictly linear and 1-1, and 2) This relationship is necessary for clarity in the story, and 3) Without this clarity, how can we judge if you are a threat to the state or not?

Both authors seemed terribly confused by attacks made against them, pleading “not guilty,” an unusual move in trials of this sort.  They tried to explain basic literary theory of story and character, but to no avail.  Their judges simply couldn’t accept this mental construct.  By definition character’s must express a direct relationship to the author.  Character’s who criticize the state must reflect the author’s mind.  The author’s tried to point out that some of these characters fare badly in the story, but the prosecutors shot back that not all who criticized the state “got their just desserts.”   Here is a brief excerpt from Yuli Daniel’s trial, which begins with the prosecutor reading an excerpt from one of Daniel’s stories:

Prosecutor (reading): “I hate them [referring to those in power] so much I have spasms, I scream, I tremble.”   Well, Daniel, what are we to make of this?

Daniel: That is an epigraph to the character’s thoughts (laughter in the courtroom, Daniel looks around nervously).

Prosecutor: Who is that you hate so?  Who do you want to destroy?

Daniel: To whom are you talking?  To me, or to my character, or to someone else?

Prosecutor: Who is your positive hero?  Who expresses your point of view in the story?

Daniel: I have told you, the story has no entirely positive hero and there doesn’t have to be one.

Prosecutor: Who expresses the author’s credo?

Daniel: The characters do express the author’s thoughts, but only in part.  No single character represents the author.  Maybe [my story is] bad literature, but it is literature, and it doesn’t divide everything into black and white.  . . . The indictment states that I express my ideas “through the mouths of my characters.”  That is a naive accusation, to put it mildly.

Neither author had success discussing the nuance of how stories work.  Both received labor camp sentences of 5-7 years.

In his Conversations with Stalin Milovan Djilas tells of his initial fascination with Stalin and the Soviet Union and his subsequent disenchantment in a few short years.  Many other works give many more details about the horror and oppression in Stalinist Russia.  What made Djilas’ account interesting was that he framed his account not so much in terms of how it all went wrong, but how it managed to work at all.  That is, we know Stalin was bad, but if he was so bad, why did Soviet Russia prosper and gain power, at least in certain ways?

He explores this in different ways.  For example, no one questions that the purges in the military during the 1930’s sacrificed thousands to Stalin’s paranoia, but Djilas had met many of the commanders put in place after the purges, and admitted that they were almost all quite adept, fearless, and devoted.  Naturally, Stalin had his entourage that rarely, if ever, challenged him.  As you would expect, one always had to constantly avoid saying the wrong thing by following keenly the bouncing ball of “official” opinion. But unlike most other autocrats throughout history, Stalin did actual work and remained very well informed.  He could incisively size up personalities in the room and control it with ease.

What struck me most of all, however, was this comment of Djilas:

“The world in which the Soviet leaders lived–and that was my world too–was slowly taking on a new appearance: horrible, unceasing struggle on all sides. Everything was stripped bare and reduced to strife which only changed in form and in which only the stronger and more adroit survived.  Full of admiration for Soviet leaders before this, I now succumbed to a heady enthusiasm for the inexhaustible will and awareness that never left them for a moment.  That was a world in which there was no other choice other than victory or death.”

Perhaps unconsciously, Djilas reveals that Maxism has its roots not in economics, politics, or a new conception of proletarian culture, but in a new religious understanding of the world–a naked struggle for will and power.  It is this elemental understanding of things that can give regimes who build on this faith a concentrated vitality, akin to the power of art in certain barbarian civilizations.*  Perhaps Stalin understood this as well, to great and terrible effect.

Today most of us immediately understand the danger’s of the far-right, perhaps because the far-right has a crystal-clear idea of what they want and express it forcefully.  Many on the far-left, on the other hand–quite prevalent on many campuses today–seem to think that their ideas will lead to a bright, sunlit land where everyone loves everyone else (the far-right has no such plan and no such delusion).  But if you can’t take a joke, you will dramatically narrow your world, after which, you will have nothing to fall-back on other than the paganism of power and will.

Dave

*Though I would love to claim this insight about “barbarian art,” it belongs entirely to the inimitable Kenneth Clark.  He argued that the concentrated narrowness of barbarian civilizations can give their art a certain vitality.

11th/12th Grade: Fascist Culture and Architecture

Greetings,

In our look at Germany this week I wanted us to consider why German society and Nazi ideology developed as it did. One area we focused on was the idea of humiliation.  Germany felt humiliated after W.W. I, and many of us understand the anger and desperation that come with humiliation.  The whole tenor of Nazi society seemed to have this desperate edge to it.  We might think, for example, that for the Nazi’s to have the kind of control it did over the populace it must have been a state with police everywhere.  In fact, the Gestapo usually had very few actual people in a given place, but thousands of denunciations to pore over from average Germans kept them quite busy.  Those denounced were usually turned in by neighbors, not “found out” by the Gestapo.  The common theme in these denunciations was that these “enemies of the state” just didn’t seem to fit in.  They were “asocial.”  They had unusual friends or habits.  They posed a threat to the German sense of German unity.

I wonder if this reveals a deep sense of insecurity in the German people, and the need to therefore overcompensate.

For example, let’s imagine that you are a big fan of band X.  You love the band, they changed your life, and so on.  Many share the same feelings, and you form an intense bond with other fans of the band.  If you believed that people who did not share your beliefs about the band needed sent to a concentration camp, we would not declare that you were entirely secure about your beliefs.  Your attitude would more likely reveal that you simply could not tolerate dissent, perhaps because you did not want reminded of the possibility that all you have bet everything on was a lie.  Or it may not even need to be a “lie” — perhaps you would not want reminded that the band should not occupy such a cult-like status in your own head.

We see this sense of intimidating overcompensation in different aspects of Nazi society.

Fascist architecture has this dynamic:

This first image, from Italy, has an almost comic look.  Mussolini tried to revive the glories of ancient Rome.  The arch was one of ancient Rome’s great achievements, so let’s build a tall building of one arch on top of another!  Rather than show the dynamism of fascism, it instead showed only its sterility.

A few German examples below, however, reveal something else.  Everything revolves around size,  intimidation, and a repellant worship of force.

When their soldiers went on parade, they couldn’t just march normally.  The “goose-step” march heightened the intensity, but in fact only made them more robotic and less human.

Hitler’s private residence reflects all of these concepts.  Naturally, it had to be on top of a mountain, and Hitler insisted that his bay window be the largest known bay window in existence.  Here are Allied troops standing in that window well after its destruction: 

Throughout Hitler’s Germany we see this sense of exaggeration and distortion beyond the common.

Unfortunately the fascist style found adherents in other countries, including the U.S.A.,  as this grade school pledge from the late 1930’s make clear:

Thankfully we dropped the the “Bellamy Salute” (as it was known) in early 1942.

In the end what we see in Japan, Italy, the Soviet Union, and even in the U.S. to a lesser extent, is the idea that the state is God.  Idols succeed because they seem to offer a great deal to us.  Money, for example, puts power, security, and pleasure within reach.  After the Industrial Revolution, with its attendant changes in demographics and communication technology, the state had tremendous power to organize any people’s collective potential.  Again, America was not immune as the case “Minersville v. Gobitis” demonstrates, though again, we showed more sanity than others by overturning that ruling a few years later in “West Virginia v. Barnette.”

We should not think that barbarism is a mere relic of the distant past.  The worship of the state is little more than the worship of the tribe by the tribe.  Those that worship the individual do most of their damage to themselves and their immediate circle.  Concentrated idol worship by collectives has the potential to wreak far more havoc.

Next week we begin the actual fighting of World War II.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

Carnival Time

One of my favorite of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries is “The Guru of Go,” about Loyola Marymount University’s run-and-gun style of basketball.  Those who follow college basketball today know that scores routinely end up in the 60’s, but LMU routinely scored in the 90’s and had many games of over 100 points or more.  Their command over their own style of play “forced” other teams to try and keep up.  But . . . even when teams could stick with Loyola Marymount  in the short-term, the fact that they got caught up in the fast pace meant that they played on enemy territory.  Inevitably, the pace would wear down opponents and Loyola would shoot ahead, leaving their opponents wheezing on the bench.

Most every Christian in the west of an orthodox (small “o”) bent acknowledges that the so-called culture war is over and has been for some time.  We lost.  This might surprise someone transported from, say, the 1980’s when it appeared that “victory” was at hand, with the ascendancy of the moral majority and political conservatism firmly entrenched.  Now looking back we see that marshaling coalitions and votes for laws and Supreme Court justices only meant playing on enemy territory.  Rather, the “City of God” cannot arise using the tools of the “City of Man.”  Like Loyola’s opponents, we got enticed into playing a game ill suited to us–a secular game on secular turf.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age will likely prove too deep and dense for me to glean much from.  He writes in a conversational style but with deep concepts and many variations of thought.  One needs a great deal of focus to follow him.  But I felt, perhaps rashly, that the whole of his thesis made sense when he discussed . . .

medieval carnivals.

Medieval carnivals took some different forms in different times and places.  Some days merely involved eating and drinking too much, such as “Fat Tuesday.”  Some had more complexity/absurdity, such as the “Lord of Misrule,” which happened around Christmastide.  In this space of time a sub-deacon or even a peasant might get appointed as chief of festivities, which obviously involved eating and drinking, among other things.   Other such similar days had dukes serve as peasants and peasants occupy manorial houses, and so on.  So in the carnival emblem to the side, all of creation seems reversed, as the hare triumphantly rides the hunting hound.

Most commentators point out that such festivals allowed people to let off steam, especially necessary in a structured and hierarchical society such as medieval Europe.  Even some contemporary clerics acknowledge this role for the carnival.  But this forms only the baseline for understanding the role of the carnival.  The emblem of the hare and hounds attest to something grander at work.

Those committed to Christianity know that it provides a means to understand all of experience, not just life after death.  Much of our Christian life involves holding things in tension.  So we believe that God is one God in three persons, neither favoring the unity or the plurality, but going “straight ahead.”  Jesus is fully God and fully man, “without confusion,” as stated by the Council of Chalcedon.  The Church hymns the Virgin Mary as the “unwedded bride.”  For the Mother of God both terms truly apply, without confusion.  Scripture is the Word of God, written by particular men at particular times, and so on it goes.  Christians rightly recognized the Incarnation as the focal point of human experience, for in the coming of Christ creation gets remade and reborn, as John attests in his Gospel by obviously referencing Genesis 1.  After the Incarnation we live in a new world, but in many ways outwardly it exactly resembles the old world.

In the world B.C.*, people saw childlessness as a curse.  Of course children are a blessing in a physical, natural sense, but at a deeper level we were meant to perpetuate the continuing natural order as a means of bringing about the coming of Messiah.  No children meant no participation in redemption.

In the kingdom to come, however, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage.  Thus, we honor monastics.  At the baseline, we honor them for their sacrifice.  But their vows of poverty and chastity mean that they do not live in ordinary time. Their lives transcend the ordinary needs of the world with its buying, selling, and saving, and also reflects the reality of the new creation wrought by Christ. They live partially in eternal time, which contains all time.  They “neither marry, or are given in marriage,” and of course in the heavenly kingdom no one needs money.**  Monastics may or may not live exemplary lives, but the fact of their “station in life” puts them closer to eternal time than laity and even priests, who must concern themselves with affairs in the world.

In his essay Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper makes that case that the only way to escape the cycle of work is to receive breaks in time from without.  Even vacations, he points out, cannot be “leisure” if we view them strictly as breaks from work.  Modern views of labor probably originated with Marx and his followers, and certainly we should sympathize with the “proletariat,” if we wish to use the term.  But as Pieper wryly remarks, “Proletarianism cannot obviously be overcome by making everyone proletarian.”

Ordinary time may be strictly linear, but not “eternal time.”  Eternal time contains all moments.  We the laity, despite our ordinary and natural station, can still at times participate in eternal time.  Taking the crucifixion as an example, Taylor writes,

Meanwhile the Church, in its liturgical year, remembers and re-enacts what happened . . . [at Christ’s crucifixion].  Which is why this year’s Good Friday can be closer to the Crucifixion than last year’s mid-summer’s day.  And the Crucifixion itself, since Christ’s passion here participates in God’s eternity, is closer to all times than they in secular terms are to each other.

Put in other terms, on this view tracts of secular time were not homogenous and interchangeable.  They were [differentiated] by their placing in relation to higher time.

Medieval carnivals did not participate in sacred time, but they did recognize the duality.  By breaking down the natural order of ordinary time, they testified to the reality of sacred eternity, where a completely new order will forever take hold of the cosmos.  Thus, the breaking down of the order gives it new life, the secular/ordinary order gets reborn freshly after each carnival.  It makes perfect sense that the “Lord of Misrule” would “reign” during Christmastide, for this time on calendar celebrated the breaking in of the eternal into temporal via the Incarnation.  “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while He is with them (Mk. 2:19)?”

Carnivals did not protest against the prevailing order so much as re-affirm it.  Recognizing its temporary and inferior status was the only way it could be reaffirmed, the only way order could perpetuate.

We remember Henry VIII for his many marriages, but it makes perfect sense that an absolutist like Henry would also abolish the days of misrule at Christmastide.  This too accompanies his seizure of monastic lands.  The monastic vocation and the carnival testify to this tension in time, and to the transitory nature of the state.  No statist like Henry likes such things.  Worlds other than those they made frighten and confuse them.

We see too that whatever its intentions, by abolishing liturgies and the church calendar, the Reformation paved the way for secularization.  Bit by bit Protestant denominations moved away from the “sacred time” of the church calendar year. Taylor cites Walter Benjamin’s description of “homogenous and empty time” as the mark of modern consciousness.  “On this view,” Taylor writes, “time [has no meaning in itself] but is like a container, indifferent to what fills it.  Without “eternal liturgics,” and without a sense of time as a gift to mold and shape us, all that is left is for us to fill time with meaning.  And so we have, and created the secular state thereby.

This secular victory is quite empty, however. The homogenization of time makes everything sterile.  Nothing can have real meaning.  Without fasting, our materialistic civilization cannot even feast.  With the homogenization of time comes the homogenization of space–including space for worship.  With no delineation of either time and space, it’s no wonder that, to riff on Milton Friedman, “we’re all secular now.”

We see this view of the homogeneity and plasticity of time permeate our society. Take Fridays for example.  Back in ye olden days Fridays for everyone involved fasting of some kind, for each Friday participated in some way in the Crucifixion–not just in memory, but in reality.  After abandoning the dual sense of time described above we instead oriented time around our work/school week.  Now Friday has taken on the opposite role in our secular liturgy as a day of release, fun, and celebration.  Imagine a family trying to establish something of the older sense of Fridays, and the enormous accompanying societal/liturgical pressure to go out and have fun with friends from work or school facing them square in the face.

“Resistance is futile.”

Of course, this same story has been played out in so many other areas. Without Advent we get Black Friday.  Without Paschaltide we get “Spring Breakers.”

In a recent conversation with Hank Hannegraaf Rod Drehrer recounted his meeting with a group of evangelical pastors near the election.  While Drehrer understood why one might vote for Trump “in sorrow,” as an alternative to Clinton, he admitted an utter incredulity in seeing some pastors positively enthused about Trump.  The response from another evangelical who shared his lament was, “You have to understand, they have no Plan B.  Politics is the only way they can conceive of changing the world.”^

The statism of Henry VIII–and others– has born disastrous fruit.

Many on the more secular left might lament Trump’s election and see it as proof that the “war has yet to be won,” or something like that.  They can relax and break out the cigars.  The war was won long ago, the rest has been mopping-up operations here and there.

I find it hard to tell if Taylor laments or merely describes the shift towards secularism.  He does state that at most all those who hope for a return can do is indulge in nostalgia.  I agree that the tide ran out long ago, but I have more hope.  A proper and effective response will first recognize that turning the battleship will take generations of small faithfulness in our lives and homes.  We should begin with a developing a new sense of time.

Dave

Written (originally in 2018) on the Feast of the Chains of St. Peter, and the Commemoration of St. Paul the Apostle

*The attempt to replace B.C./A.D. with BCE/CE may only be meant as a sop to political correctness or inclusivity.  No doubt people mean well.  But still, the switch is at root an attempt to remake our understanding of time.  Though I lament this shift, it is in many ways long overdue, as we no longer order our lives around the impact of the Incarnation.  It took the French just four years of Revolution to switch their calendar.  It will take us much longer, because we have nothing to replace it with.  We lack the bold audacity of the French, which is a good thing, considering that tens of thousands died in the French Revolution and millions died in the Napoleonic wars.

**Visitors to the monasteries on Mount Athos notice that two different clocks are used in many of the monasteries.  One, the familiar ordinary/secular time, the other clocks measure the now nearly extinct “Byzantine” time (Byzantine clock seen bel0w) to reflect this dual reality.

^So too the French Revolutionaries, which explains the failure of their festivals.  They sought to ape medieval carnivals, but key differences persisted:

  • They were attempting to construct a new order, not deconstruct an existing order.
  • Thus, their festivals had a much more didactic emphasis than medieval carnivals, which
  • Made them much more boring.