Tuesday, November 30, 2010

It's Gotta Be Basie

The Count.

I have liked jazz since I was a teenager. Count Basie has been a long-time favorite. I used to have a cassette tape of a "best of" collection. I used to listen to it at night while waiting for sleep to overtake me. It was great night music. I loved "April in Paris" and "Cherokee."

Thus, here's a nice take of "April in Paris":

And here's a great version of "Cherokee" by super-guitarist John McLaughlin:

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Poem I Submitted

Life is poetic.

I recently did something that I have not done for many years: submitted a poem to a magazine. The poem is about Autumn and raking leaves. It's not a sentimental piece but rather a meditation on doing what we can in a world where things happen beyond our control.

I've never had great luck with submitting imaginative works for publication, but I think this poem is meaty enough to merit serious consideration. After all, I know more now about poetry than ever, so I was able to make the poem fairly rich in allusion and semantic possibilities.

I have kept a poetry journal for about 20 years, although I write poetry rather infrequently. Who knows, maybe one day I'll seek to get the poems published. Just for myself. Some of them aren't too bad. Most of them aren't very good.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Foofoos and Scrofula

Page 28 of the 1855 Leaves of Grass is a wonder. Walt Whitman the writer has had his poetic voice driving to a point such as this:
What behaved well in the past or behaves well today is not such a wonder,
The wonder is always and always how there can be a mean man or an infidel.
Don't misunderstand: I am not saying that Whitman has purposely been leading to this specific moment, that there has been a single and set teleology to all that has come before.

Rather, I see the poem and the poet as articulating more haphazardly. Both poem and poet explode with names and classifications. Everything in, out, above, and across America and "man" becomes part of the articulation.

Yet, with that quote above, I read the poet as unraveling these classes. We call a man "mean." We call her or him an "infidel." But how can this be? I don't think the poet accepts these categories, or at least their signifying limitations.

The poet seems to admire the sciences and recognizes they necessarily place classifications and limitations in the world. But these classes and limits are not all, and the poet has no obligation to them other than to love them:
Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration!
Fetch stonecrop and mix it with cedar and branches of lilac;
This is the lexicographer or chemist . . . . this made a grammar of the old cartouches,
These mariners put the ship through dangerous unknown seas,
This is the geologist, and this works with the scalpel, and this is a mathematician.

Gentlemen I receive you, and attach and clasp hands with you,
The facts are useful and real . . . . they are not my dwelling . . . . I enter by them to an area of the dwelling.
If the sciences are houses, the poet--and people generally--lives elsewhere. The houses of the sciences are the antechambers of the larger house the poet explores.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 3): What Were Modern Biblical Scholars Thinking?

Raphael's Isaiah, circa 1511. The image conveys a traditional view of the prophet's divinely inspired authorship of the text bearing his name.

"From the start," says James Kugel, "many of the greatest modern scholars suffered from a fundamental misunderstanding of what their discipline was about and where it would eventually lead." Modern biblical scholars such as the American Charles Augustus Briggs thought their historical criticism would sift out the Divine word from "the debris of the traditional interpretations of the multitudinous schools and sects." In other words, scholars thought they were recovering and rescuing the real Bible.

Instead, modern scholarship became a vehicle for undermining the idea of a divinely given or inspired Bible. Historical criticism determined that the books of Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so forth were not written by these people. The picture of composition that emerged had anonymous editors or scribes inserting "large chunks of their own or other people's thoughts into the text." Divine inspiration became seen as a poor explanation for the seemingly different and even contradictory conceptions of obligated and prohibited behavior in the text groups J, E, P, H and D. Scholarship never seemed to fail at highlighting textual disagreement between parts of the Bible.

Also undermining a divine origins view of the Bible were "resemblances between specific laws and proverbs or stories in the Bible and similar ones discovered in Egypt or Mesopotamia." Very many examples--such as the similarities between the names and form Israel's commanded sacrifices and those of ancient Canaanite religion that Israelites were told to uproot utterly from their midst--seemed to bespeak of very human processes of cultural translation and borrowing rather than divine inspiration or guidance.

The reading approach adopted by modern biblical scholars served to render the notion of God's authorship of the Bible highly problematic. Scholars read the Bible in "human terms," as a collection of texts in history. What earlier theologians has seen as mysteries, these scholars saw as contradictions, inconsistencies, and duplications. The possibility began to be taken seriously, in other words, that the Bible contained errors, a notion that had obvious incompatibilities with the notion of divine authorship. By focusing on understanding the Bible within its historical context, modern scholarship illuminated the world behind the Bible but also eroded the idea of prophecy. Jeremiah's "evil from the North," for example, could be seen as referring to an immediate threat from biblical Babylon rather than as a cryptic message of the end times.

The humanity and historicity of the Bible, Kugel notes, drove scholars to adopt learning about the Bible as their main relation to it, as opposed to learning from it. The shift here is significant:
The person who seeks to learn from the Bible is smaller than the text; he crouches at its feet, waiting for its instructions or insights. Learning about the text generates the opposite posture. The text moves from subject to object; it no longer speaks but is spoken about, analyzed, and acted upon. The insights are now the all the reader's, not the text's, and anyone can see the results.
Along with this shift in tone and perspective came an unsavory view of the Bible, its writers, and its readers. Tales such as Cain and Abel revealed "an almost childlike simplemindedness" on the part of the ancient Israelites. Others, such as Jacob and Esau, indicated a willingness by the ancients "to distort the truth or lie outright."

If modern scholarship has been reaching the goal it unwittingly set for itself, to uncover the "real" Bible, then the real Bible is not so special. Instead, it is a human composition, a creation of ancient Near eastern literature. Interestingly, Kugel describes the persuasiveness of modern biblical scholarship's arguments as a "problem." This description is, of course, a matter of opinion, since I don't see it as a problem at all. Kugel seems to me to be on shaky ground to imply that the Bible ought to be regarded as having special status. Why should it? Because it had been so regarded before and for a long time? Because of its undeniable influence in human civilization and history? But perhaps Kugel here is not speaking for himself but rather for a traditional mindset that surely would have seen modern biblical scholarship as yielding problematic insights. Indeed, I now think that's precisely what Kugel's doing...yet, I also know that this problem is Kugel's problem, too.

I have more concern, however, with Kugel's distinction between learning from the Bible and learning about it. His suggestion seems to be that learning from is the more humble relationship, perhaps even a subservient one. In this relationship, the interpreter is like a lens; his commentary is the refraction of the text's wisdom onto another page.

Although I appreciate the picture Kugel draws to explain the shift in tone and approach that modern scholars took to their study of the Bible, I see this picture as too idealized: the "smaller" interpreter seeks biblical knowledge and crouches in studious attentiveness. But any interpreter relating to the Bible--regardless of how she or he imagines the relationship--can speak about it, analyze it, and act upon it. Again, I tend to think that the distinction is Kugel's explanation rather than his personal view of modern biblical scholarship. Certainly, we can agree that modern biblical scholars gradually shed a disciplinary reverence of biblical authority. Other than this important result, however, were moderns so different from earlier scholars, theologians, commentators, and interpreters? At least, did they not share the larger banners of scholarship, analysis, rigor, commentary, collaboration, and interpretation?

Hopefully, the next section in Kugel's chapter--and my next post of the subject--will illuminate matters a bit. In this upcoming section, Kugel discusses the ancient interpreters of the Bible and the development of the traditional views that modern scholarship altered.

Till then....

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 2): The Achievement of Modern Biblical Scholarship

From left to right: Julius Wellhausen, Hermann Gunkel, and W. F. Albright.

This post marks the formal beginning of my read-through of Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible. The chapter title, "After Such Knowledge...," refers specifically to the knowledge of the Bible produced by modern biblical scholarship. Knowing now what we do about the Bible and how it came to be, what is the impact on our beliefs about (and on our relationship to) the Bible? What is the proper way to deal with such knowledge, especially if one holds to orthodox practice in a Bible-based faith?

Let's avoid a possible misunderstanding at the outset by distinguishing between knowledge and truth. Now, I don't recall Kugel himself advising us explicitly to make this distinction, but I think he'd agree with it (reservedly, perhaps) because he stresses that modern biblical scholarship stands as a marvel in human achievement. Modern knowledge of the Bible, in other words, is borne of human creativity and ingenuity. Such knowledge is the product of approaching and understanding both the Bible and the world of its production in particular ways.

Yet this knowledge differs from the truth in important ways. While our knowledge about the Bible can expand and deepen, it may or may not correspond to the truth. Indeed, when it comes to the content and the historical production of the Bible, we cannot know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Nevertheless, this knowledge is formidable in its grounding, its diversity, and its substance. It cannot simply be dismissed or refuted because it's not just another way of approaching and understanding the Bible--unless one is prepared to have serious study of the Bible expressly ignore evidence coming from such disciplines as  archaeology, Assyriology, Egyptology, ancient Near Eastern history, and comparative Semitics.

Kugel is as serious as anyone about modern biblical study and its pursuit of both knowledge and truth. For his purposes, modern biblical scholarship goes back approximately 150 years, when researchers in universities and divinity schools, principally in Europe and Germany, began to analyze and interpret the Bible in new ways. Seeking to understand the Bible "scientifically," scholars such as Julius Wellhausen and Hermann Gunkel detected clues about the purpose and developmental history of Scripture. Through careful analysis of the biblical texts alone, they marshaled the evidence of language use into empirically-based hypotheses of composite authorship and composition in stages. They developed a picture of Israel's religion, explained the role of biblical texts in daily life, and broke out common literary genres across texts.

Researchers illuminated biblical words and phrases--and elements in narratives, prophecies, and laws--through newly deciphered texts from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other Near East civilizations. Scholars identified parallels between biblical stories and those of Israel's older neighbors. They also pointed out what seemed to be connections between elements of Israel's religion and previously existing institutions. Everything in the Bible was subject to detailed analysis and inspection:
  • Israel's history from the book of Joshua through the books of Kings was argued to be "a highly theological and idealistic retelling" of the past.
  • Books of prophecy were studied closely, as were the Psalms, Proverbs, and other texts.
  • Institutions of biblical Israel's daily life and religion were studied.
  • Prophecy was examined.
  • The priesthood and the priestly worldview were analyzed.
As Kugel remarks, the scope of study as well as the resulting insights and interpretations were often "dazzling." He rightly praises the "intellectual achievement and intellectual courage" of researchers such as Wellhausen, Gunkel, and W. F. Albright.

Kugel is surely correct also to lament that biblical scholars and their work have not received the recognition given to comparable scholars in other fields. Indeed, for many like myself--interested in biblical scholarship but not an academic researcher--these scholars are as important as Charles Darwin or other seminal figures in the sciences and humanities. Consider Richard Dawkins's well-known statement about Darwin:
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Similarly, modern biblical scholarship produced explanations for the Bible that went beyond "God," beyond inherited scriptural commentaries, and beyond the doctrines of institutional orthodoxy. The intrepid intellectual talents of modern biblical scholarship established an empirically-based justification (not only a logical justification) for one to assert an atheist position.

In the next post, I will review Kugel's summary of what modern biblical scholars thought they were doing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible

James L. Kugel

This is the first post in a series on James Kugel's book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. My plan (for the moment) is to address only Kugel's final chapter, called "After Such Knowledge...." Now, the entire book is a pleasure to read, and I heartily recommend it, but I want to focus solely on that last chapter because it tackles the maintenance of orthodox Bible-based faith despite a full understanding of modern biblical scholarship.

What makes the final chapter so interesting, however, is the 35 chapters that come before. To get a sense of the book's overall content, I offer here the product description from the publisher:
Scholars from different fields have joined forces to reexamine every aspect of the Hebrew Bible. Their research, carried out in universities and seminaries in Europe and America, has revolutionized our understanding of almost every chapter and verse. But have they killed the Bible in the process?

In How to Read the Bible, Harvard professor James Kugel leads the reader chapter by chapter through the "quiet revolution" of recent biblical scholarship, showing time and again how radically the interpretations of today's researchers differ from what people have always thought. The story of Adam and Eve, it turns out, was not originally about the "Fall of Man," but about the move from a primitive, hunter-gatherer society to a settled, agricultural one. As for the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, and Jacob and Esau, these narratives were not, at their origin, about individual people at all but, rather, explanations of some feature of Israelite society as it existed centuries after these figures were said to have lived. Dinah was never raped -- her story was created by an editor to solve a certain problem in Genesis. In the earliest version of the Exodus story, Moses probably did not divide the Red Sea in half; instead, the Egyptians perished in a storm at sea. Whatever the original Ten Commandments might have been, scholars are quite sure they were different from the ones we have today. What's more, the people long supposed to have written various books of the Bible were not, in the current consensus, their real authors: David did not write the Psalms, Solomon did not write Proverbs or Ecclesiastes; indeed, there is scarcely a book in the Bible that is not the product of different, anonymous authors and editors working in different periods.

Such findings pose a serious problem for adherents of traditional, Bible-based faiths. Hiding from the discoveries of modern scholars seems dishonest, but accepting them means undermining much of the Bible's reliability and authority as the word of God. What to do? In his search for a solution, Kugel leads the reader back to a group of ancient biblical interpreters who flourished at the end of the biblical period. Far from naïve, these interpreters consciously set out to depart from the original meaning of the Bible's various stories, laws, and prophecies -- and they, Kugel argues, hold the key to solving the dilemma of reading the Bible today.

How to Read the Bible is, quite simply, the best, most original book about the Bible in decades. It offers an unflinching, insider's look at the work of today's scholars, together with a sustained consideration of what the Bible was for most of its history -- before the rise of modern scholarship. Readable, clear, often funny but deeply serious in its purpose, this is a book for Christians and Jews, believers and secularists alike. It offers nothing less than a whole new way of thinking about sacred Scripture.
Chapter 36, then, deals with the fate of the Bible and the possibility of maintaining traditional religious belief in the face of what research indicates about Scripture.

It's a personal chapter because Kugel is an orthodox Jew and a very highly regarded biblical scholar. It's personal for me because in 1993, Kugel was my instructor in a class in American Jewish Literature at the Harvard Extension School. I enjoyed the class immensely, especially Kugel's lectures. He is a person I respect enormously for his intellect and for his character, which I have encountered through his class and several of his books.

That class, by the way, introduced me to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, both of whom I think are great. Indeed, Bellow has given me one of my favorite literary passages of all, from Humboldt's Gift:
You are lazy, disgraceful, tougher than you think but not yet a dead loss. In part you are humanly okay. We are supposed to do something for our kind. Don't get frenzied about money. Overcome your greed. Better luck with women. Last of all--remember: we are not natural beings but supernatural beings.
I used to believe poor, dead Humboldt that we are supernatural beings. Maybe we are, but not in the way that most people think of "supernatural." We can change the world and know we are doing it. Our own personal worlds and the larger world we occupy together.

In this series, I seek to understand why someone like Kugel still believes in the Bible (and so too, therefore, in the supernatural), and why he maintains orthodox Jewish belief and practice. How is this possible? And how is it possible that I, who know much less than Kugel about what modern biblical criticism actually says and actually implies, can reject orthodox Jewish belief and practice?

These are the questions I will explore.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Groove

I need it...

Evidently, We Don't All Want to Just Get Along

When will next time be, ya think?

This is not a political blog, although I touch on political matters from time to time. American political discourse is exceedingly ugly right now, having reached strange and disturbing proportions.

Exhibit 1: Glenn Beck of Fox News on financier George Soros.

Exhibit 2: A Google search for "Obama" on Blogger sites:
"Barack Obama Verses Israel And Uncle Sam"

"Cantor promises to check Obama on Israel"

"More evidence that Obama is in over his head in foreign policy"

"Obama's Slave Ship"

"Obama And Pelosi Sitting In A Tree..... K.I.S.S.I.N.G"

"Can Obama Do For Big Business With Social Security What Clinton Delivered For Them With "Free" Trade?"

"Obama Team's Deficit Cutting Proposal: Benefit the Few, Harm the Many"
Exhibit 3: A Google search for "Palin" on Blogger sites:
"Some good signs for Palin"

"Governor Sarah Palin’s 'America By Heart' 16-City Book Tour Schedule"

"Top Palin advisor, Randy Scheunemann, on Soros payroll"

"Is Sarah Palin Right About Inflation?"
Exhibit 4: A Google search for "Cheney" on Blogger sites:
"Thank You, Dick Cheney, For Giving Me the Proper Words #p2 Go fuck yourself"

"Dick Cheney's role in Al Qaeda's Yemeni resurgence..."

"About the guy "Big Dick" Cheney shot"

"Dick Cheney Appears 'Gaunt and Frail' at Bakersfield Business Conference — Leftists Celebrate With Death Chants"
Fortunately, not all the post titles (and not all the articles) are what many of us would call "bat-shit insane," but plenty enough are. I know well that the nature of blogging is to sensationalize one's views and reactions to the world. That Glenn Beck report, however, is scary-awful with its fear-mongering, sinister implications, and dark presentation--this is from a major news outlet! 

People seem to take their anti-whatevers (anti-Obama, anti-Republican) seriously. I don't think the trend to extremist political discourse is going to wane, at least not until a violent incident of sufficient significance can be traced back directly to this discourse. I imagine some network will get its own Scott Amedure moment someday. This event seems inevitable. The only question is whether we'll all be too far gone for it to have any cathartic effect.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Goal's Beyond

John Milton, we all know, wrote Paradise Lost "to justify the ways of God to men." My goals in Textuality are slightly more modest than Milton's but exponentially more important: I write to explain my ideas and opinions to my children. I write to my wife, my brothers, my parents, my friends, and to anyone else who may be interested.

How many of us know what our mothers and fathers truly feel and think? How many get the chance to see the world through their eyes and approach ideas the way they do?

My goal for this blog is to make this knowledge and sight available to my loved ones, should they ever want to explore. I want them to know what I think and why. I want them to understand what I think, even if they do not agree with the thoughts. I want them to know that I think. I want them to realize that I am most comfortable writing and considering ideas.

I started Textuality in 2005, following the painful but necessary abandonment (temporary, it now seems) of my dissertation and my aspirations for doctorate in English. At that time, my aims for the blog were to to continue working, informally, in textuality:
This blog has been initiated and inaugurated to serve as a forum on textuality. Specifically, it is intended to support the analysis and understanding of current events, issues, and debates from the standpoint of textuality.

As I understand textuality, it is the quality possessed by a tangible thing of being a text. To proceed further, a text is a tangible thing – such as a piece of paper, a book, a Web page or Internet site, an onstage or onscreen performance, a painting, a sculpture, a building, a location in nature, and so on – that is understood to be or to be comprised of one or more signs. Signs may contain one or more signifying elements, but their referents are conceived of as statements of thought intended to be communicated.
I had hoped to build a site that would become the foremost authority on textuality. In practice, however, I used the blog as a diary. The personal and rather whiny nature of the blog during these early days was one reason (there were others) I took the pseudonym "Larry Tanner," a nickname someone gave me in college. Recently I have flirted with the idea of "coming out" and using my real name, but I already have other blogs under my real name. "Larry Tanner" has become like a separate identity, and I enjoy playing this role. So for now, the pseudonym stays.

Early on in the life of the blog, I seemed to lose interest. In 2006, I posted only one entry, and it was a personal disclosure:
It's almost been one year since I last posted here. Let's see: one child, two marathons, and some marital beauty and ugliness later, now I'm posting again.

I don't know why, exactly, I would even think of coming back. I'm struggling with something. I'm just not satisfied. I'm losing confidence and feel like I'm running out of time.

Hmm ... isn't this kind of what I said last year too?
The post above sounds rather bleak and self-chastising. I do that much less now, for whatever reasons. I remember some of the days of 2006. Our family was strapped for cash, stressed with the new baby, dissatisfied with my workplace, bewildered by my wife's depression, and dealing with my dislike of the wife's new church. We had issues, then, but we also had lots of happiness and love, too. In any case, I suppose my attention was best directed elsewhere than the blog.

Although I posted intermittently in 2007, the great change for Textuality came in 2008. Precipitating the change was my accepting a ghostwriting gig. As I began the gig and the writing involved, I did not foresee any shifts in my personal views but I did sense trouble between my author friend/employer and myself:
In the writing, I am finding a lot of passion and struggle in myself. It's good, I'm learning a lot and swaying between almost complete atheism and firm religious belief. It's interesting. There are just so many great perspectives available online. I am glad that I am able to be swayed. I am not an easy sway, but my openness is partly what makes it all work. Now, it could be that my author is not happy with what I have drafted. If that's the case, then we surely will not be able to work together.
Partly as a result of this gig, I took sides in the larger cultural squabbles concerning atheism and religion. I posted a big admission in November of 2008:
Do I believe in G-d? The answer is no, but it’s not an unequivocal no. It is a no of belief: I do not feel sure enough to have the scales tipped toward faith. I have little confidence that I ever will...and I am OK with this.
The character of my posts changed slowly. Throughout 2008 and into 2009, I was writing reactive stuff: I'd read an article or another blog post and then respond. I don't think I struck upon a clearer identity for Textuality until October 2009, with one post on Bob Dylan and another on the debates of atheists and religious believers.

With these essays, I brought out (at last) my full voice. I sought to make my points personal, original, unambiguous, and unfiltered. I tried to quote liberally and in context. I wanted to work through quotes slowly, patiently, and in detail. I aimed to have posts work as part of a larger, ongoing conversation between myself and the world.

In July of this year, I thought I'd exhausted my thoughts on atheism and religion. I intended to post mostly on Walt Whitman to find other topics of interest. I said then:
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.
This statement remains true, even if I have not done as much about it (so far) as I might like. Indeed, recently I've been quite focused on topics in and around atheism and religion. Yet I've been generally pleased about the posts on the Kuzari Principle and on ultimate meaning.

One day, I hope to gather maybe 25-50 posts, organize them, and self -publish a book of the best and most enduring posts in Textuality.This book will be for the kids, mainly, not for sale or money. My focus today is on addressing topics that interest me but that also allow me to express ideas and opinions I haven't said before.

I have much, much more to write in this blog--about atheism, religion, family, aging, poetry, jokes, work, politics, and more. I anticipate the days and years ahead. Perhaps a post already written or yet to come will serve as pre-text for one or more face-to-face discussions with my children and/or with my wife.

This is a core element of my thinking: anything I write should have an application in real life. My blog life as "Larry Tanner" is a reflection and premonition of the life where I am interacting with actual human beings in real space-time. I would never want a blog that was all and only "in" the blogosphere.

I expect that if I keep up with Textuality, it will continue to morph. After all, I am still growing as an intellect and as a person, and I have much to explain and share. I cannot say whether the future will be good or bad. I hope it's more of the good, but who knows? The writing is part of what I can do. Textuality is part of my pro-activity.

The Future of the Humanities

A recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe notes the shrinking percentage of college students majoring in the humanities. The entire editorial appears below:
Economic necessity is a rigid academic counselor. So it’s no surprise that the percentage of undergraduates majoring in the humanities keeps on declining, from 17 percent in 1966 to 8 percent in 2007. Especially in the face of today’s crippling debt levels and dreary job market, even students who adore Shakespeare’s poetry are seeking more marketable academic credentials. And yet the value of literature, philosophy, and history remains what it always has been — a mostly impractical gift that the undergraduate is given for a lifetime.

College administrators can only do so much to persuade students to major in the humanities. What they can and should do is make sure undergraduates take some courses that at least introduce them to Plato and Sophocles, or St. Augustine and Martin Luther, or James Joyce and William Butler Yeats. The student who’s destined to work on a computer for a living may still gain more from learning about the French Revolution than, say, an extra tuneup on HTML.
The Globe sees jobs and job-seeking as the driving force of the decline but provides no data in support of the link. I would love to see a study of why college students today choose the majors they do and why they don't choose majors (or minors) that otherwise still interest them.

Today's students may feel pressure to give priority to certain majors outside of the humanities. However, they might--or might also--hold less less interest in humanities subjects compared to other majors.

The difference is important for anyone thinking about the public perception of the humanities, on the one hand, and both the content and tools of humanities scholarship, on the other hand.

Some of the interesting comments to the Globe piece (numbering is mine):
(1) The cretins who scribble their screed all over the Globe will never have a clue on the value of the humanities. Arts and letters are barely surviving in Amerika but they are the reason we fight wars for freedom. Who ever stepped in front of a gun for progress in math and science or a better shopping mall? The humanities are how we EXPRESS freedom. Even if a country full of face-stuffing, comatose consumers and conquerors cannot see it or care less.

(2) The long demise of the humanities in academe is fully deserved by their professoriate, who have vainly sought academic respectability by focusing on abstruse technical and procedural issues (e.g., semiotics, post-modern deconstructionism) rather than substance, which in the humanities case is values. The purpose of the humanities is not personal decoration, but self-development.

The greatest opportunity for strengthening the humanities today is in the study of philanthropy—Classically conceived as the "love of what it is to be human", translated into Latin (with paideia) as "humanitas", and applied by the Founding Fathers in creating this country as a gift to mankind, to raise the human condition to higher levels (Alexander Hamilton in the first paragraph of the first page of the first Federalist Paper, where he "adds the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism". Philanthropy, not academic humanities, is today our nation's school for values—education by exercising values in giving and volunteering.

(3) The humanities are far from dead, they simply are no longer buried alive in Universities. With new technical tools people can now embark on studies of the humanities throughout their entire lifetime in a manner that is more conducive for learning. By forming their own quest for knowledge and honing their own methods of inquiry, learners are now able to exchange information and gain the insights that translate into knowledge with other learners worldwide.

The artificial designations of professors and students are being replaced with the understanding that learning occurs throughout everyone's lifetime. The hoarding of specific expertise to assure a lifetime of employment is being replaced by the ability to rapidly access, research, assimilate and distribute information. When that information is coupled with a foundation in HOW TO LEARN a lifetime of studies in the humanities is now possible for everyone.

In the face of a "crippling debt and dreary job market" it is the emancipation of the humanities from the impractical gift of 4 years of glorified babysitting that is the gift of technology to the spirit of us all. It makes the practicalities of the dark aspects of economic conditions bearable and brings a thread of light and hope.

(4) This entire thing is a huge non-issue. How many articles has the Globe run in recent years complaining about the dearth of college students majoring in Engineering and Mathmatics?

Measuring by percentages in this case is useless. As one major increases, another has to decrease. No matter how you slice it, you can't exceed 100% so the decrease has to come from somewhere.

If we (as a society) really want more people to complete higher education in both the Sciences AND Humanities, the answer lies in reducing the absurd tuition and fees the schools charge while they beef up their endowment funds and over-pay their staff. Throw the percentages out and look at the raw numbers of graduates.
Arguments abound for the personal, material, and social value of humanities learning, so I won't rehearse such arguments here. Yet, I want to point to three posts by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne on "great literary endings" (here, here, and here). The posts and their ensuing threads collect responses and side discussions on aesthetics, literary technique, and categories. Those who read Coyne's blog regularly know that aesthetics, technique, and categorization factor into his science concerns as well.

The common ground is fertile ground, it seems to me, and there's opportunity to emphasize the fundamental knowledge and skills--and their attendant pleasures--offered especially by/in the humanities.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Place of the Poet

As we move through Walt Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass, I wonder whether Whitman composed or revised with page layout in mind. One of the joys of this page, page 27, is the balance of "Earth" and "Sea."
Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President?
It is a trifle . . . . they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.

I am he that walks with the tender and growing night;
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.

Press close barebosomed night! Press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds! Night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night! Mad naked summer night!

Smile O voluptuous coolbreathed earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset! Earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbowed earth! Rich apple-blossomed earth!
Smile, for your lover comes!

Prodigal! you have given me love! . . . . therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love!

Thruster holding me tight and that I hold tight!
We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other.

You sea! I resign myself to you also . . . . I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me;
We must have a turn together . . . . I undress . . . . hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft . . . . rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet . . . . I can repay you.

Sea of stretched ground-swells!
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths!
Sea of the brine of life! Sea of unshovelled and always-ready graves!
Howler and scooper of storms! Capricious and dainty sea!
I am integral with you . . . . I too am of one phase and of all phases.

Partaker of influx and efflux . . . . extoler of hate and conciliation,
Extoler of amies and those that sleep in each others' arms.

I am he attesting sympathy;
Shall I make my list of things in the house and skip the house that supports them?

I am the poet of commonsense and of the demonstrable and of immortality;
And am not the poet of goodness only . . . . I do not decline to be the poet of wick-edness also.
Between the earth and the sea is the night. Whitman's poet is lover of the night, the earth, and the sea. Whitman's poet accepts the chance to sing for and about both goodness and wickedness.

I am happy to travel up to the earth and the sea with Whitman's poet. We have climbed upward, it seems, from the grains all across America and are now lofted far above the planet. Charles Dana, a contemporary of Whitman, reviews the 1855 edition with a fair eye but perhaps a prudish taste. He judges the poet as not reaching the standard set out in the poetry:
He [the poet--the first edition was published anonymously] furnishes a severe standard for the estimate of his own productions. His Leaves of Grass are doubtless intended as an illustration of the natural poet. They are certainly original in their external form, have been shaped on no pre-existent model out of the author's own brain. Indeed, his independence often becomes coarse and defiant. His language is too frequently reckless and indecent though this appears to arise from a naive unconsciousness rather than from an impure mind. His words might have passed between Adam and Eve in Paradise, before the want of fig-leaves brought no shame; but they are quite out of place amid the decorum of modern society, and will justly prevent his volume from free circulation in scrupulous circles. With these glaring faults, the Leaves of Grass are not destitute of peculiar poetic merits, which will awaken an interest in the lovers of literary curiosities. They are full of bold, stirring thoughts—with occasional passages of effective description, betraying a genuine intimacy with Nature and a keen appreciation of beauty—often presenting a rare felicity of diction, but so disfigured with eccentric fancies as to prevent a consecutive perusal without offense, though no impartial reader can fail to be impressed with the vigor and quaint beauty of isolated portions.
Dana concludes that a perceptive reader of Leaves of Grass "will discern much of the essential spirit of poetry beneath an uncouth and grotesque embodiment."

I like to think Whitman would have embraced this sentiment, even if he himself disagreed with it.

Monday, November 08, 2010

No One Cares

The universe doesn't care either. Buck up, already.

My mother was in the hospital almost a year ago. To my great disappointment, she received what I felt was unsatisfactory quality of care from what I thought was one of the best health care facilities in the U.S., if not the world. During her hospital stay (and then a stint at a rehabilitation center), my mother was in intense pain, and no one on the hospital staff seemed as dedicated to diagnosing the problem and solving it as I would have liked.

I don't usually watch TV shows like House or Grey's Anatomy, but perhaps I had harbored false preconceptions of doctors as tortured detectives who relentlessly pursue the truth about what's ailing patients and themselves. The reality of doctors, nurses, and patients was uglier and definitely less glamorous than TV medical dramas. The real-life hospital staff was overworked and distracted. They tried to make my mother's discomfort manageable, certainly, but basically wanted her to follow directions and be a good patient while they labored to perform their duties around the ward. 

After a particularly bad visit one evening, I recalled the words from Matthew Arnold's very well-known "Dover Beach":
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
My mother's situation--from which, thankfully, she later recovered fully--illustrates on a small scale the very real circumstances we are discussing when we talk about things like the universe, purpose, and meaning.

In the real world, if we are not looking out for the ones we love then they are at the mercy of people  with other priorities and forces without priorities. For every rainbow here is a devastating volcano blast there. For every deed of sharing and selflessness is one of intense brutality. But for the light we make ourselves, we live in a place that will be dark or light only according to its laws and without any ability even to register indifference to us.

The thesis I want to argue now is that we are fortunate to live in such a universe. It is a good thing for us, in other words, that our universe is blind, pitiless, meaningless, and pointless.

Consider the following quotes:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

The great accumulation of understanding as to how the physical world behaves only convinces one that this behavior has a kind of meaninglessness about it.

The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless.
People often argue that if evolution is true or if scientists such as Weinberg are correct, then the universe is a depressing place and our lives are but jokes. Not so, I say, not so at all.

If evolution is true and Weinberg is correct, then the universe is neutral. It is not for us, but it's not against us either. The natural events of the world happen because of the conditions out of which they emerge, not because we are being praised or punished by an overlooking, intervening moral judge.

The utter neutrality of the universe is liberating. Because the universe, and everything in it, is neutral with respect to us, we are free to make and to find meaning from within ourselves.

With this freedom comes the freedom to revise, re-create, and re-invent meanings. We are empowered to challenge the values of our parents, our mainstream culture, and ourselves.

We can question values, we should do so, and we should absolutely insist on the care and preservation of this power for all people. This power to challenge and to question, in reasoned discourse and in equitable political circumstances, should be inalienable.

If the universe is an instrument of some being's will, then our individual desires are in decidedly worse standing than in the neutral universe. If the universe is part of someone else's plan and subject to someone else's whims and judgments, then we are insignificant even to ourselves.

How did my mother begin to recover? We hired a private nurse to sit with her and to advocate for her before the hospital staff. We visited every day and stayed with her, along with my father. The nurse often stayed overnight. The nurse mediated between us, my mother, and the hospital.

Once we realized that we, like my mother, were among confused alarms, we were able to take simple actions to make things better. Once we accepted that we were ignorantly fighting by night, we focused on solutions that would bring us all better visibility into what was happening.

In the universe of judgment and partiality, we were powerless and immobile. In the neutral universe, we were able to seize our part of the day.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Back to Whitman: I Sit Content

I have written much recently, but not of Walt Whitman. So, let me step back and bring in Page 26 of the 1855 Leaves of Grass:
I have pried through the strata and analyzed to a hair,
And counselled with doctors and calculated close and found no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.

In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

And I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

And I know I am deathless,
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter's compass,
I know I shall not pass like a child's carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.

I know I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,
I see that the elementary laws never apologize,
I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by after all.

I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.

My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite,
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time.

I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.

The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself . . . . the latter I translate into a new tongue.

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

I chant a new chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only developement.
The language on this page is extraordinary: "pried through the strata," "the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow," "My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite."

The word "I" appears most of any single word. "I know" and "I am" expressions each appear 6 times. To me, the highlight of this page in when the I, the know, and the am, are all brought together with concepts of awareness, sitting, and contentment:
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.
I like the how the poet is now sitting, as opposed to the leaning and loafing in the beginning of the poem.

Whitman's poet, as always, is audacious and presumptive. The poetry lives out the sentiments that Percy Bysshe Shelley had written only about 30 or so years before:
It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

How I Voted Today

The candidates for governor of Massachusetts surround TV host Jon Keller: Charlie Baker, Tim Cahill, Deval Patrick, and Jill Stein.
I like to vote early, and my ballot is officially in. This has been a high-profile and charged political season. I'm glad to see it winding down.

For Massachusetts governor, I chose Deval Patrick (D) over Charlie Baker (R). I think Patrick's become a good manager of the Commonwealth, and I think his priorities are in order. Baker's obviously a very bright guy and would make a competent governor. In the end, I felt that Patrick had done nothing to lose the chance to continue leading, and that Baker had not convinced me either that a change was direly needed or that he was the best agent for it.

The Massachusetts ballot questions are very important this year.
Question 1: Sales Tax on Alcoholic Beverages
Question 2: Comprehensive Permits for Low- or Moderate- Income Housing
Question 3: Sales and Use Tax Rates
I voted yes on Question 1, which means I want to remove the state sales tax on alcoholic beverages and alcohol where their sale or importation into the state is subject to an excise tax under state law.

Question 2 got a vote of no from me. I agree with the "against" position, which states:
This referendum would abolish the primary tool to create affordable housing in Massachusetts without providing any alternatives. Housing in Massachusetts is very expensive. We need to protect the Affordable Housing Law so that seniors and working families can afford to buy homes here. The Affordable Housing Law has created 58,000 homes across the state and is responsible for approximately 80% of new affordable housing over the past decade, outside the larger cities. Repealing this law will mean the loss of badly needed construction jobs. Thousands of homes that have already been approved for development will not be built if this law is repealed. Homes and jobs will be lost, and there will be less affordable housing for seniors and working families. A coalition of hundreds of civic, municipal, business, environmental and religious leaders, including the League of Women Voters and AARP, urge you to vote No.
I voted no on Question 3. Like many others, I feel over-taxed. However, I also appreciate the very many services that my taxes help pay for, such as Early Intervention.

I am pessimistic about how my fellow voters will go on my votes. The governor's race will be close, but I think Baker will be the winner. I predict yes on #1 will win handily. But no on #2 will probably go down, also handily. Question #3 is the really interesting one. I actually think it will be close. I'm inclined to think no on #3 will win out, but I won't be surprised with the opposite result.