Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Of Friendship

A friend suggested to me today, as she complained of the emptiness of much friendship, that I compose a post for this blog considering the opinions of great thinkers upon the subject. Although I have been commended for the wideness of my reading, I think myself hardly fit to conduct such an undertaking with either the scholarly care or philosophical perspicuity so grave a subject would demand. I do, however, keep often in my mind the remark of Francis Bacon, in his essay Of Followers and Friends, that “there is little friendship in the world, and least of all between equals, which was wont to be magnified. That that is, is between superior and inferior, whose fortunes may comprehend the one the other.” I think we today would do harm neither to our happiness nor our virtue to consider friendship this way. For if Aristotle, the philosopher of optimates, could require that equality of friends which Bacon here dismisses, how much more so do we slaves to the democratic vision find ourselves searching eternally for friends who are our equals?

My grandfather once told me that the greatest difficulty in finding appointments for our clergy couples in the Methodist Church is the inevitable reality that one of the two will be a much better minister than the other; and so, in the best interests of the gospel and of Christ’s holy church, one must put a strain upon an institution pleasing to that same Christ and approved by the same holy gospel—for only among spouses of the humblest and best sort will the advancement of one not engender envy and remorse in the heart of the other left behind—otherwise we must do disservice to our mission by either elevating an unworthy laborer or holding back an excellent one. Yet we who are so ready to sacrifice at the altars of equity and equality would balk at the sacrifice of a spouse who puts their career in the service of their partner’s—and if it be the wife that does so those of us well trained by feminists will either pity her or blame her husband; the man who does so, well, is he not weak and uxorious? And yet who would deny the contribution such a sacrifice can make to matrimonial felicity? Indeed among the many causes of our society’s propensity to divorce may we not name alongside individualism, shamelessness, love-worship, and the contractual idea the fact that it is now equals who marry? When we are rivals with our husbands and wives in not only amatory contests of jealousy real or imagined, but also in the merciless and worldly battlefield of our status and careers, who can expect all barriers to vanish or affection to ground itself in the conversation of wedded souls and not the ambitions of advantageous partnership? And should another or no partnership seem better, by what cords are then the partners bound but those of legal inconvenience?

It is the first great advantage of a friend, says Bacon elsewhere in his essay Of Friendship, that they allow us “ease and discharge of the fullness and swellings of the heart,” that a friend is medicine for stress and sorrow. And yet if we are in constant fear of losing standing before our friends and hesitate to divulge our weaknesses in imagination of their later mocking us or thinking less of us, the medicine shall never be applied; indeed unless our friends are shrewd physicians and diligent confessors (friendship, says Bacon, is “a kind of civil shrift”) they may never detect either our symptoms or our evasions, and keep both absolution and prescription beyond our reach. If our friends are our equals this will always be the case, but if they are so far above us that we could never hope to gain their favor—and yet they may never be so beyond us that we do not think and feel as they do—or if, on the contrary, they are beneath us by such a degree that our livelihoods and happiness do not hang upon their opinions, then we will be freed to unfold before them the tale of all that ails us, and will not hesitate to share with them both relief and anxiety, sadness and joy. To be a peer in sentiment is to be ripe for friendship, but likeness in station is an invitation to rot.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Of Education

It was the custom of Protagoras to ask his students only for such payment as they felt his teaching worth. I suppose if such a model were adopted today by any institution of higher learning, or indeed if such a framework were imposed upon the tax rates with which our public schools are funded, a great many diligent secretaries and mediocre lecturers would be compelled to seek other employment, not so much because the labor of our educators, poor though it may be, would go so undervalued or unappreciated (though that it would be), but because the spirit of cheapness and of avarice its sister holds such sway within the tempers of our age.

To be recompensed for the exercise of one's intellect and to be paid wages for the impartation to others of one's long-acquired knowledge are ideas both of which I find abhorrent and repulsive. A teacher is not worthy to have gained such knowledge if they demand some payment to divulge it, just as that student is a base and illiberal learner who cares for either grades or degrees. The student that desires something other than to become a man of learning and the teacher who desires more reward than to be one are both worthy of pity for the same reasons, if not in the same degree; for student may merely be ignorant, but the teacher has drunk of truth without feeling the refreshment of virtue. And those societies which fail to support such as are indeed seekers after truth deserve a harsher condemnation than even these. Boswell relates a story of Dr. Johnson that, when he learned the last surviving granddaughter of Milton was compelled by necessity to maintain herself as a shopkeeper, he considered it a grave injustice and a point of national shame and immediately went about lobbying the influential men of his acquaintance to see if they could provide her with a pension from the crown. Yet today we expect that even the poets themselves should work.

We might ask what can be done, and wonder whether a society of wage labor can ever again accept more aristocratic modes of sustaining our intellectuals. Indeed, even the institution we possess which is closest in spirit to the benefices and pensions of our forebears, the tenured professorship, is today adulterated with quantifiable standards and requirements and nonetheless remains relentlessly and constantly besieged. Yet it is better to ask another question: why must the university remain the model for higher education? After all the university itself displaced the monastery; why should the monastery not again return to the fore? The monks have their gardens and the alms of their benefactors; they have no need to demand a wage for teaching. And the initiate also is hardly pursuing advancement, but rather binding himself to a life dedicated to the highest ideals, a life which neither asks nor expects remuneration in this world. From teachers the expectation to publish would be thankfully removed and the vain and dangerous idol of advancing or expanding knowledge expunged from our world of thought. A world of such scholars would make Protagoras seem the greedy man.

Friday, September 3, 2010

On Speaking the Language

Caleb Crain is a blogger, but, unlike the rest of us, one who is often actually worth reading. His training, and to a great degree his interests, are in American literature, a fact for which, as a horribly unfashionable exponent of High Classicism, I will not so much blame as pity him, and which, despite all my expectation to the contrary, seems to have left the sharpness of his intellect all but untouched; only a favorable disposition towards Freudianism reveals him. This Caleb Crain then, possessed of no small amount of both sagacity and taste, and yet hardly accustomed, as we shall see, to think within the constructs of earlier civilization, has taken upon himself to read "desultorily, and with no ambitions for speed or even completion," the Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser. It is a pleasure I would recommend to all. After commenting first upon the archaism of his diction, Mr. Crain passes this evocative judgment on the allegorical world of Spenser's poem:

"In principle I don't mind it that one character stands for virtue, another for virginity, etc., but many of Spenser's characters represent their ideas so impartially that they don't quite come across as people. Add in the poem's resort to fantastical and sometimes gruesome imagery, and the reader sometimes feels as if he is trapped in another person's unconscious, prey to mysterious forces incarnated as monsters, elves, and beauties, all lacking the sort of personal self that might in a pinch be negotiated with."

The rest of the post continues with a discussion of the episode with Redcrosse and Despair, and its relevance to psychoanalytic discussions of suicide, which, if such things hold your interest, would certainly be worth reading. What more attracts me in Mr. Crain's comment is all the many things it says about how a reader raised on the novel has been taught to enjoy a text, and what a scholar trained in the last two centuries has been taught to find, indeed also what such readers cannot find and cannot enjoy--and his comments show he is certainly aware of this fact. Whatever I may say on this point has in all likelihood already been said, and more eloquently, by C.S. Lewis in one or other of his scholarly publications, to which I would direct the interested reader, especially his The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image.

Mr. Crain's first observation, and the problem he has with Spenser as a reader of novels, is that the allegorical characters of the poem are not "believable," in his words, "don't quite come across as people." I assume we all know what is meant by "people," but it is worth parsing the statement out. Mr. Crain, I would wager, does not mean primarily things like the monstrosity of Duessa when she is uncovered by Arthur and revealed to be not a person but demon, or Occasion with her grotesque forelock. Such characters certainly do not come across as "people," but in the same way the giant Orgoglio, or for that matter the Rivers and Months that parade at various points in the poem, do not come across as "people": they are something other than people to begin with, and in that are well portrayed. What Crain means, rather, is that the human characters of the poem do not possess the depth of psychological complication one expects from the great novelists or may easily see in the great dramatists. One has, instead, people who are not "people," but rather move more comfortably in a world populated by Venus and Diana in their allegorical modes, and who have names like Braggadocchio.

What is it about such writing that troubles the modern reader? Does Spenser's method so offend against verisimilitude as to render his text unreadable because implausible? Or is it merely uncomfortable to find human beings who are not the complex individuals we often wish ourselves to be, who are "mere" instantiations of a transcendent ideal. For a man of Spenser's philosophical predilections, of course, such an instantiation is more "realistic" than the jumbles of quirk and nuance that our novelists portray. Yet we easily enjoy the writing of those whom we dissent from philosophically, and so in the case of Crain's dissatisfaction with Spenser I think one may more justly point to the long shadow cast by novelistic aims and procedures over all our current conceptions of literature, and narrative literature most of all. Unless one has become steeped in pre-modern literature, and done so in a way that is critical and attentive, any narrative piece will have the appearance of a failed novel. And I should perhaps say that, for someone who has somewhat become so steeped, the best novels too begin in their turn to take on the aspect of a failure.

Since we have spoken already of Lewis, it will perhaps first do to point out that Mr. Crain's second observation, that there is an aspect of Spenser that speaks to the mysterious and irrepressible power of the unconscious, has a certain resonance with the comments of that great critic. As he says, in The Allegory of Love, comparing Spenserian profundity with the elegance and charm of Ariosto, one of Spenser's "real concerns" is

"the primitive and instinctive mind, with all its terrors and ecstasies--that part in the mind of each of us which we should never dream of showing to a man of the world like Ariosto."

While Professor Lewis emphasizes what we might perhaps call the shame of those deep chords that Spenser touches, for Crain the problem is that they cannot "be negotiated with." There are many things, of course, other than our unconscious selves and desires that cannot be negotiated with, and among them is another of Spenser's "real concerns": the nature of the universe. And here we come to a very important question, for the greater part of Spenser's allegories display for us "the way things are." The Cantos of Mutabilitie do this most explicitly and profoundly, but one may also point to the Seven Deadly Sins in Book I, Alma's castle in Book II, or the Temple of Venus in Book IV, with Spenser's fine adaptation of some beautiful verses by another poet who wrote on "the way things are," Lucretius (Stanzas 44 following of Canto X of Book IV reproduce the opening lines of De Rerum Natura). What does it mean to transfer these non-negotiable realities from the order of an external world to the chaos of an internal one? This, it seems, is what Mr. Crain has done almost by accident, or perhaps it is better to say, by second nature.

The self is, after all, what we have been told literature is best employed in interrogating. To the natural sciences belong the discourses of physical reality and the metaphysical reality (or its absence) is a project for philosophers. The self, however, remains for us a field of inquiry in which literature has lost little prominence as a means of communicating knowledge. And yet it remains an empirical inquiry like the others, one in which its authority, like its pleasure, as we have seen above, derives in some sense or another from a reproduction of the psychological reality that is faithful in a very particular way. To approach literature like Spenser's expecting the "meaning" to be in some sense primarily a descriptive account of the self is only natural for a person of our age, but it is also only natural that such an endeavor will produce the sense of flatness which Mr. Crain identifies in the poem's allegory; it is precisely the sort of flatness one would find in Henry James if one were looking for the moral and philosophical heft of Dante's Commedia.

I suppose what most catches me about Mr. Crain's reaction is that it is not at all how I reacted to Spenser's poem when I first read it. To me, beyond the sheer consistent volume of the poetry--Spenser is closer to Homer in this regard than any other poet we have--what was most striking about the Faerie Queene was the clarity and texture of its allegorical representations. Before modern democracy or the modern sciences had even arisen, Spenser's narrative of Artegall's encounter with the Giant (Book V, Canto II) had already laid bare with precision and charm both the unity and the absurdity of those two powerful ideologies; the Cantos of Mutabilitie already mentioned give an account of reality which no philosopher could surpass and only the best might even equal for either propriety or presentation. Not once, however, did I long that Sir Guyon might become a "believable" character and cease to represent the virtue of temperance, nor did I ever suspect that the Bower of Bliss was primarily a fantasy of Spenser's eros (though it would not of course have portrayed what he intended it to portray if it did not touch those erotic chords within us). We are faced once again with the simple fact that learning to understand a poet's language amounts to far more than Mr. Crain's amusing trips to the OED. It requires rather a philologist's submission to the idiom of the poet, both in content and in the key to content, form.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Video Games Are Not Art

Roger Ebert has a fine piece on the subject, part retraction, part withholding of judgment. I think he is right, but does not give good reasons. Partly, he still speaks with the same grammar of 'experience' that the proponents of video games employ. Partly, as he makes abundantly clear, he probably does not care to think the subject through completely at his age; a true critic, he knows intuitively what is art, and does not really see the need to explain it. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

I. The pleasure of games is libidinous, erotic: games function because of our desire to win and to have more. The pleasure we derive from the things normally considered art (music, drama, sculpture, poetry, etc.) is not derived from desire; we desire the pleasure, but the pleasure itself does not lie in the desiring. The basic aesthetic parameter of a game is determined by our desire to win it, or, in the case of something like World of Warcraft, to possess more and more of it. It is very plainly an erotic aesthetic; the pleasure derives from the state of desire, and often diminishes when there is no more to desire: hence the complaint with games that are too short. Yet the pleasure we derive from art is pleasure in the presence of the beautiful. When Mozart gives us a development section like that in the 40th Symphony’s first movement, it functions for the audience (those experiencing it) because they are able to hear the beauty of it; a person with no taste, but definition, will get nothing from Mozart. A game of Halo, on the other hand, functions well when the players (those experiencing it) want to win; if they aren’t trying to win, it becomes a joke. In fact, when players aren’t playing to win, the effect can often be similar to that of absurdist and avant-garde art, in which the artist is not trying to be beautiful. The pleasure we take from games is more like the pleasure we take in debating politics or being hopelessly in love than it is like the pleasure we take in a painting of Titian’s or a play by Shakespeare. One should also note that this erotic pleasure is also the principle artlessness of many contemporary manifestations of the traditional arts, such as mystery novels (or any “page-turner”). Catharsis is not unrelated to consummation, and anything, mystery novel, game, or unrequited love, whose pleasure derives from a sustained desire and diminishes with the attainment of that desire, is something of an altogether different sort than tragedy or marriage, in which the pleasure derives from consummation, achievement, and wholeness.

II. The presence of other arts in the game does not make the game art. Because a game like Grand Theft Auto contains a narrative which some find appealing, or because any number of games present the eye with striking images, does not make the games art. Take, for example, an edition of Paradise Lost with the Gustave Dore illustrations. We would say the book Paradise Lost is a work of art, and we would say the illustrations by Dore are works of art (and that their whole, as a set of illustrations, is a work of art), we would say that the edition of Milton was a fine book. But we would not call Paradise Lost a fine book because it contained (in this instance) illustrations by Gustave Dore. We would probably rather have a Paradise Lost with Gustave Dore illustrations than the standard Penguin paperback—but then again, we would sometimes derive greater pleasure form Milton by having the notes in the Penguin than the illustrations of Dore. Likewise, one enjoys chess when played with plastic pieces, but more when played with fine ivory pieces; yet chess is not a good game because of the fine ivory pieces.

III. Games believe in free will, art believes in fate. This is perhaps the only really good point Ebert makes, that there is something about the inevitability of art that gives it its power. This is of course related to the types of pleasures they give us, as discussed above, but it is also the key element in their ability to teach about life. A game has great difficulty teaching about life because there is no stability to it. If I set out to teach that 2+2=4, but it turns out than my students can learn just as easily from my lesson that 2+4=2, they will learn very little math. Now a game may teach practical lessons (a math game for children, for example, would not let you go on to the next level without showing that you know that 2+2=4 and not 2+4=2) but they cannot teach moral, spiritual, or philosophical lessons, because games teach on the basis of “this works,” not on the basis of “this is fitting.” I may learn some military strategy through playing Starcraft, but I would not learn how to inspire loyalty in my soldiers, or for that matter how to take prisoners or treat them in a civilized manner, although these things are just as important, if not more important, to the proper and fitting conduct of war. Yet if I read the Iliad or the Aeneid I will learn about all these things. I can also learn form them how to lose my wife or husband; can something that teaches you how to win possibly offer anything like the ghost of Creusa or Hector and Andromache upon the walls of Troy?

IV. Video Games do not establish the identity of a cultural elite. Before Romantic theorists of art (and their Renaissance predecessors), things like painting and sculpture, music, and poetry were not generally grouped together. Painting and sculpture were the realm of artisans, music was a branch of mathematics, and poetry was merely a special form of writing. All of these, however, were joined together in their functions of expressing the beautiful and in establishing both elite culture and the elevation of that elite over the rest of the populace. The way people speak and the sorts of things they read is still a good indication of class, and literature is an implementation of this. Likewise think of common people attending High Mass in a Gothic Cathedral, circa, let us say, 1450. The beauty of the architecture, stained-glass windows, paintings and sculptures all around them, as well as the singing of the cathedral choir serve to emphasize that they are in the presence of something much more important and powerful than they. Games are inescapably democratic on a number of levels. Most important, however, is the fact that the enjoyment of a game depends on equality. Games are unfair and unenjoyable if one player simply much better than all the others, and single-player games which are either too easy or too hard are equally bad games. Games (and this of course applies beyond videogames) employ handicaps and difficulty levels to enable players of different skill levels to compete together enjoyably. The relation to democratic endeavors such as the welfare state and affirmative action is almost too obvious; capitalism is, after all, a wagering game. There is no sense in which the people attending that High Mass needed to be balanced equally before they could enjoy the beauty of the music and the architecture; some would get much more than others, many would get nothing at all, but all would be experiencing the art. The fact that an ignorant peasant cannot understand the Latin, or really get the symbolism of the cathedral’s architectural design would not prevent the educated man from taking his pleasure in those things. But if we sit down to play Madden Football and you beat me 72-0, I doubt either one of us will take much pleasure. Likewise, an educated man’s ability to enjoy art sets him apart and above the vulgar and tasteless masses, but a pimpled teenager’s superior skill at Video Games rather notoriously gets him nowhere in life.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Taking up the Pen

It is among the most salutary uses of history to expose those faults and inclinations in ourselves to which we would otherwise be blind. Just as it is only in a mirror that we may look upon our own faces, so without the aid of past voices we will never hear our own. Although she claims to be ruled by documents of antiquity, the church of our day would do well to learn that there is real use in a sympathetic engagement with the past. When the United Methodist Council of Bishops last year published a pastoral letter on the state of world affairs, they expressed thusly their reasons for writing:

"We, the Bishops of the United Methodist Church, cannot remain silent while God's people and God's planet suffer."

A statement which appears doctrinally innocuous, even if the limp triteness of "cannot remain silent" is offensive to taste, but compare it with the reasons Thomas Cranmer gives in the introduction to his A Defense of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Savior Christ (via Jim West):

"I, not knowing otherwise how to excuse myself at the last day..."

And later on,

"Moved by the duty, office, and place whereunto it hath pleased God to call me..."

If we wished to be charitable, we might say that our bishops could have given Cranmer's second reason, had they possessed the English language in its first youthful vigor and not the aching limp of its declining middle age, for the sentiment is very close. The bishops say they cannot remain silent, we may infer, because of their shepherdly duty; Cranmer says the same. The difference in phrasing, however, is not merely a difference in eloquence, although it is also that (and where is this thing mere eloquence?); the different phrasings betray different pictures of the episcopal vocation.

The bishops today conceive of themselves as apart from the arena of God's activity: they can either speak or remain silent while they view the suffering of God's creation. They themselves are affected only by the inner movements of compassion, or, more precisely, remorse. Their stance, put another way, is of precisely the same sort as God's in the time of Noah: they are sorry to have made the universe a certain way. They are themselves unaffected by the calamity they witness, but, because they consider themselves the authors of it, they feel responsible to set it right. God has apparently had no hand in the administration of his created world; it seems to be God's in the same way property may belong to someone who never sees it and lives thousands of miles away. Although we must bear in mind that this metaphor can be defended by scripture (Mark 12:1-12), we should also ask ourselves who these "Bishops of the United Methodist Church" are in relation to this God who possesses a people and a planet. They do not themselves appear to be God's property in the same way, as the grammar and tone of the sentence alike make clear. Perhaps they are hired overseers, and it is in their contract to take action in a situation such as this; perhaps their retirement benefits are at stake if they don't shape up. But if they are hired administrators, and not themselves part of God's property, what prevents them from being, as the parable says, "hirelings, that care not for the sheep?" (John 10:1-18).

Cranmer is clear that he writes as a servant under God's power. He does not invoke the name 'bishop,' but says only that he is compelled to live in accordance with the calling which God has placed upon his life. It is not as a hired hand, as a free laborer, that Cranmer is compelled to pluck up by the roots the doctrinal weeds in his Lord's garden, but as a serf whose life is tied inextricably to that garden, who is indeed a part of his master's garden. And as a serf, he of course has no rights before his Lord, and so writes "not knowing otherwise how to excuse himself at the last day." Cranmer writes in full humility, and in the firm knowledge that he is God's just as surely as the church and world he has been appointed especially to serve.

One could protest that of course the bishops intend themselves to be included among God's people, but I am not interested in how they would reinterpret their document to meet these objections. What concerns me is the lazy choice of words which not only allows but fosters a decidedly unchristian rhetoric of detached compassion, remorse, and problem-solving, when what is needed are the somber tones of humility. Cranmer knows that his office as bishop is something to which God has elevated him by gracious favor, not hired him for on account of merit. He knows this all the more easily because the immediate and worldly cause of his ordination was the command of a king and not the votes of a Jurisdictional Conference. Most of all, he acts not out of some high-minded compassion, but out of a fervent and pious desire to work out the salvation of his own soul--Wesley would be proud. For Cranmer knows that his "duty, office, and place" carry with them a profound responsibility, a terrifying responsibility, were God not his comfort. "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters," writes James (3:1), "for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." Every Christian in authority should know well also the words of Ezekiel: "As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them." (Ezekiel 34:8-10). The bishop, like any other Christian, who does not weigh his actions with an eye to the last judgment has neither read his Bible with the proper seriousness, nor wholly comprehended the weight of his office.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Beatus Vir?

I am generally more opposed to gender-neutral language as a philologist and a partisan for words than I am as a theologian; in matters of biblical translation, I am even more firmly of this opinion. The NRSV, although very responsible, I find, in the Old Testament, is often a little too enthusiastic with its removal of gender in the New. Whenever these arguments arise, there are generally two philological points that are made in favor of use gender-neutral terms where older translations had generally used "brothers/brethren" or the generic "man." The first is that, in Greek, a plural which designates a mixed group will always be masculine (there are historical-linguistic as well as social reasons for this; historically speaking, the feminine gender is a later development of the masculine); the second centers on the Greek word ἄνθρωπος, which can denote a person of either gender. Both arguments to me seem to drag Greek into an English problem (something to be expected in translation), which is the shift the word "man" has undergone in its meaning, and the political interests which have attached themselves to the shift.

My main aim here, however, is merely to note one of the many cases of over-enthusiasm on the part of the NRSV translators: James 1:12. In the Greek, the first part of this verse reads

Μακάριος ἀνὴρ ὅς ὑπομένει πειρασμὸν

which might be very literally translated:

"Blessed man, who endures temptation."

The NRSV, however, translates

"Blessed is anyone who endures temptation."

To someone with a smattering of Greek who reads that translation, knowing that the translators of the NRSV pay careful heed to render terms which in the Greek are neutral as to gender with correspondingly neutral terms in English, would probably assume that the Greek here underlying "anyone" is ἄνθρωπος, not ἀνήρ. It is possible that in this case the translation committee chose to follow one of the minority readings: two codices, one of them from the fifth century, do have ἄνθρωπος instead of ἀνήρ. It seems more likely, however, that they felt the translation "blessed the man" would be read so as to imply to a modern reader than only men are blessed in enduring temptation, and it is here that we run into dangerous territory. I shall try to be brief.

Such interpretation misunderstands the way language operates in male-dominated societies, assuming that a word, like ἀνήρ or the Latin vir, which denominates a masculine human being, cannot stand for humanity in general, or that a supposedly neutral term, such as ἄνθρωπος or the Latin homo, really imagines humanity as equally as we today would like. Any man writing in the ancient world would not think twice of the idea that the male stands for humanity as a whole; we may now be hesitant about submitting to the subtle ramifications of such an assumption, but they would not have questioned it. When James uses ἀνήρ, he no more means to exclude from blessing those women who endure temptation than the author of the first psalm, rendered in the Septuagint Μακάριος ἀνήρ, meant to exclude from blessing those women who "walk not in the counsel of the ungodly." In the minds of these authors the priority of the male does not annihilate all human kinship between the sexes.

An excellent example of this inclusive but not equalizing use of the masculine may be found in the second chorus of Sophocles' Antigone. The chorus begins

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.

Many are the things wondrous and fearful, none more than ἀνθρώπος.

A world in which the word ἀνθρώπος denominates the human being without any sense of gender would not allow him to continue in the next strophe, as he goes on the describe humanity's conquest of nature, and call this οὕ ούδεν δεινότερον, this thing than which nothing is more fearful, περιφραδὴς ἀνήρ, "man most cunning." It is clear in this passage that, for Sophocles, although he was certainly aware of their different resonances, being as he was poet of the first rank, both ἀνθρώπος and ἀνήρ may stand for all of humanity.

Although we may be uneasy at the implicit hierarchy in this view of things, we should also be conscious that our zealous division of the sexes, while we undertake it in the name (so sacred to our ears!) of equality, is only a different way of skewing our perceptions. I do not know to whom it would not be readily apparent that the instances of this 'inclusive masculine' which I have cited apply to all human beings. Indeed, a language that cannot perceive that the first Psalm, "Blessed is the man," does not exclude the greater half of the human race, or that the praises of Proverbs 31 ("She considereth a field and buyeth it...She openeth her mouth with wisdom: and in her tongue is the law of kindness") are not applicable to women alone, is a language as incapable of figurative speech as it is of profound reflection. Perhaps there is a problem with the historical relation between the sexes, but it will not be solved by pretending than neither one is completely human.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Tanning and Pastoral

We are often told that ideas of beauty have changed over the years (the figures of Rubens are of course the classic example), but our modern taste for tanned skin is an especially peculiar deviation from the western norm. There is, to start with, Homer's "white armed Hera," and I recently ran across this passage in Mantuan's First Eclogue:

Farra legens ibat mea per vestigia virgo
Nuda pedem, discincta sinum, spoliata lacertos,
Ut decet aestatem quae solibus ardet iniquis
Tecta caput fronde intorta, quia sole perusta
Fusca fit et voto facies non servit amantum.

She came upon my steps plucking the grain,
With naked feet, a bosom loosely robed,
And arms uncovered. For the summer sun
She clothed her head, for by the sun once burnt
She darkens, and no lover’s prayer obliges.

There is also the testimony of sacred pastoral that this is not merely a phenomenon of the Hellenistic tradition:

I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, because I am black,
because the sun hath looked upon me:
My mother's children were angry with me;
they made me the keeper of the vineyards;
but mine own vineyard have I not kept. (Song of Songs 1:5-6)

It would be interesting to hear some speculation as to why we began to prefer tanned to fair skin. I would throw my lot in with changing views towards work and class, but I would probably be liable to speculate in that direction on most social phenomena; perhaps it has something to do with tanned skin being now more rare, with more people working inside, whereas earlier only a few would spent most of their days indoors. Whatever its causes, it is a trend, vampires notwithstanding, which shows no signs of passing out of fashion, however at odds it may be with historical tastes.