Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reza Aslan DESTROYS Biblical Literalism

I’m going to do the unthinkable and discuss a Salon article. The lede:
Professor Reza Aslan, who holds a master’s in theological studies and a Ph.D. in sociology focusing on religion, has bad news for biblical literalists: The Gospels are “replete with historical errors and with contradictions,” and for over a thousand years, religious leaders did not take the Bible as literal fact.
Even though I don’t have a master’s in theological studies, I think I’m prepared to call that last clause into question. But first, a little more from the article:
“We come from a world in the 21st century in which we assume that biblical literalism, the notion that the Bible is literal and inerrant, is just sort of an inherent part of belief in the Bible.”  
Aslan explains that biblical literalism is actually a relatively modern phenomenon.
“Let me just say that one more time,” Aslan continued. “In the 2,000 year history in which the Gospels have existed, the idea that what you are reading in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is literal and inerrant is a little more than 100 years old. It was the result of a very interesting movement, a backlash to Christian liberalism and the Scientific Revolution at the end of the 19th century … by a group of American Protestants who began a movement that was launched by a series of tracts that were written called ‘The Fundamentals’ and that is where we get the term ‘fundamentalism’ from. It’s a very new phenomenon.”
There are three stages to this argument. First, the Bible is an error-ridden document, both in that it says false things about the world and in that it contradicts itself. Second, the proper method of interpreting the Bible is therefore to find a deeper truth in its words that stands apart from its superficial factual claims. Third, pre-modern interpreters of the Bible believed both of those theses, and a reading of the Bible as both true and literal is an invention of the modern world.

All three of these theses are extremely common in liberal religious circles. Born of a desire to simultaneously condescend to ignorant Alabamans and shore up faith in the face of the four horseman of the non-Apocalypse, they add up to a religious system that affirms the value of the Bible, disputes Fundamentalists’ claims to represent the authentic Christian tradition, and firmly rejects a superstitious, anti-scientific attitude to the world. I want to say here that the first thesis is obviously true, that it’s up to us whether we accept the second, and that the third is a laughably gross historical falsification. It’s that one which I’m going to argue against.

The claim that Fundamentalism is new is an ingenious piece of historical narrative, and is more than compensated for its lack of truth by its comforting implications. What if the medievals were actually on the side of Liberal Protestantism? What if the ancient church was filled with partners in our skepticism? That would imply that Darwinism and modern Biblical criticism are no real obstacles to faith; that we have just as much of a religious foundation to rely on as Maimonides and Aquinas.

But the claim is wrong, and ironically wrong to boot: as it happens, not taking the Bible literally is the phenomenon that’s actually recent. The reason that few people talked about the factual truth of the Bible before the early modern period is not that said factual truth was considered unimportant. It’s that it was taken completely and utterly for granted. With the possible exception of parts of Genesis and books like Esther and Judith, denying that the Bible was a source of literal historical truth would have been like denying today that microscopes tell us anything about molecules. (Actually, the one exception was the very early Christians, who made a fierce and concerted effort to convince the gentile world that their Messiah really had performed miracles and risen from the dead.)

Historical Christian belief in Biblical inerrancy is hard to demonstrate, if only because the evidence for it is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to know where to start. It might be helpful, though, to note how much of the entire medieval cosmology of Christianity was based on the literal truth of Scripture. For example: without the historical factuality of the Adam and Eve story, almost nothing that Augustine (or Aquinas or Luther or Lombard or Tertullian or Irenaeus) says about Christ’s redemptive mission makes any sense. By Augustine’s account, that is, man was mired in sin by his own fault, and faces destruction absent Christ’s intervention. But this fault was incurred in a distinct historical moment: Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. If that moment never occurred, all of Augustine’s Christianity falls apart. And that’s just on one point—I don’t even need to mention the importance that the literal Resurrection had to early Christianity.

But, Aslan objects here, what about the more minor points of the narrative? The Church fathers, he says, were so unconcerned about the inerrancy of the minor details of the gospels that they deemed them dispensable in their emphasis on the story’s deeper truth. But for a better treatment of how Christians dealt with the the internal contradictions in the gospels, I refer you to a fantastic Wikipedia article on the subject. Before the eighteenth century, as it turns out, Christian interpreters found more ways to harmonize the gospels with each other than our decency allows us to even think of. In fact, what struck the ancient Christian far more than the contradictions in the gospel was the extent to which they related the same basic story. Nor should we underestimate the power of a determined effort to ignore inconvenient elements of the text. Marcion, for instance, uncomfortable with the Old Testament references in Luke and the letters of Paul, simply chopped them out of his editions of those texts. As far as I can tell, Aslan sees the contradictions in the text and concludes that they must have been obvious to everyone. In fact, no one who wasn’t actively hostile to the New Testament—Jews and Muslims, for instance—was at all capable of seeing them.

In any case, before the eighteenth century, even the atheists, who believed that religion was at best a noble lie crafted by princes to keep their populations in check, had no reason to doubt the general factual foundation of the Bible. The author of Theophrastus Redivivus, a seventeenth-century screed against religion, thus drew conclusions about Judaism from the Old Testament, which was held to testify to the Jews’ original instruction at Moses’s feet. Moses by Theophrastus’s account might have been a clever prince rather than a true prophet, but he certainly existed.

At this point, the objection usually comes up: weren’t there allegorical readings of the Bible dating back to the beginning? What about Augustine’s reading of Genesis? And don’t Jesus and Paul themselves give explicitly non-literal interpretations of the Old Testament?

The first part of the answer is that yes, pre-modern Christians and Jews obviously laid allegorical meaning onto their texts. Nevertheless, it was commonplace to the ancient and medieval mind that a text could contain many stacked layers of meaning, including a literal one. God, for instance, tells Abraham to go out of his land. No self-respecting Early Christian would have denied that this was a real event that took place. But that didn’t stop Paphnutius, John Chrysostom, and others from reading it as an allegorical injunction to leave Earth itself; that is, to despise the cosmos and take refuge in spiritual life. (The Greek gē has the double meaning of “country” and “Earth”.) Much later, Pico della Mirandola, who never once doubted that Jacob really spent a night in Bethel, was able to give an elaborate allegorical interpretation of the ladder-vision, saying that “all things appeared in figures to the men of those times.”

The reason no one doubted the Bible’s basic, literal truth was that there were no possible criteria against which it could be measured. This is difficult for us moderns to grasp, who are raised with the tools to find external evidence for every text’s reliability; and with the instinct to discount the text if we can’t. But before the early modern period, there were no means of questioning the historical circumstances supplied by tradition for a given ancient work’s composition. Thus even the most ardent atheist in 1650 had to reckon with the Bible as a true record of history. (Spinoza, for instance, gave a long list of naturalistic explanations for the supposed miracles recounted in Exodus.)

Clearly just algae.
And in the case of believing Christians—who represented the overwhelming majority of European society—the Bible was itself the criterion by which truth was to be judged. This belief could take two forms. The first was that natural reason always leads the clear thinker to accept the gospels’ truth, and that there was no such thing as a truth that departed from Scripture. The second, more radical form, was that any evidence at all apart from the word of God is a seduction by the devil. John Calvin thus says this about the Holy Supper:
I do not at all measure this mystery with the measure of human reason, or subject it to the laws of nature. I ask you whether it is from physics we have learned that Christ feeds our souls from heaven with his flesh.
In other words, Jesus’ words to his followers at the Last Supper, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, are to have more weight with a Christian than the most persuasive doubts of a scientist. The modern method of evaluating the Bible is thus completely—and perfectly logically—inverted. Instead of measuring the Scripture by the evidence of our senses, Calvin would have us measure our senses by the Scripture. When an evangelical today asks why he should he should believe the Origin of Species over the Bible when the former was written by an Englishman and the latter by God Himself, he’s participating in an extremely old epistemological tradition.

So yes, if you asked a medieval Christian whether the Bible was literally true, he probably wouldn’t have understood the question. But that’s not because he didn’t believe in the Bible’s literal truth; it’s because its falsity would have been a meaningless proposition.

By the way, as for Aslan’s odd claim about the modernity of the word “Fundamentalism”: he seems to be bizarrely conflating the existence of a phenomenon with the existence of our contemporary word for said phenomenon. No one uttered the word “theism” either before the seventeenth century, clear proof that no one ever believed in God before then. And Jesus never used the English word “ruckus”, which means that there’s no way he could have possibly overthrown the moneychangers’ tables in the temple.

Aslan seems to be arguing that ancient and medieval Christians held by Rudolf Bultmann’s early-twentieth-century interpretation of the New Testament. Bultmann is famous for arguing that the spiritual truth of the New Testament—that is, God descending to earth to save mankind—is so important that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get caught up in the sordid details of what he did on Earth, and certainly shouldn’t get fixated on the miracles. I think this is a perfectly fine way of looking at things. There is, after all, no disembodied logical hand that will suddenly throttle us for applying bizarre hermeneutics to our sacred texts.

And after all, a nonliteral reading of both testaments does have the advantage of soothingly affirming a liberal religious mindset. It allows us to gleefully cleave to what we see as the inner truth of the Bible while jettisoning the parts we don’t like, like all the weird rules and scientific oddities. (Those uneducated and homophobic Southern Baptists, of course, aren’t wise enough to separate grain from chaff, and could do with a few educational brunches in Cambridge, MA.) As I’ve said before, I don’t have anything against buffet religion.

am, though, opposed to any historical falsification committed for the sake of picking-and-choosing with a clean scholarly conscience. We can believe what we want, but we shouldn’t say that our ancestors believed it too. There is, of course, no logical or even moral demand to stand up for historical truth either, but that’s what backbones are for.



A summer villa in Tibur. 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

RUFUS: I’m home!

AGRIPPINA:  Welcome! I have something to tell you. It’s very good news.

R: I like the sound of that! Is your sister finally pregnant?

A: Even better, if you can believe it. We’ve been rescued from death!

R: I didn’t know we were in trouble in the first place.

A: That’s not what I mean. Just before the Jewish War, there was a man in Jerusalem—named Jesus—who died and came back from the dead, and went up to heaven. But Jesus is the king of the world, and more powerful than all of the gods. If we only agree to repent and be his servants, we get eternal life too!

R: Who told you this fairy tale?

A: Cinnama, and at first I didn’t believe it. But then I thought some more...

R: If you believed everything the slaves said, you’d end up drinking hemlock to cure your gout.

A: But it makes so much sense!

R. All right. First of all, how do we know Jesus actually came back from the dead?

A. Whoa, whoa. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that he literally came back from the dead. That’s what the closed-minded fundamentalists in Antioch say.

R. What? It’s just a story?

A. Not just a story, Rufus. It’s a metaphor that has the power to change our lives if we interpret it spiritually.

R. Oh. Well, so is the play I saw last night. Have I told you about this yet? The main character ended up sleeping with his mother, who had disguised herself as his mistress!


Spark of the Gods

WQXR, New York City’s classical-music station, holds an annual New Year’s Eve countdown. Starting a few days after Christmas, the station plays a list of the hundred most popular pieces of music as voted by its listeners. The list includes the obvious ones—Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Vivaldi’s Gloria, and the overture to the Marriage of Figaro.

But every year without fail, by far the most obvious piece comes out on top, bursting into full bloom
as the fireworks crackle over Central Park:

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is the rare work of art whose greatness is only amplified by the fact that literally everybody knows the tune. It’s also a setting of one of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, one of the finest German poems ever written, and worth quoting in full:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, burning with fervour,
heavenly being, thy sanctuary!
Thy magic brings together
what fashion has sternly divided.
All men will be brothers,
wherever thy gentle wings hover.
Wem der große Wurf gelungen,
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein;
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
Whoever has been lucky enough
to be a friend to a friend,
Whoever has found a beloved wife,
let him join our songs of praise!
Yes, and anyone who can call one soul
his own on this earth!
Any who cannot, let them slink away
from this gathering in tears!
Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur;
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Every creature drinks in joy
at nature’s breast;
Good and Bad alike
follow her trail of roses.
She gives us kisses and wine,
a true friend, even in death;
Even the worm was given desire,
and the cherub stands before God.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Gladly, just as His suns hurtle
through the glorious universe,
So you, brothers, should run your course,
joyfully, like a conquering hero.
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muss er wohnen.
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
must dwell a loving father.
Do you bow down before Him, ye millions?
Do you sense your Creator, O world?
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars.
Sadness, in other words, is a false strain, and clangs dissonantly against the music of the spheres. The universe really dances to a joyful waltz. Melancholy is extremely good at convincing himself that he’s less deluded than Joy; that he’s more morally justified, but Joy knows herself to be a god; knows that she is eternally exalted over her malformed, disfigured older brother.

I’m a pessimist, who thinks that the pain in the world in general far overpowers what little pleasure there is to be had. That doesn’t stop me, though, from being infected in December by the spirit that filled Schiller and Beethoven; and raised up to a height from which I can say, with Emerson:
There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. ... In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, — no more.
Of course, this kind of joy relies on illusion; on a systematic forgetting of pain. But what an illusion! All the sorrow in the world burns up like stubble, and grief sinks like lead in the mighty waters. And at the end, once all humanity is swept up in glee, the author of all this delight reveals himself: all human beings bow to their Creator. Our God is a god of happiness, and despises the mourners.

Note something about the way the Ode celebrates joy: it angrily, disgustedly casts the bearers of misery away. Whoever has found a beloved wife, let him join our songs of praise! Yes, and anyone who can call one soul his own on this earth! Any who cannot, let them slink away from this gathering in tears! This is hideously—though in Schiller’s dialect, gloriously—inegalitarian. It’s the happiness of the high-born elves, who can say to the world: “you dwell in damp and smelly caverns, vainly trying to convince yourselves that the rotting fish you choke down and the cold you shiver in makes you somehow morally vindicated. But we, far away from you, dine in vast manors; our slaves bring us steak and stack our fire with wood; we sing the songs of our ancestors, and our laughing children crawl over our laps.”

The Ode to Joy is an attempt to include the entire community in this happy race, and instead of the low-born, it casts the lonely in the role of the cave-dwellers. (Not evil people, though: “Good and Bad alike follow joy’s trail of roses.”) The future, it insists, belongs to massed humanity, finally triumphant over the fetid morality and superstition of the past. Beethoven’s genius, meanwhile, in setting it to music was to envelop even the most cynical human beings in its message, so that they could see the world through the lens of gladness for a few minutes. No one, that is, who listens to WQXR at midnight is excluded from this gleeful throng.

So our New Year’s festival is thus our collective exaltation of Joy over misery, of the seemingly bright future over the painful past. It is, of course, a fiction: January will be here in just a moment, and sadness and loneliness will have their day. Not tonight. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Unconquered Son

In AD 274, when the Roman Empire seemed on the brink of collapse, the emperor Aurelian declared the creation of a new feast: the festival of Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun.” The holiday, which was first held 1,740 years ago to the day, was a celebration of the very heavenly event that we’re experiencing right now: in the days after the winter solstice, the days are gradually, and extremely slowly, beginning to get longer. This was a profoundly happy event in the Roman consciousness, not least because the lightbulb hadn’t been invented yet. Sol Invictus was a symbol of the triumph of light over darkness; of life over death.  Unlike Apollo, the older sun-god, Sol was not associated with poetry, beauty, or anything human or refined. He was a simple personification of light, warmth, and joy. The fact that his feast-day was in the middle of the dark winter was especially poignant: it was an affirmation that though he might hide, he would never die, and that his day would come again.

Meanwhile, it’s Christmas Eve today. As I write this, it’s a gray, dripping day outside in New York. But I’m inside with a mug full of warm tea and an inbox full of warmer emails. And Handel’s Messiah is playing on WQXR:

You’ve almost definitely heard that the current date of Christmas was meant to correspond with a pagan holiday. Sol Invictus’ feast happens to be that supposed pagan holiday. The theory goes like this: early Christian bishops in the Roman Empire, seeing their flocks so attracted to the ubiquitous candlelighting rituals in honor of Sol, decided to take advantage of this folk practice, and to redirect the Christians’ superstitious energies to the celebration of Christ’s birth. So they fixed the date of Christmas on December 25th, and that’s how it’s been ever since.

There’s a second, much more interesting hypothesis, which a professor suggested to me: since Christianity was already widespread in the Empire by 274, it’s possible that Aurelian himself was attempting to capitalize on Christianity’s success. In other words, it could be that the pagan holiday of Invictus Sol was based on Christmas. This theory is just as unsupported by any evidence by the first, and slightly less probable, but much more entertaining. 

A relief of Sol Invictus.
Any resemblance to enormous statues, oxidized or unoxidized, is purely uncoincidental. 
I would like to propose a third theory: the two holidays are indistinguishable, and commemorate exactly the same events.
First, consider what’s being celebrated on the day of Sol Invictus: for the month of December, the world had seemed like it was going to be swallowed up forever by darkness. (It never gets cold in Rome, but the days get just as short as they do in the States.) And there’s almost no force as unstoppable as human pessimism. So even though it had happened countless years before, the return of the sun was surprising—so impenetrable had endless night come to seem. The bewildering victory of life over death had been acted out in heaven. The shadow was just a passing thing; it would be only a matter of time before the entire world was covered in sunlight and spring blossoms.

But daylight wasn’t the only thing that seemed doomed to extinguishment to the ancient mind. Human life was in the same danger of permanent darkness. Ancient Europe, like modern Europe, was immersed in an atheist, fatalist philosophy: the only spiritual comfort around was bitter embrace of the overwhelming fact of death. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” was on the lips of emperors and slaves alike. Invictus Sol might be invictus, but human beings only had eyes to see him for threescore years and ten.

And then, in a manger in Bethlehem, light really came to the world, and human life triumphed over death. A child had come to earth with the news of eternal life; a message that would soon be taken seriously by the most learned philosophers. All of a sudden, for thousands of souls—soon to be billions—there was hope for a life that would overcome winter. Christmas is an expression of the most radical optimism conceivable.

So the two holidays are really responses to the same thing. Actually, not quite the same: even though the feast of Sol Invictus commemorates an enormous, cosmic event, it comes with a promise of only temporary relief from darkness. There will be another winter. Christmas, meanwhile, celebrates something that happened in the arms of a mother. But it promises a far more permanent, mirthful triumph over the dark: the death of death.

As a dutiful pagan, then, I’ll be toasting tonight to the lesser soli invicto atque maxumo. But a merry Christmas to everyone in God’s flock. And even though there’s no real war on Christmas, I’d like to suggest starting one with a preemptive strike on its behalf.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Crescat Scientia; Vita Evisceretur

This is the product of a less-than-gripping class this afternoon. Feel free to skip to the translation at the bottom!

“Vinctum vicit Prometheum
neque Iovis iracundi
aquila, nec alter deûm.
Quinam ergo? ree, veni!”

“Egomet ad nil reduxi
genus omni spe quod caret;
lumen numinumqu’ exstinxi
atra Ker ut vos regnaret.

“Dii, mores, iam vixisti—
dies meus nunc elucet!
Hasta Abrahæ defixi
deum, muscis qui iam vescet.

“Nihil nefas nunc putare
lege æthræ abrogata;
nefas vero est sperare,
æthra ipsa vacuata.

“ ‘Qui, nunc quæres, ex ampulla
me exemet?’ Vosmet ipsi!
VERITAS sum: alba, casta;
veritas quam invenisti!”

Vulture, whose wings are dull realities.
And the translation:

“It was not the eagle of angry Jove, nor any other god, who vanquished the human race. Who then? Come forward, whoever did this!”

“It was I who overthrew humanity, the race that lacks all hope. I quenched as well the light of the gods, so that dark Death might rule over you. O gods, O morality, your day has come and gone, but mine now shines brilliantly! I slew the God of Abraham with my spear, and he is food now for the flies. And for you, nothing is forbidden to think, now that heaven’s law is gone. But heaven is empty, so it is forbidden to hope. ‘Who,’ you’ll ask, ‘freed me from my prison?’ It was you yourselves! I am Truth, pure, sacred truth, that you yourselves uncovered!”

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Beyond Pessimism: Life as a Curse on Death

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 8:14–15

I am a pessimist. Not in the sense that I doubt my ability to make things better; not in the sense that I think that everything will be awful all the time. In fact, it’s just the opposite, as I’ll get to later on. But I’m a pessimist all the same, and this post is an attempt to explain what I mean. In short, there is one assumption that’s shared by every philosophy, every form of religion, every outlook on the world that I can take seriously: the world is an awful, sordid, painful place.

First, it’s because human beings devour each other alive, often with impunity. The hideously evil Jean-Bédel Bokassa died surrounded by his enormous family after a pleasant and luxurious life; and Mala Zitmenbaum, a saint, was sent to be burned alive in a crematorium. Throughout the world, bombs in crowded places regularly kill dozens of innocent people. In the city where I live, thousands of people are shot every year in gang violence. And the Germans tortured and murdered millions of Jews, and the sun rose and set just the same—glorious and indifferent.

Evening in the town of Auschwitz this summer.

But nature is just as evil as human beings, and though there are some who can escape cruelty at the hands of other people, we are all victims of nature’s torments. Dementia is one of these cruelties, robbing the old of their connection to the people whom they love before bringing them to nothing. In America, a large portion of the old die in hospitals or nursing homes; in a fog of confusion, wracked with pain that they can’t understand. (On this point, I recommend this horrifying post by Scott Alexander.) But the world can be even more violent than that: teenagers die suddenly in car accidents. A single tsunami kills hundreds of thousands of people. Cancer cuts people down in their prime. In our deepest suffering, sometimes not even our dignity is spared. And sometimes not even our decency.

The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, nature in her kindness preserves a harmonious balance between the two. This would perhaps ring true if each human life contained pleasure and pain in equal proportion. Now, in many lives there is joy that’s equal to sorrow. But not for everyone. There are people born into the world who are permanently enslaved to suffering, who spend their lives ground down to the earth; whether by painful, debilitating disease, economic hardship, or the ravages of war. There were toddlers who went to the gas chambers, and many who were shot in Polish forests with their whole families. Is there any kind of compensation on earth that could make up for their misery; that could make us say, “yes, the world is cruel sometimes, but fundamentally okay?” As Dostoevsky has Ivan say, even if the world were blissful, and almost all human beings freed from want and suffering, the pain of a single abandoned child would be enough to render the cosmos an evil, cold place.

But let’s assume the very best, and set aside the suffering of the wider world: you live a happy life surrounded by friends, you never go hungry, you get tenure at Harvard, you stay mobile into old age and die at 120 when your heart stops beating in your sleep. You still have to die. You still have to give up everything in your life that gives you meaning and happiness; and wander into the night, cut off from everyone you embraced while you were on earth. “The loneliness of death seems like it’ll be terrible,” goes the old consolation, “but you won’t feel it, because you won’t feel anything.” True, of course. But it’s an awful thing to contemplate now, when we can feel. “Death is just a natural part of life,” say the other comforters of Job, “and it’s one of the rhythms of nature.” But if that’s true, the natural order can go to hell; it’s evil and cruel that it has to be this way.

It might seem odd to call nature evil, since that’s a category that we usually apply only to conscious, rational actors. But the very non-personification of nature is what makes it so sinister. Satan was at least a man that we could talk to: he suffered along with us, and the reason he tempted us was that he resembled us. He could laugh, speak English, embrace us, and betray us. The lonely ocean—whose waves thrash under the sky without consciousness or warmth or purpose—is our modern Devil. Satan has been supplanted by Leviathan, a lifeless god of the sea. Leviathan will stare at us silently before he swallows us. He won’t know that he’s doing it, of course, because he sees and knows nothing.

What now? Once we have this basic pessimistic premise in mind, what do we do?

One response, which I want to touch on only briefly (I’ve gone into more detail here), is the worldview that was set out beautifully by the earliest Christians. My kingdom is not of this world, said Christ, and he meant it. Even God himself was overcome by the evil of the world, and by any human yardstick lived a deeply miserable life, both materially and spiritually. (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?) But the consolation of a Christian is that he doesn’t need to live under the yoke of the world at all: he can step humbly and joyfully into the Kingdom of God. In the first centuries of Christianity, this Kingdom was an everlasting life that believers woke up to to after they died. To some Christians in the twentieth century (led by Tolstoy), it was a state of the soul; a way of living by which human pettiness is drowned in a torrent of love. Regardless of how he interprets his own salvation, though, a Christian can eat the meat of the dead Leviathan on a platter served to him by Christ. He has overcome death and all the suffering of the world.

But I’m a damned soul, and though I’m humble in front of those Christians who can simultaneously hate the world and love God, it’s an experience that has no roots in me.

There is, though, another way of defying Leviathan. It starts with this insight: Just by being born, we’ve escaped briefly from his lake into a starry night. And while we’re here, we can breathe in a gulp of air before we’re forced back under the surface.
Love! O delight of men and the gods, you cause the sea to teem and the earth to bear fruit under the wheeling stars of heaven. By you, Venus, all living things rise up and gaze at the light of the sun.
Our first breath is the wealth of sensory pleasures that we can taste in our lives. A good dinner. A swim in in a glassy pond ringed by burning-red maples. A winter night spent indoors with a cup of hot chocolate and a fire. The thrill of reading a poet who has peered into the holy of holies of your mind. Gaping at the milky way; and lonely moon, whose light shone on Pharaohs and our grandfathers, and who keeps a loon company as she glides on a dark lake. And most sublime of all: Don GiovanniThe Messiah, and The Marriage of Figaro; not to mention Pete Seeger, who came to earth to save us from our loneliness

Next to the delights of the flesh (which I wouldn’t dream of belittling) it’s through love that we can most powerfully deny nothingness and suffering. This holds true for every sense of the word. From a mother embracing a sobbing toddler, to a pair of lovers lying side by side, to Gerasim nursing the dying Ivan as a matter of course, a connection with another soul is our most powerful defense against a cosmos that makes its best efforts to maroon us by ourselves. When we love another person, we can throw open a window onto the stuffy attics of our selfish minds. In another person’s arms, we can briefly escape from time. We can experience, if even just for a second, a glimmer of eternal life. This is the kernel of the most significant thing said at the Symposium:
These are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, ‘What do you people want of one another?’ they would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? for if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live live a common life as if you were a single man, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two—I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?’--there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.
If two souls are welded together, that is, they can escape from the overwhelming loneliness that would otherwise be their fate in death. They can break the iron chain of the kingdom of Hades, and overcome its icy abandonment. Hephaestus can’t, obviously, give this to anyone. But it is in our power, however poorly, to imitate his craftsmanship.

Paolo and Francesca: the only happy souls in Hell.

And finally, even in the absence of pleasure and love, sheer order is often enough to hide us from Leviathan’s blind glare. Keeping kosher, building a house and sweeping the floor clean, shaving, sitting down to tea at 4:00, having a concept of tea and of 4:00. These are things that we take for granted—but we shouldn’t, because the firm human frames that we build our lives on have no analogue in empty space or the deep ocean.

These three experiences are the foundations of a new Epicureanism. I can hate the world with a bitter passion, and I can hate death even more violently. But I can still love life, and I can still look with wonder at the light of the sun. None of this means we can overcome Leviathan. This kind of life-loving won’t let us escape from him, and just as little will it lighten the burden of earthly suffering that he imposes on us. But this is a gospel in its most basic sense of good news. For now, even if just for now, we can turn our backs on the lake. We can make our lives a cry against suffering and a curse on unbeing.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Stifled Love: A Waltz from Horace

This is the next installment in my series of translations. My goal is to keep the meter of the original, and hopefully some of the feeling. [Edited 18 May 2015]

Ode III.13: To Neobulë.

It’s the fate of wretched maidens to suppress their loving yearnings,
and they dare not drown their sorrows with a sweet wine
in their terror of the fierce tongue of their uncle.

Aphrodite’s flying boy has snatched away your wicker basket,
and your yarn—ah, Neobulë, what has done this?
It’s the splendor of fair Hebrus Liparæus.

Him, who bathes his oiled shoulders in the waters of the Tiber,
who rides better than Bellerophon the horseman;
neither outrun nor outwrestled by his rivals.

Just the same in open meadows, when the frightened herd is fleeing,
he can deftly spear a stag; and just as nimbly
draws a boar out from within the knitted branches.

Miserarum est neque amori dare ludum neque dulci
mala vino lavere aut exanimari
metuentes patruæ verbera linguæ.

Tibi qualum Cythereæ puer ales, tibi telas
operosæque Minervæ studium aufert,
Neobule, Liparæi nitor Hebri,

simul unctos Tiberinis umeros lavit in undis,
eques ipso melior Bellerophonte,
neque pugno neque segni pede victus;

catus idem per apertum fugientis agitato
grege cervos jaculari et celer arto
latitantem fruticeto excipere aprum.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Poem for Late Autumn

Horace III.xviii

Thou, Faun, O lover of the fleeing wood-nymphs,
come through my acres and the sunny country
softly, and keep off from my youthful nurslings.
Come, I beg, gently!

I will for my part kill a tender yearling,
nor shall we lack love's ever-present steward—
deep, brimming wine-jugs—as the ancient altar
billows in sweet smoke.

On the green meadows prance the sheep assembled,
as mid-December comes again upon thee;
idle and merry in the mead the peasants
rest with the cattle.

Wanders the fierce wolf through the fearless sheeplings;
wind-tossed trees strew thee with their wild frondlets;
gladly the ditcher slams the hated soil
thrice with his strong foot.

Man was once so audaciously artful that Jupiter snatched
pre-Raphaelism away, leaving us with modern painting.   

Faune, Nympharum fugientum amator,
per meos finis et aprica rura
lenis incedas abeasque parvis
æquus alumnis,

si tener pleno cadit hædus anno
larga nec desunt Veneris sodali
vina crateræ, vetus ara multo
fumat odore.

Ludit herboso pecus omne campo,
cum tibi Nonæ redeunt Decembres,
festus in pratis vacat otioso
cum bove pagus;

inter audacis lupus errat agnos,
spargit agrestis tibi silva frondes,
gaudet invisam pepulisse fossor
ter pede terram.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tasting Honey

And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring. 
—Numbers 15:39

Then said Jonathan, My father hath troubled the land: see, I pray you, how mine eyes have been enlightened, because I tasted a little of this honey.
—I Samuel 14:21

When I was in high school, I had no friend who understood me better than Leo Tolstoy. He was my rabbi, my kind but stern uncle, my companion on sleepless nights. When Allan Bloom insulted him I was furious; when my senior seminar didn’t grasp his apocalyptic message I preached it to them. Along with Heschel, he made me a believer. He was capable of bringing me to flights of ascetic fervor, but just as much of reducing me to a nervous, wide-eyed state of anxiety. 

That enthusiasm has faded by now into a low-burning gratitude to my old teacher. One scene of his, though, still has the ability to grasp me in an emotional and intellectual headlock. It’s from War and Peace: Natasha, engaged to the good Prince Andrew, goes to the opera. There, in another box, she sees Anatole, a handsome hedonist who—besides his incestuous relationship with his sister—has married and abandoned an anonymous Polish woman. Natasha, who knows nothing of this, falls passionately in love with him:
In the fourth act there was some sort of devil who sang waving his arm about, till the boards were withdrawn from under him and he disappeared down below. That was the only part of the fourth act that Natasha saw. She felt agitated and tormented, and the cause of this was Anatole whom she could not help watching. As they were leaving the theater Anatole came up to them, called their carriage, and helped them in. As he was putting Natasha in he pressed her arm above the elbow. Agitated and flushed she turned round. He was looking at her with glittering eyes, smiling tenderly. 
Only after she had reached home was Natasha able clearly to think over what had happened to her, and suddenly remembering Prince Andrew she was horrified, and at tea to which all had sat down after the opera, she gave a loud exclamation, flushed, and ran out of the room.
After reaching home Natasha did not sleep all night. She was tormented by the insoluble question whether she loved Anatole or Prince Andrew. She loved Prince Andrew—she remembered distinctly how deeply she loved him. But she also loved Anatole, of that there was no doubt. “Else how could all this have happened?” thought she. “If, after that, I could return his smile when saying good-by, if I was able to let it come to that, it means that I loved him from the first. It means that he is kind, noble, and splendid, and I could not help loving him. What am I to do if I love him and the other one too?” she asked herself, unable to find an answer to these terrible questions.

Natasha’s deep-founded love, strengthened over months and confirmed by virtue, falls apart in literally minutes as soon as she is exposed to a resplendently beautiful sight. What does this say about the love she had had before?

What it does not say is that her previous attachment to Andrew had been founded on air. No: Natasha and Andrew had a loving, noble, happy relationship. But here is Natasha’s problem: when it comes to aesthetics, such a solid attachment is on equal fighting grounds with a love that is empty, vain, and sinful. Her most human instincts are no help to her in deciding between them. How can she live a life that she knows to be good if her eyes and beating heart can lead her so far astray?

This is something that’s been troubling me recently. In a calm moment, I’ll profess an unwavering belief that ethics and aesthetics are orthogonal. In English, that means that what’s beautiful has nothing to do with what’s morally good; that you can just as easily have something good and hideous as wicked and resplendent. All that glisters is not gold, and not all that’s gold glisters.

All well and good. But like any good Greek, I can’t quite leave it there. A generous share of my moral sense does indeed come from what shines resplendent in front of me. I became an Epicurean in part because of the painful beauty of a certain poem. I turned away from the strictures of Jewish law in part because I found it morally questionable, but more honestly because it came to feel stuffy, colorless, and heavy.

For Plato, the just and the beautiful were two reflections of the same heavenly quality. Thus his highest word of praise for a man was καλὸς κἀγαθός, or “beautiful and righteous”. In the Republic, as Allan Bloom has lucidly explained, he accordingly has Socrates teach justice to Glaucon by appealing again and again to his erotic sentiments. I can’t assent to this outlook, but it’s obvious to me why it has been so compelling to countless souls.

In this light I want to look at a famous prayer by Augustine:
You called and cried, and broke my deafness; blazing alight you shone forth, and put my blindness to flight. You were fragrant, and I breathed in and panted for you; I tasted you, and I hungered and thirsted for you; you touched me, and I burned for your peace. (Confessions, Book X, my translation.)
This is the linchpin of Augustine’s understanding of God. To Augustine, we are all sinners: burning with desire for the world, our eyes and our flesh lead our helpless souls into ruin. But God reveals to some his own beauty, which is far more sensuous, far lovelier, than anything you can find in a brothel in Carthage or a Roman emperor’s villa. This is what calls us up to heaven, and this is what saves the elect.

There is something perplexing about this. Here is the problem: Pharaoh’s magicians worked wonders just as well as Moses and Aaron.  If all God has to offer us is sensuous delight, then what if we find something—well—more delightful? Thus Faust, aching for celestial pleasure, found nothing in Christian faith, and gave up his soul to grasp the roots of delight. Don Giovanni did the same, and bore the full wrath of God rather than drop the reins of the horse that carried him to ruinous love.

And the woman saw that the tree
was good for food, and that
 it was pleasant to the eyes.
As my friend Matthew pointed out to me, Augustine did not believe that the Devil can possibly allure us as much as God—thus resolving the problem neatly. If this was Augustine’s view, though, it’s not the Bible’s, and it’s certainly not mine. Evil and sin can be the most overwhelming and erotic experiences available to humanity. They can outshine the sun, and they can outshine God. As I never tire of saying, the Nazis had the most uplifting songs of the twentieth century, and most Jews have never done anything in synagogue but tunelessly mumble.

This puts any religious teaching based on aesthetics on shaky ground. And yet I do think that Augustine was onto something. If we entirely renounce beauty in our search for what’s good, it’s hard to know how to proceed. Even God, when he gave his stern moral law at Sinai, prefaced his injunctions on stumbling-blocks and sodomy with a fantastic display of thunder and lightning and trumpet-blasts.

So I’m caught between Augustine, who says that aesthetics are everything in finding the good; and my deeper sense that says that they’re nothing. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Notes for Yom Kippur

I will begin with a story. This is how Nietzsche told it in the Birth of Tragedy:
There is an ancient story that king Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When at last he fell into his hands, the king asked what was best of all and most desirable for man. Fixed and immovable, the demon remained silent; till at last, forced by the king, he broke out with shrill laughter into these words: “Oh, wretched race of a day, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to say to you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is for ever beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. The second best for you, however, is soon to die.”
The meaning of this has been hidden from me for years. A couple weeks ago, I had a thought which shed some light on the problem.

It began with longing for God, an experience that I can only compare to panting, unslaked love. As it appears to my mind, the concept of a loving God is the most ludicrously happy idea imaginable. In the presence of God, the fear of the void is a misconception, because the deepest ocean is a puddle in his eyes. (From Jonah, which Jews will read this Saturday afternoon: “The waters surrounded me even unto death, the deep encompassed me; seaweed enwrapped my head. I went down to the roots of the mountains; the earth was barred against me evermore. Yet Thou didst bring up my life from destruction, O Lord, my God.”) And even if the deep does take us, a funeral is a celebration, because it lets us finally rest in God’s bosom. And then the night will pass, and we will wake to a rosy dawn. This assurance, this soft comfort, is what I think Tolkien means here:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.​ 
Similarly: the closest I’ve ever come to bliss has been during the singing of Adir Venaor, a poem that my congregation reads several times on Yom Kippur. From ages six to twenty, it was an experience that insisted to me powerfully: it’s all okay! don’t worry! It was a glimpse of the star over Mordor; an annual drink from the well of God’s love.

And so to be violently deprived of God, to live in a modern world filled with fog and darkness, is an awful curse. If the well runs dry, then life is the shadow of a dream, and all is vanity. Who then can distinguish between beast and man, who both go down to the dusty earth? This all leads to the most fervent prayer of the atheist:

As the deer thirsts for streams of water, so does my soul long for you, God.

There is nothing bitterer to me than this longing. Among humans, unrequited love is unbearable, but it passes—you can find a person to cling to and love. To an atheist, the desire for heaven is permanently stymied, because heaven is empty, and will be forever.

And with the loss of God comes the loss of his promises. We moderns—unlike the medievals—are in Solomon’s position: we have nothing to suggest that our suffering will be alleviated here or made up for later. We can contemplate eternity, but now that we know that the sky is a thin layer of air that quickly gives way to infinite space, it’s hard to know where that eternity could be spent.

Being alive is painful for that reason alone. We are born on earth, pulled from the dark lake of eternal sleep, and taken achingly close to heaven. We look upon the light of the sun, we breathe the night air, and watch the wheeling stars—and then we are thrown back into the deep.

Even more terrible is our eternal love for other people, which death makes a cruel mockery of. My grandmother died this summer. Yes, she was in her eighties. Death often happens to people that age. It was natural and painless. But that doesn’t make it any less awful, any less scandalous. I am angry that I will never hug her again. I am angry that I will never meet my great-grandfather, and be kept from him by the thinnest veil of two decades. I am angry that I will leave everyone I know when we all wander our own ways into the night. The Archpoet sang: Quisquis amat taliter volvitur in rota. Whoever loves so fiercely is turned on the rack.

This gives me an glimmer of Silenus’ point. We’re given a foretaste of eternal love, and then it’s forced on us mockingly that we can’t have it.

But while death is painless and life painful, the fact remains that it’s incredibly wonderful—if briefly—to be above the surface of the lake, to dry off and warm up by the fire. Silenus might have been right on the first point, but his second piece of advice (to die soon) is wicked deceit. However mixed with pain and decay, the light of the sun and the embraces of a lover are intoxicatingly wonderful. Memento mori necnon vivere. Remember that you will die, but remember to live first.

Have a joyful Day of Atonement if you’re celebrating it.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Why I’m Protesting The Death of Klinghoffer

The Metropolitan Opera is mounting a production this fall that was last seen in New York in 1991. Written by John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer tells the tale of the hijacking of a cruise ship by a team of Palestinian terrorists, and the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger at their hands.

Obviously, given its subject matter, the opera has become the center of a bitter controversy. Last week, on opening night at the Met, a squad of 300 protesters gathered in Lincoln Square with picket signs and bullhorns. The charges: Klinghoffer glorifies terrorism, it puts the Jewish victims on the same—if not lower—grounds as their murderers, and it is insensitive to the memory of Klinghoffer himself, whose family resents the appropriation of his death to make lefty art.

These charges might be true; I don’t know enough to judge. Let’s say they’re not. I’m still going to grab my bullhorn and incendiary sign, and join the protest more enthusiastically than the most committed member of the Anti-Defamation League. This is reason enough: The Death of Klinghoffer is terrible art.

Before I make that point, let me show you the context that I’m judging it in. The following is an excerpt from Così fan tutte, Mozart’s opera about the fickleness of love. The plot is preposterous and thin, but the music and poetry are straight from the mouths of the seraphim:

Mozart does something extraordinary here. We’re in the middle of a childish deception: Fiordiligi has been seduced by a stranger from Albania, unaware that he’s in fact the disguised best friend of her fiancé. Surging over this comical affair, though, is a heavenly harmony that can set the heart of a mortal on fire. As a wise Youtube commenter on this clip says, 

tennesseelvr Apr 13, 2010
the musical master of the “feeling intellect” Mozart; unparalleled genius of the heart and soul; God s gift in this chaotic existence!

Let me give another example, this time from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Wolfram von Eschenbach is locked in a singing competition with Tannhäuser, a man who has spent an aeon in the Venusberg. There, he enjoyed all the carnal delights of the gods, and was so saturated by delight that the pale world has no savor for him anymore. Wolfram sings beautifully about the chaste evening star, charming the audience with his tranquil contemplation of beauty. But Tannhäuser, who has scaled to the heavens, has known the evening star (both intellectually and Biblically), and cannot keep himself within decent bounds when he hears it mentioned. Breaking into a wild song to love, he shocks the proper society around him.

This and the previous excerpt are examples of the heights that the opera can take us to. There is nothing under the sun that so unvaryingly leads us heavenward. In that sense, as the sage above said, it’s the closest thing we have to a gift from the gods. And that’s the standard that I judge Klinghoffer by.

At this point, you might remember what you know about Wagner: he was a vicious anti-Semite, right? He was indeed, down to the bone. But since aesthetics are a different ballgame from morality, that didn’t detract in the slightest from his ability to write music of throbbing beauty.

This might be a good time—if there ever is one—for me mention that I am a moderate fan of fascist art. Much more than most others in the twentieth century, the Nazis and their fellows in Italy understood the way to make a person thrill with aesthetic excitement. On the streets of Rome, the temples put up by Mussolini with their white columns and Latin inscriptions are finer than any of the faceless office buildings built in the 50s. And as I walked this summer in the ruins of the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg, mingled with my dumb horror at history was a strong sense that Hitler knew how to build something that was really impressive. The same is true in music: Carl Orff’s work is much more beautiful—and thrilling—than Schoenberg’s, the Jew whose music was thrown out of the Third Reich. The fierce reactionary movement that took place in visual art, meanwhile, was a vast improvement over the surreal daubings of the Weimar Republic.

This is all meant to convince you that I have no trouble whatsoever with anti-Semites making art, or even with anti-Semitic art at all. As I write that, it strikes me that I don’t believe it entirely: my disgust and horror for anti-Semitism itself often bleeds into aesthetic intolerance for anti-Semitic art. But only sometimes; and what’s more, there’s nothing morally virtuous whatsoever in finding the art of evidoers ugly.

This, meanwhile, is an artistic sin that I will never forgive:

Note the utter absence of hummable melody, the ragged, unrhyming English libretto, the clanging, unmelodic orchestral lines, and the pounding insistence on political significance at the complete expense of artistic craft. The last of those faults is perhaps the most grave. Lorenzo da Ponte, when writing the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro, explicitly removed anti-aristocratic references from his source text in order to keep the focus on the art. Let that be a lesson to us and to all our children.

I’m obviously not saying that the Death of Klinghoffer is anywhere near as bad as the death of Klinghoffer. That’s apples to rambutans. In this case, though, my wrath might have some effect in preventing it from happening. Ironically, though perhaps fittingly, the Met has already agreed to replace worldwide broadcasts of Klinghoffer with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which is as rollickingly anti-Semitic as the opera gets. Nothing this summer has pleased me more.

[Edit: It’s been pointed out to me that this is wrong: it’s going to be Rossini’s Barber of Seville, not Die Meistersinger. This is even better news: it lets us leave this ugly debate behind, and it’s more melodic to boot.]