Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"I don't want no part of this crazy love..."

Allegory of Love:
Dulcinea del Toboso as North Korea and Don Quixote as America
(Image from Wikipedia)

Concerning yesterday's post on North Korea's putative desire for a long-term relationship with the United States, one of my regular readers, Conservative in Virginia, made a humorous analogy:

I think the article makes North Korea sound like a bad movie with the woman demanding that the man know what she is thinking, even when she says something else.

NK: I hate you. (Meaning, I love you.)

USA: OK. Whatever.

NK: You don't understand me! Let's talk about our relationship.

USA: Um, er, SK, China, Russia, and Japan are stopping by for a beer.

NK: I want to be alone! (A nuke will get your attention.)

USA: I'll never understand women.

Yes, sigh, what do women really want? Not even Freud hazarded a guess on that one -- though he thought that men desired love and work (perhaps not in that order).

Don Quixote, however, knew exactly what women want. They want us men to be even crazier than they are. Here's the Don putting this great insight into practice when Sancho Panza objects that Quixote has no reason for acting insanely jealous, for there is no evidence that the beloved "lady Dulcinea del Toboso has been trifling with Moor or Christian" in any romantic manner:

"There is the point," replied Don Quixote, "and that is the beauty of this business of mine; no thanks to a knight-errant for going mad when he has cause; the thing is to turn crazy without any provocation, and let my lady know, if I do this in the dry, what I would do in the moist..."

Following Don Quixote's magnificent example, the U.S. can solve all its problems with North Korea by acting crazy beyond cause, thereby convincing the North that America really does care -- along with the added benefit of an implicit message suggesting that if Lady N.K. really does trifle with a 'Moor' (like providing nuclear technology to Iran), then the crazy knight-errant Don Amerigo will go really crazy!

Now to put this foreign policy insight into practice...

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

North Korea doesn't want (just) peace?

Pointing Right to the Future as Early as 1991?
(Image from Wikipedia)

In a recent Washington Post article, Robert Carlin and John W. Lewis explain "What North Korea Really Wants" (Saturday, January 27, 2007, Page A19).

According to the Post, Robert Carlin is "a former State Department analyst" who "participated in most of the U.S.-North Korea negotiations between 1993 and 2000," and John Lewis is a "professor emeritus at Stanford University" who "directs projects on Asia at the university's Center for International Security and Cooperation." Both men, we are told, "have visited North Korea many times, most recently in November."

The have a rather surprising message for us:

What is it, then, that North Korea wants? Above all, it wants, and has pursued steadily since 1991, a long-term, strategic relationship with the United States. This has nothing to do with ideology or political philosophy. It is a cold, hard calculation based on history and the realities of geopolitics as perceived in Pyongyang. The North Koreans believe in their gut that they must buffer the heavy influence their neighbors already have, or could soon gain, over their small, weak country.

If this is true, then North Korea perhaps has a more clearsighted understanding of its national interests than South Korea does. But is it true? Carlin and Lewis admit that their interpretation of the North's ulterior motives... hard for Americans to understand, having read or heard nothing from North Korea except its propaganda, which for years seems to have called for weakening, not maintaining, the U.S. presence on the Korean Peninsula. But in fact an American departure is the last thing the North wants. Because of their pride and fear of appearing weak, however, explicitly requesting that the United States stay is one of the most difficult things for the North Koreans to do.

Let's assume, for the moment, that the North truly does desire a long-term, strategic relationship with the U.S. and that it really does want a U.S. presence to remain on the peninsula. Which countries, then, does North Korea really worry about? Carlin and Lewis point to the six-party talks on the North's nuclear policy to illustrate the North's thinking:

The fundamental problem for North Korea is that the six-party talks in which it has been engaged -- and which may reconvene soon -- are a microcosm of the strategic world it most fears. Three strategic foes -- China, Japan and Russia -- sit in judgment, apply pressure and (to Pyongyang's mind) insist on the North's permanent weakness.

Historically, the Korean peninsula has had to worry about these three regional powers, so the geopolitical logic is, in principle, persuasive. What, specifically, do the North Koreans have to offer the U.S. in return?

Quite simply, the North Koreans believe they could be useful to the United States in a longer, larger balance-of-power game against China and Japan.

This sounds rather odd to me. Surely, the North Koreans would realize that the U.S. has a strategic alliance with Japan and would thus have little interest in a balance-of-power game against Japan. Is this a typo for "balance-of-power game between China and Japan"? If Carlin and Lewis had argued that the North believes that having a strategic alliance with the U.S. could be useful in a balance-of-power game against China and Russia, then the North's putative, implicit offer would make a bit more geopolitical sense. This doesn't mean that Carlin and Lewis are wrong in their analysis, of course, for the North may really think in this way, but this would mean that the North doesn't understand American concerns in Northeast Asia.

But even if North Korea's peninsular concerns dovetailed with America's, would a strategic alliance be in America's interests? Well, maybe, if the alliance could be used to gradually transform the North's political and economic system in order to prepare the North for eventual reunification with the South.

But why would the North go along with this, since -- according to Carlin and Lewis -- what the North wants is an American...

...commitment to coexist with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, accept its system and leadership, and make room for the DPRK in an American vision of the future of Northeast Asia.
Any American acceptance of these things would have to remain merely provisional, certainly not long-term. The North's "system" is so contrary to the principles of the free market, political democracy, and human rights that no permanent American acceptance would be possible.

Surely, the North Koreans would realize this, so why would they imagine "a long-term, strategic relationship with the United States" to be possible?

Carlin and Lewis do not address this central conflict of interest, which rather weakens their analysis ... in my opinion.

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Library of Babel and a babbling librarian?

Image of St. John
Cod. Sang. 51, Page 208
Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen / Codices Electronici Sangallenses
Irish Gospel-Book of St. Gallen (Quatuor evangelia)
The Irish Gospel Book of St. Gallen
Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Illustrated with 12 Decorated Pages
Written and Illuminated by Irish Monks around 750 in Ireland

The internet is rapidly expanding to become one enormous, complex library, perhaps not the infinite, orderly library described by Borges in The Library of Babel but an unbounded, searchable one.

Just this morning, I discovered that the Abbey of St. Gall has been putting its library online in the form of facsimiles, which means that Medieval scholars need not travel all the way to St. Gallen, Switzerland to study the abbey's Medieval manuscripts, those exemplars of Medieval literary culture.

Of course, for those who prefer modern, oral culture, go here, select "English (UK)" and "Audrey," plug in these words (or some string of your own), and listen:

This Tree is not as we are told, a Tree Of danger tasted, nor to evil unknown Op'ning the way, but of Divine effect To open Eyes, and make them Gods who taste;

The words are from John Milton's Paradise Lost 9.862-866, but you can select any text that you like, so long as it's brief.

Hat Tip to Ambivablog.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Oh, to be an Oblomov...

Oblomov in Paradise
Cover to 1858 Russian Edition of Oblomov
(Image from Wikipedia)

At university, I discovered the dark pleasures of Russian literature and read everything that I could find in English translation because I didn't know Russian and had no gift for learning languages.

Perhaps I was searching for that deep Russian soul that the slavophiles attributed to Mother Russia and contrasted with the shallow spirit of the West, an exportable trope that turns up everywhere -- in the Germanic critique of French Enlightenment, the European attitude toward American culture, or even the Islamist attack on the World Trade Center -- everywhere a putative depth against an accused surface.

Would that purveyors of such critical views had remained as Oblomovist as the eponymous, indolent antihero of Ivan Goncharov's novel Oblomov. If Mohammad Atta, for instance, had lived on as a superfluous man, then might he have already enjoyed an earthly paradise of the sort that Oblomov suggests to his friend Stoltz?

"Isn't everybody looking for the same thing as me? ... Surely the purpose of all this hustle and bustle of yours, all these passions, wars, trade and politics is to achieve precisely this very peace and quiet, to strive for this ideal of paradise lost?"[1]

Oblomov is right but wrong, for we're all caught up with the angel of history, blown from a vaguely remembered but long-lost paradise, the storm from its garden leaving no one sheltered:

A Klee drawing named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[2]
Even the indolence of Oblomov could never withstand this hurricane force, which only increases in its destructive ferocity.

[1] Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov, newly translated by Stephen Pearl; quoted in Joseph Frank, "Being and Laziness," The New Republic Online (January 29, 2007).

[2] Walter Benjamin, "Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History," reprinted in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (Schocken, 1969), pages 257-258.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Deogolwulf's "Fewtrils"

Deogolwulf at Work on a Fewtril
(Undated image from Wikipedia)

I've recently 'discovered' the intellectually thrilling "fewtrils" of Deogolwulf, who blogs in his secretively wolflike manner at The Joy of Curmudgeonry. How I missed their appearance lies beyond my ken; within my ken lies how much I'd miss by their disappearance. Take, for instance, the recent Fewtril #156:

"That charity must be made into entertainment, demonstrates just how deeply people care for entertainment."
I think that this is the first one that I read. The close and knowing reader will instantly see that this is British English. But let that comma be. It offers an idiosyncratic British division between subject and predicate that makes the aphorism yet more memorable. Let me try a spinoff, a Fewtril #156*:
"That truth must be put into aphorism, demonstrates just how greatly intellectuals prefer the aphoristic."
So much for my attempt. But what is a "fewtril"? Deogolwulf tells us:
"Fewtrils" is a word from Lancashire meaning trifles or things of little value. In the dictionaries, it always appears as a plural noun, but I have taken the liberty of using it in the singular.

Michael Gilleland, of Laudator Temporis Acti (borrowing from a certain "Steve" at Languagehat, who cites the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]), quotes this:

fewtrils, n. pl. dial. Little things, trifles. Cf. FATTRELS. c1750 J. COLLIER (Tim Bobbin) Lanc. Dial. Gloss., Fewtrils, little things. 1854 DICKENS Hard T. I. xi, 'I ha' gotten decent fewtrils about me agen.' 1857 J. SCHOLES Jaunt to see Queen 28 (Lanc. Gloss.) Peg had hur hoppet ov hur arm wi her odd fewtrils.

fattrels, n. pl. Sc. [ad. F. fatraille 'trash, trumpery, things of no value' (Cotgr.).] Ribbon-ends. 1786 BURNS To a Louse 20 Now haud you there, ye're out o' sight, Below the fatt'rils, snug and tight. 1788 E. PICKEN Poems Gloss. 231 Fattrels, ribbon-ends, &c.

So ... the word "fewtrils" appears in Dickens Hard Times? Perhaps that explains why it didn't seem entirely unfamiliar. The citation in the OED comes from a conversation between Josiah Bounderby and Stephen Blackpool in which Blackpool describes his unhappy marriage, one so unhappy that he pays his wife to stay away:

'I ha' paid her to keep awa' fra' me. These five year I ha' paid her. I ha' gotten decent fewtrils about me agen. I ha' lived hard and sad, but not ashamed and fearfo' a' the minnits o' my life. Last night, I went home. There she lay upon my har-stone! There she is!'
Blackpool seems to be using the word "fewtrils" in an understated way of saying that he had managed to make his life better, if perhaps only marginally so. Deogolwolf uses the word in a similarly understated manner, for his fewtrils are of decidedly more than "little value" -- certainly more than few, or even a few, intellectual thrills.

Though they are that, as well.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Julie Choi: "Women of Character and the Domestication of Virtue"

From Men's Virtú to Woman's Virtue
(Image from Wikipedia)

I recently helped edit an issue of the journal Feminist Studies in English Literature (Volume 14, Number 2, Winter 2006) put out by The Korean Association for Feminist Studies in English Literature.

I had to read every line of every article very carefully, proofreading on every level -- from the mechanics of punctuation to logic of coherence -- and I learned a lot from writings that, on the whole, were of high scholarly quality.

The article "Women of Character and the Domestication of Virtue: Clarissa and the Blues," by Julie Choi (Ewha Womans University), cites Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity, to note a very interesting development in modern thinking about the distinction between public and private:

[The] conception of truly private property was to create a different model of the division between public and private than in the Greek idea of the polis vs. oikos or the Roman res publica. In the ancient sense, the notion of "private" had to do with privation, a realm of "things pertaining to the obscure material necessities of the household -- to women, children, and slaves -- a realm of under-theorized social practice that was properly hidden from public view"[1]. The modern notion of private was to take on a new dimension. The modern "private" confuses because it contains both our common ideas of public as in public sphere, which encompasses political economy (an extended notion of oikos), as well as the new more meagerly defined domestic sphere, which is the household separated from its economic role. (pages 6-7)
This block quote from Choi makes McKeon's book sound rather interesting, for I've long been vaguely puzzled about our modern conception of the private, though without knowing that the concept was largely a modern one. It had struck me as odd that "private" can refer to the realm of the home, in contrast to the public, business world, but also to the economic realm of that very public business world, which presupposes "private" property. Choi's use of McKeon implies that "private" with reference to the realm of the home is a concept that goes back to antiquity, whereas "private" with reference to the realm of business is a modern development.

I wonder if this is entirely the case, however, for the ancient household would often include a family-owned-and-run business to provide for those "obscure material necessities of the household," and 'employed' in this 'private' realm were the family's "women, children, and slaves." There was, even in antiquity, a public aspect to this, for the products of that 'private' sphere ended up in the 'public' market.

I know these things because I've had to teach about them in my Western Civilization courses at Korea University ... which, of course, I won't be teaching anymore ... sigh.

Anyway, Choi's article is interesting, and not only for its engagement with the issue of public/private but also for some of its remarks about the blind spots of modern feminism:
The importance of female religiosity, especially in the form of Evangelicalism, deserves greater attention for a fuller understanding of early feminism. Too many recent feminists have embarrassedly averted their eyes from the "unenlightened" enthusiasm of one such as Pamela[2] who could claim that her soul was as worthy as that of a princess because she was a faithful daughter of God. Such religious fervor contributed not only to greater class confidence, but gender confidence as evinced in the figure of Clarissa[3]. (page 15)
Of course, one might rehabilitate this sort of feminism for merely instrumental reasons, but Choi offers respect to the early religious feminists, whether of the real-life Bluestocking[4] ones or the fictional ones that appear in the works of Samuel Richardson:
It is the argument of this paper that the mid-century "rise" of the female initiated by Samuel Richardson's fictional heroines Pamela and Clarissa and his Bluestocking friends was not merely about refinement of male passions into softness and civility but rather a co-opting of the public values upheld by a more ancient civic humanism that sublated the citizen's virtú into the domestic woman's Virtue. In a curious paradox, the domestic, closeted off from the market place of political economy -- the new "private" sphere -- was to subsume values that were once reserved for the male, martial landowner, incorruptible because disinterested in "private" matters. (page 8)

A curious paradox indeed, and a new twist on the late 60s feminist adage, popularized by Carol Hanisch, that "The Personal is Political" -- if we take this to mean that the private is public.

Anyway, Choi's article whets my appetite for more reading along these lines ... but I'll probably never find the time. For those of you, however, with more time in your private lives, if this sort of thing interests you, then get a copy of Choi's article, go to McKeon's book, or return to the original, 18th-century novels that brought these things to life.

[1] From page 179 of Michael McKeon's The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2005).

[2] The main character from Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson.

[3] The main character from Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady, by Samuel Richardson.

[4] "The term 'Bluestocking' refers to a discretion and modesty in consumption, blue worsted stockings serving as contrast to luxurious silk stockings worn by the devotees of extravagant style and consumption" (page 15).

UPDATE: For some peculiar reason, this entry posted on Thursday, January 25, 2007. In fact, I posted it on Friday, January 26, 2007. I have no idea why it posted on the wrong date. Odd. I post at least once per day, without fail, so I hereby inform all readers that this entry was actually posted on Friday, January 26, 2007. This has been a public-service announcement by Gypsy Scholar.

Sheen Seong-Ho: "Strong ROK-U.S. ties will lead N.K. to heed Seoul advice"

(Image from GSIS)

Professor Sheen Seong-Ho (신성호, 辛星昊), expert in international security and U.S. foreign policy at Seoul National University's Graduate School of International Studies, has written an interesting article, "Strong ROK-U.S. ties will lead N.K. to heed Seoul advice," for yesterday's Korea Herald (2007.01.24).

In maintaining that the Roh policy toward North Korea has failed because it is based on the false assumption that the North is willing to deal separately and openly with South Korea, Sheen suggests that this policy presupposes the North's good will toward the South and the South's ability to independently influence the North, neither of which is true.

As for assuming the North's good will, Sheen points to the North's nuclear weapons program as counterevidence:

Some say that North Korea's nuclear development is for deterrence, implying that it does not present an immediate threat to South Korea's national security.

The argument is simply wrong.

A nuclear deterrence requires a second strike capability against the opponent. For North Korea to have a nuclear deterrence against the United States, it should have at least hundreds, if not thousands, of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Despite its nuclear test, North Korea hardly has a first, let alone a second, strike capability against the United States. It means that the United States actually can attack North Korea with conventional or nuclear weapons should it decided (sic) to do so. The only thing that deters the United States from doing it is a concern of tremendous damage to South Korea. South Korea has literally become hostage to North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship.
Critical here is American good will toward South Korea, which remains unrecognized by too many South Koreans of the 386 generation (born in 1960s, protested as students in 1980s, came to power in their 30s).

As for the South's ability to independently influence the North, Sheen argues that the 386 generation's failure to recognize American good will has led these current leaders to weaken South Korea's relations with the United States in favor of closer relations with North Korea, which has left the South with a weaker hand for negotiating with the North. Sheen advises the Roh administration to rebuild its alliance with the U.S.:
South Korea should take the strategy of using the Americans to get at North Korea .... Since North Korea is mostly concerned with the U.S. position, Seoul's leverage on Pyongyang comes from close cooperation, not from conflict, with Washington. The more trust Seoul gets from Washington, the more room it has to mediate negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.

It was Britain's status as the closest ally to the United States that made it possible to broker a nuclear settlement between Washington and the Libyan President Quadafi in 2003.

The South Korean government has been skeptical of pressing North Korea in fear of war on the peninsula. Yet, it is incorrect to imply that more forceful sanctions against Pyongyang would cause a war on the Korean Peninsula. Chairman Kim Jong-il's first priority is his own regime's survival and a military attack on the ROK-U.S. alliance would surely mean the end of his regime. It is hard to imagine that Kim could initiate a military provocation simply because of ROK-U.S. pressure.

Sheen's reasoning holds no surprises for those of us skeptical of the North's good will toward the South, but he states his views clearly and argues forcefully.

Sheen also notes an interesting point made by retired security advisor Lim Dong-won about the Roh administration's "Sunshine Policy," which it inherited from the previous, Kim Dae-jung administration:

[F]ormer national security adviser and the very architect of the sunshine policy under the Kim Dae-jung administration, Lim Dong-won, criticized the Roh administration for its mishandling of the North Korean nuclear issue. He argued that the nuclear issue can be solved only by the United States and that no one can replace the central role of the United States.

Interesting, if somewhat at odds with some of Kim Dae-jung's recent political pronouncements implying American responsibility for the North's nuclear program.

My own view on South Korea's Sunshine Policy of engagement with the North is that it needs to be coupled with two other things:

1. a strong alliance with America

2. a commitment to human rights
The long-term aim of the "Sunshine Policy" should be to increase the North's integration with the South by making the North economically dependent upon the South Korean economy.

Not that this is easy to do...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Callow America?

The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor
William Halsall (1882)
The Mayflower took Pilgrims to the New World (1620)
(Image from Wikipedia)

I recently finished Paul 'Wildman' Johnson's thousand-page History of the American People (online 640 pages), which is the first complete book of American history that I've read all the way through, and I found it fascinating.

Johnson, of course, is an Americaphile, so he's flattering for an American to read, but he grounds his views in evidence and reasons -- not that one can't disagree with his interpretation (historical 'proof' is always ambiguous).

Anyway, I bring up his history now because Contemporary Nomad has a discussion going about Anti-Americanism, a thread to which I've marginally contributed, and it has gotten me to remembering my own experiences in Europe and various encounters with ... well, with what I can only imprecisely identify as a certain haughty disdain for America, an attitude that treats America as a childish nation.

One European friend, opening the International Herald Tribune to some article about America, remarked -- only half-jokingly -- "Let's see what the children are doing."

I retorted, "Well, if we're children, we're Europe's offspring, so you bear some responsibility as dysfunctional parents!"

But there's a strong sense in which America is not younger than Europe, for it developed Britain's democratic traditions into their modern form before any European nation developed modern democracy, and it has had a unbroken, independent, democratic political system since the late 18th century, far longer any of Europe's. I'm reproducing below a rather lengthy quote from Johnson's history, a passage in which -- having noted the role of governers in the earl colonies -- he explains the more complex, democratic political system that was actually developing in colonial America:

The governors, of course, did not rule alone. Each had some kind of council, which formed the executive or administrative body of the colony and constituted the upper chamber (like the House of Lords) of its assembly. They were appointed by the crown (in royal colonies) or by the proprietors, and their numbers varied -- ten in Rhode Island, twenty-eight in Massachusetts. They also had judicial functions and (with the governor) served as courts of appeal, though certain important cases could be appealed again to the Privy Council in London. A good, firm-minded governor could usually get his council solidly behind him.

It was a different matter with the Houses of Burgesses (or whatever they were called), the lower chambers of the assemblies. The first one dated from as far back as 1619. All the colonies had them. Most of them were older than any working parliaments in Europe, apart from Britain's. They aped the House of Commons and studied its history assiduously, especially in its more aggressive phases. Most of these assemblies kept copies of one or more volumes, for instance, of John Rushworth's Historical Collections, which documents the struggles of the Commons against James I and Charles I and was regarded by royalists as a subversive book. Whenever the Commons set a precedent in power-grabbing or audacity, one or other assembly was sure to cite it.

However, there was an important difference between the English parliament and the colonial assemblies. England had never had a written constitution. All its written constitutional documents, like Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights, were specific ad hoc remedies for crises as they arose. They were never intended, nor were they used, as guides for the present and future. All the English had were precedents: their constitutional law operated exactly like their common law, organically. The Americans inherited this common law. But they also had constitutions. The. Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639) was the first written constitution not only in America in America but in the world. Written constitutions were subsequently adopted by all the colonies. It is vital to grasp this point. It was the constitutions as much as the assemblies themselves which made the colonies unique. In this respect they could be seen as more 'modern' than England, certainly more innovatory. Its constitution was what made Connecticut, for instance, separate from and independent of Massachusetts, its original 'Mother.' Having a constitution made a colony feel self-contained, mature, almost sovereign. Having a constitution inevitably led you to think in terms of rights, natural law, and absolutes, things the English were conditioned, by their empiricism and their organic approach to change, not to trouble their heads about. That was 'abstract stuff.' But it was not abstract for Americans. And any body which has a constitution inevitably begins to consider amending and enlarging it -- a written constitution is a signpost pointing to independence. (Johnson, History of the American People, pages 104-105)
If we consider American history in its concrete details, as Johnson does in the passage above, we see that Americans were, from very early on, developing the fine-grained habits of political democracy even in their time as colonial peoples and surpassing English democratic traditions in doing so -- and certainly surpassing the rest of Europe.

It's therefore somewhat surprising that many Europeans, in their Anti-Americanism, look down Americans as immature children. We are 'older' than they are.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Some borrowed remarks...

Leo Strauss (Born 1899)
(Image from Harper's Magazine)

My online buddy Bill Vallicella, who blogs copiously with great vigor and rigor over at his blog Maverick Philosopher, has posted a very interesting quote from the classicist and political philosopher Leo Strauss:

For the Jew and the Moslem, religion is primarily not, as it is for the Christian, a faith formulated in dogmas, but a law, a code of divine origin. Accordingly, the religious science, the sacra doctrina, is not dogmatic theology, theologia revelata, but the science of the law, halaka or fiqh. The science of the law, thus understood has much less in common with philosophy than has dogmatic theology. Hence the status of philosophy is, as a matter of principle, much more precarious in the Islamic-Jewish world than it is in the Christian world. No one could become a competent Christian theologian without having studied at least a substantial part of philosophy; philosophy was an integral part of the officially authorized and even required training. On the other hand, one could become an absolutely competent halakist or faqih without having the slightest knowledge of philosophy. This fundamental difference doubtless explains the possibility of the later complete collapse of philosophical studies in the Islamic world, a collapse which has no parallel in the West in spite of Luther.
Bill takes this quote from pages 221-222 of Strauss's essay "How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy," The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, edited by Thomas L. Pangle (University of Chicago Press, 1989). For those who like this sort of thing, the same quote (minus its last two sentences) can be found as one of the two prefatory quotes to James V. Schall's article "On the Point of Medieval Political Philosophy," published in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 23 (Winter, 2000), 7-14.

I don't know much about this, but I recall from my history-of-science studies reading about the collapse of Islamic philosophy in the High Middle Ages as the Muslim religious establishment rejected such rationalist thinkers as the philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd). Based on that and my impression from a wider reading of books, articles, and other sources, I posted a response to the quote from Strauss:
This is an interesting point, but I have a question -- or a series of them.

I can see that the study of law might crowd out philosophy, but why would philosophy collapse in the Islamic world? Why wouldn't it survive as at least a fringe activity? I have the impression that something else is going on in the Islamic world, and that the problem is not just benign neglect -- nor even malign neglect -- but an active hostility to philosophy.

If Pope Benedict is right, then the Islamic conception of God as pure, arbitrary will (a purely voluntarist conception of God) implicitly posits irrationality at the very essence of things -- which might mean that no essence exists. But anyway, if God is irrational, and yet the all-powerful ground(lessness) of existence, then what place is there for philosophy?

I'm not sure if I've expressed this rigorously, but perhaps you get my point.
Interestingly, a Muslim philosopher, Derrick Abdul-Hakim, posted his response by quoting a sentence from my comment, agreeing with it, and describing his own experience:
"I have the impression that something else is going on in the Islamic world, and that the problem is not just benign neglect -- nor even malign neglect -- but an active hostility to philosophy."

I agree. If one were so inclined, one could claim that in the Islamic world philosophy is tantamount to non-belief. I can recall several instances being dubbed a 'heretic' for merely studying philosophy; in fact, one individual had the audacity to instruct me to do psychology instead of philosophy. The enigma is that philosophical theology in the Islamic world fell to the clutches of dogmatic theologians who, having gained the upper hand politically, banished philosophy from the domain of theology. Unfortunately, there is no contemporary Averroes to save the day.

I refer you to Bill's blog for the rest of Abdul-Hakim's interesting personal experiences as a Muslim philosopher.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Eastern Bloc wasn't all bad...

Enjoying a Post-Communist Cigarette
in a Fictional Eastern European Country
Image by Slavica Pilic
(Image from

One of my online acquaintances, Olen Steinhauer, who blogs at Contemporary Nomad when he's not too busy writing novels about crime and espionage in the now defunct Communist Bloc of Eastern Europe has been nominated for an "Edgar" in the category "Best Novel."

The "Edgar" is short for "Edgar Allen Poe" and is an award presented annually by the Mystery Writers of America to recognize the year's best 'mystery' writers. Here's what they say:

"Mystery Writers of America is proud to announce on the 198th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, its Nominees for the 2007 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television and film published or produced in 2006. The Edgar Awards will be presented to the winners at our 61st Gala Banquet, April 26, 2007 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City."
I've not yet read The Liberation Movements (British title The Istanbul Variations), the book for which Olen has been nominated, but I certainly shall. I wanted to read his entire Cold War series over the Christmas break, but that plan foundered on the rocks of my interrupted career, which has me busy jobseeking these days instead of reading or writing about literature.

I did read his first novel in the series, The Bridge of Sighs, and blogged on it here. Read my blogged review, but more importantly, read Olen's books ... and discover that the Eastern Bloc wasn't all bad since it provided the rough material for some fine writing.

Good Luck, Olen.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"I feel the earth move under my feet..."

Image by Photographer Kim An-Soo
(Image from Wikipedia)

About 9:00 last night, my wife and I felt our entire apartment sway slightly as we sat before our computers working. We stopped, listened to the building's obscure rattling, then looked at each other. Sun-Ae's face expressed surprise and concern.

"Earthquake," I said.

We sat for a moment here on our 23rd floor, waiting, but felt nothing more than an inward trembling of the soul that continued even though the physical motion had stopped.

I then added, "At least, I hope that it was an earthquake."

Sun-Ae and I again looked at each other, remembering the poorly constructed Sampoong Department Store and the flawed Seongsu Bridge, which had both collapsed back in the mid-1990s here in Seoul. Then, we got up and went into the living room.

"Turn on the television," I advised, "to the news."

Nothing was immediately showing, so Sun-Ae went across the stairwell landing to check with our neighbors, who confirmed that they'd also felt the building shaking.

I called out to Sun-Ae, "Ask them to find out if it's just our building."

I remembered to check the time, confirming that the movement had occurred around 9:00 p.m. Soon, the news did come on and informed us that an earthquake of 4.8 on the Richter Scale had struck somewhere west of the east coast city of Gangneung, which would put the epicenter between Gangneung and Seoul.

That's not a strong earthquake, and I've felt far more powerful ones in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it's worrisome because it occurred on the Korean peninsula, not off in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) where one might expect some faultline activity, and I genuinely doubt that anybody in South Korea has been constructing all of these highrises to ride out a serious earthquake.

And that makes me wonder about a future in this country...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

"Things invisible to see..."

John Donne (1572-1631)
After a miniature by Isaac Oliver (1616?)
(Image from Wikipedia)

In Paradise Lost 3.1-55, Milton addresses the divine light and -- after lamenting his own physical blindness -- asks to receive inward, spiritual eyes:

So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. (PL 3.51-55)
Lines 54-55, "that I may see and tell / Of things invisible to mortal sight," recall -- at least for me -- lines 10-11 of John Donne's posthumously published poem "Song" (1633), which read: "If thou be'st born to strange sights, / Things invisible to see."

Was Milton remembering Donne? Let's look:
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
Well, we do have the devil and a beautiful, unfaithful woman appearing in both poems, and Milton's Paradise Lost does go and catch that falling star Lucifer ... among other 'impossible tasks' imposed by true love, both sacred and profane.

So ... was Milton alluding to lines 10-11 of Donne's "Song" in Paradise Lost 3.54-55?

Maybe, maybe not.

Friday, January 19, 2007

otra lengua: another language, another tongue

(Image from Wikipedia)

In Part 1, Chapter 6 of Don Quixote, a barber and a curate -- the one concerned with the heads of men, the other with their souls, but both thus well acquainted with extremeties -- attempt to deal with Don Quixote's insanity by attacking its source: the dozens of romances on chivalry that have weighed upon both his mind and his library's shelves.

They lighten the latter but not the former.

They also lighten our mood with their inadvertently humorous remarks about the books that they are judging, as their judgements reveal them to be not just surprisingly well-versed in romance literature but even expert literary critics of a sort, for they deem a book worthy of burning or redemption based not on its religious doctrine but on its literary style.

The curate is thus willing to save Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso for its style, but only those copies in Ariosto's original Italian, condeming any that the translator, whom the curate calls "the Captain," had rendered into Castilian Spanish.

Here, in the original Spanish, is the curate's reaction to the barber's remark that he has Ariosto in Italian but does not understand him:

Ni aun fuera bien que vos le entendiérades respondió el cura, y aquí le perdonáramos al señor capitán que no le hubiera traído a España y hecho castellano; que le quitó mucho de su natural valor, y lo mesmo harán todos aquellos que los libros de verso quisieren volver en otra lengua: que, por mucho cuidado que pongan y habilidad que muestren, jamás llegarán al punto que ellos tienen en su primer nacimiento. Digo, en efeto, que este libro, y todos los que se hallaren que tratan destas cosas de Francia, se echen y depositen en un pozo seco, hasta que con más acuerdo se vea lo que se ha de hacer dellos, ecetuando a un Bernardo del Carpio que anda por ahí y a otro llamado Roncesvalles; que éstos, en llegando a mis manos, han de estar en las del ama, y dellas en las del fuego, sin remisión alguna. (Part 1, Chapter 6, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, compuesto por Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra)

As you see, I have Cervantes in the original Spanish, but I do not understand him, so I turn to another language, another tongue:

"Nor would it be well that you should understand him," said the curate, "and on that score we might have excused the Captain if he had not brought him into Spain and turned him into Castilian. He robbed him of a great deal of his natural force, and so do all those who try to turn books written in verse into another language, for, with all the pains they take and all the cleverness they show, they never can reach the level of the originals as they were first produced. In short, I say that this book, and all that may be found treating of those French affairs, should be thrown into or deposited in some dry well, until after more consideration it is settled what is to be done with them; excepting always one 'Bernardo del Carpio' that is going about, and another called 'Roncesvalles;' for these, if they come into my hands, shall pass at once into those of the housekeeper, and from hers into the fire without any reprieve." (Part 1, Chapter 6, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), translation by John Ormsby (1829-1895), 1880 edition with the Gustave Doré engravings)

But one should never rely upon only a single translation, so here is another, albeit offline:

"It is just as well you do not understand him," replied the curate, "and we should pardon the worthy captain had he not brought him to Spain and turned him into a Castilian, thereby robbing him of much of his native charm. This is what happens to all who translate books of verse into another tongue, for in spite of all the trouble they take and the skill they may display, they will never reach the level of the original. In short, I say that this book and every one we find that deals with these affairs of France should be thrown aside and deposited in some dry well until we see, after further deliberation, what must be done with them, excepting Bernardo del Carpio, which is somewhere here, and another called Roncesvalles, for they shall pass from my hands into those of the housekeeper and from them into the fire without remission." (Part 1, Chapter 6, Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), translation by Walter Starkie (1894-1976), page 88, 1957 edition)
I like the engravings by Doré in the Ormsby translation, but they force me to imagine Don Quixote as Doré did, of which I do not approve, nor do I approve of Ormsby's expression "those French affairs" for the Spanish "destas cosas de Francia," so this edition must be banished to utter darkness. The Starkie translation, in lacking illustrations (except for its cover, so tear that off!), is preferable and has the better rendering of "destas cosas de Francia" by "these affairs of France," for that's marginally closer to the proper expression for romance literature in the French tradition, i.e., "the matter of France" (as opposed to that in the British tradition, known as "the matter of Britain"). Yet even Starkie has taken Don Quixote and robbed him of the natural force of his native charm, so this work, too, must be banished to utter darkness.

Along with my own egregious blog entry, and even the very words that you are now re--

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Oops, my train of thought got derailed...
(Image from Wikipedia)

I meant to write "woops." Whoops! I forgot the aitch!

How carelessly we treat this little word. Even the Online Etymological Dictionary has a careless entry:
oops: "a natural exclamation" [OED] of surprise at doing something awkward, but only attested from 1933.

whoops: exclamation of dismay, 1925, variant of oops.
Notice that? The little word "oops" is only attested since 1933, yet the earlier attested "whoops" (1925) is described as merely "a variant of oops"!

Oops indeed.

A little thought would make pretty clear that "oops" more likely derives from "whoops" than the reverse, for the dropping of the aitch and then of the double-u conforms to the linguistic tendency in English toward simplification of words:
whoops --> woops --> oops
Not that this law of linguistic simplification always works. Only this morning, one of my regular readers, Kate Marie, complicated "oops" by spelling it "ooops"!

Not to mention that overcomplication of "oops-a-daisy"! -- which the linguist Gerald Leonard Cohen wonders about:
And what in the world is going on with "oops-a-daisy"?
If Cohen -- professor of linguistics at the University of Missouri at Rolla and renowned expert on slang -- is wondering, then no wonder I am, too.

I'd email Professor Cohen to see what he's found on this topic, but he'd probably inform me that there is no such "linguistic tendency in English toward simplification of words."

And I'd have to say, "Oops..."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Two roads diverged into a snowy wood...

Robert Frost in 1941
Photo by Fred Palumbo
World Telegram Staff Photographer
(Image from Wikipedia)

... or so I remembered as a child, but children misremember, too.

Robert Frost is one of the few great poets whose poems can be read, understood, and liked by even a child. I recall at age 8 or 9 reading his somewhat overquoted poem, "The Road Not Taken":
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Even as a child, I sensed that the poem was about more than just some obscure, natural garden of forking paths, though I probably didn't conceive, nor even hint to myself, more abstractly of a "forking in time, not in space." But I was old enough to understand that a choice could not be recalled when a moment was gone, though that's a lesson that we learn with deepening regrets as the moments that held our choices recede into a past that we can merely recall but never change.

Though my childhood memory of that road diverging in that snowy wood was a misremembering, perhaps Frost as poet was gazing into the same forest in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening":
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Again, even as a child, I sensed that the woods conveyed more than just a winter scene, that some mysterious calling came from them, and though I misremembered, confusing this snowy wood with that other wood wherein a road diverged, I even to this day can't help thinking that there's some connection, that the wood and the woods are the same and that we stand, trees surrounding us, forever before a diverging road in a wood whose place and destination are the same, like an infinite labyrinth "whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."

Though perhaps Frost didn't mean precisely this sort of Pascalian reflection.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Great Google Translator!

Kimchiman Vents Displeasure With Google Translator
(Image from You Tube)

Richardson of DPRK Studies reports that Joshua of One Free Korea happened onto a Google Translator that will even deal with Korean-to-English translations!

This could prove really useful to me in my Gypsy Scholar work. No longer will I need rely on The Marmot or similar fly-by-night through hole-in-the-wall blogs for my Korea news.

I can just just plug some Hangul into Google and get better than Babel.

Some guy who calls himself Kimchiman didn't like it, though, and vented his wrath on You Tube:

"아리랑, 아리랑, 아라리요... 아리랑 고개로 넘어간다. 나를 버리고 가시는 님은 십리도 못가서 발병난다!"

According to Google Translator, he said:

"Arirang and Arirang, Oh li bedspread! It goes over with the Arirang head. It will carry and to throw away it goes and less than ten li go and outbreak of illness they are born!"

Wow! No wonder he was pissed! Yet, who would have known ... without the great Google Translator?

But I would have preferred that he refrain from cursing. That "Holy Bedspread!" stuff is just too much.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Scatological ending to Milton's end-times

About a week ago, I encountered my Latin limits in a blog entry and called on Michael Gilleland for his translation services, and I have received an email from him just this morning with the following message:

That was the full message, but the subject heading read "The Sphinx and the Sphincter," so I already knew what to expectorate.

You may recall that I was wondering about a passage appears in a PMLA article, "Milton as Satirist" (PMLA, Vol. 51, No. 2, Jun., 1936, pp. 414-429), written by a certain John Milton French (of all names for a Milton scholar to bear!). French cited -- without translating -- a scatological academic exercise written in Latin by Milton. As a reminder, here again is the Latin passage with French's prefatory remarks to the effect that the passage is best left untranslated:

[S]ometimes his [Milton's] jokes are most becomingly related ... in the original Latin. For instance, he threatens that if he sees someone not laughing he will suspect the man has decayed teeth or has eaten so much that he dares not put extra strain on his belly, ne praecinenti ori succinat, et aenigmata quaedam nolens affutiat sua non Sphinx sed Sphincter anus, quae medicis interpretanda, non Oedipo, relinquo; nolim enim hilari vocis sono obstrepat in hoc coetu posticus gemitus: solvant ista medici qui alvum solvunt.

I noted in my earlier post that there appears to be a pun on Sphinx and Sphincter in Milton's Latin but that my own Latin isn't refined enough to translate it ... so I turned to Gilleland for his more refined Latin skills.

Michael, however, is a librarian, and he found a scholar with fewer compunctions than French, Bromley Smith, who gives the larger Latin context to my quote (rendered in blue, of course) and then the translation:

Et jam fingite, Auditores, quamvis non sint Aprilis Calendae, festa adesse Hilaria, matri Deum dicata, vel Deo Risui rem divinam fieri. Ridete itaque & petulanti splene sustollite cachinnum, exporrigite frontem, & uncis indulgete naribus, sed naso adunco ne suspendite; profusissimo risu circumsonent omnia, & solutior cachinnus hilares excutiat lachrymas, ut iis risu exhaustis ne guttulam quidem habeat Dolor qua triumphum exornet suum. Ego profecto si quem nimis parce diducto rictu ridentem conspexero, dicam eum scabros & cariosos dentes rubigine obductos, aut indecoro ordine prominentes abscondere, aut inter prandendum hodie sic opplevisse abdomen, ut non audeat ilia ulterius distendere ad risum, ne praecinenti ori succinat, et aenigmata quaedam nolens affutiat sua non Sphinx sed Sphincter anus, quae medicis interpretanda non Oedipo relinquo; nolim enim hilari vocis sono obstrepat in hoc coetu posticus gemitus: Solvant ista Medici qui alvum solvunt. Si quis strenuum & clarum non ediderit murmur eum ego asseverabo tam gravem & mortiferum faucibus exhalare spiritum, ut vel Aetna, vel Avernus nihil spiret tetrius; aut certe allium aut porrum comedisse dudum, adeo ut non audeat aperire os, ne vicinos quosque foetido halitu enicet.

And now, my hearers, imagine that, although the first of April is not here, the feast of Hilaria, set apart for the mother of the gods, is at hand; or that a divine ceremony is due the God of laughter. Accordingly, smile and raise loud laughter from your saucy spleen; smooth your brow; yield to wrinkled nostrils, but do not be hanged on your hooked nose; let all places resound with most immoderate laughter; and let a more unfettered cachinnation evoke joyous tears, so that, when these are exhausted by laughter, grief may not have even a little drop to adorn her triumph. I, assuredly, if I shall behold anyone laughing with his jaw stretched too sparingly, will say that he is carefully concealing teeth that are scurfy and rotten and darkened with smut, or jutting out in unsightly ranks; or that in the course of breakfast to-day he so stuffed his paunch that he dare not swell out his belly with laughter, lest not his Sphinx, but his sphincter anus, accompany his mouth in its incantations, and against his will babble some riddles, which I pass over to the doctors, not to Oedipus, for interpretation; for I am unwilling that the groan of a posterior by its cheery voice should make a din in the assembly. Let the doctors who relax the bowels loosen up these questions. If anyone does not utter a loud and distinct roar, I shall assert that he breathes out such deep and deadly exhalations from his jaws that neither Aetna nor Avernus emits anything more noisome; or that he certainly has not long since eaten either garlic or leeks; so that as a result he dare not open his mouth lest he kill some of his neighbors with his stinking breath.

This translation by Smith (along with the Latin) appears on pages 226-229 of The Works of John Milton, Volume XII (edited by Donald Lemen Clark, Columbia University Press, 1936).

For example, on a recent Milton List thread, scholars have been discussing Milton's sense of humor, and one scholar noted that Professor Nicholas Clary, of St. Michael's College (Winooski, Vermont), had related an

Since Milton addressed his "hearers" (Auditores) in the passage above, then I'll assume that this Latin exercise was what Professor Nicholas Clary (St. Michael's College, Winooski, Vermont) was referring to in his anecdote about the young Milton's scatological jokes in an officially scheduled postprandial Latin discourse at Christ's Church in which the student Milton had spoken in Latin for an hour or so about the topic of farts to other students too sated on food and drink to catch his off-color references -- and thus suffering too excessively from the very matter of his topical discourse to notice that they were the collective butt of his obscure humor ... as I noted previously.

My scholarly curiosity is sated, so I'd better heed that warning from the archangel Michael:

But Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her Temperance over Appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with Surfet, and soon turns
Wisdom to Folly, as Nourishment to Winde. (PL 7.126-130)

I wouldn't want to suffer -- or force others to suffer -- from an insufferably inflated mind.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Earthly Prudes and Heavenly Libertines

A bowl of heavenly houris...
(Image from Wikipedia)

In a recent religious discussion with the Korea blogger Sperwer about activist and quietist aspects of religion, among other things, I remarked that:

Every religion seems to have its quietist and world-denying side, though some tend more in that direction than others. Islam, for instance, is usually rather activist and engaged with the world, and even its world-denying tendencies (such as we're currently seeing) tend to be rather destructive.

And on the very day that I typed these words, I received from MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) a couple of reports.

In the first report (Inquiry and Analysis Series - No. 315), Nathalie Szerman presented the views of the Tunisian Reformist Abdelwahab Meddeb, author of La Maladie de l'Islam (Seuil, Paris, 2002; English version: Malady of Islam, Basic Books, New York, 2003):

"Islamic Society Today Has Become a Prudish Society with an Aversion To Sensuality"

Meddeb argues that Islam has declined over time: "Islamic society used to be a society that delighted in pleasure, [a society] based on love of life. [Today], it has become a prudish [society] with an aversion to sensuality... The tradition of exalting the [human] body seems to have [completely] vanished from certain Islamic lands, which have been devastated by the order imposed [upon them] by half-literate people afflicted with resentment...

"Today, we are witnessing a strange reversal in the attitude towards the body. The society ["cite"] advocated by Islam [is one] whose members are afflicted with nihilism and resentment, whereas the Westerners have freed their bodies from traditional constraints... Those who adhere to Islam are not aware of this curious reversal, since they are so proud of their condition that they commend it to the 'depraved Western society' as a model of a virtuous society..."(Maladie, pp. 135-139)

Meddeb is particularly critical of Wahhabi Islam, which in his view "makes [Muslims]forget their bodies, [all material] things and places, and [all things of physical] beauty." He says that "the rejection of all this inflicts the [Muslims] with general amnesia -- which is one of the aspects of their malady."(Maladie, p. 141)

This 'prudish' rejection of the sensuous body, of material things and places, and of beautiful physical things is world-denying if anything is, yet the rejection doesn't lead to quietism -- as we are too well aware -- but to activist world transformation through destruction and the subsequent 'management of savagery' explained by Abu Bakr Naji.

And the world-denying tendency of current-day Islamism is only 'prudish' about earthly things; in heavenly things, it is libertine. Allow me to interject the following quote from a book by former New York Times columnist Judith Miller, which illustrates both aspects:

Abdel Hamid Kishk, a blind [Islamist] sheikh ... had been telling his audience that Muslims who entered paradise would enjoy eternal erections.... Some of the ulema, the religious scholars at al-Azhar, the government's seat of Islamic learning had disagreed. Yes, they said, men in paradise would have erections, but merely protracted, not perpetual.... Meanwhile, Egyptian militants [i.e., Islamists] in Assyut were ordering believers not to eat eggplants and squash because of their resemblance to sexual organs. (Miller, God Has Ninety-Nine Names, Simon & Schuster, 1997, pp. 26-27)

This fascinating dichotomy also appears in an Islamist book on the women of paradise (houris), which is the second MEMRI report (Special Dispatch Series - No. 1421: Islamist Websites Monitor No. 47):

New Book Describes the Virgins of Paradise

On January 11, 2007, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) posted on Islamist websites a 20-page book titled "The Desire of the Souls for the Women of Paradise." The book, by Abu Usama Al-'Iraqi, consists mostly of excerpts from medieval Islamic sources. The text focuses on the behavior and physical characteristics of the virgins who await those who enter Paradise, with emphasis on the contrast between them and earthly women. For example, it is said that the virgins of Paradise are free of all the physical and mental impurities that characterize earthly women (e.g., menstrual blood and other bodily discharges, unclean speech, and inappropriate glances at men other than their husbands).

The book ends with the following message to the reader: "...Intelligent people do not forgo [the prospect] of the brides of Paradise for the sake of false beauty in this world. They do not prefer forbidden... lust, which dooms one to Hell, over genuine desire in Paradise."
Here, the earthly prudishness and the heavenly libertinism occur in the same text. Sex on earth is literally a dirty thing, whereas sex in heaven is pure (even if one might need a perpetual -- or at least protracted -- erection to enjoy it).

It's easy to see how the sexual desire for a sensual heavenly paradise can motivate some of the world-denying, even world-destructive attitudes of Islamists -- though I certainly wouldn't care to reduce all of Islamism to a quasi-Freudian sublimation of libido.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Dante: Poet of the Earthly World

Dante Between Purgatory's Mountain and the City of Florence
Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence 1465
(Image from Wikipedia)

One of my online friends, Sperwer, who has been in Korea for some time, knows the Korean language, understands a lot about this country, has his own blog (Sperwer's Log), and frequently writes on things Korean, also has his other interests, one of these being martial arts, another of these being ... Dante.

Or so I assume, for Sperwer has sent me an article on Erich Auerbach titled "Dante: The Supreme Realist," written by Michael Dirda for the New York Review of Books (Volume 54, Number 1, January 11, 2007).

Sperwer knows my fascination with Milton's Paradise Lost and has probably noticed that I've sometimes cited parallels to Dante's Divine Comedy, which Milton hoped to surpass but without which Milton's own achievement would have been unthinkable.

Yet, even Dante's achievement -- according to Dirda, commenting on Auerbach's views -- would have been impossible without Christ:

For Auerbach, though, Christ stands as a turning point in artistic as well as religious history. While the ancient philosophical ideal of ataraxia -- the state of serene calm -- counsels a stoic indifference to life's vicissitudes, Christianity asks each of us to engage intensely with this world. Just as God's son had subjected himself to an earthly destiny and was willing to submit to creaturely suffering, so our own lives, our own "wrestling with evil," have now become "the foundation of God's judgment to come." Our consciousness of sin further encourages focused attention on our unique selves and our specific vices and virtues. The Christian world, consequently, throngs with distinct souls, each finding or losing its way to God. This revolution accounts for the sheer diversity of the characters and personalities shown in the Commedia.

This is a fascinating argument, that Christ's incarnated, earthly life justified each Christian's intense, individual engagement with the world and thus accounts for the diversity of individuals in Christendom and thereby the concrete, embodied, diverse individuals whom we encounter in Dante's Commedia.

Sometime, I'll have to actually read Auerbach's Mimesis (along with his Dante) and bring it to terms with Blumenberg's Legitimacy of the Modern Age and Brague's Eccentric Culture, all three (or four) of which -- so it seems -- engage in world-historical efforts toward understanding Western civilization, and thereby prove themselves quintessentially Western.

Will the Western civilization that made such literature as Dante's possible persist?

Hegel famously maintained that the owl of Minerva flys at dusk, that we gain wisdom at the turning of an era, and Auerbach -- according to Dirda -- sensed a turning:
[I]t is hard to overlook the elegiac tone in so much of ... [Auerbach's] scholarship, inevitably a reflection of the century's dark middle decades. When he wrote Dante: Poet of the Secular World in 1929, Auerbach recorded something of what European civilization had accomplished just before the barbarians overwhelmed the city of man and God. In still later years, this great humanist grew increasingly convinced, as he wrote in the preface to Literary Language and Its Public, that "European civilization is approaching the term of its existence; its history as a distinct entity would seem to be at an end."
Dirda remarks, "That seems, for good or ill, more true than ever."

I wonder what, precisely, Dirda means. That Europe's "history as a distinct entity" is "at an end" because the whole world is becoming Westernized, or because a world civilization is emerging, or because Europe is literally dying away as its native birth rate falls below sustainability?

That third possibility is the most worrisome...

Friday, January 12, 2007

The SAT Test: Good for Korean 'Testees'

A doggone good test!
(Image from Wikipedia)

Better for your 'stamina' than boshintang!

According one of my Korean students, the SAT test "helps the testees to gain the overall knowledge" needed for university life.

Well, I don't think that many students wear overalls these days (aside from a few hardy souls at agricultural colleges), but I'd heartily agree that 'testees' ought to know all about covering themselves properly by the time they head off for university.

My student also thinks that "the SAT test gives ... testees" a better understanding of "Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice."

Perhaps the student means that it helps the 'testees' better empathize with the proud and rigid Mr. Darcy?

And not only in things literary do the 'testees' prove useful, for the student holds that they also stimulate "interest in [other] subjects unfamiliar to the testees," things that bring one into "the judicial system," even as high up as "the Supreme Court"!

I hope that the this supreme rise attributed to the 'testees' is a career move and doesn't involve legal problems stemming from something unseemly.

But I also find myself faced with a dilemma requiring a judicious decision of my own. How do I prudently tell this student -- a female! -- that either she's misspelling "testes" or should be writing "test-takers"? Either way, I'll have to explain what "testes" means.

And I'm not sure that I have the 'test-takers' for that...