Friday, July 30, 2010

Get (in) the Picture

[Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Walt Whitman, 1887-8.]

Page 19 of Leaves of Grass begins by continuing the portrait of a wedding. The full section, beginning on page 18, reads as follows:
I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far-west . . . . the bride was a red girl,
Her father and his friends sat nearby crosslegged and dumbly smoking . . . . they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders;
On a bank lounged the trapper . . . . he was dressed mostly in skins . . . . his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck,
One hand rested on his rifle . . . . the other hand held firmly the wrist of the red girl,
She had long eyelashes . . . . her head was bare . . . . her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reached to her feet.

The juxtaposition of the trapper's hands on a rifle and then the bride's wrist is slightly troubling. The scene seems hard and natural in a rather brutal sense, not like the shows of ostentatious romanticism we might normally associate with American weddings. The lounging trapper recalls the loafing, leaning poet. Hair has an interesting role here, the beard of the trapper and the locks of the girl: full hair, associated with luxury and sexual appeal.

The next scene involves a runaway slave come to the door:
The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak,
And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet,
And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
I had him sit next me at table . . . . my firelock leaned in the corner.
This fraternity in the scene, the hospitality described, contrasts with the wedding scene, where the girl's father and friends silently keep distance.That family is covered while the scene here involves openness, invitation, and intimacy--such an ironic reversal of the marriage!

Then, suddenly, we enter a scene of the twenty-eight young men and the 28-year-old woman. We engage a narrative roiling together the preceding themes of sociability, intimacy, openness, voluptuousness--and hair, skin, bareness, and touch:
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men, and all so friendly,
Twenty-eight years of womanly life, and all so lonesome.

She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.

Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.

Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.

Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.

The beards of the young men glistened with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams passed all over their bodies.

An unseen hand also passed over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
These famous lines shocked me maybe 20 years ago. Surely, readers in 1855 must also have been surprised at the forthright vision of bodies at play, bodies in desire.

[Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole, 1884-5.]

At least one contemporary was impressed by Whitman's verbal portraits, American Painter Thomas Eakins:
Eakins’s ideas about the human body find an interesting parallel in the poetry of Walt Whitman, and indeed, they may have been acquired from Whitman, at least to a degree. This attachment to Whitman survives from the records of Eakins’s students—they called themselves “the Whitmans.” Eakins admired Walt Whitman tremendously. He painted Whitman’s portrait and developed a rapport with the poet, and Whitman appreciated Eakins extraordinary vision–calling on him to speak at a testimonial dinner and then remembering that Eakins did his speaking through a medium other than words. Eakins was particularly taken by the Song of Myself. The painting The Swimming Hole seems unmistakably inspired by the passage quoted above from it, and Eakins himself, referring to it as one of “his Whitmans,” would support this reading. It’s a remarkable example of a poem realized in oil and canvas.
Notice that Eakins, like Whitman, inserts (an avatar of) himself into the scene. I think of the poem and the painting together as examples of keen observers and communicators striving to realize both life and thinking in art.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Being There


On Page 18 Whitman continues his argument on the ubiquity of the poet, on the great scope of the poet's eye, and on the connectedness of this teeming American life...and death.

Earlier, Whitman had shown us a suicide, but now he pans across an American mob:
The blab of the pave . . . . the tires of carts and sluff of bootsoles and talk of the promenaders,
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor,
The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and shouted jokes and pelts of snowballs;
The hurrahs for popular favorites . . . . the fury of roused mobs,
The flap of the curtained litter—the sick man inside, borne to the hospital,
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall,
The excited crowd—the policeman with his star quickly working his passage to the centre of the crowd;
The impassive stones that receive and return so many echoes,
The souls moving along . . . . are they invisible while the least atom of the stones is visible?
What groans of overfed or half-starved who fall on the flags sunstruck or in fits,
What exclamations of women taken suddenly, who hurry home and give birth to babes,
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here . . . . what howls restrained by decorum,
Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made, acceptances, rejections with convex lips,
I mind them or the resonance of them . . . . I come again and again.
Although I used the word "pans," the visual metaphor is not quite right because Whitman draws in sounds and the feeling of vibrations also. Whitman then moves us away from the crowd and immerses us in a country scene:
The big doors of the country-barn stand open and ready
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon,
The clear light plays on the brown gray and green intertinged,
The armfuls are packed to the sagging mow:
I am there . . . . I help . . . . I came stretched atop of the load,
I felt its soft jolts . . . . one leg reclined on the other,
I jump from the crossbeams, and seize the clover and timothy,
And roll head over heels, and tangle my hair full of wisps.
How easy we've made this transition! How powerful the contrast between that tension before and the reposition now.

Next, we'll ascend mountains, view the sea, and return to a sense of the social:
Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt,
Wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee,
In the late afternoon choosing a safe spot to pass the night,
Kindling a fire and broiling the freshkilled game,
Soundly falling asleep on the gathered leaves, my dog and gun by my side.
The Yankee clipper is under her three skysails . . . . she cuts the sparkle and scud,
My eyes settle the land . . . . I bend at her prow or shout joyously from the deck.

The boatmen and clamdiggers arose early and stopped for me,
I tucked my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time,
You should have been with us that day round the chowder- kettle.
On this page, Whitman stresses "being there"--being amid the din of the market, being out by the country barn, being in the mountain woods as a solitary hunter, being with mates by the chowder kettle. He dips us in the environments of the page with simple impressions. He invite us, cajoles us, and intimates that not to leap in ourselves is to miss out on a "good time."

Friday, July 23, 2010

Whitman's Cosmos



Page 17 of the 1855 edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass: this is a shocking and grand page of a shocking and grand poetic statement. We had finished page 16 with perception, both sight and sound. We left there with ideas that people had reason to speak, that people spoke from out of the depth of their desire to be know and to be available to the universe.

On the new page, we enter to thoughts of the great void, the question where are those who had come before:
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
Whitman's declares them well and as part of all the cosmos, part of it physically and temporally:
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward . . . . and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Whitman moves easily from the massive to the minute and back again endlessly. His vision constantly oscillates. He returns to the theme of knowledge, of sharing knowledge.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe . . . . and am not contained between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good,
The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself;
They do not know how immortal, but I know.

Every kind for itself and its own . . . . for me mine male and female,
For me all that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweetheart and the old maid . . . . for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.
The poet here sings that he is everything and that everything is him. He speaks for it all, for all people and all experience. He champions unification, a sort of utopic or Edenic vision:
Who need be afraid of the merge?
Undrape . . . . you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless . . . . and can never be shaken away.

The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.
The youngster and the redfaced girl turn aside up the bushy hill,
I peeringly view them from the top.
But don't think that the poet is all sunshine, light and butterflies. We leave this sprawling page with a curious image
The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom.
It is so . . . . I witnessed the corpse . . . . there the pistol had fallen.
This image is connected to the little infant, the youngster, and the red-faced girl. They all participate in lucky life and death, in the goodness of death and life.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Definitively Refuting the Kuzari Principle

[A picture of the Iceland volcano eruption, 2010. The smoke and lightening are awe-inspiring.]

The Kuzari Principle holds that some events cannot be invented or hoaxed because they have an unforgettable character and have occurred before a massive public. Accordingly, biblical miracles such as "manna from heaven"--a repeated occurrence--and the revelation at Sinai are too exceptional and visible to be anything but true because it would be impossible to fabricate or fake them and get people to believe. If someone tried to introduce a national unforgettable story, people would speak up and say, "that's not true!"

In this third and final installment on Kuzari (a temporary break from blogging on Walt Whitman), I will explain why the Kuzari claim ultimately fails to make a compelling case for the truth of the Torah's miracles: Kuzari addresses a simplistic and weak form of culture and myth formation, and it specially pleads for belief as an indicator of a story's truth. To be clear, I'm not "disproving" or attempting to disprove Judaism here. However, I am disputing (and, I think, refuting) the idea that Kuzari provides a sound basis for accepting the miracle claims of the Torah as true.

Here's the most cogent modern statement of Kuzari, by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb:
in modern language the principle that the Kuzari uses is as follows. I beg you to look at it, hear it, and pay close attention to all of its details. Let E be a possible event which, had it really occurred, would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence. If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred. [Emphasis in original]
Gottlieb also has a supplementary argument related to Kuzari:
Suppose A invents a story about a national unforgettable and tries to convince B that it happened. Suppose further that B and his nation do not remember the event, and A gives no explanation why the event would not be remembered. Then B will not believe the story. [Emphasis in original]
Let's use the revelation at Mount Sinai as our case in point for Kuzari. The following passage, from Chabad rabbi Tzvi Freeman, demonstrates the use of Kuzari to argue that Sinai must be true:
The evidence [for Sinai] is as follows: Universally, there is a single account of how the Jewish people received the Torah. It states that on the sixth day of the third month of the year 2448 from Creation, an entire nation full of dissidents and skeptics gathered at the foot of a mountain in the Sinai Desert and witnessed how G-d spoke with Moses. Rather overwhelmed by the experience, they asked Moses to kindly fetch all the details of what exactly G-d would like from them and report on it. Which he did, over a period of forty years wandering in the desert. Moses also charged the people to keep multiple copies of the written record, which they did, and so we have many copies of that record to this day.

Here is the proposed most likely explanation of the existence of this record: Someone made up the whole story. Someone else later wrote it down. A third individual put it together with other manuscripts, and the entire nation conspired to agree that it had actually happened. They agreed to agree on only one version of how it had happened, eradicating any trace of dissent.

Basically, a conspiracy theory. This time, involving huge numbers of people over a very long period of time.
Let's be clear about what Freeman calls the evidence: it's the Torah report (see below). So we essentially have only one account of the Sinai story. Most everything else in Freeman's argument comes from his traditional reading of that one account, from the quarrelsome nature of the people to the charge for multiple copies. So, our evidence for Sinai is this and only this: a single surviving report of an event that purportedly occurred over 4450 years ago in a desert wilderness before one people.

Freeman uses rhetorical spin to make this evidence seem more credible and stronger than it really is. Freeman also uses spin to downplay and, in my opinion, misrepresent the alternative explanation. Gottlieb's second syllogism is a version of this same misrepresentation. If I may summarize, both Freeman and Gottlieb claim that "The proposed most likely explanation of the existence of this record" is a sudden fabrication of an incredible story; that is, the Torah records a story that a person made up at some definite point in time, a story that was taken to be true then and there. But this is not the alternative position. Someone did not make up the Sinai story complete and unalterable at one time, for this is a modern sense of how stories are made and circulated. It was more like many people communally developing and interpreting back-stories for already existing rituals and practices. Gottlieb's A and B scenario above is simply inaccurate and irrelevant. The Sinai story was not a conspiracy but the ongoing evolution of culture. And it was not just the evolution of culture but the evolution of cultural texts.

This evolution is described by the Documentary Hypothesis, the modern form of which emerges from seven types of evidence: (1) the Hebrew language of different periods in the Torah, (2) the use and quantity of terms in the different sources, (3) consistent content (such as the revelation of God's name, (4) the narrative flow of each source, (5) the connection between parts of the Torah and other parts of the Bible, (6) the relationships of the sources to each other and to history, and (7) the convergence of the different lines of evidence. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Torah as we have it today develops from early oral and written sources that coagulated into four main sources--J, E, P, and D. Between 922 BCE and 400 BCE, the four sources were compiled and woven together to produce the Torah.

As to the Sinai story itself, well, the claim of its exceptional nature starts to diminish upon scrutiny. National revelation is not unique to the Torah or to Jews. The Aztecs have a national revelation story. Some Christians claim that the revelation of Jesus happened before the nation of Israel and thus qualifies as a national revelation just as much as Sinai. It is also untrue to say "there is a single account of how the Jewish people received the Torah." There is, after all, the Samaritan Torah, the Septuagint, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Torah's unbroken chain of transmission is dubious also, as evidenced by the missing and superfluous letters in the Torah portion Vayigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27). Plus, the Bible itself tells of missing links in the chain of transmission, as in the days of King Josiah (2 Kings 22-23) and again in the days of Ezra.

Although we have no information available to help us corroborate and understand the driving reality of the specific events of the Torah account, we know that religions can emerge gradually and do not necessarily need individual founders or foundational events. This point is made by looking at Hinduism. Shintoism, Asatru, Druidism, and the ancient religions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. We actually do have, therefore, some knowledge of surrounding cultures in the same approximate time periods. Furthermore, we have some knowledge about how the Bible was assembled. Whether one agrees with the Documentary Hypothesis or not, one must acknowledge that is provides an empirically-based explanation for the history and relationship of different elements in the Bible. The person who prefers Kuzari thus chooses a weak and indirect logical argument over an argument developed using empirical data. We also have scientific knowledge of the real workings of the natural and social world – and this knowledge leads us to see the truth as being ever less likely as portrayed in ancient religions.

What about the logical proofs offered by Gottlieb to explain Kuzari? These also wither under scrutiny. Let's look at Gottlieb's main syllogism:

(1) Let E be a possible event: Why are we assuming that an event--any event--actually happened? Whether the event really happened is what we are trying to figure out! We also need to clarify the parameters of "possible," as I don't grant automatically that a god appearing to the multitude is itself a possible event. Finally, notice how we begin here with an event, something empirical, but then move in #2 to something that could be empirical or subjective, and end up in #3 with a purely subjective belief. With every step, the reasoning takes us away from the empirical.

(2) had it really occurred, would have left behind enormous, easily available evidence of its occurrence: What is meant by evidence? If I tell you something and you tell your brother, is your tale considered "evidence"? What's meant by "enormous" and "easily available"? I am not engaging in sophistry by asking that the vital terms of an important argument be made with the utmost clarity and specificity. I have little problem with the phrasing of the principle on its own, but when we apply the principle to Sinai, we need to have the key terms mapped unambiguously to details of the story. When we're talking about Sinai, the fact is that we don't have good evidence and we don't have enormous and easily available evidence. We basically now have only the Torah. If the only evidence is testimony and/or social memory, then the evidence is poor: it doesn't bring us to the truth of what the event might actually have been.

(3) If the evidence does not exist, people will not believe that E occurred: This is ultimately the money statement of Kuzari, the assertion that people won't believe just anything. Some claims are so extraordinary that people will demand to see the evidence, the assertion says. In this way, Jewish belief is supposed to be proof of Jewish belief--hence, we go around in a circle. But the big flaw in much Kuzari-based reasoning on Sinai is the assumption that the story appears suddenly, as if the story itself were specially created by a god and placed in a culture that also was largely static. Claims evolve and societies evolve--both are dynamic.

The evolutionary nature of both stories and societies thus undermines Kuzari's premises. This evolutionary development is extremely plausible and very well attested. I am not here proposing that a band of actual pre-Jews were stupefied before a real volcano (for instance), and that this event was the true and singular origin of the Torah's revelation story. Indeed, if Kuzari were right, then the Torah would the one and only instance in human history of a cultural text emerging fully formed and never, ever changing across the centuries. I am instead proposing that the existence of the Torah report and that the traditional Jewish interpretation are not and never were necessarily credible as evidence. And, crucially, I am proposing that that people don't necessarily need evidence--good or otherwise--to believe the truth (factual or literary) of a story. See, for example, a recent article on how facts can backfire:
Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
The final sentences of the above quote speak eloquently to why people champion Kuzari despite its mismatch with reality and history. For many, accepting Kuzari's limitations would admit doubts in their personal beliefs. Accepting Kuzari's shortcomings would upset the ordered and imposed world of Jewish theology. They defend Kuzari because it's intuitively understandable, rather like "great man" thinking applied to miraculous events. Kuzari supports an illusion people can afford to have and often feel like they cannot afford to live without.

Finally, to close Sinai and Kuzari together, we should examine the relevant Torah passage, where the direct interaction of God occurs unambiguously only with Moses, and perhaps also with Aaron:
Chapter 19: 17-25
17. Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. 18. And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently. 19. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice. 20. The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain, and the Lord summoned Moses to the peak of the mountain, and Moses ascended. 21. The Lord said to Moses, "Go down, warn the people lest they break [their formation to go nearer] to the Lord, and many of them will fall. 22. And also, the priests who go near to the Lord shall prepare themselves, lest the Lord wreak destruction upon them." 23. And Moses said to the Lord, "The people cannot ascend to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, Set boundaries for the mountain and sanctify it." 24. But the Lord said to him, "Go, descend, and [then] you shall ascend, and Aaron with you, but the priests and the populace shall not break [their formation] to ascend to the Lord, lest He wreak destruction upon them." 25. So Moses went down to the people and said [this] to them.

Chapter 20: 1-18
1. God spoke all these words, to respond: 2. "I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3. You shall not have the gods of others in My presence. 4. You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. 5. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a zealous God, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, 6. and [I] perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments. 7. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold blameless anyone who takes His name in vain. 8. Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. 9. Six days may you work and perform all your labor, 10. but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities. 11. For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it. 12. Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you. 13. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 14. You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor." 15. And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar. 16. They said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die." 17. But Moses said to the people, "Fear not, for God has come in order to exalt you, and in order that His awe shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin." 18. The people remained far off, but Moses drew near to the opaque darkness, where God was.
When we look at the biblical passage above, and we must remember that we read it in translation, we see that the nature of the interaction between God and Israel is hardly so remarkable as Kuzari might otherwise lead us to believe. With Moses and then Aaron seemingly as the sole exceptions, all Israel keeps its distance from Sinai and remains “far off.” The people see smoke and feel shaking, as if they are before a volcano. What did Israel hear? Certainly, they heard the shofar. What of God did they hear? Only sound. Moses later reminds Israel that when they encountered God at Sinai, “You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12).

While Jewish tradition has maintained that God spoke the first two commandments directly to Israel (but see Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, II.33), this seems to be an interpretation that is not explicit in the text itself. In abject fear and standing from afar, Israel pleads to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die." We might suppose that the Israelites actually hear nothing directly from God, if we accept the speaking Moses as being literal:
The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the Lord and you at that time to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain. He said, "I am the Lord your God . . ." (Deuteronomy 5:4-6; emphasis added)
In this regard, the biblical claim of God's direct interaction with Israel is like later miracle accounts, such as the risen Jesus appearing to a few followers. The singularity of Sinai, in other words, may be highly exaggerated.

The Sinai event also has analogues and precursors in the theme of establishing a social and ethical contract between ruler and ruled. In the ancient Near East, we have the law codes of Ur-Namma of Ur (ruled 2112 to 2095 BCE), Lipit-Ishtar (1930 BCE), Eshnunna (1770 BCE), Hammurabi (1750 BCE), and other kings. Of course, the biblical claim appears unique in having God authorize the laws, but in practical terms Moses actually is the one who issues the laws. God is identified as their source and authority, but Moses is the vehicle for their presentation to Israel. And their presentation is that of a suzerain treaty (or vassal treaty), whose form pre-dates the Decalogue:

(a) Self-identification of the speaker.

(b) Historical prologue.

(c) Treaty stipulations.

(d) Provisions for making the provisions of the treaty public.

(e) Mention of the gods.

(f) Blessings and curses.

Thus, neither the Sinai event nor the laws purported to have been given at that time seem to represent anything of radical uniqueness or difference. This is, of course, assuming there was some such event. I remain unconvinced that there was. As a modern and skeptical reader, I hear in the Exodus passages above a rhetorical ploy to justify the need for rabbis and priests. The passages appear to me as a politicized re-telling of a pre-existing story or stories. I realize that this hypothesis leaves open the questions of what earlier versions of the story might have been and what real events may possibly have been captured in any of the story’s versions. Nevertheless, the Kuzari claim of the Sinai legend’s unique, uniform, and unified voice--this claim is shattered.

In the end, Kuzari fails to prove Sinai, Torah, and Judaism because it misunderstands reality and history. It is a projection of itself onto the human cultural landscape. It specially pleads that IT succeeds where every other miracle claim fails, just as every apologist today claims that HER or HIS RELIGION is not the like the religion criticized by the New Atheists.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What Is the Grass?


Since I only have time today for a quick post, I'll let Walt do most of the talking/singing:
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? . . . . I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child . . . . the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.
Thought leads to thought leads to thought.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Company of Your Voice


I hope people like this journey through Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I think it's refreshing to hear Whitman's voice, to accept the prompts of his poetry, and thereby to think these thoughts.

We pick up on page 15:
As God comes a loving bedfellow and sleeps at my side all night and close on the peep of the day,
And leaves for me baskets covered with white towels bulging the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the contents of one, and exactly the contents of two, and which is ahead?
These are difficult lines. Whitman has us exploring ideas of intimacy and bounty. He has us thinking through a rather weighty decision: do we look down the road and out in the open or do we instead focus on counting beans and creating inventories?

Of course, we decide to not to postpone the "acceptation and realization." We take up the charge to see and to search for "the Me myself":
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.
Whitman here seems to distinguish the working Me--the laboring We--from what I guess we can call the poetic Me. The word "poetic" is full of meaning, as I think Whitman wants us to understand this reflective, descriptive, and beautiful Me as both the object and subject of these pages. But Whitman is remarkable for never succumbing to exclusion. The laborer and the poet are intimate and mutually reinforcing:
I believe in you my soul . . . . the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
I take "the other I am" to refer to the working Me, and I think the soul must be the seat of poetry. Perhaps it's the working Me, another name and a symbol for the reader, that the poet then addresses directly:
Loafe with me on the grass . . . . loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want . . . . not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
There's humility here and simplicity. The poet asks only for company and for the sound of a voice. And yet even this sound is momentous. Even the sound gives and teaches. In Whitman's world, everything images everything else:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers . . . . and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love;
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Lacking Nothing


The next page (page 14) of Whitman's poetry starts with the poet not declaiming but questioning. The poet addresses the reader, challenges the reader, prods the reader, puzzles the reader.

Your thousand acres are pretty good, the poet's reasoning seems to be, and the Earth is pretty good, too. You may have felt pride in your ruminations over other poems...but now you are here with me in this poem. With me and herein, you the reader will not get at the meaning of poem but you will actually get the source of them all!

I have mentioned before my admiration for Whitman's audacity. His claims for what his poem is, what his ends are--these are audacious if anything is. And his style is no less confident and muscular. Look at all of the anaphora (Have you, You shall, Always), the repetition, and the ellipses. Notice the range: we began the page with acres and Earth; we leave it with organs, particles, and inches.

A final note must be made to acknowledge the great openness that Whitman champions: "Clear and sweet is my soul....and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul." He accepts all and rejects nothing. He embraces it all; it's all his subject and it's all essential: "Lack one lacks both."

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Our Song

Many years ago--I am going to guess 1989--I first encountered these lines:
I CELEBRATE myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
When as a younger man I first read this bold opening, I knew the poem as "Song of Myself." This title is not found here; it would be a later addition. But here in our fresh reading of a fresh poet newly reaching out, the audacious three lines have the poet yanking the reader into Whitman's way of seeing. In what you read, Whitman seems to say, you will understand as I do and you will therefore recognize your own understanding too.

I hope I can convey how outrageous Whitman truly is in this opening. He gives the reader not just words or ideas to ponder but rather claims that the reader will become connected or re-connected to an overarching good that joins poet and reader alike. Whitman thus gives both a new way of seeing and a new metaphysics supporting the vision. It's heady stuff, stated with simplicity and poise.

I can hardly fathom the line "what I assume you shall assume" because of the strange verb "to assume." The verbs seems to have both the intellectual sense--as in taking something to be true--and the active sense--as in taking control of or adopting. Poet and reader get locked into a shared sight and a shared mind. I wonder if perhaps Whitman's intent is to teach the reader about self-celebration and self-realization, to show them the American-ness of their sight and their being. Whitman's song is our song, one of the person, the individual, and the American. 

Over the course of the page, Whitman's words then begin to weave a reverie. First it seems we are by a house, standing and leaning casually, and watching the grass in the summer--yet it's a single blade of grass. The individuality of it is striking. Whitman really is concerned with atoms, with the atom level.

Whitman contrasts the perfumed air of the house with the odorless atmosphere. By this quick, impassioned contrast, Whitman declares allegiance to natural, to himself as a natural being with a nature to be explored and appreciated.

We conclude the page with health and song. This is an awakening.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Walt Whitman's America

[Walt Whitman, 1848]

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass begins with....

Hmm. Let's think about it. What is this beginning?
AMERICA does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions . . . . accepts the lesson with calmness . . . is not so impatient as has been supposed that the slough still sticks to opinions and manners and literature while the life which served its requirements has passed into the new life of the new forms . . . perceives that the corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house . . . perceives that it waits a little while in the door . . . that it was fittest for its days . . . that its action has descended to the stalwart and wellshaped heir who approaches . . . and that he shall be fittest for his days.
Is this poetry or prose?

No matter if it's one or the other, or both. Whitman opens with America, with this vision of America standing wide armed in a green field. Whitman bursts his vision of America in language, and it's a language of newness, life, ranging perception, fitness (as health, as toughness), and days.

The poet and the soul, too, are main concerns. They feed one another for Whitman. They cloak America's grandeur:
The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.

......................................................

Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves. Here the performance disdaining the trivial unapproached in the tremendous audacity of its crowds and groupings and the push of its perspective spreads with crampless and flowing breadth and showers its prolific and splendid extravagance. One sees it must indeed own the riches of the summer and winter, and need never be bankrupt while corn grows from the ground or the orchards drop apples or the bays contain fish or men beget children upon women.
Whitman's long beginning, which I will not labor over here and now, lays out the new poem he has devised. It explains, justifies, and theorizes his poem and his vision of American poetry.

I love the bigness of this beginning and of Leaves of Grass generally. I love the audacity. Yet Whitman recalls humility and wisdom just as well:
The poems distilled from other poems will probably pass away. The coward will surely pass away. The expectation of the vital and great can only be satisfied by the demeanor of the vital and great. The swarms of the polished deprecating and reflectors and the polite float off and leave no remembrance. America prepares with composure and goodwill for the visitors that have sent word. It is not intellect that is to be their warrant and welcome. The talented, the artist, the ingenious, the editor, the statesman, the erudite . . they are not unappreciated . . they fall in their place and do their work. The soul of the nation also does its work. No disguise can conceal from it . . no disguise can conceal from it. It rejects none, it permits all. Only toward as good as itself and toward the like of itself will it advance half-way. An individual is as superb as a nation when he has the qualities which make a superb nation. The soul of the largest and wealthiest and proudest nation may well go half-way to meet that of its poets. The signs are effectual. There is no fear of mistake. If the one is true the other is true. The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.
Whitman is an unwavering poet of courage and of work, and this is why I read him and honor him. I will try, unafraid, to meet him where he stands and to talk openly about the work before us.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Goodbye Atheism, Hello Walt Whitman

[The image in the lower right corner is one of my favorites. The others are from an 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.]

For some time, I've been thinking about a change of direction in my blogging. Now I'm still as interested as ever in understanding what Atheism and religion "mean." I have many questions remaining about how and why people affirm (and proclaim and "sell") intimate knowledge that there is, and is only, one supreme being of the universe. I have not stopped my considerations on reasoning, and I will not refrain from criticizing ideas I think are poorly conceived or otherwise flawed.

However, concerning religion I have reached an end point ( that's "an" end point, not "the" end point) in my thinking about it. That end is expressed by R. Joseph Hoffmann far better than I could ever hope to:
When it comes to religion, words speak louder than actions. All forms of biblical and Quranic literalism are invitations to moral terror not because the precept you happen to be reading at the moment is “wrong” but because the one you read next might violate both conscience and commonsense. Violent because you cannot know what verses stir the mind and heart of your friendly local mullah, priest or rabbi. Picking and choosing what the experts believe the laity need to hear–the way most preachers have practiced their faith in public over the millennia–may be a tribute to the power of discernment, but it teaches the congregation—the occasional Catholic, the wavering Muslim—some very bad habits.

It can lead to a constricting of moral vision, the abuse of little children, butchering or disfiguring wives and daughters, the killing of the tribe of Abraham by the children of Abraham. Words do this because they have the power to be misunderstood. And because taken as a bundle, the texts of the sacred traditions are a muddle of contradictory and sometimes terrifying ideas that commend everything from peace on earth to extermination of the unbeliever in their several parts.

It is the kind of tangle that attracts knot-tiers and exploiters and anyone who needs the money of the poor to be rich. Most of the methods developed to study and examine the narratives of the world’s religions “scientifically” in the last two centuries have helped to provide contexts for texts, have shone light on the community within which texts developed—ranging from Syria to Medina—reminding us above all that the ancient words are no different in provenance than modern words: that is, they are human words and need human interpretation. The words are not above us, they should not be considered immune from our assessment and judgment. Any doctrine of inspiration that teaches otherwise is potentially if not actually malignant and insidious.
And this is why I feel it's time for me to move decisively to other human words needing interpretation, to other texts--and their contexts, communities, and worlds. It's time for me to do something else, something that carries me to other places where I can contribute. I wrote recently that when I decided to self-identify as an Atheist, it was because I felt a responsibility to do something:
This is why am I an Atheist. Because the world needs voices to speak for reason and for reasoning. Because the world needs people to show that they are opposed to social governance by doctrine and dogma. Because the world needs people who want to learn, to think, and to teach about the issues developing before us. Because the world needs leaders who consider opinions rather than dictating them.

This is why am I an Atheist. Because the world needs people like me to do something.
This change of direction for the blog is me doing something. It's me doing something for myself and for the world I want around me.

I have interests in addition to Atheism that deserve fuller and more sustained expression by me. I want to explore other aspects of this wonderful world, such as the poetry of its people, the conflicts of its nations and civilizations, and the endeavors of its animal inhabitants. I have no new insights into how awful the imaginary God is, how lifeless the fictionalized Son is, or how hateful their holiest adherents are. And I wish to avoid having one more discussion about how it's possible that I as an Atheist could live by meaningful morals.

Therefore, my intent is to refrain from blogging on Atheism and/or religion for a time. Instead, I intend to pursue a recent interest in American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). For the time being I hope to make the greater part of my blogging a journey through the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass.

If I recall correctly, I first read Whitman back in college. I still have my Norton edition of Leaves of Grass, probably intending to come back to it at some time. As a medievalist, reading works outside of the Middle Ages can be something of a luxury. I think now is as good a time as any to re-visit Whitman and get to know Leaves of Grass.

Independence Day is upon us in the U.S., and Whitman often wrote eloquently about America. His "Long, Too Long America" aptly describes a malaise afflicting the world at this very moment in history:



Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful, you learn’d from joys and prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate, and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world, what your children en-masse really are,
(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

10 Things Science Says Will Make You Happy

A 2008 article by by Jen Angel lists 10 Things Science Says Will Make You Happy. The ten are:
(1) Savor Everyday Moments
(2) Avoid Comparisons
(3) Devalue Money
(4) Have Meaningful Goals
(5) Take Initiative at Work
(6) Make Friends and Treasure Family
(7) Smile
(8) Say Thank You
(9) Exercise
(10) Give Away
No surprises here, really--at least with what appears. I say "at least with what appears" because I think there are some curious omissions. I suppose meditation can fit under the "Savor the Everyday" category, but I noticed it was missing. Prayer is kind of like meditation; it can also be a vehicle for expressing thankfulness. So, like meditation, it can fit above, but is not explicitly mentioned. A big omission is music, either listening or playing. I wouldn't have been surprised if there was mention that people were happier when they liked music, but again maybe this is because music can fall under another category, such as "Savor the Everyday."

Many of the behaviors listed are the explicit focus of reflection in weekly religious gatherings and sermons. Indeed, the very exercise of a Shabbat service or a Sunday worship covers several of the behaviors at one time. Many religious services focus directly on savoring the everyday, on emphasizing self-fulfillment and avoiding comparisons, on devaluing money and so on.

No wonder people become so attached to their synagogues and churches! No wonder people believe so strongly that their religion is good and that it works. These people must be puzzled at Atheism, as if it rejects these ten behaviors.

But the truth is that Atheists support all of those behaviors. We too need to perform them, and we need to be reminded to do them because we too sometimes forget. The truth is that the ten behaviors are universal: there is nothing specifically religious about them.This list above, as I read it, itemizes ways to live a morally significant life. I think that anyone who regularly performs the ten behaviors will have the experience of living meaningfully and purposefully.

And yet we can agree on these ten, can't we? We can agree on wanting to be happy and on seeing these as ten ways to do it.

Surely, this is a start.