Saturday, March 26, 2005

Jefferson and Kant on sex crimes

The criminal punishment of homosexual conduct is a deep and lasting stain on Western civilization. This subject is inevitably a dismal one. Yet examination of the types of punishment favored casts some light on the nature of thinking about same-sex behavior.

In most jurisdictions of medieval Europe the penalty for sodomy was death, usually by burning at the stake, but sometimes (as in England and the Netherlands) by hanging.

Yet there was, in principle, an alternative in some jurisdictions; in these, the penalty for male homosexual behavior was supposed to be castration. According to historians, the emperor Justinian (a notorious homophobe) had recourse to this form of punishment. However, it was not incorporated into his Code or into the Novellae, which have two new laws against same-sex conduct.

In Spain the Visigothic Laws prescribed castration, a provision affirmed by Ferdinand III of Castile in1299. In France the law code of Jean Bouteiller (1479) specified removal of the testes on the first offence, amputation of the penis on the second, and death on the third. In Norway a twelfth-century parliament in Bergen specified castration.

In summary, medieval Europe discloses two foci of the castration punishment for sodomy, one in the eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), the other at the western end (Visigothic Spain). From the latter source, the idea spread northward. Then it seems to have gone into hibernation for some three centuries.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century castration was revived as a penalty by two celebrated thinkers, Thomas Jefferson and Immanuel Kant. These are, needless to say, aspects of their thought we did not learn about in school.

Jefferson’s comments stem from "A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments." Submitted to the Virginia legislature in 1779, it was never adopted.

Section XIV reads as follows: “Whosoever shall be guilty of rape, polygamy, or sodomy with man or woman, shall be punished; if a man, by castration, a woman, by boring through the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch in diameter at the least.”

Jefferson’s notes indicate that he regards buggery as the overarching category, the genus (it includes bestiality), while sodomy and bestiality are the species. In this view his proposed statute excludes bestiality. With reference to his thinking Jefferson cites standard sources in the history of English law, such as Fleta, Britton, and Henry VIII’s antibuggery statute of 1533. None of these mentions castration. In view of the earlier history, he is unlikely to have come up with this idea himself. But by what channel did he learn of the precedents? That is something that remains to be learned.

Since several colonial statutes include women—for lesbian conduct—that is probably what Jefferson meant in that regard. They have never been included in English legislation. Yet where did he get the idea of mutilating the nose? Possibly from the penalty, apparently observed in some medieval monasteries and nunneries, of cutting off the nose as a punishment for same-sex conduct. This practice in turn reflects the folk belief (which even Freud endorsed for a time) that there is a direct connection between the nose and the sexual organs.

Kant’s proposal came later. It stems from one of his last works, known in English as The Metaphysics of Morals. Published in 1797, when the philosopher’s mental powers had ebbed, the book is generally regarded as a compilation of lecture notes. On this basis, the material would have been developed some years earlier.

The passage cited stems from "explanatory remarks on the first principles of the doctrine of sex crimes," an appendix added to a new printing (also 1797) in response to a review.

"12] But what is to be done in the case of crimes that cannot be punished by a return for them because this would be either impossible or itself a punishable crime against humanity...for example, rape as well as pederasty [Päderastie] or bestiality? The punishment for rape and pederasty is castration (like that of a white or black eunuch in a seraglio), that for bestiality, permanent expulsion from civil society, since the criminal has made himself unworthy of human society. -- Per quod quis peccat, per idem punitur et idem [one who commits a sin is punished through it and in the same way]." [Mary Gregor, trans.].

The translation obscures an important point. For Kant, and for Germans today, the term Päderastie does not refer to pedophilia, but to anal penetration. As such, it could in principle refer to heterosexual behavior, but as this was little noticed at the time, the primary reference is to men having sex with men in this manner. The reference to the seraglio in Istanbul is odd, since the eunuchs who guarded it did not lose their organs as a punishment. The white eunuchs, though, did look after the sultan’s catamites.

Concluding comment: So did these speculations, even on the part of major Enlightenment figures, matter? I think that they do, for beginning about 1907 a number of American states adopted "eugenics" statutes specifying castration for mental defectives and "degenerates," including homosexuals. Evidence is coming to light that in quite a few instances these inhumane measures were carried out.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Cervantes and Einstein

Cervantes and Einstein? Really! This comparison suggests what many have long suspected—-Dynes can connect just about anything to anything else. Why not compare Cervantes with Shakespeare, Einstein with Heisenberg? Yet where is the challenge there? Those tasks would be so, well, banal.

To be sure my perception of a link started with a coincidence—-2005 is being proclaimed as both a Cervantes year and an Einstein year. It marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the first publication of Don Quixote. In turn, the year 1905 was Einstein’s annus mirabilis, in which he published no less than five epoch-making papers in physics.

Is there a deeper affinity between Cervantes and Einstein? Let us start with this proposal: in the social world Cervantes anticipated some aspects of Einstein’s principles in the physical world. Arguably the central theme of Don Quijote is the problem of illusion and reality. When the Knight sees two clouds of dust in the distance he assumes that they are two fighting armies advancing on one another for a great battle. Approaching more closely, he finds to his discomfort that they are really just two herds of sheep. Not so, says the Don. If Sancho will follow them, he will find that the armies had been merely temporarily enchanted, and will resume their former shape.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, science had made a number of discoveries that seemed to challenge the certainties of the universe. X-rays, for example, had shown that the seemingly solid and impermeable surfaces of a table or a shoe were actually permeable by the mysterious rays. Einstein went further and showed that the seemingly straightforward laws of time and space were not so simple after all.

Unlike some of his Spanish contemporaries Cervantes did not flatly pronounce "la vida es sueño," life is a dream. Rather, we must accept a constant oscillation between reality and illusion, or perhaps better, between two (or more) illusions. The role of the observer, sometimes confident sometimes bewildered, is paramount. As the twentieth-century dramatist Luigi Pirandello noted, “Così è, se vi pare,” that’s the way it is, if you think so. Many have found this situation disconcerting. Yet it seems inseparable from the modern experience.

Perhaps the ultimate source of the Cervantes-Einstein affinity is this. In megahistorical terms Don Quijote is about the clashing of two tectonic plates. These plates reflect the shift from the medieval world view to that of modern times. However, since the medieval tales of chivalry that so influenced Cervantes’ hero had so little connection with reality, there is a second clash: between fantasy and lived experience.

Lost to most modern readers is the intertextual aspect: the interplay with the various romances of chivalry still widely read in the early seventeenth century, against which Cervantes places his narrative. These books are of course the “cocaine” of the hidalgo’s addiction. They are generally considered pernicious—but not all: note the drastic "literary Inquisition" scene of Chapter Six in Part One where the Don’s friends decide which works to commend to the flames.

I am not the first to detect a similarity with certain currents of the modern scientific world view. In an influential 1948 essay on the perspectivism of Don Quijote the brilliant Austrian philologist Leo Spitzer detected a kind of indeterminacy in Cervantes. Spitzer starts with a basic, seemingly trivial issue: the instability of personal names in the novel. For example, sources suggest that the name of the hero may have been Quijada, Quesada, or Quijana. (And even today some write Quixote instead of Quijote.) The philologist goes on to discuss puns, hybrid word formations, different levels of speech (including argot and dialect), and the refraction of events and actions through inconclusive dialogue.

Sometimes the indeterminacy is due to nothing more than the difficulty of coordinating such a long, unwieldy story. In Part One Sancho’s donkey is stolen, and then it reappears without explanation, than disappears again, before finally reappearing once more. Apparently, Cervantes noted a discrepancy and tried to fix it, but the printer got the instructions backwards and turned the donkey into a kind of Schrödinger’s cat. However, the matter is deeper than that, as one sees when the Don concedes that what he takes to be Mambrino’s helmet may be just a barber’s basin after all-—or something else entirely (I, 25)

A fundamental uncertainty concerns the function of the author. On the one hand, the writer Miguel de Cervantes is a kind of divine figure, visibly manipulating his characters and events. On the other, he claims that for the most part he is merely transcribing and augmenting an earlier Arabic text by the mysterious Cide Hemete Benengeli. With such machinery on display, the novel Don Quijote may be classified as a reflexive work—a literary creation that comments on its own existence. As such it conforms to the principle of :foregrounding the devices" identified by the Russian Formalist literary critics. This principle ricochets through modern creativity of all sorts. An example is the presentation of "raw" concrete in Le Corbusier’s late works, a procedure that calls upon the visitor to reflect on the process of construction.

Towards the end of Part Two, the faithful sidekick observes "I am Don Qijote’s squire who is to be found also in the story and who is called Sancho Panza—-unless they have changed me in the cradle—-I mean to say at the printer’s." Here is Spitzer’s comment: "In such passages, Cervantes willingly destroys the artistic illusion: he, the puppeteer, lets us see the strings of his puppet show: 'see, reader, this is not life, but a stage, a book: art; recognize the life-giving pwer of the artist as a thing, distinct from life!"

Of course the Russian formalists (noted just now) were contemporaries of Einstein. In this light the affinity between Cervantes and Einstein may concern the seventeenth-century writer only in part. It is o u r Cervantes who most closely resembles Einstein. Like all the classics, Cervantes demands to be constantly updated, and "Einsteinization" may be one way this process takes place. Spitzer wrote of "the general sprit of relativism which has been recognized by mosdt critics as characteristic of the novel." While relativism and relativity are not the same thing, we must reckon with such general similarities—where perception plays a large part-—in assessing the affinity.

Commemorations of the 1605 first publication of Don Quixote will occur mainly in the Spanish-speaking world. Yet there has been one product that is readily available, even in the United States. This is a new edition, handy but with detailed notes, sponsored by the Royal Academy of Spain. Even those whose Spanish is limited can profit from it. The new edition is widely available for $10-12. Truly devoted scholars will want to obtain the monumental 1998 edition on which this reading version is based. The short one is quite enough for most of us though.

Finally overcoming a logjam stemming from conflicting copyright claims, Princeton University Press is moving ahead with its publication of Einstein’s papers. An entertaining byproduct is The New Quotable Einstein (edited by Alice Colaprice), which contains some surprising opinions. For a succinct, accessible account of the achievements of Einstein’s annus mirabilis, see John S. Rigden, Einstein 1905 (Harvard University Press).

To be sure 2005 also marks the centennial of the birth of Jean-Paul Sartre. How about a triadic comparison? Well, t h a t would be beyond my powers.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Open letter to a great scholar

Dear Professor Marjorie Perloff,

Permit me to express my admiration for your scintillating autobiography, The Vienna Paradox, which has just appeared. This book reveals that you and I had many potential points of contact—in Rome, London, New York, and California—though to my knowledge we never actually met. You were born in 1931, I came along in 1934. The big difference is that during the 1940s you were commendably seeking to Americanize yourself, while as the decade drew to a close I became obsessed with the idea of leaving America for good--hopelessly naïve, vulgarian, hucksterish, morophilic America. I little understood how lucky I had been to have an easy (though not privileged) upbringing in Los Angeles (then balmy, mostly smog-free, and "laid back," but not now). My parents were not connected with the Central European intellectuals who settled in the Southland (many of them temporarily), but perhaps a whiff of their byunsky disdain reached me. In college I worshiped Arnold Schoenberg, but too late to meet him, as he was dead by the time I discovered him. Had I knocked at his Brentwood door, he would have given me a scowl and said "go away." I would have thought that was just fine—surely he was composing some new masterpiece! Perhaps my intrusion would serve to add a slight dodecaphonic frisson, to enhance the piece.

Of course you went West and I went East—though not so far in the end, since for quite a while I have been settled on the West Side of Manhattan.

The present encounter is not my first with your work. I discovered The Futurist Moment shortly after it first appeared. Last year I assigned your book to the students in my abstract art course at Hunter College. I could not have made a better choice. On first reading the book I was struck by the fact that you had had many of the same insights I had had, but were able express them with incomparably greater power. I marveled at your linguistic ease, as you shuttled about among French, Italian, German, and Russian. This multilingual competence is what the project ideally called for—but previously had been unable to attract.

Who is this Marjorie Perloff, anyway? I asked myself. I had an imprecise recollection that she was a champion of modern and contemporary poetry—and that was good. But, hmm, probably she was born in Iowa City as Marjorie Smith. During her junior year abroad she met and married an American Jewish student whose surname was Perloff. But that wouldn’t account for the superb multilingual competence--superior, I think, even to George Steiner’s. Of course I was wrong about the Iowa bit, as I find from your newest book, in which all is explained by your rich Viennese family background and necessary departure from Austria on the morrow of Hitler’s takeover.

My family was not Jewish. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. My parents were Communists—an outcome not uncommon for a 1930s intellectual like my stepfather. The stereotype that most Communists were Jews is untrue—my stepfather’s best friend in the Party was a Norwegian-American—but we socialized with a number of comrades of Jewish extraction (as the phrase goes), who impressed me with their sincerity and dedication. They were no more interested in cultivating the Jewish religion than my parents were in keeping up the Methodism in which they had been brought up. We were all good atheists.

Goodness knows what would have happened to us if we had actually immigrated to the Soviet Union, so superior in every respect, I was told. Still, my parents, wisely, weren’t having any of that. "We are Americans," they said. "We will stand and fight for social justice in our own country." And indeed they did do their bit. To the evident annoyance of our neighbors, in the 1940s my parents had dinner parties for their African American friends. It is not hard to see that my later (cultural) disdain for America was a kind of ghostly echo of my parents’ socioeconomic critique. Eventually, though, I followed them in electing to stick it out on these shores.

As far as Communism goes, Tito’s defection in 1948 killed the thing for me. But I was still not reconciled to America, which I found hopelessly crass and materialistic. I had decided that I would leave—forever. But what would be my new country? In that immediate postwar era, there seemed to be only three candidates: England, France, and Italy. After entertaining fantasies of being admitted as a student at Oxford, I put England on the back burner. After all, that country had foisted the English language on us, a slovenly parlance now serving as the instrument of cocacolonization, debasing standards throughout the world. (Had I known that some of the founders of our Republic had advocated, somewhat wistfully, that ancient Greece be our national tongue, I would have been sorely disappointed that they didn’t get their way.) Be that as it may, I taught myself French and Italian from books. Owing to a job in Rome, I eventually became fluent in the latter tongue.

In 1949 at the start of high school I discovered T.S. Eliot, then at the height of his fame and influence. After I had read everything of Eliot’s I could get hold of (and the LA Public Library was well stocked), I naturally gravitated to Pound. Here was the real thing I concluded, of which Eliot was just a sanitized replica. At the time I was also reading Arnold J. Toynbee (now in my view unfairly dismissed). Yet only in writing these lines did I become aware of the seeming connection. It was as if Pound had found out all the things that Toynbee had, and then selected the "best bits"--culture at its mostest, apparently a more useful service. Later I became aware that Pound just made a series of surgical raids, some quite arbitrary, and returned with the loot. That is not meant as a criticism of his poetic abilities, which were of a high order, but a stricture about the brand of historiosophy he espoused. From Pound, though, I did get interested in sinology—a promissory note I haven’t yet redeemed. In 1957 I went twice to see Pound at his alcove at St. Elizabeths, where I met Dorothy Pound, John Kasper and other assorted acolytes. Once I got back to New York City where I was then living, I dropped these disciples, except for a Chinese-American named Wang, who is mentioned in one of the late Cantos. Bizarrely, Wang had taken it upon himself to form a White Citizens’ Council in Manhattan. In so doing he inadvertently exposed the incoherence of the racial categories posited by the St. Elizabeths cabal.

As an undergraduate at UCLA I had gravitated to the field of art history. Following this commitment, I went in 1956 to enroll in the Ph.D. program at the Institute of Fine Arts of NYU, then staffed by an amazing professoriate derived almost entirely from what we later were to term the Transatlantic Migration. We sat literally spellbound before their eloquence. Just to give one example, the classicist Karl Lehmann was reputed to have memorized Pauly-Wissowa, the ultimate encyclopedia of Greece and Rome in 39 volumes. He didn’t need to, as he knew far more than was contained in that capacious oracle. At IFA, of course, the imperative of learning German imposed itself on me. I had been drawn to Goethe in the late forties, but (except for the lyric poetry) the exposure never took. I have a lingering impression that Faust is a kind of higher Grand Guignol. Somehow Goethe seems incapable of recapturing the esteem he once so widely enjoyed in the English-speaking world.

I cannot quite get out of my head the sense that the Nazis hijacked the German language and abused her so viciously that she never recovered. There, and only there, I tend to agree with Adorno. But I’m not prepared to give up on German. Today, teetering on the edge of retirement, I try to keep up with my four "second languages" of French, German, Italian, and Spanish. In fact I am writing a linguistic book involving comparison of all of them. So I guess one doesn’t have to have a European background to make this commitment. But real competence in even one foreign language is rare among Americans nowadays.

After a wonderful spell in Italy, it seemed only logical to complement my IFA experience with a stay (which extended to four years) in London, home of the Warburg-Courtauld Institute (of course they are quite different, but because of the Journal they had blended in my mind). I preferred hanging out at the Warburg, where for three years I attended Gombrich’s seminar on a weekly basis, becoming thoroughly brainwashed (not!). Despite his verbal glibness, I have come to see Gombrich’s ideas as shallow and repetitive, revolving obsessively around the idea that the only significant thing that has gone on in the entire history of art has been the quest for ever more adequate devices to achieve illusion. (The Futurist Moment ought to dispel that notion once and for all.) Gombrich entertained a poorly disguised contempt for both medieval and modern art, which he viewed as vehicles of dangerous irrationalism, of the para-Nazi variety. He hated Hegel, but still took the money from the Hegel prize.

The London eminence who really left an enduring impression on me was Karl Popper through his seminar at the London School of Economics. I was only able to attend his seminar a few times, but the books have consolidated themselves together in my mind to make up the only faith—a rational one, I hope—that I shall ever have.

Now for what I told you at the outset. I can make (I think) a small contribution to the material you presented in The Futurist Moment. Cendrars’ trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway has a possible source in Apollinaire’s pornographic novel Les Onze Mille Verges, where the concluding chapters describe the travels of the hero Mony Vibescu on that recently constructed railway line, a journey that also involves (if I recall correctly) a prostitute.

The other point concerns Walter Benjamin’s famous auras. All sorts of possible sources have been proposed, but to me the most likely one is Theosophical auras. The 1901 book Thought-Forms by Besant and Leadbeater (which so influenced Vassily Kandinsky) illustrates them in vivid color.

With best regards, and undying thanks for the illumination you have afforded,

Wayne R. Dynes

Monday, March 14, 2005

Ortega and popular culture

Today popular culture is inescapable. No matter how much one tries to limit one’s TV time, one cannot help but noting the travails of Brad and Jen, of the Friends cast, and of course of the incomparable Michael Jackson. As a true culture vulture, devoted to reading the classics, I try to keep this under control. But one is not a monk.

How did popular culture become so prevalent? Some say it is due to the insidious machinations of a cabal in Hollywood. Surely the matter is more complicated than that.

I have a novel proposal. The key to the phenomenon may have been inadvertently uncovered by the Spanish philosopher and cultural commentator José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). His best-known book is The Revolt of the Masses, which first appeared in Spanish in 1930.

Ortega’s idea of the mass man differs from the earlier Marxist notion of the Masses, a vast underclass of the downtrodden. Ortega sees the new social formation of the Mass Man as a product of the tremendous surge in European demography that began in the nineteenth century. This advance created a large body of citizens who were neither rich nor poor, neither aristocratic nor marginal. Moreover, they are effectively in revolt, for they refuse to "know their place" and accept the directives of their betters. They openly challenge the leadership of the traditional elites.

Ortega is sometimes mistakenly dismissed as an old fogy, longing for the past glories of aristocracy and the ancien regime. On the contrary, he accepted democracy, within the limits of realism. He would surely have agreed with Winston Churchill’s assertion that democracy is the worst system known--except for every other possible system. He did believe that the demographic surge he identified had produced a problem of social coherence.

Controversially for his time, Ortega believed that Communism and Fascism were transient problems, nostrums arising as solutions, inadequate and unstable as they were, to the problems he was to outline. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 he had, some would say, his comeuppance, as he was forced to go into exile. Beyond the grave, however, Ortega had the last laugh, as the long-run perspective proved him right.

In Ortega’s day popular culture was in its infancy, found in tabloid newspapers, the movies, and the tin-pan-alley tunes diffused by the phonograph. As a member of a prominent newspaper-owning family in Madrid he may even have been said to be complicit with this development, though in a minor way.

Today, I think, we need a sequel to The Revolt of the Masses, treating the consequences of Ortega’s insights for European and American culture. As a song of a few years back declaimed, "Shakespeare’s a hack, we read Kerouac." While he shouldn't elbow out Shakespear, reading Kerouac is not so bad, in fact. But what about an addiction to "Desperate Housewives"?

That Ortega is now little known is unfortunate. Some people are trying to do something about it, witness a book by Rockwell Gray, The Imperative of Modernity: An Intellectual Biography of José Ortega y Gasset (University of California Press, 1989).

Ortega’s other big idea, the need to integrate Spain into Europe, has triumphed. Yet Latin America has not benefited. That of course is another story.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Minimalists and the Hebrew Bible

For some years I have been hearing about the iconoclastic work of the minimalists (not a term chosen by them) concerning the historical status of the Hebrew Bible. These scholars question the reality of the Exodus, the era of the Patriarchs, and the so-called United Kingdom of Saul, David, and Solomon. Some doubt that the last three persons ever existed. A few hold that the Hebrew Bible as we know it was written as late as the third century BCE. As such it would be a product of the Hellenistic period, and subject to Greek and other foreign influences.

Among the leading scholars in this vein are Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson, and Keith W. Whitelam. See for further details.

While I am not yet ready to sign on the dotted line, I am more convinced of minimalism than I used to be. An interesting straw in the wind is Thompson’s experience. After studying at a major German university in the ‘sixties when that country was still the main center of Bible scholarship, Thompson found that his thesis was rejected. Kept out of a teaching job, for a time he had to make his living as a house painter. Such events always put my antenna up. German Bible scholars were scarcely evangelical rigorists, as they came from a school that had questioned many beliefs of the churches. What was it that Thompson said that was so frightening to the Old Testament establishment (as it was then termed)? Perhaps they had reason to be scared. Today the middle seems to be falling away. What are left are the followers of inerrancy and Creationism, on the one hand, and the minimalists on the other.

Now we have a book by Thomas L. Thompson (The Mythic Past, 1991), which seeks to sum up his findings for a lay audience. It is perhaps the best volume to start with.

There is a larger pattern of study of this very influential body of documents, known variously as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and the Tanakh. In former times it was viewed as the inspired word of God, through and through. During the nineteenth century the German scholars of the Higher Criticism cast doubt on that view by demonstrating the heterogeneous origins of the text. The Pentateuch, for example, is a palimpsest of four separate strata. These could not have originated with Moses as (curiously) some German scholars and some Jewish scholars continue to believe.

At the same time as the findings of the Higher Criticism were coming into view, major discoveries were arriving from the Middle East. Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics, while others found the key to Mesopotamian cuneiform. From this material it developed that there were three major empires—Egypt of the Pharaohs, the Assyrians, and the Hittites that came to dominate the Middle East during the time to which the Biblical patriarchs were thought to have flourished. After all, the Exodus story purports to tell of the relationship between the children of Israel and one of these empires. After the occupation of Canaan it seems that the Israelites established a polity of their own, the United Monarch of Saul, David, and Solomon. Covering a large territory this state created cultural achievements on a par with the others. Among these were Solomon’s
Temple and the earlier parts of the Hebrew Bible.

There followed a search for archaeological evidence to flesh out this assumption. A number of historic sites were excavated, stratifications were worked out, and masses of pottery, amulets and other items of material culture came to light. While this material is indeed tangible, prior to the seventh century none of it can be correlated with the narrative of the Hebrew Bible. In this sense Biblical archeology has failed. In particular, it has failed to turn up evidence for the supposed great state of the United Monarchy. No one has found the archives and monumental inscriptions, the bureaucratic directives and diplomatic correspondence, that one would expect. Yet these appurtenances are standard equipment, even for such middling states as Mari and Ugarit. So it looks as if the United Monarchy is a phantom.

The larger question is this. The Hebrew Bible went from being the inspired word of God, to a compilation of the perspectives of a number of differing religious writers to a historical document. What is it now? Some say that Scripture has universal value. To be sure some parts, e.g. the ethical admonitions of the prophets and the skeptical insights of Job and Ecclesiastes, may have this quality. For the most part, however, the Hebrew Bible is, with all due respect, a chauvinistic compilation designed to serve the interests of a particular people. Many Christian exegetes, of course, continue to hold that the Old Testament (as they term it) is a teleological construction directed to the coming of the Messiah, known as Jesus Christ. I see nothing to support this assumption. The Hebrew Bible is a Jewish book--nothing more nothing less. Of course it has come to mean much to non-Jews, but so have the Buddhist and Confucian writings been influential among those who are not Indian and Chinese. To understand these writings, though, we need to acknowledge their national setting. Even so, the Hebrew Bible differs from those Asian texts in that it does not merely arise from an ethnicity, it strives to establish an ethnicity.

So what is the Hebrew Bible to mean to us now, at the beginning of the 21st century? An answer that occurs frequently these days is that it is literature, to be studied and admired as such. But how much of this very big book is literature. I would say that only Genesis, some passages from the prophets, most of the Psalms, and the three wisdom books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes qualify for this. Most of the Hebrew Bible is not literature. It is true that Mary Douglas, an innovative scholar, has written a book entitled “Leviticus as Literature.”

Part of the trouble with the Bible-as-literature movement is that it exempts one from the hard work of mastering existing scholarship. It is all just a seamless narrative, so why bother with this technical stuff? Then too the literary movement can cause one to overlook the baleful influence of such passages as the prohibition of male homosexuality in Leviticus 18 and 20, of which the second specifies the death penalty.

The only thing that is certain is that people will keep on reading the Bible. Apart from religious use, this reading is part of a larger pattern of the survival of the classics, television and the Internet notwithstanding. The classics are indestructible. Hooray for that.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Art-history minicanon

The last few years have seen an increasing volume of public awareness and support for the visual arts. Museums attract large crowds, and a plethora of art books beckons. Not everyone, even in Manhattan has been enthusiastic about the Christo-Jeanne Claude "Gates" in Central Park, but lots and lots of people turned out. We have voted with our feet.

All this is well and good. Eventually, however, those drawn to this humongous cultural zone acquire a wish to understand art at a more fundamental level. What are the principles of visual analysis? Giving this matter some thought, I have come up with a minicanon of six books.

The first two items embody the method of formal analysis. In his book Principles of Art History, Heinrich Wölfflin offered an influential model of a binary approach (he is said to be one of the first pioneers of the two-slide method of lecture presentation). He began with a contrast of the "linear" and "painterly" modes, and then presented four more analogous contrasts. To be sure, Wölfflin’s book would have been better titled "Some Principles …" His five contrasts are examples, rather than an exhaustive presentation. Moreover, the 1932 English translation of the 1915 German original text is wooden and occasionally faulty, while the illustrations are smudgy (but one can find others). Still, this is a landmark volume that no one should miss. In his Art and Culture (1961) the American critic Clement Greenberg applies a somewhat similar approach to modern art, including Cubism, Abstraction, and (his particular enthusiasm) Abstract Expressionism.

In recent years formalism has come under attack. This critique is only appropriate if it is regarded as the only method. However, even Wölfflin recognized the need for iconography, the subdiscipline that examines visual constants in terms of meaning. For this, he recommended the work of his French contemporary Emile Mâle. That writer’s best known work, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, is indeed an enthralling work, offering a comprehensive account of the imagery of French cathedrals during their most vital era. For its non-Christian counterpart, see Jean Seznec’s lucid The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (1940/1953). Seznec shows how a series of key texts conditioned the Renaissance revival of classical imagery.

Several brilliant examples of a synthesis of these two approaches—the formal and the iconographic--appear in Erwin Panofsky’s Meaning and the Visual Arts (1955). There are three theoretical papers, including his manifesto seeking to distinguish between iconography and iconology. Then there are case studies on Titian, Dürer, Vasari, and Poussin.

A closer study of the great age of art history reveals that the preponderance of its leading practitioners was formed in Germany. For some landmarks of that tradition, see the anthology of Gert Schiff, German Art History.

Except for Greenberg, none of the books concerns modern art. And none addresses Asian or tribal art. One must accept the fact that the Middle Ages and especially the Old Masters populated the laboratory in which these ground-breaking theories were discovered.

Moreover, the volumes were written a long time ago. Mâle’s book first appeared in 1898. The most recent, by Greenberg, came out in 1961. Why do my recommendations stick to these old fogies—DWEMs as it were? In every field we expect that the most recent books will be the most definitive. Perhaps so, but in my opinion this is not true in art history. After 1970 or so there was an attempt to replace the earlier model with an ostensibly better one termed the New Art History. Paying tribute to psychoanalysis, Marxism, and semiotics, this approach has, in my view, not stood up very well. Of course, anyone is free to challenge this negative judgment by consulting works by leading practitioners, including Yve-Alain Bois, Michael Ann Holly, and Rosalind Kraus. In my judgment, though, the "New Art History" is old hat.

My little course of six volumes requires but a modest outlay. As a rule, paperback editions of the sextet can be picked up for a song, at used bookshops and on the Internet. Of course these older paperbacks lack the glamorous color reproductions of more recent productions, but the enrichment offered by the ideas they contain is incalculable.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Collective self-disparagement

A friend of mine asked a question about internalized homophobia that prompted some broader observations on my part.

This phenomenon is a subset of a larger tendency, which goes under several names. About twenty years ago I went to a film, which concerned an Italian Gastarbeiter in German-speaking Switzerland. He came to dispise his heritage, dieing his hair blond and loudly denouncing Italians in bars. Eventually he got over it.

Another example (and this is really a reach, but the tendency is very widespread) is the Eta (the so-called "untouchables") in Japan. They strive to pass, but there are said to be books where one can look up Eta surnames so as to make sure that one's daughter doesn't marry one. There is one subway stop in Tokyo in a district where Eta are concentrated. Some Eta are said to travel on to the next stop, and walk back, so that their status will not be detected.

Perhaps this kind of thing is related to the Stockholm syndrome, whereby hostages come to identify with their captors.

The phenomenon probably existed in classical antiquity, but no examples spring to mind. Some might conclude that there is internalized homophobia in Petronius--but it may just be hyper-campiness.

During the Middle Ages, the dominant society held that marginal people (heretics, Jews, sodomites) s h o u l d hate themselves. What's the problem, already? Or so the authorities would say.

At all events, the first scholar I know of who addressed the matter was the Viennese Theodor Lessing, who introduced the term "juedischer Selbsthass" (Jewish self-hatred) in 1930. Lessing concentrated on Otto Weininger, indeed a sad case, but the matter has been traced back to the early 19th century in Germany with such figures as Rahel Varnhagen and Heinrich Heine. Walter Rathenau, the great industrialist of a hundred years ago, was said to be self-critical both of his Jewishness and his homosexuality (the latter was surmised by Count Kessler, but not proven.)

My friend holds that many are too quick to cast these aspersions of internalized self-hatred. In some instances, the person who holds the views may simply have a different concept of the group interest. Some years back if one didn't support the aims of "gay revolution" one risked being assailed as harboring internalized homophobia.

Yet there seems to be a certain core of truth in the allegation that some have bought into disparaging concepts of their own group. After all, the concepts of black pride and gay pride were introduced to combat the tendency.