Friday, March 31, 2006

Speaking of the dead...

The famous "Chandos Portrait" of the eternal 'Shakespeare'

I'm teaching a course this semester on Renaissance English literature, so I have to deal with Shakespeare, a writer whose work I read a lot back in high school and college but whom I've neglected since then.

I feel a bit intimidated at the prospect of teaching him next week.

To prepare myself, I sat down at my kitchen table, opened my Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume 1, began reading the biographical information on Shakespeare, and found myself stunned by this statement:

Shakespeare himself evidently had no interest in preserving for posterity the sum of his writings. (page 1026)
I hadn't realized this, but the evidence seems to support the assertion, for Shakespeare seems to have made no effort to publish his works.

Mulling this over, I read on and came to the section on Shakespeare's sonnets. According to whoever wrote this section -- either George M. Logan or Stephen Greenblatt, I assume, since they edited material from the 16th century (where Shakespeare has been placed) -- the sequence of sonnets from 18 to 126:
...develops as a dominant motif the transience and destructive power of time, countered only by the force of love and the permanence of poetry. (page 1028)
As an example of this motif and its counterpoint, sonnet 18 says:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Now, I realize that Shakespeare is expressing a convention of poetry in claiming the immortality of his lines ... but I have a hunch, though only a hunch, as to why he didn't attempt to preserve his writings for posterity.

My hunch? Shakespeare wasn't just expressing a poetic convention. He really believed that he had written "eternal lines." Given such a belief, he'd need not expend any effort at preserving them.

They would preserve themselves.

An effort on his part to preserve them would not only be unnecessary, it would imply his lack of faith in the eternal lines.

If I'm correct, then Shakespeare made a sort of Pascalian wager, chose to believe in the eternity of his lines, and therefore left his writings at the mercy of posterity to prove him right that they were eternal.

He would appear to have won that hypothetical bet.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Vampire

Philip Burne-Jones, The Vampire (1897)
(Image from Wikipedia)

As long as I can recall, I've been fascinated by the image of the vampire. I don't really know much about the folklore on vampires although I thought that the word "vampire" had come into English through German but ultimately from the Slavic language family, as Wikipedia reports:
English vampire comes from German Vampir, in turn from early Old Polish *vąper' (where ą is a nasal a, and both p and r' are palatalized), in turn from Old Slavic *oper (with a nasal o) or Old Church Slavonic opiri. It is similar to Serbian verb piriti, "to swell", and to Greek apyros, "not undergone by fire." The Slavic word, like its cognate netopyr' ("bat"), comes from the PIE root for "to fly."
Yet, the Online Etymological Dictionary finds a different, albeit related etymology:
vampire: 1734, from Fr. vampire or Ger. Vampir (1732, in an account of Hungarian vampires), from Hung. vampir, from O.C.S. [Old Church Slavonic] opiri (cf. Serb. vampir, Bulg. vapir, Ukrainian uper), said by Slavic linguist Franc Miklošič to be ult. from Kazan Tatar ubyr "witch."
I'll leave the etymology to the experts. I only bring up vampires now because of yesterday's blog entry on the succubus -- which Wikipedia linked to Lilith, as readers will recall -- for Wikipedia also links the vampire to Lilith, noting that Lilith has been called "the mother of all vampires."

I recall from reading Bram Stoker's Dracula back in the 8th grade that female vampires feed on infants, which I suspect provides one link to Lilith, who was believed to prey upon infants, much as the Mesopotamian lilu did. Also, the etymology for Lilith connects her to the word for night.

Some time back, I posted a very short poem of mine, "Vampire":

Fine frost that laces window panes,
the icy-blooded vampire's veins;
seductive, sensual spoor of death,
its frozen, freezing undead breath;
one cold, controlled, alluring art,
its solitary lover's heart.

I composed this around 1992, just before I met my wife -- who seduced me away from such undead obsessions and brought me into the world of the living.

My interest in the undead is undying, however, as is that of other scholars whose interest is more scholarly than mine, such as Phil Harland, whose blog Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean notes the link between the vampire figure and Satan (at least in Bram Stoker's version), which brings us back around to Lilith.

The image above, The Vampire (1897), by Philip Burne-Jones (son of the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones), reminds me of Henry Fuseli's two nightmare images, at least one of which also has the subtitle "Incubus," the male version of the succubus, as you will recall from yesterday's post, which again returns us to Lilith.

Interestingly, in the above image, Philip Burne-Jones has given his vampire a shadow, whereas some lore about vampires reports that they do not cast shadows.

As for me, I cast my lot with those who say that vampires don't cast shadows. Why? Because vampires don't exist ... although, in the middle of a dark night, even their nonexistence can feel creepy...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Poetry Break: "Succubus"

The image to the right comes to you courtesy of Wikipedia's John Collier Gallery. Collier (1850-1934) was a British artist who painted in the pre-Raphaelite style.

This particular painting is titled Lilith, and it dates from 1892. She appears here with a snake, which -- I'm guessing -- is intended to visually link her to Satan and his temptation of Eve.

The link derives from a Medieval legend that Lilith was the first wife of Adam. According to that legend as recounted in The Alphabet of Ben Sira, an anonymous Jewish text probably dating somewhere between 700 and 1000 A.D., Lilith refused to submit sexually to Adam if this meant lying below, stating: "I will not lie below." She then uttered the Hebrew name of God and flew off into the air, apparently becoming a night demon, as her name implies.

In some Kabbalistic works, Lilith is identified as the mate of Samael, whom readers of Gypsy Scholar have already met.

Possibly deriving from the Ben Sira passage just cited, perhaps due to the sexual element -- but I'm again just guessing -- Lilith has sometimes been associated with the Medieval figure of the succubus, which is etymologically problematic since the term "succubus" comes from the Latin "sub-" + "cubare," meaning "to lie under," which is precisely what Lilith refused to do.

According to Medieval legend, a succubus was a female demon who came to sleeping men during the night to seduce them during their dreams. The Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1487 and purporting to explain all about witchcraft and how to vanquish it, states that the succubus would collect semen from the men whom they seduced and give it to an incubus, who would use it to impregnate sleeping women, producing children susceptible to demonic influence.

No doubt, this is all fascinating, but I'll just stop here and offer my poem, which presents a succubus at work in seduction, though the dream is from the man's perspective -- not me, incidentally, for I've never experienced such a nightmare (thank God).

By the way, if literary descriptions of sexuality bother you, then you'll want to skip this poem.


She slipped, alone, into my room
to moan low sighs upon my ear,
and catch me tangled in her hair,
and lull me in a sensual swoon.

I loved her softer in the night
than subtle hand, with light caress,
could stroke one leg to raise a dress
and brush a moistened inner thigh.

And as a wanton sybarite,
she pressed her body close to mine
and drank my love like warm red wine
as though to drink it fully dry.

Intoxicated with her charms,
I kissed, and kissed, her supple breasts,
till languished in quiescent rest,
I lingered long within her arms.

I composed this poem around 1984, which will set the gears in some minds whirring, but don't read too much into the date or the narrative "I."

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Never have so many been so popular among so few...

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has translated an interview (March 19, 2006) that the reformist Iranian internet daily Rooz conducted with theoretician Hassan Abassi, who heads the Doctrinal Center for National Security, a branch of the Revolutionary Guards.

Concerning the current tension between Iran and the West but particularly between Iran and America, Rooz asked Abassi about the possibility of making minor concessions and using diplomatic methods to improve relations.

Abassi replied:
I've said that you must examine how fair and honest these people [in the American government] are. It is clear that they are neither. How can any country be fair and honest when it has been working for 27 years to destroy the most popular regime in the contemporary history of the world?
The "contemporary history of the world"? Abassi certainly has a deft way with words. The expression seems to point in two directions at once, so Abassi is either very clever or rather dense. If he's clever (and one should never underestimate an adversary), then he reminds me of the salesman who visited my high school trying to sell school rings by informing students, "Now, these are genuine simulated diamonds." The word "contemporary" modifies "history of the world" in the same way that "genuine" modifies "simulated." It contradicts.

I think that Abassi is perfectly aware that he's speaking nonsense, for later in the same interview, he admits that culturally, the West -- and especially America -- has had enormous influence upon Iranian youth:
What attracts our youth today is matters of Western-style human rights and democracy. Everybody views the West as a country preoccupied with attractive philosophical discussions .... Go out to the streets, and see what the young people look like. Everything is imported [from the West]. They choose this [look] blindly, without any thought, and because [the West] bombards [them] with propaganda. Look at the hairstyles, [and at] the pictures and words printed on the clothes. Some of them are official propaganda for the work of Satan. All these are manifestations of the sickness of our society and of the success of the West.
Since Iran's youth make up the bulk of its population, then Abassi can hardly fail to recognize the regime's unpopularity, and the best he can do -- other than engage in doublespeak -- is to point to the role of Satan, whom Islam has traditionally cast in the role of tempter, the one who whispers in believer's ears to allure them with promises of something better...

If 'Satan' ever succeeds in rolling back the Iranian Revolution, then Abassi the theoretician can perhaps seek employment in some university department's position for the study of theory.

Doubtless, he'd find himself in situations like the one caricatured in a New Yorker cartoon some years back: "Oh, you're a terrorist! Thank God, I thought you said you were a theorist!"

Except that Abassi could retort, "Actually, I'm both."

Monday, March 27, 2006

Roger Cohen on Abdul Rahman

Abdul Rahman, holding a Bible during a court hearing in Kabul on March 23, 2006.

Abdul Rahman, as you may know, is a man who has been in the news lately for a 'crime' that he allegedly committed sometime after leaving Afghanistan about 16 years ago.

His 'crime'? Conversion from Islam to Christianity.

There's no doubt that he did convert, for he has admitted it, and you can read a summary of his case on Wikipedia. Click on this link, then scroll down to "Abdul Rahman (convert)," and click again. I'd link directly, but Blogger seems to have problems with the percent signs (%) used in some Wikipedia addresses.

Most of the world accepts that individuals are free to choose their own religion, but according to Islamic law (sharia), leaving Islam for another religion is treason punishable by death.

Now, according to this AP report, "Afghan Court Drops Case Against Christian" (Daniel Cooney), an Afghan court has dropped the case for lack of 'evidence,' which may sound strange since Abdul Rahman has admitted that he has converted to Christianity. Here's the explanation, which also makes clear, despite the article's heading, that the case has not been entirely dropped:
Abdul Wakil Omeri, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, confirmed that the case had been dismissed because of "problems with the prosecutors' evidence."

He said several of Rahman's family members have testified that the 41-year-old has mental problems. "It is the job of the attorney general's office to decide if he is mentally fit to stand trial," he told AP.
This implies that a trial could still take place, and a closer reading of the article reveals that the case has been "returned to the prosecutors for more investigation, but that in the meantime, Rahman ... [will] be released," so the possibility yet remains of Rahman being prosecuted.

Clearly, however, the Afghan government would prefer that this issue go away, and claiming that Rahman suffers from mental incapacity is one way out of this embarassing case, for sharia excludes the mentally unfit from punishment.

But that's just an out, and regardless of what the Afghan court ultimately decides, Abdul Rahman's 'case' is no more over than the now quiescent controversy over the Jylland-Posten cartoons depicting Muhammad.

Roger Cohen, "In Afghan Christian, story of larger conflict" (International Herald Tribune, Saturday-Sunday, March 25-26, 2006, Seoul edition), has put the issue into a useful conceptual framework:
[T]here is an overall conflict and there is a war. The war has been declared by Bush against Islamic extremism, the kind that produced the 9/11 attack. The overall conflict is illustrated in the Rahman case.

Here, over the fate of a Christian Afghan, the values of the West and the values of Islam fight each other. They are violently at odds; no ecumenical circumlocution gets around that.
Cohen distinguishes the war raging between Islamic extremists and their enemies from the conflict present everywhere between Islam and the non-Islamic world. Both the war and the conflict are especially sharp with regard to the West.

Cohen's point -- if I may elaborate -- is that the larger Muslim world is not actively at war with non-Muslims, despite the Islamic division of the world into the realm of Islam and the realm of war. Active war of this sort is limited to extremists like those in Al-Qaida. The Islamic extremists' war, however, can only be understood within the context of the larger Islamic conflict.

The upside is that not every Muslim is a violent Islamist, as most of us already understand; the downside is that there's a big problem anyway, a low-grade conflict that feeds into Islamist extremism, though a lot of people still seem to prefer to ignore this.

This big problem, the conflict, is not simply going to slip quietly into the night.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

A reflection upon childhood stories...

My own children have been reading these stories from my childhood and having their own, disconcerting reactions to them.

As I was putting the two of them to bed a couple of nights ago, nine-year-old Sa-Rah told me, "Daddy, you are very strict with us and tell us not to do dangerous things, but some of those things that you did as a child were more dangerous than anything we've ever done."

"Yes?" I replied, waiting for the rest.

"I wonder," she continued, "where I could find a bullet."

"What?!" I cried, aghast ... until I realized that she was joking.

But I do wonder if these childhood stories, some of them about my bad behavior, might lead my own children to question my right to discipline them for their bad behavior.

Even if a story is told to serve as a bad example, the story itself can prove so interesting that its moral can be missed. Not so long ago, I told my six-year-old En-Uk a story of how I stole two pieces of penny gum, hoping to impress upon him the importance of honesty by showing him the consequences of dishonesty.

In the story that I told, I was only about six myself and staying at my uncle's farm with my brother Tim, who would have been about four at the time. My aunt and uncle had taken us along when they went shopping for groceries, and I noticed some penny gum in a jar on the counter. When nobody was looking, I took two pieces -- one for me, the other for Tim.

In the pickup truck on the way back, I handed Tim one of them and slipped the other one into my mouth. I knew enough to chew mine carefully, but Tim -- not knowing that the gum was stolen and too young to hide things anyway -- chewed his openly.

My Aunt Pauline noticed. "Tim," she asked, "what are you chewing on?"

"Gum," he answered.

"Where did you get gum?" she asked.

"Jeff gave it to me," he replied.

I had stopped chewing mine and was listening in alarm to this interchange as I stared out the window, pretending to be fascinated by the passing scenes of a countryside with which I was totally familiar.

"Jeff," my aunt began, "where did you get the gum?"

At first, I tried to lie, but I've never been good at that, so the whole story quickly came out. When my 12-year-old cousin soon heard about what I had done, she was worried about the state of my soul and told me that I might go to hell for stealing.

"For a piece of gum?" I thought, but said nothing, feeling both annoyed and guilty.

I could have argued theology, I suppose, for I was already protestantized enough from the naturally heathen ethic of childhood to 'know' that reward and punishment in the afterlife depends not upon a balance of good and bad acts but upon one's state of grace ... but I wasn't sure that I stood in that state anyway, so it would have been a moot point.

At any rate, I told the bare bones of this story to En-Uk, the moral being that one will generally get caught in dishonesty, hoping to impress upon him the importance of never stealing and of always telling me the truth, but he was less impressed with either of these ethical points than he was with the details of the story itself. He seemed fascinated that I had been a little boy, that I had stolen gum, that I had tried to lie about it, and that I had gotten in trouble. He kept asking the same questions over and over.

"Daddy," he'd begin, "when you were a little boy, you stole two pieces of gum?"

"Yes, En-Uk," I'd agree.

"And you gave one to your brother?" he'd continue.

"Yes," I'd affirm.

"And your aunt..." he'd start to add.

"En-Uk," I'd cut in, "you already know this story. I've told you a dozen times! Now stop asking!"

"... saw your brother chewing his piece?" he'd go on, unfazed.

And so, it went, for about a week, then stopped. I thought that he had forgotten about it, but after reading the bullet story, En-Uk informed me, "You should write about the time you stole that gum."

"You think so?" I asked.

"Yes," he thought so.

"But that one's kind of boring," I said.

He disagreed. The story was obviously fascinating for him ... as a story. I'm still not sure that he got the moral, though.

Maybe the story doesn't carry the moral very well. A clever kid could retort, "Next time, don't give a piece to your little brother, and you won't get caught!"

As literary critics often say, a good story is ambiguous enough to allow for more than one interpretation, and there's enough truth to that 'clever' kid's reading for me to confess that my own childhood reaction was precisely that.

Yet ... I never again tried to steal any gum, and I think that this was because I felt bad about having disappointed my aunt.

Perhaps the moral of a story is only as good as the teller of the tale, but if that's the case, I'd better stop telling my kids these childhood stories about my mischief, or I'll have no credibility left.

The moral of this 'story'? Don't tell stories...

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Apocatastasis in Milton?

(Image: Hieronymus Bosch, The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden), c. 1504, borrowed from Nicolas Pioch, WebMuseum Paris: Bosch, Hieronymus: The Garden of Earthly Delight)

Does Milton subtly insinuate into Paradise Lost the doctrine of apocatastasis, the teaching that all of mankind (and sometimes fallen angels, too) will be restored to God?

In Book 3, lines 274ff of Paradise Lost, Milton shows God the Father commending the Son for volunteering to take human nature upon himself in his role as messianic redeemer:

O thou in Heav'n and Earth the only peace
Found out for mankind under wrauth, O thou
My sole complacence! well thou know'st how dear,
To me are all my works, nor Man the least
Though last created, that for him I spare
Thee from my bosom and right hand, to save,
By loosing thee a while, the whole Race lost. (PL 3.274-280)

What struck me were the words that God allows the Son absence from heaven "to save ... the whole Race lost."

Taken alone, these words imply that God saves every human being through the Son. Is this Milton's view?

Based on other passages in the poem, I'd have to conclude that Milton does not subscribe to apocatastasis. He presents God as extending salvation to each human being but also has already shown God informing us that some will scorn God's call of conscience:
And I will place within them as a guide
My Umpire Conscience, whom if they will hear,
Light after light well us'd they shall attain,
And to the end persisting, safe arrive.
This my long sufferance and my day of grace
They who neglect and scorn, shall never taste;
But hard be hard'nd, blind be blinded more,
That they may stumble on, and deeper fall;
And none but such from mercy I exclude. (PL 3.194-202)
Some will (freely) "neglect and scorn" God's offer of grace and therefore be excluded from God's mercy.

This would seem to settle the matter: some human beings remain lost.

I therefore conclude that when Milton has God the Father tell the Son that he will allow him absence from heaven in order "to save ... the whole Race lost," Milton intends us to infer that although saving all human beings is God's intention, God's divine will can be thwarted by the free will that he has also granted human beings (cf. PL 3.124).

Milton thus does not go quite so far as William Langland in Piers Plowman 18.408-416.

Friday, March 24, 2006

In which, I purchase the mullberry tree...

Well, Pat asked for this story:
I'm waiting for, "in which I purchase the Mulberry tree..."
I aim to please, so here it is ... but it could just as readily receive the title of caveat emptor, as readers will discover.

This story goes far back into my childhood, so far retro that I hadn't yet discovered money, so the expression "I purchase the mulberry tree" doesn't quite fit. Actually, I traded for it, so we're dealing with a barter economy here.

As a child, I loved the occasional Sugar Daddy, a rectangular, caramel sucker confected by James O. Welch back in 1926 and sold by the James O. Welch Company until 1963, when the business was purchased by the National Biscuit Company, later known as Nabisco Brands. Incidentally, Mr. Welch's older brother Robert H. W. Welch Jr. was one of the founders of the staunchly anticommunist John Birch Society.

No, I didn't know all that at the time. I learned it just now by reading Mr. Welch's NYT obituary and a few other online tidbits. But it shows you that my pre-monetary, barter economy rested upon a much larger, capitalist system that had engendered a candy company with personal links to a radically anticommunist society whose views about an Illuminati Freemason conspiracy at the heart of Marxism bordered on the paranoid.

Is it any wonder, then, that my own first taste of economic activity should leave a bitter taste in my mouth? But I'm getting ahead of my story.

I think that I was about five years old, but I know that I was profoundly enjoying a Sugar Daddy that my grandfather had bought for me. My older brother Pat was with me, and we were standing in our grandparents' front yard just a few steps from where it adjoined Arkansas State Highway 9 ... which is probably more detail than could possibly interest you.

Pat had also been eating some candy, but whatever he'd been enjoying had been quickly consumed, whereas a Sugar Daddy like the one that I was just getting started on could provide half an hour or more of caramel pleasure.

I soon perceived that Pat was enviously eyeing my candy, but in my pre-pecuniary frame of mind, I didn't perceive his own, calculating mind at work, analyzing the statistical probabilities governing his chances of extracting my Sugar Daddy from me.

I should interject here that Pat is something of a genius, so even if I'm exaggerating a bit concerning his skills in calculating, I'm not so far off the mark. He started speaking at six months -- I have this fact from my mother and my uncle -- and I can recall that when I was only about 8 years old, which would make him about 9, he could tell me all about Einstein's theory of relativity.

I don't claim that he deeply understood Einstein, or that he knew the math, but he certainly knew a lot of the qualitative details, for I remember him describing to me how time slows down as an object speeds up, how a man traveling to a distant star at near light speed would return to find his friends and family had aged faster than he, how objects grow larger as they go faster, how light from a stationary object and light from a rushing train travel at exactly the same speed ... those sorts of things.

In short, he was light-years ahead of me.

First, he tried the direct approach: "Jeff, can I have a lick of your Sugar Daddy?"

"No," I replied, without missing a lick.

"I'll trade you my half of the mulberry tree for your Sugar Daddy," he offered.

I did some quick bourgeois calculations of my own, determined that I could delay gratification for the better returns that a fruit tree would provide, and handed him my Sugar Daddy.

Months passed...

Mulberries ripened.

I climbed up into the tree's branches and began plucking the fruits of my investment. My fruits.

Pat soon joined me and also began pulling berries from the tree.

"You can't have any," I informed him.

"Why not?" he asked.

"Because they're mine," I said.

"Why are they yours?" he asked.

"The tree is mine," I explained, wondering why my brilliant brother hadn't made the connection: Jeff's tree = Jeff's berries.

"Why is the tree yours?" he asked.

"Because," I reminded him, "we traded. I gave you my Sugar Daddy, and you gave me your half of the mulberry tree."

Pat, pulling still more mulberries from my tree, not even deigning to glance in my direction, retorted, "A mulberry tree is worth a lot more than a Sugar Daddy."

Which infuriated me. Of course it was worth a lot more. I knew that. That's precisely the reason that I had traded my Sugar Daddy for it.

In my fury, I went to my grandparents to complain, but they weren't very sympathetic. "The mulberry tree belongs to all of us," they pointed out.

I hadn't thought of that. It certainly complicated the economic transaction that Pat and I had enacted, but the fact remained that he had traded away his share in the tree.

Or so I thought.

My grandparents, however, thought very differently. In their view, the tree belonged to the entire family, but not in terms of divisible portions. It belonged indivisibly to the family. We didn't own parts of it; rather, it belonged in its entirety to our family as a whole.

"What about my Sugar Daddy?" I wanted to know.

Nobody took that seriously. No recompense was forthcoming. I gave up. I had experienced my first encounter with collectivist 'economics,' and I didn't much care for it.

As for Pat, even though he had benefitted from this collectivist system, he must also have recognized its shortcomings, for he has gone on to make his career as a banker, where property is divisible and recompense is always forthcoming.

Well, perhaps not always...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

In which, we explode a bullet...

We had an uncle whom we'd never met because he had died at 17 in a pickup truck accident about three years before the eldest of us was born.

His name was Marx Perryman. Actually, his name was "Marks," in honor of a Jewish friend that my grandfather had known when he was in the Arkansas State Legislature back in the 1930s ... if I recall this one correctly (though I may be conflating two stories). But "Marks" ended up named for a different, better-known Jewish fellow because of a spelling error that some official made on the birth certificate.

As a consequence, everyone erroneously assumed that Marx's name was a political statement. But that's a different story.

When a good son dies, some things in a mother's life stop.

Small things with only tenuous, even merely incidental connection to the lost child take on an aura, like sacred relics.

Our grandmother kept on the kitchen windowsill about three or four bullets that Marx had once bought ... perhaps for target practice, for I seem to recall being told that he didn't like hunting.

The bullets were shells for a .22 gauge rifle, as I later discovered ... years later, having somehow lived, and eventually learned. But let's not jump the gun...

Pat and I first noticed the bullets and marveled at them. "What are these?" we asked our grandmother.

"They're bullets," she explained. "They belonged to your Uncle Marx. Don't touch them."

"Why not?" we wondered.

"Because they might explode," she warned. "So, don't touch them or hit them with anything."

"Like with a hammer?" we asked.

"Especially not a hammer," she agreed.

I can't guarantee that the conversation went exactly like that, and Pat might better recall the specific details, but I do recall very clearly that we soon located a hammer and took one of the bullets to the back of our house and placed it carefully on the rock step directly in front of our basement door.

We then discussed who should go first. Again, my memory is unclear. Perhaps Pat, the elder, had that privilege. Whoever went first, the initial hammer blow accomplished nothing. Nor did the second. Then came a series of blows, whether by me or Pat, I don't recall. Again, nothing.

"What a gyp!" we grumbled.

One final attempt: KAPOW!

Dazed by the sound, my ears ringing, I barely heard Pat cry out in pain before he jumped to his feet and ran off.

I'm still not sure what happened because we were so thoroughly scolded that I didn't want to remind anyone. I didn't notice any blood on Pat, so perhaps he was only grazed by the bullet. Or maybe the explosion threw powder into his eyes.

Anyway, we learned our lesson.

Well ... Pat did.

What I learned was that a bullet would make a tremendous loud bang. I just needed another bullet to test a hypothesis that I had concocted based on the evidence gathered from our little experiment.

My hypothesis? That a bullet would also explode if heated.

Unfortunately, grandmother had learned a lesson, too, and had gotten rid of the remaining bullets on the windowsill.

But that wouldn't stop a tenacious, stupid kid ... and I figured that somewhere in the house, there would be other bullets.

Eventually ... I located a couple.

I wondered if I should save them for winter and toss them into our wood stove ... but I considered that their explosion might destroy the stove itself, and while that would be fun, it would probably also get me into a lot of trouble.

So, I secretly threw them both into a pile of autumn leaves that one of my older cousins was burning while several of us were standing around it one fine afternoon.

My hypothesis was correct: KAPOW!

Everybody jumped. "What was that?!" someone cried.


"Bullets!" someone else exclaimed.

Everyone ran. But there were no more explosions, and since no one was sure how the bullets had gotten into the fire, I escaped unscathed.

I attempted no more bullet experiments, but not because I had learned my lesson. I hadn't learned a thing beyond the amoral fact that bullets will explode when struck or heated, but that knowledge had sufficed to satisfy me...

Besides, I had formulated other questions, such as ... will an aerosol can tossed into a fire take off like a rocket?

Answer: It will.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

In which, I do not eat a worm...

One of the great joys of my childhood came from turning over rocks.

Always, something fascinating would appear -- beetles, pillbugs, centipedes, millipedes, snails, and even black widow spiders (uh-oh) or unexpected snakes (yikes!).

The bigger and flatter the rock, the better the findings.

In our backyard, near the southeast corner of our sandstone house and just up a slight incline from the mulberry tree where my brothers and I almost struck oil, there lay a large, flat sandstone rock left over from our home's construction many years before I was born.

That rock seemed providentially shaped and placed to tempt my ready hands, but it proved too large for me to turn over by myself.

I knew that my older brother, Pat, wouldn't help me because he found bugs somewhat less than fascinating ... maybe even repellent.

But I needed an accomplice and found one in my brother Tim, who was two years my junior but always big and strong for his age. He eventually grew so big and powerful and bearded in his late teenage years that everybody called him "animal." At the time that he helped me, though, he was only a cub, so it took our combined muscles to tip the rock over.

And we found treasure. Big, fat, juicy earthworms withdrawing from the unwonted, unwanted light.

We snatched a couple before they could draw back into their holes and raised them high aloft to better view their full glory, our mouths agape in wonder at the long, thick worms dangling just above our heads.

At that instant, Pat rounded the northeast corner of our house and glimpsed the two of us holding worms directly over our wide-open mouths.

"Yuck!" he exclaimed and ran off. Within 30 seconds, grandfather appeared, thunderating that we "Stop eating those worms."

"We're not eating worms," I said. "We're just looking at them."

Pat, however, was certain that he had seen us eating worms, and he firmly maintains that view till this very day.

Grandfather, on the basis of Pat's report, was convinced that we were eating worms. Grandmother, persuaded by grandfather's conviction, concluded that we had been eating worms. Everyone in the family believed that we had been caught eating worms.

Our protests changed no minds: "Can't trust 'worm-eaters'!" everyone seemed to think.

Consequently, the report has entered our family chronicles: "On this day in 1962, the brothers Jeff and Tim ate some worms."

But we didn't.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In which, Hot Dog dies and Rastus goes away...

Most pet stories end on a sad note, and some end in a mystery. This one ends in both.

Dogs ran free where I grew up, and those without street smarts usually didn't live long enough to reproduce because National Highway 62 ran right through our town -- and so did big 18-wheeling scofflaws who figured the lowered speed limit was intended for locals.

Often, they figured right.

Hot Dog, generally street smart and careful, didn't perish under the wheels of a semi-truck. He fell victim to the car of our high school counselor by rushing into the road on his short little legs in a vain attempt to catch up with my youngest brother and his friends.

The counselor felt bad. My brother felt worse. But our cat Rastus took it hardest of all.

All that Rastus knew was that Hot Dog didn't return one day. Or perhaps he smelled Hot Dog underground in the corner of our garden. Maybe he even thought that we had done away with his friend.

That could help explain his subsequent behavior.

Or was he simply mad with grief?

Whatever the cause, Rastus changed from a gentle, trusting cat who would curl up our our laps, or lounge out upon the rocking chair near the stove, to a hissing, suspicious feline that perched atop our refrigerator and scratched at us when we passed by.

That aggressive behavior went on for days, then weeks ... until, one morning, Rastus left the house and never returned.

We called for him and left milk and food ... but to no avail. He was forever gone.

I've often wondered what became of that cat.

Did he, like Hot Dog, fall under the wheel of a car? Or did an eagle pluck him from the ground as sometimes happened? Or did he instead wander off into the woods to die alone in his grief?

Or might he have lived on?

An old woman once told me about a cat of hers that lived to be 28, and I've read somewhere of a cat in China that has lived into its thirties. According to Wikipedia, the oldest known cat lived from 1903 to 1939, reaching the age of 36. Perhaps some few, unknown cats have lived even longer, reaching 40 or more years.

If Rastus be one of these few, then he could be out there somewhere still, almost anywhere by now, prowling the earth, watchful and remembering...

Monday, March 20, 2006

In which, Hot Dog gets the mange...

When we were kids, my youngest brother was given a shorthaired, rust-colored dachshund that he named "Fire Engine" but that the rest of us -- partly from perversity, but mostly from good, common sense -- called "Hot Dog," also thereby staking our claim on him.

He was the best dog that I've ever had and the only one our grandmother would tolerate in the house.

His closest friend was a large black and white cat named "Rastus," which is probably considered politically incorrect (though we didn't know that) but which derives from Greek εραστος (erastos), meaning "beloved" (though we didn't know that either ... alas, we were so ignorant).

Anyway, even though Hot Dog was allowed indoors, he was not allowed on the furniture ... yet, Rastus was, and literally rubbed it in Hot Dog's nose by lying on the rocking chair near the stove and allowing his tail to hang down directly in front of Hot Dog's snout and flick back and forth, back and forth, back and forth -- until humiliation beyond endurance drove Hot Dog to his feet, barking at Rastus.

"Shut up, Hot Dog!" we'd shout, laughing, and he'd hunker down again in his humiliation.

But Hot Dog found opportunity to lie on the rocking chair, too. We knew because when we'd return home and open the door, we'd hear a thump and little feet pattering away and find the rocking chair moving and touch a warm spot on its cushion.

"Hot Dog!" we'd call ... and he'd slink back in, guilt written all over his body. "Bad dog!" we'd inform him, but he already knew that.

One of the worst things that he did was to take up with a mangy old hussey-hound that showed up on our doorstoop and made herself at home. Since we lived across the creek from a cattle-auction barn, where people would often dump their unwanted dogs and cats, this sort of thing happened rather too frequently.

From Hot Dog's dangerous liaison with that mangey mutt, he also caught the mange and, once again, had the guilt written all over his body.

Grandmother had a solution -- literally a solution, a green viscous liquid that she would apply to Hot Dog's skin. The vile stuff worked, whatever it was, but Hot Dog detested it.

And somehow ... he knew from grandmother's tone, no matter how well-disguised, exactly when the treatment was coming.

"Hot Dog!" she'd call. "Come here." But off he'd slink in the opposite direction ... until a stronger command brought him to heel.

Grandmother would then take a brush and rub that green gunk all over Hot Dog's body, including his 'private parts' -- if those parts can be considered 'private' on dogs, but you know what I mean.

The whole time, Hot Dog would be whimpering, and as soon as grandmother had finished, up he would spring, dash to the back yard, drop to the ground, and rub his belly and privates across the lawn in a motion that made him look like an enormous, reddish-brown caterpillar.

Grandmother would be yelling, "Hot Dog! Stop that!"

But he wouldn't stop regardless of the threat, and he looked so ridiculous that we five little boys would laugh and laugh.

Ah, the cruelty of callow youth. Until our turn came.

No, we didn't catch the mange. We got into a mess of chiggers, which are miniscule bloodsuckers hard to get off because of their microscopic proportions and macroscopic numbers, so grandmother had the innovative idea of applying her solution to our problem. She didn't rub it in with a brush, though; she poured a careful capful into our bathwater.

We were splashing and enjoying our bath, laughing, careless and carefree ... until we felt it. Each one of us, and simultaneously. A throbbing, aching, deep-burning sensation in our nether regions. We looked at one another in alarm, understood what Hot Dog had been whimpering about, and turned the faucet on cold, full blast, as each of us tried to occupy that small, narrow space directly under the gushing water that alone could bring relief...

It got rid of our chiggers ... but grandmother never again put that stuff on Hot Dog.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

In which, we strike it rich...

I have been rich beyond your Midas dreams.

When I was about nine years old, my brothers and I struck oil -- not a gusher, but more of a "bubblin' crude." We were playing in our backyard down by the red mulberry, a tree that seemed to bear an extraordinarily rich bounty of mulberries every year, testimony to the richness of its soil.

Which was odd, for Ozark soil is not especially rich.

The folks who settled the Ozarks usually didn't try to establish farms specializing in single crops -- the land was too rough and the soil too thin. Survival required diversification, so everybody had cattle, pigs, and chickens along with a garden growing all sorts of crops and fields growing alfalfa or other hay for their own cattle or for sale to other farmers.

In later years, I worked those hayfields during the hot, humid summers that sweated me thin and burned me brown and handed me a yardstick for measuring the labor of all other work. But that's a different story.

As I was saying, most Ozark soil was poor, but the land around our mulberry tree was richly blessed, and that spring, we came to share its riches.

Poking the ground around its trunk with sticks, we hit a reservoir of thick, oily water that began to bubble up and form a pool. The five of us brothers gathered round, fascinated, wondering ... puzzled ... until we recalled the verse that explained it all:

Come and listen to my story 'bout a man named Jed,
a poor mountaineer, barely kept his fam'ly fed.
Then one day he was shootin' at some food,
and up from the ground come a bubblin' crude,
oil that is, black gold, Texas tea.
"We've struck oil," one of us whispered, in a voice almost reverent.

"Oil," the rest of us echoed. Then louder, with rising excitement, "Oil!"

Frenzy at our unexpected wealth overwhelmed us. Tossing aside our sticks, we scooped the rich mud up and threw it into the air above our heads, screaming "Oil! We've struck oil! We're rich!"

And for a brief moment, we dreamed our little dreams of bicycles flying down long, steep hills, endless mugs of ice cold root beer tasted once at an A&W in Missouri, loose change to drop clinkering loud into the Sunday collection plate...

Till grandmother appeared, "gathering her brows like gathering storm," and yelled "Get out of that!"

Confused at her anger, we paused in our celebration ... "But Grandma, it's oil. We're rich."

"It's not oil!" she retorted. "It's from the septic tank! Get out of that right now!"

Of us five, only the eldest, Pat, knew what "septic" meant, and he instantly left the spot. The rest of us, 'oil' dripping from our hands and from our hair, remained in the still rising pool until grandmother yelled once more in a tone that brooked no disobedience.

And we soon found out what septic meant. It meant stripping completely naked outside and having bucket after bucket of cold water dumped over our heads before being allowed in the house, where a long, cold, soap-scrubbing bath awaited us.

It wasn't exactly punishment, but it might as well have been.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

David Brooks on self-censorship

The server that houses my blog seems to have been having problems yesterday, so anyone trying to access my recent blog entries probably received the same message that I did -- strange words to the effect that one does "not have permission" to view the blog.

That's an odd way for "Blogspot" to inform readers that repair work is being done.

How do I know that repair work was going on? Because I was able to access "Blogger," which houses "Blogspot," and a message there informed me, more accurately, that the server had a faultly 'filer' that was causing difficulties. Since I can now again see my blog, I conclude that the problem has been fixed.

Does this mean that my blogroll will be more stable from now on? It has manifested an irritating tendency to delete links or scramble them.

But you're wondering what any of this has to do with David Brooks or self-censorship.

Only the most tenuous of connections: missing information.

I don't read the New York Times, but I do subscribe to and daily read the International Herald Tribune, and in my exile from blogdom yesterday, I caught up on my mainstream media reading, where I found a fascinating article by David Brooks, "When pundits get it right," IHT (Friday, March 17, 2006, Seoul Edition).

Brooks argues that General Tommy Franks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were in such a hurry to occupy Baghdad and destroy Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard that they missed the early signs indicating that the Fedayeen Saddam, a group selected by Saddam to fight against the American forces and their allies after his fall in 2003, were organizing a guerrilla war of insurgency against the American occupation.

Brooks notes that already in late March 2003, a number of pundits, bloggers, and frontline officers saw what was happening in the territory already occupied by the American forces and were trying to call attention to the incipient stage of a guerrilla war, but so long as the computer icons showed American troops advancing toward Baghdad, Franks and Rumsfeld judged the United States to be winning.

The two of them were seeking a decisive battle that would decide things once and for all, but that's not the way this Iraq War has shaped up.

The significance of the article by Brooks is that it avoids cheap shots against Franks and Rumsfeld in describing their analytical failures in the week of March 24, 2003, and it thereby gives us clearer insight into how those failures occurred:
Debate inside any administration is less sophisticated and realistic than the debate among experts outside. The people inside have access to a bit more information. But they are more likely to self-censor for fear of endangering their careers. Debate inside is much more likely to be warped by the egotism, insecurity, power lust and distracting busyness of people at the top.

That's true in general, and it's true in spades in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon. "Cobra II" ["the definitive account of the war by the New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor"] makes Rumsfeld and Franks each seem like Barry Bonds: a formerly intimidating figure who now just seems pathetic. Those two were contemptuous of the armchair generals and the TV kibitzers. But at the crucial moment in their lives, they got things wrong, and the pundits often got things right.
Noam Scheiber, commenting in the New Republic Online (March 16, 2006) on this same Brooks article, also notes the same insights ("The Plank: That Curious David Brooks Line"):
If someone like [John] Tierney or Maureen Dowd were handling the analysis on this, you'd get a lot of snark about how dumb people who work in government generally are (Tierney) or how dumb people who work in this particular government are (Dowd). (In Dowd's defense, hers would at least be entertaining.) But Brooks offers a much more subtle understanding of what's going on: There are structural obstacles to clear-mindedness present in any administration, and they're exacerbated by the unique brand of pig-headedness this administration's principals bring to the table.
Scheiber puts his finger on precisely the right point, namely, that much of what passes for criticism is mere snarkiness occasionally leavened with humor but lacking insight into the actual workings behind the events.

Brooks, however, writes with a depth of understanding that I -- like Scheiber -- find convincing.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Poetry Break: "Lonely Communion"

Time for another poetry break.

"Break from what?" you ask.

Why, a break from the common, the mundane, the profane, the quotidian world. So ... we break bread:

Lonely Communion

This warm red wine so curled on my tongue,
As if by some remote alchemistry,
Becomes transformed.
I hope that it prefigures change in me.

For if the bitterness I find in wine,
In this one glass I filled so cautiously,
Can dissipate...
Then also can this bitterness in me.

Broke bread, substantially transmuted, yet
Retaining accidental qualities,
I’ll receive, take
Heart, believe this ransomed child not deceived.

And if the grace I have come to expect
Finds me alone as now, so totally
Alone, then mourn
Not -- my pain shall be unmixed with misery.

I wrote this in 1984, the year that I moved to Berkeley from Stanford and became a less-significant other ... just in case anyone's keeping track.

I had been studying in Berkeley's history of science program for four years and had learned a lot of Aristotlian philosophy, enough (finally) to understand something of the Medieval Catholic explanation concerning how the transubstantiation miracle took place.

Now, I'm neither Medieval nor a Catholic -- and certainly no Medieval Catholic (though I seem, of late, to have been transformed into a Medievalist) -- but in the summer of 1984, finding myself alone in Berkeley, house-sitting for strangers off on a jaunt to India, watering their plants and sitting up late with my books and the occasional glass of red wine for company, this poem simply emerged...

I had never before written poetry, not real poetry -- just the occasional assignment in literature class (you know, compose an answer to Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd" in similar verse form, that sort of thing).

Nine months later, in May of 1985, I received a Roselyn Schneider Eisner Prize in Poetry from U.C. Berkeley.

And if time had then stopped there, as though enchanted by a poem, to that moment might I have said, "Verweile doch, du bist so schön."

Time, of course, flowed on but eventually brought an even more beautiful moment seven years later, when I read to a woman whom I had met on a train in Germany my "Lonely Communion" and found her transformed.

Sometimes, there really are miracles...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

"fire is the Devil's only friend'

My nine-year-old daughter is reading Paradise Lost.

Actually, we're reading it together ... slowly, line by painful line, much as it was written, probably, though Milton claimed that it came to him from his heavenly muse, the Holy Spirit, whom Milton conceives as female and whose dictation or inspiration he hopes will make his verse equal to his theme:

If answerable style I can obtaine
Of my Celestial Patroness, who deignes
Her nightly visitation unimplor'd,
And dictates to me slumb'ring, or inspires
Easie my unpremeditated Verse (PL 9.20-24)

Precisely what Milton is claiming here seems deliberately ambiguous. He asks of his Celestial Patroness a style 'answerable' (corresponding) to the high theme that he has chosen for book nine: the fall. But why does he write "or"? Can't he distinguish between whether his muse is dictating the actual words or inspiring his verse in some less literal manner? Either way, he claims that the poem's lines come easy to him. No writer's block for this fellow.

But I was talking about my daughter. Because she's getting her education in a Korean school, I have to spend time each evening teaching her English. Most of what I have her reading is proper to her level, but I'll admit that Milton is wildly inappropriate. I recall her reaction in Book 1, lines 75-81:

O how unlike the place from whence they fell!
There the companions of his fall, o'rewhelm'd
With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns, and weltring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and nam'd
Beelzebub. (PL 1.75-81)

She stumbled at the name "Beelzebub."

"Beezelbub ... Beetlepup ... Peelthebulb..."

"Be-el-ze-bub," I pronounced.

"Be-el-ze-bub," she repeated, then asked, "Who's that?"

"That's the devil's closest companion," I explained.

"What's a companion," she asked.

"Literally," I overexplained, "it means 'the one with whom you share your bread.' In other words, a friend."

That floored her. She looked at me in astonishment, eyebrows raised, and said, "The devil has a friend?"

"Hmmm..." I replied. "Well, they were friends in heaven. I guess they're stuck with each other now, whether they're friends or not."

But it's a very good question that my daughter raised. Does the fallen archangel Satan have any real friends in Paradise Lost? True friendship entails trust, but Milton implies that Satan distrusts his 'companions,' as, for example, at the conclusion of the hellish assembly in Book 2, when Satan announces that he will attempt the dangerous crossing of the chaotic abyss to seek a way out of hell, for Satan tells the other high demons:
... intermit no watch
Against a wakeful Foe, while I abroad
Through all the Coasts of dark destruction seek
Deliverance for us all: this enterprize
None shall partake with me. Thus saying rose
The Monarch, and prevented all reply,
Prudent, least from his resolution rais'd
Others among the chief might offer now
(Certain to be refus'd) what erst they fear'd;
And so refus'd might in opinion stand
His Rivals, winning cheap the high repute
Which he through hazard huge must earn. (PL 2.462-473)
Satan will brook no rivals and so forecloses the possibility of one arising by preventing any reply to his words.

Satan has, through pride and ambition warred "in Heav'n against Heav'ns matchless King" (PL 4.41) and suffers his own legitimation crisis in the contradictions arising through his attempt to set himself up as monarch. Satan may tell his friend Beelzebub:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n. (PL 1.261-263)

But he doesn't intend for Beelzebub to reign, no more than he intends this for their "faithful friends" (PL 1.264). The fallen angels may share the bitter fruits of their rebellion (PL 10.565-566), but they don't share themselves.

That would be imprudent.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"That man's a reprobate!"

My grandparents were New Deal Democrats.

Now, that used to be an entirely respectable thing to be ... or so I thought growing up in the Arkansas Ozarks back in the 50s and 60s, where Roosevelt's policies had brought electricity through the Rural Electrification Administration, which we knew as the REA, home of none other than Willie Wirehand, whom regular readers have already heard about from me.

When I headed off to Baylor University in Texas in the 70s, I met a lot of well-to-do people who thought that Roosevelt had been a communist and who didn't like him at all ... as well as a handful who thought that he hadn't been communist enough.

But my university years are a different story.

Back in the Ozarks, where everybody was Democrat or claimed to be or clammed up, admiration for Roosevelt was taken for granted. My grandfather had been elected to the Arkansas legislature as a New Deal Democrat in the 1930s, for a couple of terms, if I correctly recall what he told me. Nobody in our home county of Fulton had money back then, so he didn't get elected by taking out ads. He got the votes by walking throughout the county to every home on every dirt road in every little Ozark 'hollar' and shaking every single person's hand and remembering every name.

I wish that I knew more about that now, but as a kid, I only knew well the advantage of telling people that I was Henry Perryman's grandson.

"You're Henry Perryman's grandson?"


"Here, have a nickel."

My older brother Pat figured out more quickly than I did that this was a good scheme for getting money to buy candy, but he had more dignity than to beg, so he got me to do it.

"There's an old man we haven't asked yet," he'd whisper, nudging me.

So, I'd walk over and say, "Can I have a nickel?"

"A nickel? What do you want a nickel for?" the old fellow would ask.

"For candy."

Reluctant to part with a precious nickel, even for such a good cause, the old man would peer at me closely and then ask, "Whose little boy are you?"

Time for the magic words.

"I'm Henry Perryman's grandson."'

"You're Henry Perryman's grandson?" the old man would say, his hand already heading for his pocketbook.


And the nickel would appear ... like magic. Until my grandfather heard about this and put a thunderating, God-forbidding stop to it.

But grandfather's powers didn't extend to every man in the county. Raised as a Calvinist even if married to a baptist, grandfather knew that some folks were beyond redemption.

Like our newspaperman.

Grandfather's morning ritual included rising early enough to shave and have breakfast in time to get to the Arkansas Gazette as soon as it landed in the front yard -- or us boys would already have it and be reading the comics page and keeping the whole paper out of his hands until the schoolbus arrived.

On some stormy days, the paper might reach us late, especially if the deliveryman had to wrap each paper in plastic. One of those inclement times, the man showed up so late that we boys had already circumnavigated the mud puddles in our driveway and left for school. When we returned after 3:30, we discovered the pages spread out all over the floor and discolored enough to look like yellow journalism. Grandfather was nowhere to be seen.

"What happened to the newspaper?" I asked my grandmother.

"The deliveryman didn't wrap it in plastic and he threw it right into that big mud puddle," she told me. "Henry brought it in and threw it on the floor, and you know what he said?"

"Uh ..." I ventured, "thunderation?"

"No," Grandmother smiled. "He said, 'That man's a reprobate!'"

"A reprobate?" I echoed. "What's that?"

"Oh ... that's someone who's beyond salvation," she explained.

"Really?" I said, surprised by this new doctrine. "What did you say?"

"I said, 'Now, Henry.'"

"And what did Granpa say?"

"Nothing," she admitted, "but he smiled a little."

Which was gracious of him ... so perhaps that newspaperman managed to escape my grandfather's damnation through my grandmother's mediation -- a theology more Catholic than Calvinist, I reckon.

The Arkansas Gazette, however, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi, founded way back in 1819, ultimately met its demise, whether foreordained or simply not delivered.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Wafa Sultan: Critique of Islam or Islamism?

Although I generally reserve the term "Islamism" as a label for the radical Islam that currently seeks to impose sharia by violence, Wafa Sultan doesn't seem to make this distinction.

Recall her words in response to the question, posed by her Al-Jazeera host, concerning who first introduced the concept of a "clash of civilizations":
"The Muslims are the ones who began using this expression. The Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations. The Prophet of Islam said: 'I was ordered to fight the people until they believe in Allah and His Messenger.' When the Muslims divided the people into Muslims and non-Muslims, and called to fight the others until they believe in what they themselves believe, they started this clash, and began this war. In order to start this war, they must reexamine their Islamic books and curricula, which are full of calls for takfir and fighting the infidels."
Sultan would seem to be putting Muhammad himself into the category of Muslims that I would call Islamist.

Thus, I question the summary of Sultan's message by John M. Broder, "For Muslim Who Says Violence Destroys Islam, Violent Threats," The New York Times (March 11, 2006; photo by J. Emilio Flores):
In the interview ... Dr. Sultan bitterly criticized the Muslim clerics, holy warriors and political leaders who she believes have distorted the teachings of Muhammad and the Koran for 14 centuries.
I will need to find out more about Sultan's views to know for certain what she thinks of Muhammad's teachings and whether or not she thinks that Muslims have distorted them, but Broder's summary leaves one puzzled about how the distortion could have set in so early. Fourteen centuries takes us back to ... about 606 A.D. Muhammad's revelations are thought to have begun in 610 A.D., so the distortion would seem to have set in very early.

I read Sultan as claiming that Muhammad himself taught what Broder has referred to as "distorted ... teachings." One of Sultan's statements provided by Broder would appear to support my reading of her meaning:
"I am questioning every single teaching of our holy book."
At their face value, Sultan's words question the Qur'an itself, not distorted interpretations of it. On this point, I'll just have to wait for further clarifications.

Or read her book.

Yes, she has a book, or will have soon. Broder informs us that Sultan is currently writing a book with the working title of The Escaped Prisoner: When God Is a Monster.

For those who wonder how she came to such a harsh view of Islam, Broder supplies the crucial information:
Dr. Sultan grew up in a large traditional Muslim family in Banias, Syria, a small city on the Mediterranean about a two-hour drive north of Beirut. Her father was a grain trader and a devout Muslim, and she followed the faith's strictures into adulthood.

But, she said, her life changed in 1979 when she was a medical student at the University of Aleppo, in northern Syria. At that time, the radical Muslim Brotherhood was using terrorism to try to undermine the government of President Hafez al-Assad. Gunmen of the Muslim Brotherhood burst into a classroom at the university and killed her professor as she watched, she said.

"They shot hundreds of bullets into him, shouting, 'God is great!' " she said. "At that point, I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point. I had to leave. I had to look for another god."
This act of extreme cruelty alienated Sultan from her religion and has brought her to the point of seeing Islam as permeated by violence.

I suspect that Sultan is not alone.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Wafa Sultan: Clash of Civilizations?

For anyone who hasn't been paying attention to the clash of civilizations lately, you might want to read what Wafa Sultan has to say about this and other things in transcripts posted at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), or click on the links there to hear the original Arabic (with English subtitles).

Here's a passage from an interview with Wafa Sultan that was broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV about three weeks ago, on February 21, 2006:
"The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between ... [rationality and barbarity]. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings. What we see today is not a clash of civilizations. Civilizations do not clash, but compete."
Wafa Sultan's original words here were in Arabic, so I don't know if she's accusing the Muslim world of lacking a genuine civilization or of being stuck in a medieval one. If the former, then she's arguing that there is no clash of civilizations because the Muslim world lacks one. If the latter, then she's arguing that there is no clash of civilizations because the Muslim world shares a common civilization with the West (or all of humanity) but is retrogressive.

Either way, hers is a sharp polemic -- and that's her main intention.

Later in the interview, she implicitly accepts a framing of the issue in terms of the "clash of civilizations." First, the Al-Jazeera host insists on the expression:
"Who came up with the concept of a clash of civilizations? Was it not Samuel Huntington? It was not bin Laden. I would like to discuss this issue, if you don't mind..."
Actually, it wasn't Huntington, though he has used the concept, initially for an essay in Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993) and later in his famous book. The scholar who first used the expression was Bernard Lewis, in his Atlantic Monthly essay, "The Roots of Muslim Rage" (September 1990, Volume 266, No. 3, 47-60), and Huntington explicitly cites him.

Wafa Sultan, at any rate, locates the responsibility for the clash of civilizations rather earlier:
"The Muslims are the ones who began using this expression. The Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations. The Prophet of Islam said: 'I was ordered to fight the people until they believe in Allah and His Messenger.' When the Muslims divided the people into Muslims and non-Muslims, and called to fight the others until they believe in what they themselves believe, they started this clash, and began this war. In order to start this war, they must reexamine their Islamic books and curricula, which are full of calls for takfir and fighting the infidels."
Sultan is thinking of the Muslim distinction between the Dar al-Islam (Realm of Islam) and the Dar al-Harb (Realm of War), which assumes a state of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, but she doesn't use these expressions here because she's tracing the concept back to Muhammad himself, who didn't explicitly use the expressions but whose message contained a similar distinction, as Sultan notes.

For her outspoken words, Sultan has been condemned as a heretic by various Muslim authorities. In a radio interview for Israel National News, however, she says that most of the letters that she receives from Muslims are very supportive of her and that her opinions are not rare among Muslims but that many fear to express themselves openly.

Let's hope that she's right and that her words will galvanize others.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

God Forbid!

My grandfather never uttered a curse word that I ever heard though I'm sure that he must have let some slip out when I wasn't around, for he was too articulate and too much of a wordsmith not to have recognized the proper moment for a well-honed oath. In my presence, however, he used only well-chosen substitutes.

My favorite was "thunderation."

This was a strong minced oath in my grandfather's repertoire, and I don't believe that I've ever heard it outside of the Ozarks -- though I suspect that it's common enough since it occurs in a cheer that we used in my high school to urge our team to victory:

Thunder, thunder, thunderation,
We're the Greyhound delegation,
When we fight with determination,
We create a sensation!

At baskeball games, we'd chant that, getting louder with each line as we stomped our feet on the wooden floor of the stands till the whole gym was vibrating with what sounded almost like actual thunder.

The word has a German cognate, Donnerwetter, which is also used as a minced oath (pronounced "Donnervetter"). The "Donner" part means "thunder" and the "Wetter" part "weather." You've probably heard "Donner" in English, for it occurs in Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (1823) as Santa calls out to his reindeer:

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

This is the one that I learned, but another version reads "Donder":

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

Yet another version has "Dunder," which leads into a debate over the true author of this poem. Clement Clarke Moore (July 15, 1779–July 10, 1863) may have 'borrowed' the poem from Henry Livingston Jr. (1748–1828), according to some evidence that refers to the poem's Dutch connections, which you can read further about at Wikipedia's Visit from St. Nicholas webpage, which also provides useful links. But I'll leave that research up to you.

The earlier Dutch "Dunder," by the way, comes closer our English "thunder," which might have given my grandfather pause ... to think that he was swearing like a Dutchman despite his best intentions!

Besides, when my grandfather really wanted to express his extreme consternation, he'd exclaim "God forbid!" One such time stands vividly in my memory.

Grandfather had just finished crumbling his breakfast cornbread into a big, tall glass of milk to eat it with a spoon, exactly as he did every morning, and was reaching for something when his elbow hit the glass and sent its contents spilling out and flooding over the entire table. Each of us five boys grabbed the plastic tablecloth and pulled up to divert the flow from our laps, grandfather let rip a "God forbid!", and my older brother, Pat, whose French toast was now drenched in soggy cornbread, dryly observed, "It's a little bit late for that."

Which turns out to be good theology, as I've since learned. Even God in his omnipotence cannot alter the past ... though he can change the present for the better. He didn't choose to do so at that moment, though, for Pat's French toast remained utterly soaked in cornbread and milk.

There was no use crying over the spilt milk, however, and after a moment, grandfather chuckled at Pat's wit, all of the tension evaporated (alas, not the milk), the rest of us laughed, and grandmother did God's dirty work for Him, cleaning up the mess and miraculously producing more French toast...

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Walk the Line

My wife and I finally saw that Cash movie last night.

When we walked out at the end, I told her, "If you didn't already know who Johnny Cash was, you still wouldn't know at the end of this film."

Nearly everyone has pointed out that the film downplays Cash's Christianity, and it does, but something else deeply important for Cash is totally ignored.

His Cherokee heritage.

In 1964, Cash produced the album Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian and spoke out for the Indians, perhaps to ensure that they weren't ignored in a time of the movement for civil rights. The authenticity of his conviction comes through in the album, which you'd have to listen to rather than hear me describe it, but here's what Cash says in one of his autobiographies:
"Bitter Tears, in which I was inspired by the Native American songwriter Peter LaFarge, was an intense research project. I dove into primary and secondary sources, immersing myself in the tragic stories of the Cherokee and the Apache, among others, until I was almost as raw as Peter. By the time I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage; I felt every word of these songs, particularly 'Apache Tears' and 'The Ballad of Ira Hayes.' I meant every word, too. I was long past the point of pulling my punches."
I don't have either of Cash's two autobiographies (Man in Black [1975]; Cash: The Autobiography [1998]), so I don't know which of the two was being cited, for this quote comes from Johnny Heering's review of the album at, and it doesn't specify, but if you read the album's liner notes, penned by Los Angeles DJ Hugh Cherry, you get the same sense for what Cash felt.

But even if this part of Cash had been included, and also more about his Christianity, you still wouldn't know who he was. I've listened to his music since I heard it on the radio as a small kid, and I don't know.

But he's fascinating, for me. For my wife, too, whose first words after the film were: "I want to learn the lyrics to all of his songs." She especially liked the prison ones, which just goes to show that Waylon Jennings was right: "ladies love outlaws."

Good thing I'm a little bit outlaw myself...

Friday, March 10, 2006

New horizens ... in closer focus

My previous post contained some misunderstandings, which I need to correct.

From the time that I was hired as an assistant professor at Korea University, I had been told that the university hired foreigners only for nontenure track positions and that after three years, a foreign professor would have to leave.

However, the current university president, Euh Yoon-Dae, wanted to change that policy and open Korea University to foreign professors in the interest of globalizing the university and thereby raising its status as an educational institution. His aim is to make Korea University one of the top 100 universities in the world. Currently, it stands at about 185th on the list.

The policy on foreign professors seems to have been changed, for I learned last night that an American has been hired for a tenure-track position teaching modern American poetry.

In principle, then, there should be no problem in hiring me for longer term, either as a professor on a renewable contract without time limits or as a professor in a tenure-track position.

However, the national legislature has recently passed a law requiring institutions to hire workers permanently if they are contracted to work for more than three years. This is an ill-considered law because institutions will simply not recontract a worker after a third year. This law illustrates yet another law -- the law of unintended consequences.

One of the consequences in my case is that Korea University cannot renew my contract for a longer period without making my position permanent. In other words, I would have to be given a tenured position.

That sounds okay to me.

However, according to university policy, the department cannot hire someone for a tenure-track position unless two conditions are met:
1) the position is advertised and open to all qualified applicants

2) the applicant is not currently employed by Korea University
I, of course, am currently employed by Korea University.

Thus, the new national law and Korea University policy on tenure join in a way that forces the department to let me go at the end of this academic year, when my current contract ends. That will be at the end of February 2007.

I am told that six months after that, the department could rehire me on a contract basis but that I would not hold the position of assistant professor and I would not be able to teach the same courses on Medieval English literature. I presume that this is a consequence of the national law, intended to prevent institutions from firing and rehiring several months later for the same position.

I also presume that after six months, I could apply for a tenure-track position in Medieval English literature if one were offered, but I am not certain about this possibility.

Obviously, a lot has yet to be clarified, and I'll update all accidental readers on this momentous if boring complication to my career.

Meanwhile, I am the "Image of Perplexity" ... precisely like the puzzled man above, whose visage is borrowed from the University of Rochester's Philosophy Department and who is asking himself, "What is real? What can I know? How should I live my life?"

Thursday, March 09, 2006

New horizons...

Here in Korea, the new academic year has begun.

New beginnings ever turn my mind to their inevitable end. I guess that I'm just morbid ... but this time, I have sounder reasons for already allowing my thoughts to dwell upon this academic year's end.

Korea University apparently has a policy, formulated in a rule, stating that a foreign professor can renew a teaching contract no more than three times.

This being my third time, I guess that I'd better start looking for a new position.

I'd prefer to stay here at Korea University because the students are generally good, and the faculty includes some excellent scholars. Moreover, the university organizes a number of very interesting extracurricular programs every year, such as last year's Nobel Laureate Lecture Series. Long-time readers will recall that I attended every single lecture in that series and posted enthusiastic reports here.

But all good things must end, and the Gypsy begins to gaze toward new horizons...