Sunday, June 30, 2013

Neil Gaiman: That 'Oceanic' Feeling . . .

Neil Gaiman
He's got the whole world
in his hands . . .
Photo by Carolyn Cole
L. A. Times

A few years ago, I got onto a Neil Gaiman kick and read several works -- I even went so far as to 'borrow' his Shoggoth's Old Peculiar as the tempting drink in my Bottomless Bottle of Beer novella -- so when I happened across a review of his most recent story, I grew interested again:
On June 18, Gaiman's new novel, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" (William Morrow: 192 pp., $25.99), arrives. A dark fairy tale about a bookish 7-year-old boy growing up in England with distracted parents and a neighbor who remembers the big bang, it's the author's first book for adults since his bestselling 2005 fantasy "Anansi Boys." (Rebecca Keegan, "Getting to know Neil Gaiman," Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2013)
Big Bang, eh? Must be science fiction. Or pornography! I better read it to find out! I didn't read Anansi Boys, I stopped spending money when I saw how expensive his graphic Sandman was! But I might order this recent novel. I liked his Graveyard Book. He seems, by the way, a man generous with his time:
Gaiman is remarkably accessible to his audience, quickly replying to their tweets and chronicling his thoughts in an online diary.
I can vouch for this. When I read The Graveyard Book, I grew curious about the source of the "nobody owns" poem and did a lot of searching online for that. I even emailed Gaiman's agent for words possibly from the horse's mouth. Gaiman himself replied:
The first reference I found to it was in a book on Death Customs in England, which referred to it as a trad nursery rhyme and had it in the form I listed in the book.

When we were copyediting, we wondered about the grammer on who and whom and that, and then I found myself spending a week on the internet doing exactly the journey you did, and coming to similar conclusions. But liking the version I'd read first the best, and liking the idea that it was a nursery rhyme the best -- and really not knowing if the poem was echoing something older or not. So I left it...
That was unexpected, quite generous, in fact. Anyway -- to change horses in 'mistdream'-- about his recent Ocean book:
Gaiman began the novel as a short story to explain himself to his new wife, musician Amanda Palmer, who was away recording an album. But as he wrote, the story took on a life of its own.
Not so very autobiographical, but neither is autobiography sometimes:
"It's not autobiographical, but the lead character is very much me age 7, in the geographical landscape that I grew up in," Gaiman said. "It's about memory and about family and magic, and it gets very scary and weird."
I suppose that says some autobiographical thing about the man that Ms. Palmer will learn to appreciate:
"I'd get up every day and go, 'Well, it's got to be finished by the end of the week, hasn't it?' And then the end of the week would happen and I was going, 'Well, it's not a short story, it's obviously a novelette,' and then I thought, 'Well, it's not a novelette, it must be a novella,' and I did a word count and I went, 'Bloody hell, this thing's 56,000 words, that's a novel. Not a long novel, but it's a novel.'"
That's sort of how my novella got written, just kept growing . . .

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Nasra Hassan's Conversations with Jihadists Hellbent on Paradise . . .

Nasra Hassan

Recently, there's been some discussion on this blog concerning the significance that hope of paradise holds in the minds of suicide bombers. Scott Atran interviewed jihadists and failed suicide bombers and was told by the leaders, and apparently even by the would-be 'martyrs' themselves, that Allah would not accept a 'martyr' who sought death motivated by the promise of paradise since that would be a selfish motive. I disagreed, saying that I didn't trust these statements, my thinking being that those who would carry out 'martyrdom operations' (suicide bombings) against infidels would certainly have no qualms about merely lying to infidels.

I did accept that seeking martyrdom out of a selfish motive, say, solely the prospect of transcendent sex with houris in paradise, would perhaps not be acceptable to Allah, but I held that such would not reduce the significance of that motive, rather that the motive would tend to be contextualized and that the would-be martyr, caught in the paradox of seeking paradise without seeking paradise, would play psychological games with himself over that motive.

Related to the point about deception, moreover, I noted that the facts established through interviews depend upon the questions posed, and -- I might also now add -- upon the relationship between interviewer and the one interviewed. Islamists are well known to say one thing to Westerners and something utterly different among themselves and to other Muslims. I therefore pointed to the rhetoric used by recruiters of suicide bombers, generally the promise of paradise and specifically the delights of 'marriage' to the beautiful houris, and I supplied the evidence offered by the practice of martyrs' weddings.

Such rhetoric and rituals would seem to support my claim concerning the motive of attaining paradise, but what do the would-be martyrs themselves say about paradise and its attractions? What might they say to a fellow Muslim in an interview? Let's find out by looking at the sort of evidence I've been seeing in print for the past twenty years and more.

Ms. Nasra Hassan, according to her profile on the Salzburg Global Seminar website, "carries out primary research on Muslim suicide terrorism and on jihadist militancy . . . . [and] her research data has been published and is widely cited in academic and other publications," so she appears to have at least some proper academic credibility. Nearly 12 years ago, Ms. Hassan published a fascinating article in The New Yorker, titled "An Arsenal of Believers: Talking to the 'human bombs'" (November 19, 2001). That was shortly after 9/11, but the interviews had been conducted a few years earlier, in the Gaza Strip, so let's see what she learned, beginning with a young man she calls "S.," a suicide bomber whose bomb failed to detonate. He was shot in the head and lay in a coma for over two months, but recovered and agreed to be interviewed:
"How did you feel when you heard that you'd been selected for martyrdom?" I asked.

"It's as if a very high, impenetrable wall separated you from Paradise or Hell," he said. "Allah has promised one or the other to his creatures. So, by pressing the detonator, you can immediately open the door to Paradise -- it is the shortest path to Heaven."
Hassan inquired about whether he and his two companions ever wavered:
"We had no doubts. We made an oath on the Koran, in the presence of Allah -- a pledge not to waver. This jihad pledge is called bayt al ridwan, after the garden in Paradise that is reserved for the prophets and the martyrs."
Hassan even watched a video of S. and the other two:
S. showed me a video that documented the final planning for the operation. In the grainy footage, I saw him and two other young men engaging in a ritualistic dialogue of questions and answers about the glory of martyrdom. S., who was holding a gun, identified himself as a member of al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, which is one of two Palestinian Islamist organizations that sponsor suicide bombings . . . . "Tomorrow, we will be martyrs," he declared, looking straight at the camera. "Only the believers know what this means. I love martyrdom." The young men and the planner then knelt and placed their right hands on the Koran. The planner said, "Are you ready? Tomorrow, you will be in Paradise."
There is a social aspect to martyrdom, for the martyrs serve as role models:
In Palestinian neighborhoods, the suicide bombers' green birds appear on posters, and in graffiti -- the language of the street. Calendars are illustrated with the "martyr of the month." Paintings glorify the dead bombers in Paradise, triumphant beneath a flock of green birds. This symbol is based on a saying of the Prophet Muhammad that the soul of a martyr is carried to Allah in the bosom of the green birds of Paradise.
This hope of paradise appears to play a great role:
A member of Hamas explained the preparation: "We focus his attention on Paradise, on being in the presence of Allah, on meeting the Prophet Muhammad, on interceding for his loved ones so that they, too, can be saved from the agonies of Hell, on the houris, and on fighting the Israeli occupation and removing it from the Islamic trust that is Palestine."
Note that the jihad against Israel also serves as motive, and here is where Professor Scott Atran's analysis perhaps has something to add, for not every Muslim seeks martyrdom. Indeed, the vast majority of Muslims do not. There first must be radicalization. Martyrs appear more often where Muslims feel themselves oppressed, which certainly contributes to radicalization. The promise of paradise, however, remains a powerful, centrally crucial incentive, as Hassan recounts:
I was told the story of a young Palestinian, M., by two men who, at different times, had been his cellmates in Israeli prisons. In September, 1993, in a safe house just outside Jerusalem, M. had performed ritual ablution, said his prayers, and set off on his bombing mission. He had boarded a bus -- one on the same route on which S.'s bomb had failed to explode two months earlier. All he had to do was unzip his bag of explosives and press the detonator. "But at the moment he was to press the button he forgot Paradise," one of his former cellmates recalled. "He felt a split second of fear, a slight hesitation. To bolster himself, he recited from the Koran. Refreshed and strengthened, he again began to think of Paradise. When he felt ready, he tried again. But the detonator did not function. He prayed to himself, 'Please, Allah, let me succeed.' But still it did not work, not even the third time, when he kept his finger pressed firmly on the knob. Recognizing that there was a technical problem, he got off the bus at the next stop, returned the bag to the planner, and went home." (The Israeli security services subsequently arrested M. in another attack, and he is currently in prison.)
Very interesting. The would-be martyr is supposed to focus attention specifically upon paradise, or so M.'s case reveals. There's more:
Just before the bomber sets out on his final journey, he performs a ritual ablution, puts on clean clothes, and tries to attend at least one communal prayer at a mosque. He says the traditional Islamic prayer that is customary before battle, and he asks Allah to forgive his sins and to bless his mission. He puts a Koran in his left breast pocket, above the heart, and he straps the explosives around his waist or picks up a briefcase or a bag containing the bomb. The planner bids him farewell with the words "May Allah be with you, may Allah give you success so that you achieve Paradise." The would-be martyr responds, "Inshallah, we will meet in Paradise."
After a successful "martyrdom" operation, there follows one of those weddings I reported on recently:
The bomber's family and the sponsoring organization celebrate his martyrdom with festivities, as if it were a wedding. Hundreds of guests congregate at the house to offer congratulations. The hosts serve the juices and sweets that the young man specified in his will. Often, the mother will ululate in joy over the honor that Allah has bestowed upon her family.
All's well that ends well! A wedding is the happy ending to every popular fairy tale. But not for the victims. The carnage left behind, the lives taken and the lives ruined, the destruction that remains. And the image of Islam painted by Islamists in clotted blood grows ever darker. Little wonder the Islamists say, "We love death!" They have to.

All for paradise . . . and a little bit more.

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Friday, June 28, 2013

Reading and the Life of a Whale . . .

Not Google Books
Google Images

Professor Verlyn Klinkenborg has written another excellent column for the New York Times, this one on "The Decline and Fall of the English Major" (June 22, 2013), in which he reports on the general inability of college students to write clearly:
In the past few years, I've taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don't.

They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them -- no.
I know what he means. My own experience confirms it. I don't mean my usual Korean students learning the standard, five-paragraph essay. I mean what I was seeing at Berkeley back in the 1980s: the jargon of theory as 'literary' style. Even of 'conversational' style. I tried to talk to English majors who couldn't get past binary oppositions . . . mine, they meant. Such was the thanks I got for making an attempt to understand them! Yet, I still believe in literature and good writing, and so does Klinkenborg:
What many undergraduates do not know -- and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them -- is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they're undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn't acquire earlier in life. They don't call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing -- the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn't merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it -- no matter how or when it was acquired -- knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.
I was fortunate. I read voraciously as a kid, so writing came naturally to me. Not that I didn't have a lot to learn. I still do. I'll probably begin to finally understand how to write about the time my three-score and ten are nearly up.

If only I were a bowhead whale and had ahead another seven score and ten . . .

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Good Ol' Bowhead Whales

Bowhead Whale
Photo by Paul Nicklen
IIP Digital

I found the new information (new for me!) so interesting in this "Old Soul" article (IIP Digital, June 24, 2013) by Lauren Monsen on the lifespan of bowhead whales that I'm excerpting it extensively even though (or maybe because?) I actually know very little about these whales:
[Living i]n the Arctic waters off Alaska's coast, bowhead whales . . . are now thought to be the world's longest-lived mammals . . . . Craig George, a biologist with the North Slope Department of Wildlife Management in Barrow, Alaska, said it wasn't until the 1990s that scientists suspected bowheads can live more than 200 years . . . . [But] a bowhead in 1992 . . . showed signs of advanced age[, so] . . . George . . . examine[d] it.
"Old whales have really tough blubber, and they're heavily scarred . . . . They're marked with killer-whale bites, ice scars and puncture marks" that testify to the long, eventful lives they've led.
The . . . bowhead was determined to be 130 years old through an age-analysis technique developed by Jeffrey Bada, a marine chemist at the University of California, San Diego. Bada studies whales' eye lenses, which contain amino acids that increase at predictable rates over time.

When scientists sent eyeballs from additional . . . Alaska bowheads to Bada's laboratory, Bada found that several came from whales more than 100 years old and judged one whale to be 211 years old.
"Those figures are conservative; the whales are probably older," Bada said.
Bada's findings are supported by additional evidence. Some . . . bowheads . . . [have] antique harpoon tips in their bodies, indicating they survived skirmishes with 19th-century whalers.
According to Wikipedia, this baleen whale can grow to 20 meters long (nearly 70 feet). I have nothing of special interest to say about this whale, given my ignorance. I merely wished to register my astonishment.

Astonishment! At their long lives, I mean . . .

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Life: Fact, Fiction, Faction, Friction . . .

Karl Ove Knausgaard
Photographer Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center
New York Times

Some days ago, I posted an entry on an article by Professor Eli Park Sorensen (Seoul National University) concerning 'true' and 'false' autobiography that introduced the strange, troubling case of one unusual man's 'autobiography':
Binjamin Wilkomirski's "Fragments: Memories of a Childhood 1939-1948" provides an intriguing example of this problematic[, namely, how to define the genre of autobiography]. Written from the perspective of a very young child, the text was immediately hailed by numerous critics and scholars as an exemplary Holocaust memoir upon its release in 1995. When it was demonstrated some years later that Wilkomirski's text was in fact a fabrication -- i.e. when it was proved beyond doubt that the author was not a Holocaust survivor; that he had spent the war years not in Auschwitz but in Switzerland; and that he was not even Jewish -- the author withdrew from public, and his memoir was removed from the bookshelves.

What makes this case so compelling is that Wilkomirski seemed to have been genuinely convinced of the authenticity of his story -- a tragic or tragically deluded figure, rather than a deliberate fraud. Years before writing his book, Wilkomirski had been seeing a psychiatrist with whom he managed to "recover" a series of fragmented memories that kept troubling him. Wilkomirski attempted to reconstruct these traumatic, incoherent and hazy memories by voraciously reading Holocaust memoirs and history books, as well as undertaking several research trips to Poland and Latvia; all this, he claimed, to confirm that what he vaguely remembered from his childhood was indeed real.

By the time he wrote "Fragments," Wilkomirski possessed a considerable knowledge of Holocaust history, having amassed a vast library of reference material related to the period. Retrospectively, one might say that whereas his trauma seems genuine, he discovered the wrong autobiography, someone else's life. (Eli Park Sorensen, "Fraudulent memoirs and the autobiographical pact," Korea Herald, June 16, 2013)
In effect, Wilkomirski wrote a work of fiction, thinking that he was writing an autobiography. By contrast, it seems, another writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, has written a work of autobiography, thinking that he was writing fiction:
Book 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle" -- published in English last year -- begins with an arrestingly beautiful reflection on death which moves seamlessly into the life of a troubled child . . . . Just as Book 1 of "My Struggle" was about death and family, so too is this second volume, subtitled "A Man in Love." In it, the master theme of death remains hauntingly present, but it comes to be paired with another: birth and what precedes it. While "A Man in Love" tells of the rapture and intoxication of love, it also turns a cold and at times clinical eye on romantic ecstasy and the marital equation, relating in painstaking -- at points ­agonizing -- detail the fading of the first flush of love, the cooling and contracting of feeling.

Whereas Book 1 was concerned with childhood and adolescence, with learning what death is and what living can be, Book 2 centers on what its narrator calls "the middle of life." He is careful to point out that while his age (mid-30s to 40) reflects a chronological or probabilistic midpoint, he means the midst of life as much as its midpoint. He is not only well advanced in life, he is surrounded and at times submerged by it, with a growing family: a wife and three small children, each wonderful, each with problems, each with demands. And he is, as we all are, in the midst of life's minutiae -- from cigarette rolling to coffee drinking, diaper changing to dish washing. This wealth of hyper-realistic detail places us in the midst of a life, and gives relief to its moments of passion and despair, insight and confusion, anger and love. Not only this, however, it also presents to the reader the real struggle: how to take all this shifting, teeming minutiae and in it find, and give, meaning . . . .

[I]mmediately striking . . . is . . . the ways in which fiction is born of fact, and the question whether this is fiction at all . . . . [T]he narrator of "My Struggle" has the same name as the author and seems to have lived much the same life, to have been preoccupied by much the same concerns and to be, as . . . narrator, in search of a subject for his story, which subject turns out to be that very search . . . . Knausgaard, it appears, has not [changed a great deal -- invented or amalgamated places . . . , people . . . and events] -- and this has led to threats of legal action on the part of family members and a level of national and international attention such that a number of Norwegian companies have declared Knausgaard-free days during which debate is to be suspended in the name of some modicum of productivity. (Leland de la Durantaye, "Inside Story: Book 2 of 'My Struggle,' by Karl Ove Knausgaard," New York Times, June 21, 2013)
These two books, Wilkomirski's and Knausgaard's, are apparently opposites, yet also twins, entwined by the same two questions: is this fact, or is this fiction; is this fiction, or is this fact? Wilkomirski's memories are not his own, so the early life he constructed, and believed in, is fiction, yet the memories are filled with facts from his extensive reading of holocaust literature and are therefore in some sense factual; Knausgaard's fiction is his own life, so the fictional work he has constructed, and believed, perhaps, to be fiction, is an extensively factual account, despite its aim as fiction, and it thus perhaps qualifies as memoir, autobiography. These two books converge, subjected to scrutiny focused by the two questions, perhaps because they are not quite what they claim to be.

Incidentally, there's yet another, somewhat disturbing, if superficial, connection between the two writings -- Wilkomirski believed himself to have written a book of his experience as a victim of Nazi persecution, and the Norwegian title of Knausgaard's book is, provocatively, perhaps offensively, Min Kamp, precisely the Norwegian translation of the German title Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, both meaning "My Struggle" . . .

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Delana Epperson: Arkansas Photographer

A couple of days ago, I borrowed a photo of locust blossoms by night and only afterwards checked with the Arkansas photographer Delana Epperson for permission, but maybe because I'm also from Arkansas, she allowed me my unorthodox ways and let me continue to use the photo:
The attribution is correct and I'm honored that you used my photo. I enjoyed reading your blog about it. The . . . [locust blossoms] are invasive trees. When we moved where we are now, they had them and they pop up everywhere. I thought wow, that's a fast growing shade tree, lol. We now know better and just had about 30 of those Black Locust bulldozed down. Now, we are still digging up roots to dispose of them. I do love the blossoms in the Spring.
A couple of days later, Ms. Epperson led me to site with the above photo:
If you like night photos, how about a Dandelion with a Cucumber Beetle on it. I love playing with the camera at night and trying different flowers and weeds. This is on my gallery on WeatherUnderground. My handle is CalicoBass . . .
Ms. Epperson may say she's just playing around with her camera, but she produces photos that look more than amateur to me! Moreover, she has what every great photographer needs . . . luck:
I didn't realize the bug was there until I uploaded the pic onto the computer.
Of course, there's also skill, and she has hundreds of photographs to prove it. Go and gaze . . .

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Martyrs' Weddings: On Earth as in Heaven?

Shahid Wedding Blast
CNN Asia

My two recent posts on Islamist suicide bombers, here and here (and an ironic one here), in which I discuss the bombers' hope of paradise and its pleasures, has occasioned some harsh responses, for example, "don't bullsh*t by saying the afterlife 'plays a role in their thinking,'" a comment from an individual who calls himself "anonymous."*

My interlocutors are disturbed at my position that Islamist suicide bombers, like Islamist shahids (martyrs) generally, are motivated by the promise of paradise and its virgins, among other pleasures. Now, I don't argue that this is their sole motivation, but it is a powerful one and accounts for the widespread use of what are euphemistically called "martyrdom operations." Why do I claim it is a powerful motive? Aside from the fact that pious religious belief is a strong motivator for action, and that a strong motivation is necessary for carrying out a suicide bombing, there is sufficient evidence to render my view reasonable, in that the Islamist suicide shahid is "certain of the Islamic doctrine about martyrdom, 'Jihad', salvation and afterlife":
Indeed after the death of the shahid there is a celebration instead of mourning and mothers' utter cries of joy and sweets are distributed to visitors, like as if a wedding, a happy occasion took place. Handling suicide bombers' deaths as 'martyr's weddings' are truly common in Muslim tradition. (Maria Alvanou, "Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers: The Interplaying Effects of Islam, Nationalism and Honor Culture," Strategic Research and Policy Center, National Defense College, IDF, May 2007, page 43)
A more recent report comes by way of MEMRI in an article by L. Barkan, "Salafi-Jihadis in Jordan Stage 'Martyrs' Weddings' to attract youth To Jihad" (February 8, 2013, Inquiry and Analysis Series, Report No.926, Middle East Media Research Institute):
The forces fighting against Assad's regime in Syria include foreigners who have come to take part in the uprising alongside the Syrian rebels. Among them are members of Jordan's Salafi-jihadi movement, which, according to its senior leaders, has so far dispatched some 250 fighters to Syria. As one means of encouraging Jordanian youths to join its ranks and adopt the ideology of jihad and martyrdom, the Salafi-jihadi movement stages "martyrs' weddings" for fighters killed in Syria, based on the Islamic belief that every martyr is rewarded with 72 black-eyed virgin brides in Paradise . . . . [Such] "weddings" are not a new phenomenon. The Salafi-jihadi stream in Jordan has held similar ceremonies in the past for Jordanian fighters who died in Afghanistan and Iraq . . . . 'Abd Al-Fateh Shehadeh, aka Abu Muhammad Al-Tahawi, a senior figure in the Jordanian Salafi-jihadi movement, told the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq that such "weddings" have so far been held for 18 Jordanian Salafi-jihadi fighters killed in Syria, explaining that these celebrations serve to propagate the ideology of jihad and martyrdom . . . . Marwan Shehadeh, an expert on Islamists groups, told Al-Sharq that the purpose of the "martyrs' weddings" is to attract youths to the idea of jihad and of martyrdom, and encourage them to join the fighting on jihad fronts throughout the Islamic world . . . . Abu Muhammad Al-Tahawi explained that . . . . [that] "the martyr [himself] rejoices at the reward and grace that Allah bestows upon him if his martyrdom is accepted. With the first drop of blood shed from his body, [his sins] are pardoned, and he weds 72 black-eyed [virgins] of Paradise, dons his crown of honor, and serves as an advocate for 70 of his relatives . . . . We explain to the youths who attend [the ceremony] that he who sacrifices his life in defense of Islam and the land of the Muslims will marry the black-eyed [virgins], his relatives will be pardoned, and his sins will be erased" . . . . Videos of these celebrations are also disseminated via the internet.
Related to this, see "European Muslims Hold 'Martyr's Wedding' For Tunisian Killed In Syria" (MEMRI, No. 5214, March 4, 2013):
Photos surfaced online of a celebration held by European Muslims in honor of a Tunisian youth who was killed while fighting in Syria. The celebration, held in an undisclosed location in Europe -- according to one report, in France -- was in the form of a "martyr's wedding," symbolizing the deceased's wedding to the virgins of paradise . . . . The Tunisian, Ayman Al-Hakiri, AKA Abu Maria Al-Tunsi, was an active member of Ansar Al-Shari'a in Tunisia. He recently joined Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria and was appointed a commander in Aleppo, and was reportedly killed in the Aleppo area on February 24. Al-Hakiri was likewise an active member of jihadi forums, using the nickname Matlub fi Al-Jannah ("Wanted in Paradise").
Or from some years back, Yaakov Lappin of YNetNews reports on the martyrdom of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an article "Cleric: Zarqawi's wedding with virgins has begun":
As news of the death of Iraqi al-Qaeda terror chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi filtered through jihadist internet forums, many members of radical organizations expressed 'joy' at what they described as Zarqawi's 'martyrdom' and imminent 'wedding' with virgins.

Sheikh Omar Bakri, a top pro al-Qaeda jihadist preacher who is based in Lebanon, and who has a number of disciples in Britain, was quoted by one of his followers on the UK-based Muntadaa internet forum as saying that al-Zarqawi is now being 'married' to virgins in heaven, the fate he said awaited 'martyrs' of Islam.

"It is a good news Alhamdulilaah (thank God), his wedding start as shaheed (martyr), and his deputy confirm the news," read a statement attributed to Bakri.
Many reports of this sort can be dug up from the internet. I've been reading them for years now, and I think these establish rather unequivocally that the hope of paradise and its pleasures serves as a powerful motive in the deadly acts of suicide bombers.

Readers are invited to search the internet themselves . . .

*Update: Anonymous protests that I have misrepresented his position. My apologies if I have done so.

Update 2: See a more recent post on what the would-be martyrs themselves say.

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Bye-Bye, North Korea?

GDP Per Capita, 1950-2010

Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea (an NGO that works with North Korean refugees), tells us "6 Reasons Why Kim Jong Un Is Screwed" in a recent issue of the Atlantic (June 20, 2013). Here's a quote from the first reason:
The difference between North and South Korea's economies is already the biggest of any two neighboring countries in the world. Just 30 years ago, China was poorer than North Korea; now North Koreans who manage to travel to China (or even just look across the river) are amazed at the bright lights and development they see there.
The quote accompanies the above chart depicting the North's dire situation and destabilizing circumstances. Meanwhile, the regime is growing ever more corrupt:
North Koreans consistently tell us that to get ahead or even just survive in North Korea, you have to break the regime's rules, and that money enables all of those rules to be broken. Corruption is therefore steadily eroding the regime's control and authority over society, and there is no effective way to rein this in unless the system itself changes.
As Park notes, this sort of corruption undermines the regime. In addition to these two reasons -- "Economic Divergence" and "Explosion of Corruption" -- Park notes four others, "Grassroots Glasnost," "Refugees Bridging Back Into North Korea," "Jangmadang (Market) Generation," and "Bonds Between the People." All six of these, Park claims, are working against the regime's authority, stability, and power.

The article is relatively short and puts into clear, simple language a lot of what I've been thinking over the past few years, so go and read . . .

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dying of the light . . .

Locust Blossoms at Night
Photo by Delana Epperson
KAIT 8 abc

I love Verlyn Klinkenborg's nature writing, so this morning will be dedicated to a passage from his recent Rural Life editorial, "Locust Moon" (New York Times, June 14, 2013), which is not about lunatic grasshoppers:
Black locusts spread invasively. They shatter and shed large limbs. They seam the ground with latticed rhizomes. They have thorns and, in shape, aren't especially graceful. Trying to kill them is like trying to kill sagebrush or mesquite. But the wood is dense and lasts forever; I cherish my locust fence posts. And when the moon is dark, the sky is missing, and even the fireflies appear fainthearted, you can still make out the dim, refracted glow of locust blossoms in the night.
I sometimes think the best writing is always about death, or of the brevity of all things. Fireflies glow but an instant, a brief shining extinguished. Black locust lasts forever, but only relatively so. The moon goes round and round and round and round, like an abstract entity circumambulating our charméd earth . . . but one day won't.

And even the laws of nature will meet their demise in the heat death of an endlessly expanding universe . . . or the singularity of a collapsing cosmos.

Think of all this, next time you glimpse the flash of a firefly in the night . . .

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Cousin Bill and Petit Jean . . .

A delayed "Weekly Rambling" newsletter arrived from Cousin Bill the other day, telling of his rambles through the Arkansas wilderness:
Yesterday we left early morning for a day trip down the Pig Trail toward Mt Magazine and on over to Petit Jean Mtn. Both are beautiful, but Petit Jean has more to offer . . . trails, camping, lake, car museum, etc. In spite of the high humidity and temp there we decided to hike the Cedar Falls trail, located in Cedar Creek Canyon. It's a difficult hike (the first half mile descends 200 ft over steps cut from rock by the CCC over 70 years ago). The trail then follows Cedar Creek another half mile over rock and boulders . . . there rewarded by sight of the 90 foot waterfall . . . the large pool at its base a swimming area for young and old. Although indicated as only a two mile roundtrip, another couple got a GPS reading of 2.6 miles. Sweat was rolling going and coming. Molly got baptized twice in the creek in a successful attempt to keep her alive . . . she was almost tripping over her own tongue. We'll redo it and try additional trails in the fall, with a stay in one of the rustic cabins or Mather Lodge.
The CCC was the Franklin Roosevelt New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps, which gave unemployed men manual jobs during the Great Depression. Mt. Magazine is obviously a mountain, but important for being the highest spot in Arkansas, at 2,753 feet. That's not high, as mountains go, but it rises from a base of about 300 feet. Petit Jean rises only to 1,180 feet, from a somewhat lower base. Arkansas's mountains are not especially high, but the valleys are deep . . .

Oh, nearly forgot, but Uncle Cran responded to Cousin Bill's report with a note of appreciation:
It was kind of (YAWN!) interesting, and probably worth the wait.
A big thanks to Uncle Cran for the wit and wisdom of his elder perspective on the younger lives of his nephews . . .

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Eli Park Sorensen on 'True' Autobiography, Plus a Few of My Own Thoughts

Professor Eli Park Sorensen has written another informative literary-critical article for the Korea Herald, "Fraudulent memoirs and the autobiographical pact" (June 16, 2013). Here are the first four paragraphs:
According to the literary scholar Philippe Lejeune, autobiographical texts rest on the assumption "that there is identity of name between the author (such as he figures, by his name, on the cover), the narrator of the story, and the character who is being talked about." This constitutes what one could call "the basic grammar" of the genre of autobiography, or, as Lejeune puts it, the "autobiographical pact" established among narrator and reader.

Solid as this definition may seem, several critics have pointed out the unintended ambiguity inherent in Lejeune's definition. For what do we actually mean by "identity"? That there is a discrepancy, however infinitesimal, between the writing self and the written self goes without saying (Facebook comes to mind) -- but how large may this discrepancy be before the text ceases to be autobiographical?

One typically thinks of the autobiography as a genre of remembering. As the literary scholar Linda Anderson argues, however, the genre also promotes a narrative desire of "becoming, within the realm of the symbolic, one's own progenitor, of assuming authorship of one's life." In this perspective, autobiography involves less a process of remembering past events; rather, it constitutes an attempt to actively seek out -- and thus become -- the person I really am or ought to be, but perhaps never became. The autobiographical text thus becomes a search for the authentic life. Perhaps one could even say that this is one of the main reasons why people write autobiographies in the first place; to show the world who they really are.

If the autobiographical text simultaneously involves a process of remembering events as well as a desire to discover a self that was never fully articulated -- quite often two conflicting impulses -- it resists clear and straightforward genre definitions like the one proposed by Lejeune. On the other hand, if one cannot define -- in a clear and straightforward language -- the genre of autobiography, is it ever possible to define a fraudulent memoir, a text falsely claiming to be autobiographical?
In these four paragraphs, Professor Park sets forth two different views on autobiography, represented by two different literary scholars, Philippe Lejeune and Linda Anderson, who focus, respectively, on identity and becoming as the crucial mark of autobiography. Park takes this difference in an interesting direction concerning the 'autobiographical' memories of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a strange case that you can read about on your own, but I want to think out loud here about what one might mean by "true."

The most common default position on truth is the so-called "correspondence" theory of truth, namely, that a statement corresponds to something really existing in the world. Another theory of truth is the "coherence" theory of truth, namely, that an organized system of statements cohere logically with one another. Most of us would probably expect an autobiography to correspond to the writer's life, and we would feel deceived if some 'facts' turned out to be "fictions." We might not hold the writer to flawless coherence, however, for who among us has lived a purely rational, self-consistent life? The true story of my life -- in terms of correspondence -- would include the twists, turns, and alterations (and altercations!) that cannot fit a logically coherent scheme.

But there's a third theory of truth, what I like to call a "creation" theory of truth, namely, that truth is created. This sort of truth is not "out there" (correspondence) or "up there" (coherence), but "down here" where we create it. This something like the pragmatic view of truth in the thought of William James. On this see his writings on Pragmatism, especially "Lecture 5: Pragmatism and Common Sense," and "The Will to Believe," and if we combine both writings, we can see that William James defends a belief on the grounds that it can encourage the believer to undertake a risky action that can 'make' something true, which is possible because the universe is incomplete and lends itself to our creative forces, if we believe in ourselves -- and yeah, I need to re-read James to express this more coherently, but I believe this formulation roughly corresponds to his views. Anyway, applied to oneself, this sort of exercise in "becoming" is future oriented and can work because the future is open.

Applied to one's writing of one's own life, however, a creation theory can be problematic, for one writes about one's past, but the past is closed, and re-writing one's life to reflect what one wishes to have been -- which might also offer more coherence -- can only offend against a correspondence theory of truth if fictions are switched for facts, leaving readers deceived . . .

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bill Vallicella on Islamist Beliefs and Islamist Actions

Bill Vallicella
Maverick Philosopher

My metaphysical friend, Bill Vallicella, has posted an excellent reflection on Professor Scott Atran's 'belief' that Islamist beliefs have no effect on Islamist actions, assuming that Atran's views have been adequately reported (and if one is doubtful, Bill adds, "substitute 'Atran*' for 'Atran'"). Whatever the resolution of that issue, here is Bill's analysis:
If we are to be as charitable to Atran as possible, we would have to say that he holds his strange view because he himself does not believe in the Muslim paradise and he cannot imagine anyone else really believing in it either. So Muslims who profess to believe in Paradise with its black-eyed virgins, etc. are merely mouthing phrases. What makes this preposterous is that Atran ignores the best evidence one could have as to what a person believes, namely, the person's overt behavior taken in the context of his verbal avowals. Belief is linked to action. If I believe I have a flat tire, I will pull over and investigate. If I say 'We have a flat tire" but keep on driving, then you know that I don't really believe that we have a flat tire.

Same with the Muslim terrorist. If he invokes the greatness of his god while decapitating someone, then that is the best possible evidence that he believes in the existence of his god and what that god guarantees to the faithful, namely, an endless supply of post-mortem carnal delights. This is particularly clear in the case of jihadis such as suicide bombers. The verbal avowals indicate the content of the belief while the action indicates that the content is believed.
Whatever Atran's views might actually be (and see this), Bill's analysis of the link between belief and action is significant, especially in the context of the rest of his post.

Not that I think Bill's position irrefutable: Islamists might be suffering from what the Left used to call "false consciousness," thinking they believe what they really don't believe. Indeed, this is the Left's view on Islamists.

But I know from experience that religious belief is real, regardless whether that belief corresponds to any real thing, and religious belief is a powerful motivator of action.

Update: Some statements by Islamists on paradise as motivation for martyrdom.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"Eh up, you unbelieving kuffar bastards . . ."

In a thought-provoking article, "Can We Imagine the Life of a Terrorist?" (New York Times, June 14, 2013), Robert F. Worth describes most would-be jihadis as bumbling fools:
The everyday reality of life in the jihad is often closer to a bumbling black comedy than to a redemptive tragedy or a bildungsroman. Many of those who land in terrorist groups are criminals or desperate men with a history of failure and a thirst for revenge. Most major terrorist attempts in the past decade have ended in humiliation, like Richard Reid's shoe-bombing plot in 2001 and Al Qaeda's repeated attempts to load explosives into the underwear of suicide bombers. And Al Qaeda's regional affiliates often appear to be profoundly dysfunctional organizations, run by men whose narcissism is at odds with their solemn professions of selflessness and holy purpose.
Narcissism? Evidence? Here's some provided by Worth:
Last month The Associated Press published excerpts from an extraordinary and revealing letter, discovered in the rubble of Timbuktu after the French military routed the jihadis there. In it, the leaders of Al Qaeda's North Africa branch accuse one of their most unruly commanders, a man named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, of failing to file expense reports, leaving his phone off, skipping meetings that he called "useless" and failing to carry out any "spectacular operations." They complain about Belmokhtar's "backbiting, name-calling and sneering" and accuse him of making a "mockery of the basics of administration." In a passage straight out of Beckett, they describe a delegation sent to contact Belmokhtar that spent three years lost in the desert and then disintegrated without having reached him.
Okay, dysfunctional, but where's the comedy? Here, says Worth:
Then there are the videotaped statements suicide bombers make before they die. In the abstract, there is nothing funny about these ghoulish productions, and yet there is something revelatory about the opening scene of Chris Morris's 2010 satire "Four Lions," in which a young British jihadi addresses the camera for his last testimonial while cradling a small toy gun. "Eh up, you unbelieving kuffar bastards," he says in a thick Yorkshire accent. When his friends stop filming and tell him to drop the toy gun, he demurs, his face crestfallen, and insists it only looks small because he has "big hands."
Go see those "Big Hands," only about 80 seconds of your time, and it's quite amusing. But despite the many bumblers, there be some who won't always bumble, some mostly non-bumblers who succeed in their jihadist aims.

Even the 9/11 gang had their bumbling moments, but look what they managed to do . . .

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Scriptural Minefields for Journalists . . .

David Brooks

In an otherwise exemplary column, "Religion and Inequality" (International Herald Tribune (Global Edition of the New York Times), page 9a-c, June 15-16, 2013), David Brooks writes:
In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds, "Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong."
Just for the record, that's Paul (not Jesus) writing (not speaking, except maybe to an amanuensis) in I Corinthians 1:26-27 (not just "Corinthians" -- and it's from the New International Version). Also, Paul is not addressing a crowd, but rather, the Church at Corinth. As I expected upon reading this misattribution by Brooks, there were a lot of sarcastic responses throughout the Internet, which I see no need to post here. If only Brooks believed in the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible and could argue like Ken Ham that "Jesus wrote ALL of the Bible":
"Jesus, the Creator, is the Word. The Bible is the written Word. Every word in the Bible is really the Word of the Creator -- Jesus Christ"
An excuse, perhaps problematic in its own right, but an excuse. Brooks, however, doesn't share that theology -- not by a long shot -- so he doesn't have this way out, and he has since 'corrected' the attribution:
In I Corinthians, Paul tells the crowds, "Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong."
Brooks needs to let those crowds disperse, too, but he was at least forthright:
The column . . . incorrectly described a passage from I Corinthians that ends with the statement, "God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong." It was written by Paul, not spoken by Jesus.
Right, but not written to crowds, though possibly to a crowded Corinthian church . . .

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

On NOT channeling 'unclean' spirits . . .

International Authors
Carter Kaplan

My cyber-friend Carter Kaplan, editor and publisher of International Authors, recently asked me to prepare and offer a portion for the Introduction to the literary anthology Emanations III:
[I]f you would like to contribute to the collaborative Introduction, please send me your clever, urbane, and/or satirical thoughts on subjects including New Age culture, cheesy mysticism, optimism, cults, delusional metaphysics, flying saucer abduction, store front churches, channeling unclean spirits and the Gods of ancient civilizations, and the spectacle of uninformed people making up cheesy spiritual (or political or critical) beliefs out of whole cloth as they go along . . . .
I couldn't let pass the opportunity to comment on the great unwashed spirits, so I sent him the following:
On channeling unclean spirits, we need to know the rules, and where better to look than Leviticus 10:10? Which sayeth: "You are to distinguish between the holy (A) and the common (B), and between the unclean (C) and the clean (D)." This statement, an oblique imperative, actually, compels us to make distinctions, but a careful reading is required here, for the sentence is not only a chiasm of the structure A = D and B = C. it is also an example of Hebrew parallelism A <--> B = C <--> D. Chiastically, the holy and the unclean are opposites, given that one must distinguish between the holy and the common, for the holy is clean, whereas the common is unclean. In terms of parallelism, however, the holy and the unclean have similar characteristics, for the unclean parallels the holy. What the holy and the unclean primarily share as characteristics -- or so we can see from various scriptural passages -- is their powerful dynamism as invasive forces and their intrinsic danger to human beings. Just as we cannot survive an intimate encounter with the holy, so we cannot survive an intimate encounter with the unclean. Channeling unclean spirits is thus a deadly thing to do . . . but so is channeling holy spirits! Best to avoid channeling anything at all . . .
Strictly speaking, Leviticus 10:10 is a bit more complicated than what I've delineated above, for the holy isn't exactly clean, nor is the common inherently unclean, but that's another level of analysis, though any reader with interest can check out this pdf document of an article I co-wrote on the holy and the unclean in Mark's gospel.

Anyway, I'm curious to see what Carter does with my offering as he integrates it with the offerings of others . . .

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sam Harris on Islamic Misuse of Ecstatic States

(Photo by Camera Eye)
Sam Harris

As my cyber-friend Malcolm Pollack notes, Sam Harris has recently posted an interesting blog entry, "Islam and the Misuses of Ecstasy" (June 9, 2013), though he might better have titled it "Secular Misunderstanding of Islam's Misuse of Ecstasy," for he recounts the following anecdote in which he minces no words on Professor Scott Atran's views (and character):
I once ran into the anthropologist Scott Atran after he had delivered one of his preening and delusional lectures on the origins of jihadist terrorism. According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of "Alahu akbar!" or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. (Really.) So I asked Atran directly:
"Are you saying that no Muslim suicide bomber has ever blown himself up with the expectation of getting into Paradise?"

"Yes," he said, "that's what I'm saying. No one believes in Paradise."
At a moment like this, it is impossible to know whether one is in the presence of mental illness or a terminal case of intellectual dishonesty. Atran's belief -- apparently shared by many people -- is so at odds with what can be reasonably understood from the statements and actions of jihadists that it admits of no response. The notion that no one believes in Paradise is far crazier than a belief in Paradise.
I would have avoided calling Atran "preening and delusional," but perhaps Harris is fed up with Atran's views, about which I know too little. Be that as it may, Harris proceeds to show embedded videos of various Muslim rituals and recitations (and one Hindu video) that induce ecstasy in those who participate, the last video offering a beautiful Arabic recitation of a Qur'anic verse on "the recompense of the enemies of Allah: The Fire." Of this video, Harris remarks:
This video has everything: the power of ritual and the power of the crowd; tears of devotion and a lust for vengeance. How many of the people in that mosque are jihadists? I have no idea -- perhaps none. But their spiritual aspirations and deepest positive emotions -- love, devotion, compassion, bliss, awe -- are being focused through the lens of sectarian hatred and humiliation. Read every word of the translation so that you understand what these devout people are weeping over. Their ecstasy is inseparable from the desire to see nonbelievers punished in hellfire. Is this some weird distortion of the true teachings of Islam? No. This is a recitation from the Koran articulating its central message.
I don't know that this is the Qur'an's central message, but it does seem a prominent one. Anyway, Harris concludes:
Islam marries religious ecstasy and sectarian hatred in a way that other religions do not. Secular liberals who worry more about "Islamophobia" than about the actual doctrine of Islam are guilty of a failure of empathy. They fail not just with respect to the experience of innocent Muslims who are treated like slaves and criminals by this religion, but with respect to the inner lives of its true believers. Most secular people cannot begin to imagine what a (truly) devout Muslim feels. They are blind to the range of experiences that would cause an otherwise intelligent and psychologically healthy person to say, "I will happily die for this." Unless you have tasted religious ecstasy, you cannot understand the danger of its being pointed in the wrong direction.
I have no difficulty grasping Harris's point about ecstasy in religion and its potential for misuse, and also like him, I cannot understand people such as Atran (assuming Harris reports accurately) who cannot see that true believers do exist and who deny that suicide bombers actually believe that they will enter Paradise.

Some people will always seek outside of religion to find the reason for radicalized believers, but if so, why do some religions produce more radicals than other religions? There must be something amiss in a religion's ideology if it does so.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

LTI Korea - "Encountering Korean Literature: A Personal Journey"

The Literature Translation Institute of Korea recently requested a brief article from me for the Afterword section of their magazine List: Books from Korea, and my piece, "Encountering Korean Literature: A Personal Journey," has been published in the Summer issue (Volume 20, page 28), though it's not yet available online. For now, one needs the hard copy, excepting my readers, who can find the article here below:
Encountering Korean Literature: A Personal Journey

Horace J. Hodges

My first encounter with Korean literature came through a roundabout process that started in 1992. I was sitting on a train in Germany discussing literature with a Korean woman whom I had just happened to meet, having by chance sat down beside her. Specifically, we were talking about The Man without Qualities, the famous novel by the Austrian writer Robert Musil, and our discussion was so fascinating, we decided to get married and continue the conversation. Of course, I didn't tell her about 'our' decision for another year and a half.

She lived in Munich and I in Tübingen, but we took turns visiting nearly every weekend, and for three years in Germany, our conversation continued, as it had begun, in German, a second language for us both. However, I determined to become acquainted with Korean literature in English translation, so I asked her for a book to read. She managed to obtain a copy of Ch'oe In-hun's early novel, A Grey Man, which I read slowly in an attempt to gain as much insight as possible into Korean culture. Ironically, the protagonist was a man 'without qualities' wavering in the 1950s between Christianity and Communism, which I took to mean the choice between right or left, South or North, and I suppose I was correct. I attributed that political issue to the temporal setting of Korea in the fifties. Little did I realize that South Koreans would still be stuck on this dilemma in 2013.

In 1995, we married and spent two semesters in Korea teaching before leaving again for nearly five years on postdoctoral grants, returning to Korea shortly before the millennial celebrations at the onset of 2000. Only slowly did I get back into Korean literature, and that was when I was solicited to serve as a referee, later a judge, for the Daesan Foundation. As a referee, I evaluated sample English translations of Korean stories and plays, as well as poetry, and began developing a sense of what, in literary terms, Korea had to offer. I was especially taken with Park Wan-suh's autobiographical novel, Who Ate Up All the Shinga?, translated by Yu Young-nan and Stephen Epstein, who appreciated my close proofreading of their manuscript and invited me to dinner with them and the author herself. Later, as a judge for the Daesan Foundation's 2009 Translation Prize, I participated in choosing Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton's translation of Ch'oe Yun's story selection There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories by Ch'oe Yun, and I was privileged to meet the author and translators at the awards ceremony. As for the writings of Park Wan-suh and Ch'oe Yun, while these works were more complex than Ch'oe In-hun's Grey Man, I observed a similar concern with the right and the left in the struggle over the qualities of the Korean soul.

Meanwhile, my wife and I had gotten into translation work ourselves, at times sponsored by grants from the KLTI. For instance, we translated Jang Jung-il's selection of stories When Adam's Eyes Opened and Yi Gwang-su's novel The Soil, both supported by the KLTI and slated for publication this coming fall, if all goes according to schedule. These two works have been our greatest challenges thus far, but also thereby the most fulfilling, for we learned a great deal about translating literary texts through the endeavor itself, and the process has improved my own writing and conferred greater confidence upon me as a writer. In terms of themes, the two works are very different, of course. Jang Jung-il's stories touch upon Korea's political division, which was obviously not an issue for Yi Gwang-su, whose works were written under the Japanese occupation, but the latter was similarly obsessed with a search for authentic Korean qualities, and his literary legacy has been vigorously contested between right and left.

We can see this same search for genuine Korean qualities in the works of Hwang Sok-young, particularly his novel The Guest, where he attempts an exorcism of Christian right and Communist left in favor of traditional Korean shamanism as that which best informs the truest qualities of the Korean soul. Although my engagement with Korean literature continues in a roundabout fashion, I see that the first Korean literary work I read, about a grey man preoccupied with Korea's division, offered paradoxical insight into Korean culture as a culture caught upon a dilemma. That same divided Korea yet remains. Highlighting that division, Hwang Sok-young attempts a third way. In contrast, much recent Korean literature by younger writers appears to ignore the division and its ripple effects in the Korean soul, but I can't help wondering if this division is merely being studiously ignored in works such as Kim Young-ha's I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, and is thus present in its absence.

Horace J. Hodges is a professor of the EPO and DIS at Ewha Womans University, where he teaches composition and research methods, occasionally also history and theology. He has a doctorate in history from UC Berkeley and has published articles on history, political science, religious studies, and literary criticism. He is also a published writer and poet.
That's what I wrote, including the bio, except for one thing: my name. I wrote "Horace Jeffery Hodges." You see what happened to "Jeffery." It became "J." But I only use "J." with "H." As in "H. J. Hodges." If I have to use "Horace," I always write "Horace Jeffery," even if the rigid bureaucratic form specifies first name and middle initial.

Since my wife and I will be recognized as translators this autumn, when our translations of a couple of Korean books are scheduled for publication, I'd better get this 'nominal' issue straightened out.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Bestseller in Norway: The Book!

Det Norske Teatret
Per Maning, Det Norske Teatret/Associated Press

The caption to the above photo tells us that "[t]his undated photo provided by Oslo theater Det Norske Teatret (The Norwegian Theater) shows actors rehearsing a scene from Bibelen, a six-hour play based on a nontraditional interpretation of the Bible." Not especially surprising, a nontraditional interpretation in a secular society such as Norway's, but the accompanying article, "In print and on stage, the Bible makes surprise comeback in secular Norway" (The Washington Post, Associated Press, June 6, 2013), reports on a recent, remarkable development:
It may sound like an unlikely No. 1 best-seller for any country, but in Norway -- one of the most secular nations in an increasingly godless Europe -- the runaway popularity of the Bible has caught the country by surprise. The Scriptures, in a new Norwegian language version, even outpaced Fifty Shades of Grey to become Norway's best-selling book.
Why this sudden interest within a 'godless' European country?
Anne Veiteberg, publishing director of Norway's Bible Society, said that increased immigration also probably has been a factor.

More than 258,000 immigrants have settled in the country during the last six years alone, adding diversity of race and religion. The Church of Norway estimates that around 60 percent of immigrants are Christian, while the rest are Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu.

"Now that we're exposed to other faiths, Norwegians have gotten more interested in their own faith," Veiteberg said.
I think we can speculate a bit at this point. The 40 percent non-Christian immigrants are mostly Muslim, I'd bet, for I doubt there are many Buddhists or Hindus. Moreover, the Christian immigrants probably are not reading the Bible in Norwegian. That means that the new Norwegian translation is being read by Norwegians, who are buying it at a bestseller rate. Why? I suspect that the Norwegians, confronted by large numbers of Muslims in Norway, are reacting against what is perceived as the challenge posed by Islam -- especially the threat posed by Islamism -- and are, in a sense, showing that Norwegians have their own religious identity, a Christian one grounded in the Bible.

This doesn't mean that the Norwegians are about to become Bible-Thumpers, rather that they -- even as a secular nation -- want to reaffirm their own religious identity in the face of an assertive, if related, foreign religion.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Stockholm: "[W]hat is the Problem?"

Stockholm Burning
Fredrik Sandberg/Agence France-Presse (Getty Images)
New York Times

As reported by Andrew Higgens, "In Sweden, Riots Put an Identity in Question" (New York Times, May 26, 2013), the recent riots by Muslim youth in a suburb of Stockholm got an interesting reaction on the part of social workers visiting from America: bafflement.

But perhaps we'd better back up and see to what the Swedish left attributes the riots:
The left, which dominated Swedish politics for decades and devised the cradle-to-grave welfare system, has blamed reduced state benefits and a modest shift toward the privatization of public services for the unrest, pointing to an erosion of the country's tolerant, egalitarian ethos. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that income inequality had grown faster in Sweden than in any other industrialized nation between 1985 and the end of the past decade, although it remains far more equal than most countries.

"The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer," said Barbro Sorman, an activist of the opposition Left Party. "Sweden is starting to look like the U.S.A."
Such an explanation belies the actual conditions in which the immigrants live:
But Stockholm's immigrant enclaves, including Tensta and the nearby suburb of Husby, where the riots began May 19 . . . , show few outward signs of deprivation.

Created in the 1960s as part of a state building blitz to create a million new homes in a decade, Stockholm's northern suburbs now offer well-tended parks, graceless but well-maintained public housing, well-equipped schools, youth centers, libraries and legions of social workers financed by the state.
The Swedish left's explanation makes the visiting Americans' reaction even more interesting:
Dejan Stankovic, the Serbian-born manager of a team of government youth workers that has joined parents and other volunteers on nightly street patrols, recalled a visit to the area by a group of mystified American social workers. "They said, 'It is green and safe, so what is the problem?'"
Good question from these American social workers, themselves probably on the left in the US. The Swedish left has a few answers other than environment. Racism. Or maybe police brutality. Or unemployment. Or all of these, since the riots started "after the police fatally shot a 69-year-old immigrant wielding a knife," this particular immigrant likely also being unemployed. Certainly nothing in the Muslim culture of the rioters would give them leave to burn cars and then throw stones at the non-Muslim firemen who arrive to fight those fires, right? The rioters are simply responding as anyone would to the dire conditions under which they live, right?

Studies should be conducted comparing Muslim and non-Muslim communities of immigrants to demonstrate that the latter react just as violently to the dreadful conditions imposed on them by the rich, violent, racist Swedes who simply refuse to give those rioting youth the employment essential for solving all the rioters' problems . . .

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

E-Beer Man John Wells in Little Criminals

John Wells
Mug Shot
About You Magazine

John Wells -- whom some readers here would know as the E-Beer Man -- turns out to have a literary side. He loves liters and liters of beer! Well, we knew that already, you say? Okay, let me re-phrase: He's not only bent elbows with liters of brews, he's also got a literary bent with prose. You might also already have realized that fact, based on excerpts from his weekly beer email, a few of which I've commented upon in blog posts. But even stronger evidence of John's literary talent has recently emerged, an essay for About You Magazine in which he describes the early onset of his criminal career:
I'll always remember the first time I was arrested. The year was 1963, and the place was 12th Street and University Avenue in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was then and there that a very large policeman took my best friend and me into custody. He put us in the back of his patrol car and took us downtown. I was in the third grade. My co-defendant was in the first.
Excellent literary hook! Why were these two young citizens of eight and six years arrested, you naturally ask? Sorry, no spoilers this time. But a few hints. Recall that this was the Sixties. A time of youthful rebellion. Of rock and roll. Of drugs. Of sex. Of helter-skelter in a fallout shelter. Of the Manson family. With respect to John's arrest, ALL of these and worse were fully irrelevant.

But I won't spoil John's story any more than that, and if you want to know more, go to his article, "Tales From The South: A First Time For Everything" (June 2013), and read the entire story from the perspective of an older and wiser individual:

An Older and Wiser Mr. Wells
Better Mug Shot
About You Magazine


Monday, June 10, 2013

Photoblog: A Day at Daeseongri

My family and I took a day trip yesterday to Daeseongri, a small town about half an hour by subway on the Jungang Line from Mangu Station, a subway stop not far from our apartment in Seoul, and because the hour of our return was somewhat late, today's blog entry will be a mere photoblog of few words. The first photos are of Sa-Rah and En-Uk on the Bukhangang (North Han River):

On the Water

In the Air

Crashing the Waves

The next photo is from a stream that runs through Daeseongri, with Sa-Rah and En-Uk at play

At the Stream

Just up from the stream was a court where the kids played jokgu, a Korean game like volleyball, but using feet rather than hands:

Playing Jokgu

More Jokgu

Still More Jokgu

We left fairly early and -- as noted above -- got back fairly late, so this will just have to remain mainly a photoblog, one with only seven photos, worth a mere seven thousand words, plus some verbal exchange . . .