Thursday, April 27, 2006

Stockholm Syndrome?

Today there is general awareness of a curious, counterintuitive phenomenon known as the Stockholm Syndrome. This occurs when, say, a group of robbers takes some bystanders hostage and holds them in the bank vault. At first the hostages are bewildered and angry. Gradually, though, they come to sympathize with the robbers, agreeing to make common cause in order to "find a way out of this situation."

That is what seems to be happening now in the disastrous Iraq war. Even those who are critical of the manifest mishandling of the conduct of the war and occupation say that now is not the time for accountability. Instead, we must focus solely on the way forward.

This is the case even of the rising numbers of people who call for the firing of Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. If Rumsfeld, why not others? And if the mishandling of the war is at issue, why not its planning and launching as well?

The reason the pundits want us to keep silent about these issues looks to me very much like bad faith. Most of them were gullible cheerleaders when the Bush administration proferred its megillah of specious reasons for the invasion. I was against it from the start. I was not against Desert Storm and I was not against the Afghanistan campaign. So I am not a pacifist. I was opposed to an unjustified war of choice. For their part, the supporters of the war were wrong then, including many who ought to have known better. They are wrong now.

We should not allow the connivers and bunglers who took us into this war off the hook. Let's say no to the Stockholm Syndrome. Let us have accountability n o w, not in some indefinable future--when of course, in all likehood, Iraq will emerge as an Islamic Republic, very different from the rosy pictures we still encounter.

A friend asks if I am simply anti-Bush. In fact I wasn't in 2000. I was cautiously optimistic. I thought that limited government could be successfully combined with new initiatives in education and poverty. But 9/11 was the excuse to abandon those goals in favor of dubious new ones. It looks a bit like the old shell game.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Boswell Thesis (book review)

It seems hard to believe that twenty-six years have passed since the publication of John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (CSTH). A landmark in its field, that title continues to sell well for an academic book, especially one in medieval studies. (In my last few years of teaching I learned, to my dismay, that medieval studies are decidedly unfashionable nowadays.)

Strikingly learned in several languages, Boswell sought to accomplish the decoupling of Christianity and homophobia. He held that the passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament commonly interpreted as antihomosexual were not—that they could be in effect detoxified. He further maintained that for at least the first twelve centuries of its existence Christianity had not been opposed to same-sex love. Indeed, as he later argued, the church even created a ceremony allowing two members of the same sex to enter into a marriage-like union. Acknowledging that homophobia became active in the church during the later middle ages, he attributed its origin to sociological and not doctrinal factors.

In my view (I was one of the first reviewers of the book), he failed to establish these contentions. Others have concluded differently. Many gay Christians greeted the book with hosannas of praise. For a considerable period, Boswell received letters of commendation to the tune of 250 a week. A sexy photograph appeared in a weekly newsmagazine, and John Boswell, then a junior professor at Yale University, became a celebrity.

As one writer notes, for many gay Christians CSTH functioned as a talisman, a protective holy relic, if you will. The four letters of the acronym are a kind of tetragrammaton. It was not necessary to understand the book, or even look inside its covers, to cherish its profoundly efficacious apotropaic significance.

Buoyed by this success, Boswell assumed an evangelical mantle, making frequent appearances before adoring gay Christian groups. One admirer, a close friend, has gone so far as to suggest that for millions of people Boswell is a saint.

Now the issues are revisited in The Boswell Effect, edited by Professor Mathew Kuefler and issued by the University of Chicago Press, the original publisher of CSTH. The sixteen essays in the book, all but one by chair-holding academics, are largely celebratory. Significantly, not one of Boswell’s academic critics, and there have been many, was invited to contribute. To be sure, several authors, including Mathew Kuefler, note the points of skeptics here and there, but generally so briefly as to suggest that they are not of lasting moment. Boswell’s book, they seem to believe, has met the test of time. A contemporary classic, it has left its detractors in the dust.

In addition to enabling gay Christians, CSTH enabled gay scholarship. The contributors apparently feel indebted to Boswell for opening a space for their paid employment. Once the kiss of death, academic study of homosexuality (though commonly repackaged as "gender studies") is now, for a few at least, the path to tenure and security. However, some of us had been doing gay scholarship long before. In fact Boswell’s magnum opus had been preceded by another work of scholarship covering much of the same territory, but arriving at less reassuring conclusions. That is Michael Goodich, The Unmentionble Vice: Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period (1979). Boswell, as he acknowledges in his notes, was aware of Goodich’s findings, some of which had been previously published in the form of articles.

While affirming John Boswell’s most controversial conclusions, the authors do find mild fault in two other areas. First, he projects the situation of American homosexuals in the second half of the twentieth century onto the past. This is the main function of his adoption of the term “gay.” He deliberately elides the inconvenient fact that many earlier same-sex relationships were age-differentiated—that is, they were pederastic. The assumption of an unchanging homosexual essence has been widely derided by many contemporary scholars of the Social Construction tendency. They label the unchanging view as "essentialist," normally a grave sin in their eyes. Yet Boswell, a sexual essentialist if there ever was one, is largely let off.

Secondly, it is claimed that he is indifferent to lesbians. This charge seems unfair. Just as we can and do study the history of women as such, we ought to be able to study the history of men, without imposing some Procrustean standard of gender parity. In fact Boswell’s neglect of women reflects not his misogyny but the paucity of sources in his area. Historians of medieval lesbianism, who have not come up with much, tacitly acknowledge this limitation.

Perhaps the book’s most penetrating contribution is by Mark Jordan, author of an important monograph on the emergence of the medieval concept of sodomy. He finds that Boswell failed to strike a proper balance between the two roles he espoused: objective scholar and prophetic minister (or preacher if you will). Jordan, a cradle Catholic, suggests that Boswell, a convert, had little awareness of the major advances in theology that had marked the middle years of the century. Moreover, he failed to understand the character of the church’s process of change. Boswell seemed to think that scholarly findings could themselves effect the doctrinal shift he desired. As everyone knows, the response of the Vatican has been thunderously negative. The paradox is that Boswell has argued that Christianity made an unwarranted change in moving from approval (or at least neutrality) regarding same sex relations to condemnation some eight centuries ago. Now he wants the church to change again. Why is the new change appropriate, while the former was not?

As I noted above Boswell has not merely been an enabler of gay Christians, but also of a small body of tenured (or tenure-track) academics, who are grateful to him for opening a path to their careers. At one time, one might have applauded such efforts as part of a salutary consolidation of Gay Studies. That has not been happening. Wracked as it has been by the winds of doctrine, Gay Studies never really got off the ground in our universities. In my view that impasse represents a great opportunity missed. You would not realize this from the papers in The Boswell Thesis.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Judas thing

I have not yet read the text of the papyrus gospel that the National Geographic Society has been hyping. I can't get excited about it. Prior to this discovery, no less than sixteen noncanonical gospels were known, some of them for centuries. For wxample, the Protoevangelion of James was used by Giotto when he started to paint the celebrated frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua shortly after 1300 CE.

Of course most acknowlege that the biographies ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were probably not composed by those writers. Ditto the seventeen who are not admitted into the canon. I agree that there is value in erasing the bright line that many still observed between the Fabulous Four and the others. However, the noncanonical gospels cannot simply be added to the canon, or substituted for it. The Jesus Seminar now prints the Gospel of Thomas as a fifth "regular" gospel. Some, like the feminist Elaine Pagels, treat the "other" gospels as a kind of cafeteria table, from which one can pick dishes to form a new Christianity. Or rather an old one, since we encounter the belief that these were major strands of primitive Christianity, an assumption hard to substantiate.

There is an interesting reference to homosexuality in the Judas gospel. It is not approving. Among those whose tributes are not acceptable are "those who sleep with men"--along with fornicators, slayers of children and others tainted with pollution, lawlessness, and error.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Whither art history? with a personal reminiscence

Growing up in tranquil Southern California during World War II, I followed the war mainly through the radio and the newsreels. None of my immediate family went off in uniform, though my mother took a job at an army base.

The conventional wisdom in those days was that Europe was finished. It was so devastated that it would never make a comeback. Some, overly mindful of Roosevelt’s "good neighbor" propaganda, believed that our destiny lay in a partnership with Latin America. My parents, who were of the far left, thought that the future lay in the undamaged parts of the Soviet Union, from the Urals to Vladivostok. Both views were wrong.

Just a few years after the war ended, a book appeared with a title that has stuck in my memory: "Fire in the Ashes." Europe was on its way back. This recovery was due to the reservoir of human capital among the Europeans who survived, combined with some strategic help from the Marshall Plan.

Indirectly, the Marshall Plan helped us scholars to get to Europe. Senator William Fulbright devised a scheme whereby American there could soak up money the Europeans owed us on research projects. Eventually, I got one of these Fulbright Scholarships (to England). As a friend later sardonically remarked, we were the children of NATO. However, I am getting ahead of myself.

During the decade after the end of the war I developed a yearning to go to Europe, perhaps staying there forever. Like other sensitive youths I had developed an aversion for what I deemed the "vulgarian" culture of America. Overseas, the grass was much greener.

About this time I discovered art history at UCLA. I knew that I had to go east for the real thing, and that turned out to be at the Institute of Fine Arts (IFA) of New York University. There I received instruction from a stellar body of teachers, most of them from the Transatlantic Migration of intellectuals forced to flee from Central Europe by Hitler’s barbarism. Except for one token professor of Chinese Art (himself German), they all focused on the art of Europe. And within Europe the majority gravitated to Italy. This focus was of course a long tradition in Central European art history from Winckelmann and Rumohr to Wölfflin and Riegl. The artistic treasures of Italy are indeed sui generis, comprising both classical (Greek, Etruscan, and Roman) and European art of the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods.

If Italy was the cynosure, the locus of the discipline lay further north. Naturally I must learn German—and so after a fashion I did. Looking back on the matter I see now that the German language was almost incidental to the amazing proficiency of my professors. They brought to the work a remarkable precision, honed by six years of Latin and three years of Greek. In addition, they were cosmopolitan, overcoming any local idiosyncrasies in favor of a larger allegiance. They took their duties as new citizens of the US very seriously. One of them the archaeologist Karl Lehmann got so wrapped up in his study for citizenship that he wrote a book about Thomas Jefferson.

Admirable as their breadth was, my IFA professors were still Atlanticists. The rest of the world counted for very little, though occasionally courses in Egyptology appeared in the syllabus—-but as a prelude to Greece and Rome.

Their Sehnsucht nach Italien meshed with our society’s general Italomania. That was the espresso-bar era. Italian cinema, from Neo-Realism to the more symbolic works of Fellini, Anonioni, and Pasolini, seemed better than Hollywood. Experienced close up, Italy was pleasant and cheap. Italians were polite and welcoming, unlike, say, the French, who were wrapped in gloom because of the disasters in Indo-China and Algeria. Germany still suffered under the pall of its recent Nazi past, and Spain, under Franco, was beyond the pale. Britain, though, our closest companion in World War II, was the country of Shakespeare, not the visual arts.

So I too was swept along. The ancient city of Rome beckoned, and I was to live there for a year and a half. At UCLA, though, I had been exposed to Chinese civilization, so I knew that a wider world awaited out there.

With the passage of time certain modifications came into play. Relentless PR secured the triumph of "American-type painting" a.k.a Abstract Expressionism. While the adepts of this art eclipsed their European contemporaries, both components—abstraction and expressionism—again pointed back to Europe in the early years of the twentieth century.

Woman artists received new attention, as did gay and lesbian artists. These concerns folded, it seemed, into the New Art History, itself a branch of the vast Postmodernist movement in scholarship. This waned with century’s end, though, as many found that the purported revolution of Postmodernism consisted of a new, often opaque language and little else: Derridada in short.

These changes aside, transcending the Eurocentrism of the post WW II mold remains difficult. Recently at my college I argued for a new job position with a specialty in New World art "south of the border." What I was mainly interested in was Pre-Columbian. While modern Latin American art enjoys some popularity, this seems to be mainly for extra-artistic reasons. "Fridamania" is the most extraordinary case I know of a glaring disconnect between intrinsic artistic quality (exiguous) and hoopla.

East Asian art has elicited a much deeper response. This may appear to be case of aesthetic prestige following economic muscle-power. That explanations seems superficial, though, as. Chinese and Japanese art have an intrinsic quality and staying power that makes them easy competitors with the West.

Progress towards study of art on a world basis is patchy at best. It is not helped by continuing disparities in the quality of scholarship. For many years most of the leading art scholarship has been produced in the US, Britain, and Germany—with France and the Netherlands assisting in lesser roles.

There is a glaring discrepancy between the interest that professionals—and indeed ordinary travelers—have in the art of the southern tier of Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal) and the modest quality of scholarship emanating from those countries. Friends tell me, for example, of the flood of publications, many lavishly produced, appearing in newly prosperous Spain. But who are the leading Spanish art historians of today?

As the southern European countries advanced from third-world status to wealth, they became absorbed in consumerism and lifestylism. The quality of universities remains poor. There is little need to pay attention to the intellectual product of those countries. Italophile friends tell me about "il pensiero debole," weak thought, a trend in philosophy. To which I answer: "di debolezze ne ho tante," I already have enough weaknesses.

To my students I would continue to administer a bitter pill: learn German. German thought continues to be important in many fields. These include art history. Wolfgang Sauerländer is the world’s leading medievalist, and many of his works have not been translated. Two other major figures are Hans Belting and Martin Warnke. Only now have the major works of Alois Riegl, on the great Founders of our discipline been translated. When it will come the turn of August Schmarsow, Wilhelm Vöge, and Hans Sedlmayr (the latter represented by one atypical work in English)? I do not know. One can read the magnum opus of the Viennese Julius von Schlosser in German, Italian, and French, but not in English. The notion that "if it’s important, it must have been translated" is a dangerous myth.

Art history is gradually returning from its grotesque excursion into Postmodernism and Derridada. But it is difficult to achieve a balanced understanding of world art.

Where are we going? I don’t know. But I am glad that I experienced Beijing and Kyoto, Agra and Angkor Wat.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Life's seasons

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted."

These familiar words from Ecclesiastes illustrate a lesson that it has taken me many years to learn, and probably I am not alone in this. At any given point in life’s course, the value of what we are engaged in is not determined exclusively by its intrinsic worth, but also by its appropriateness to time and place.

In the Seven Ages of Man speech in "As You Like It," Shakespeare (echoing a separate tradition) sets forth a similar insight. However, the ages-of-man concept is too fatalistic, implying that the segments of life inescapably follow in a preordained sequence.

In reality the seasons of life are not predetermined. They can occur in various sequences, though to be sure our bodily capacity places limits. Moreover, life’s seasons are, as it were, laminated, with one often overlapping another.

Let us look at some examples. For me the last thirteen years were ones of intense travel, much of it to exotic places. I began in 1992 with a trip around the world with my partner Neal. In January of this year, though, I spent a week in London. It was just fine, but the stay enabled me to realize that the season of intense travel was over. That doesn’t mean that I will never travel abroad again, but it will not be in the same context, where one trip built on another to produce a complex image of world culture. These days I relive some of the traveling through consulting illustrated books in my copious library.

Now, a year after retirement from my teaching job, my new season is writing. I write every day, and not just on this blog. With my books, manuscripts, and information portals, my apartment is the place to do it. Long walks keep the creative juices flowing.

One of my oldest friends has the leisure in her later years to make a thorough study of the medium of film, to which she had been formerly indifferent. New DVDs come in every week through the mail. By contrast I had my film season in the sixties and seventies, the art-house era. Now I indulge only moderately (though I wouldn’t have have wanted to miss the Antonioni retro now occurring at Columbia University.) Should I chide my friend for her "foolish" concern with film? Not a bit of it. Nor does she chide me for not getting involved in movies again. We are experiencing our seasons in a different sequence.

To be sure this ability to segment life according to phases of appropriateness is the product of affluent, middle-class living. In former times there was little opportunity for such nuanced self-creation. Even members of the aristocracy found themselves destined for the army or the church, and had to stick to those careers.

To some extent the old habits of fixed career paths survive. This is why, I think, we cling to a season after it is to all intents and purposes over. But one shouldn’t drop things prematurely—and some things never completely. That is why I will still see films and still travel occasionally--Deo volente.

One can also rule things out prematurely. Still, I doubt that it would be wise now, at the age of 71, to realize my fleeting youthful ambition to be a motorcycle guy. Carpe diem, seize the day, is an ancient precept. Yet one cannot seize every day. But if one does enough of them, following a realistic awareness of seasonality, one is doing all that is necessary.