Friday, October 12, 2018

Symbolic values?

So. While I was brought up with no religious affiliation, in my late teens I flirted with with the idea of converting to Catholiicism, a common trend in those days.  Luckily, I averted this mistake but came, for a time, to think that this religion and particularly the Bible harbored symbolic truths.

It is not east to recapture a mindset from long ago, but I must try. 

In a nutshell, what is the symbolic harvest in question? First is the idea that any historical event or person may be studied in both the literal sense (just the facts!) and one or more allegorical senses, The latter approach may be easily abused, but interpretation of literature and art require it at some level. 

Then there is the idea that history (or histories) is not just one damned thing after another, but exhibits certain constants. To be sure, adopting the Christian view of providential history means acquiescing in the kidnapping of the Hebrew Bible, which certainly did not originate as some sort of extended prologue to the New Testament. 
Per contra, some “lessons” seem less than edifying. With all his eloquence Kirkegaard does not make the Sacrifice of Isaac - odious even though finally averted - an adequate support for his pet notion of the Leap of Faith. There is nothing exemplary about the sorry episode of Lot and his Daughters. And so forth.

Sunday, October 07, 2018


The present contentious situation in this country is one of the worst I can remember. Since I have been around a long time now, this is saying something, 
Yet there is a theory, going back to the 19th century, that American history witnesses an oscillation of two successive principles: strife vs. harmony. The time of the War of 1812 was a bitterly contentious one. 
Yet things changed, for the succeeding Era of Good Feelings reflected a renewed sense of national purpose and a desire for unity among Americans. The era saw the collapse of the Federalist Party and an end to the bitter partisan disputes between it and the dominant Democratic-Republican Party. President James Monroe strove to downplay partisan affiliation in making his nominations, with the ultimate goal of national unity. 
So if this pattern is still valid it is useless now to demand a return to civility; it will come when it comes.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Gender switching In Shakespeare

An issue that has intrigued me for some time is gender switching in Shakespeare’s plays. As everyone knows, since women could not appear on the Elizabethan stage, the female roles were played by adolescent boy actors. An additional complication occurred when the male playing a woman switched back to a male: the so-called double-disguise gambit. 
Of the several examples possibly the most interesting is Viola aka Cesario in Twelfth Night. Her cross dressing enables Viola to fulfill several male roles, such as acting as a messenger between Orsino and Olivia, as well as serving as Orsino's confidant. She does not, however, use her disguise to enable her to intervene directly in the plot (unlike other Shakespearean heroines such as Rosalind in As You Like It and Portia in The Merchant of Venice), remaining someone who simply allows “time" to untangle the plot. 
Viola's persistence in transvestism until her betrothal in the final scene of the play has fostered a discussion of the possibly homoerotic relationship between Viola and Orsino.
Having a male actor play Viola enhanced the impression of androgyny and sexual ambiguity. In keeping with today’s concerns some modern scholars believe that Twelfth Night, with the added confusion of male actors and Viola's deception, addresses gender issues with particular urgency They also hold, more dubiously, that the depiction of gender in Twelfth Night reflects the era's pseudo-scientific theory that females are simply imperfect males.
Famously, Judith Butler once held that sexual orientation was highly malleable in the way that on arising each morning one decides what clothes to wear. The attraction of further exploring this theme is its contemporary nature. For me, though, that is a signal that caution is required.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Observations on French literature

Some notes on why French literature is important. Let us start with the Middle Ages, oddly omitted from one recent "comprehensive" history. As with most nations it begins with an epic, the Chanson de Roland. Yet there are other epics, the most resonant being the Arthurian cycle, imitated in other national literatures. The era sees the emergence of vernacular drama. Also, the first secular lyric poetry in Europe, the Troubadours (though technically this is written in Occitan). One way or another, most people are acquainted with the searing poetry of Franc,ois Villon. Marco Polo chose to write In French, as did a host of writers in Norman England. 

Continuing my rapid survey of French literature, I turn to the sixteenth century. Like all major literatures, that of France was receptive, as appropriate, to foreign influence. As Italy was the homeland of the Renaissance, so it supplied a number of significant features. In lyric poetry the foremost contribution was the sonnet. Around Ronsard (1524–1585), Joachim du Bellay (1522–1560) and Jean Antoine de Baïf (1532–1589), there formed a group of radical young poets (generally known today as La Pléiade), who began producing, among other forms of verse, Petrarchan sonnet cycles (centering around an amorous encounter or an idealized woman). They also introduced many allusions to classical mythology stemming from the new humanist emphasis on careful study of the Ancient Greek and Latin authors.
Orientation along these lines was afforded by Du Bellay's manifesto, the "Defense and Illustration of the French Language" (1549), which maintained that French (like the Tuscan of Petrarch and Dante) was a worthy vehicle for literary expression. In addition it promulgated a program of linguistic and literary production (including the imitation of Latin and Greek models and purification of vocabulary).
Classical allusions also abound in the Essays of Montaigne, though arguably he introduced a new genre, the free-wheeling essay.
While his endeavor is sometimes termed Menippean satire, the unique works of Rabelais, concerning Gargantua and Pantagruel, seem to derive almost entirely from indigenous popular sources. They have given rise to an adjective, Rabelaisian.

Continuing our itinerary, the French 18th century was dominated by the giants of the Enlightenment, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau, who require no embroidery from me. It also saw the rise of oppositional fiction, such as Dangerous Liaisons of 1782 by Pierre Chodelos de Laclos, an epistolatory novel several times filmed in recent years. Possibly the most important development, though not always recognized as such, was the clandestine literature, which I have discussed elsewhere in “French Erotic Writings of the 18th Century.

More on this theme later.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The curse of math

My iconoclastic theory of the day. 

We must rid ourselves of mathematics, a form of mind control imposed on us by the white patriarchy. Look for example, at our use of ten as a base. It represents the ten fingers of the oppressor. A few cultures such as the French with their quatre-vingts have preserved relics of a more sensible system of twenty. Let's allow the toes to participate as well. Or why not just two constituents as in that eternal font of wisdom, the binary I Ching? 

As for zero, it must go, as it has been imposed on us by an odious Aryan culture, that of ancient India, home of the Aryans, who also gave us the swastika. (Indian friends, don't be alarmed; I don't really mean it.)

A friend offers the following useful addition:  1 should also be banned, as that arrogant numeral signifies individualism, a solitary being apart from the collective. 1 represents selfishness, hoarding. The 1% - need I say more? 

As for 2, it represents the patriarchal monogamy; as such it must join 1 and 0 in the dustbin of history. 3 is the first politically correct number

Wednesday, July 25, 2018


So to speak, the big-ticket item now in the NY museum scene is the Giacometti retrospective at the Guggenheim, where it fills the entire building. I took it in yesterday, realizing that I had never quite "gotten" Giacometti. This is odd because one of my favorite college courses - alas never translated into a book - was on the origins of abstraction. 
Once I got home I read an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre, which I found suggestive. Laying emphasis on the prehistoric and tribalist affinities of the sculptor's work, Sartre held that he in effect sought to repeal the whole history of Western sculpture from the Greeks onward, which in his view depicted only corpses. So much for classicism!

In his thin figures G. was not presenting a pared-down image of shrunken humanity, but rather the emergence, in a kind of quest of the absolute, of a new human concept, one that is still tentative. It is a bit like those timed photos of flowers just beginning to open - but human beings in this case,

Certainly at a time when figuration was being abandoned - think Kandinsky and Mondrian - he affirmed ir in his own way. Food for thought.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Fate of Gay and Lesbian Studies

I have many interests, though probably my most significant publications are in the field of gay and lesbian studies. 
Spoiler alert as this old dog opens a can of worms. Is the field of gay and lesbian studies still vital? in 1980 I and my collaborators sought, as best we could, to lay the foundations in our Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. 
At that time we assumed that the major obstacle to progress would be lingering homophobic sentiment. Alas, in my view the rot began from within, first from the Social Construction trend, which discouraged transhistorical and cross-cultural studies. Queer Theory assimilated us all to a larger category, but the q-term was divisive. Then gender studies devoured everything.

Of course useful studies are still appearing, especially of hitherto neglected aspects of same-sex relationships in Eastern Europe and Asia.  But postmodernism has thoroughly eroded the theoretical foundations, leaving what survives as little more than the smile of the proverbial Cheshire Cat.

The biggest problem these days is the rise of the concept of gender and orientation fluidity. Back in the day we stoutly opposed demands that we "just get over it," accepting the cure in the guise of "therapy." By contrast, we were convinced of the following truth: whether its origins stemmed from nature or nurture, after its consolidation in youth sexual orientation was essentially immutable. Maybe this was always an overstatement, according little attention to bisexuals, for example.  

Still, there remains personally for many of us a basic stability in this realm. Yet now comes the idea that, as one formula trenchantly puts it, sexual orientation is like a suit of clothes - we decide each morning what dress to wear. This idea appeals to some notion of absolute human freedom. But is it realistic?

The upshot is that in terms of identity there are no homosexuals as such - only on occasion same-sex conduct, "as you like it." Hence the pall that in Western nations at least is gradually shrouding these studies. 

Of course individual work is continuing as I. have acknowledged, but the center of gravity has shifted massively. This shift is the point that I think my critics are missing.