Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Middle Kingdom exalted

Yesterday I took in the wonderful exhibition Ancient Egypt Transformed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Aimed mainly at true connoisseurs, the show is unlikely to rank as a blockbuster event, though one never knows.

The exhibition has two major strengths. The first consists of small, delicate panels and figurines with their modest accounts of daily life in the period.

Soaring over all, however, are the extraordinary portraits of the pharaohs of the twelfth and thirteenth dynasties. While the Middle Kingdom liked to regard itself as simply a restoration of the glories of the Old Kingdom - a typical neoclassical posture - it achieved a decisive advance in these portraits.

While Old Kingdom portraits show some individuality, their idealist treatment precluded full embrace of the inherent, and sometimes tragic potential of portraiture as we have come to know it. The faces of the Middle Kingdom works are simply amazing, recasting the human visage as it were as the record of one's lifelong battle for integrity and wholeness - a battle that inevitably none of us can really win. As such they are existentialist portrayals. Not until the time of Rembrandt was this model recaptured and surpassed, if then.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Pablo Neruda

Recently I participated in a brief discussion concerning the poetic status of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, winner of a Nobel Prize in literature and acclaimed by at least one critic as the "greatest poet of the 20th century."
While I am not an expert on poetry, inclined as I am to the belief that we live in a post-poetic age, I am fluent in Spanish. So I went back to my copy of Neruda's magnum opus, the Canto General, a kind of segmental epic on the Americas in 15,000 lines. The loose-ranging prosody derives from Walt Whitman, a choice that seems perfectly valid. Not so much the story line.
The narrative starts with an idealized portrait of Amerindian cultures before the arrival of the conquistadores, who spoiled everything in Neruda's view. Right at the start, then, we have a conflict between indigenismo, the idealization of the original inhabitants of our continents, and hispanidad, the cherishing of the Spanish heritage and language.
Later, the poem declines into what can only be termed a series of rants against gringos and their corrupt allies in Latin America. All this is colored by Neruda's lifelong Stalinism. Yet for many admirers this far-left commitment is almost a plus, showing a "progressive" tendency.
I have never understood why fascism should be condemned - as it certainly should be - while Marxist totalitarianism is let off the hook. Yet this dichotomy is common in some bien-pensant circles.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Christianity and me

Some may ask what credentials I possess for commenting on religion. After all I was brought up in a decidedly secular home, as my parents adhered to a far-left political sect. When I opened the Bible for the first time at the age of twenty, I was struck by how many quotations it contained, from "giants in the earth" to "turning the other cheek."
Yet I did not long remain in this state of bemused perplexity. Grad school (art history) gave me a new purchase on these matters.
When in the early sixties I commenced work on the illuminated Stavelot Bible (with copies of the diss. still bouncing around here and there), I only partially understood how to proceed. I knew that the MS was a product, art historically speaking, of the Mosan Romanesque. Obviously, there was a major theological background. I understood that the Libri Carolini were still authoritative in 1097, offering a bulwark against the rigors of iconoclasm.
So far so good. In addition, a flyleaf in the Bible contained a catalogue of the abbey library at Stavelot, featuring major works by Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great (who turned out to be most relevant for my research). I also boned up on modern critical research on the text of the Bible, as well as on such theologians as Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. The latter pair are old hat now, but they remain formidable intellects. Thus while I was not a fan of Benedict 16, I recognized that he had a deep knowledge of contemporary theology, especially in the so-called Resourcement trend.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Arab socialism

Many will be surprised to find me uttering a good word for socialism. Yet there is one aspect of this amalgam that it is our misfortune - and the misfortune of the Middle East - to have lost.
I am referring to the movement known as Arab socialism, a political ideology that combined Pan-Arabism and socialism. The term "Arab socialism" was coined by the Syrian Christian Michel Aflaq, the principal founder of Ba'athism and the Arab Ba'ath Party, in order to distinguish his version of socialist ideology from the international socialist movement.
Socialism was a major component of Ba'athist thought, and it featured in the party's slogan of "Unity, liberty, socialism/” However by using the term Arab socialism Aflaq did not mean socialism as the term is normally employed in the West; his version equated socialism with Arab nationalism.
The socialism envisaged in the party's constitution of 1947 and in later writings up to the establishment of the United Arab Republic, is moderate and shows little formal impress of Marxism.
In 1950 Aflaq defined socialism as "not an aim in itself, but rather a necessary means to guarantee society the highest standard of production with the farthest limit of cooperation and solidarity among the citizens ... Arab society ... needs a social order with deeper foundations, wider horizons, and more forceful realization than moderate British socialism."
The cardinal difference between Arab socialism and communism was, according to Aflaq and Ba'athist thinkers in general, the central role allocated to nationalism.
In other words, the movement sought to give Arabs a sense of unity and pride without basing these things on religion.
If Arab socialism was a good thing, as I think it was, what happened to it? For one thing, it came to be identified with the leadership of Gamal Albdel Nasser in Egypt, and over time he let the country run down. Saddam Hussein's expropriation of it also tarnished the movement Then there was the opposition of the United States and the Western powers, who mistakenly saw the movement as in league with the Soviet Union.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Following the law

Apparently the Kentucky judge who sentenced Kim Davis to do jail time for refusing to issue marriage licenses  is not entirely sympathetic to same-sex marriage. Nonetheless, he has faithfully adhered to one of the cornerstone principles of our law: "Dura lex sed lex." (The law may be harsh but it is the law.) This principle goes back at least as far as the legal theorist Burchard a thousand years ago, and possibly even earlier to Socrates.

When I made this observation on Facebook a few days ago, a friend commented as follows:  
"Antigone had a different idea.  Also Thoreau.  Also Gandhi.  Also Martin Luther King."

In fact, examples noted constitute a weighty challenge. First, I offer a general comment; then in the following paragraph I address the question of Sophocles' Antigone, the first major landmark in the tradition of resistance. In my view the precept Dura Lex Sed Lex makes no special claim for the morality of the existing body of laws. It simply asserts that this is the way things work. It may well be that we should oppose some particular law as unjust, even though pro tem it remains in force. Or the comment could be more general (the Latin is ambiguous): law is a body of constraints that is inimical to the flourishing of free spirits, but that is the price we pay for affirming the principle of the rule of law.

  • In Sophocles' play, Creon, the ruler of Thebes, was justified in issuing the edict which deprived funeral rites to Polyneices, who had led a foreign army to lay siege to his own city. Creon, as head of the state, viewed exemplary punishment as appropriate. For her part, Antigone, the sister of the deceased rebel. had a right to assert that in defying Creon's edict she was loyal to an unwritten law which had a higher sanction. "The unwritten and unfailing laws of the gods" must override Creon's pronouncement, which is merely the utterance of a human ruler. The laws of Antigone "live forever, were not born today or yesterday, and no-one knows whence they sprang." As Victor Ehrenberg remarks: "[t]hese famous words, full of emotion and belief, clearly indicate something that is essential, fundamental and universal." Perhaps so. But since the laws Antigone appeals to are unwritten, how can we know that her citation is correct and her interpretation is valid? Based on Mesopotamian examples, and compilations of their own, the Greeks were perfectly familiar with written law, where the text is written down and may be consulted. Not here. Although she appeals to the priests and to immemorial tradition, at base Antigone is simply saying "trust me." Later, under the Stoics and others, the Greeks sought to elaborate something approximating international law. Yet even today this concept of an overarching law that can supersede the laws of nations remains controversial.

    Reflection suggests a modification of these observations about Antigone's assertions.  In the Greek text she does not use the common word for law, nomos, but nomima, observances, so that she is referring to the age-old deposit of custom or tradition, and not to an alternative system of law which can be invoked to ride herd over the transient enactments of Creon.  Her assertion then may be regarded as conservative. the application of her conscience, far from being bold and revolutionary, is in obeisance to tradition.  And tradition can be just as oppressive if not more so, than legal enactments in the proper sense.  Still, Antigone's arguments may have given impetus to a later tradition of defiance of laws perceived as unjust in the name of individual conscience.  

    Yet there is another, more sobering consideration.  Let us suppose that the confrontation with Creon had gone differently.  In this rewriting Antigone simply says that it is duty to her family that causes here to bury her slain brother.  To this assertion Creon replies: "I am sorry, my dear, but this cannot be allowed because I must adhere to the Unwritten Law, which stipulates that the preservation of the state is the supreme good.  As even barbarians in Italy recognize, "Salus populi suprema lex est."  It is for this high and unanswerable imperative that you are condemned."  In other words, tyrants can invoke the Unwritten Law principle to justify their arbitrary actions.

    The expression "agrapta nomima," unwritten stipulations, occurs in other texts of the period, and a fuller examination, not offered here, would suggest further nuances.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Socialism is hard to define

A friend recently praised Bernie Sanders for making the term "socialism" respectable. 

But what has he really accomplished in this realm? There is no universally accepted definition of socialism. At its core should be the idea of social control of banks and basic industries - what the British Labour Party used to embrace as Clause Four. But that is no longer the rule in the UK, though the concept may be revived. 

Once upon a time, Stalinism was accepted as socialism in pure form. And, partly as a result of conservative propaganda, adoption of a single-payer system of medical care is stigmatized as "socialism," when it is not. They do not have socialism in any serious sense in Scandinavia, merely mitigated capitalism. 

Socialism then is an essentially contested concept, a chameleon that in common usage means many different things.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Changing demography

New York City, where I have lived most of my life, seems to be a multicultural city that works. The borough of Queens boasts more than 200 nationalities. The excellent staff of my building is made up of Dominicans, African Americans, a Filipino, and a Russian.
Sometimes I wish that people in Europe, who are not doing so well with the challenge of integration, could learn from our example. (Well, there are plenty of people in the US who could learn too.)
Yet what is the outlook twenty or so years down the road, when we are told that we will become a minority-majority country? I am not so much concerned about the people themselves - we have proved that they can do all right - but about politicians who find it hard to resist herding individuals into ethnic blocs. While I have no respect whatever for Republicans these days, the Democrats seem to be looking forward to an era in which we will in fact be divided into ethnic blocs, our disputes brokered by politicians. Maybe this will not happen - but the possibility needs to be reckoned with.
This leads to another question: at what point have we in Western societies decided to change our demographic configuration through immigration?  
Without endorsing Trump's nativist extremism, it seems that there is a real problem here.  Of course big business wants lots of immigration, legal or illegal, in order to provide docile workers.  With typical shortsightedness these moguls care nothing about the longterm consequences.  The problem is less serious in the US, where we have long deal with these issues, than in Western Europe.  The Europeans must also deal with the fact that many of the new immigrants are Muslim, with a large continent included therein that is hostile to Western pluralism and freedom of expression.