Sunday, November 22, 2009

The "God gene" and the life-lie

Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for The New York Times, is the author of a new book “The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures.” In a piece in the New York Times for November 14 he presented the gist (

“[R]esearch is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.”

Two groups, on opposite sides of the aisle, may have trouble with this perspective.

“For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.

“For believers, it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then seem less likely."

Neither group need worry, argues Wade.

“[T]he evolutionary perspective on religion does not necessarily threaten the central position of either side. That religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods. For believers, if one accepts that evolution has shaped the human body, why not the mind too? What evolution has done is to endow people with a genetic predisposition to learn the religion of their community, just as they are predisposed to learn its language. With both religion and language, it is culture, not genetics, that then supplies the content of what is learned.

“It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve quarrels and patch up the social fabric.

“The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound people together, committing them to put their community’s needs ahead of their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed rules of self-restraint toward members of the community. Religion also emboldened them to give their lives in battle against outsiders. Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.”

One may question Wade’s suggestion that the new approach can lead to a truce between theists and atheists.

Still, the point of view is interesting. It may reinforce an insight achieved by the dramatist Henrik Ibsen in his 1884 play “The Wild Duck,” where he presents the concept of the “life-lie.” In simplest terms, a life-lie is a story we tell ourselves--a story we actually believe about our lives that lets us ignore ugly reality so as focus on a glorious future.

The main character of "The Wild Duck" is a man named Hjalmar Ekdal. After his father was ruined by a shady business deal, Ekdal has lived his life in shame. He scrapes by with his photography business, a business that his father’s arch-enemy gave him out of pity. To all intents and purposes, Ekdal's wife runs the business.

Logically, Hjalmar Ekdal should be miserable, but he is not. Ekdal is happy because he is sustained by his personal life-lie. He firmly believes that he is destined to invent a splendid mechanical device that will make his family wealthy and erase his shame. He doesn’t just tell himself this lie, he actually lives it. Each day he goes off on his own for a few hours, supposedly toiling away at The Invention. What is he really doing? No one knows. In truth, it’s irrelevant. Every day he returns in high spirits, believing that he is on the verge of perfecting the invention and saving his family's fortune.

Presumably Ekdal has developed this comforting fantasy all by himself. Not so, though, because it gradually emerges that the failed photographer’s life-lie has been nurtured by the cynical Dr. Relling, who dispenses illusions along with pills. Relling says "I try to discover the life-lie, the pet illusion that makes life possible; and then I foster it. . . . Deprive the average human being of his life lie, and you rob him of his happiness.”

Life-lies generally flourish when two processes cohabit: the individual's need to cherish illusions, and the interventionist strategy of the enabler (here Dr. Relling), who fosters them.

Parenthetically, it may be noted that Ibsen's concept runs counter to a cherished theme in Western philosophy that goes back at least to the time of Socrates: we are better off if we discard illusions. This notion has drifted down to psychoanalysis, where gullible patients spend years trying to "find out the truth about themselves." Apart from the fact that Freudian psychoanalysis rarely yields any truth, it may be that we are better off without knowing it.

Be that as it may, perhaps this concept of Ibsen’s allows us to see the “God gene” in a different perspective. Ekdal is humanity, which can only flourish by adhering to illusions, including the supreme one of believing in God--or gods. Dr. Relling personifies the priestly caste, which hands out the sustaining illusions and continually fosters them.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The exodus narrative denied

Modern critical scholarship has conclusively established that, as described in the Pentateuch, the exodus never happened. That is to say, there was never a mass migration of the Israelites from pharaonic Egypt to Palestine. In modern memory the narrative ranks as an exemplary tale of liberation from collective bondage. Yet Egyptian sources provide no documentary evidence of the Israelites ever having been in Egypt, and the logistics of such a purported mass migration through forbidding territory would have made such a journey out of the question.

The biblical exodus, then, is a myth. As such, though, it must be credited with offering moral support to modern liberation struggles, notably the American civil rights movement. Other instances come to mind. Although the narrative was not directly applied, it is not irrelevant to the escape of Bangladesh from its bondage to what used to be termed West Pakistan.

The book Exodus and Revolution (1986) is an extended meditation by Michael Walzer, a professor at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study. Walzer holds that Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have their precursors in the biblical narrative of exodus. Professedly uninterested in the critical approach to the scriptures, Walzer focuses on how the narrative of the exodus out of Egypt has functioned as a basis for social arguments. He writes, "I don't mean to disparage the sacred, only to explore the secular: my subject is not what God has done but what men and women have done, first with the biblical text itself and then in the world, with the text in their hands."

Walzer nonetheless seeks to show that covenant theology achieved its formation in the trajectory outlined by the Pentateuch: from Noah to Abraham to Moses and thence to the Israelites. He maintains that the revolution of his title corresponds to the narrative detailing a sequence of "oppression, liberation, social contract, political struggle, new society (danger of restoration)." This is why the exodus story has fostered our Western quest for social progress.
Walzer ends with a discussion of Zionism, where he finds that the two major variants, "Exodus Zionism" (politically left) and "messianic Zionism" (politically right), both appeal to scripture.

But why stop with Zionism? One might have thought that the hallowed exodus narrative would make observers sensitive to the dangers of any contemporary recapitulation in the Middle East itself. Not so. I have never heard any of the ubiquitous and vociferous defenders of Israel admit that the Israelis are acting unjustly, as the Egyptians reputedly did in biblical times. Israel is holding a whole nation, the Palestinians, in bondage.

If the bible has any liberatory force at all--an assertion about which I am increasingly skeptical--surely it must apply to the Palestinians. Yet it is not.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Equality vs. sexual freedom

As the first decade of the 21st century starts to wind down, the task of characterizing that segment of time starts to present itself. With regard to gay people, an interesting reflection has been posted by Marcus McCann, who has recently assumed an editorial post with Xtra, a leading Canadian gay paper ( The editorial bears the provocative title “Abandon Equality.” Here are a few excerpts:

“The decade in which “same-sex partners” turned into gay “husbands” and lesbian “wives” is winding down. In a few weeks, the naughties will be over and we’ll be into 2010. . . . It was a decade dedicated to marriage, partner benefits and adoption rights. I mean, that’s the dominant story: over the last 10 years, equality-based crusaders won all kinds of things for gay couples. Go us.

“The other side of the story is a bit different: In the 2000s, we had major bathhouse raids in Toronto, Hamilton and Calgary, and we demanded that charges be dropped (to mixed effect). We challenged censorship at Canada’s borders, and won an ultimately hollow victory. There was a big win in the courts for sex clubs and swingers, but hookers and rent boys are still duking it out for the freedom to work safely.

“So, on one hand, we have a rosy set of equality-based victories, mostly benefiting long-term gay and lesbian couples. On the other hand, we have a host of sexuality- and freedom-based battles, many of which are ongoing.”

Mutatis mutandis, the US has seen a similar series of contrasts. Then, however, McCann zeroes in a surprising target. He says: “The equality stuff has largely run its course for gay people.” The writer questions “equality activism. Its dominant critique is “we want in,” which is not a critique of institutional power. In fact, a critique of institutional power is impossible in a “we want in” paradigm. Why not change the world to make it better instead of settling for full participation in the way things are now?

“Since equality-based logic has no yardstick to measure the virtues of a law, other than to advocate for its equal application, the equality movement will always remain essentially conservative.

“Under the logic of equality, criminalizing gay sex is bad because gays and straights should be treated equally. But prostitution — so long as the laws apply equally to all sexualities — is fair game for state intervention. Polyamory, same. SM, park sex, porn: same, same, same.”

In short, McCann seems to be arguing that there is a trade-off in which the quest for equality means short-changing sexual freedom.

Now some comments of my own.

For someone of a certain age (such as me) the "struggle for sexual freedom" has a powerful ring. Yet in all honesty, I fear that that resonance is one of nostalgia, particularly for the free-wheeling days of the sixties and seventies, the era of "anything goes," or so it seemed.  In moderation, I trust, I reveled in the world of the baths, the trucks, the piers and so on--you name it.  Sexual freedom!

But inevitably the zeitgeist moved on, powerfully nudged by the AIDS crisis.

In all likelihood, the outlaw tradition will persist in gay-male culture, but as a sideline only.  Young people nowadays seem only to want the house in the suburbs with a picket fence.  Even in these hard times they can do it if they are DINKS, dual income, no kids.  Or even a kid or too, since adoption is one of the salient features of the aughts.

On another level, my own experience has been that it is very hard to oppose the slogan of "equality," no matter how dubious (sometimes) its advocates' arguments may seem.  Since the French Revolution, equality has been the ultimate litmus test in Western civilization.  It also resounds in the Third World, where we have been told, falsely I believe, that people do not care about such things.  So why should gays and their allies be different?

By contrast, the poster boy for the sexual revolution is now that old roue' Hugh Hefner shuffling around in his robe through the grounds of his decaying mansion in LA, attended as ever by a small band of gold-diggers. This is too bad, but many things that once seemed glittering prizes have lost their luster.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sacred prostitution

Sacred prostitution or temple prostitution is the practice of engaging in sexual intercourse with clients for a religious or sacred purpose. As with secular prostitution, a fee is usually charged, though in this instance a portion is remitted to the temple or to the religious authorities. A person engaged in such behavior is sometimes called a hierodule. Given the religious and cultic significance of the practice, modern connotations of the term prostitute may or may not be appropriate.

Aspects of temple prostitution have been found in ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, ancient Greece, pre-Columbian America, modern India, and elsewhere. Because of the importance of the bible in our civilization, the references embedded in the Hebrew bible form the central focus of the following discussion.

We begin our discussion with a consideration of the Qedeshim or Kedeshim, the male hierodules that figure in the Hebrew bible--so often neglected in favor of their better-known female counterparts.

Let us review the facts that have been generally accepted, at least until recent years.

Qadesh (pl. qedeshim) is a Hebrew term that literally means "holy or consecrated one." Formerly rendered "sodomite" (as in the King James Version) it is more accurately translated as "male cult prostitute" in modern translations of the scriptures. It is a key term for understanding a major aspect of same-sex behavior in ancient Israel. The word occurs as a common noun at least six times (Deuteronomy 23:18, I Kings 14:24, 15:12 and 22:46, II Kings 23:7, Job 36:14). According to Warren Johansson (whose analysis in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality I follow in the succeeding paragraphs), it can also be restored on the basis of textual criticism in II Kings 23:24 (= Septuagint of II Chronicles 35:19a) and in Hosea 11:12. These passages all ostensibly designate foreigners (non-Israelites) who served as sacred prostitutes in the Kingdom of Judah, specifically within the precincts of the first Temple (ca. 950-622 B.C.).

That these men had sexual relations with other males and not with women is proven by Hosea 4:14, which castigates the males exclusively for "spending their manhood" in drunken orgies with hierodules, while their wives remained at home, alone and unsatisfied, and by the reading of Isaiah 65:3 in the Qumran manuscript: "And they (m. pl.) sucked their phalli upon the stones."

Their involvement in Canaanite polytheism, an obvious rival of the monotheistic Yahweh religion, fostered the biblical equation of homosexuality with idolatry and paganism and the exclusion of the individual engaging in homosexual activity from the "congregation of Israel," an exclusion persisting in the fundamentalist condemnation of all homosexual expression to this day.

To understand that the condemnation of the qadesh was a cultic prohibition and the self-definition of a religious community, not a moral judgment on other acts taking place outside the sphere of the sacral, it is necessary to see the qadesh or male hierodule (with the qedishah as his female counter­part) in his historical and cultural setting, as a part of Northwest Semitic religion on the territory of the Kingdom of Judah down to the reforms of King Josiah (622 B.C.). The commandments forbidding male same-sex activity on pain of death in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) were, in all likelihood, added only in the Persian period (first half of the fifth century BCE specifically). Critical scholarship generally dates the Holiness Code to the beginning of that period, but Martin Noth in his influential commentary on Leviticus (Philadelphia, 1965) ascribes this part of Leviticus to a time slightly after 520 BCE, when the new and reformed Jewish religion set about throwing off all the associations believed responsible for the catastrophe of 586, the destruction of the first Temple and the exile of the bulk of the population of Judah to Babylon. The proof of the later origin of the verses indicated above is the prophetic reading ("haphtarah") for the portion of the Torah including Leviticus 18, namely Ezekiel 22:10-11, a comparison of which shows that Ezekiel was alluding to a text which in the final years of the First Commonwealth began with Leviticus 18:7 and ended with 18:20, as if to say "You have committed every sexual sin in the book."

Derrick Sherwin Bailey, in his Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London, 1955), argued that the qedeshim "served the female worshipper.” However, it is unlikely that women were admitted to the Temple, then or later, and all parallels from the religious life of antiquity, from Cyprus to Mesopotamia, involve male homosexual connection. Designations for the male prostitute in Hebrew and Phoenician are "dog" {kelebh) and "puppy" (gar), notably in Deuteronomy 23:17, where the kelebh is set in parallel to the zonah "(female) prostitute." In Isaiah 3:4 the word ta'alullm is rendered effeminati by St. Jerome; it means "males who are sexually abused by others," = German Schandbuben. Another likely reference is Isaiah 2:6, the closing hemistich of which Jerome translated etpueris alienis adhaeserunt, while the Aramaic pseudo-Jonathan Targum euphemistically renders the text "And they walked in the ways of the gen­tiles," in which the Hebrew verb has an Arabic cognate that means "they loved tenderly." InHosea 11:12a slight emendation, together with comparison again of the Arabic meaning of the verb in the first half of the parallel, yields the meaning "And Judah is still untrue to God/but faithful to kedeshlm."

The preceding analysis, deriving from the careful work of Warren Johansson, is somewhat technical. Yet Johansson goes on to pose some more general questions.

“How could male prostitutes fit into the scheme of Northwest Semitic - specifically Canaanite - religion during the First Commonwealth? Foreign as the notion is to the modem religious consciousness, the worship of Ishtar and Tammuz was a fertility cult in which union with the hierodule consecrated to the service of the goddess was thought to have magical functions and powers. Such hierodules could be either male or female, and the singular qadesh in I Kings 14:24 is to be taken as a collective, meaning ‘hierodules as a professional caste’ who were ‘in the land,’ practicing their foreign rites. The males may even have been eunuchs, though the context of Job 36:14 ‘Their soul dieth in youth, and their life at the hierodules' age’ suggests that they were adolescent prostitutes [not unlike] the bar or street hustler of today. Furthermore, place names containing the element Kadesh, such as the one in Genesis 14:7, which also was called Enmishpat "Spring of Judgment" indicate the locales of shrines whose personnel had both erotic and mantic functions. This is independently confirmed by the glosses on the Septuagint renderings of qadesh and qedeshah in Deuteronomy 23:18.”

I turn now to the broader context, which is succinctly detailed in the Hebrew Bible itself. Deuteronomy 23:17-18 warns:

“None of the daughters of Israel shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a kadesh. You shall not bring the hire of a prostitute (zonah) or the wages of a dog (keleb) into the house of the Lord your God to pay a vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.”

Here the two sacred prostitutes, male and female, are brought into parallel. Similarly, with their secular counterparts. The whole forms a perfect chiastic square.

In my view, nothing could be clearer. Nonetheless, during the last few decades several schools of revisionism have arisen that strive to deny the historicity of sacred prostitution in the ancient Middle East.

Robert A. Oden (The Bible without Theology, Urbana, 1999) holds that the concept of sacred prostitution is an invention, a kind of slander without foundation, designed to embarrass the Israelites' neighbors. This claim recalls the controversial assertion of William Arens (The Man-Eating Myth, 1980) that the ascription of cannibalism to tribal and early historical peoples is simply a manifestation of prejudice. In his view, there is no evidence supporting the widespread belief that cannibalism has been a socially accepted practice in certain cultures. Let us not mince words. Arens' claim is clearly absurd. As the years have gone by, archaeologists and anthropologists have presented masses of evidence that has surfaced showing that all around the world there have been societies in which cannibalism has been a commonplace ritual practice. Arens’s denialism seems to have been motivated by a kind of political correctness, one that seeks to deny any aspersions that might be cast on cultures that were formerly thought to be savage, but are now hailed as paragons of third-world virtue. Similar motivations seem to lie behind the denial of the reality of sacred prostitution in ancient Israel.

The most massive assault on the idea so far stems from the classical scholar Stephanie Lynn Budin in her book The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity” (Cambridge. 2008. On page one she states her thesis in peremptory fashion: "Sacred prostitution never existed in the ancient Near East or Mediterranean.”

Most reviwers are inclined to accept Budin’s contention that some of the of the texts commonly cited to refer to sacred prostitution actually do not do so. These texts may have something to do with prostitution, but not the special form of it being considered here. That is the case, it seems, with texts by Pindar, Strabo, Klearkhos, Justinus, Valerius Maximus, which Budin parses in great detail.

But so what? These texts stem from classical antiquity, where sacred prostitution has never been held to be of central importance. The key area is the ancient Middle East, and here Budin falls down. She relies on the renderings in Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts (published in 1969) as a point of reference. Yet this outdated publication has been replaced by other, more accurate translations, which she seems not to have consulted. She does use the standard Sumerian and Akkadian dictionaries, but cherry-picks the evidence so as to omit judgments by other scholars that terms in those languages do in fact refer to sacred prostitution.

There are more general problems. Budin narrowly defines sacred prostitution as always requiring a direct quid-pro-quo. A specified portion of the money received must be rendered to the deity. However, sacred prostitution has not always worked this way, as evidence from modern India suggests. One observer reports, for example, having encountered a male prostitute who frequented the precinct of a Hindu temple. This man suggested that sexual congress with him would partake of the sacred, but there was no question of his tithing to the temple.

Another dubious technique Budin employs is the argumentum e silentio. Because excavations and other research have not found uncontrovertible evidence, she thinks that the practice did not exist. This claim is hardly persuasive: no archaeological evidence has been found to confirm or deny the existence of Saul, David, and Solomon but most laypeople--and quite a few scholars--stubbornly continue to believe in their existence. Archaeology does not respond to questions of this kind.

Space does not permit further review of these revisionist arguments, which are proliferating. Ir is my view that, aa regards the Hebrew bible, they fail completely.

However, let us play devil's advocate. If sacred prostitution was a myth, why was it invented? The Early Christians did indeed have a motive to cast aspersions on pagan decadence. However, the revisionists (taking their cue from Edward Said) ascribe the main element in the supposed invention to 19th-century Orientalism, which ascribes strange erotic practices to the Middle Eastern “Other.”

One may acknowledge that such prejudices played some role. However. they must be set aside in a dispassionate examination of the issue. The revisionists have not done this.

What, one may ask, are the reasons underlying their insistent denial? One, I suspect, is simple prudery. It is much nicer to regard the qedeshot and qedeshim as harmless functionaries and bureaucrats than as sex workers remitting a portion of their earnings to the temple. Feminist concerns also seem to play an important role. Sex-trafficking is an ugly reality in the world today. It should be stamped out. But nothing is gained in this cause by denying historical realities.

UPDATE (Feb. 9, 2010). A friend kindly brought to my attention a review and summary of a recent book containing the papers of a conference on the subject recently held in Germany. The summary appeared in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review for 2010.02.18. The book is: Tanja S. Scheer (ed.), Tempelprostitution im Altertum: Fakten und Fiktionen. Oikumene Studien zur antiken Weltgeschichte Bd. 6. Berlin: Verlag Antike, 2009. Pp. 415. ISBN 9783938032268. €59.90. It was reviewed Kathrin Kleibl (

The gathering appears to have been a summit meeting to promulgate, once again, the unconvincing revisionist view that ancient temple prostitution is simply a "myth." There has never been such a thing, ever. This faction accomplishes their vanishing act by concentrating on fringe phenomena in the Greco-Roman world, a realm that has never been regarded as the central focus of the institution, and on the dubious fantasy of Herodotus concerning women in Babylon, which does not deserve serioius consideration--except as a kind of ancient pornography.

Apparently the organizers slipped up with one guest, an Indian scholar who documented almost three millennia of sacred prostitution in the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, I witnessed this myself when I was accosted by a male sex worker in 1992 at the sacred site of Khajaraho.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Thinking the unthinkable

The ritual has become inescapable. Even those who question most radically the policies pursued by successive Israeli governments are required to affirm, as fervently as possible, the "right of Israel to exist."

Why must one say this? Certainly the right to exist of all the individuals living in Israel/Palestine, whether Jews, Muslims, Christians, or others, must be defended. Not to do so would be to approve of murder. Indeed, all these persons should thrive, being encouraged to achieve all the dimensions of human flourishing to which they rightfully aspire. But must these persons all continue to exist under present circumstances?

Well, one might say, the international order requires the maintenance of existing national boundaries, even for countries like Sudan and Burma, where the policies of the government are deplorable.

However, I can think of three nations in Eastern Europe that no longer exist: Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR. No one would want to see anything like the horrors that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia be repeated elsewhere. However, no such atrocities occurred during the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, where the two halves went their separate ways. As far as I can tell, almost everyone there seems to be the better for the separation. The USSR is admittedly an intermediate case, but on the whole the result has not been too bad. Why then should not the state of Israel be added to the list, if circumstances so warrant?

The reality, an inescapable reality, is that no nation has an a priori right to exist forever--including quite possibly our own. The Italian Institute that I go to here in New York has as its motto: Res romana stat. But in fact the Roman Empire no longer exists.

If it comes to it, the only appropriate question is how orderly and successful the dissolution is going to be.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Wisdom literature

The other day I asked a well-informed friend to say, off the cuff, what the expression “wisdom literature” suggested to him. He responded that it would include things like Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, John Milton and so forth. In other words, the great books. In an era in which the classics are struggling for survival, this seems as good a definition as any. We read these perennial works because we hope to find wisdom in them. And if one persists, one is rarely disappointed.

And yet, with all due deference to my friend, the actual nature of the genre of wisdom literature, as the term is employed by historians of literature and religion, is more modest. The works in this category tend to be relatively short and as a rule do not aspire to any great literary heights. Nor do they posit any highly developed philosophical system, though some have a distinct religious tincture. These writings are nonetheless significant as distillations of guiding principles and motifs that may be discerned in daily life. The category of wisdom literature is in fact very ancient, going back to the roots of our civilization in pharaonic Egypt and the ancient Middle East.


At all events, the genre is clearly much more broadly represented. Let us take a latter-day example, one that we owe to Benjamin Franklin. Poor Richard's Almanack was a yearly publication Franklin issued from 1732 to 1758. The pamphlets provided the calendar, weather, poems, sayings, and astronomical and astrological information that a typical almanac of the period would contain. Yet the series is chiefly remembered as a repository of Franklin's aphorisms and proverbs, many of which live on in the American vernacular. In modern editions these maxims are usually printed separately, allowing the whole to function as an example, humble though it may be, of wisdom literature.

The maxims are a blend of older, often proverbial wisdom with what appear to be original formulations by Franklin himself. Franklin’s craftsmanship is so expert that it is not easy to tell at first sight which is which. “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” though typically Franklinian, is in fact an English proverb attested from 1496.

Max Weber regarded the Poor Richard collection as a prime examplar of the Protestant Ethic, with its emphasis on industry, thrift, and deferred gratification. He cited such precepts as these: “Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad [outside], or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. ... He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.”

There is no doubt that these features are important. However, the analysis that reduces Poor Richard to a kind of scolding version of the Protestant Ethic misses the elements of wit, paradox, and even cynicism that contributed so much to the popularity of the gathering. For example, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards” and “All would live long, but none would be old.”

Franklin began publishing Poor Richard's Almanack on December 28, 1732, and would go on to issue it for 25 years, bringing him much economic success and popularity. One precept he does not offer, though, is: publish an almanac. That is perhaps not advice of general applicability.

Franklin’s overall message would perhaps best be stated this way: success in life requires a nimble balancing of guiding principles. Only through experience can each person tell which mix is best.

The concept of wisdom literature is something of a loose, baggy monster. Still, we may hazard some general principles. Standing over against the Euclidean ideal of systematic presentation that progresses from the simple to the complex, the arrangement tends to be casual, almost random. As in life itself, contradictions may occur now and then. The individual items are generally short and pithy. Some maxims comprise a distillation of experience, while others are precepts proffering advice. The aim is to help the individual to live better (or at least more honestly), and to avoid pitfalls along the way.


By far the most important repository of ancient wisdom literature stems from Egypt of the pharaohs. These texts, which seek to inform, teach or persuade, were called sebayt or "instruction." The genre includes maxims, such as Ptahhotep’s; complaints, such as the Eloquent Peasant; laments, such as Ipuwer; prophecies, such as that of Neferti; and testaments; such as that of King Amenemhet.

Texts of wisdom literature come from all periods of ancient Egypt; in fact, more compositions of this type have been recovered than any other form of Egyptian secular writing. The crucial period, however, was the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650), when intellectuals began to reflect on the disasters that had befallen the country during the preceding First Intermediate Period.

Some texts were popular as school texts; others were copied by scribes for their own pleasure. In this way earlier texts continued to be prosper as classics down through the centuries.

A major subcategory consists of maxims and advice for living. Sometimes the author (e.g. Ptahhotep) records his counsel to his son as to how lead a proper and successful life.
The maxims proffer a range of advice, from correct behavior in social situations to proper conduct toward superior and subordinates. Their overarching purpose is the transmission of Ma’at, justice, including right and proper behavior, both for its own sake and as the key to a happy and successful life. The individual who follows this path is often described as "the still man" or "the silent man" – that is, the calm and effacing person – or the knowledgeable man, as opposed to the fool. The opposite of the "silent man" is the "heated man." The silent man is not so much taciturn as thoughtful, temperate, and judicious, one who insists upon taking a moment or more to reflect upon the situation before responding to the words and actions of the hothead who confronts him.

One of the most significant landmarks of the genre is the Instructions of Amenope, composed in the New Kingdom. The author advocates a life of devotion to moral conduct and public service, grounded in religious belief. One section admonishes, "Something else of value in the heart of god is to stop and think before speaking… The hot-headed man … may you be restrained before him. Leave him to himself, and god will know how to answer him." A key passage in the book of Proverbs (22:17- 24:22) is purloined from this Egyptian text, vividly demonstrating the general indebtedness of the Hebrew bible’s wisdom literature from this ancient Egyptian genre.

In the Hebrew Bible,several books rank, as a whole or in part, as wisdom literature: Job, Proverbs, Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), Psalms, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus). The latter two are deuterocanonical and generally omitted from Jewish and Protestant bibles.

In both tone and content, these texts are markedly different from the Yahweh-saturated portions of the Hebrew bible. Instead, they acknowledge the plethora and instability of human emotions as we experience them in daily life. Avoiding any facile discouragement of the interplay of such emotions, wisdom texts highlight these human responses to life. The task of reconciling them with divine providence is not always easy, as the book of Job famously demonstrates. While the wisdom writers treat the miracles of the ancient times as historical facts, they say nothing about a miraculous element in the lives of their own time. In fact the authors of these texts regard God as standing outside the world of physical nature and man, so that he is to a significant degree hidden and inscrutable. This sense of distance has given rise to a modern notion that these texts are religiously skeptical. They are not, but they are questioning.


For a fuller analysis, I turn now to one of the shorter books of this genre, Qohelet or Ecclesiastes. The main speaker in the book, identified by the name or title Qohelet (“the one who assembles”), introduces himself as "son of David, and king in Jerusalem." The work includes some personal or autobiographic matter, at times expressed in aphorisms and maxims set forth in terse paragraphs with reflections on the meaning of life and the best way of life. While Qohelet clearly endorses wisdom as a means for achieving a well-lived earthly life, he is unable to ascribe a transcendental significance to it. In the light of the overarching senselessness, he suggests that one should enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one's work, which are gifts from the hand of God.

Modern scholars have established that the work has no possible connection with King Solomon. Since it contains Persian loan words, it must date from after the return from the Babylonian captivity, that is after 539 BCE. The language of Qohelet is a late form of biblical Hebrew, coming close to postbiblical Mishnaic Hebrew. Accordingly, most critical scholars today assign the book’s composition to between 300 and 200 BCE--to the Hellenistic Period.

The book has always sat somewhat uneasily in the canon of the Hebrew bible, though it is generally accepted by Jews--and by Christians following them. During the first century CE its standing was challenged. Arguments against the inclusion of Qohelet were alleged opposition to statements in Psalms, internal incoherence, and heresy (supposed Epicureanism). However, those who favored its candidacy eventually prevailed.

Illustrating the commonplace that “the bible is full of quotations,” Qohelet includes a number of set pieces that have sunk deep roots in our culture. At 1:2, for example, we find: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (KJV).

In accord with the general purposes of wisdom literature, Qohelet's stated goal is to find out how to ensure one's benefits in life. For Qohelet, the inevitability of death necessarily overshadows any such quest. Pessimistically, Qohelet concludes that life (and indeed everything) is senseless. But we must not despair, for Qoheleth advises his audience to make the most of life, to seize the day, for there is no reliable means of securing favorable outcomes in the future.

The word conventionally rendered as vanity may be more accurately translated as “senseless.” In the Hebrew this word is hevel, הבל, which literally means vapor or breath. Clearly, Qohelet uses the expression metaphorically, and its precise meaning has been extensively debated. As has been noted, older English translations often render it vanity. Because in modern usage this word has often come to mean "self-pride," losing its Latinate connotation of emptiness, some translators have abandoned the word. Other translations include empty, futile, meaningless, absurd, fleeting, evanescent, or senseless. Some versions prefer the literal rendering vapor of vapors, leaving further interpretation to the reader.

Another famous set piece is the passage that “everything has its time (ch. 3): “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die,” and so forth (NRSV).

Verse five contains the earliest known metaphor for sexual release that is characterized as “getting one’s rocks off.” There is, the texts informs us, “a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together.” The sexual interpretation of this verse has been denied, but in my view it is clearly present.

Reading the bible offers all sorts of unexpected satisfactions.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Curmudgeon's corner once more

Today’s New York Times has an article by Eric Konigsberg that addresses the supposed puzzle of why (not so) Young British Artist Tracey Emin is so popular in Britain while she is relatively unknown in the US.

According to Konigsberg, “Emin first gained notoriety in 1997 for her contribution to the famous 'Sensation' show at the Royal Academy of Art: a tent embroidered with the names of everybody with whom she had ever shared a bed. Soon after came an installation consisting of her bed itself, littered with blood-stained underwear, condoms and lubricant, which was shown at the Tate Gallery in 1999 and got her on the short list for the Turner Prize. . . . In 2007 she was chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale.”

In Britain she has ranked as “an object of public fascination”--a celebrity in short--for more than a decade. In her native land her notoriety ranks just behind that of Damien Hirst, another very wealthy supercharlatan.

Emin is not well known in the US--not at all it seems. By the same token the American mountebank Jeff Koons is not well known in Britain. Could it be that people in both countries are right in their negative appraisals?

One should be bold enough to say it. Neither Emin nor Koons is an artist in any meaningful sense of the word. They are simply celebrities of a particularly vile kind, who are master manipulators of publicity. Emperor's new clothes, anyone?


Friday, November 13, 2009

The rise of J Street

J Street is a nonprofit lobbying group headquartered in Washington, DC that seeks to mobilize American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israel conflicts peacefully and diplomatically. J Street states that it "supports a new direction for American policy in the Middle East--diplomatic solutions over military ones," "multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution," and "dialogue over confrontation" with wider international support.

The term J Street plays off K Street, where many Washington lobbying firms are located. In fact there is no such street in the nation’s capital, where the street naming jumps from I (“eye”) to K. The name choice reflects the aspiration of J Street's founders and donors to bring a voice to Washington D.C. that, much like the missing "J Street" of the downtown grid, has been absent so far.

The group’s dynamic executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, maintains that J Street is neither pro- nor anti- any individual organization or other pro-Israel umbrella groups. However, the new group is widely perceived as challenging the much more powerful AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). One of the founders, Alan Solomont, has described the need for J Street in the following way: "We have heard the voices of neocons, and right-of-center Jewish leaders and Christian evangelicals. [Yet] the mainstream views of the American Jewish community have not been heard.”

What is AIPAC? The roots of this powerful lobbying group go back to 1953, when Isaiah L. "Si" Kenen founded the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs. Kenen later stated that the group’s Executive Committee decided to change the name to American Israel Public Affairs Committee "to enlarge constituency and support.”

As the political scientist Joel Beinin observes, AIPAC "became a significant force in shaping public opinion and US Middle East policy after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Its power was simultaneously enabled and enhanced by Israel's emergence as a regional surrogate for US military power in the Middle East in the terms outlined by the 1969 Nixon Doctrine.” The group earned its spurs during the 1970s and 1980s when it was able to unseat representatives and senators who were deemed lacking in unqualified support of Israel, such as Sen. Charles Percy (R-IL), Rep. Paul Findley (R-OH) and Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA). Today AIPAC claims that it "has grown into a 100,000-member national grassroots movement." In my view, the organization should be required to register as an agent of a foreign power. One may consult the critical site

For its part, J Street--the David to AIPAC's Goliath--is active in two realms. One is fund raising, where it acts as a traditional political action committee raising funds to support a limited number of candidates for Senate and Congressional races. The other sphere of activity is Capitol Hill lobbying.

The attacks that have been launched against the group show that it is having an effect, in my view a salutary one. In the right-wing Commentary Magazine Noah Pollak predicted that the effort would fall flat, showing there are no "great battalions of American Jewish doves languishing in voicelessness." That view is perhaps wishful thinking on Pollak’s part. Predictably enough, other critics have been more outspoken. Rabbi Eric Yoffie termed J Street's critical reaction to the Israeli invasion of Gaza "morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve."

Generally speaking, American liberal opinion--as seen in a piece by Edward Witten in the New York Review of Books (“The New J-Lobby for Peace,” Nov 5, 2009)--has been overwelmingly positive. Yet the euphoria may be premature. The Israel-Palestine situation remains as intractable as ever, and will not easily yield to the solutions proposed by the peace advocates, as represented by J Street and its counterparts in Israel itself. Strategically, is unclear whether the new group can muster the financial and institutional heft that will be required to challenge AIPAC’s dominance.

And indeed a skeptic might conclude that the two organizations are not as far apart as they seem. Both place their primary emphasis on the interests of the state of Israel; they simply perceive these interests differently. In my view, a genuine alternative to AIPAC would urge that the United States should now disengage itself from the Middle East entirely.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Asleep at the switch again

In the wake of the outrage at Fort Hood, we have learned that Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s connection with radical Islamic elements was previously known to the authorities. In fact intelligence agencies intercepted communications last year and this year between the murderous military psychiatrist and a radical cleric in Yemen notorious for his incendiary anti-American teachings.

Yet the federal authorities dropped their inquiries into the matter after deciding, preposterously, that Hasan’s messages did not suggest any threat of violence. It was concluded that no further action was warranted, government officials acknowledged on Monday. “There was no indication that Major Hasan was planning an imminent attack at all, or that he was directed to do anything,” one senior investigator said. This credulousnesss recalls the standard question on US immigration forms: “Do you plan to assassinate the president of the United States?” What potential assassin would say yes?

Oh. but there is good news. Officials said the F.B.I. and the Defense Department would be reviewing their earlier assessment of Major Hasan to determine whether it was handled correctly. No doubt we will learn, many months later, that, ahem, “mistakes were made.”

And what of the Yemeni cleric with whom Hasan had these “harmless” exchanges? On Monday Anwar al-Awlaki praised the major on his Web site, saying that he “did the right thing” in attacking soldiers preparing to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq. The imam whom Major Hasan made contact with is an American citizen born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents. So much for the notion that American Muslims are different from their angry counterparts in Europe.

The cleric further stated, “He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.” Then Awlaki added, “The only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal.”

Supposedly, Awlaki’s radicalism developed only since he left the US in 2002. Yet according to the New York Times (Nov. 10), “[i]n 2000 and 2001, Mr. Awlaki served as an imam at two mosques in the United States frequented by three future Sept. 11 hijackers. Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi attended the Rabat mosque in San Diego, where Mr. Awlaki later admitted meeting Mr. Hazmi several times but ‘claimed not to remember any specifics of what they discussed,’ according to the report of the national Sept. 11 commission. Both Mr. Hazmi and another hijacker, Hani Hanjour, later attended the Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., after Mr. Awlaki had moved there in early 2001. The Sept. 11 commission report expressed ‘suspicion’ about the coincidence, but said its investigators were unable [sic] to find Mr. Awlaki to question him.”

The conclusion is clear. No Muslim should be permitted to serve in the United States armed forces if this person has a primary loyalty to another cause that would incline him to betray his commitment. There should be no reluctance about conducting--and concluding--thorough investigations to root out such individuals. In the Hasan case, though, there clearly was such reluctance--with the tragic results that we know.

Why then did our intelligence agencies and the Army drop the ball?

The root cause is the intellectual disease of multiculturalism, the notion that all cultures are equally valuable. Then there is the corollary of guilt over colonialism and imperialism.

We must get over these delusions. And we must also stop being frightened by the spurious slur of "Islamophobia." There are valid historical reasons for being wary of Islam, with its virulent intolerance, misogyny and homophobia, and aggrieved triumphalism.

In other postings on this site I have discussed the fables that pass for historical accounts of the origins of Islam. These fables are uncritically recycled by such “useful idiots” as Karen Armstrong and John Esposito. Here we have freedom of inquiry. Yet hobbled by political correctness, few are inclined to pursue it. In Islamic countries there is no such freedom, even theoretically; no one is permitted to question the established narrative.

On this blog I have presented the findings of scholarly work, which is massive, that does in fact question these accounts. I am currently editing these contributions into a larger whole.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Hebrew thought"

[Readers new to this blog may have missed its earlier emphasis on the intertextual relations of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I am now seeking to integrate these separate contributions into a book. In the meantime, here is a new installment.]

The Hebrew bible is a disparate collection of documents. While scholars disagree about the dates to be assigned to the individual books and parts of books, it is clear that they must have originated over a period of several centuries, reflecting changing political and social circumstances. In addition, some texts bear the stamp of intensely local concerns, while others are meant to have a broader import.

Moreover, the ensemble known as the Hebrew bible shows a remarkable range of genres, including mythopeia, epic, legendary history, law codes, diatribes, and poetry (including erotic poetry). See Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction (New York, 1966) for an exhaustive account.

There are also many differences in theological perspective. One attempt to show this diveristy has been made recently by Jack Miles in his tour de force entitled God: A Biography (New York, 1996). This writer holds that the sequence of the books as found in the Hebrew canon or Tanakh was designed to show an evolution of the idea of the godhead. However this may be, his account is one useful way of looking at the complexity of the texts. The overall pattern, Miles believes, is one of a gradual waning of God's direct involvement in the world. Yet there is no waning at the outset, where the deity appears as brutal, direct, and inescapable--a hoodlum, in short. [Hoodlum? How else can one describe a capo who tried to kill his most faithful follower, Moses, as he slept (Exodus 4:24] After this phase, though, God gradually matures and “grows up,” but he also becomes more aloof.

Beginning with the early anthropomorphic accounts of God walking through the garden in the cool of the evening, we read many stories of God having intimate, personal dialogue with the major figures of Israelite history. Genesis portrays God in his most basic roles: Creator, Destroyer (via the Flood,) and "Friend of the Family" (the personal god of Abraham and his biological descendants).

Miles then expands on God's role as Liberator, Lawgiver, and Liege Lord as told in the remainder of the Pentateuch. Then with the story of the conquest and settlement of Canaan, one glimpses God's manifestations as Conqueror, Father (to David and his line) and Arbiter. The book of Isaiah presents two opposing faces of God: Executioner, and forgiving, restoring Holy One.

Miles regards Job as the climactic book of the Tanakh. After Job, God becomes less imposing and more ordinary, even to the point of seeming absent (the Deus Absconditus of later theology), as we see in the sequence of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and most strikingly, Esther, where the name of God never occurs. To be sure, the book of Daniel offers a final vision of a high, distant, and receding figure called the Ancient of Days

As I have suggested, this is only one reading of the complexity that resides in the Hebrew bible as we know it. On the one hand, Miles’ view is somewhat conventional, for the texts are interpreted as literature, so to speak, without delving overly much into the findings of the historical-critical school. On the other hand, it is almost a polytheistic reading, since the roles God assumes are so diverse. Although he insists, perhaps too much, on monotheism, Miles does allow for some lingering of the actual heritage of Canaanite polytheism in the world of ancient Israel. The persistence of this heritage would account for some of the major differences in God’s personae.

Miles’ bravura account ranks as a signal instance of a number of such readings. Other, more sober observers, have come to similar conclusions. For example, the American theologian Rolf P. Knierim stresses that the Hebrew bible contains not one but several different theologies (Knierim, The Task of Old Testament Theology, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995). Some of these theologies complement each other, but others are contradictory, even within the same book.

In short, the books of Hebrew bible show diversity in date and origin, in genre, and in theological emphasis. Nonetheless, some observers have claimed to detect a common ethos, a mind-set or mentality, that suffuses the whole. The concept is akin to the modern notion of national character as a defining element in major cultural achievements. Thus, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner wrote a book entitled The Englishness of English Art (London, 1951).

Is there then a Hebrewness in the Hebrew bible?

Some have maintained such a view. The years immediately following World War II saw the rise in theological circles of a current of discourse about “Hebrew thought.” The Scottish biblical scholar James Barr has ably summarized this notion, beginning with the standard comparison with Greek thought. “The Greek mind is abstract, contemplative, static or harmonic, impersonal; it is dominated by certain distinctions--matter and form, one and many, individual and collective, time and timelessnes, appearance and reality. The Hebrew mind is active, concrete, dynamic, intensely personal, formed upon wholeness and not upon distinctions. Thus it is able to rise above, or to escape, the great distinctions which lie across Greek thought. Greek thought is unhistorical, timeless,based on logic and system. Hebrew thought is historical, centred in time and movement, based in life.” (Barr, Old and New in Interpretation, London, 1966, p. 34).

This contrast was popular in Christian theological seminaries, where it was assumed that the positive features of “Hebrew thought,” thus conceived, found their natural continuation in Christianity. Yet as Barr (a critic of the view) tartly observes, “the function of the contrast has not been the description of the ancient world but an analysis of different elements within modern culture.”

The locus classicus of the notion is a book by a Norwegian theologian, Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (English trans., London, 1960). Boman advances arguments based on linguistic features of Hebrew, including verbs and the system of tenses. A strand in European thought that goes back at least as far as Friedrich Max Müller in the middle of the nineteenth century holds there is a petrified philosophy within language. The corollary of this view is that each people or nation has its own unique social psyche, and this will be reflected in the language they employ. This approach is sometimes termed linguistic idealism. For his part, Boman claims to deduce the social psyche from the linguistic evidence; yet it seems clear that he started with a set of generalizations, and then attempted to support them with linguistic evidence.

At all events, as Barr has shown in his critique, it is impossible to demonstrate a word view simply from lexical and grammatical features alone (Semantics of Biblical Language, London, 1961). For example, French and Hungarian have very different linguistic structures; however, both peoples share essentially the same world view, which is Western European.

By and large, approaches like Boman’s have found little favor in Jewish circles. Perhaps the reason is that adherence to Judaism is more a matter of orthopraxy than orthodoxy. That is to say, the central element lies in the realm of behavior, practice, and observance rather than in creed. For this reason Jews have integrated well into American society: they do not possess a distinctive “Hebrew world view” and so are free to subscribe to the American world view.

However, there are exceptions to this seeming indifference to the concept of Hebrew thought. Professor Menachem Alexenberg, who has served as a professor of art and education at several major universities, has indicated his adhesion to the idea. In earlier years, the Italian Jewish art historian Bruno Zevi has applied the concepts to modern architecture, seeing, somewhat curiously, Frank Lloyd Wright as an exemplar of the Hebrew mode. More recently, a talented amateur, Jeff A. Benner, who seems to be Jewish, has been conducting a charming and informative website under the auspices of his American Hebrew Research Center ( I have nothing but praise for Mr. Benner’s efforts to help readers learn Hebrew. However, I am not persuaded by his endorsement of Boman’s work.

Other attempts to establish a distinctive world view within the Hebrew bible have to do with the nature of time. As Augustine famously suggested, the subject of time is alluring, but maddeningly elusive. At all events, there is supposed to be a fundamental contrast between cyclical and linear time. Some learned writers, such as Oscar Cullmann and John Marsh, affirm that Greek thought is cyclical. In this view of time its course leads back around to the end, when the cycle starts all over again. The opposite of cyclical time is linear time. It would seem to follow that Hebrew thought is linear. However, more detailed studies have shown that much Greek thought is not cyclical and not all Hebrew thought is linear. The contrast, if it exists at all, is blurred.

That being said, I believe that Cullmann has made an important contribution to the Christian (not Jewish) concept of time by highlighting the achievement of Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century Scythian monk who first established the conventional distinction between BC and AD. Chiristian thinking about time thus establishes an axial point with negative numbers used to calculate the BC years before the Incarnation. This seems to be the first calendrical system of this kind, and it is one that has enjoyed a phenomenal success throughout the world. In no way are its Christian origins effaced by the current fashion for writing BCE and CE.

I turn now to a very different theme. “Corporate personality” is a term employed in the English common law. It refers to the fact that a group or body can be regarded as legally as an individual, possessing the rights and duties of such status.

In 1911 the English theologian H. Wheeler Robinson introduced the term corporate personality into biblical interpretation. In the Hebrew bible the concept was applied to where the relationships between individuals and the groups that they were part of were treated. For example, in some interpretations of the text Achan's family was collectively punished for a sin that is viewed as primarily Achan's alone. The penalty of Ham’s sin with his father Noah was passed down to his descendants.

The notion of Old Testament corporate personality encompasses four features: 1) Identification. Individuals are never considered in isolation from the groups they belong to, and are commonly treated as representatives for, or even as wholly identified with, those groups; 2) Extension. The boundaries of the individual are extended to encompass other persons who belong to that individual. This extension can be both in space, as from a king to a kingdom, and in time, as from a parent to his descendants. Examples of extension include Achan (who has just been noted), Korah (Izhar's son), and David, where a leader is dealt with by punishing or rewarding those whom he leads. 3) Realism. The relationship between the group and the individual is a real one. 4) Oscillation. There exists an oscillation back and forth between the group and the individual.

Not surprisingly, in view of its Christian origins, the concept of corporate personality has been applied to the New Testament as well. However, in Pauline theology, the notion of corporate personality is largely restricted to its representational aspect. Paul's comparison between Jesus Christ and Adam is viewed, by those theologians that adhere to the concept, as an identification of Christ as the king and those people in the kingdom that he leads. Similarly, in his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul speaks of Gentiles being blessed both "in" Abraham and also "with" him. In the latter case, though, there are some difficulties in rendering the Greek. In thee" is the is the King James translation of the Greek. More recent versions use the English translation "through you" for "ἐν σοι," on the basis that Paul is directly quoting the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, whose original Hebrew preposition "be" (which was translated to "ἐν" in the Septuagint) is more accurately rendered in the instrumental sense of "by means of." Hence "through" rather than "in.”

It may be questioned whether in its origins the idea of corporate personality is unique to the ancient Israelites, who presumably passed it on to their Christian successors. Many observers have concluded that in a number of East Asian societies the collective is more important than the individual. Certainly this idea was prominent in the former Soviet Union, whose leaders violently rejected the heritage of Judaism and Christianity. In fact the notion has since fallen out of favor with theologians.

In summary, it appears that attempts to detect a unitary world view in the Hebrew bible have failed. We are left with a sense of its irreducible pluralism.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Gay bibliography--as a calling and the fruits thereof

One of the hats I wear is that of bibliographer. The topic is inherently dreary, though in my case I alleviated the dreariness by choosing an exciting subject: sexuality. The following piece shows how I got started--and something of what the present situation amounts to.

At the beginning of the 1970s--the heady post-Stonewall days of gay-liberation ebullience--I accepted an invitation from my librarian friend Jack Stafford. Headed by Barbara Gittings, a subcommittee of the American Library Association had commissioned Jack to create a serious bibliography of homosexuality. Unlike previous such compilations, this one would emphasize positive aspects. In those days there were no courses in gay studies and the Gay Academic Union (in which I was to become active) had not yet been formed. So Jack and I undertook the work in order to learn things ourselves, as much as anything else. In retrospect I would have to say that we were largely flying blind.

When Jack died unexpectedly in 1973, I turned the manuscript over to Barbara Gittings, who utilized the material to create a 16-page leaflet of highlights, called a “Gay Bibliography.” This item was distributed pretty much for free to libraries and other interested parties.

In due course bibliographies appeared of foreign language material, by Claude Courouve (French), Giovanni Dall’Orto (Italian), and Manfred Herzer (German). Literary works in the English language were covered by Barbara Grier (lesbian) and Ian Young (gay male). However, the dream of a truly comprehensive bibliography of all aspects of same-sex behavior and culture remained unrealized.

Then I learned that a group working at ONE. Inc. in Los Angeles had done just that--or so it seemed. Edited by Vern L. Bullough and W. Dorr Legg, and others, An Annotated Bibliography of Homosexuality was published in two volumes by Garland in 1976. The work comprised almost 13,000 items, non-fiction and fiction, in several languages. However, there seemed to be no overall guiding principle of selection, and (almost scandalously) annotations, the title notwithstanding, were mostly lacking, and sometimes misleading when they did appear.

To his credit, W. Dorr Legg, the project director, realized that an entirely new publication was needed, one that would remedy the all-too-evident faults of the existing work. He invited me to serve as coeditor. After several years of intense work, we found that fundamental disagreements prevented us from concluding the task jointly. We had reached the letter N. The materials for this unfinished project are now preserved in the archives of ONE in Los Angeles.

Ultimately I realized that I could create my own bibliography, classified into sections (unlike the ONE efforts). I would omit works of fiction, which had been handled by others. The final product, comprising 4858 items, all annotated, was published by Garland in 1987 as Homosexuality: A Research Guide. It is generally agreed that this volume remains the most comprehensive and reliable printed bibliography of the subject. (An electronic version appears at; at that site, go to “Scholars,” and then click on “Dynes, Wayne.)

By 1987 we had reached the threshold of the Internet era. The advantages of publishing bibliographies in this format are obvious: economy (since no publisher of the traditional kind was needed and no one need pay for consult the compilation); ease of access; and flexibility (since the editors could keep constantly adding new items as they appeared).

Yet things did not quite work out as expected. The problems are illustrated by the destiny of a truly remarkable effort conducted by the Englishman Paul Halsall while he was a graduate student in medieval history at Fordham University in New York City. Working selflessly and with almost feverish energy, during the 1990s Halsall created “People with a History” (PWH) ( This is a major bibliography on-line covering gays, lesbians, and trans people for all historical eras and areas, including non-Western ones. Fully annotated and clearly sign-posted, the site contains links to other sites created by Halsall. While it can be used as a supplement and continuation of Dynes, Homosexuality: A Research Guide, the PWH site also notices earlier publications. Unfortunately, Halsall had to stop work in 1998 in order to complete his doctoral dissertation. He has since returned to England, where he has moved on to other things.

In this way, one of the main advantages of the Internet format was lost, because PWH’s creator, Halsall, who had demonstrated a truly amazing level of stamina, found himself unable to continue contributing to it. As far as I know, there is no real sequel for the decade or so after 1998. Fully understandable in human terms, such desertions are regrettable: they have continued to plague Internet bibliographies of LGBT themes. Apart from the extraordinary demands placed on one’s energy. there is the drawback that academic promotion committees do not usually award the same credit for electronic works as they do for printed books.

Working at the same time as Halsall, Gary Simes of Sydney, Australia, created the last printed bibliography of the subject that is comprehensive in scope. This is Simes, Bibliography of Homosexuality (Sydney: University of Sydney Library & The Australian Centre for Lesbian and Gay Research, 1998), based on the holdings of the University of Sydney Library. This careful listing of 6129 items is selectively annotated.

I turn now to ongoing Internet resources. Probably the best way for a newcomer to begin is to turn to the lists maintained by the London-based scholar Rictor Norton at his site: One may also consult online the collective work known as GLBTQ, which bills itself as “the world’s largest encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture” ( The articles are generally clear and reliable, though coverage is limited to literature, the arts, and the social sciences, including the relevant biographies. For the older entries, however, the bibliographies in the sidebars tend not to be up-to-date. Many relevant Wikipedia entries contain bibliographies, Finally, one may consult the listings in the CD-ROM of Paul Knobel of Sydney. His Encyclopedia of Male Homosexual Poetry and its Reception History (2002) covers poetry with 6,300 entries.

Online one can turn to three large and continuously updated repertoires stemming from the library world. The first, Harvard Libraries’ HOLLIS Classical, is relatively concise, with somewhat under 5000 items appearing in response to one's typing in the key word “homosexualty.” One may also consult the vast list of the holdings of the Library of Congress on line. Finally, one can proceed to a truly enormous compilation, that of Worldcat ( Among its 1.2 billion items lurk more than 50,000 entries relevant to our subject, including books, periodicals and periodical articles, dissertations, CD-ROMS and other electronic compilations. The enormous profusion of journal articles, of varying quality, poses a huge problem of bibliographical control. Worldcat presents these selectively (e.g. the Journal of Homosexuality), but seems to be constantly increasing coverage.

[Thanks to Paul Knobel for assisting with this compilation.]


Memes and mimetics

Recent years have seen a good deal of interest in memes and mimetics. Regrettably, this subject is not always well understood. At the request of a friend, I produced the following short account.

A meme is a postulated unit from the realms of ideas, symbols, or practices, capable of migrating from one mind to another through speech, writing, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. In the field of human culture, memes figure as analogues to genes, in that they appear to self-replicate, responding to a range of pressures.

The British scientist Richard Dawkins (today best known for his vigorous advocacy of atheism) coined the word "meme" in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). The term was meant as an entry point for discussing evolutionary principles that might serve to explain the spread of ideas and cultural motifs. As examples of memes, Dawkins cited melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (notably religious beliefs), clothing fashions, and the technology of building arches.

One must bear in mind that the comparison with genes is only an analogy. Nonetheless, some meme-theorists suggest that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of biological evolution). They do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity's reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Some memes replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts. While the preceding analysis is seductive, one must remember that memes do not actually have a life of their own, but constitute elements that are adopted and transmitted by human (sometimes all-too-human) beings. Memes are a function of mimicry, in which the role of the mimicker is crucial.

Some commentators utilize a disease model, comparing the spread of memes to contagions and epidemics. Fads, hysterias, and “copy-cat” crimes exemplify memes seen as the contagious imitation of ideas.

The concept of the meme, which is relatively new, may be compared with two older concepts which are similar: the topos and the unit-idea.

In classical Greek rhetoric, topos (Greek "place"; pl. topoi) designated a standard method of constructing or treating an argument. In the middle of the 20th century, however, the German medievalist Ernst Robert Curtius (1886-1956) expanded this concept by focusing on topoi as commonplaces: reworkings of traditional material, particularly the descriptions of standardized settings, but extendable to almost any literary theme. Examples are the themes of arcadia and the puer senex (the comparison of an old man to a child). The concept is also useful in the field of comparative religion, whereby (e.g.) the idea of the Deluge may be examined in a number of ancient Middle Eastern traditions.

The American historian and philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962) was an influential advocate of the history of ideas, initiating the systematic study of the discipline. The basic object of analysis is the unit-idea, or the individual concept. These unit-ideas serve as the building-blocks of the history of ideas. While they show considerable stability over the course of time, unit-ideas are promiscuous, ceaselessly recombining in new patterns, so as to emerge in various configurations in different historical eras.

A prime example is the notion of the Great Chain of Being, to which Lovejoy devoted a whole monograph. For many other examples, see the multivolume Dictionary of the History of Ideas, first and second editions. In Arthur O. Lovejoy’s view, the essential task of the historian of ideas is to detect such unit-ideas, tracing their historical emergence, affirmation, and retreat in ever-new forms and combinations.


Friday, November 06, 2009

Thoughts on Claude Lévi-Strauss

In college in the fifties I fell in with a group of graduate students, sociologists and anthropologists who half convinced me that, taken together, these disciplines sufficed to define the world. Sociology (then at the height of its prestige) fully explained advanced industrial societies, while anthropology took care of the rest. I was always concerned that both seemed to disregard the highest achievements of human culture to concentrate on the average (and even the savage). For many, I suppose, this democratic feature was an advantage; to me it was not.

Of course the methodological problems that were to cripple the disciplines of anthropology and sociology had not surfaced, though a few were far-sighted, even in those optimistic, credulous days. W. H. Auden put it succinctly with his eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit a social science.”

Nonetheless in 1955 I dutifully acquired one of the required bibles, a vast tome entitled Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory, edited by the noted Americanist Alfred L. Kroeber. As I recall (the book has recenty fallen afoul of a necessary purge of my library), this volume contained essays by about fifty specialists, mostly reflecting the consensus of American anthropology at the time, dominated as it was by the tradition established by Franz Boas. I was struck, though, by a piece in the book by a mysterious Claude Lévi-Strauss, a maverick who attracted me by his independence. This little item was in fact my first introduction to structuralism, a subject to which I shall return in a moment.

The death last month of Claude Lévi-Strauss at the age of 100 offers a fitting opportunity to say something about his immense legacy and its significance for my intellectual development.

Towards the beginning of his fine obituary in the New York Times (Nov. 3, 2009), Edward Rothstein concisely renders the essence of the French savant's achievement. “A powerful thinker, Mr. Lévi-Strauss, in studying the mythologies of primitive tribes, transformed the way the 20th century came to understand civilization itself. Tribal mythologies, he argued, display remarkably subtle systems of logic, showing rational mental qualities as sophisticated as those of Western societies.

“Mr. Lévi-Strauss rejected the idea that differences between societies were of no consequence, but he focused on the common aspects of humanity’s attempts to understand the world. He became the premier representative of 'structuralism,' a school of thought in which universal 'structures' were believed to underlie all human activity, giving shape to seemingly disparate cultures and creations.

“His work [Rothstein continues] was a profound influence even on his critics, of whom there were many. There has been no comparable successor to him in France. And his writing — a mixture of the pedantic and the poetic, full of daring juxtapositions, intricate argument and elaborate metaphors — resembles little that had come before in anthropology.”

Lévi-Strauss is such a well known figure that the basic facts of his career may be quickly summarized. Born into a distinguished French-Jewish artistic family, he started in philosophy. Finding this subject too arid, he switched to anthropology. In the 1930s he had the good fortune of being invited to become a professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. From this base he launched his study trips deep into the habitat of the Amazon Indians, his only field work.

Having returned to France, he was briefly mobilized at the start of World War II. After the fall of France he made his way to Marseille where he was able to take a boat to the French Caribbean. He settled in New York City, then a haven for many distinguished European refugees. For Lévi-Strauss probably the most important contact during this period was with the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, who introduced him to structuralism. He also immersed himself in the classics of American ethnography (the famous Smithsonian series).

Returning to France not long after the war’s end, he brought out his first magnum opus, his 1949 volume Elementary Structures of Kinship. Characterizing a society's concepts and practices of kinship is of course one of the prime tasks of cultural anthropology, though for outsiders the subject is inevitably somewhat dry. In this book Lévi-Strauss examined kinship systems from a structural point of view, demonstrating how a myriad of social organizations were in fact simple permutations of a few basic patterns. Feminists have criticized him for focusing on the exchange of women. As he remarked, though, the process can just as easily be characterized as the exchange of men.

As I noted. I made my first tentative acquaintance with the French scholar’s work in 1955, though I had little notion of the way he might fit into the “map of knowledge.” In the course of the following decade a number of translations of accessible books made his ideas better known in the English-speaking world. Two volumes stand out, and still rank as good introductions. The first is his richly informative travel memoir Tristes Tropiques (1955). More directly related to structuralism was The Savage Mind, translated into English in 1966.

When I was teaching at Columbia University in the early seventies I fastened on the idea of trying to adapt structuralism to the field of art history. Lévi-Strauss had himself pointed the way with his studies of the masks of the Northwest Coast Indians. I formed a little group of graduate students to effect the adaptation. As with other such attempts to expand the horizons of art history, in the end our efforts did not amount to much. One problem was that structuralism, which seemed so promising, had been overwhelmed by the blight of poststructuralism, with the appalling Jacques Derrida in the vanguard.

I conclude with a few words about structuralism itself.

In my view the central insight of structuralism lies in its insistence that classification precedes exemplification. A famous example is Lévi-Strauss’s culinary triangle of raw, cooked, and rotten. Once this triad is established, we can fill in the categories ad infinitum; salads, sashimi, and nuts; stews, soups, and pies; camembert, aged beef, and lutefisk. One can easily imagine all sorts of variations. For example, there could be an advanced society with traffic lights in which red meant “go” and green meant "stop," assuming a different gamut of associations in which red connoted life, while green was linked with poison. The decisive feature is not the colors themselves, but the part they play in the overarching binarism. (Supposedly, such an inverted color coding was employed for a while to regulate traffic in Mao’s China, with red meaning "full speed ahead to the new socialist society." This seems to be an urban legend. But it could have been implemented, as long as the new scheme was applied consistently.)

The structuralist, then, looks for such patterns in his or her chosen field of endeavor, whether it be musicology, political theory, epic poetry or any other. Once the fundamental structures have been detected, one can proceed to allocate the empirical material in a way that is both logical and in keeping with the cultural norms prevailing in the realm one is studying.

More prosaically, structuralism is commonly traced to the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). In linguistics the trend manifested itself in both phonetics and semiotics. Yet many French intellectuals have perceived it as having a wider application, and in fact the model was soon modified and applied to other fields, such as anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and architecture. This iridescence inaugurated the vogue of structuralism as not just a method, but also an intellectual movement that came to supplant existentialism in 1960s France.

The new trend did not escape challenge. Some critics accused it of being too rigid and ahistorical. Moreover, in the highly charged political atmosphere of the sixties, it was decried for having no “liberational” application.

In retrospect it seems that structuralism became best known for its application to literary theory. However, some scholars notably espoused structuralist concepts within the philosophy of science, anthropology and in sociology. According to Alison Assiter, structuralism is a unified entity with four common features. First (as I suggested above), the structure is what determines the position of each element of a whole. Secondly, structuralists believe that every system has a structure. Thirdly, structuralists are interested in constants that address coexistence rather than change. And finally structures are the “real things'” that lie beneath the surface or the appearance of meaning. Following the linguist Noam Chomsky, this last aspect is sometimes termed the “deep structure” that underpins and regulates the surface manifestations of human culture.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Gay-friendly eminentos

This posting concerns prominent heterosexuals who are gay friendly, a larger group than one might think. Given the ultraliberalism of the cities in which they serve as mayors, it is not surprising that Gavin Newsom (San Francisco) and Michael Bloomberg (New York City) should be progay. There are of course differences in style, as Newsom is a flamboyant grandstander and Bloomberg an urbane, somewhat reticent votary.

Yet eyebrows were raised at the passion revealed by Ted (Theodore) Olson, who was United States Solicitor General in the administration of George W. Bush. In fact, Olson is a major figure in the conservative legal movement. He was present at the first meeting of the Federalist Society., and has served on the board of directors of American Spectator, a maverick conservative magazine.

In 2009, to almost universal surprise and acclaim, Olson joined with David Boies (the liberal attorney who had represented Gore in Bush v. Gore) to file a lawsuit in U.S. federal court to force recognition of same-sex marriage. "This is a federal question," Olson trenchantly remarked. "This is about the rights of individuals to be treated equally and not be stigmatized." He said that he and Boies "wanted to be a symbol of the fact that this not a conservative or a liberal issue. We want to send a signal that this is an important constitutional issue involving equal rights for all Americans." Well said.

While some California gay advocates thought that the timing of the intervention might have been inappropriate, there is no doubt that Olson’s action was sincere. He and Boies are pursuing the matter.

Below are two more instances of “righteous heterosexuals,” to coin a phrase.

The first is Emma Goldman (1869-1940), who was politically almost the polar opposite of Olson.  Born in the Pale of Settlement in tsarist Russia, Goldman’s political outlook took shape under the pall of discrimination and pogroms. In 1884 she emigrated to the United States where she joined her sister in Rochester, NY. Toiling under sweatshop conditions as a sewing-machine operator in a corset factory further sharpened her convictions.

These became fully energized when a violent political demonstration in 1886 led to the execution of four anarchists in Chicago's Haymarket Square. She moved to New York City and became an active anarchist. Over the years Goldman emerged as a powerful speaker and organizer for anarchist causes. She was drawn to anarchism because this political philosophy combined the quest for economic and political justice with a passionate defense of free speech, atheism, and sexual freedom. She spoke out boldly in favor of contraception and against marriage, which she deemed a form of female slavery. Never wavering in her commitments, she was arrested and jailed in 1893, 1901, 1916, 1918, 1919, and 1921. Finally, the US authorities deported her to the Soviet Union. With her keen intelligence, she was almost immediately disillusioned by the failures of the 
Soviet experiment. She then settled in Canada where she continued her work until her death in 1940.

In an era when Oscar Wilde was convicted and imprisoned for two years (1895-1897) for "gross indecency," Goldman spoke out publicly in support of gay and lesbian persons, defending their right to choose who and how they would love. This frankness elicited criticism from her colleagues on the left who feared that embracing the cause of homosexuality might taint their overall political message. Goldman was undeterred.

In attacking the stigmatization and persecution of homosexuals, she drew upon the works of Edward Carpenter, H. Havelock Ellis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Sigmund Freud, and other writers.

Not a lesbian, she embraced free love as a lifestyle and had a number of passionate affairs, notably with Alexander Berkman, who served as her coeditor in the anarchist journal Mother Earth, and Ben Reitman, a Chicago radical. Margaret Anderson, the legendary lesbian editor of The Little Review, an avant-garde journal, was a member of Goldman's circle, as were other lesbians and gay men. One of her admirers, Almeda Sperry, hinted at a sexual relationship, but it was never acknowledged by Goldman.

Anticipating the extremes of later lesbian separatism, with its intolerant misandry, she did not hesitate to criticize some lesbians, whose "antagonism to the male," she wrote, "is almost a disease."

Very different still was the English reformer and sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis (1859-1939). During his childhood in England Ellis was a voracious reader, taking notes on everything. Eventually the scientific investigation of sex, which had emerged in Germany and Austria, caught his interest. During the 1880s he pursued a career in medicine in London. At the same time he produced a copious flow of journalism, a habit he was to retain throughout his life, when he was an unwavering supporter of sexual enlightenment. In 1896, with four other books under his belt, Ellis published a monograph in German entitled Das konträre Geschlechtsgefühl (Contrary Sexual Feeling). In due course, this text took its place as the first component of what was to become a seven-volume series, Studies in the Psychology of Sex.

The book had begun as a collaboration with the noted Renaissance scholar John Addington Symonds, who was gay. However, Symonds died in 1893 before he could do much more than contribute his own and several other case histories. With characteristic generosity, Ellis issued the book as the joint creation of Ellis and Symonds.

When the text appeared in still-Victorian England in 1897, under the title Sexual Inversion, it drew a storm of official condemnation. The work’s frankness horrified Symonds's family. The older writer’s literary executor withdrew his permission for Ellis to cite Symonds, seeking to buy up the entire print run for destruction.

Following these troubles, the volume was reissued under Ellis's name alone, with Symonds cited only as "Z." Moreover, Symonds's "A Problem in Greek Ethics," which had figured as an appendix in the original edition, was omitted. (This important essay is now available in an edition edited by John Lauritsen, for Pagan Press.)

That was not the end of the obstacles that Ellis experienced. The English reissue of the book triggered the notorious "Bedborough trial" in which a bookseller of that name was tried, convicted, and fined for obscenity. As a result of this incident the book was suppressed in England. For many years no such work could be published there: Ellis’s sexological books could not be sold openly in England until 1936. Not so on these shores, for a courageous Philadelphia publisher issued the entire series (addressing such varied topics as modesty, symbolism, urolagnia, and pain) between 1899 and 1928. This set is still widely available.

Although Ellis did not invent the expression inversion, which stemmed from the Italian Arrigo Tamassia, his adoption gave it currency as a psychological term. He defined "congenital sexual inversion" as "sexual instinct turned by inborn constitutional abnormality towards persons of the same sex." Anticipating our current efforts to understand sexual orientation in terms of biology, Ellis strove to situate same-sex attraction within the order of nature. His view vigorously challenged judgmental notions of sexual deviance as “degeneracy.”

A heterosexual man, Ellis married the writer Edith Lees in 1891. They conducted what is now termed an open marriage. The partners carried on numerous affairs (Edith's usually with women), rarely dwelling under the same roof. Margaret Sanger, the famous advocate of birth control, was one of Ellis' loves. Other relationships included the socialist-feminist Olive Schreiner and Françoise Lafitte, his companion towards the end of his life.

Despite the controversial nature of his views, the sustained clarity and reasonableness of Ellis’s presentation won him many converts. He defended women's right to sexual fulfillment. Even as the memory of the Wilde trials still smoldered, he advocated decriminalization of homosexuality in England. He repudiated the prevalent mythology that “onanism” (masturbation) was inevitably harmful, arguing that that this behavior, along with other forms of "auto-erotism" (a term he coined), must not be stigmatized.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Curmudgeon corner again

One of the scholars I most admire is Marc Fumaroli. I have read most of his twenty or so books, and always order a new one when it is published in France. Fumaroli was born in Marseille in 1932. A historian and essayist, he was elected to the Académie française in 1995 and became its Director. He held the Chair of Rhetoric and Society in Europe (sixteenth and seventeenth century) from 1986 to 2002 at the Collège de France, where he is now an emeritus professor. In 2001 he received the prestigious Balzan Prize, the "Nobel" of the humanities. His principal accomplishment is his revival of the classical theory of rhetoric, which has deeply influenced the visual arts as well as literature.

As a leading public intellectual, Fumaroli addresses general cultural issues as well, as seen in his L’État culturel, essai sur une religion moderne (1991). Now he has produced a big book that continues these themes.

I am indebted to Patrice Higonnet, whose TLS review (October 23, 2009) alerts me to Fumaroli’s Paris-New York et retour : Voyage dans les arts et les images (Fayard, 2009). Retaining his affection for Paris, Fumaroli also has a positive attitude towards New York, and for America in general. But not in every respect. According to Higonnet, “Mark Rothko, for Fumaroli, was a great artist, as was Jackson Pollock . . . But still, it is indubitably in New York that our troubles began; it wasn’t that America per se was all that bad. It was instead that modern art soon fell victim to two post-modern, seemingly incurable viruses, to wit, money and the enslavement of art to the photographic image. Classical art, born of religion and craft, had sought, he thinks, to explain and portray the divine spark in man. It rested on the natural imagination of mankind. But contemporary “art” today relies instead on photoshop and TV.” And so on.

Let me return now, in propria persona, to the theme of the previous posting.

Recently a controversy has erupted regarding the “authenticity” of certain works ascribed to Andy Warhol. Obviously, resolving such doubts is financially significant to those who own the works. It seems that some Warhol scholars hold that they are are authentic, while others do not.

The signature, which I believe the disputed works possess, should be definitive But clearly not in every case. For example, not long before he died, Salvador Dali signed dozens of sheets of blank paper, which were then sold. The purchaser could then have any desired image imprinted on them, and voila! a new “authentic” Dali.

During his mature years, Warhol’s method was not so crass, but it belongs to the same genre. He employed an army of assistants in his factory. When a portrait was commissioned he would send an assistant out to make a few polaroids. One of these was then turned over to another assistant to silk screen. Presumably, if he approved, Warhol would sign it; it not, not. He hardly ever disapproved.

The process is a striking instance of deskilling. At one time Warhol was a proficient draftsman in a limited way. However, one need have no drawing skill--or any other--to produce “art works” in this fashion.

It is true that some major artists, such as Rubens and El Greco, have relied on assistants to help with their works. However, such masters always retained the ability to perform on their own. A special case is the wispy “Alzheimer paintings” ascribed to Willem De Kooning, the abstract expressionist. Apparently an assistant guided every movement of his quavering hand. This news has not precluded admirers from acclaiming these junk works as sublime manifestations of ultimate refinement, the invaluable fruits of a transcendental old age in which all that went before has been reduced to its ineluctable quintesssence. Maybe so, but these purported distillations cast no light--or possibly a glaring one--on De Kooning's main body of work.

In all these cases it is clear that two--and only two--factors are at work: 1) branding, assured by the assiduous publicity machine of a corrupt art world; and 2) the enraptured response of a gullible public. Of course such gullibility is not limited to modern art. A few years ago I was talking with one of the most prestigious living experts in the realm of the old masters. We were discussing the work of Guido Reni, a pathetic academic hack of seventeenth-century Italy, whose once-celebrated canvases were (one would have thought) safely deposited on the ash heap of history a hundred years ago. But no. My distinguished friend pronounced Reni’s daubs to be “deeply moving.”

Clearly the status of art works cannot be secured by the whimsical play of personal response, even if it comes from a noted scholar. There must be objective criteria: things like composition, draftsmanship, deployment of color, finish and texture. and so forth. These terms refer to oil paintings, but there are others that are applicable in each of the arts. That is the skill factor. Contrary to reports, skill has not been abolished, only temporarily exiled.