Sunday, December 25, 2011

Books for the New Year

Today, I finally finished Digenes Akrites, the epic Byzantine narrative poem (yes, there is such.) This brings to a close my last book list, meaning that is time to start whittling-down the new stack. The appeal of book is often connected to the place and occasion of their discovery. Consequently, I have sorted the new list accordingly. I have cheated a bit on my discipline, having read a few in advance--but for the most part, I am sticking with my plan, that is to read the books I have on hand before moving on to others. The list for the first part of 2012 shapes up as follows:

Annual Pilgrimage to Arkansas, May 2011:

New Confessors of Russia, by Archimandrite Damascene (Orlovsky)
The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios, by Dionysios Farasiotis

Every May, I take a two-day trip to northern Arkansas to visit the last surviving sibling of either of my parents. We are not noticeably long-lived, so at age 88, my aunt is redefining the genetic history for our family. I aways go the back roads, avoiding Arkansas interstate highways at all costs. All Saints of North America Orthodox Mission (ROCOR) out from DeQueen has become one of my favorite stops. The rural setting is picture perfect. The two titles above that I purchased there should be familiar to most Orthodox readers, but for some reason have eluded me until now. Fr. George earns a living by the St. Mark the Grave-digger's Workshop, in a barn across from the farmstead and chapel. There, he crafts wooden liturgical furniture, as well as caskets. Events of this last year have brought home the fact that I might want to keep his number handy.

Road trip through the South, July 2012:

Slaves in the Family, and The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South, by Edward Ball
Sunken Plantations: The Santee Cooper Project, by Douglas W. Bostick
Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events that Shaped the Modern South, by Curtis Wilkie
The Reservoir, by John Milliken Thompson
A Good, Hard Look: A Novel, by Ann Napolitano
Life, Death and the Coming Kingdom, by Fr. Cyril Argenti

Any road trip east usually takes us through Jackson, a favored stop-over. In times past, we would always try to have supper at Dennery's (now closed), a favorite haunt of Eudora Welty. In recent years, we enjoy the Mayflower and/or Cock o' the Walk. The thing we never fail to do, however, is to visit Lemuria, the South's finest independent bookstore. My preference is for used bookstores and the people who own and inhabit them, but I make an exception for this establishment. On our way east, we noticed they were hosting a book-signing in a few days, which would fit nicely on our return trip. We probably would not have purchased the books by Thompson and Napolitano otherwise, but I am glad we did. We picked up a few titles in Charleston, where--to my wife's consternation--little notice is given to native-son Pat Conroy. I came away with a slim volume while paying a short visit to Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in nearby Mount Pleasant.

If you are trying to understand the history of Southern slavery in all its ramifications, I heartily recommend Ball's Slaves in the Family. I passed the book on to the late Milton Burton about two weeks before he went into the hospital for the last time. He devoured the book and claimed it to be one of the best he had ever read, which which is high praise indeed. Wilkie's book offers a unique insight into the Civil Rights Movement. He grew up in the Mississippi of the 1950s, the step-son of a relatively enlightened Presbyterian minister, attended Ole Miss and witnessed first hand the violence of 1962, worked as a journalist for the Clarksdale, MS newspaper where he interviewed Martin Luther King while sitting in a car in a rural church parking lot only a week before his assassination, served as a McCarthy delegate on the alternative (and seated) Mississippi delegation to the 1968 Democratic Convention while also taking part in the antiwar street demonstrations, then later a turn as a legislative aide which led to scoring a job as the token Southerner on the Boston Globe where he was able to experience firsthand northern racism in the anti-integration violence on Boston's South Side, then assigned to cover the 1976 Presidential candidacy of an obscure Georgia governor, and finally assigned to the paper's Middle East Bureau, just in time for the Lebanese Civil War. All told, his story makes for a helluva ride.

Recycled Books, early October 2011:

The Alexiad, by Anna Comnena
Montenegro: The Divided Land, by Thomas Fleming

During a professional convention in the one of the north Dallas wastelands (in this case, Frisco), I made a break for nearby Denton, which is at least a college town and has some history to it. Recycled Books, downtown on the square, is a worthy destination. I already owned the Comnena, but not in hardback. I look forward to reading Fleming's take on Montenegro. As I have been told, he is something of an enthusiast for Serbia and Montenegro, though I think he stops short when it comes to their Orthodoxy.

Byzantine Studies Conference in Chicago, late October 2011:

Theodore the Stoudite: The Ordering of Holiness, by Roman Cholij
The Chronicle of Ibn Al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi'l-Ta'rikh, Part 1
The Chronicle of Ibn Al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi'l-Ta'rikh, Part 2
The Chronicle of Ibn Al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi'l-Ta'rikh, Part 3
History as Literature in Byzantium, ed. by Ruth Macrides
Tales from Another Byzantium: Celestial Journey and Local Community in the Medieval Greek Apocrypha, Jane Baun
A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057, by John Skylitzes
From Byzantium to Modern Greece: Hellenistic Art in Adversity, 1453-1830

One of the overriding attractions of the Byzantine Studies Conference is the presence of 3 or 4 booksellers, where one can obtain scholarly works at a 40% to 60% discount. Even so, they are still over-priced. If I am able to attend next year (at Holy Cross, in Boston), obtaining 3 titles from Ashgate Publishing will be as strong a motivation as any. Of the titles above, I particularly look forward to delving into Ibn Al-Athir and Skylitzes.

Holy Archangels Monastery, early December 2011:

A Ray of Light: Instructions in Piety and the State of the World at the End of Time, by Archimandrite Pantleimon

What God has Done for our Salvation, by St. Nikodim of the Holy Mountain

Five members of our parish teach classes in one way or another at tiny Lon Morris College in nearby Jacksonville, Texas. And so, the Orthodox presence at this nominally Methodist school has attracted a little attention--at least among other faculty members and students. My friend and fellow parishioner received permission to take some of his history and world civ. students on a field trip to Holy Archangels Monastery in the Texas Hill Country. The number of students was not large, so there was plenty of room for me to tag along. There and back again turned into a 18-hour day, but I believe it to be quite an experience for the students--and the bus-driver. While there, I picked up the two small devotional volumes listed above. I have already read St. Nikodim's and profited from doing so.

Recommendations and Odds and Ends:

A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition, by J. Mark Barna
Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, by John J. O'Keefe and R. R. Reno
Greece's Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamandis, by Anestis Keselopoulos
The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy, 1658-1832 , David M. Lang

I have posted on the Papadiamandis book earlier. It remains a strong favorite of mine. If you want to know anything about the late Kingdom of Georgia, then I'm your man--having already read Lang's rare work. I figured I could go ahead and read it since I paid-out on this book over 4 or 5 months. One of the revelations of this book had to be the extent of Persian influence in Georgia--and in some cases, visa-verse. Obviously, much of it involved coercion, and cooperation was necessary for their very survival. And so, the claim of Georgian "Europeanness" is a qualified one, I think.

In the Mail:

l'Histoire de la Georgie depuis l'antiquite jusqu'en 1569 J.-C., by Marie-Felicite Brosset

The Byzantine Monuments and Topography of the Pontos, by Anthony Bryer

These two are my birthday/Christmas presents to myself. There's not much out there for those interested in detailed histories addressing Trebizond and Georgia--or at least not in English. Brosset's work (1851) is seminal for Georgian study. As it can only be obtained in French, it is safe to say that I may be reading it for quite some time. For Trebizond, you start with Bryer. Print-to-orders abound, but the original first volume with the maps and illustrations is harder to come by. This one is being sent from Germany.

Wish List:

George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis

I enjoy reading of America's Cassandras. George F. Kennan was one. Andrew Bacevich is another. Kennan was one of the most fascinating Americans of the 20th-Century. As soon as I come across a good deal on this volume, I will snap it up.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

D. B. Hart on the Fate of the American Religion

I still have some residual Ochlophobistophilism about me, which gives me pause before linking to an article written by David Bentley Hart. Back in the day, such actions could get you banned in Memphis (Owen, I joke.) My first exposure to DBH was back in 2003, when I stumbled across an essay he wrote about Malcolm Cowling. I found myself terribly impressed and scribbled 2 or 3 pages of selected passages in my real common-place book. His acclaimed work, The Beauty of the Infinite, was released that same year, and so I eagerly ordered a copy. I found the book to be utterly and absolutely unreadable. And so, I have since shied away from his writings. I will say, however, that his coffee-table book, The Story of Christianity, is very nicely done. A recent post at Second Terrace, led me to the particular article in question here, in the current issue of the New Criterion. If you can wade through the Hartian verbiage, I believe there to be much to commend this work. I have copied significant excerpts below, and have highlighted on particular passage I find to be especially noteworthy.

After all--and this is a truth so certain that only the most doctrinaire Marxist or lumpen British atheist could deny it—the structure of culture is essentially an idealist one, and a living culture is a spiritual dispensation…. That is why the very concept of a secular civilization is nearly meaningless…

All of which brings me to my topic: the uncertainties of the American future and the possible role religion may or may not play in that future…. Often blamelessly derivative, but also often shamefully forgetful of even the recent past, it is a nation that floats lightly upon the depths of human history, with sometimes too pronounced a sense of its own novelty…

There may not be a distinctive American civilization in the fullest sense, but there definitely is a distinctly American Christianity. It is something protean, scattered, fragmentary, and fissile, often either mildly or exorbitantly heretical, and sometimes only vestigially Christian, but it can nevertheless justly be called the American religion—and it is a powerful religion. It is, however, a style of faith remarkably lacking in beautiful material forms or coherent institutional structures, not by accident, but essentially. Its civic inexpressiveness is a consequence not simply of cultural privation, or of frontier simplicity, or of modern utilitarianism, or even of some lingering Puritan reserve towards ecclesial rank and architectural ostentation, but also of a profound and radical resistance to outward forms. It is a religion of the book or of private revelation, of oracular wisdom and foolish rapture, but not one of tradition, hierarchy, or public creeds. Even where it creates intricate institutions of its own, and erects its own large temples, it tends to do so entirely on its own terms: in a void, in a cultural and (ideally) physical desert, at a fantastic remove from all traditional sources of authority, historical “validity,” or good taste (Mormonism is an expression of this tendency at its boldest, most original, and most effervescently vulgar). What America shares with, say, France is the general Western heritage of Christian belief, with all its confessional variations; what it has never had any real part in, however, is Christendom.

And so, in fact, America was established as the first truly modern nation, the first Western society consciously to dissociate its constitutional order from the political mythologies of a long disintegrating Christendom, and the first predominantly Christian country to place itself under, at most, God’s general providential supervision, but not under the command of any of his officially recognized lieutenants. The nation began, one could argue, from a place at which the other nations of the West had not yet arrived.

In another sense, however, when one considers the result, it is all rather astonishing. America may have arisen out of the end of Christendom, and as the first fully constituted political alternative to Christendom, but it somehow avoided the religious and cultural fate of the rest of the modern West. Far from blazing a trail into the post-Christian future that awaited other nations, America went quite a different way, down paths that no other Western society would ever tread, or even know how to find. Whereas European society—moving with varying speed but in a fairly uniform direction—experienced the end of Christendom simultaneously as the decline of faith, in America just the opposite happened. Here, the paucity of institutional and “civilizing” mediations between the transcendent and the immanent went hand in hand with a general, largely formless, and yet utterly irrepressible intensification of faith: rather than the exhaustion of religious longing, its revival; rather than a long nocturnal descent into disenchantment, a new dawning of early Christianity’s elated expectation of the Kingdom….

In the wake of Christendom’s collapse, the forms of Christianity that would prove most lively would be those that possess something analogous to the apocalyptic consciousness of the earliest Christian communities: their sense of having emerged from history into the immediacy of a unique redemptive event; their triumphant contempt for antique cult and culture; their experience of emancipation from the bondage of the law; their aloofness from structures of civil power; and their indifference to the historical future (for the present things are passing away).

Whatever the case, the American religion somehow slipped free from this story before it reached its dénouement, and so it is not inextricably entangled in the tragic contradictions of historical memory. At its purest, in fact, it is free of almost all memory, and so of all anxiety: it strives towards a state of almost perfect timelessness, seeking a place set apart from the currents of human affairs, where God and the soul can meet and, so to speak, affirm one another. For a faith so thoroughly divorced from history, there is no set limit to the future it may possess. And if, as I have said, culture is always shaped by spiritual aspirations, this all has a very great bearing on what kind of future America might possess. History is not created by historical consciousness, after all; the greatest historical movements are typically inspired by visions of an eternal truth that has somehow overtaken history. This is simply because a people’s very capacity for a future, at least one of any duration or consequence (good or bad), requires a certain obliviousness in regard to time’s death-bound banality, a certain imaginative levity, a certain faith. The future is often the gift of the eternal.

Whatever one’s view of Evangelicalism, only bigotry could prevent one from recognizing its many admirable features: the dignity, decency, and probity it inspires in individuals, families, and communities; the moral seriousness it nourishes in countless consciences; its frequent and generous commitment to alleviating the sufferings of the indigent and ill; its capacity for binding diverse peoples together in a shared spiritual resolve; its power to alter character profoundly for the better; the joy it confers. But, conversely, only a deep ignorance of Christian history could blind one to its equally numerous eccentricities: the odd individualism of its understanding of salvation; its bizarre talk of Christ as one’s “personal Lord and savior”; its fantastic scriptural literalism; the crass sentimentality of some of its more popular forms of worship; its occasional tendency to confuse piety with patriotism….

Much of American Evangelicalism not only lacks any sense of tradition, but is blithely hostile to tradition on principle: What is tradition, after all, other than man-made history, and what is history other than exile from paradise? What need does one have of tradition when one has the Bible, that eternal love letter from Jesus to the soul, inerrant, unambiguous, uncorrupted by the vicissitudes of human affairs? In some of its most extreme forms, Evangelicalism is a religion of total and unsullied reverie, the pure present of the child’s world, where ingenuous outcries and happy gestures and urgent conjurations instantly bring forth succor and substance. And, at its most intensely fundamentalist, so precipitous is its flight from the gravity of history into Edenic and eschatological rapture that it reduces all of cosmic history to a few thousand years of terrestrial existence and the whole of the present to a collection of signs urgently pointing to the world’s imminent ending….

My central claim is that what one sees with particular clarity in Evangelical piety is a deep spiritual orientation that both informs and expresses the American mythos: that grand narrative, going back to colonial times, of a people that has fled the evils of an Old World sunk in corruption, cast off the burden of an intolerable past, and been “born again” as a new nation, redeemed from the violence and falsehood of the former things.

It is not difficult, of course, to enumerate the weaknesses of a culture shaped by such a spiritual logic. It is a spirituality that, for example, makes very little contribution to the aesthetic surface of American life. This is no small matter. The American religion does almost nothing to create a shared high culture, to enrich the lives of ordinary persons with the loveliness of sacred public spaces, to erect a few durable bulwarks against the cretinous barbarity of late modern popular culture, or to enliven the physical order with intimations of transcendent beauty. With its nearly absolute separation between inward conviction and outward form, it is largely content to surrender the surrounding world to utilitarian austerity. It could not do otherwise, even if the nation’s constitution were not formally so secular. It would not have the imaginative resources. It is a religion of feeling, not of sensibility; it might be able to express itself in great scale, but not as a rule in good taste.

It is, however, a religious temperament wonderfully free of cynicism or moral doubt, and so it may have a singular capacity for surviving historical disappointment and the fluctuations of national fortune. Its immunity to disenchantment seems very real, at any rate. It may, in fact, grow only stronger if the coming decades should bring about a decline in America’s preeminence, power, international influence, or even solvency. Whatever the case, it is unlikely to lapse very easily into a decline of its own, or vanish into some American equivalent of the spiritual exhaustion and moral lassitude of post-Christian Europe.

The question that should concern us, it seems to me, is whether in years ahead America will produce a society that has any particular right to a future. By this, I mean nothing more elaborate than: How charitable and just a society will it be, how conscious will it be of those truths that transcend the drearier economies of finite existence, and will it produce much good art? And all of that will be determined, inevitably, by spiritual forces.

It is not obvious, however, what those forces will be, or what they will bring about. It is very much an open and troubling question whether American religiosity has the resources to help sustain a culture as a culture—whether, that is, it can create a meaningful future, or whether it can only prepare for the end times. Is the American religious temperament so apocalyptic as to be incapable of culture in any but the most local and ephemeral sense? Does it know of any city other than Babylon the Great or the New Jerusalem? For all the moral will it engenders in persons and communities, can it cultivate the kind of moral intelligence necessary to live in eternity and in historical time simultaneously, without contradiction? Will its lack of any coherent institutional structure ultimately condemn it to haunting rather than vivifying its culture, or make it too susceptible to exploitation by alien interests, or render it incapable of bearing any sufficiently plausible or even interesting witness to the transcendent . . . ? And so on and so on. There is much to admire in the indigenous American religious sensibility, without question, but also much to deplore, and there is plenteous cause for doubt here.

Still, the worst fate that could befall America, one far grimmer than the mere loss of some of its fiscal or political supremacy in the world, would be the final triumph of a true cultural secularism….Even when it is not breeding great projects for the rectification of human nature or human society—not building death-camps or gulags, not preaching eugenics or the workers’ paradise—the secularist impulse can create nothing of enduring value. It corrupts the will and the imagination with the deadening boredom of an ultimate pointlessness, weakens the hunger for the good, true, and beautiful, makes the pursuit of diversion life’s most pressing need, and gives death the final word. A secular people—by which I mean not simply a people with a secular constitution, but one that really no longer believes in any reality beyond the physical realm—is a dying people, both culturally and demographically. Civilization, or even posterity, is no longer worth the effort. And, in our case, it would not even be a particularly dignified death. European Christendom has at least left a singularly presentable corpse behind. If the American religion were to evaporate tomorrow, it would leave behind little more than the brutal banality of late modernity.

In the end, though, on the matter of religion and the American future, I am certain of very little….Perhaps the quieter strengths they impart to our culture—its deeper reserves of charity and moral community, the earnestness of its spiritual longings, its occasional poetic madness—will persist for a long while yet, and with them the possibility of cultural accomplishments far more important than mere geopolitical preeminence. There is, at any rate, some room for hope.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tradition and the "Secret Permanences"

I enjoyed the recent article by Michael O'Meara, entitled The Shock of History, being a review of a book by the same name--Le Choc de l'Histoire by French historian Dominique Venner. He finds that amidst the current crisis--financial, demographic, cultural, existential--Europe is awakening from a long sleep, a dormition, if you will. Venner's thoughts on tradition are ones that can be appreciated by the Orthodox reader. He draws interesting distinctions between America and Europe, and I largely agree with his observation that the U.S., in its own way, occupied western Europe every bit as much as the Soviets did in the East. A few selections, as follows:

“The future belongs to those with the longest memory.” –Nietzsche

Conservative essentially historical thinking—in that it orients to the concrete, to ‘what is’ and ‘what has been’, instead of to ‘what ought to be’ or ‘what can be’. ‘Properly understood’, historical thinking (as créatrice de sens) reveals the ‘Providential’ design evident in the course and test of time.

Venner’s thesis is that: Europeans, after having been militarily, politically, and morally crushed by events largely of their own making, have been lost in sleep (‘in dormition’) for the last half-century and are now—however slowly—beginning to experience a ‘shock of history’ that promises to wake them, as they are forced to defend an identity of which they had previously been almost unconscious.

Like the effect of cascading catastrophes (the accelerating decomposition of America’s world empire, Europe’s Islamic colonization, the chaos-creating nihilism of global capitalism, etc.), the shock of history today is becoming more violent and destructive, making it harder for Europeans to stay lulled in the deep, oblivious sleep that follows a grievous wound to the soul itself—the deep curative sleep prescribed by their horrendous civil wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945), by the ensuing impositions of the Soviet/American occupation and of the occupation’s collaborationist regimes, and, finally, today, by a demographic tsunami promising to sweep away their kind. As Europe’s lands and institutions were assumed by alien interests, her ancient roots severed, and her destiny forgotten, Europeans fell into dormition, losing consciousness of who they were as a people and a civilization.

Tradition for him is precisely that which does not pass. It is the perpetual spirit that makes Europeans who they are and lends meaning to their existence, as they change and grow yet remain always the same. It is the source thus of the ‘secret permanences’ upon which their history is worked out. preeminently contemporary....It renders what was formed and inspired in the past into a continually informed present. It is always new and youthful, something very much before rather than behind them. It embodies the longest memory, integral to their identity, and it anticipates a future true to its origin. Life lived in reference to life lived in accordance with the ideal it embodies—the ideal of ‘who we are’.

In one sense, Venner’s Europe is the opposite of the America that has distorted Europe’s fate for the last half-century....Modeled on the Old Testament, not the Old World...America’s New World (both as a prolongation and rejection of Europe) was born of New England Calvinism and secularized in John O’Sullivan’s ‘Manifest Destiny’....Emboldened by the vast, virgin land of their wilderness enterprise and the absence of traditional authority, America’s Seventeenth-century Anglo-Puritan settlers set out, in the spirit of their radical-democratic Low Church crusade, to disown the colony’s Anglo-European parents....Believing herself God’s favorite, this New Zion aspired—as a Promised Land of liberty, equality, fraternity—to jettison Europe’s aesthetic and aristocratic standards for the sake of its religiously-inspired materialism. Hence, the bustling, wealth-accumulating, tradition-opposing character of the American project, which offends every former conception of the Cosmos.

Venner says US elites (‘cosmocrats’, he calls them) pursue a transnational/universalist vision (privileging global markets and human rights) that opposes every ‘nativist’ sense of nation or culture—a transnational /universalist vision the cosmocrats hope to impose on the whole world. For like Russian Bolsheviks...these money-worshipping liberal elites hate the Old World and seek a new man, Homo Oeconomicus—unencumbered by roots, nature, or culture—and motivated solely by a quantitative sense of purpose.

As a union whose ‘connections’ are essentially horizontal, contractual, self-serving, and self-centered, America’s cosmocratic system comes, as such, to oppose all resistant forms of historic or organic identity—for the sake of a totalitarian agenda intent on running roughshod over everything that might obstruct the scorch-earth economic logic of its Protestant Ethic and Capitalist Spirit. (In this sense, Europe’s resurgence implies America’s demise).

What will awaken Europeans from their sleep? Venner says it will be the shock of history—the shock re-awakening the tradition that made them (and makes them) who they are. Such shocks have, in fact, long shaped their history. Think of the Greeks in their Persian Wars; of Charles Martel’s outnumbered knights against the Caliphate’s vanguard; or of the Christian forces under Starhemberg and Sobieski before the gates of Vienna. Whenever Europe approaches Höderlin’s ‘midnight of the world’, such shocks, it seems, serve historically to mobilize the redeeming memory and will to power inscribed in her tradition.

More than a half-century after the trauma of 1945—and the ensuing Americanization, financialization, and third-worldization of continental life—Europeans are once again experiencing another great life-changing, history-altering shock promising to shake them from dormition. The present economic crisis and its attending catastrophes...combined with the unrelenting, disconcerting Islamization of European life (integral to US strategic interests) are—together—forcing Europeans to re-evaluate a system that destroys the national economy, eliminates borders, ravages the culture, makes community impossible, and programs their extinction as a people. The illusions of prosperity and progress, along with the system’s fun, sex, and money (justifying the prevailing de-Europeanization) are becoming increasingly difficult to entertain. Glimmers of a changing consciousness have, indeed, already been glimpsed on the horizon.

The various nationalist-populist parties stirring everywhere in Europe—parties which are preparing the counter-hegemony that one day will replace Europe’s present American-centric leadership—represent one conspicuous sign of this awakening. A mounting number of identitarian, Christian, secular, and political forces resisting Islam’s, America’s, and the EU’s totalitarian impositions at the local level are another sign. Europeans, as a consequence, are increasingly posing the question: ‘Who are we?’, as they become more and more conscious—especially in the face of the dietary, vestimentary, familial, sexual, religious, and other differences separating them from Muslims—of what is distinct to their civilization and their people, and why such distinctions are worth defending. Historical revivals...are slow in the making, but once awakened there is usually no going back. This is the point, Venner believes, that Europe is approaching today.

History is the realm of the unexpected....In history, the future is always unknown. Who would have thought in 1980 that Soviet Russia, which seemed to be overtaking the United States in the ‘70s, would collapse within a decade? Historical fatalities are the fatalities of men’s minds, not those of history.

History, moreover, is the confluence of the given, the circumstantial, and the willful. This makes it always open and hence potentially always a realm of the unexpected. And the unexpected (that instance when great possibilities are momentarily posed) is mastered, Venner councils, only in terms of who we are, which means in terms of the tradition and identity defining our project and informing our encounter with the world.

Hence, the significance now of husbanding our roots, our memory, our tradition, for from them will come our will to power and any possibility of transcendence. It’s not for nothing, Dominique Venner concludes, that we are the sons and daughters of Homer, Ulysses, and Penelope.

(The 3 paintings--Echo and Narcissus, The Siren, and Tristan and Isolde--all by pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse are appropriate to the subject matter, I think.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

The 2012 Campaign is Not Fun Anymore

The 2012 GOP Presidential Campaign is no longer fun. Back when Herman Cain and the Texas-Governor-Whose-Name-Shall-Not-Be-Mentioned-Here were saying crazy things, we could all laugh along, knowing that they were not serious candidates. I still stand by my prediction that the GOP will eventually nominate Romney, but a level of nervousness is now dampening my certainty. Political parties sometimes have death-wishes (the GOP in 1964, the Dems in 1972, for example), and this may very well be one of those years. Instead of electing someone who at least looks presidential (Romney), they opt for the ideologically pure bomb-thrower they believe will take out the ruling party (Gingrich.) I still will be shocked and not a little disturbed if Gingrich gets the GOP nomination. Despite the Tea Party crowd, enough of the traditional GOP remains intact so that the Big Money Crowd should step in to head this off. That said, they may already be too late. Unlike the big-booted Texas governor, Cain, Bachmann and Santorum, Newt Gingrich could conceivably be the pick. In the normal course of events, a Gingrich nomination would simply mean that Obama's re-election would be locked-in by late summer. But, as they say, s**t happens. The country is in a nasty mood, and Gingrich as standard-bearr would be way too close to the Presidency. Gingrich revels in his reputation as an "idea man." That's all well and good if they were in fact good ideas. And his character puts me in mind of an old Groucho Marx line: Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others. Why should we worry about Newt Gingrich replacing The Great Disappointment? Well, here's a sampler from just the last week.

1. Newt Gingrich refers to Donald Trump as "an American icon." The fact that Gingrich may be correct in his assessment--a scathing verdict on 21st-century America, indeed--is besides the point. If Trump were merely an egotistical, self-promoting showman of the first order (which he assuredly is), that would be one thing, but he continues to inflict himself upon our national discourse. For example, only Trump is still left still flogging the Birther issue. Newt's cozying-up to Trump is not just unseemly, it is loathsome. (This was one of the late Milton Burton's favorite adjectives, and I feel confident he would approve its usage in this context.)

2. Newt gave some idea of what a Gingrich Cabinet would look like when he promised to select John Bolton as Secretary of State. Such talk is not funny, but should send chills up the spine of anyone who remembers the run-up to our invasion of Iraq. Bolton as Secretary of State would be a good trigger to cash-out everything and buy that little shack in the jungles of Costa Rica.

3. Finally, Newt expounds on the Israeli/Palestinian issue:

Remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places.

Ah, so the "Palestinians" are no such thing--they are just Arabs. The Syrians are not Syrians, they are just Arabs. The Iraqis are not Iraqis, they are just Arabs. And since these so-called "Palestinians" are just Arabs, then they could/should go elsewhere in the Arab world. I'm sure the "Palestinian" family--Muslim or Christian, no matter--would have no objection to leaving the olive grove their family has tended for the last 600 years and relocate to one of the swanky refugee camps in a neighboring Arab country. Gingrich should perhaps be more careful in labeling people as "invented." Before 1948, there was no such thing as an "Israeli." And Americans, the quintessential "invented" people, should be the last to make that accusation against any other. In last night's debate, Gingrich did not back away from this statement, but actually doubled-down into an even more severe statement (they're all terrorists.) Of course, they were all vying to see which one could become AIPAC's favorite whore. What do you call it when the prostitute pays the trick, instead of the other way around? Yep, loathsome's the word for it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Aristotle East and West" by David Bradshaw

I have finally finished the last of the books I bought from the Ochlophobist book sale. I saved the hardest, Aristotle East and West, until last. I have never been one to read philosophy, or to spend much time thinking through philosophical concepts. At some point, I realized that my mind just does not work in that way. If at all possible, I still avoid philosophical debates, ideologies, and isms of all sorts. And so, I knew full well that this work would be a struggle for me. I slogged through the entire book with little comprehension of the issues being addressed--that is, until the end. His summation, in Chapter 9 and the Epilogue, is crystal-clear and understandable. Bradshaw identifies, I believe, the real difference between eastern and western understandings of the Christian faith. My wife and I were exposed to a bit of Calvinism at our friend's funeral, and afterwards we talked through the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism. The conversation I would like to have with her, however, is how both constructs are only possible within the western system of thought.

A few choice passages, following:

What is the point of spinning out words about God when He can be known only through practice? On such a view theology, however complex it may become, is ultimately simply the enterprise of preserving "the faith once delivered to the saints." To claim (as does Aquinas, for instance) that it is a science in the Aristotelian sense--one that has God as its subject matter-would have struck the Byzantines as strangely pretentious. These considerations will help explain why the eastern tradition never produced a theologian of the stature of Augustine or Aquinas. "Stature" is measured by breadth of thought, originality, and influence, and these were not qualities that the Byzantines valued. They valued fidelity to the existing tradition. What one finds in the East is not a series of towering geniuses, but a kind of symphonic movement, in which the role of a great thinker is to pull together and integrate what others before him had said in a more piecemeal way. (p.221)

Augustine arrives at his understanding of the beatific vision by taking the momentary direct vision that he ascribes to Moses and St. Paul and extrapolating it forward into eternity. This ultimate vision is purely a function of the intellect. Strikingly, and by an apparently fortuitous convergence, Augustine thus agrees with Aristotle in seeing intellectual contemplation as the final goal of human life...What is perhaps most remarkable is that the Augustinian presuppositions we have sketched could come to dominate the thought of the West, while having virtually no influence in the East, and yet for almost a thousand years neither side recognized what had happened. Instead the controversy between them focused on relatively peripheral issues such as the filioque and the role of the Papacy. (p.229)

If one were to summarize the differences between the eastern and western traditions in a single word, that word would be 'synergy.' For the East the highest form of communion with the divine is not primarily an intellectual act, but a sharing of life and activity....It led to a tendency to think of earthly, bodily existence as capable of being taken up and subsumed within the life of God. Emphasis was placed, not on any sudden transformation at death, but on the ongoing and active appropriation of those aspects of the divine life that are open to participation....In the West synergy played remarkably little role....its immediate cause was the happenstance way in which Greek learning was transmitted to the West....Augustine impressed upon western thought a number of interlocking assumptions: that God is simple; that He is intrinsically intelligible; that He can be known in only two ways, through created intermediaries or a direct intellectual apprehension of the divine essence; and that the highest goal of human existence is such direct intellectual apprehension. (p.265)

If I am right...then there is reason to conclude that the eastern tradition is fundamentally sound. If so--and if I am also right that the western tradition was already unsound as far back as Augustine--then our entire view of history will have to change. Most significantly, the long movement of the West toward unbelief must come to appear in a very different light....What were the major reasons urged against traditional religious belief by the Enlightenment? It was said that the history of western religion was one of endless persecutions and religious war; that believers had arrogantly attempted to declare the will of God, and even to define what God is; that religious morality, and especially asceticism, had caused the human mind to relinquish its natural powers in favor of blind obedience, while denying the body and earthly life their rightful pleasures. Most interestingly, these failings were traced to an idea of God that was said to be incomprehensible and self-contradictory. It is no wonder, the charge ran, that the various sects are perpetually at one another's throats, since each has laid hold in an arbitrary way upon a single aspect of an idea that is fundamentally incoherent. Voltaire dismissed all such controversies with the simple remark, "a long dispute means that both parties are wrong."...The East has no concept of God. It views God not as an essence to b grasped intellectually, but as a personal reality known through His acts, and above all by oneself sharing in those acts....For the East morality is not primarily a matter of conformance to law, nor...of achieving human excellence by acquiring the virtues. it is a matter of coming to know God by sharing in His acts and manifesting His image. It is striking, in this connection, that the long western tradition of lay resistance to the clerical enforcement of morals had no real analogue in the East. (p.275-276)

Perhaps the philosophes were right in thinking that real persecuting zeal requires a conviction of the rational superiority of one's own conception of God. Perhaps, too, they were right in seeing a link between such zeal and the institutionalization of religious controversy brought about by the scholasticism. From an eastern perspective, it appears as no accident that the institutional strife of Thomist, Scotist, and Ockhamist during the late Middle Ages was followed by the open breach of the Reformation. The East certainly experienced it controversies, but they were always viewed as something temporary to b overcome, not something to b fostered and celebrated by permanent institutions....Nor did war and persecution come to an end once the Enlightenment had pulled God from His throne....From the standpoint of the East the whole story falls sadly into place. The enlightenment attacked scholasticism, but left untouched rationalist ideology; it attacked oppressive morality, but left untouched the alienation of body from sou; it attacked sectarian strife, but left untouched the deeper wellsprings of hatred. We children of the Enlightenment pride ourselves on our willingness to question anything. Let us now ask whether the God who has been the subject of so much strife and contention thought western history was ever anything more than an idol. (p.276-277)

Friday, December 09, 2011

Remembering Milton

Milton T. Burton, a frequent commentator here, died on December 1st at age 64. He was my oldest friend. Milton had been in declining health for some time, a combination of kidney failure and heart problems being the particular causes of death. He entered the hospital in late October. A stroke left him with diminished mental capacity, from which he never recovered.

Our friendship dates back about 27 years, the best I recall. I can imagine no better friend. Family can let you down, but a loyal friend like Milton is a rare gift indeed. Scarcely a day passed that we did not talk, or at least email one another. Milton was the one who usually called me. Perhaps this was because I knew I did not have to call, for I knew before long I would be hearing from him. Milton kept odd hours. If we received a call at home late at night, my wife and I knew it had to be Milton. If I heard from him at work before 10:00 AM in the morning, then I knew he had not yet gone to bed for the night. I have never met anyone so broadly well-read and informed as Milton. He was a true intellectual, as well as a scholar. The two are not at all the same thing, and are rarely found in tandem, in my experience. Milton could pontificate with the best of them—at length—but he rarely called to do so. More often than not, he wanted my opinion about some recent event, situation or news story. I admit that I always found this to be immensely gratifying—the fact that someone so very much smarter than I would be interested in my opinion.

So much could be said about Milton, yet I find myself grasping for words. Describing him to others has always been something of a problem, for I never met anyone even remotely like him…ever. My long-time office manager used to ask why all my friends were so eccentric. She would usually say this right after Milton had called or stopped by. He delighted in phoning our business and having the receptionist buzz my office and inquire if I wanted to speak to the Rev. Buford T. Sheets. This was one of his many alter-egos, and he had a lot of fun with this character, who--as everyone should know--was the senior pastor of the Greater Gum Springs Apostolic Church of the Final Thunder.

Milton could appear gruff and curmudgeonly. Those of us who knew him well also realized that this was part of the character he wished to portray, something of an act, if you will, that shielded the sensitive and tender-hearted soul underneath. Milton suffered some tough knocks in life, and he was naturally sympathetic to the foibles of others who struggled along in life. It might be said, however, that Milton was a man who did not suffer fools gladly, as the old saying goes. He had a keen ear for cant, hypocrisy and pretense, and was always at the ready to engage in a bit of verbal combat wherever he thought it needful…a bit too ready, some might say. He could be particularly scathing when it came to televangelists, Southern Baptists and Republican “bidnessmen.” Oh how he would have relished the full-flowering of the GOP presidential race this year, with Cain and Perry and Gingrich!

The news story in the local paper contained an interview with Milton’s oldest son, who described his father’s career as “meandering.” Well yes, I suppose that is one way of putting it. At one time, Milton’s mother set him up in a grocery store business in our little town. Later, he taught history a semester or two at our local junior college. For a while, he served as the liaison for our state senator. All of these endeavors ended more or less disastrously—some spectacularly so--with long stretches of nothing much in between.

At long last, about 7 years ago, Milton hit on a profession suited to him. With a computer and internet connection in place, he began experimenting with short stories. He would forward many of them on to me (and other friends) for input. At first, the humor was a little broad, but Milton soon hit his stride and found his voice. He chose the crime novel genre, specifically what might be called Texas Noir. The Rogue’s Game, set in 1947 Texas, was released in 2005 to very favorable reviews. The Sweet and the Dead followed in 2006. A change in publishers led to a gap in releases, but the Nights of the Red Moon was finally released in 2010. This was the best of his novels, in my opinion. A collection of his short stories, Texas Noir, was released as a Kindle ebook in the summer of 2011. I do not own, nor ever plan to own a Kindle, but I have read all the stories as they were being developed, and they are quite good. His fourth novel, The Devil’s Odds: A Mystery, will be released this coming February. There may even be a fifth novel in the pipeline, to be released in 2013.

Milton grew up in a rural area, about 5 miles north of where I have lived since 1977. Around here, his story was usually seen as just a chapter in the larger context of interconnected webs of extended family connections. He may have been eccentric, but he was our eccentric. He belonged to this particular place. This acceptance--even protectiveness—of even the most unconventional is the mark of a true community, where people stay put for a few generations, whether it be a neighborhood in Queens, or in the rural South.

Milton’s maternal family—the side that mattered—were not among the oldest families here, only arriving from north Alabama shortly following the Civil War. He idolized his grandfather, who acquired a 400-acre place around the turn of the last century. He and Milton’s grandmother, also from a north Alabama family, lived in an impressive Queen Anne farmhouse perched a small rise in a grove of magnolias. For that day, they were considered--if not wealthy--then certainly well-fixed. The family was a bit different from most of their neighbors. For starters, they were members of the Primitive Baptist Church. For those outside the South, just know that they are nothing like any Baptist church of your acquaintance. The closest congregation was about 15 miles away, so the family did not move in the typical Baptist/Methodist social circles of the area. Also, the grandmother drank whiskey—not secretly, but openly. In that time and place, this was seldom seen among respectable women (my wife’s great-grandmother being another exception.) Two daughters were born to the couple, Milton’s mother, Allene, being the oldest.

Milton’s mother received an excellent education for that day, obtaining a master’s degree from Stephen F. Austin University. She endured a brief and unsuccessful marriage, with Milton being the only offspring. Allene once told my wife that she enjoyed the company of men, as long as she did not have to be married to them. She and Milton lived with her parents in the old home place. Allene was a formidable woman, severe and a bit feared by her high school students. She always dressed in drab colors, I am told, wearing brown pumps and usually a dress gathered at the waist. She pulled her hair back into a tight bun, almost a caricature of an old-time schoolmarm. But like Milton, she had a soft spot for the misfit or for the one she knew were not destined for academic excellence. By the late 1950s, she started driving convertible Thunderbirds, which were just as likely to have a bale of hay behind the seat as not. One of the last things Milton told me before his stroke was that his mother considered pursuing her doctorate, her intended field of study being the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. She was not attracted to Orthodoxy, of course, just fascinated by the culture and story.

My first meeting with Milton is indelibly imprinted in my memory. It was about 1984, I believe. I had business about some land surveying with Milton’s mother, and was delivering some papers to her door. Milton had married his college sweetheart, a Catholic girl of French-Canadian descent whose family had inexplicably landed in East Texas. Milton brought her back to the family home, where they moved in with his mother. This became an increasingly volatile arrangement. In quick succession, Milton became the father of a son, then a daughter, then triplets—all sons. Allene abandoned the family home, bought a trailer house and parked it down the hill from the farmhouse, stuffed a pillow in the window of the front door, which she slammed shut on the world. By this time, the farm itself was gone, reduced to a few acres around the two houses, a small barn and chicken coop, and a row of rusting Thunderbirds.

My meeting with Allene went well. I was told by some that I would not be asked in. (I was.) I found her to be a straight-forward woman who liked to take care of business—much like my own mother. Our visit went well.

At the time, I was in my late 20s, married, with a small son. At that stage of my life, I recall being much preoccupied with the making of lots of money. My life was about to change directions a bit, with things far more interesting than making money. On this particular bitterly cold January day, I was not about to linger too long outside talking with Mrs. Burton. Before I could leave, however, I heard my name being called, and looked up towards the farmhouse. I saw Milton trotting down the hill, in a short-sleeve shirt, wearing a pair of old slacks that had been ripped-off about the knee, wearing a pair of Allene’s blue fuzzy house shoes.

Milton invited me up to the house for a cup of coffee, and of course, I readily accepted. We walked up the trail past the Thunderbird graveyard to the front porch of the house, high off the ground. What I found inside, behind the front door with the etched glass, was something straight out of a Southern Gothic novel. The layout of the house was straight-forward enough. From the left front parlor, a wide hallway cut through the length of the house. Another front parlor was located right of the hall, with a double fireplace connected to the dining room behind. Sliding doors separated this parlor from the formal dining room, and the small galley kitchen behind. A large bedroom was located left of the hallway, opposite of the dining room. A couple of smaller bedrooms were immediately behind, with a tiny bathroom squeezed-in next to the back porch.

The ceilings were about 12 ft. high. Ornate wallpaper had once covered the walls, but this had been ripped off, with just the bare boards now exposed, except in places where it was still hanging on. The house was full of Victorian-era antiques which had, unfortunately, suffered greatly at the hands of the Burton children. Milton’s wife worked at the hospital in the city, while he stayed at home and rode herd over their offspring. You might say he was a bit lax in his child-raising, but it all worked out in the end. Today they are as an intelligent and personable a set of siblings as you will find. I do recall him saying that he got them started dipping snuff early, because he was afraid they would set the house on fire sneaking underneath to smoke cigarettes.

I believe an old organ sat in the front left parlor. A Victorian settee and pair of arm chairs occupied the front right parlor. A coffee table in the center of the room contained what appeared to be a punch bowl, or large fruit bowl—except that it was filled to overflowing with cigarette butts. In the dining room, Milton pointed out a small framed sketch of the Arc de Triomphe that his mother brought home from Paris in the 1930s. After most everything had slipped away, I know that Milton managed to hang on to this memento until the end. Milton apologized for the condition of the house, blaming it on the kids and maintaining that he had a “military mind.” By this time, I had already deduced otherwise.

The small, cramped kitchen was piled high with dirty dishes. I believe the coffee was already on. He pulled a cup out of the sink, turned it up, looked at it, then put it back. He repeated this with another cup. The third cup he pulled out of the sink was apparently clean enough, and so he poured me a cup of coffee. Before leaving the kitchen, he leaned down to light his cigarette on the gas burner of the stove.

Milton continued his tour of the house. He seemed most proud of a 1840 Austrian armoire in the main bedroom, a wedding gift from his mother. This piece now sits in the hallway of our home. As money became desperate in coming years, he sold off the antiques, one by one. Milton called up one day and offered the armoire to us. I would have just given him the money, but it was a point of pride with him that we take the furniture. The hallway narrowed towards the back of the house, making room for a steep stairway to the attic, hidden behind a doorway. He led me up the stairs to the attic, but we did little more than poke our heads above the floorboards. Milton’s grandfather had an old maid sister who had lived in the house. For many years, Milton believed that the place was haunted by the spirit of his Great Aunt Geneva, and that the eeriness was centered on her old trunk in the attic. One day he climbed the stairs, pulled the trunk down, loaded it into the back of one of the Thunderbirds and dumped it in a bar ditch of a back country road, having never looked inside. According to Milton, the hauntings ceased from that date.

We parted company with mutual assurances that we would be back in touch with the other. And we were. I cannot believe what an innocent I was at the time. I found myself fascinated with my new found friend.

In time, Milton’s wife left for town, with the near-grown children in tow. Allene moved into an apartment in town, and before long, Milton joined her, having lost the house itself. To my knowledge, Milton never agonized over the course his life had taken, being content with a good read, some coffee and nicotine. One of the last things I was able to do for Milton was to sneak some Copenhagen in to him in the hospital. The first time he asked, I agreed but hoped he would forget about it. He did not. He called me the next day about it, and so I bought a can of snuff for the first time in my life. Milton thought he had pulled one over on the nurses, but they knew he had it all along. We all have our particular addictions and weaknesses. He knew mine and he did not try to deny his own--alcohol and pain medications. Over 20 years ago, however, Milton gave up drinking all on his own, never looking back.

The great tragedy of his life had to be the loss of one of the triplets in a 1987 traffic accident. As might be expected, Milton had failed to reserve a place for himself in the family plot of their community cemetery. And so, Milton’s body has been cremated, and his ashes will be interred tomorrow at the foot of this son’s grave. Afterwards, friends and family will gather at our house for a meal.

In recent years, Milton came back around to the Primitive Baptist Church of his youth. He was a thorough-going Calvinist, a theological construct that has always baffled me. Of course, as Milton would say—“I was predestined not to understand.” But we never argued religion, as we each respected the other too much for that. Milton was intrigued by my becoming Orthodox, and would often question me about the beliefs and practices of same. In our discussions, he would invariably remark on how this was just like the Primitive Baptist Church! Like I say, I never argued religion with him, but the only similarity between the Orthodox and the Primitive Baptists is the scarcity of their numbers in this region. But Milton was indeed something of a biblical scholar, particularly in the Old Testament.

A few years after meeting Milton, I would gain another great friend. His eccentricities run in a different direction, but he is no less colorful. I think about what my life would have been like if I had never met either of these great, good friends—or if I had never met my wonderful wife, for that matter. For better or for worse, I am largely the man I am now because of their influences. Only by my ongoing friendship with them did I awake from my stupor and really begin to engage the wider world. I know that for some, my own life is now cast within the context of eccentricity. For that I say, “thank you, Milton” and May Your Memory Be Eternal.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I occassionally post the following quote from Solzhenitsyn. It's that time again.

Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Daniel Larison on Herman Cain's "Lybian Pause"

As long as candidates can be relied on to back Israel, hate the current vilified countries, favor increased military spending, and endorse the latest war, they normally aren’t expected to know very much. Cain probably thought that was how it worked in the nominating contest, too, and he has now been disabused of that notion.

If you are a foreign policy junkie and not yet reading Daniel Larison......well, you should be. This post is a good place to start.

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Don't Know Much About History"...

My life is not yet so pitiable that I spend Saturday night at home watching the latest Republican "debate," supposedly devoted to foreign policy. As this is a particular interest of mine, I did, however, try to follow the reviews and commentary afterwards. For starters, the only two candidates on the stage that could speak to foreign affairs with any degree of authenticity--Paul and Huntsman--were shut out of the debate. Herman and Rick just looked silly. Mitt and Newt tried to see which one could be the more bellicose towards Iran. But the prize has to go to Rick Santorum. As someone with even less a chance of winning the nomination than Perry (and that is setting the bar pretty low), why does it matter what he said? Here is why: his views are hardly out of the mainstream of GOP thought these days--or Democratic either, for that matter. Santorum's contribution, as follows:

Romney said he would take military action "if all else fails."

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania agreed. Noting that a mysterious computer virus had caused disruption inside Iran's nuclear labs, and that Iranian scientists have been assassinated in recent months, he said, "I hope that the U.S. has been involved" in those and other covert actions.

Doesn't anyone study History anymore? This attitude displays an appalling lack of understanding about the country in question. Iran is no thrown-together construct of post-colonialism, but the proud modern inheritor of some 3,000 years of Persian civilization. And even a cursory overview of Persian history will note the 1953 CIA-led Anglo-American coup d'etat (Operation Ajax) which overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossaddegh, setting up the formerly constitutional monarch, Reza Shah Pahlavi, as the absolute ruler. His increasingly autocratic 26-year reign and repressive secret police caused the simmering resentment against the Crown and its enablers (us) to boil over in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The rest, as they say, is history.

And now, Santorum--the quintessential "pro-life" candidate--is hopeful that we have been in on the assassination of Iranian scientists. The only problem with an ends-justifies-the-means foreign policy is that the ends so seldom end up where we think they will.

Where the Real Money Is

Gail Collins offers an interesting insight that will be of great value to young collegiate types trying to figure out a career path. If you are going after the big money, forget about that MBA. Instead, you might want to consider History, perhaps a M.A. in Medieval Studies. At least that is the story Newt Gingrich is selling these days.

Newt, on the other hand, is always good in debates if you like extremely pompous people who appear to be practically levitating with their own sense of personal wonderfulness. During the last outing, Gingrich’s most fascinating moment came when he explained why the mortgage lender Freddie Mac paid him $300,000 in 2006. First of all, it had nothing whatsoever to do with lobbying, or attempting to influence the Republicans who happened to control Congress at a time when there was talk of clamping down on the way Freddie operated. Just put that out of your mind.

No, Gingrich explained very clearly that Freddie gave him the three-hundred grand for his “advice as a historian.”

This is fantastic and important news. Right now a great many college students are trying to decide on a course of study. Some of them would probably like to major in history but are wondering if they should pick something that might be more lucrative. Not to worry, college students! Look at Newt. Three-hundred-thousand dollars for advising! And the way he described it in the debate, it appeared to involve about only an hour of his time.

So, if given a choice between an M.B.A. in finance or an M.A. in medieval studies, you know where to go. And tell them Newt sent you.

Rethinking Greece

Greece has been in the news a lot recently, and not in a good way. This article, by George Zakardakis, puts the crisis in historical perspective--always a refreshing touch.

I have a good friend who enjoys traveling in Greece as much as I do. She is something of a militant atheist, which means she goes for the broken columns. What happened since Late Antiquity, i.e. Christian/Byzantine Greece--the "real" Greece, I would say--interests her not at all. In 2010, she convinced me to visit King Philip's Tomb at Veroia. I'm glad I did, but I have to admit that I did so only because I happened to be in the neighborhood. This Disneyfied version--the Greece of the tour groups--is at the root of the current crisis, which, as Zakardakis points out, goes much deeper than the financial.

He writes:

Sinking deeper into the gravest economic crisis in its postwar history, Greece is no nearer to finding an exit from its woes. A toxic mix of anxiety and fear hangs in the air in Athens. The ordeal shows that living up to lofty idealism is never easy. Modern Greeks know that well for we are, in many ways, the imperfect reflection of an ideal that the West imagined for itself.

When the Greek crisis began two years ago, the cover of a popular German magazine showed an image of Aphrodite of Milo gesturing crudely with the headline: "The fraudster in the euro family." In the article, modern Greeks were described as indolent sloths, cheats and liars, masters of corruption, unworthy descendants of their glorious Hellenic past.

The irony was that modern Greece has little in common with Pericles or Plato. If anything, it is a failed German project.

In 1832, Greece had just won its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The "Big Powers" of the time, Britain, France and Russia, appointed a Bavarian prince, Otto, as Greece's first king. Otto arrived with German architects, engineers, doctors and soldiers and set out to reconfigure the country to the romantic ideal of the times.

The 19th century had seen a resurgence of Europeans' interest in ancient Greece. Goethe, Shelley, Byron, Delacroix and other artists, poets and musicians sought inspiration in classical beauty. They longed for a lost purity in thought, aesthetics and warm-blooded passion.

Revisiting the sensual Greece of Orpheus and Sappho was ballast to the detached coolness of science or the dehumanizing onslaught of the Industrial Revolution.

Otto ensured that modern Greece lived up to that romantic image. Athens, then a small hamlet, was inaugurated as the capital. The architects from Munich designed and built a royal palace, an academy, a library and beautiful neoclassical edifices. Modern Greece was thus invented as a backdrop to contemporary European art and imagination, a historical precursor of many Disneylands to come.

Otto was eventually expelled by a coup. But the foundations of historical misunderstanding had been laid, to haunt Greece and its relations with itself and other European nations forever.

Of course, it is easy enough to blame all your problems on the West. But Zakadarkis maintains that this romanticized Western fantasy of Greece locked in place a real division within Greek national identity, which has yet to be resolved. Unless it is, he believes even worse headlines lie ahead.

No matter what Otto may have imagined, the truth was that my forefathers, the brave people who started fighting for their freedom against the Turks in 1821, had not been in suspended animation for 2,000 years....they were not walking around in white cloaks with laurel wreaths. They were Christian orthodox, conservative and fiercely antagonistic toward their governing institutions. In other words, they were an embarrassment to all those folks in Berlin, Paris and London who expected resurrected philosophers sacrificing to Zeus.

The profound gap between the ancient and the modern had to be bridged, to satisfy Europe's romantic expectations of Greece. So a historical narrative was put together claiming uninterrupted continuity with the ancient past, which became the central dogma of Greek national policy and identity.

[The Greeks] despise the loss of their sovereignty as well as the bitter medicine prescribed by their European brethren for their "rescue." Austerity enforced by unelected officials from the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank is perceived as not remedy but punishment, a distasteful concept to the orthodox Greeks whose core value is mercy.

The Greek financial crisis is a crisis of identity as much as anything else. Unless the people redefine themselves, this could become the perfect catastrophe: a country designed as a romantic theme park two centuries ago, propped up with loans ever since, and unable to adjust to the crude realities of 21st-century globalization.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Harold Bloom on the Mormon Moment

I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one?

This is how Harold Bloom ends one of the best essays I've read in a long time, found here. It seems I've read more about Bloom than by him, though there is a copy of The Western Canon on a bookshelf somewhere in the house. In the November 13th NYTimes, he addresses the significance of our first Mormon presidential nominee. If it were just that, I would not give the article much attention. Bloom, however, uses the issue to speak much-needed truth about American culture, religiosity and money/politics, while putting the invented Mormon faith in the context of all the other faiths we have invented.

I predicted the 2012 GOP ticket back in March, and I stand by that prognostication. I do not give a whit about Mitt's Mormonism. I will not be voting for him for other reasons. And for all the blather about it on the right, the last time we elected anyone who acted as though they took this Christian business seriously was back in 1976, and as I recall, that did not work out too well. Besides, I believe we generally get the politicians we deserve.

But on to Bloom. I have copied a number of passages, below. I encourage you to read the entire article linked above. It is quite good. Enjoy.

Mr. Romney…is directly descended from an early follower of the founding prophet Joseph Smith, whose highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is. But then, so in fact are most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God Pentecostalists and even our mainline Protestant denominations.

However, should Mr. Romney be elected president, Smith’s dream of a Mormon Kingdom of God in America would not be fulfilled, since the 21st-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor….The Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed has little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith. The oligarchs of Salt Lake City, who sponsor Mr. Romney, betray what ought to have been their own religious heritage. Though I read Christopher Hitchens with pleasure, his characterization of Joseph Smith as “a fraud and conjuror” is inadequate. A superb trickster and protean personality, Smith was a religious genius, uniquely able to craft a story capable of turning a self-invented faith into a people now as numerous as the Jews, in America and abroad.

Persuasively redefining Christianity has been a pastime through the ages, yet the American difference is brazen. What I call the American Religion, and by that I mean nearly all religions in this country, socially manifests itself as the Emancipation of Selfishness. Our Great Emancipator of Selfishness, President Ronald Reagan, refreshingly evaded the rhetoric of religion, but has been appropriated anyway as the archangel of American spiritualized greed….The American Religion centers upon the denial of death, literalizing an ancient Christian metaphor.

Obsessed by a freedom we identify with money, we tolerate plutocracy as if it could someday be our own ecstatic solitude. A first principle of the American Religion is that each of us rarely feels free unless he or she is entirely alone, particularly when in the company of the American Jesus. Walking and talking with him is akin to receiving his love in a personal and individual relationship.

A dark truth of American politics in what is still the era of Reagan and the Bushes is that so many do not vote their own economic interests. Rather than living in reality they yield to what oddly are termed “cultural” considerations: moral and spiritual, or so their leaders urge them to believe. Under the banners of flag, cross, fetus, exclusive marriage between men and women, they march onward to their own deepening impoverishment. Much of the Tea Party fervor merely repeats this gladsome frolic.

As the author of “The American Religion,” I learned a considerable respect for such original spiritual revelations as 19th-century Mormonism and early 20th-century Southern Baptism, admirably re-founded by the subtle theologian Edgar Young Mullins in his “Axioms of Religion.”

A religion becomes a people, as it has for the Jews and the Mormons, partly out of human tenacity inspired by the promise of the blessing of more life, but also through charismatic leadership. What we now call Judaism was essentially created by Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph to meet the needs of a Jewish people mired under Roman occupation in Palestine and elsewhere in the empire....Joseph Smith, killed by a mob before he turned 39, is hardly comparable to the magnificent Akiva, except that he invented Mormonism even more single-handedly than Akiva gave us Judaism, or Muhammad, Islam.

I recall prophesying in 1992 that by 2020 Mormonism could become the dominant religion of the western United States. But we are not going to see that large a transformation. I went wrong because the last two decades have witnessed the deliberate dwindling of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into just one more Protestant sect. Without the changes, Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a fellow Mormon, would not seem plausible candidates.

The accurate critique of Mormonism is that Smith’s religion is not even monotheistic, let alone democratic. Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer openly describes their innermost beliefs, they clearly hold on to the notion of a plurality of gods. Indeed, they themselves expect to become gods, following the path of Joseph Smith….Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts, hoping to join the plurality of gods, even as they insist they are not polytheists. No Mormon need fall into the fundamentalist denial of evolution, because the Mormon God is not a creator. Imaginatively liberating as this may be, its political implications are troublesome. The Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells. From the perspective of the White House, how would the nation and the world appear to President Romney? How would he represent the other 98 percent of his citizens?

Mormonism’s best inheritance from Joseph Smith was his passion for education, hardly evident in the anti-intellectual and semi-literate Southern Baptist Convention. I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proudly stupid one? Either way we are condemned to remain a plutocracy and oligarchy. I can be forgiven for dreading a further strengthening of theocracy in that powerful brew.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

Most statements of “American exceptionalism” presume that America’s values, political system, and history are unique and worthy of universal admiration. They also imply that the United States is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.

The only thing wrong with this self-congratulatory portrait of America's global role is that it is mostly a myth....By focusing on their supposedly exceptional qualities, Americans blind themselves to the ways that they are a lot like everyone else.

This unchallenged faith in American exceptionalism makes it harder for Americans to understand why others are less enthusiastic about U.S. dominance, often alarmed by U.S. policies, and frequently irritated by what they see as U.S. hypocrisy....Ironically, U.S. foreign policy would probably be more effective if Americans were less convinced of their own unique virtues and less eager to proclaim them.

These are the words of Stephen M. Walt, Harvard professor and co-author of The Israel Lobby, in an excellent Foreign Policy article entitled The Myth of American Exceptionalism, here.

Walt identifies 5 of the pleasant lies we tell ourselves:

1. There is Something Exceptional about American Exceptionalism.

2. The United States Behaves Better Than Other Nations Do.

3. America's Success is Due to its Special Genius.

4. The United States is Responsible for Most of the Good in the World.

5. God Is on Our Side.

We are now one year and 6 days away from the 2012 presidential election. Expect to hear much about American Exceptionalism, whoever the GOP nominee turns out to be (though it will be Romney.) He will accuse President Obama of not believing in AE, and he will be wrong. Both parties completely buy into the idea, though using different language to express it.

Walt's article is superb, a much-needed corrective to our conventional mindset.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Way We Live Now

I have attended two conferences in recent weeks--one in Frisco, Texas and the other in Chicago. The first was the annual state convention of my profession. As I teach a couple of required courses in our local university, my presence was expected. (And the fact that my two nights at the Embassy Suites would be covered tended to sweeten the deal.) The second conference was the annual gathering of the Byzantine Studies Association of North America. The use of frequent flyer miles brought this meeting within the arc of affordability. Two more disparate gatherings could not be imagined.

Frisco lies at the far north edge of a conglomeration of burgeoning suburban cities we used to simply refer to as North Dallas. When it comes to runaway growth, Frisco is in a class by itself. In 1990, the town boasted 6,000 residents. Today, the population has surpassed 120,000.

Though I have lived my entire life in rural, semi-rural and small-town settings, I tend to enjoy urban areas. Dallas and environs, however, is not a favorite. I appreciate those cities with lively downtowns and that promote and protect distinctive neighborhoods. Dallas suffers on both counts. The city has few real neighborhoods for its size, with the truly interesting ones hidden away in the struggling southern and eastern sectors--not in the north where all the growth is heading. Dallas is making strides in downtown revitalization, though here again, there is an artificiality to it all, as opposed to their neighbor to the west, Fort Worth.

Frisco seems to suffer from over planning. The area around the convention center/hotel was pastureland ten years previously. Now, freeways and wide, divided esplanades splice through the black land, blocking off the shopping centers, malls, office parks, restaurants, and entertainment venues of various sorts--all set far back with acres of parking in front. Everything is carefully landscaped, to be sure.

Outside of the old town core, Frisco tends towards walled enclaves of ugly, two-story, cheaply-constructed-to-the-naked-eye brick veneer jobs jammed up alongside each other on tiny lots, or walled enclaves of back-to-back McMansionas Texiana. One area gated development opted for a different, though unintentionally hilarious look, dubbing itself "Savannah," complete with Lowland architecture and imported palms. All this on the tree-less black lands of North Texas, a stone's throw from the Red River. Frisco is an almost totally planned city and has won numerous awards and all, but I couldn't help thinking to myself--they did this on purpose? The city is absolutely incomprehensible without use of the automobile. People jog, but they don't walk. There is no where to walk to. My last night there, somewhat in protest, I left my truck in the parking garage and walked a half-mile down the street to an El Salvadoran restaurant.

There will eventually be a limit to this growth. According to those who study these things, the city of Frisco will have a population of 280,000 when it is "built out." To the north, the small community of Prosper is all set to be the "next Frisco." Beyond that, there is the Red River and Oklahoma, where all things Texan come to a screeching stop.

Other than changing planes at O'Hare, I had not been to Chicago since 1987. The conference venue was DePaul University in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The hotel for the conference was 10 blocks east, on the West edge of the park. I was in for a pleasant surprise in my accommodations. The Belden-Stratford is a 14-story 1922 hotel, complete with grand lobby. 80% of the building is given over to apartments, while the remaining 20% are offered as hotel rooms. A mistake was made in my reservations, so they had to put me in one of the vacant apartments. So, instead of a single hotel room, I ended up in a 1200 square foot two bedroom, two and a half bath, living room, dining room, full kitchen corner suite, with East views overlooking Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan, and South views overlooking the Chicago skyline. I almost hated to leave the room.

The weather was perfect, crisp temperatures and without a cloud in the sky. The walk to and from the conference each day gave me opportunity to check out the neighborhood. Lincoln Park is one of those districts that has been pretty thoroughly gentrified. Being so close to downtown, it is a desirable locale, and property values reflect that. I am quite sure I could not afford to live here. The homes and apartments differed enough from one another to keep the walk interesting. I noticed that many of the residences boasted large picture windows, and most had their shades open where one could see the artwork and/or decorative items they were sharing with those on the sidewalk. While I liked this, I found it different from most streetscapes, where the blinds are kept closed.

DePaul is a Catholic university where the student body appeared earnest and well-scrubbed. I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, met an old acquaintance or two, and even made a few new friends among the academe. The field of Byzantine studies is a rarefied little world if there ever was one. But what a fascinating world it is! Many of the papers were read by graduate students. I wish them all well, though I wonder where they think the jobs will be.

One night, we were all bussed out to the University of Chicago for a lecture. The drive out there, south along Lakeshore Drive as it wrapped around downtown Chicago, was worth the trip. The campus was something to see, as well. The venue that night was the Oriental Institute, where we listened to a talk delivered in an old wood-paneled lecture hall, complete with red leather theatre seats. Afterwards, they treated us with a reception in the exhibit hall, replete with Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian displays. The lamassu there, from the palace of Sargon II, was even more impressive than the one in the Louve. (I'm being a little pretentious here. A lamassu is one of those Assyrian winged horses with a human head. And no, I did not know what the word meant either until I read the sign next to the display.)

We enjoyed a reception at Cortelyou Commons the last night of the conference, where two association officers re-enacted a scene from the play, Theodora. There, I had occasion to speak briefly with Daniel Larison, whose writings I seem to constantly extol on these pages.

Somewhere along the way, I managed to squeeze in a visit to a local Irish pub (Kelley's, established 1933.) Meeting two fellow Orthodox bloggers while in Chicago was an especial treat--as was my visit to Christ the Savior Orthodox Church (OCA.) The temple was located 1.7 miles south of my hotel, and this made a nice Sunday morning walk. The church is in what was once a turn-of-the century Presbyterian church that eventually disbanded. Our Savior's got an incredible deal on the building, as well as the mansion house next door, which serves as their hall. The iconography in the church is almost finished and is beautifully done. I estimated 85-100 at Divine Liturgy, heavily represented by younger families with children. That is usually a good sign, I think.

The Rich Man and Lazarus was the subject of the homily for that particular Sunday. I remember that the priest brought out the fact that the Rich Man (whose name we do not even know) failed to see Lazarus (whose name is preserved for eternity) as a brother. The sermon hit home with me because of an incident that had happened only the day before. I was walking west on Belden, approaching the commercial area at the Clark Street intersection. A disheveled-looking man was standing on the sidewalk ahead, just outside the 7-Eleven. I could tell that he was what we call a "street person." He had a few bags on the ground and his old coat was pulled up over his head. As I approached, I was going over in my mind what I would do if he asked for money. Of course I would give him some, if asked, but then I was wondering if I had any small bills on me and that sort of thing. When I drew even with him, I tried to avoid eye contact and he did not say anything. Phew, I thought, problem solved. A block further on, I saw a man walking his two pugs. I am a pug person, and so I smiled broadly and stopped to admire the two dogs. As I walked on, the enormity of what I had just done hit me squarely in the face. I had shown great affection towards these two pampered pets. And yet, I had failed to recognize Christ in the face of my poor brother on the street corner. I had missed my chance. There was nothing to do now but to repent and try to do better next time. The following morning, before striking off to church, I made sure I had some money in my right pants pocket, just in case. A few blocks before I reached the church, a woman stopped me and asked if I could help her with bus fare. This time I was ready. My gracious Lord had given me a second chance.