This post's publication marks the terminus of my reading the Bible, one of my goals this year and, I suppose, this life1. Now, it should be obvious that reading the Bible, or anything else, is a decision, but this is worth calling out because the general person spends far too little time contemplating the sheer facticity of this notion. Let us spend the tiniest of whiles doing precisely that. Deciding to brush your teeth at 9PM instead of 9:30PM today isn't going to change much—at least ostensibly, for to decide is to set forth a chain of consequences stretching far beyond our visual range—but deciding to read the Bible meant for me, among unnameable other effects, hundreds of hours bent over thousands of pages between last August and December. So, why the bloody hell did I do this?
Maybe let's begin with reasons why I didn't. That always seems easier. I didn't read the Bible to become pious, although that would make, no doubt, for a fascinating story. Unless you're of the type susceptible to that kind of thing, that is unless you haven't yet consumed enough media to reach a certain shall we say saturation point, you'll realize rather quickly that poring over combinations of twenty-six letters and punctuation marks on a succession of pages achieves little more than reconfiguration of existing and storage of new information in your brain's networks of neurons, which is to say that whatever new insights you derive from reading the Bible—or anything, really—are a pure byproduct of neural, thus biological, processes, not some external and metaphysical divine revelation, as much as such rationalizations assuage prone minds. All points I made with sufficient clarity (or so I kid myself to believe) in a prior post, The Nature of Fiction.
Furthermore, I didn't read the Bible to understand religion or the religious. Anyone who purports to do so for this reason is fundamentally misguided, on the order of watching Star Trek to understand rocket science. If why this is the case does not become immediately apparent, you are, I am afraid, beyond salvation. But I am stubborn enough to try anyway: In light of the thousands of other religions that exist, have existed, and will exist, consider, perhaps for the briefest of moments, that generalizing your findings from Bible reading across this enormous diversity of thought and practice would be, to be charitable, ridiculous. For the felines who should still be interested in grand theories of religiosity per se, I recommend Mircea Eliade's poetic thesis, The Sacred and the Profane, and Stewart Guthrie's magnum opus Faces in the Clouds, prosaic but significantly more comprehensive.
Lastly, I did not read the Bible to better arm myself for debates with the faithful, inevitable byproduct of the feat though it may be. While such a reason may have appealed to so-called internet atheists in the late aughts, one of which I, yes, was (at present I have zero desire to associate with identitarian solidarity movements), hate-reading over two thousand pages would indicate more than anything the complete vacancy of character in such a one who undertakes it.
Having traversed the via negativa, we are, I hope, now primed for positivity. Reasons why I did read the Bible (and why you may consider following suit):
To access culture. The Bible, it hardly needs saying, can be thought of as the skeleton key to Western Civilization. Centuries of art and literature more or less rely on its tropes and tales for their existence; still are its echoes within the corners of our psyches felt and forever will they be. To recall another trusty metaphor, reading the holy book is like putting on a pair of corrective glasses; one who values clear sight, as it were, would then do well to spend some quality time with the tome.
To build empathy. Should one don as moral imperative the impulse to connect with other members of our species, and should one grant the notion that it's easier to connect with churchgoers of any denomination having read the Bible than not, what follows—and correct me if I err—is that reading the Bible would be, as the dudes in California are so fond of saying, like, totally righteous, man. Synagogue, Sunday sermons, and Bible study groups are but few among many social activities whose doors open just that much wider for those who've heard the Word.
Finally, it cannot be denied that I also read the Bible so I could say I've read the Bible. If this impetus should seem like a self-serving form of signaling, perhaps consider, my dear reader, that that's because it is? Conceding this is nevertheless important for two reasons. It firstly highlights that, given we each have our own inescapable biases and prejudices, it's more honest to exit the proverbial closet than to shove them under the bed. Secondly, to show how the more reasons you have for doing something (however morally justified others perceive these to be) the more likely you are to follow through and the more fulfilled you're likely to feel both in process and upon completion. And last, at least in this case, is very much least, for while I do care about bragging rights, they are inessential to the project. I find it hard to imagine anyone of sanity plowing through two thousand two hundred pages, two columns of size-10 text per, just so they could say they've done it. This isn't Jackass.
You may also be wondering why I titled this post My Bible instead of The Bible or something idiosyncratic as per usual. It is a matter of interpretation; for each reader, the text—barring printing errors—is the same black ink on the same white paper, but the imprint it forms against the background of his personal hermeneutic structures must be unique. What you bring to the text changes how the text influences you; what you bring to the text is yours and only yours; text can never influence two people the same way. Thus it is in this sense my Bible and no one else's.
Of course this is no scientific study, but once again I must fend off those who insist on restricting terminology to its "proper domain" when they have no conception whatever of the limits of language and discourse or the political nature of their baseless pith; my disdain for such incorrigible sticks knows no ceiling. That being said, one does not simply read "The Bible" because—put bluntly—there is no such thing. One always chooses an example of "The Bible" to read, a text with sufficient family resemblance to what is commonly held to correspond with the words "The Bible" that it may for practical purposes be described as such. A certain selection of readers will presently question why I feel such qualification is necessary, and I will gladly accept their invitation to voyage through the territory of opinion: Those who do not from the very core of the marrow of their bones hold with a conviction beyond convictions the irrevocable truth of Wittgenstein's immortal dicta are not qualified to read the Bible, or for that matter anything else, damned as they are to fumble around in the dark so long as they remain unwilling or unable to open their eyes and see the nature of what is for what it is.
That being said, I did, as do all who try, have to choose a Bible to read. How did this process unfold? Well, fan of poetic lyricism as I am, my first instinct was to turn to the version commissioned by King James at the onset of the seventeenth, known for, you guessed it, its poetry and lyricism. My first instinct was also, as you can tell, quashed; I decided after much research to deshelve the infinitely more excruciating New Revised Standard Version. Published 1989, the NRSV incorporates scholarship from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other 20th century archaeological discoveries missing from prior versions, and in light of this information, two wills clashed in my head till one was defeated, the outcome of which was my deciding to value GETTING WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT over PRETTY LITTLE WORDS. In about the space of time it takes a thought to pass, ye erudite will here remind me that there's no such thing as "getting what it's all about," but, erudite as you are, you can surely predict and acknowledge my retort without my having to make it. The matter is settled.
Of course it wouldn't be nearly as fun if there weren't also numerous editions of the NRSV to choose from now would it? I'll keep this short, I picked the New Oxford Annotated Bible With Apocrypha because if I'm going to understand anything this ancient then I'm going to need commentary, and if I'm going to need commentary then I'm going to get it from people who've been studying the topic their entire lives, and if I'm going to get commentary from theologians then I'm going to get it from the best theologians in the world, and where else would the best theologians in the world be except the oldest divinity school in the world, Oxford. And I needed the Apocrypha so I wouldn't suffer from that most miserable of maladies, FOMO.
The buck, however, does not stop there. The book, now in hand and ready for consumption, asks of the reader at this final stage a final question: "How should I be read?" Here as before, there are no correct answers, but an answer must nevertheless be received. Do I adopt a "middle-out" strategy, where I flip to the center, page 1193, then read 1192, then 1194, 1191; 1195, 1190; 1196, 1189? As surely as the sun rises, this would eventually result in my having read every page, but I decided against this M.O. for no other reason than the sheer strain it would put on my arms to so constantly flip back and forth. The reason I hate eating at restaurants like Joe's Crab Shack which steam large buckets of crustaceans and mollusks for patrons to crack and pry open themselves is that the effort required by these activities burns more calories than are gained from the actual consumption of the food, not to mention the absolute mess caused by the dribbling juices and broken shells and flying pieces of chitin. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, you see, was to sell this experience to customers as if it were some privilege to be enjoyed. Hello Tom.
Having said no to the otherwise enticing middle-out method due to its draconian physical exertion, I was forced to deliberate further. Flipping through from page 1 all the way to page 2386, while certainly viable, was far too classic for my taste, too cliché. Being, after all, the holy book, thus distinguished from all other books (non-holy by definition), the Bible deserved a treatment that matched its hallowed status. So I started with the glossary. Think about it like this. You could, in some weird-but-not-incorrect sense, say you've "read" a quantum mechanics textbook by verbalizing each individual letter, symbol, number, and punctuation mark it contains, but such a strategy would be, frankly, suicidal. You'd hardly have claim to anything remotely resembling "knowledge" after completing the task (I certainly wouldn't believe you in any case). Thus to read the Bible sans at least a cursory gloss of ecclesiastical vocabulary would be, birds of a feather, a total kamikaze.
Death prevented, clinging to life by the barest of threads, incapacitated with blood spurting in all directions and breathing difficult as drawing air through a straw, is still not a good place to be, indeed many would prefer—and I would concur—the longer sleep to such an existence. Having established that quality of life is important, we ought, so to speak, to buckle our seatbelts, latch our helmets, and secure our flotation vests before engaging in high-risk activities such as Bible reading. Luckily, my NRSV came stocked with the requisite proactive protection in the form of contextual essays:
- The Canons of the Bible
- Textual Criticism
- Translation of the Bible into English
- The Hebrew Bible's Interpretation of Itself
- The New Testament Interprets the Jewish Scriptures
- Jewish Interpretation in the Premodern Era
- Christian Interpretation in the Premodern Era
- The Interpretation of the Bible: From the Nineteenth to the Mid-twentieth Centuries
- Contemporary Methods in Biblical Study
- The Geography of the Bible
- The Ancient Near East
- The Persian and Hellenistic Periods
- The Roman Period
Which I read; and having thus donned my safety goggles, zipped my hazmat suit, and secured my rubber, I was at last properly equipped to penetrate the text. Or so you would think, but no.
Because—never forget—reading is a physical activity, every bit as physical as batting or kicking a ball or running down a field with it or throwing it, or throwing it in some insipid circle suspended forty-six centimeters above the ground, or eating it. I have even greater disdain for the veritably asinine "scholars" who disregard, as if it could even in theory weigh less than the world, the, as I like to say, sheer facticity of the ocular musculature required to direct the eyes to-and-fro at such precise angles that light reflected from pigment-stained cellulose pulp is able to produce in addition to a photonic array of visual percepts that ever-so-elusive substance known as meaning.
In light of this fact, I procured a pair of "Lazy Reading Glasses" to further minimize the physical impact of the reading act. Some genius figured that one could read staring straight up while lying in bed by attaching a mirror at a 45° angle to each glass on a pair:
What is more, not only is reading a physical act but this book a physical object, which—according to the conversion tables on page 2262—measures .506 cubits by .094 by .367 and weighs 139 shekels. I also timed how long my right arm could hold it outstretched before getting exhausted: 82 seconds. Not the greatest thing to carry from a biomechanical perspective; my lazy glasses let me lay it flat on a table while I sat upright in the posture my chiropractor tailored for me to stymie and perhaps gradually alleviate my dull and chronic scoliotic back pain. TMI for now, so: en garde.
I will not, as many of you might expect, use this space to begin an extended meditation on the typical muck recommended hermeneutic neophytes (beginnings, creation, the meaning of light and darkness, etc). Instead, please observe this alliterative translation produced by word2vec, a machine learning algorithm. Since you can't be bothered to click (I'm really no better), a sample conveys the idea well enough:
- An advent: ancient archangels architect abstract astronomy and arid asteroids.
- All asteroids are amorphous and absent; And all asleep across aquatic anarchy. And astral angels advanced across area.
- And Almighty asked," Appear." And all appeared aglow.
- And Almighty approved. Aura and absence: an antagonistic arithmetic.
Lives have been wasted, both figuratively and literally, squabbling over the Authoritative Translation or the Definitive Interpretation of Elyon's Logos, but what everyone failed to understand is that communication is by definition translation, and as the Italians say, traddutore, traditore. Not only is it the case that two copies differing by a single letter are not the same text, not only is it the case that two copies differing by no letters whatsoever are not the same text, but, as aforementioned, each reading is always and can only ever be yours (better: "yours"). Thus, incorrect though it for this and other reasons is, the midrash I find most intriguing claims God's semantics supersede whatever syntactic drapery in which for our fallen comprehension it necessarily dresses itself, as under this schema even the word2vec translation may be admitted.
EXT. DESERT - DAY
Sand sails through the air and smacks Moses' weary eyes, his reflexive tears drying mere moments after crawling onto skin as parched and cracked by saline residue as the landscape it appropriately reflects. Ra has parked himself in the center of the sky to radiate blistering heat upon the sons of Jacob and their tattered linen garments. Here they are not welcome, yet here they must be. Clouds of jaundiced dust, unceasing and insistent, choke the lungs of bleating sheep, barking dogs and braying asses, pounded into the atmosphere by hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of their very own hooves and feet. The caravan perspires; and a child's water cry boils blood. For where is God? Nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be heard. "He was here for us in Egypt, and now we are abandoned?" If yet unvoiced, this attitude is clearly felt throughout the congregation, simmering step by sandy step. As memories of more plentiful times fade away, they march on.
I hope that ^ pacifies those of you who dislike how frequently I miss the tress for the forest. And now it's my turn to admonish whoever wrote this book, because the blatantly uninspired character of Pharaoh resembles more a cartoon than a human being; injecting his veins with stubbornness does not, as one might imagine, lead the reader (none with reference standards anyway) to despise him. Flat characters such as Wile E. Coyote do have their place, but I think Biblical authors who ostensibly strove for physical realism would've done better to attempt a minimal degree of psychological realism.
While Leviticus concerns itself with priestly ritual practices, no one who reads this particular book should fail to conclude that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is quite the gastronome. It does after all take a certain kind of individual to say things like:
But among the winged insects that walk on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs above their feet, with which to leap on the ground. Of them you may eat: the locust according to its kind, the bald locust according to its kind, the cricket according to its kind, and the grasshopper according to its kind.
A bug muncher. A chitin-crackin' cricket-cruncher. Insectivore Almighty, Entomophage in Chief. Now when I think Jewish food, I think hummus, falafel, challah, matzah, and matzah balls. I do not think "bald locusts." This is a problem because farming bugs is evidently orders of magnitude more sustainable than farming beef and other meats, which means if the Jews had just propagated the perfectly kosher bug-eating meme, we would not be having a carbon crisis. That said, would I, personally, eat bugs? SHEOLLL NO.2
Terence E. Fretheim prefaced my edition's Book of Numbers with these remarks:
Moreover, several texts border on the bizarre, with talking donkeys, curses from a non-Israelite diviner turned into blessings with messianic implications, the earth swallowing up people, copper snakes with healing powers, an almond-producing rod, an execution for picking up sticks on the sabbath, Miriam turning leprous, and anomalous procedures for discerning a wife's faithlessness.
Regarding the faculty of imagination, we may deduce from this that conceptual cross-pollination is among its primary properties; with just "donkey," "copper," and "talking," we can get "talking donkey," "copper donkey," and "talking copper." Add "healing" to the mix and you can get "a copper donkey that heals by talking." Though we may never discover why Numbers' authors cooked up these particular signs and wonders, two things are clear. Firstly, that they attributed far greater significance to the ideas of "punishment" and "faithfulness" than to "donkey" or "copper"; most of their inventions purposively illustrated the former. Secondly, that they could not imagine what they did not know. Every idea in the phrase "bronze serpent that detoxifies onlookers" existed in their conceptual space, but it is obvious that something like "blockchain" did not. And as to those
nutty neurodivergent individuals who claim they're God or Jesus or some other divine being, there should be no doubt that they couldn't be saying such things had they not previously encountered these ideas in some form. Thus is imagination always bound by history.
Back when Gorillaz was good, the band produced a song called All Alone whose lyrics contain the word Deuteronomy, God knows why, mispronounced, God knows why, and this song was the first thing my mind jumped to as it considered writing this section, God knows why. All Alone sings the phrase "all all alone" twenty-four times in total, with one utterance of "Leviticus, oh, Deuteronomy," skipping the book of Numbers, which I take as an editorial decision worth inquiry; my guess is that the lyric reflects how Deuteronomy basically reprises Levitican ground. But why repeat?
I'm reminded of something Chris Marker said in his film Sans Soleil (whose narration I now realize mimics scribal tradition3):
I wonder how people remember things who don't film, don't photograph, don't tape. How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible.
We repeat to remember. The insight that phenomena etch themselves deeper in memory if they recur than if they happen just once seems to have occurred fairly early on in human history, but help yourself to some experimental validity if that's what it takes to convince you. Here's a study that says rereading an article increases its recall. Here's a study that says repeating a statement boosts how likely it'll be taken as true. Laws as elaborate and important as God's, then, bear repeating. Hence Deuteronomy.
Thoughts on the Pentateuch
In terms of moral efficiency, I remain partial to Greek myths and Aesop's fables, as their sheer fantasy virtually compels readers to parabolic interpretation. However, defenders of the Bible's relative realism (oft a stretch) can argue there's no better way of getting people to fear the Lord than instilling in them the belief that this is your history, that all that stuff Really Happened. This tactic, I must concede, is a brilliant means of enforcing group norms and social control, provided of course that people are susceptible to belief. Having grown up in an environment where "trembling in fear before the Lord" and similar ideas simply did not present in conceptual space, whereas—though we have leagues to sail before we reach the shores of Christianity—they obviously did with the Puritan settlers (and still do with the Amish and Evangelicals), I myself am barred from experiencing such a mental regime. Those who would consider me so lucky should be so lucky as to be yet so far from confronting the altogether more fatal shackles of freedom.
To be sure, I can think of no better comparison to the LORD of the Tanakh than anyone who's ever booted up an instance of The Sims. After the gamer opens the executable file, the code generates the gameworld; let there be light. This initial action is also the most significant, for every action following is performed within and thus wholly contained by the context of said gameworld. After the gamer creates Sims with their own fantasy lives and fantasy jobs and fantasy families, he sits back as his watch, as it were, begins ticking, watching the spectacle unfold, satisfied, satisfied, that is, until he isn't, until he gets bored enough, as he inevitably will, to toss, so to speak, a few more wrenches, so to speak, in the gears, so to speak, such that the cycle—a spiral, really—begins again, and again, each round requiring some influx of novelty because, duh, hedonic treadmill, until one day, oh, that day, the day when he's exhausted all the possibilities of his little gameworld, all the ones to his satisfaction anyway, that day, the day when he double clicks his executable file and discovers, oh, this really isn't so fun anymore, it really isn't, no it really isn't, THAT DAY, the day when he double clicks on the pixelated icon of his little I mean, what kind of game nowadays fits on a hundred twenty-seven megabytes anyway, executable file for the very last time in his little gamer life anyway, adieu.
It is ironic, of course, not surprising, that in extending the analogical scope one finds an even further adequacy. How fitting that Will Wright, creator of The Sims, should be an atheist, apparently deciding the whole religion thing was a wash upon contact with one Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Yet atheism, make no mistake, is as identity extant only in negation against the backdrop of theism, and thus represents not an escape from but an entrapment within the dialect of theology. As we have shown beyond the ghost of a shadow's doubt, nowhere is this more apparent than Wright's consignment to the imitatio.
Aside: With regards to the slice of my audience who insists on filtering me through frivolous trivia so as to reduce my form to one they deem palatable, I will state (and this hardly needs belaboring) that no, the relatively object status of the female gender in Jacob's abjectly patriarchal society did not escape me. And while we walk along this brief foray, let it be aired that I would for various reasons prefer, to be maximally euphemistic, the practice of circumcision be sunsetted.
"Josh" for whatever reason happens to be a common name among my friends. Too common. So from this point onwards, I'm going to call them by their synonyms "Conqueror of Canaan," "Vassal of Moses," "Arsonist of Ai," "Hangman of Adoni-zedek King of Jerusalem," "Son of Nun son of Elishama son of Ammihud son of Ladan son of Tahan son of Telah son of Resheph son of Rephah son of Beriah son of Ephraim son of Joseph son of Jacob son of Isaac son of Abraham," and if they're too thick to get it, so much the worse for them.
And the land had rest from war.
Surprised I would not be if there were within the marbled halls of some university literature department a frustrated graduate student who, upon reading this line, had the moment that would forever change the course of his life, the moment he was hit with the idea for his dissertation: geographical personification in the Bible. Moreover, it seems like I expend gratuitous amounts of consciousness ensuring I don't fall into similar "holes," specimens of which include the hole of cigarette addiction, the hole of obsessively taxonomizing bread clips, and, in a terrible twist of irony, the hole, of course, of avoiding holes. What this indicates about my character shall remain the domain of more assiduous psychoanalysts because I'm sure as hell not putting myself though the emotional labor (see, there it is again).
Judges doesn't think much of us.
The people worshiped the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel.
...They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD; they did not follow their example.
Insofar as something like human nature can be said to exist, Bible writers certainly did not, to put it mildly, hold it in much respect. One would suppose that strict obedience of the Lord's many commandments would guarantee future success; entailed is the proper edification of youth and children, who, raised properly, would not fail to worship as faithfully as their forefathers. But apparently this conclusion does not obtain; what rather does is that some extrinsic factor is responsible for their misbehavior. In other words, a design flaw. What, then, does this say about the designer? Either that he is flawed, or, if we accept as axiom that he is not, that this "flaw" was in fact intended; damned we are to veer off la diritta via, and if, furthermore, we accept that God formed us in his image, then so, too, is he. A jealous God with his jealous subjects, who suffer his wrath again and again for what they cannot help but be. And all this is supposed to be perfect?
What, oh what, does it mean to be Good? Four short chapters reveal Ruth's author's answer:
- Obey the Torah
- Work hard, don't rest
- Keep your head down
- Give birth so your barren Israeli mother-in-law can save her family name from being extinguished by legally claiming your son as her own
Hmm. If only things were still so simple.
Buying a digital projector is a frustration not to be wished on one's worst enemies. To give you an idea of what's involved, not only must you pick from dozens of brands—reviews effusing positivity from consumers who refuse to believe they made anything other than the correct choice—but you have to decide where to place the beast once (preferably before) it arrives; this involves reams of arduous measurements and calculations. Mounting it on the ceiling might mean hiring an electrician to punch a hole and make a mess just so he could spend the entire day rewiring the domicile, only to discover there's no way to hook it up without sacrificing some essential system, like, oh, I dunno, the water heater? Plunking it anywhere else would mean no less than changing the nature of the room from "living space" to "wire hell." Now as one with no patience for such nonsense, I would, were I to procure such a device, slam the thing directly on the ground. At least then the entertainment would be guaranteed. However, if we assume that by some miracle—in the most literal sense I could possibly emphasize—a working projector found itself mounted on my ceiling, I would then need to purchase a screen of the right size and material for optimal viewing. Another process.
Still, some screens are good enough for most, metaphorically seen in fictional characters with broad resonance. You know how it goes; diminutive David takes aim at the giant of Gath and fells the fortress with a single stone. Who in the course of their lives has not experienced the sensation of being the underdog? Few; thus David—as proxy for the archetype—resembles a universal screen, suitably reflecting a wide band of wavelengths (personal pasts). A cheer for David is a cheer for our vicarious selves. But what, pray tell, is his tale teaching? The underdog wins because:
- He's clever.
- Be clever. Brains over brawn. If you can't win a battle head on, devise an alternative tactic.
- God's on his side.
- Losing with the Divine Warrior's blessing (as far as the Tanakh is concerned) would be a logical contradiction. So obey the law. God likes people who obey his law. Obey.
- The author(s) wanted him to.
Perhaps one finds it ironic that the book of Second Samuel should no Samuel contain—not once is the deceased prophet mentioned—and that David, its narrative's major player, gets no eponymous volume. But in another sense, what is David but the product of Samuel? By blood no son and father, but de facto there's a case, for Biblical logic permits—often demands—attribution of creation's acts to creator. We readers may do well to remember our own contingency, lest we begin proclaiming our accomplishments as more our own than those of the hidden giants on whose shoulders we so to speak stand.
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.
Torah law and the juridical power of the king are by now given rules bounding the holy book's narratology; I commend Second Samuel's writers for activating them with due brilliance in David's self-condemnatory episodes. For those who don't remember: David receives a set of messengers who bring him legal cases to judge; David makes his call; the messengers reveal the cases were allegories for David's own conduct; realizing with horror, David repents before the divine. Now what you may not understand is that a particularly boneheaded group of my friends would, were they to step in David's shoes, have rejected the messengers' tactics of transferring guilt via allegory and condemned them to death for attempting such blasphemy. But technically, it is true there's no connection between the allegorical characters and David's own; pointing this out would've resulted in said boneheads getting paddled in Sunday school, which would, of course, have inevitably reified their literalist tendencies, which means that I, today, have to listen to them insist—among other things, to give you a taste—that Chekov's, erm, rule really applies only to the specific type of gun known as a rifle, only when said rifle is hanging on a wall, and only in the second or third chapter of a story. Their logical capacity comes at the cost of their analogical capacity, you see, and for it, you see, they are all the poorer. Yet I love 'em anyway because that's just the sort of person I am. You see.
A final observation before we move on: David is the prototypical mafia don. I was going to hack together another spiel to demonstrate, but you know, I have enough faith you can draw the lines yourself. Don't disappoint, otherwise you'll just be a reader: no longer dear, no longer my.
An airplane. Two strangers: seat neighbors. One to the other, "So what do you do?" "I'm a philosopher." "Is that so? What are some of your sayings?"
Hardy har h-screw it, I'll bite; there's no wisdom in itself, it's particular to the individual, needs a context, is earned not learned, blahblah.
But whatever wisdom Solomon received from God, it certainly wasn't the real McCoy. When he tests the two prostitutes about who's the rightful mother of an infant son, it isn't necessary for either to have responded as they did—just convenient. Capable authors sculpt each event such that it feels inevitable; that Solomon's tactic would've failed if the non-mother had simply repeated after the real mother arises as an obvious possibility disqualifies, in my mind, opinions that this scene was skillfully crafted. Yet because motivated quibblers can figure out a contingency for every moment, even within tighter narrative bounds, perhaps one last pearl is in order (sue me), sometimes it's prudent to decline the sausage factory tour so you can continue believing in Santa Claus.
Set in the heart of the Colombian rainforest, One Hundred Years of Solitude recounts the history of a fictional village and the lineage of its founding family. It is the exemplar of magic realism: a literary genre that sprinkles a pinch of sugar on our mundane reality instead of drowning it in the corn syrup pools characteristic of its gluttonous cousin high fantasy. I find nothing objectionable about filling in the gaps between the facts of history with known contrivances, often a wonderful way to capture the spirit of an era. But the thing with magic realism is that it verges on the real, and if one has not the sense to tell the difference, then real it may as well be.
The jungle, it is said, is a womb. Swirling around in humid fog, crawling under tangled thickets, slithering through the vines, creeping beneath the peat and moss, swimming with fishes along tributaries and oozing densely out from foliage is: pure possibility. Those who inhabit this natural region become part of the living metamorphosis, subject to the ebbs of chaos. Is the desert so different. An invisible aura rises from the heat of the sands, distorting the vision of all who cross them. Amidst the dunes, before the horizon where land meets cloudless sky, sun-drunk humans hallucinate impossible things: wandering spirits, burning bushes, distant laughter from sunken kingdoms. Left to its own devices, the mind begins to enter an unknown space where it can be sure no longer whether it continues to walk with those still living or has been milling about all the while in the valley of the dead.
Nameless Israelites vanish in an instant, punished for the sins of their ruler—perhaps this isn't as fanciful as it seems. We know that the Assyrian king Sennacherib conducted many successful military campaigns during his reign in the 7th century BCE, that his life was concurrent with that of King Hezekiah of Judah, and that he besieged Jerusalem in 701. Second Kings has this to say regarding the event:
"Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David."
That very night the angel of the LORD set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies.
What actually transpired during this known history? Judah was surely a vassal of the Assyrians at the time, so even if the numbers in verse were exaggerated they were very likely still great enough to intimidate and overpower. Archaeologists have had no luck finding evidence of how the assault proceeded; the Assyrian records are silent. So why not allow for a little magic, I say, and propose that perhaps, once upon a time, God was indeed more divine warrior than absent watchmaker.
Drool trickles from the corner of his mouth onto the pages in which he is supposed to be taking notes. Slight snickering wafts just audibly enough to reach the corner of the class without alerting the teacher. He's dozing off. But none of them can see the pictures passing through his head. If they could—how they would laugh. Why, our beloved schoolboy is dreaming of being a king! Legions of vassals and tracts of land, the finest wines and concubines, thousands of soldiers at his command, viziers and jesters and pages at hand. Augustus, Caligula, Trajan, Nero. Cyrus, Genghis Khan, Alexander on his Bucephalus. Napoleon, Louis Quatorze... Oh, but what schoolboy has not dreamed of those supernal heights—what man?
Hear, hear; he knows not for what he wishes, for atop the throne sits the king, alone. Isolated from the rest of humanity, that is, as there is no one with whom he may share his mind in earnest, what with its being rooted in a set of lived experiences reserved for those in his particular position. A country must be run; an empire. What could his subjects know about his heavy responsibilities? Only he and God can appreciate the true impact of his judgments. The pomp and circumstance? A game to keep up appearances. And they must be kept—what freedom—for in the shadows of his castle, in the taverns of satellite lands, rogues and scoundrelly traitors scour for chinks in his political apparatus, plotting against him (sometimes each other) brewing plans for sabotage, treason, assassination. Advisers and court nobles: foxes with evil on their minds, snakes, with poison in their hearts. And then, bound he is by the chains of signification endemic to the office, sentenced to the knowledge he will never live among his people as one of them, burned by this and like desires which can never be fulfilled.
The long, candlelit table of the royal banquet overflows with the finest of delicacies, roasted boars, scrumptious pies, leavened bread, artisanal pastries. Mead in golden chalices. Grapes and lemons, salt and pepper. But in that soaring hall of mirrors, amidst the bacchanalia and din, whispers form a string. And from that string so whisper-thin that dangles from the ceiling, above the royal seat and lavish decoration, there swings attached a sword of silver steel. And delicious though the food may be, the king tastes naught but fear, for he knows so very well that when this string decides to snap, there is no question who is cleaved. And snap it has, and will, and does. And as the blade yet slices sinew, voices cheer and goblets clink, filled now with the blood for which they thirsted, consumed now with relish by subjects once-loyal. The finest of delicacies.
Every time the story's told the fish's size increases.
We repeat to remember, as you remember. But what is it, to remember? Summary entails reduction, it's true, but the good kind merely compresses where the bad kind also alterates. In his recounting of history, the Chronicler redacts several important episodes; what this affects is non-negligible:
- In chapter 11, David is anointed king by all of Israel—a unanimous body—immediately after Saul's death. This elides the events of 2 Samuel, in which Saul's cousin Abner, commander of Saul's army, anoints Saul's son Ishbaal king of Israel and wages a long, unsuccessful war against David and Judah. By pretending like none of this happened, Chronicles casts David in a far more generous light.
- Chapter 13, which concerns itself with the retrieval of God's ark, simply assumes its location at Kiriath-jearim without any explanation of how it got there. In 1 Samuel we learn of its capture by the Philistines after their defeat of Israel and subsequent voyage through Ashdod, Gath, Ekron, and Beth-shemesh before reaching Kiriath-jearim. This revisionism redirects blame to Saul for neglecting ark worship (thus its location) instead of correctly attributing it to historical circumstance. "But what is 'correct,'" you ask.
- Less glaringly, Saul's daughter Michal is allocated a single verse here where she gets eight in 2 Samuel 6; ignored are her jeering at David's celebration and her dying childless.
There is no end to such examples, and one may remark on the tedium of such exercises, but such is the work of the caretakers of history. Understand how the above is framed by the text of the Tanakh: Samuel is taken as ground, Chronicles as its abstraction; it does not stand by itself. And what, might you suppose, would be the ground of Samuel? Surely you're not so naive as to respond with "What Actually Happened"™?
Try as you may to recall that day, your memory's all in pieces.
Old news by now, I'm sure, but the act of remembering is an act of reconstruction; it's not the same thing as retrieving data stored on a hard drive, which, correct me if I'm wrong, are mathematically guaranteed to preserve their configurations in the face of entropy. Heraclitus strikes again.
A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.
The Chronicler, for all his misgivings, does not only subtract; he also adds. His second volume fills in gaps left by Kings, such as Elijah's letter denouncing Jehoram's apostasy. Asa's reign gets three chapters where First Kings grants it one. New material is devoted to Hezekiah's religious reforms; less to Sennacherib's invasion. And although there is a near-total neglect of Israel, the Chronicler's focus on Judah complements the records of the Deuteronomistic Historian. Thus, insofar as the additional details are true—which we do well to assume in "lower criticism" (especially given lack of contradictory verses)—this means we get a fuller picture of events.
One wonders how long the motif of sin and redemption will continue, with individuals and nations alike punished in accordance with their severity and length of transgression. But as we near the end of the so-called Historical books, the tone has shifted back to the sort of optimistic piety found in earlier books like Joshua, when the original settlers behaved righteously and were rewarded for it. In Ezra, the fear of God is palpable.
If I had to put my finger on the difference between the first-generation descendants of the Egyptian exiles and the returnees from the Babylonian exile, it would be that the former obeyed God's instructions on a more individual basis, following Torah because they were told to, where the latter does (or seeks to do) so from a stronger mutual understanding as a community, following Torah because, from collective experience, they know to. It does feel as if Judah grew wiser.
Growth; Sarai into Sarah, Abram into Abraham, Jacob into Israel. And now the Jews into the People of the Book, with—thanks to scribe-priest Ezra—the Torah codified and worshipped as the central lever for communal ethics. His ban on intermarriage (which some today would call racist) further solidified in-group bonds. Nevertheless, it should be intuitive that maintaining ethnic homogeneity entails preserving cultural traditions, behavioral standards, and a common sense of solidarity from, shall we say (and for better or worse), the corrosive effects of memetic influence.
In a stunning bout of generosity from a Christian named Origen—homonymous with origin—famed for chopping off his own weenie in a frenzy of religious devotion to a verse in the book of Matthew, 19:12 to be exact, to be reviewed much later (and really more parents ought to name their kids Origen), what was originally for the Hebrews a standalone book, Ezra-Nehemiah, was bisected, just as the eunuch bisected his member from his body, into the respective books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which stand now and for all time, presumably, for all denominations of the Christian faith, as separate entities, thereby elevating their protagonists, relatively minor figures if I do say so myself, to the same ontological plane shared by the valiant heroes whose eponymous tomes were rightfully deserved.
Just as there was no news whatsoever on the 18th of April, 1930, I found no content of interest in the book of Nehemiah. "But tasting wine for poison! Nehemiah's plea to Artaxerxes! The reconstruction of Jerusalem's walls! The literal and figurative burden of taxation! Thwarting assassination plots from Sanballat and Tobiah!" You object. As I said before and will again, no content of interest. Move along, my dears, right along now.
Never actually happened. At least Ruth, for all its questionable veracity, attempts to retcon a story for David's great-grandmother. Esther doesn't even try to present itself as anything other than a fictional parable, so cataloging it with the Historical books is kosher only to the extent that its setting is historical. I guess placing it here was the least disingenuous move given the organizational scheme. So fine.
But where is God? Unmentioned. Lurking in the background, maybe, letting his Sims run around developing marginal amounts of agency while he's Away From Keyboard. Esther, Mordecai, Haman, Ahasuerus, and Vashti are all sufficiently robust characters, each with attitudes and motivations compatible with their social roles and none of whom are at any time explicitly compelled by God to act in a certain way, or commanded against pursing their very human interests. For all his biases (which surface in the tale's morals), the author had almost undeniably processed enough Diaspora life that he was able to distill the patterns of his experience into convincing archetypes.
A solid read: 7/10.
On the Historical Books:
Historia, -ae, f.
- inquiry, investigation, learning.
- a) a narrative of past events, history.
b) any kind of narrative: account, tale, story.
The day we stopped wondering why more stars populate the universe than exist sand grains on Earth beaches is the day the music passed away. Unwind the clock to understand how the mystical was once charged with erotic allure. Liminal currents yank us unawares along rivers of destiny, taunting us to look for answers beyond our comprehension to questions we cannot formulate, having us believe that if only we knew, no, if only we could confirm the possibility of knowing what eludes us in the void, then everything would be OK. The searching, reaching, grasping would cease, and everything would be OK—because nothing would be necessary, and everything possible. But the thing with mystery is that it needs to be invented, which means it wasn't there to begin with, which is why hearts shatter when they find out—bodies follow—and why it's rather comic how they can't help but claw towards an abyss, knowledge, miraged as oasis.
I wish I could quit time cold turkey; my supply is long past its expiration date but I don't know how to stop eating the only food I crave. It's, ah, too late, what once was will never be again. For sense to drive every step only to abandon the destination—is there a word for this? Utopia? Something cascade. Not that we need an escape route while our cosmic compass still orients to finality. "What is, is; what isn't, isn't." "New words, new crimes." Galaxies collide and now my time-sense is all wonky.
I want to say: a process is occurring. The process of centering. Unity duality, lack and totality. Metamorphosis—one or two; becoming—one or zero; change. Abstraction, collapse, carving and fusion, itself: warping into, expanding out of, unfolding circularity. Sigh your relief, awash in mythopoeia, or should I say, milk and honey, nectar, ambrosia? Climb the rungs and kick the ladder. The essence of existence is exactly being and being exactly. Midwife of stillborn meaning; dead descriptions of living motion; after image comes reality? Or mere formality. The empty myth is a paradox which will in all likelihood mean nothing. Probably for the better. Want to hear it though? It is simply that there are things whereof we can speak. And so long as you believe in that story, well, enjoy it, cherish it, savor it like the manna from heaven that it is. Because the alternative...
The quandary of theodicy is not reserved for those we colloquially describe as religious, in fact I would argue it afflicts the secular to a much higher degree. Why this is the case is not, as you might imagine, because the irreligious are constitutionally unable to blame things on God, or because they are in lieu of this forced to explain away phenomena they consider ethically unsavory through more complex and mechanistic rationalizations, but because the territory covered by the so-called problem of evil does not magically go away once one decides to reject the premises of its formation or sarcastically mock what one may consider anachronistic terms like "evil" and "God" by framing them with scare quotes. It is very Real, I assure you. And why create art, except to wrestle with the Real?
The Coen brothers make thoughtful films that always somehow fall just one or two marks short of greatness. Here, A Serious Man is nothing else if not a Jobian midrash. Protagonist and physics professor Larry Gopnik has done everything properly and achieved the American Dream™: marriage, house in the suburbs, two kids, stable white collar job. But we see that his wife is divorcing him, his daughter is stealing money, his son Danny is smoking weed, one of his students tries to bribe him for a passing grade, his tenure committee keeps getting anonymous letters denigrating him and advising against granting him tenure... The list of unfortunate events trails on. As a man of lineal causality, Gopnik seeks answers. He goes to synagogue and asks, over the course of the film, WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME to a succession of datiim of ascending hierarchical rank: first a junior rabbi, then the proper rabbi, and finally Marshak, the elder mekubal, who instructs his assistant to say he's busy (much to Gopnik's visible loss of hope).
In Job, of course, God himself incites the plot, taking up Satan's challenge to test the faith of his most loyal subject. God takes from Job all that's precious to him, causing much grief and cognitive dissonance, but in the end repays more than in full what had been lost. There is no such scenario in A Serious Man. In the late '60s Midwestern Jewish suburb where the film is set, there exists (at least outwardly) neither accuser nor Lord of Hosts, but merely, in whom they call Hashem, the idea of one. But it is not the absence of God in the film which is most notable, it is the absence of Job. How can it be that not one rabbi—or layperson for that matter—thought of analogizing Gopnik's situation to him as the Job narrative? I'd find it hard to believe this omission was unintentional.
Near the end, after his Bar Mitzvah, Danny is granted an audience with Marshak. They stare at each other in silence for what feels like minutes. Then, the aged Marshak haltingly trembles: "When... the truth... is found.. to be lies..... and all the hope.. within you... dies..... Then what?" In the Coens' universe, there is no room for God, nor even for Job, only a collection of orderlies forever distanced from an illegible metaphysics. In the final shot, a massive tornado (Job 1:19) rumbles towards Danny's school before we cut to black.
The neo-Borgesian Ted Chiang wrote a short story called Hell Is the Absence of God. Any who read it will figure that Chiang is the type who enjoys playing with beliefs for the hell of it, which makes him, like yours truly, a fucking heathen. The bargain is as Faustian as it gets; for such an ability (read: curse) one pays the price of never being able to believe in anything again. On the fortunate end of things, he is also, like yours truly, Chinese-American. In any case, in the story, heaven, hell, God, and angels not only materially exist but act directly on the world, granting miracles and ravaging sinners. Yet the problem of evil still obtains. Some who do good go to heaven, others to hell. Some who sin go to heaven, others to hell.
Main character Neil Fisk doesn't care where he ends up until he sees his wife ascend to heaven, after which point, incessantly pained by her absence, he decides to try getting into heaven, the main condition of which—which he's lacked and known he's lacked—seems to be loving God unconditionally, and he knows, logically, that such a thing would be for him impossible as a mere exercise of will, but also that everyone struck by a stream of Heaven's light from angelic visitation invariably does begin loving God unconditionally, so he travels to a holy site where such flybys are several standard deviations more likely than average in hopes of being struck by Heaven's light. Which happens (of course it happens, Chiang isn't one for bathos). And Fisk loves God unconditionally. Fisk groks what it means, he feels it from every cell in his body, an infinite gratitude for every second of his life on earth, every pain, every suffering, knowing now the whole thing was but a manifestation of God's love, perfect in every atom of its creation. But when he dies a few minutes later... God sends him to hell anyway.
Chiang may be hinting that given the mysterious logic of apotheosis and damnation, it isn't possible for humans to learn and subsequently fulfill the criteria for admission into either domain. If God—or something like him—does exist, there are no reasons to privilege the Bible and its authors over anything else as the definitive truth aside from the ones they provide themselves, the reflexivity of which should strike you with suspicion. Atheists might just be the ones to go to heaven because, lo, atheism was the right answer all along. Or I could go to hell for blinking my eyes eight times instead of seven right after I got out of bed this morning (every action in my life up until this having been executed in virtuous perfection), or for taking too long to type this sentence, or for having the gall, the simple gall, to exist at all. So why should it necessarily be the case that Job, who followed God's instructions to a T, be restored his former fortunes? Chiang demurs.
Carl Gustaf Jung, known schizo, unsatisfied with the mere text of the Biblical story, decided to write his own Answer to Job. For Jung, who read the tale through a Christian lens, the function of Job was to transform God from an amoral, unconscious thoughtform into a conscious, moral, self-reflective human. Hence, Jesus Christ:
He clearly sees that God is at odds with himself—so totally at odds that he, Job, is quite certain of finding in God a helper and an "advocate" against God.
As we are still, as it were, Before Common Era, the majority of Jung's thesis remains locked to us. Unimportant. Much juicier is the fact that the aged psychoanalyst, 76 at time of writing, had at last gestated long enough to produce this piece of work. Fraught with the full battery of its author's metapsychology, Jung's book is, in my view, best taken as a case study of the man himself. Who was Job to think that he, mortal worm, could question the Almighty? And who was Jung to dare reckon with Scripture? Surely he failed, as do we all, to step outside his own head, to the end a slave to the dialectic he himself had constructed to make existence sensible, especially the parts he called ineffable (remote from the tendrils of rational thought). Did he perchance stop to consider, though, if his entire project had been subsumed from the start by the very rationalism he so criticized?
He must've. But he plowed ahead anyway, at ease with the implications, ate his shadow; if Job was subliminally certain of his appeal finding in Yahweh an audience against Himself, then Jung was subliminally certain of the ethical commitments required by the life process (or at least his own) to sustain itself. Namely, the creation of puzzles to be solved: What is Job really asking? What's the solution? We find in these questions the atomic form from which Jung derived purpose, and from which, if we're so inclined, we may also. As for his theories, well, they must be true for those who don his polarizing filters—"Thar be enantiodromia"; "Now that's what I call synchronicity"—but do they feel good, match your visage, impress the sartorati, etc.
Nevertheless, I have matured enough to recognize the cowardice in hiding behind philosophical truisms to evade the particular existential problems guaranteed by the aesthetic configuration of my lived experience (we'll develop this later if it should seem nonsensical now). Therefore, cherished readers, I will perform my own eisegesis so you may glimpse what sort of individual yours truly presumes himself to be: In Job, the problem of evil is like an onion's outer skin, the meat inside a story of expectation and the core, as expectation is founded on our sense of chance, a commentary on how we incorporate probability.
Every human being acts, from one moment to the next, knowingly or unknowingly, on his sense of probability, on what he expects, in all likelihood, to happen when he takes an action.
Though we can only speculate as to what compelled Job's author to write this volume, let us accept the provisional thesis that he based his theology on empirical observations of communal life. Perhaps he saw many men of steadfast Torah obedience get struck down by what we might call the vicissitudes of fate; Job, first and foremost, expects to be rewarded, or at least not to be punished, for behaving righteously, which is exactly what he should expect (we also expect him to expect this) given his religious background and the rules laid out in previous books. But we see these expectations dashed to the ground. This, then, would have directly challenged his preconceived notions of divine justice: "Reality doesn't work the way I think it does." Holding on to this, consider the idea that art distorts probabilistic fields in proportion to its effectiveness, changes the rules of the game. Jung was right in that a new logic was required to rationalize Jobian theology, which updates, disturbs, and even contradicts past doctrine, and which—if my thesis has any merit—reflected a challenge presented to the author's personal knowledge structure by way of lived experience. Job, then, was formed for the author to rationalize in turn his new evidence and thus return to psychic homeostasis.
At least in part.
To counter, you could point out how the same argument does not apply to Job's interlocutors, who are fine brushing off the poor man with textbook responses. "Oh, he must have sinned privately somehow." "Oh, his punishment is for not having done enough good." Each of these requires no theological updates and could apply equally to pious-but-unlucky community members to explain away their misfortune, indicating the author had enough theory of mind to accurately render such perspectives. So why this need for new logic? I say it comes from a position of empathy. Because who, upon hearing the milquetoast replies of Eliphaz and Zophar, would truly be satisfied to leave it at that? Job's author, a consummate artist, rejects the assumption of sin and asks what if someone had actually done nothing wrong and got screwed over anyway? What could possibly condition such an event? By giving voice to an individual in that position, he opens room to explore.
So: What if Satan decides to bet with God, and what if God happens to take him up on it? The scenes that follow provide an answer, and in so doing, alter reality. In authoring Job, the author also authors God. God, who falls prey to Satan's provocation. God, who spurns his own moral edicts. God, who answer's Job's plea not on its own terms but with fire and bluster. Codified into canon, every word of Job becomes now engraved in collective mythos, eternal, laying new and destroying old tracks along which thought and action may proceed, refactoring ethics, infusing with the gravity of law verifiable redundancy into unified memory and thereby fueling the engine of the train of fate. But, careful. The restoration of Job's glory may invite no further reading than a certain desired optimism against the arbitrary whims of Providence; contingent—and no rule.
So: What if tomorrow a car slams into me? What if North Korea launches a nuclear warhead at Seattle? What if I really will go to hell for drinking exactly 3 liters of water instead of 3.0027 last Thursday? Why do bad things happen to good people? How can evil exist in a just world? There is of course a difference between active malice and tragedies of chance, but if we accept the (somewhat controversial) theory that the entire universe is a collection of probability functions, then both can, in some sense, be reduced to the latter; whether you attribute the Real to probability or to God is up to you. But humor me just momentarily and reflect that in contemporary neuroscience, the brain is widely observed to operate on several increasingly emergent levels of Bayesian statistics. Almost reminds you of... Imago Dei.
Yet the cold force of is rarely satisfies Psyche's hunger, and so we must, like Jung, learn to digest the unceasing effluence of possibility surging from the immanent poetic capacity that is existence. Storytelling, in other words. History is meaningful because precedence is possibility; and it is like so how pasts perceived decide wherein our future paths and lives reside.
I don't think people understand how prayer actually works. "Uh, it doesn't?" Okay, yes, it's obviously true that praying for someone with a debilitating health condition to get better will neither cure nor alleviate said condition; from a scientific perspective, faith healing is a total sham. On the same page yet? Good. Now we're going to talk about the kind that works.
"'Kind'? Prayer doesn't work, period. By definition. If it works, it's something, but prayer is not 'it.'"
If a hell exists...
Put yourself in the shoes of a footballer right before a big match. We're in the locker room. He kisses the cross on his necklace before closing his eyes and clasping his hands. Then, he speaks: "Lord, give me strength this day to emerge victorious. I thank my family, my friends, my coach, and my team for giving me the chance to come this far, praise the Lord. Amen." Shall we make a bet then, an A/B test if you will, tell me do you think he would perform the same if he hadn't prayed? I didn't think so.
"Sure, but we can agree that it's not God who's dictating the terms here. The prayer isn't based on some underlying truth about reality."
Does it matter? Saying it causes him to perform better, does it not? Ah, you don't get it yet. What it feels like. If you don't know, that's too bad because, man, let me tell you, you're missing out. It feels like a crackling ball of energy in your gut, rippling waves of electricity through your body. It feels like fire coursing through your veins, pure energy. Like you can move mountains, crush iron, bend steel. And do you suppose our little sportsman believes, can believe in anything other than the assurance of his victory? Because that, my friends, is how you win.
Whether or not you do, eh, not the point. It's just one example out of many prayers, one effect out of many. Take it a step back and ask yourself, what do you think prayer is? Baseball superstitions. A mantra spoken before a piano performance. Crossed fingers. All these are brothers and sisters in the family of prayer. Hell, even the mere desire for events beyond your control to go a certain way—you know, the only monster too slow to escape Pandora's box. Where there's smoke there's fire; where there's hope there's prayer. And now that you get the gist, next time, you can say it like you mean it.
We find in Proverbs two primary categories of wisdom: wisdom as action, and wisdom as object.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
For the sake of discussion, let's accept a division of fear into instinctual fear and rational fear. A tiger pouncing towards you at mach speed will activate a whole school of neurons in your amygdala; the resulting physiological reactions are beyond your control. Maybe a coiled, hissing snake is a better example, for Biblical (if not biological) reasons; infant Heracles choked Hera's snakes to symbolize his fearless nature. Rational fear, on the other hand, is conditioned on knowledge, and stored as a sort of ambient assumption in the unconscious. It needs not be felt to be practiced, but inasmuch as it is a practice, it may be described as an act, as such requiring a minimal conscious effort to initiate or act out, after which it will have always already (can't mix up your tenses) been the case, or so's the hope. Here it certainly helps to have witnessed some form of God's wrath firsthand because, you know, stories without life breathed into them every once in a while are just... stories.
What about wisdom as ornamentation, adornment?
Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Can someone say sign me up? In several popular role playing games one can invest "stat points" into traits like strength (STR), intelligence (INT), charisma (CHA), and wisdom (WIS) upon leveling up. Taking a cue from Reddit, it would be so great if everyone had a holographic billboard floating above their heads with their stats all the time on display. STR would map to how much you can bench press, INT to score on an IQ test, CHA to your popularity on social media, WIS to, I dunno, how many dead old farts you've read and how readily you can spout off their ideas. Except oops, my i d e o l o g y is showing, unquestioned assumptions positively dripping from every word, and even the thought... Scratch the billboard. My WIS would be low with near certainty. Look, I'll be honest, like so many wannabes, I somehow convinced myself along the way that there was something to be had in those sterile tomes, something that would—oh what a meme—edify my character or something like that, failing to realize all the while just to what fathomless depths they were written so their authors could feel less alone. Truth is,
If Brackett Omensetter had ever had the secret of how to live, he hadn’t known it. Now the difference was—he knew. Everyone at last had managed to tell him, and now like everybody else he was wondering what it was. Like everybody else.
-William Gass (R.I.P.)
As for the proverbs themselves, it suffices to mention that the majority of their conclusions are neither logically necessary nor metaphorically sophisticated, capable of being taken to heart only by the type of audience unable to reverse with rhetoric their semantic implications to see in their opposites equal validity, the type for whom the mountains of anecdotal cases which contradict and thus dispel whatever rule-quality this so-called wisdom pretends to inhere are as but vapor, immaterial, to be dismissed and forgotten, papered over, ignored, because of course when philosophy collides with reality philosophy wins, every time—wishes have to be fulfilled, after all—every time, that is, until reality rams them with the full body of its brutal veritas, until they themselves become the case and realize too late by then of course just how nightmarish it really is to be rationalized instead of humanized. And should you now believe that mere awareness of this tendency is enough to guard against its habit, realize furthermore, my friends, that this second instinct is what dooms you in the first place, the original sin that spins you round and round the carousel of praxis and paralysis. Do you not see that for all Solomon's proverbial wisdom, for all his God-given wisdom, he could not bring himself in the end to fear and worship his eternal Father? It's a feature, not a bug.
O Qohelet, haven't you heard? How fun it is, to chase after wind. It pushes you forward and lifts your spirits. Warm summer breeze, refreshing zephyr. Holds your hands, guides your movements as you skip along the hillside. Breathe, soul. See the leaves dance, watch the grasses wave hello. And should you seek it, so much adventure to be had. Mighty tornado, tearing through a cornfield, raging hurricane in the middle of the ocean. Howling gales of bitter chill, sandblasted currents, the desert's rage. Even these remind you that you are alive, ground for you the simple joy of being safe and sound.
But no, you lusted after something you could catch. Whoever planted that desire in your head? There are no such things, O "Gatherer."
The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.
The simulacrum is true.
A fabrication. No version of Ecclesiastes contains anything of resemblance (note the missing verse and chapter), but Baudrillard wanted to cram his philosophy in a nutshell and this epigraph was his attempt. I wonder why he chose Ecclesiastes, though, and whether it was shocking back in 1981 for an established academic to deliberately forge a quote from a well-known text under no pretense it would slide unnoticed—did he cause anyone to second guess themselves? Or was he prophesying a day when no one would bother (and isn't it a necessary property of prophecies that no one ever heeds them). Marshak, again:
When the truth is found to be lies...
And all the hope within you dies...
Then we play, is what. But the truth hasn't been found to be lies yet, not, at least, by most, which means, for all pragmatic purposes, it has yet to be found; this is not a koan, this is a fact. Clinging onto lies as if they were truth, however, is incredibly en vogue maintenant (and I'm not talking about whatever outgroup your finger just pointed at). Hurry up! I want to play.
Song of Solomon
Commencing shortly will be the first session in our unprecedented class on how to compose erotica. Today we'll be covering the relative powers of simile and metaphor. Before we start, you may treat this sentence either as an amuse-bouche or a small break to butter yourselves up in the lavatorial chambers. Swell. Now that we're ready, observe the following:
Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.
Here we find the writer comparing the mammary organs of his beloved to two young animals in a beautiful pastoral setting. This simile bridges several qualities between its artefacts of comparison, namely their youth and rarity, with the aim of indirectly flattering the subject of its reception, whom we may assume is believed by the writer to share the same associations. One must always apply the utmost care in selecting that which is to be likened to, for one can never know exactly what one's readers will imagine on contemplating the comparison. In the example above, a past student of our class by the name of Brünnhilde once saw a fawn in a parking lot, next to her car, urinating, on her car, and we should, remembering how traumatic such experiences can be, refrain from using the example above so as to not offend potential Brünnhildes.
Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices—a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.
Here we find the beloved's birth canal being compared, but moreso equated, with a veritable cornucopia of sights, tastes, and scents. If this is your first time taking our class, note that although metaphors are used to emphasize an even stronger bond between the artefacts of relation, they are not literally true. We have curated this example for you simply because of its unique refinement, as you'll see how its every association finds a nearly one-to-one match between the equated artefacts. How accurate it is to point out that the tunnel of love is, indeed, something to be witnessed, savored, and smelled! Moreover, we should remember that to God, blood is the liquid of life, and that, periodically, the sanguine juices are indeed discharged from the uterine cavity, all of which is to say that the writer spent a not inconsiderable quantity of thought selecting the phrase "well of living water." Finally, as the cherry-red flow is far from the only fluid produced by this loveliest of openings, the writer aptly finishes his consummate metaphorical artwork with "flowing streams from Lebanon."
Now all of you my students have, no doubt, your own reasons for participating in my course, but in the spirit of introduction I will reveal why I should be teaching it, and that is for no other reason than to find a beloved of my own on whom I may practice my poetry, so if any of you ravishing naiads would be interested in having your own song of songs produced by a master as myself, please presently raise your hands and we will arrange some time to rendezvous.
On the Poetical and Wisdom Books:
It's getting late. While we were summering at the Pyrenees it began to dawn on me, and I hope to you as well, that the sparks normally saturating the air had dissipated. For months I questioned whether it was you or me. It was you. But why? As per usual I don't expect an answer, but it should by now be plainly transparent what we have become: merely the sum of our parts, and no greater. Thus I fear it may be prudent for us to spend some time apart.
The realization was not easy, perhaps because nearly all my companions agreed that you were the fairest; of this they reminded me constantly. How could I disagree? The way you walk, it's as if every step left an imprint of your neverending self-assurance. You know this, of course, which is why you do it, and why, even now, I know you're taking pleasure in my explication, which is why I waited so long to say it. The sweetest rose has the sharpest thorns. Was that one of yours?
I forget. I can't even keep count anymore. But know I won't forget the time we spent together, as if I could forget the time you threw those sweet potato fries in my face because you didn't like the sauce on the burger I ordered you at your behest. Sweet potato, bitter you. I will not forget the time you gave me the wrong hour for my play at the theater. I went, as you know, to hear not the musical numbers I'd paid to see but a steadfast refusal from the attendant to let me in. In exchange for my heartfelt pleading (my seat cost me limbs), she lectured me sternly how nobody is let in after the show begins, "It's the policy," and how I should really arrive on time next time, "I'm sorry but you're out of luck tonight." When I got back home, you had a laughing fit; you knew. You goddamn sadist, and stupid me simply couldn't bring myself to admit it until now. In particular I will never forget the time you pushed me off the horse on the merry-go-round. As you'll remember, I scraped my knee on the pavement rather badly and we had to go to the medical unit to get it gauzed up. That hurt.
But it didn't hurt quite as much, and this I promise you, as what you said afterwards, "If you don't know pain, how can you know pleasure?" I suppose rubbing salt in wounds is one of your great pleasures. But that's all part of the past now, because you are now part of my past, get it? How could I kid myself. One day, when my hairs are gray and my beard is long, and when you'll still, I'm sure, be full of your usual mischief and mirth, may we meet again, not as partners, nor as friends, but on the battlefield. There at last we shall be equals.
There's a well-known experiment in decision theory, Tversky & Shafir 1992a, in which students were asked to consider a hypothetical scenario:
- You've just taken a final exam.
- There's a super discounted Christmas vacation package you can buy, expiring tomorrow.
- You won't know whether you passed or failed until two days later.
- Buy the package.
- Don't buy the package.
- Pay $5 to extend the savings price for two more days, until you get your results.
What would you do? Out of 66 students, 32% chose 1; 7% 2; 61% 3; most wanted to know their scores first. A second experiment was done, this time with two separate groups of students, 67 in each. Same choices, different conditions: The first group was told they'd passed, the second they'd failed. Surprisingly, more than half of each group chose to straight up buy the package. Now, if simply knowing the exam results—regardless whether they're good or bad—is enough to boost this purchase decision, why would anyone pay the five bucks given that they'd get their grade eventually anyways? Wait, but that's what I would do... Irrational me.
How about we shake things up a bit. The scenario I'm about to present doesn't exactly correspond with the above, but the core aspect bears enough structural similarity that the idiom is still appropriate. The stakes this round are your afterlives. Imagine, firstly, if you know you're going to heaven. You'd be pretty happy about that, right? Heaven's a good place to be. Now imagine, different scenario, if you heard a prophet howling this in the town square:
Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the LORD, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!
Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and stretched out his hand against them and struck them; the mountains quaked, and their corpses were like refuse in the streets. For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still.
The people did not turn to him who struck them, or seek the LORD of hosts... That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people, or compassion on their orphans and widows; for everyone was godless and an evildoer, and every mouth spoke folly.
Boy it must've sucked to live in Isaiah's time. Damned to pay an individual price for collective guilt and there's nothing you can do about it. God will crush you like grapes in a wine press and the streets will run as rivers with your blood. On the other hand, is there not a certain lightness to be had in knowing one's fate? If only we could find our book in the Library of Babel and read what is written therein, then, rock or whirlpool, we could at least and last breathe free having obtained that invaluable reflection hitherto sealed in the mirror of desire, certainty.
The Chosen One typically goes on a Hero's Journey, but for poor Jeremiah, his Chooser just makes him do a bunch of humiliating tasks like the sadist He is. He makes Jeremiah buy some underwear, wear it, then hide it between some rocks (yuck). He has him smash a pot in the middle of a road (ahem, I believe that's called littering). He forbids him from having a wife or children. He has him publicly berate his fellow citizens as unrepentant sinners, thus destroying his social reputation. He has him wear a wooden yoke like an ox (or a prisoner headed to the chopping block). He has him physically battered and put into prison. He has him toss a scroll into the Euphrates (more littering).
Jeremiah's reward for all this is that he gets to keep his life. Some Wise Men will chime in here: "And that's more than enough." Is it though? If your answer is yes, may God bless your soul.
Asks the poet, "What was it like for my people to have lived under siege?" A miasma of abject despair permeates this appropriately titled work, in which with skill and style are rendered real the agonies of famine, drought, rape, and pillage. But he reserves the most painful thought for last:
But you, O LORD, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations. Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.
The absence of God makes Jerusalem itself a Sheol.
Jesus Christ. Ezekiel is batshit crazy. I don't think you heard me there, so let's try that again. BAT. SHIT. CRAY. ZEE. I love it. If Aldous Huxley had even one iota of whatever whoever wrote this was on, The Doors of Perception would've read more like the psychedelic phenomena it tried to convey than watching paint dry or Twinkies rot or honey spoil. It was worth slogging through the minutiae of priestly garments in Leviticus and suffering the boundless genealogies in Chronicles to reach this miraculous explosion of oneiric chaos.
...which lasts but for a few chapters.
As the narrative progresses, the prose becomes progressively more dull, until, what do you know, we're back at describing with microscopic precision the dimensions of the temple walls and the holy altar and the altar hearth, which type and what quantity of such and such animals are to be sacrificed when, and how—et cetera—for nine grueling
chapters eons, ending with what else than a recapitulation of the twelve tribes and an inch-by-inch account of their territorial allocation—the irony being particularly thick because I wrote that first paragraph before I'd read the whole thing. Readers, tell me, did I or did I not jinx myself?
NEBUCHADNEZZAR: What does my dream mean?
DANIEL: Oh Nebbie, that decidedly Modernist sculpture your unconscious bubbled up reflects a predominance of superego. I advise you to let loose a little, have some fun, and maybe next time its whole body will be gold, not just the head.
NEBUCHADNEZZAR: I had another. Tell me what it means.
DANIEL: Ah, an instant classic. The tree growing higher and stronger represents nothing else than the Phallus, and all the birds and animals feasting on its fruits represent of course your harem, who delight and take pleasure in its beauty. But the part where it gets chopped down, well, in my circles this is known as castration. Now your father is no longer alive so you have nothing to worry about there, but your Father is very much alive and it looks like he really has it out for you, which is why He had you dream this. God is coming for you, boy.
BELSHAZZAR: I saw a floating hand writing on the wall today. What does it mean?
DANIEL: Bella dear, I'm afraid it means exactly that. The writing's on the wall for you; your Thanatos is quite strong. In other words, the grim reaper has set his sniper sights on your skull. No, there's no way to stop him, I'm afraid, you know the house always wins. I advise you to get your affairs in order because you're going to pass quite soon, 'dbe a right shame, really, if your kids lost their inheritance because you forgot to write your will...
Of the many women portrayed in the Bible thus far, Hosea's wife Gomer has the ugliest sounding name. There should've been an Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Name Thy Daughter Gomer. It rhymes with gopher. It also rhymes with Homer. Not the Greek Homer mind you, that poet of true legend who could be said with good reason to have brought the flame of consciousness from the heavens to the unfired mind of man, but the donut-stuffed slob of an American dad in The Simpsons. One can only surmise her name was given to match in tenor the order of the sin she would commit. For all her crimes, Jezebel at least redeems herself in euphony.
in the valley of decision!
For the day of the LORD is near
in the valley of decision.
The vale of decision, slowly flooding with regret,
it is mine.
Responsibility is mine.
Regretter fettered by Better.
Out of reach.
Do; do not; prefer—not to. Have to.
Exclude everything else to favor.
Lucky choice fruit, plucked from decision tree.
Infinity? An O and R.
a d a r.
Tap tap, still-life
me the optimum solution—to what.
correspondence theory of illusion says
Context decoheres into the aether
now you see it now
Anyone who doubts that Amos is none other than my main man Bernie Sanders needs to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror and thoroughly reevaluate the chain of life events that led up to this horrendous misjudgment of face-staring fact. Are you one of them? Then I wrote this section especially for you, because it's time to get a clue!
The young prophet in action:
Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel.
Inveighing against the avaricious:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat."
Getting expelled from Bethel:
And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
If this plain evidence is not enough to convince you that Amos is Bernie Sanders, then you
, my friend, are not WELCOME. HERE. Scramalam!
The "book" of Obadiah consists of one solitary chapter barely longer than a page. So what is a book, exactly? Beating horse corpses may not be a sin in the Bible, but it is in mine, but nevertheless because, as you well know, those who moralize are never themselves far from hypocrisy, myself least of all, I will spare you the search and commit right now the crime. So indulge me with a...
Thought experiment: Two people, Jim and Joe, are in a room. Jim says books are spine-bound collections of pages. Joe says books are large marine mammals. Who is right?
"Jim," you say, "Because the dictionary says so." But what guarantees the dictionary as the criterion of right? "Okay," you say, annoyed, "Because nobody would point to a whale and call it a book." Well, Joe would, apparently. And what guarantees colloquial use as the criterion of right? "Does it matter? Who cares? That's just how it is." Note: Insisting on the necessity of some arbitrating entity, be it social convention, dictionary definition, or coin flip to settle epistemic questions is, pragmatically speaking, a fantastic way for me to lose friends faster than the speed of bad news. So uh... Jim's right, baby, yeah, that's right folks, it's Jim! Jim's the winner!
Is it just me, or does each successive generation have less and less of a spine? I think this is called degeneration. Hence, degeneracy:
When Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, he makes all the preparations without complaint, binds Isaac, goes up the mountain, and raises his knife. God's angel, nearly aghast at how unflinchingly Abraham followed his orders, yells at him to stop.
Moses, called to lead his people out of Egypt, repeatedly humbles himself before God, who had to reinforce with sign after sign the fact that he was indeed the one chosen. God even gives Moses Aaron as a present because Moses was such a chicken public speaker. Although to be fair, the Exodus was probably the greatest act of any individual human in the Bible, so some of this could be forgiven.
Jonah, in contrast, was asked to speak a few words in a city. Upon hearing this request of truly minute proportions Jonah doesn't even open his mouth to reply, instead deciding, as did so many aggrieved teenagers throughout history, to jump on a ship to try and run away. Imperiling thereby the entire crew, because God was obviously not happy about this and sent all sorts of storms to let him know. As a reward, Jonah gets to have an experience which, to this day, has not been replicated by the entirety of our species, more singular even than moon landings, namely being swallowed up by a giant fish and partying it up in its giant belly for three whole days. Think about this, we can pay thousands of dollars an hour to fly around in a zero-g aircraft but no amount of money can buy living in a huge ass fish for three days (I still think Disney ought to create a ride to at least simulate this experience, Baudrillard be damned). If that wasn't enough, when he finally gets to Nineveh, he says, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" and everyone in the city immediately starts behaving well and proper and even going the extra mile of clothing their animals with sackcloth, a precursor to today's unconscionably bourgeois phenomenon of doggie sweaters and pussy boots, all because of those EIGHT WORDS (keep in mind how Jeremiah memorized chapters upon chapters of jeremiads only to get beat up and tossed in jail). If that wasn't enough, Jonah—the ungrateful, spoiled, snotty piece of work—gets angry that people listened to him, angry at God for not raining hellfire and brimstone on those poor souls, so angry that he threatens to commit suicide, thereby becoming the world's Original Edgy Teen.
There was a kid named Micah in one of my business school classes, and let me tell you, Micah was as smooth as the stone he was named after. Probably still is, people like that don't change. Face like a Moai statue, body built like a boulder, voice like an ice cold beer, Stoic as hell and he wore it like a well-fit suit jacket. Micah just cruised through the class like a rock-solid Toyota through the suburbs with its windows rolled down. Hey Micah, if you're reading this, Amen, man, I see you.
The only Micah I've ever met.
Nahum, Julia M. O'Brien's introduction tells me, derives from the Hebrew word for "comfort." But his book must've been anything but comforting for the Assyrians, whom it spends all three of its chapters savaging. Reading Nahum has shored up for me one crucial difference between the psychology of human beings now and the psychology of human beings before Jesus Christ came into this world. Which is, back then they did not suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. When they had it bad, they knew they had it bad, and they hated it, and they goddamn said they hated it. They said things like:
Draw water for the siege, strengthen your forts; trample the clay, tread the mortar, take hold of the brick mold! There the fire will devour you, the sword will cut you off. It will devour you like the locust.
Multiply yourselves like the locust, multiply like the grasshopper! You increased your merchants more than the stars of the heavens. The locust sheds its skin and flies away.
Such unbridled furor lays itself bare for all to behold, authentic, its affect heartfelt and its effect cathartic. It is a lost art. Because, for all the bilious invective now gushing through our social channels, among all the simmering swamps of outrage to which you and I masochistically subject ourselves, I see only intimations, disgraceful imitations. Affectations. Not genuine affect. Not pathos. Lyotard famously introduced the concept of Postmodernity to describe our contemporary era, characterized by narrative balkanization. This, of course, obtains, but I propose an alternative view: Postmodernity is characterized by an epidemic of Stockholm Syndrome. It is resignation to captivity. When our response to the boot forever stamped on our faces is: "I like this." When our social interactions are boxed into a series of mechanical scripts. When Rage Against The Machine becomes the machine against which it rages.
Urban. Coastal. Millennials.
Hear me, compatriots.
Be not the instrument of your own destruction.
Be like Nahum,
against the dying of the light.
Scholars generally agree that Habakkuk was written near the apogee of the Babylonian Empire, in the late 600s BC. Job's dating is more ambiguous, but Wikipedia suggests the 500s as most likely. One possible conclusion is that Habakkuk potentially prefigured the themes of theodicy and direct questioning of God found in Job. Which means Job, for all its genius, was not original.
"The Bible originated dozens of tropes, idioms, and stories." Would anyone disagree with this? "The Western literary tradition is just a series of footnotes to the Bible." Or this? Yes to both, of course, but declared with enough authority, or to an audience with insufficient knowledge, sufficient gullibility, or general disinterest, a convincing case could be made. Nothing new. Of greater import is that once you understand how right and wrong work, you can finally let go of needing to be right. Or, for that matter, original. "Originality is overrated"; "'Original' is just a matter of background"; even these perspectives are unoriginal. "Just because something is original doesn't make it better." Alright, warmer. One of my favorite sayings, help me cite it, goes something like: "There are two types of critics. The first nitpicks everything wrong with your work, leaving you demoralized. The second sees what you're going for and helps you improve so you can better realize your vision."
"The Italians might have created pizza, but New Yorkers perfected it."
Habakkuk might have created theodicy, but the Job story perfected it.
Hmm. You've heard all this before. Sorry for being a broken record. How about this, then: "Any logically sound set of aesthetic criteria prefigures an ideal Form which can be computationally determined. 'I couldn't have said it any better myself, but I'm goddamn sure a supercomputer could've said it better than you.'" Boom. True? God knows. Original? You tell me.
The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.
When I read these verses, I do not shudder as if the end times draw near. When the people of Jerusalem hear Zephaniah holding forth with passion, it is another matter altogether. They know the Torah, they know they have disobeyed the Torah, and perhaps most importantly, they know from experience that their disobedience has not resulted in any kind of punishment. Nobody likes flossing their teeth, after all, and I'm sure the responsibilities of sacrifice and daily prayer start feeling a bit old after a while, what's the worst that can happen if I skip out on a day, hmm? Nothing, I guess, how about we try two days next time, a week? Why bother at all? Abductive reasoning—not even once.
Their hearts, however, know they've abandoned their keepsake and covenant, and for them to try wiping this from their conscience is to submerge the guilt of hypocrisy deep in their soul. Such is guaranteed by the aesthetic configuration of their lived experience (make sense this time around?). How would you feel if someone started spreading your darkest secrets? Murderous, sure, but that usually comes later, subtract it from the equation and what's the difference. So even though no one obeys the guidance anymore, strength in numbers saves none from the sharp smack of Zephaniah's whistle. Duly chastised, each person returns to the rightful path, continues flossing, so's the hope.
Everyone mediates the Real through their own (unstable) parsing algorithms. Zephaniah's words meant one thing to his community, another to me, another to...
Maybe expecting Mozart or Verdi to speak to us in this day and age is a bit much, but it's clear that when they read Zephaniah 1, they saw something neither you nor I could ever begin to imagine and then summoned it here for us to hear. Translated, one could say.
Dies iræ, dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla.
(The day of wrath, that day
will dissolve the world in ashes.)
When I first started working at Microsoft out of college, I had an officemate named Kyle, freshly married. Kyle worked in some sort of business planning function for the company's cloud division and looked the part. Close-cropped haircut, clean shave, dress shirt (no tie), pair of dark navy jeans, stylish leather shoes of one or other of the colors you could probably imagine, what you think I pay attention to that kind of stuff? That whole industry thrives on convincing people others do, but the secret is it's just camouflage.
Kyle told me about his past, which was a string of similar but progressively more impressive stints. He told me he and the wife were having discussions about "the child question." And though we didn't work on the same stuff, eager beaver that I was, I'd ask him during our time together about his career, and about careers, and he'd give the young tyro a tip or two about scaling ladders. I ate it up. All that's in the drain now, via naturalis, but there was one piece of advice that I still follow to this day. And that was, "Richard, never build your own house."
Now I have no idea in the universe what could compel someone to want to build their own house, but Kyle and his wife decided at some point in the past that they, for what reason God knows, were going to build their own house. I guess couples make decisions like that. Now I know what you're going to say, "There's a certain romance to the idea. Picture this, you and your spouse will be inhabiting that space for years. Would it not mean so much more to you knowing it's your own creation? Your own ideas, your own design. Your own two hands that built this thing together. Not some random architect who doesn't know you or your partner or your needs. Who copy pasted some haphazard plan because the real estate company knows someone's gone buy it up anyway. Think about it, each nook, each cranny—yours. It's just as personal as the child you're about to have." Now that's all well and good, see, but these are supposed to be intelligent people. Intelligent people aren't supposed to fall for memes like that. And when they do, you kinda hafta question all the other stuff they fell for along the way. Marriage. Careers. Meritocracy.
Kidding, kidding (about the first two at least). Point is, Kyle would tell me alllll about the trials and tribulations involved in the building of his house, at the time a project in process. He would show me pictures on his phone. Of varnish torn off kitchen counters. Of stair steps contractors caved in by oops, dropping the refrigerator! He would tell me about the phone calls he'd have to make to square things up between different contractors. About delays. About extra costs, about all the screaming he inflicted upon those poor members of the manual labor class. I ate it up.
Before we go any further, I need to explain why I use the phrase "I ate it up." When we talk about aesthetics, it's virtually impossible to decouple them from the concept of beauty. But beauty is an artifact of visuality. When visual people go to art museums and see things they like, they might exclaim, "That's beautiful." For a more musical person of the aural inclination, they might describe the same painting as "harmonious" or "melodious" because they
see hear their world as full of n♪tes. Now, the one thing you have to know about me is that I'm primarily a gustatory person. Which means when I like that painting, I don't say "That's beautiful" or "It's got a certain rhythm to it," I say: "That's yummy." My motto: "You are what you eat."
And as any bona fide gourmet can tell you, there's nothing quite like a dish of schadenfreude, and when that dish is served to you on a silver platter, daily, then oh, you've really hit the jackpot. It's like what an all-you-can-eat buffet could be if buffets were good. Kyle was a great chef. But you can probably guess that the idea of building my own house tastes like crap. Luckily, Kyle ate it up so I didn't have to. A lot of humans died eating poisonous plants and mushrooms so we don't have to. Let's keep these brave souls in our hearts, minds, and prayers.
Finally, because I've been accused of not having any ethical program, let me just state for my readers that what should be is in flavor decidedly inferior to what is, which is inferior in turn to what could be. But as I am also not above pandering, amicable reader, I present for you this trio of concrete, practical takeaways:
- Do not build your own house.
- Do not think of building your own house.
- Tell your enemies to build their own houses.
I looked up and saw a man with a measuring line in his hand. Then I asked, "Where are you going?" He answered me, "To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length."
Let us examine the statement: "You will find in every thing exactly for what you are searching." Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov captured what I consider to be a great truth in a short experiment on film editing. Should you not spare less than a minute watching it (you must), it contains four clips—a bowl of soup (A), a girl in a coffin (B), a lady reclining on a couch (C), and a staring man (D)—in three arrangements; when A cuts to D, we imagine the man to be feeling hunger; B to D, grief; C to D, lust. But as the clip of the man is the same in each case, it is we who are exposed for projecting our own psyches onto what we see. There is no necessity that he should be feeling the three listed emotions. Why not revulsion, nostalgia, and emptiness? A different viewer might well make the claim, and we could say nothing to prove him wrong.
Furthermore, to read these images as soup or girl or man is already an act of projection. Are they not but arrays of monochrome pixels being beamed into our eyes? And to say even this, is it not on my part the very same? Where stops the buck?
I always say film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth. Or at the service at the attempt to find the truth. Because I don’t know what the reality is.
There is no elemental difference between Kuleshov's frames and any part of the so-called reality in which you constantly manifest, and there is nothing in anything aside from that which you pour into it. So tell me, in what sense would it not be you who conjure up these affects from the texts you interact with? And if it is not you who desire, yes, desire to feel angry or frustrated or victimized when you receive your daily fix of politics, then who is it? Where is it coming from? Not, certainly, the text itself, didn't we just discuss Kuleshov. "Okay, but you can't just redefine 'want' to describe everything that I do and feel. I don't actually want to feel those things." So who's compelling you?
Ah, that's right. The mountains of reified experience known as the unconscious, the desire path of the soul. You, most surely, don't identify with it. But it identifies you, and there's the rub. Provisional you wants many things; armed with this knowledge, it is now free to choose what wants it wants, or so it goes. Just make your measuring sticks with caution, because the tools you shape shape you thereafter.
Comments on the Prophets
I report to you in these technological times that the phenomenon of prophecy is still alive and kicking:
Turns out that if you make every possible prophecy, a slice of them will inevitably obtain, and if we want to get more technical, there is only one prophecy that can be correct in an absolute sense: Que Sera, Sera. But this doesn't impress anyone, no, what people live for are prophecies that call out specific future events. The more outlandish the prophecy, the less likely its events will obtain, which is why odds exist at the horse races. And what of the impulse to bet at all? Forget money, skin is on the line; something immaterial is earned when the prophet gets it right. Awe. Status. Repute. To read the future is a skill not meant for mortals; if language is that which separates man from animal, then prescience is that which separates man from God. Small wonder, then, that when man predicts the unknowable, he becomes to his witnesses something... more. Extend the logic and come to your own conclusions.
Enough of that for now, it's time for show-and-tell. I've brought two different species of prophecy for you to gawk at. The first is called retroactive prophecy. The Bible is full of it. Centuries after the old prophets sank into their graves, long after their bodies rotted into the earth, life above ground continues, stuff keeps happening, and some clever people decide, hey, what if we insert a verse or two into their books saying they called these events that happened since? Maybe a paragraph, or how about a couple chapters? People in the future are going to read this and their jaws are gonna hit the floor, y'know? "Well, those goons might have fooled everyone for a while, maybe for a few centuries, or a millennium; but we have archaeology now. What are they gonna do about that, huh? Nothing, that's right, their bones are just as dead as those of the 'prophets' they spoke for." But no—they got away with it. We're all living their fake history and nobody cares anymore.
Type the second: self-fulfilling. When I say, "I'm going to sit up straight now," and then proceed to do just that, I've fulfilled such a prophecy. Definitions, definitions... No. Objection denied; we've established that "impressiveness" is an applicable property. You want to be impressed, this will do the trick. What, or rather who, impresses me is Yukio Mishima. In 1960, the man from Nihon wrote a short fiction, Patriotism, about an army officer, Shinji Takeyama, called to lead a rebellion. Takeyama cannot bring himself to the task and so decides to commit ritual suicide (he follows through). Privy to his thoughts in the hours preceding the act, we see how Takeyama sees, and Takeyama sees in the agony of seppuku nothing less than supreme beauty. 1970; Mishima leads a coup. It fails. He commits seppuku. Mishima, Takeyama, Takeyama, Mishima, does or does not life imitate art? Coincidence, planned, it matters not; Mishima wrote his own story.
My mind treats page turning as second nature. My fingers pay no attention to where they land. I might use three to flip from the corner. Sometimes a missed footnote makes me flip back. Other pages my palm sucks up like a vacuum. I flip from the side and from the top also. Scritta paper is about 60 microns thick. The smallest pressure deforms the pages. What was smooth gets crinkled. Each page develops its own character. My fingers glide them through air. Then they rest atop one another. This transforms the others in the stack. No page is ever the same again. Not that they ever were. Mind you.
Photo: 1368 pages in. This book has been places, seen things. I've read it on my bed, on my sofa, in coffee shops, in my friend's apartment, in airports, on airplanes, in Seattle, in New York, back in Seattle. On my birthday. At Thanksgiving. Instead of hanging out with people. Instead of going to the gym. Instead of working on video stuff. At this point, it doesn't feel wrong to call it my companion. But it is also a sacrifice. No matter. Today is December 9th, 2017, it is 11:45AM Pacific Time and swarms of mist are roving through the streets of Seattle. The sun is trying hard to pierce through the clouds, periodically casting a light that is pale and yellow on the floor of my unit. Magna's Heart beats through the airwaves, piano music scored for a charming video game I played years ago.
One day, a day not far from now, I will be done, and on that day the lions will hunt and the winds will roar and the long, swaying columns of the undersea forests of kelp will synthesize photons for nutrition, as they all now do, and I will be done with reading the Bible, I will be done.
The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has, over the course of two centuries in this great nation, built its reputation along various dimensions academic, recreational, and artistic, as well azaz an institutional body in itself. The Michigan Wolverines. The Maize and Blue. The Peace Corps. Gerald Ford. Arthur Miller. Michael Phelps. Madonna. Theodore John Kaczynski. But what each incoming class of the so-billed "Leaders and Best" will not understand, absolute neophytes to the human condition that they are, until about a month and a half after their innocent little feet first step on the expansive, three-thousand acre campus, is that Ann Arbor, Michigan is one of the only places in the world where the foliage changes color from green when they arrive, mimicking their utter lack of experience with this world, to orange come October, a glorious sight to behold if I myself do say, and finally, after the stated ninety-ish days, to black.
I did not know that there were sparrows on the wall; their fresh droppings fell into my eyes and produced white films. I went to physicians to be healed, but the more they treated me with ointments the more my vision was obscured by the white films, until I became completely blind.
And that is because when the leaves Fall gently into that good night, they are replaced by crows. You see, Ann Arbor, Michigan experiences a meteorological condition that can be found nowhere else on Earth, and that condition, my friends, is bird turd. When the crows arrive, the pavement is painted every night with a coating of viscous white slime fresh from the intestinal tracts of these squawking fiends. From the dormitories you can hear their ordure splattering the ground like raindrops. To emerge from the doors in the morning and gaze aground is to observe a canvas of crap, a Pollock of poop. The more squeamish students begin developing permanent neurological imprints, presaging for the least lucky the inevitable PTSD which will for the rest of their lives flash back to this deluge of dung.
Speaking of college, there's a popular thought experiment for freshman philosophy students called the Trolley Problem. You already know what it is, so let me be clear about something, utilitarianism, consequentialism, I don't give a snail's tail, but instead I have a much better ethical dilemma. Imagine you're on your way to an important function of some sort, say a business pitch or charity gala, and a bird hits what you're wearing with a fly-by defecation. Do you go? Of course it depends on a million factors, but do you go? How much time would you be willing to spend heading back to change, or to a tux shop to rent something clean? Me, I'd chuck my ruined suit on the ground then and there without one single second('s) thought, thrash my phone out of my pants, look up a shop and call them, screaming like a banshee, "I need something of X and Y measurements like RIGHT NOW, deliver it to me, I don't care how much it costs, a grand, two grand, five, I don't care if you don't do delivery I need this RIGHT NOW you're not LISTENING to me, this is my address YES or NO?!?" Now you might think this an overreaction, and you'd be wrong, but let's just assume you went to the function without bothering because you just have that much faith in humanity, "People are empathetic, I'm sure they'll understand, we'll all have a big laugh about it." No. You know as well as I that in their heart of hearts, your image will be forever sealed as "Oh, the bird shit guy?"4 Better to die in anonymity than live in shame, Yahweh knew as much, which is why humiliation and death were equal curses in his grimoire.
French dandy Jacques Derrida had an acolyte by the name of Judith Butler who, following in the footsteps of her Biblical counterpart, slayed the Holofernes of gender as immutable fact a few years before I was born. Thus bringing us to this section's topic, puns. Puns are predicated on the concept of entendres, or definitions.
I wondered why the baseball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.
The "me" is physically slammed by the ball while also suddenly realizing the answer to his befuddlement; both entendres are contained in the word "hit." This makes the statement true in more ways than one, rare relative to the norm for words and hence our (if not groans or laughter) nod to its cleverness.
If a tree falls in a forest with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?
This question can only take a consistent answer for a set of individuals when they agree on the meaning of "sound." Does "sound" mean auditory sensations or acoustic vibrations? Our impulse is to say, "If the former, then the answer to the question is no; if the latter, yes." Two entendres, each of which provides an opposite answer.5
Judith to Holofernes:
If you follow out the words of your servant, God will accomplish something through you, and my lord will not fail to achieve his purposes.
Holofernes thinks Judith is referring to himself as "my lord," but Judith is referring to God; the pun is ironic. They say the best lies are those whose liars themselves believe them, but rephrased, said "lies" are simply, for the teller, true. Judith feels no compunction about about "lying" because, when she said what she said, she meant exactly that. Judith's truth is Holofernes' lie, thus in the end he lies beheaded.
Entendre is the French verb "to hear." When someone says a thing, what do you hear? When you read that question, did you hear hear as "sounds"? "Semantics"? Both? Something else? It is said of all words that they contain a trace of what they could be. (Astral projection—your ghost occupies the space of that trace.)
Additions to Esther
Those pesky Greeks retconned several new details into Esther such as God, Mordecai's vision, and Haman's letter to the nations, so the prim and proper thing to do here would be to compare and contrast the Hebrew and Greek versions and uncover what is lost and gained by their similarities and differences.
You think I got time for that, bub?
The Wisdom of Solomon
Two regimes of culture wrestle, bound by rules yet unseen, in the squared circle whose name is Virtue for ideological supremacy: Hebrew theology versus Greek philosophy.
Yet again, not even they are to be excused; for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?
As the seeds of science found fertile soil in the terra firma of natural philosophy, Yahweh was faced with an altogether unprecedented challenge: not the disobedience of his chosen sprouts, but the idea of his existence. A world is here and it is ours and it can be mastered. To measure the earth, trace the paths of the stars. What role have the gods but retreat and surrender when faced with Man and Mind? The apple of knowledge tastes oh-so-sweet to rebellious youth who cannot help but prod and poke at the words of their elders, filled with holes, who in their desperation to instill right values find no other option than to adopt a style of argumentation they find on the whole unnecessary but one which displays nevertheless some degree of effectiveness, failing to understand how this very adoption marks against them an ethical victory as much as their sons and daughters fail to understand how their defiance belies not only their lack of agency but fall into sin.
Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach
The Child is father of the Man.
-Wordsworth, The Rainbow
Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira took upon himself that most noble of professions, teaching, around the tumultuous time Judea was being passed like a baton from Egypt to Syria in the one hundred bee cees. And what greater drive is there in the human animal but preservation of the familiar? As sure as Newton's third law, the external stress of Hellenization on the Jews was matched, if not in success then at least in ferocity, by an equally formidable internal resistance. "This isn't the town it used to be."
But that aside, let us imagine for a moment what a total victory would look like.
He who loves his son will whip him often, so that he may rejoice at the way he turns out... When the father dies he will not seem to be dead, for he has left behind one like himself.
Utopia for Ben Sira is no more than an eternally reproducing present sans past or future, in which all individuals are satisfied living through each day knowing it is a perfect blueprint of the next, a carbon copy, all facts known, all things determined. Utopia, make no mistake, is the last response to the chain of for whats at every level from the general to the particular, from the personal to the universal, the spitting image of Man into which he—and you, yes—seeks to remake reality. "If only we could order the world in a certain way, then things would be good." And yet there has never been a perfect world, a final utopia. There is always...
And it is for this, I contend, why we are alive. It moves us, and movement, you see, is the essence of life. Infinitude. And yet: God made us in his image. Made, past tense—implying what, pray tell?
Written to be spoken, Baruch recommends—like every other book so far—following the Torah so God doesn't smite the everliving guts out of your body. So let me explain why audiobooks must burn in digital fire.
Audiobooks enable the listener to move around, yes, but this spatial freedom is bought with concentration. Reading proper is to sit down with one's mind and the page. Attention is directed solely at comprehending words. Dedicated. Restricted to monotonous print, the visual sense opens the mental space necessary for abstractive activity. After ten-or-so minutes, the brain, assuming a stable and secure environment, acclimates to its new gear, aligning itself with the process of absorption. The pull of distractions weakens and one unifies with the text.
Narration is a necessary property of the audiobook. Therefore it would be a grave mistake to suppose one has, or can, ever read an audiobook. Even should one reject "such technicalities" (thus cementing one's membership in the canaille), when one pauses to consider the sheer volume of influence any particular narrator has on the semantics of any given text by virtue of his rhythm, timbre, emphasis, and personal psychological problems (which display themselves as a matter of course in the enunciation of every syllable), one balks at the sheer audacity required of any who should in their infinite ignorance so much as consider defiling the pristine sanctuary of the page with their vocal cord slime, slathered indiscriminately across constellations of punctuation painstakingly knit with intention, precision, and poise.
Oration. Human to human, human to humans. Living voices, not frozen soundwaves. The highest of arts.
The Letter of Jeremiah
They deck their gods out with garments like human beings—these gods of silver and gold and wood that cannot save themselves from rust and corrosion. When they have been dressed in purple robes, their faces are wiped because of the dust from the temple, which is thick upon them. One of them holds a scepter, like a district judge, but is unable to destroy anyone who offends it. Another has a dagger in its right hand, and an ax, but cannot defend itself from war and robbers. From this it is evident that they are not gods; so do not fear them.
The missing rejoinder, of course, begins: "We are not so silly as to mistake our carvings for the gods themselves." Because this is too easy, instead I'll use pop music to propose that our world is one where idols predominate the gods they resemble. Thanks to TV and radio, pop has become a global phenomenon, taking different forms in different (mostly first-world) countries. In the States, superstars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift occupy tremendous mindshare for their millions of fans, and for the disinterested, their presence is nigh inescapable, a noise pollution clogging cafes and taxicabs. You can no more choose to snuff them from your memory than you can forget your own name—and even if you could, they'd worm their way back through your ear canals sooner or later. On the other hand, Korea and Japan, the latest of capitalisms that they are, too are prey to pop. But there its focus—as befits their historically collectivist cultures—is more on groups of performers than individual stars. AKB48, NCT, After School; these corps sans organes populate themselves with a rotating battery of idols to satisfy the never-abating hunger of the masses. Engineered lungs belting engineered songs for engineered fame.
Have you seen how disappointed people get when their favorite band releases an album whose style doesn't match the one which earned their loyalty? It's quite vicious. And for the type of spirit who thrives on adoration, the psychological consequences, amplified in proportion to popularity, are acutely devastating; if you cannot perform to the lengths and widths of whom your audience expects you to be, they will turn away in disgust from your living essence because they cannot contort it to fit the shape of their dead idols (and try they will). I suppose one in such a predicament has a few choices. Dissociation. Depersonalization. Kanye to the looney bin, Jonghyun to the grave. And there is, of course, surrender; let the PR people decide your identity, "It's okay, you're in good hands." But we all know how that story ends. Imprisoned by a self whom you do not consider you, your voice may be heard, but your humanity? Silenced.
The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews
"Let the earth bless the Lord;
let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.
Bless the Lord, mountains and hills;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.
Bless the Lord, all that grows in the ground;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever.
Bless the Lord, seas and rivers;
sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever."
Panpsychism is the idea that everything is conscious, from quarks and sparks to bits and bytes to fishing pails and fingernails to me and you (debatable), traditionally formulated as a Sorites argument similar to the Ship of Theseus and that infamous pile of sand. Assuming that humans are conscious, are dogs? Birds? Ants? Stones? Can a line be drawn that delineates the exact point, the exact neuron, the exact electron, the exact ontological mere at which the phenomenon of consciousness emerges? Panpsychists say no, proposing that consciousness suffuses the totality of existence. I do find the theory plausible on the whole.
But in my view, the central error of panpsychists—at least anecdotally—is not their hylozoic affinities or lack of savoir faire, but their anthropomorphism, or, in other words, their religiosity. While I grant that there is something it is like to be me, I do not for a second presume, given panpsychism, phenomenological analogues between myself and raccoons, much less photons, or, yes, for that matter, you. Constitutionally unable to access one iota of anyone else's interior life, we are resigned to hypothesis; that this or that person appears to be in pain is no guarantee they actually are, insofar as what they call "pain" correlates to what I call "pain," and even were they hooked up to a machine which measures cortisol, adrenaline, and endorphin levels plus whatever else tends to spike after sensations of pure, physical pain, even were I to display the very same responses, even then that guarantee remains as mythical as Arthur's grail. Ich bin meine Welt. Let no one deny that the whole edifice, not only of knowledge but experience itself, rests on a shifting bed of assumptions, conditionals, presuppositions, postulations, and projections, drifting to-and-fro unanchored on a formless ocean which we for no ulterior reasons besides convenience, comfort, and precedence have heretofore believed and continue to assure ourselves is land. What a gross extension of folly it would then be to suppose the chemicals responsible for our loves and sorrows possess themselves the capacity to feel what they cause—a notion altogether impervious to investigation and which can, at best, ensnare our imaginations.
But of course that's more than enough.
Bel and the Dragon
Ah, food! My favorite topic.
Bel and the Dragon contains a smorgasbord of diners and cuisines awaiting critique. Our first specimen is the idol Bel, king of the Babylonian pantheon, who is supposed by his worshippers to consume the flour and sheep and wine they sacrifice to him daily. Indeed the offerings are gone each morning, but we learn it's actually the priests and their families sneaking in at night through a secret door and scarfing everything down. You've likely experienced something to the same effect when you learned it was your parents who were wrapping presents and placing them under the Christmas tree and not old Saint Nicholas after plopping his blubber down the chimney hatch. Being wrong hurts so much because, on the savanna, the brain could become food fast if it falsely assessed some environmental condition, thus it evolved a distaste for misjudgment, which is why lessons that stick—wisdom—are carved in pain. Maybe. But assuming this is correct, there's still a devilish caveat in which each individual's truth-seeking instinct can in aggregate damage the group's well-being. Daniel's snooping hurt the faith of Bel believers (thus them6), now forced to reckon with their silliness, as well as the priests and their families, who, if Cyrus had not had them killed, would've had to live with tainted reputations and no free food to boot.
Our second specimen is the Dragon, a biological entity which promptly combusts into a gooey explosion of guts and ligaments after eating Daniel's cakes of "pitch, fat, and hair." This is scientifically untenable, as anyone who's observed wild animals can attest. Snakes swallow whole mammals along with, naturally, their excrement, skeletons, and fur. Pelicans slurp up swimming fishes—scales included. Canines happily devour anything and everything including their own vomit and dung. None of these foods are sanitized in any way, meaning they are replete with dirt, grime, dust, oil, bacteria, and parasites. Yet these creatures fare perfectly fine7! And if we measure the worth of a philosopher by the coarseness of his diet, the Dog must surely emerge the victor, having subsisted on begging, leftovers, and table scraps, or in other words pure virtue, as evidenced by the fact that he lived nearly ninety years—far surpassing the life expectancy of the average Swiss man, who as of 2015 lays claim to having the highest at 81.3 years—all while subject to a veritable Pandora's Box of diseases and malnourishments which modern medicine and nutrition science have worked so assiduously to stuff back in. Thus I have come to conclude (in general) that the human digestive system is less fragile and more robust than the contemporary nutrition industry would prefer us to believe (but because I've been socialized to prefer organic and unprocessed foods, I'll continue wallowing in my neurotic orthorexia).
You should know, by the way, that at various points in my past I've bribed friends to consume culinary creations of varying noxiousness, a fact I take supreme comfort in confessing now knowing my actions have historical precedence in Daniel. Two years ago I was bored out of my mind in a Microsoft meeting, and something you should know about Microsoft is that it provides mediocre-but-free refrigerated beverages to its worker bees. I noticed that my friend Taylor, who was sitting across from me, had brought from a nearby fridge one aluminum can of Talking Rain lime seltzer water and one small carton of Darigold chocolate milk. These she sat on the table. In my infinite brilliance I decide to send her a surreptitious text message, with my phone under the table, like I was still in school or something, daring her, like I was still in school or something, to mix the two together in a paper cup (Microsoft provided these too) and imbibe. This she did, smirking defiantly. Inside, I was howling; outside, stifling giggles. I'd just gone on an emotional roller coaster of disgust, horror, mirth, and hilarity: easily worth the Hamilton. To be fair, I've also been on the receiving end of such challenges, as when (on a separate occasion) my compadre Kevin and his friend Rahul dared me to try some "RumChata." Which I did, proving to myself and its complete and utter dismay yet again how there are no depths to which human depravity refuses to plunge, because, let me tell you, ipecac syrup would've been easier to down than that infernal concoction of bile and venom, that revolting bitter blanched opaque chemically homogenized devil diarrhea, that flagrant violation of basic human rights, that liquid hatred. All my so-called "friend" had to eat in return was an Oreo with a slice of baloney sandwiched inside.
...Our third specimen is Daniel himself, the only character who plays both the roles of food and diner. He is fed to starving lions, but the lions don't touch him because of God's grace or plot armor or whatever. He eats a stew and some bread flown in by his fellow prophet Habakkuk, dangling from angel talons, an obvious precursor to Amazon's drone delivery service (Habakkuk is flown back to his warehouse after Daniel signs off on the package) which may well be in operation by the time you're reading this. And because of angry PETA petitions, the authors ensure our final specimens—the lions—don't go hungry by feeding them some crunchy Babylonians.
As one progresses along this journey, one develops certain attachments to objects concrete and abstract—one's country, family, work, a sports team—through a process known as identification. We call attention, firstly, to the fact that attachment is a relation between two things, in this case the self and identity objects, and, secondly, to the centrality of the self in the identity relation, for though the majority finds it most obvious that it is possible to care for some things more than others and quite pedantic of me really to insist that it is themselves who care, "Well who else could it be," too few recognize that what cares is the who; two apples and two apples make four apples but two and two make four, and furthermore—attachment may be said to operate as a function of distance. In this sense the "detached" person is relatively far from her identity objects, hence connotations of being aloof, uncaring, and removed, compared to the one of strong attachments who may be raised to fever pitch upon perceiving the slightest slight to one of her own. Each approach has its pros and cons; and if as we've contended movement is life's essence then no question, attachment breeds emotion, breeds life, no question that the sports fan accesses ecstasies forbidden the depressed nihilist.
This is where stakes come in, and the question of stakes is: "What are you willing to sacrifice?" Indeed, there are certain items so close to the... nexus, shall we call it, that we, rightly or wrongly, become effectively unable to differentiate between the two. "Life would be meaningless without my [partner/religion/ability to play sports]." One solution available to some who see the difference is to build new attachments, that is, to reidentify with another line of amenable objects; those who cannot molt are consigned to wither away in shell of a past self: then carapace, now tomb. The other solution is to fight—as did our dear Judas, prepared to lay down his life at the altar of his people's future. Yes, there is no will stronger than the will to survive but make no mistake, a god's gravity eclipses any human's; it will burn through life after life to stay alive, such is the engine of sacrifice—sacer facio, "I make sacred"—but can there ever be enough to sate the stomach of the hungry god? Nota bene, Judas, reader, remainder.
Sevivon—it spins atop the table, sovs and sovs. But a complete revolution means everything's back right where it began, you see; then the other yous refuse, we've heard it before, "The object at time T isn't the same as the object at time T minus 1, A ≠ A, does not equal A, even if electrical charges weren't in constant exchange with the environment, even if friction weren't eroding the wood with each fraction of a spin." Even if our society weren't politically, culturally, and technologically different from the ones back then. Right? Right where it began; maybe it is the case that some things never change and that without such beliefs as "Even change changes," we simply could not go on.
Still, I owe much credit to the Maccabees for keeping me home from school on Hanukkah (it was a predominantly Jewish New York suburb) for the greater part of my formative years (cue joke about how they're still happening)—so thanks, Judas :)
For considering the flood of statistics involved and the difficulty there is for those who wish to enter upon the narratives of history because of the mass of material, we have aimed to please those who wish to read, to make it easy for those who are inclined to memorize, and to profit all readers.8
Society sneers at "hoarders," individuals who methodically collect every receipt, cereal box, plastic bag, newspaper, medicine bottle, pair of shoes, pizza box and plastic cup that so much as graces their lives, every used napkin, every double-A battery, every ping pong ball, every pot, every pan, as if the loss of any one item would constitute no less than a loss of identity, a loss of self, a whittling of personhood. Unable, so to speak, to let go of the past, these shambling anachronisms relegate themselves to the junkyard of history. But about this they could not care less and so they're still in a sense ahead of those of us who do. "Stuff happened, and here we are."
Thus it has never failed to amuse me how mightily a select group of custodians try to amass the sedimentation of occurrence, believing these jagged crystals of sand are a jigsaw puzzle whose solution will via veritas set the world aright. Let us now in no uncertain terms declare that to render the world in words is an exercise in total futility, and marvel at the quixotic levels of conceit it must require to suppose anything resembling fidelity can be attained without, at the very least, a description of the angulation of fingers gripping saber handles, the dirt's muddiness, thoughts of glory, thoughts of home, microfloral differences between the stomachs of soldiers and generals and kings, the firing of axons, halfway across the earth, in a trench-dwelling anglerfish with a cerebellum size two SDs above the mean...
"Let each of us state what one thing is strongest; and to the one whose statement seems wisest, King Darius will give rich gifts and great honors of victory."
Is it wine? Inebriation equalizes all minds who partake, kings and orphans, slaves and freemen, rich and poor, sending them into states of boozy bliss or inchoate rage and making them forget everything afterwards.
Is it the king? Who else can bend others to his will, force taxes on the citizenry, send men to war? When he tells them to destroy, they destroy; to build, they build; to plant, they plant.
Is it women? All men are born of women, or so it goes. Surely it is they for whom all this is done? They, who are more beautiful than gold or silver, they, of whom the mightiest of men are made putty?
Is it truth?
Each of these is, in its own sense, "strongest"; it depends on how we define the term. A king cannot inebriate, women (in general) do not command armies, and wine cannot (directly) arouse libido. And truth? What even is that? There appears to be no necessary reason why any one definition of strength should prevail over the others, yet in practice this is exactly what happens. How? I venture to say it is because of power, in the form of auctoritas: the ability to decide the rules of the game, to have the final say. In First Esdras, it is truth (through God) that wins Darius' contest, but that this should be the case is contingent, at the diegetic level, on Darius' predispositions, and, on the meta level, the writer's. To put this point into relief: A supermodel waltzing through a weightlifting competition will win no belts if she claims, even accurately, that she can seduce the most people in the room out of everyone present and thus is "strongest." Those are simply not the rules of the game.
The Prayer of Manasseh
Repentance theology or Mad Libs? From 2 Chronicles 33 we read:
While [Manasseh] was in distress he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his ancestors. He prayed to him, and God received his entreaty, heard his plea, and restored him again to Jerusalem and to his kingdom.
Because the Chronicler claimed this prayer was "written in the records of the seers," even though no such records have been found, he set, perchance or perforce, a precedent for this later author to cook some up. But even should the Chronicler have never made the claim, the lines above allow enough range for creative liberty by themselves. It is like so how fictional universes—as opposed to closed logical systems—open up endless space for elucidation, hence the "fanfics" spawned by more popular series. Don't think I don't see the aliens among you tut-tutting me for the false dichotomy because I do, let me ask do you really get your kicks watching cats writhe impaled by curiosity's dorsal edge. That this book should be "fake" is secondary to its furnishing a workable model of forgiveness prayer. "But what if everything is fake?"
I see two correct responses to learning one's entire life has been based on false axioms:
- "Eh, I still had fun."
- "Well, at least it was interesting."
These apply regardless if one grew up in a religious cult, hippie commune, or ivory tower. These apply regardless if the realization crystallizes in the prime of youth or on the bed of death. Learn it, live it, love it.
A further ethical suggestion is to commit to something larger than yourself; here no i.e. can describe what an e.g. will convey. Receiving credit for his publication, I'm sure, was the last thing on this anonymous author's mind, it would kind of defeat the purpose, you know, but y'know, were he alive to learn of its canonicity, he would, I'm sure, rejoice. Perhaps this is what Maslow meant by "self-transcendence." To let it be enough—or more than—to see the effects of your efforts without concern for personal attribution. Cf. the open-source software movement, whose proponents, mostly pseudonyms on message boards, ceaselessly contribute snippets of code and triage and triangulate those of others all while maintaining a quasi-religious devotion to its core values of modularity and decentralization. Wikipedia editors, same scheme. As for the obverse, observe how Freud's was no more an open-source psychology than Rand's an open-source philosophy. We all know how they were. And there is no guarantee, let's be clear, that self-transcendence should be an end in itself, as the simplest of nematodes may propose a moral system by whose means it cannot be justified. My fieldwork has convinced me those who can access this pyramidion have a better time of it, is all.
Among my brothers I was small
In stature and in age
I took to tending sheep and shears
Before I met the sage
Through golden field he came to me
Robe combing through the wheat
He spake, and there I learned the throne
Whose king I would unseat
To royal court I was invited
Strumming harp and lyre
My music soothed fel attitudes
Demonic hearts entire
Against us God sent Philistines
He put us to the test
Amidst their ranks a giant spawned
Who thundered his request
"Ye Hebrews weak and terror bound,
Who dares to stand and fight?
Is there not one who can resist
My scabbard and my might?"
But there I was with stone and sling
I shot him on his head
Down fell his face onto the ground
I victor; he, as dead
With his own blade I ran him through,
Goliath at last slain
This hath the LORD in glory and
In scripture foreordained.
...Then, upon entering the place and being impressed by its excellence and its beauty, he marveled at the good order of the temple, and conceived a desire to enter the sanctuary. When they said that this was not permitted, because not even members of their own nation were allowed to enter, not even all of the priests, but only the high priest who was pre-eminent over all—and he only once a year—the king was by no means persuaded.
The goody-two-shoes among you will be shocked to hear that I have certain sympathies with Ptolemy IV Philopator, the villain of this story. Know that if permitted a minor superpower, I would take the "universal skeleton key," which would let me enter any door regardless how it's locked and barred. No fingerprint sensor, secret code, or retinal scanner would prevent me access, nor would doors without handles, sealed shut by lasers, or massive gates too heavy for anyone to move unaided. Don't ask me how the superpower would work or what the definition of door is. Beside the point.
The point is the spirit of exploration, propelled by sheer curiosity. To go where
no few people have ever gone before. I've tried to climb to the rooftops of buildings several times and failed, usually due to my own incompetence (being unable and/or unwilling to pick locks or risk setting off alarms), but be advised that if I could, I would, so invite me on your expeditions for some cheery moral support. Unfortunately the community codes this type of individual as having exactly the wrong sort of attitude for its exploits, which is why that superpower would come in handy for me in particular. Plus there's always a network of reasons why people wouldn't want me traipsing around forbidden spaces. "I'm paid to keep meddlers like you out," replies the bouncer, but what do I care if he's compensated for being a human rock? (Of course I would never risk getting fired from my job.) "It's for your own safety," reply the parents, but who are they to decide what that is? (Of course I'd absolutely stop my child from actively endangering himself.) "You're going to hell if you go in there," replies the priest, but what if I don't believe in that stuff? (Of course I'd end up burning anyway, because that's just how fate works, given my luck.)
Now the first place super-me would go is the Kaaba in the middle of Mecca. That thing is even more mysterious than the ebon slab in Kubrick & Clarke's 2001. All you need to know is I need to get in, because that's the purpose of my life. You see, an immense amount of spiritual energy has been channeled into that black box, opening (purportedly) a portal to the netherworld. That is the last door I should ever need to enter, but I can't know if it exists or not until I get in the cube. Unfortunately, because real-me doesn't have any superpowers, the task is that much harder. I'm gonna need a team. You in?
If a movie or book is received well by the many, one often finds demand for more. Supplementary content gets produced: sequels, offshoots, b-sides. Indeed, the New Testament can be thought of as the OT's sequel. Second Esdras, on the other hand, exemplifies the prequel, an effort to color in some primary narrative's past ex post facto, but which could not exist without its source material. It is thus, in a sense, disingenuous, and, strictly speaking, unnecessary—doubly so when you consider how the Tanakh supplies loose ends in abundance already. This book is therefore a prequel to a sequel, a tertiary, the shadow of an afterimage.
The days are coming when the Most High will deliver those who are on the earth. And bewilderment of mind shall come over those who inhabit the earth. They shall plan to make war against one another, city against city, place against place, people against people, and kingdom against kingdom. When these things take place and the signs occur that I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea.
Imagine having your kid watch the Lucas hexalogy for the first time, ordered not by date of production but by film number, such that she might see the whole as a linear history. I think most who've seen the series would recoil at the suggestion. Why? Feeble direction, obese plots, mechanical dialogue, forced dramatic tension: the usual suspects. Ignoring these obvious blunders, she might notice, upon reaching the older films, more restraint in motion and color palette (because no CGI); uncanny that the past should feel more alive in certain respects than the future. But the biggest sin we'd be committing for our hypothetical child would be showing her Luke's parentage in advance of the original revelation and thereby nullifying the latter's intended gravitas as, normally, one of the most cataclysmic events in cinema history. If a spoiler is a retroactive robbery of emotional experience (are you still so sure you'd crack your Akashic record wide open), being spoiled by prequels is the ultimate irony, like ordering a dish just to watch the cook eat it in front of you, or something.
At this point, even you could probably deduce that 2 Esdras adds as much to the Gospels as the Star Wars prequels added to the initial trilogy, but don't let this stop you from giving it a spin; the secret of the universe is to temper your expectations based on what you're consuming, take heed before you give birth to another hater. On that note: While a far cry from Revelation, the Greek Ezra's wacko visions appetize one enough for the veridical course to come. And because there are few who first hear about Jesus by chronologically grinding through the Bible, you're likely vaccinated on the spoiler front.
Tell me, was there really a need for a third Kung Fu Panda? And was there really a need for a fourth Maccabees? Hell, good old Judas ain't even in it. But whatever. You make it, I'll take it.
Reason, who transformed sound into symbol. Reason, who planted the seed. Reason, who stood on the shore of the sea, who gazed into the horizon and said, "I will reach you." Reason, who turned night into day. Reason, who bottled the bolts of the sky, and reason, who captured the clouds. Reason, who learned to walk, first through stone, then through pulp, then through wire. Reason, who flew among the birds of the air, and faster. Reason, who eradicated plagues, reason, who decoded the language of tongues, and then, from the caduceus, the language of blood. Reason, who crystallized light itself into fragments of the eternal. Reason, who looks up towards the twinkling stars, once an inexplicable expression of the gods, graveyard of heroes and mighty beasts, now a future home for it and those possessing, now at once the greatest challenge and final frontier for a manifest destiny sparked millennia ago...
Before you start calling me Ayn Rand, this is the part where I invert not only every assertion above but the framework—Do you really want to see that? I didn't think so either. As an ode to the prefrontal cortex's potential to overrule amygdalal desiderata, the Fourth Maccabean's apology wields pathos like an old crone wields a walking stick, but perhaps we can revivify it through other means.
It was only by questioning the foundations of geometry and the processes of geometrical proof that Riemann invented the geometry which later became the basis for Einstein's theory of relativity. Other great theorems are possible today because multiplication and addition were once defined. It was only because man gave thought to the seemingly obvious processes which underlay arithmetic that he was able to refine mathematics, and able to proceed to forms of still higher order, mathematical shapes of greater elegance and fuller understanding.
Architectural wunderkind Christopher Alexander, a real prodigy mind you, was twenty-seven when he wrote his Notes on the Synthesis of Form from whose epilogue this quote was sourced. In February of 2016, a man by the same name published, connotations blaring, a piece titled Making the Garden in First Things, self-described as "America's most influential journal of religion and public life." If you should be curious as to how the river of time molds, smooths, and polishes a stone in its stream (Bildung), a distance of fifty years separates the quote above from the quote below:
Successful architecture ultimately leads us to see God and to know God. If we pay attention to the beauty of those places that are suffused with God in each part, then we can conceive of God in a down-to-earth way. This follows from an awareness in our hearts, and from our active effort to make things that help make the Earth beautiful.
This is not a pastiche of pseudo-religious phrasing. In technical language, it is the structure-preserving or wholeness-extending transformation (described in The Nature of Order and capable of being precisely defined) that shows us how to modify a given place in such a way as to give it more life.
Suffice it to say, if one accepts the initial assertion that mathematics proceeds according to a hierarchy of order, elegance, and understanding, one may imagine something like a telos, or end state, of the entire endeavor. Let us call this the God Function. Such a function would be able to account for any event that has ever occurred in the simplest possible way, including the event of its own discovery and the chain of histories which guaranteed it. Such a function may reveal, in line with prior human formulations, the totality of possible future states given some initial condition, whether it be many, as probability theory would have it, or precisely one. Such a function would not depend on cognition for its expression, being, as it were, already (or always) present, but would require cognition (conscious ratiocination) for its discovery (would the word mean anything if not in reference to some subject), as have all previous mathematical truths. Such a function, because self-expressing, may manifest or be itself cause of emergence and like properties, thus the possibility of its existence (should said possibility exist) would guarantee the impossibility of its comprehension (through normative human epistemologies). Such a function is not to be anthropomorphized (whether we are at all capable of standing Punctum Archimedis is debatable), thus, insofar as Yahweh or the Trinity capture aspects of this function, their anthropic baggage guarantees their inelegance (relative to the function, and not, say, to other human gods)9.
Now for some downstream speculation: Such a theology allows for statements like "Does a rock have Buddha nature?" and "All of us are enlightened, most of us just don't know it" because these, like our phenomenology, are: (A) permitted and (B) guaranteed by the expression of the function. Regarding the latter, some may contend that awareness of the function (in this language game or another) is this knowing of one's enlightenment, with embodying it remaining a separate challenge.
Regarding the Apocrypha
A division is about to occur and its subject is you. "Of course, it all makes perfect sense now," or, "That's fascinating, I wouldn't have guessed": Your reaction to the next sentence places you in either of two camps, the camp of ruthless psychological acumen or the camp of enchanted mythopoeia, so listen closely now, to me and to yourself. With regards to what are by far the most important things in life, I was (and continue to be) among the slowest of learners, having to sit around, for instance, in the perimeter of a primary school gym class circle where we had to successfully tie our shoes before running off to recess—recess—and being the last to rise, every time, requiring assistance from the teacher or some generous classmate, every time, after which I dejectedly skulked onto the playground, watching as the others monkeyed nimbly around the climbing bars or as they vigorously played kickball while I milled around building-cast shades, like a shade, anxiously unaware of what I was supposed to be doing during those hours while aware, nevertheless aware, that whatever it was I was not doing it, every time, not to mention the swimming test episodes at the community pool in which, summer after summer, we were to swim the length and back of a lap pool, and in which I watched the others glide gracefully through the water—as if they had from birth possessed the ability—and earn their green wristbands (which both certified their skill and granted them access to the dive pool and deep end) as I failed each of the three attempts we were given, flopping around like a fish on the ground, every time, seen by everyone (polite enough not to mock or laugh, for there are certain events in life whose only permissible reactions are dolor and pity), and thus was forced to wear a red band like a Judenstern, let's not kid ourselves, broadcasting my empirical inferiority to all surrounds, lifeguards parents pets and teens, and worst of all my fellow campers, for countless sessions thereafter. These and like traumata formed in part and many ways what was to come, another who because he could not swim became perforce content to stare at the pool.
Nevertheless, I persisted. I learned to swim at twelve. I learned to tie my shoes in the twelfth grade, at seventeen. I learned to roll my Rs at twenty-two. Most recently, I learned how to ride a bicycle at twenty-four. Whistling still eludes me, as do—to my perennial embarrassment—many other infinitely basic developmental milestones, but these will be rectified in time for me to pass Saint Peter's talent show and secure thereby my rightful place among the blessed, provided an iron maiden being dragged along the asphalt by an equine stampede-in-a-box doesn't turn me into an Anish Kapoor painting (more an eventuality than a possibility given how they can't yet steer themselves) before my education is complete.
On curation. Curation, like translation, is among the more difficult arts to appreciate, being, as it were, conceptual: invisible, inaudible; but not, crucially, ineffable. This took me a while to get, as does everything, as I've demonstrated. But truly said while had worth, for our world is largely the byproduct of selection and curation, the result of innumerable utterances public and private of this not that.
One would do well to consider the variety of constraints juggled by art museum curators before any exhibit is finalized. There is the general theme of the exhibit, requisition of available artworks, selection of available artworks, alignment with the museum's mission, the aesthetic and political interests of major donors, estimates of popularity with the public, the length of time certain works are allowed to be shown, the physical constraints of the space, arrangement of chosen pieces within the space, design of lighting and display conditions of individual pieces, solicitation of reviews from art magazines and newspaper culture sections, cost and revenue projections, training museum attendants to speak intelligently about the works, inviting scholars and artists to give talks or lectures about the exhibit, negotiations with auction houses regarding the salability of selected items, etc. For the majority of these checks to be adequately met according to the standards of all parties involved, then, is nothing short of a minor miracle. To run unnoticed is the job of a successful IT department—but would anyone stretch to say the same of a curatorial committee? Yet the typical visitor pays no attention because for him the effect is the same difference. Right shame, then, for as any critic worth her salt can tell you, the process is often at least as interesting as the product.
More is at stake in the theological arena, naturally, but in principle it too revolves around the curatorial act, as evidenced by the round black dots or absence thereof in my photo above. Each signifies the settlement of centuries of debate, with severe intrafaith doctrinal spats cracking fissures in the Christian glacier, hence the columnar splits demarcating divergence in history and practice, the shockwaves of which have been massive, global, and permanent. Deciphering the rationale behind these forks is then essential for any who to any end seek to understand the evolution of civilization. So, while I'd previously dismissed divinity school as a fossilized relic of our religious past, I've now become open to the richness of humanistic inquiry found only in such institutions, indeed the precursors to institutionalized education writ large, in which the path of scholarship supplies, above simple aesthetic value (though it may still boil down to that), a framework for the conduct of one's life—in these days so sorely lacking.
The Gospel According to Matthew
The Jesus Christ event was the equivalent of multiple hydrogen bombs simultaneously detonated on the noösphere, no, the meteor which heaven hurled at Gaia with such vengeance that its impact shattered her tellurian vase into an uncountable infinity of fragments, never to be whole again, burying her children and with them the Mesozoic Era under a gray grave of ash and soot, vast as the sky and dark as the night. But then there was light. For as long as time and space pretend as if they were not one and the same, the end of one age marks the beginning of another, and as the Cenezoic Era clawed from the carcass of the dinosaurs to usher in the dawn of the rise of man, so the Common Era popped out of Mary's womb to deliver incarnate God to Man.
But that notwithstanding:
The third possibility is the invitation—in particular the invitation to observe, look at or consider something.
Christ's didactic method, that of the symmetric curve on a plane, essentially expanded the midrashic scope to all believers by legitimizing the parabolic framework of exegetical discourse and thus inviting, as it were, you and me to say this means that as we see fit, and sparking a Cambrian explosion of according tos. But we are not concerned with poetic riffing or interpretation per se, having covered that ground enough for many lifetimes, rather let us drive our curiosity towards the notion of soluble puzzles. Befuzzled disciples ponder helplessly as Jesus confounds them with yet another riddle. One look at the others confirms what each is thinking; their eyes betray, "But what could it mean?"
He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels."
Reflect now on the mindblowing phenomenon that certain categories of questions appear to have correct answers; two and two is four and the sound of one hand clapping is mu. Consider next how possibility of and criteria for correctness must obtain in order for a given question to fall in the category we will call tractable. Here we make a distinction between valid and correct answers, where any response to a poetic invitation (per Geuss) may be conceived as valid, while only a bounded set of responses satisfies the correctness criteria for tractable questions; if an apostle had ventured a guess along the lines of, "The sower of the good seed is Adam, the field is Eve, the good seed is Abel, and the weeds are Cain," Jesus would've replied, "Wrong!" or maybe, "Close, but no cigar." Not that I can speak for Jesus10, but...
Friends, tell me, does a dog have Buddha nature?
- The method of logical ratiocination inculcated in the West typically leads to a dead end:
- "Yes or no. Either it does or it doesn't. What do you mean I'm wrong? It appears you don't know how questions work. I quit."
- Lateral thinking may be of more help:
- The correct response of "mu" is out-of-the-box, strictly speaking, if the box contains only yes and no.
- But an advanced rationalist could smirk:
- "Ah. The Zensei wants us to answer the question behind the question, which is, 'Is this a valid question?' The answer to that is No, in the same way 'Why do polar bears go skydiving?' is invalid—because they don't. Answering 'No,' however, only replies to the object-level question and fails to demonstrate our awareness of the real question, which is why we say 'Mu' to indicate at once our awareness and understanding. Translated, 'Mu' is just shorthand for 'null,' 'void,' or 'not applicable,' an elegant retort to all petitio principii."
- The Rinzai master then expels this advanced rationalist, because truly, there is no one who could possibly get it less if they tried.
As someone partial to the Eastern tradition of mystical induction (being myself of that blood and course), I should like to start my own line of koanic Zen. The first test shall be an ostensibly declarative statement like "Soteuh telgep maset clepyl eunegin ho," which the student ought to interpret as a question, but I, naturally, would not suggest the possibility. That's the first step, realizing it's a question. The second is realizing this question is not an open-ended hermeneutic invitation but rather a puzzle with a defined scope of acceptable answers. The third and final is to produce an answer within this range, and the answer, in this case, would be to slap me in the face. It doesn't matter which hand is used or which cheek is struck—just not too hard, please, otherwise I might have to close shop from medical expenses. If instead you replied with words, I would meet you with silence. And punching me would be wrong in the extreme; I'd kick you out of my school directly, permanently, and literally for ever dreaming up such an asinine solution, much less executing it. The reward for answering correctly would be another more difficult koan, perhaps with no syllables this time: "Mxyzptlk Ptlkmxyz ZPxYTLKM YXPMZTLK?" (The student must pronounce this correctly.) This quiz-reward schema would continue for eight more levels, ten in all. After he correctly solves the eighth koan, I would give no indication that it's been solved, because the ninth koan is exactly that, pure silence (and once again it's up to the student to grok this). What he doesn't know, however, is that I myself haven't thought of an answer to the ninth koan, so he needs to come up with a solution at the exact same time I decide that it is, in fact, the solution, God knows how he's gonna manage that. And the final koan is, "Give me all your money," to be taken prima facie, but by then the poor kid will take it as anything but, but if he does figure it out and solve it somehow, he'll leave richer in spirit but poorer in capital, that's for sure (no refunds).
The Gospel According to Mark
From the fire of the sun to the clay of the earth to the gears of a clock to the flows of cybernetics to the bits of computation, God is in the machine. Few should dispute the observation that our understanding of mechanistic processes and the amount of entropy in the universe are positively correlated, e.g. phrenology is distanced from modern neuroscience both in accuracy and point of time; that something like a particle accelerator should exist is nothing short of a minor miracle (many bodies are rolling in their graves as we speak but Democritus is not among them), and small surprise that Homo faber should polish his mirror until the doppelganger stares back in perfect symmetry.
A daemon, in computer operating systems, is a process that runs in the background which operates more or less passively to lubricate or maintain some aspect of the system's function. When you close Google Chrome, the Chrome daemon still runs, partitioning a small portion of available memory for itself that can be readily deployed to launch the browser much faster than if the daemon weren't running. Antivirus programs operate largely as daemons, proactively identifying malware and other potential threats, quarantining them on sight, and sporadically scanning the file system to ensure nothing's been compromised. I chose these examples because they're easy to describe, but rest assured, a teeming swarm of daemons is crawling beneath the surface, many of them even more essential for systemic operation. Now what do you suppose might occur if we were to eradicate these critters? Booting up programs would be sluggish, viruses would smell blood, and hell, the system probably couldn't even run. But, in a sense, its mind would be... empty.
It is only appropriate, then, that this age of information should by virtue of the metaphors it makes available enable logicians of psyche, such as George Ainslie, to conceive at ever high resolutions models of mind, such as his theory of human will:
In this model the person comprises a variety of interests – groups of reward-seeking processes – that have been shaped by a natural selection process. The selection is based on hyperbolically discounted rewards, and the interests compete strategically for selection in a marketplace that is almost as free as the natural selection of species. The competition of these interests moves Adam Smith’s “unseen hand” inside the individual mind.11
Daemons: from Genii and Muses to Ego and Id to volitions and velleities to...
i wanna eat ice cream
i wanna please my boss
i wanna quit my job
i wanna go potty
i wanna take a nap
i wanna take a gene test
i wanna people to like me
i wanna i wanna i wanna
i wanna destroy the symbolic order
To machine elves. A Mecosystem of swirling voices, chattering tulpas bickering in a language as foreign to us their hosts as the tongue of OS daemons to the code illiterate. A million billion trillion little pilots in the cockpit of the plane of the mind, working an electrochemical panoply of buttons, knobs, and levers to determine—make no mistake you are determined—your phenomenological Self, in effect the moment-to-moment Schelling point for your multivariate interests, for whom attention, you see, is a scare resource, like jet fuel, the illusion of consciousness serving to constrain the perceptual data of which you are aware, so you can act, adapt, survive, reproduce—replicator that you are, if not in gene then at least in meme, preferably both if your
soul elves would have it—instead of sitting around in stasis, crippled by an intractable paradox of choice. So remember this and remember well, I am Legion, You are Legion, I am You and We are Legion.
Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" He replied, "My name is Legion; for we are many."
There is another idea, at least as old as the Bible, that naming something gives you power over it. But what does "power" entail? In this scenario, two possibilities: emotional calmness and mechanistic manipulability12. To illuminate, let's use Elon Musk as a prop:
When I was a little kid, I was really scared of the dark. But then I came to understand, dark just means the absence of photons in the visible wavelength—400 to 700 nanometers. Then I thought, well, it's really silly to be afraid of a lack of photons. Then I wasn't afraid of the dark anymore after that.
This logic is, of course, entirely orthogonal to the evolutionary reasons for fear of darkness, for darkness—photonic or figurative—is absence of information thus influx of possibility, anything could be lurking there, jaguars, boogeymen, let's drop Musk in a midnight jungle and measure his epinephrine then, except "No, I still wouldn't be afraid of the dark, I'd be afraid of a bear mauling me out of nowhere." Peripheral; what matters is that Musk "named" darkness into something that worked for him and thereby changed his attitude towards it, rational or irrational it makes no difference. And the second point is obvious enough, to make a car or spaceship or company work he has to know all the [engineering/physics/business] jargon to say this does that, has to have names for things. Mind or matter, naming is control, and by extension to achieve a total description is to vanquish anxiety for good.
You'd like that, wouldn't you.
Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I'm now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end, and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery. Without it, we would stagnate. Godel’s theorem ensured there would always be a job for mathematicians. I think M theory will do the same for physicists.
-Stephen Hawking (R.I.P.)
"Really? He'd rationalize away the millennia we've spent building and rebuilding the foundations of our understanding, all the giants on whose shoulders we stood in resolute faith we'd one day reach the heavens, all the lives and efforts and hopes and dreams, fueled by the possibility of GETTING WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT, all to the aim of KEEPING PEOPLE EMPLOYED?!?"
Meditate, will you, on the potential energies of thought the machinebound quadriplegiac may have imbued into the formulation of such a postulate. If minimal, then it would not be unreasonable of us to assume that for this paragon of scientific inquest, such a conclusion was the most natural in the world. If voluminous, then we, who cannot hope to glimpse the valleys, much less the vistas, of one endowed with such intelligence, are all but forced to leave the issue at that, limited as we are in our capacity and equally like so doomed should it be magnitudes greater.
But this, I think, is a doom to activity, pursuit, life, and thus, should one value such things, to be received with positive emotional valence and plenty of cheer. Wille zur Wahrheit—der Wille zum Tode; Hawking must have recognized as much. And should the final arc reveal how this doom becomes its own omega, those who abide may in full rationality excuse themselves from former futilities, having found truth to satisfaction, and go on to do other things, or not. For my part, I accept the ludic principle as that which animates our efforts, sublimated or repressed though it may become through adversity and acculturation—but always lucid, always pure.
Replies the child;
Replies the elder.
The Gospel According to Luke
Brief notes on the Good Samaritan, with some further ethical suggestions.
- We may expect the priest and Levite to provide aid by virtue of their station or lineage, but here neither helps the battered traveler.
- The Samaritan, member of a tribe then regarded as hostile to the Jews, ends up nursing the traveler back to health.
- Nevertheless, mental shortcuts such as stereotypes and general categories often do reflect extant behavioral patterns, and as such ought not to be rejected outright.
- Even so, we should not reach for our Procrustean beds and contort counterexamples to fit the rule. We should adjust the rule to fit experience. Being the virtuous Bayesians that we are.
- A rabbi in those days could point out (given data reflecting, and while acknowledging this Samaritan's virtue) that in most cases priests or Levites would help and in most cases Samaritans would walk on.
- If politically motivated, he could then accuse Christians of weaponizing the parable as a conversion tool, as the two Jews are, in some sense, cast as the villains.
- Ripple effects. Insofar as actions create social facts, we never act only on our own behalf. The traveler may tell others of the Samaritan's kindness, improving their opinion of the Samaritan label more broadly. A police officer who commits wrongful murder decreases estimation of all police officers. Thus we are also always acting and speaking for the entire web of associations any individual may imagine with regards to our identity signifiers. Yes, even you have the power to change the world, and what's worse, you're doing it all the time and you don't even know it and you can't even help it. Tread carefully...
I presumptuously declare that you, like me, do not invite the homeless to take shelter in your abode, teach them how to code, and send them on their way to become productive members of society after confirming they can fish for themselves. If this is true, or even if you, like me, spare no coin for these unfortunate souls pounded down by the pitiless fists of fate, even should your purse have plenty, then rest assured we are all sinners under heaven because there is no more obvious modern parallel to this ancient parable. No, I've heard all the arguments, and sure, but once again the sheer fact remains and no string of words will ever truly convince you otherwise.
The Gospel According to John
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
I imagine a Bible study group dissecting these verses for the entirety of its session and failing to come up with a definitive rendering of what they or the individual words mean, each member leaving believing more strongly in his original point of view. But in my view the words are glue, binding momentarily this gathering of folks in a social situation whose availability alone provides value to each, value manifest psychologically in the tactile sensations of connection and belonging and biologically in the hormonal correlates of these affects. In lieu of the philosophical nature of such discussions (wisdom being presumably the object of desire) or the cynical stance which deems them sophistical sites of logotic banter, I suspect a good number of those who enter them enter thereby Csíkszentmihályi's famous flow state, a desirable end whose pursuit cares not for its channel of fulfillment, be it a wave-mounting surfboard or a tricky passage of semantic contention. Quintessential case for nominative determinism Clayton Christensen had the following to offer:
Many of these insights [from How Will You Measure Your Life?] emerged in Sunday worship meetings with fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints over the past decade across the northeastern quadrant of North America. It is hard to describe these meetings to those who have never experienced them. Their intellectual rigor is comparable to that which I experience at Harvard.
Boggled: I was boggled when I first read this passage years ago. Indeed, I had (and have) never experienced such meetings, but where the militant atheist credentialist found it inconceivable that any religious discourse could in rigor live up to the magisteria of Science and Harvard, yours truly present concedes quite readily both its possibility and occurrence (but to assuage Rube Goldbergs of the former persuasion, yes, a distinction may be made between rigor and result). And as I am no goose-flecked pot-bellied loose-toed green-skin, into the fray I too will jump:
One may posit, as is commonly held, that the word "Word" refers to Jesus Messiah, Christ Jesus, Yeshua Cristos, or any configuration of the ground entity, as the thing to be delivered or spoken to a people who had not yet heard the mellifluous intonations of this instrument of salvation. John says it was there from the first. Or rather he was there, "He was in the beginning with God," as was she, lady wisdom, under another theology, but only he was God. Logos, additionally, carried a beehive of entendres for the Greeks, "Appropriately, essentially," some argue, and to illustrate one can gesture at its carving function, which sets in relief an item of contemplation against the base background of buzzing indeterminacy, or its creative function, whereby is birthed the relation between object and non-object without which contemplation lacks possibility (for even a wordless poem requires designation as such).
Alas, are we to be concerned with minor syncretisms? Let us ask how it can be that the Word was at once God and with God. Common sense is clearly violated. To divide a part from a whole is to deprive that whole of wholeness, or so it goes, for what whole remains upon division except the bread that Jesus broke? I invoke Planaria. When cut in two, each half becomes a new flatworm commensurate with the original in behavior and in size. Even a tiny fraction sliced from its mass regenerates into a whole body—no mere partial object. This notion's ne plus ultra is found in Leibniz, who states that each monad, "chaque substance simple," is "un miroir vivant perpétuel de l'univers," a perpetual living mirror of the universe, and indeed, to all appearances, it seems that every particle (and thus every whole) is inextricably entangled with every other, past present and future, anywhere and everywhere. Fractality: It is like so how the Word—Jesus, logic, language, any configuration of the ground entity—can be at once God and with God.
The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
Saramago, atheist, heathen, heretic, blasphemer, twisted in his infinite arrogance these four reports, this happy news, into libelous collage, deigning to cast the myth of Christ into the mold of human life, going even where no Jung would dare to tread, through houses and landscapes of thick detail where imagination and interpretation had for centuries wholly and holy sufficed, through throats and tongues of Son and Father to weave his wicked web of witty words in interpolated farce, for who, when the worms have left their can and the cat her bag, would choose to fuse that world with this one, would presume to reconcile sacred with profane, or rather collapse the former into the latter with all its zits and canker sores instead of elevating the latter (it's all we have) into the former and imploring us to see eternity in momentary history, who other than that two-horned imp of succulent temptation, that master of disguise, that personified persuasion, now goat now snake now stinging colony of symbiotic polyps, would make of Mary Magdalene a mesmerizing madam, of the Scion Ben Sira sired a sinner whose example none should follow, of God a greater evil than the d-vil and of himself a sympathetic shepherd damned to life neverending, for, says the puppet puppeteer, Because the good I represent cannot exist without the evil you represent, if you were to end, so would I, unless the devil is the devil, God cannot be God, and this, my friends, is difference, definition, Dao.
Although the authorship of the canonical gospels has, from a historical standpoint, remained contentious, this does not in any way impede lay practitioners from assuming each was written by the individual whose name is in the title. The Gospel According To Jesus Christ, in contrast, is inescapably José Saramago's handiwork and as such fibs from the outset, cannot be what it claims. But enough pedantry; I haven't seen anybody address the topic of narration in this book so I'm going to take a crack at it. Spoilers ahead.
Is Jesus the narrator? Well, it's third person—"Mary," not "mother," "Joseph," not "father"—up to page 22—when suddenly:
Verily I say unto you, the treachery of women knows no limits, especially when they feign innocence.
which sounds like King James Jesus alright (the first clause at least)—and mostly thereafter, with even Jesus referred to as "Jesus" until the moment of his death. This narrator, who sporadically breaks the fourth wall, also appears to have as recent a view of history as Saramago's:
It may seem inappropriate to put the complex theories of modern thinkers into the head of a Palestinian who lived so many years before Freud, Jung, Groddeck, and Lacan, but if you will pardon our presumption, it is not all that foolish, when one considers the scriptures from which the Jews derive their spiritual nourishment consistently teach that a man, no matter the age in which he lives, is the equal in intellect of all other men.
Is Saramago the narrator? This passage unquestionably takes cues from Kundera's metafictional style, modeling the reader's mind and addressing—directly and personally—potential challenges she may have with regards to the (narrato-)author's treatment of certain narrative elements. But let's axe this hypothesis for now, it's too quotidian. Given that the narrator is at ease with the twentieth century, and given that it is Christ, then it must be a post-resurrection Christ (with just the first given, it may also be a quaternary entity).
A few chapters on, we find God revealing to Jesus a sampling of the carnage that is to come about as a result of his passio:
Adalbert of Prague put to death with a seven-pronged pikestaff, Adrian hammered to death over an anvil, Afra of Augsburg burned at the stake, Agapitus of Praeneste burned at the stake hanging by his feet, Agnes of Rome disemboweled, Agricola of Bologna cruficied and impaled on nails...
...five pages later
...Vincent of Saragossa tortured to death with millstone, grid, and spikes, Virgilius of Trent beaten to death with a wooden clog, Vitalis of Ravenna put to the sword, Wilgefortis or Livrade of Eutropia the bearded virgin crucified, and so on and so forth, all of them meeting similar fates.
First of all, this alphabet of agony is exactly the sort of assignment I'd expect a class clown to hand in for high school history. But Saramago? Beyond a Nobel Prize winner—immortalized in the Western Canon. Hilarious. Do pick up a copy, it's worth your time I swear and promise, especially if you've read the Gospels first. That said, sensitive believers may take this rather gruesome passage as an assault on their religion's sanctity, and indeed, Saramago was in effect anathematized from his home country as a result of publishing this false gospel. "Result"; let us dip into causality. Beside the proximate and ultimate there seems to be the salient, a category which though too nebulous for admission to philosophy proper is valid on its own terms as psychic phenomenon; we may never know in the grand course of history whether Christ turned on the wing of a butterfly or the spin of an atom ejected from a dying nebula but we do know that he was, myth or matter it matters not, and then enough to attribute this or that event to the idea by the palpability of the emotions the relation we conceptualize between the two evokes, its salience. True, the Crusades. True, the colonies. True, the science, the philosophy, and the sacred fire which has enabled so many to endure so much. True then, true now.
But back to the point, the diegetic God, as evidenced above, is permitted the same historical view, unavailable to the diegetic Jesus, as our narrator (who never self-discloses). So he is either, by virtue of "Verily I say unto you," a then-contemporary resurrected Jesus, or, by virtue of blatant metafiction, Saramago (or a stand-in). Two possibilities is too disappointing so I'm gonna go with the former. I have reasons. The first: Saramago, unless he actually intended to equate himself with the Lamb (and thereby confirm my allegations of arrogance), would not have placed the Son's catchphrase in his own mouth. The second: It would accord with the book's title. The third: Jesus, presumably elsewhere (meta)physically and mentally after nearly two millennia post-New Testament, could—under the realist psychology with which Saramago endowed him—plausibly have become so detached from his past manifestation and its antics that he can now recount its story beneath the aspect of eternity, whimsically and impersonally. Q.E.D. Now the biggest shame is that we cannot resurrect Saramago so he can tell me how goddamn right I am.
The Acts of the Apostles
For several days [Paul] was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." All who heard him were amazed and said, "Is this not the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name?"
Everyone knows the story of Paul, Judaism's most ardent champion and Christianity's biggest detractor until Jesus himself opened the clouds and spoke in a blaze of glory so bright it blinded Paul into the faith. Recognize that many Jews (as depicted in the Gospels) converted upon witnessing Jesus' miracles and contextualizing them through the words written or spoken of old prophets minor and major; they did not require so direct and extreme an intervention as did Paul. From this (and holding some essentialism about beliefs) we see faint outlines of the idea that persuasion is dependent on a personal epistemology, a knowledge structure whose conditions for entry and exit (based on a prior ruleset instantiated by experience ab initio) vary from person to person, and furthermore that epistemology is always personal (in perhaps a trivial sense)13.
Aristotle's triad hints at much the same. Diff'rent keys for diff'rent locks; what for one is a matter of pastoral authority or Truth from a Reputable News Source may for another require scientific investigation or heartrending yarns. Even these are too general. The torture chamber: one may regard it as a sort of lockpicking. What will it take to convince this person to fess up the operative information? A few threatening words? Sustained physical pain? A nice walk through the park? Note this, it's not that Hannah persisted in faith after the cruel slaughter of her seven sons, it's that Antiochus could have marched every man, woman, child and donkey in the body of Israel through that furnace and still would her faith have brighter blazed; that there existed no terms under which it could have faltered, except for one; and truly deistic intervention is the only condition of persuasion in certain situations, such as Hannah's hypothetical capitulation (but why would God want that) or the hypothetical world where that one chick agrees to go out with you (ditto).
Let us now shift the locus of persuasive conditionality to a straw torturer. "Yahweh, Yahweh, I have spoken his name, my God is false, Xenu forever Xenu forever!" Squeals her victim in desperation. Yet how might she confirm that he was not merely performing to escape the occasion, but truly believed these hard-won words in his heart of hearts? What standards of knowledge, in other words, would suffice for this avatar of brutality? And even then, how could she ensure the belief change was permanent, not just effected for the kairos? Once again—and in no uncertain terms—it is impossible to verify a private phenomenology (sans at least a universal supercomputer, at which point the endeavor becomes meaningless for obvious reasons). Thus she continues her evil until she is satisfied; let the victim pray her sadism knows limits.
The Letter of Paul to the Romans
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
There is a proposition which takes the form:
If you are not a slave to X, then you are a slave to Y.
If you believe that actions encode ends (broadly defined) and that one is necessarily always acting, you can say without being too inconsistent that one is always being directed by some end or a collection. The directive power ends maintain over their subjects inspires the connection with slavery; we are "enslaved" by our morals, tastes, biological "imperatives," what have you, drink you're a slave to thirst, don't you're slave to resisting the idea you're a slave to thirst, either way you still feel the thirst. Gotcha!
Too basic, ask instead what drives this framing, what psychology must one possess to describe things as such. You will find, I surmise, one who is slave to the concept of slavery, that is to say a slavemind. Cotton-picker or gladiator, ask yourself what were their cortisol levels like, high or low? And Schopenhauer? A pessimistic weltanschauung is, if not given as consequence of viewing all as an idiot puppeteer's aleatory absurdity, then as a priori inspiration for that very stance's artifice. Von Kleist, by contrast, saw a marionette dancing effortlessly by a puppetmaster's knowing hand.
Still too basic, now ask yourself, what is the social function of uttering a proposition of that form? Ah, that's right. "Get in line with me."
The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians
"Find me," beckoned the reason why church attendance has been sliding over the last fifty years, so I scoured the cracks in the glittering glass and the gnarled oaken doors, the votive wax burned off dyed candles and its thin ricey fragrance, the pews and pulpit, the grime of confession booth corners and the Christless cross atop the altar, but 'twas only when my stomach began rumbling that God gave me the crucial clue, for I knew at once to conclude the search and spare my perspiration; where else could it be but the Eucharist plate, and the question not one of smell or sight, sound or touch—but taste.
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?
Indeed, a strong correlation between sacramental bread quality and church participation has been identified. This makes sense in retrospect because prayer begins in the belly, an organ formed before the mind; the passion to which reason is slave. Thus: Jesus Must Taste Good. As such, I, from the generosity of my heart, have pledged to assist chapels near and far insofar as my ability permits, which, seeing as my primary skill is rating food, is quite the distance. Still, the utmost sacrality of these comestibles forced me to sublate the known limits of gastronomic appraisal and synthesize a new technique, called inductive dégustation, for just this purpose and by which one may divine the consumptive qualia of any foodstuff by its physiognomy and composition alone. The six breads following have been culled from bakeries the globe around to bear the weight of analysis.
- Swanson Communion Wafers.
- White, pale, translucent. Like vinyard grapes, the Nazarene's flavor varies tremendously based on terroir and season of reaping. For whatever reason Swanson decided to cut him off at his apparitional stage, and as such, effi-Jesus tastes of faint nothing (though he is a tad crispy). Overall an inoffensive choice, but alas incapable of sparking a scintilla of religious ardor.
- Broadman Church Supplies Communion Wafers.
- Food for birds. Leave a loaf of bread on the counter and it goes stale. Now imagine cutting it into circular chunks with a steel ring and then compressing each into a disc; such is the Broadman wafer. Exciting, right?
- Concordia Supply Co. Communion Wafers No. 2 Crucifix.
- Eats like cut corners, to be honest, which is to say hard and chalky. Best not to lick the edge, sharp enough to draw blood, or chew such that fragments wedge between your teeth and elicit painful jolts. The fine silt (of flour, hopefully) dusting both sides of each coin holds a sourness akin to that found in a gulp of Perrier.
- Ostificio Morreale Ritagli Di Ostie.
- One should have no delusions about the height of any dish's gourmet ceiling (or the depth of its gourmet floor), as a piece of nigiri has more room to sink and soar than does a hot dog—and a hot dog a communion host—but as far as tradition and simplicity are concerned, Italy shares Japan's throne with good reason. Transubstantiation, to be sure, is an alchemical process, thus elementary, and at that one requiring only the basics: wheat from the earth, its flour congealed by water, given spine by oven's fire, tempered by the cooling air and Christened by the aether. Skill, however, shines in the balance and the Morreale host is second to none. No two are alike—with variance in size, texture, and thickness—but this is strength, not weakness, as it keeps partakers (A) on their toes and (B) coming back for more. Meanwhile crunch (clean, sharp break) and flavor (buttery, smoky) remain consistent.
- Cavanagh Altar Bread.
- With packaging reminiscent of crematorial urns, Cavanagh pulls no punches. These slender circles crack with a nutty crunch, and if left to linger on the tongue, release a memory of rose sugar. Fully recommended. For maximum effect, priests are to supplement communion sermons with illustrated worksheets encouraging parishioners to map parts of Jesus' anatomy to each quadrant of a Cavanagh cracker.
- Domus Particola Taglio Chiuso.
- The eagle, reader, sentenced to rend liver from liver, do you suppose we must imagine it happy? Oh, what rivers of joy Prometheus would cry if only he knew how ephemeral his punishment really was, if only he had a sliver of perspective, how then would he appreciate the banality of Jupiter's imagination and how bizzare—not monstrous, not horrifying—he would find (were he to learn) the grievous nadir of torment to be yoked as fate upon a future god, not because it isn't those things but because its animus—however much one tries to grasp it—is beyond comprehension, stupefying; for this god—this gift? this grist—is to be resurrected moto perpetuo for a billion little cannibals to nibble at nerve ends the whole body over, over and over, and if the ghost of grains on threshing floors could speak what infernal shrieking would erupt from each bubbling alveolus as it burst in futile protest of the hyperviolence inflicted upon its host to quench a thirst unslakable, squelch a hunger insatiable. Where were we? Oh right. I think another innovation is in order: anti-tasting notes. Flavor hints noticeably absent from the Domus particles are licorice, rhubarb, copper, and milk—but otherwise they're quite snackable.
The Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians
For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—
Is this selfish? Syllogistically, if all actions arise from value functions, which are all necessarily had by a self. Do notice, however, the tendency in those who actively advance this argument to slide down the slippery slope into the polluted pond of the word's dictionary definition—not a syllogism but a colloquialism—to thereby justify their antisocial avarice and splash the commons with negative-sum delight. So please be altruistic, value satisfying others' functions. If you do, and if others like those who do, then others will like you. That's sound syllogy.
The Letter of Paul to the Galatians
Have your cake and eat it too—"Porque no los dos," contests the girl. Her confusion is understandable because the idiom is garbage. To stop further headaches: One "has" a cake to the extent that one can see it, thus eating it diminishes said extent. So unless she's Jesus, she can't both have it and eat it; she must choose.
But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"
In the nascent years of the Christian faith, Jews had to choose between a few options. They could continue obeying Moses' guidance as they'd been doing for generations or follow Paul's example and leave their fates with Jesus. OR (you can imagine them thinking) they could practice their traditions while having faith hope and charity in Christ's redemption, thereby satisfying both sets of conditions for entering a good afterlife, which would've been the rational choice if Paul hadn't said No and forced them to pick between—if they were wrong—a gray, Yahless limbo or a molten furnace of boiling sulfur, either way putting them in a sticky spot. (Hypocrisy, however, is sinful in both faiths so poor Cephas here suffers a double castigation.)
Paul's defection as a venerable Pharisee compounded the severity of this bind; in casting his lot with Christ and aside the Torah, he put his soul on the line and in the game, effectively ransoming everyone else's until they placed their own chips, so to speak, on the table, the only surefire winning hands being dead ones: those of Abraham, Moses and ilk who'd been faithful to God before his schizophrenic breakdown. The Rabbinical position, informed by centuries of warnings about false prophets and accusers, was obviously that Satan was at work, because of course tests mean nothing if they're easy so of course he'd lead people astray through Paul, a zealous high-status scholar who could outdebate the best of them. As before—no answers, only actions.
The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians
(When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
As above, so down under, so it goes, with Australia being child of australis, meaning "southern"; those convicts, though p-zombies, behave no differently than us conscious northern freemen, so we have to ask what's the difference and of course it's all in the name, as Trismegistus once deduced and Paul here before him, the Daoists before them and the Jains before them: no south without a north, tall without a short, figure without ground, self without other. This inherent antagonism's explicit grasping recurred with the regularity and independence of many a mathematical discovery, seating it with hypotenuse and rate of change calculations as nigh-universal natural law. As a paradox, however, it resists formalization (which can only ever circumscribe it) and—though consistent—is thus at best quasi-mathematical. The modern variant, "Which precedes, relations or relata," is a linguistic ouroboros with no everyday relevance, a particular acid which dissolves nothing but sanity. Nevertheless, we must not discard its underlying intuition, which, when used—not thought—is antidote. To what?
Consider Syādvāda, the Jain conditionality doctrine which treats truth like a multidimensional vector space allowing any given statement to be assessed via every thinkable entendre. A simple case is chaos and order with each typifying the other; static noise on a TV screen is—in a sense—chaos, but also—in another—an obvious pattern, and though any particular birth is magnitudes less likely than a coin landing heads, the chaos of probability has ordered itself into this particular universe, magnitudes unlikelier still. This "in a sense," or innocence, functions like the cut in a film reel, necessary to join two scenes—or senses—together but unseen in itself. Even here the principle operates. Scissor-snipped celluloid shows slice lines invisible to moviegoers, for whom cuts are timeless non-instants, mini-com(m)as during which passes unspecified diegetic time; and here "cut" refers to a tangible transition, for the audience would notice no difference in a single shot whose frames were cut and spliced back together one-by-one. The cuts are there (in one sense), yet not (in another). We can thus use Syādvāda like a razor to slash any Gordian knot constricting the floodgates of definition.
The Letter of Paul to the Philippians
Michel Foucault, who's been featured in three(!) of my posts now, spent much of his life writing about prisons, but in my humble opinion he didn't do any justice to the positive aspects so we're gonna fix that tout de suite.
Aside from all the bad parts, being in prison is sort of like playing Tetris. Tetris filters out the outer world for the mind to concentrate on a limited, meditative set of tasks: rotating blocks, shifting them left and right, fitting them in place, clearing built-up detritus. The prisoner, shielded from exterior happenings and social ties, is likewise free to focus on the essential.
Picture now that you've been "locked up." Want to get buff? If you haven't tried breaking rocks in the prison yard, it's a full body exercise. Or maybe running's more your thing. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in jail, but meanwhile he jogged seven miles in place every morning which no doubt improved his long-term cardiovascular outcomes and was the reason he ended up living just short of a hundred. Or maybe you're a Barton Fink who knows the good life is the life of the mind. Chelsea Manning read nearly a thousand books while imprisoned. The Unabomber and former LSD magnate Leonard Picking both wrote books behind bars, not to mention Dostoyevsky, whose incarceration was really a sort of fermentation, since it gave him much inspiration to write tomes heftier than his ball-and-chain. Colleges sell "Change the world" to prospects, but if that's your goal you'd be better off going to prison (and writing therefrom) because world history has been—demonstrably—changed by prison tracts like the Pauline Epistles and Mein Kampf.
If that wasn't enough, there's free food, free shelter, and free Johnny Cash concerts. What more could one ask out of life? You also never have to decide what clothes to wear (they come with the package) or—if you're old enough—what retirement home to pick; Bernie Madoff and Carmine Persico get to ride it out playing bridge and taking nice strolls in the garden. All in all, not a bad deal; modern prisoners probably live better than most kings did.
Now I hear you determinists and anarchists out there countering that no one enters prison of their own free will, it's always coerced, either by Fate or the State. False. Elderly women in Japan commit crimes of their own volition because they know what awaits them in prison is companionship. And if no one can decide to go to prison, then no one chooses to play Tetris either, so that objection is like, totally trivial man. In fact it is often the opposite. In The Shawshank Redemption, Brooks Hatlen was wise enough to understand that only in prison was he ever actually free, so when he gets released—against his will, mind you—he acts accordingly.
But wait, there's more!
Prisons come in all shapes and sizes, so make sure to pick one that conforms to your personal aesthetics. Depending on the type of crime you commit, you might even get a whole island to yourself, as in the case of Alcatraz, or in exceptional circumstances a whole continent—and here I'm referring to Australia by the way—which has since produced such illustrious convicts as Steve Irwin and David Chalmers. Or maybe, as per Bo "We're All Doing Time" Lozoff, Earth itself is a prison—no one chooses to be born after all—and until we get the memo to transcend the karmic cycle, we'll continue being thrown into the loop.
The Letter of Paul to the Colossians
I know a lazy person when I see one since I am one. This qualifies me to explain Christianity's conversion strategy. See:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch"?
It is a synthetic truth of human sociology that a certain percentage of the members in any given society is going to be lazy. The Jews are no exception. What do you think happened when Paul started telling them they'd go to a better afterlife if they dropped all those tedious rituals? Yeah.
The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (Emphasis mine)
Fun fact, early Christians expected the eschaton within their lifetimes. Based on one Sunday May 13 of 2018 when I saw an entourage of evangelizers in Seattle's Westlake Park, one of whom—a glistening 98.6° ball of sweat tucked in midday sun-baked poplin—was holding up a STOP sign below whose octagon white cardboard ("Jesus is Coming") was taped, I can verify that Jesus had not in fact swooped Paul into an altitudinous aerosol of moist particulates. Granted—this was a sign that Jesus is coming, but not any the Romans would've recognized.
The world is not sufficiently coherent to lead to the Apocalypse.
Who is saved and who is lost, by what means, on what date or during what period, what will happen, bang or whimper; each failed prophecy is like the wolf sound of the crying boy, it discredits the profession and desensitizes the public. Now who will heed those batty AI Singularitarians who claim theirs is special, theirs is based on "empirical principles" thus "possible in theory," as if the others' weren't, for their magi, in their time. "But the wolf does come." Irrelevant; the dirty secret is that the pyrrhic "I told you so" is worth the world—every time. The dirtier secret is that we need the apocalypse to constitute us as such. No cults deny that some thing will happen some time some where to some body, they just disagree on the particulars, as they must, of course, reality being above all utterly devoid of romance, incapable of sustaining life without an IV drip of imagination. Hence why the end times are only ever imminent but always already immanent. Doomsday, you see, is no day of the week, Cavafy's barbarians never storm Heaven's Gate and like so we are all Waiting for Godot. Perhaps it should be; at least then it would come.
The Second Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians
I would rather plummet from Eden any day of the week than bite a Red Delicious apple, whose vibrant and uniformly red exterior belies a flesh unfit for maggots, a rancid skunklike mush better suited for the torture cell than the grocery store. In a similar vein, food described as "tasty" or "delicious" on restaurant menus tends to be anything but, and restaurants that brand themselves as "World Famous" tend to be anything but. Blue Velvet gets it; but why this pathology of unabashed connery should be distinctly American is a thread for historians to unravel. I can only see this willful disdain of the Golden Rule stemming from a general antipathy towards the common man, viewed as resource, goods, chattel—anything but a fellow.
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.
Second Thessalonians is widely known to be a forgery, written by no hand of Paul's, and yet it here it lies, canonized. Like the fare above, it wastes no time insisting it is something it is not. Thus: "If you have to front it, you probably don't got it14," which ostensibly obtains in marketing ploys where (A) a concrete object—fruit, store, letter—whose existence is undeniable is explicitly tied to (B) an abstract quality—flavor, fame, authenticity—which takes additional work to verify. Other parties include the victim, naive enough to "buy the tie," and the scammer, who hopes his initial honesty—the apple being indeed red—will suffice to establish trust in his other assertion(s). The corollary is that the ads we fall for are the ones we deserve, and from the looks of it, we haven't changed much since the cross took Christ.
The First Letter of Paul to Timothy
Chick-fil-A is the darling of business school case studies because the company vastly and consistently outperforms its competitors15. The driving question: What level of analysis best accounts for this phenomenon? Is it the product? Seasoned with salt, paprika, and monosodium glutamate, washed with milk and fried to a golden crisp in peanut oil, its trademark chicken sandwich is a hit among my premium mediocre millennial friends who consider themselves above less prestigious options like Wendy's and McDonald's, having it their way by eating Chick-fil-A. But plenty of companies with solid product have been felled by poor execution, so good food is insufficient to account for its success. Is it operational efficiency? Certainly, more than fifty years of consecutive sales growth with the highest per-restaurant sales of any chain in the country speaks to its immense sustainable scaling ability, especially given how each branch is open only six days a week instead of the standard seven. Is it the people? Getting warmer! No doubt it takes a capable team to grease the gears, and given its comparatively low annual employee turnovers of 60% for hourly workers and 5% for franchise owners (at least back in '02), it must be doing something right. So who are these people and why are they so good? Good question. Looks like potential hires are vetted by their ability:
To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.
-Chick-fil-A Statement of Corporate Purpose
Not to make great food, not to satisfy its customers, not to provide a good experience. To glorify God. I don't know how they quantify this, or if they do, or if it's necessary, but I do know their infamously grueling hiring process actively selects for practicing members of the Christian faith, whom we might assume to have a better idea (or any idea at all) of what it means to glorify God than do secular infidels. So they walk the walk. Well, so what? How does this translate to competitive edge? Does giving them a day off to go to church somehow recharge them for battle, and if so, is that extra energy really worth a whole day of potential profit?
Perhaps, but I think the answer lies in the special kind of company structure this lets them access. A vertically integrated company controls its whole supply chain. A horizontally integrated company controls its market category. An ideologically integrated company is one whose employee constituents are nearly all True Believers in its core mission and cultural values. Which is to say, the most delicious drink to pair with your chicken sandwich is a nice big jug o' Kool-Aid. We're going straight down to Jonestown, boys! All kidding aside, if we were back in the early aughts I'd've make a killing turning this little concept into a business book and myself a Thought Leader shopping it around the TED Talk circuit like the real sleazeball I am, but nowadays we know better than to guzzle such performative intellectualism, don't we, hm?
Anyway, if all the voices in your head are saying the same thing, it's a lot easier to get stuff done. Same thing with companies. And while diversity of thought (and identity) can be advantageous in sectors with fast OODA loops, unity shines through in established cash cow industries with well-understood, highly systematic business models. On top of this, the Christian ethic may specifically reinforce unity of purpose by acting as an additional psychological affirmation layer (in the vein of architect Alexander's structure-preserving transformation) to character traits exalted in the business world such as conscientiousness, commitment, consistency, and beyond even loyalty, devotion; going to church, community volunteering, being married, and raising children in a stable family environment are telling proxies. In unity-oriented industries (like quick-service restaurants), a whole ecosystem of such individuals (like Chick-fil-A) would thusly be a force to be reckoned with.
Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way—for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God's church?
The Second Letter of Paul to Timothy
"In the fall of the year eighteen centuries, two hundred decades, and seven solar orbits after the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in the State of Pennsylvania by the name of Randolph Frederick Pausch gave the last lecture he ever was to give," is what I would have said had it been in fact the final instance, but it was, alas, only one of them; the Last Lecture™ show had a round around the circuit, because the show... it must go on. Right, Barnum, right, Bailey, right, Beckett?
The story goes like this, a university professor gets diagnosed with cancer, irradicable, Yeh've got six munths ta live, Randy, use 'em wisely. (It's only when we know we're dying that we're truly free.) So he packs his life into an hour and launches that sandglass like a rocket into memespace, countdown clock be damned I will own my valediction. So much for going gently. Watch the lecture. This, indisputably, was a man of dogged perseverance uncompromising in his allegiance to a set of core principles held long and strongly. He does pushups on stage and claps in between them, juxtaposing the vitality of his torso with the encroaching shears of Atropos. He wheels out a set of jokes, memories, and giant teddy bears won at carnivals. And then, of course, advice:
Get mentors; tell the truth; be earnest; apologize when you screw up; focus on others, not yourself; brick walls let us show our dedication; get a feedback loop and listen to it; show gratitude; don't complain, just work harder; luck is where preparation meets opportunity.
Ecclesiastes 1:9, yes, but there is no self-standing ethical statement and none should fool themselves into reading the talk's CliffsNotes version. What there is is an implicit recognition of container as information; no one's watching this to hear life tips from a code pusher but every soul stuffed in that auditorium knows to suit themselves with gravitas in considering this as the last message of a dying man. What they will remember, that is to say what will take longest to fade, is not this or that suggestion, lest they be personally predisposed to hearing exactly that then, but rather that which moves them—the jokes, the pushups, the teddies—or so to speak the life, which they most definitely are.
Die he did, in the end, as do we all, for now, but while his corpse decays his effigy lives, and if ever we are to develop a causal account of its ghastly reverberations, we will need to conceive a proper haunt-o-logic, generalizable to all spirits e.g. the Spectre of Marx, but like so many tantalizing fruits this too remains floating out of reach, for now.
The Letter of Paul to Titus
This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Two thousand years of exegesis yet not one person has figured out what the hell the Holy Spirit is. Enter me. Through a tortuous procession of existential crises, dark nights, and just overall badness, I, an independent seeker of spotless authenticity, spiritual integrity, and unassailable character have made the discovery to end all discoveries and secured the evidence to quell all queries. Yes, it's true. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here today to present before you the article for which you've been searching all this time to no avail, a precise, ecumenical definition of the Holy Spirit, or Holy Ghost if you prefer. Without further ado:
The Holy Spirit is the egregore of Christianity.
Whoa, hold your horses, yes I'll explain. Just as you need to know arithmetic to do algebra, you have to grok what an egregore is before you can understand the Holy Spirit. An egregore is a collective groupmind that operates at a higher order of complexity than each of its atomic components, an aggregate superorganism that emerges from network interactions between close-knit groups of subagents.
An anthill is the perfect example. Modeling the behavior of single ants in isolation is significantly easier than modeling how a bunch of them interact with each other, but although each ant in a group presumably has the same level of brainpower, groups of them ball up to survive floods, hoist heavier prey home, and construct intricate underground structures, displaying higher problem solving ability and, as it were, intelligence, than that possessed by any member. But no individual ant can account for the behavior of the structure, and furthermore, the structure's blueprint—its rules for assimilating, organizing, and differentiating lone ants—cannot be deduced by examining any one of them in however much depth. In what way, then, does the anthill exist?
A question for the ages. For most, it's enough to call an anthill by its name when they spot one. For us, we call attention to different species of insects and focus on the fact that their anthill equivalents will behave differently, have different capabilities. For convenience, we can take the step of naming these hiveminds: "Jin" may refer to the egregore of fire ants; "Arnold," the avatar of termites; "Erice," the spirit of the beehive. "Toshiba," "Unilever," "Microsoft": egregores all. Millions of workers daily ship into their very physical hives to execute a limited set of routines guided explicitly and implicitly by heuristics teleological and ideological for which no unit can have more than an inkling of awareness, much less hope to enumerate16. These conditions do not preclude such systems from accomplishment, rather they are necessary for proper operation in the same way that we, as hypothetical C-EGOs, need not know the career progression of each neuron to manifest executive function. Speaking of which, don't our institutions look a lot like us? They have goals, just like people, act to satisfy them, just like people, and promote themselves, just like people. And with Citizens United v. FEC, the U.S. judicial system continues its steady march towards squaring corporate rights with those of private citizens. You tell me, is a corporation a person?17
Quiet down, I know what some of you are thinking, why should we bother with this concept "egregore" at all. Well, as creatures of finite computational capacity we depend on linguistic abstractions to represent and communicate core aspects of phenomenal experience, emphasis on core, for although more granular, bottom-up approaches have the advantage of causal precision, they come at the cost of informational burden. The abstractions we select, then, must "do work" in some context if they are to be utile wherein, and specialized lexica evolve pressured by specific contextual demands. Since our goal is to pin down the Holy Spirit, it befits us to locate a word for the class of entity to which it supposedly belongs; "egregore" has both semantic availability in contemporary usage and, I purport, the descriptive accuracy needed to account for the phenomenon. Beyond this, however, consider the function of the mythological layer to which the plurality of egregores properly belongs. Myths, often memorable, can and have been used to encode ethical guidelines and descriptive realities alike. In other words, they are efficiently compressed, psychologically pragmatic, instrumentally deployable information. It is not invalid to claim, in this sense, that, as ants are at the mercy of their hives, so we are but pawns for gods and demons. And if perchance you, being the sort of prickly pear who should require every notion be derived from "first principles" (of ultimately arbitrary depth) before granting it space in your toolbox, should still reject this extensive excursus I laid brick by bloody brick to allay your admittedly pigheaded concerns, then you are irredeemably, to bring back my old phrase, beyond salvation.
Time for an exercise: Identify one such entity of which you are or have been part. I'll start. Reddit, an egregore which harvested me for years, prefers Ready Player One, Ender's Game, The Count of Monte Cristo, the whole carnival in fact of suchlike folderol, a reflection of its insectoid constituents' eternal childhood, the lot of whom engages in a desperate rain dance for wonderment sealed in illo tempore, but no summoner spell can rewind those inexorable hands for Chronos makes of Peter Pan a Gregor Samsa and I swear so long as God reigns in the stars above there is no Legion—Eli—so worthy of exorcision as this wailing chorale of puer aeterni, no infestation so deserving of extermination as this blighted nest of sightless termites gnawing indifferently away at the crooked timber pillars of moral cultivation and refined discrimination, reader it is true, I was nowhere when you laid the foundations of the earth but am I—Eli—so damned a sinner that you would watch them crumble and decay, left to rust with the rest of us, unworthy of flood, unworthy of fire, unworthy now of even ire, O if there be one morsel of forgiveness still in your ageless heart remaining hear my prayer—lama sabachthani—will you resuscitate the slumbering corpus of history and end this aeon of perpetual pause?
JUNG: Your Santa Claus envy is showing.
FREUD: The transference is strong with this one.
Fine, sure, it's why we write, as you know. In any case, I suppose we're about disposed to tackle the trickiest part of the Trinity. One last note. What standards Nietzsche may have had for terming a given quantity of sand a heap or pile I do not know, but by Jove the man knew a dead God when he saw one. Poet before philosopher, he understood "Enlightenment rationality has supplanted Christian theology as the moral barometer of civilization" or (more accurately) any descriptive statement on the latter's loss of ideological dominance would not have been incisive as "Gott is tot." Nevertheless, I hereby and with great prejudice rescind his license to practice as an egregorial psychologist, because what mad man would pronounce his patient dead—to his face—when by all appearances he was just a little sick, and furthermore, far more egregiously, what right mind would misidentify the very patient under examination. But yes, lured by the ancient dreams of geometers past, the then-cognoscenti found greater romance in their toys and tinkering than the dusty tales of old, thereby evaporating enough of the ambient Spiritual humidity, as it were, that some sensitive souls took notice. Ozone depletion: harmful then, harmful now, as we see with melanoma prevalence in the Oz-zone.
To cut to the chase, the Holy Spirit, an egregore, is that which animates the engine of Christianity in the broadest permissible span of that term; from the air-conditioned pews of a Baptist megachurch to the hallowed cloisters of Patriarch Kirill, the Ghost is in the machine. Thus, though God wills all, the Crusades were very much the Spirit's responsibility in a way that Genghis Khan's brutal massacres distinctly weren't. More on this to come. For now, just know that in my theology, God is not "alive" or "dead," he—or it—simply is, Christ, insofar as he was a man, died so his Ghost could haunt us, and the Holy Spirit, as the collective community of Christian believers, has taken some damage over the years, but alive it is and alive it will remain so long as Chick-fil-A remains, as it were, alive.
The Letter of Paul to Philemon
Perhaps this is the reason [Onesimus] was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Paul's appeal microcosmically recalls the events whereby Christ's death transformed Torah custom from moral edict into ethical suggestion (Romans 7:4); the parallels apparate after some minor adjustments: "Perhaps this is the reason Israel was separated from You for a while, so that (through Christ) You might have her back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave." By analogy, Philemon is likened to the Lord. How flattering.
However, let us imagine we are the Philemon being addressed. The dilemma is thus. Either we emancipate Onesimus or lose face as a Christian, both to ourselves, if our faith be sincere, and to Paul, both as our friend, if friends we were, and as our religion's de facto leader, which he most certainly was. I'm inclined to agree with the position that this letter's survival testifies to our compliance with option A, but we were not so God-like as to decide according to our pleasure, constrained as it was by the compulsive force of Paul's rhetorical checkmate. Some choice.
The Letter to the Hebrews
Do you believe it is possible to know things? Don't worry, I do too, it's the most self-evident thing in the world. Point out how they put their shirt on or how they can speak English and watch as deniers barf out a whole bowl of word salad like clockwork, all of which can be nipped at the bud by replying, "What nonsense," "That's not important," or, "Why should I care." But if you're curious enough to listen, you might start thinking they have a point, and that, beware, is how the tower tumbles.
Warning: headbanging ahead.
The typical converted atheist, that is to say someone who for whatever reason left some variant of Abrahamic religion, is quite happy to quote Bible verses to—whichever befits the situation—point out internal contradictions or justify their new epistemology, master signifiers (read: spooks) "Truth," "Science," "Reason," "Knowledge," whatever vague things these mean for them in their heads. Example:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
- "I don't hold any conviction for things I can't see. If there's no evidence for it, then it doesn't exist. Faith is irrational and goes against everything science stands for."
Reasonable enough. Whether or not most scientists nowadays are religious, the presence of religiosity does not seem to impede their ability to discover more accurate representations of the physical world and its processes.
- "I don't believe it, I know it."
In practice, one can be more or less confident about a given statement, and presumably the presence of evidence boosts that confidence. Verbiage is often assigned to describe particular segments of confidence: 'Believe' may mean '51-80%,' 'strongly believe' '80-98%,' and 'know' '98-100%'18; another person may use 'unsure' to describe '30-60%.' 'Faith,' then, can mean belief that a statement is true with scant or no supporting evidence, and in this sense has little place in empirical investigation.
- "I have faith that Ben can do it."
Even atheists say things like this, but remember meaning is use and if we stick with the program, no religiosity need be involved; this can mean anything from "I'm more than 50% sure that Ben's got it in the bag" to, as with the clichéd movie line used to foreshadow underdog protagonist victories, "I believe that he will win despite all odds and evidence." The more unequivocal "I have faith in God" is semantically orthogonal.
- "Everything must be justified. If it cannot be justified, then it is either false or lacks the dignity to even deserve the designation 'wrong.'"
Empiricism grounds knowledge claims on physical observation or sensate perception (or, in its strongest form, intersubjective verifiability). Without observing how these terms decohere upon critical examination, we've found well enough no leprechauns, no unicorns, no Olympic pantheon and indeed nothing resembling the Old or New Testament Gods. But then, whence justification? Either it takes some ulterior system to provide its own ground—and so on ad infinitum—or it justifies itself, in which case it cannot supply the means. Infinite regress or circular tautology, shell-stacked turtles or self-eating snakes. Like so, no logical system can ever ground itself. How to reconcile this with their obvious efficacy for human ends?
Perhaps we can begin by accepting their so to speak unreasonable effectiveness, unreasonable being the operative term. Where no long road exists, there is a shortcut we can take to secure a basis for knowledge, an unreasonable and in the last sense irrational shortcut, and that is to posit an objective function, an ultimate cause, which, over the hole punctured by the Principle of Sufficient Reason, acts as metaphysical duct tape that guarantees coherence thenceforth. See where I'm going? Faith—conviction of an unseen thing—is the prerequisite for knowledge19. No method, rational or empirical, can ever prove or verify said function, but the assumption of its presence gracefully permits everything else to fall in place. Crede, ut intelligas. The crux of the Münchhausen tale is that he succeeds in extricating himself from the swamp by pulling on his own hair, ask how this works and the best you'll get is "Magic."
You will argue that this 'faith' I describe is very far from how the term is used in ecclesiastical colloquy. Yes. In my sense, it is something akin to a transcendental condition that obtains regardless of whether one 'has' or 'believes in' it rather than, as I take it, a confidence modifier on expressed beliefs or a consciously enacted conviction of will towards the existence or prophecy of a particular deity. "Then why don't you use a different word?" Well, because words often acquire new entendres based on some perceived or hidden relation between the new entendre and the others, and I opine that my conception resonates well with ecclesiastical ones, has enough of a common denominator that it merits being called by the same word; substitute in a low-resonance term like 'gizzard' and tell me the misfit isn't palpable.
"And what of doubt?" Within the universe of the Bible, God is real as real can be—no matter whether he shows up or whether characters (justifiably) doubt him because he hasn't shown up for them. Mutatis mutandis, in our universe faith acts as stopgap for epistemic leakage despite any doubt that it's doing so20. Is this provable? No. Is it convenient? Yes. Should you care? Hmm. But while we're aboard this train...
The best way to pray is: stop. Let prayer pray within you whether you know it or not.
-Father Thomas Merton
Happiness is what many children would feel if their parents told them they no longer had to pray X times a day, or at all. If one can just install the prayer daemon and let it run omni tempore, why bother with the pantomime? "It teaches them discipline," valid answer, but if (1) the central point of praying is to glorify God and (2) we accept Merton's suggestion, this can be a passive, unconscious, continuous process, opening up time for better methods of instilling discipline, methods perhaps with tangible positive externalities, such as doing the dishes. This is where you go, "Sure, but it takes years, if not decades, of dedicated practice before—if ever—one reaches the point where 'prayer prays within you,'" and where I go, "But how would you know?"
Pace Merton, I don't think the quote goes far enough, and apropos of nothing besides sheer intuition, I propose that where faith is presupposed by knowledge, prayer is presupposed by being. Considering how a given action undertaken as prayer by one pious party may be judged as blasphemous by another, we can marginally submit, if not that no form of prayer is objectively superior to any other, then at least that, insofar as a hierarchy of prayer forms exists, it is inscrutable to human means. Nevertheless, I venture indeed that there is no such hierarchy, for if God created the universe, why shouldn't everything in it maximally and constantly act to glorify him? Thusly conceived, prayer, instantiated panphysically and panpsychically, is always already occurring. A pebble prays. And if you will permit me a radical extension, then verily, mass genocidal atrocities (and this will be taken out of context) are no less a form of prayer than the genuflecting Pascal. You read that right.
Paraphrased and joined to earlier suppositions, what is is precisely not only what ought to be, but also only all of what can be. But at the human level the Humean gap still obtains, factual as ever, problematic as ever. Think of it like this. Should you cheer for the Yankees or the Mets? No right answer, but it is the case that by cheering for either you support the institution of baseball. Should you watch Fox or CNN? No: right answer, every second you spend watching either is a second you contribute to the continuance of mass corporate media. Existing or not, acting or not (are these choices?), all is prayer glorifying God according to his will. Now you'll ask, what of pew prayer or the sort in my section on Psalms, and I'll contend, functionally, that they evoke affects based on the presence of culturally reified conceptual metaphors (to rephrase my point about aesthetic configurations providing logical guarantees of behavioral patterns), but that, theologically (under my schema), they are equal with all else in their quality of being manifestations of the objective function, and as such bear neither primacy over nor difference from a dewdrop forming on a blade of grass, the quaking of a magnetar approximately seventeen light centuries due east of Perth in Western Australia, and the 6.5mm Carcano cartridge with which Lee Harvey Oswald buried the American Dream.
The Letter of James
And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.
THE TONGUE. Ensconced in a lightless reliquary of inlaid bone, the tongue never tires. Silvery secretions froth forth from obscured chambers to lubricate each millimeter of its treacherous cavern, within whose slippery crevasses it twirls, glides, and zips with a grace that would shame the most practiced of acrobats were it not so kind as to avoid the limelight, and wise. Movement, however, is a term that deals no justice to the wizardry it and it alone performs in the act, for where other limbs displace space also, in so doing this magnificent spotted pink lizard opens doors to other worlds.
I challenge anyone to cite a bodily motion that conjures more sensation than "lick." Pressed against any surface, the tongue registers roughness, hardness, sharpness, moisture, gumminess, sponginess, stickiness, viscosity, granularity, and temperature, all with finer sensitivity than any corporeal appendage endowed with tactile capacity. Secondly, licking uniquely sketches the object's chemical profile with an ad hoc palette of receptors, and if my description of the faculty of taste be austere, it is only to highlight the rainbows of flavor in whose dazzling colors we are thus permitted to bask. The true magic begins, however, here, for though by course and nature we may seek rich stimulation, there is no gesture more gratifying than to confer upon another the very thing desired, and to that end, no maneuver more efficacious than that contained in this verb "lick," for when the sun has set and the curtains have closed, it is the tongue, heart-tipped arrow, by which we render such electrifying affections to our intimate companions and their yearning orifices, it is the tongue, shapeshifting newt, whose undulations unlock the manifold gates of rapture.
Can one be anything but grateful that such a wondrous creature would lay itself at our lifelong service, expecting nothing. Apparently not. Apparently, certain riotous scoundrels would decry its charms and graces with vitriol and slander. Does its bipartite nature, indicative of man's free will, annoy you? Is God's gift not to your liking? Would you, James, in the self-hatred that clouds your judgment curse the organ by itself and slay the messenger for his master? For the tongue is but a tool and has no say without a mind to move it, and if this first of facts escapes you why then should we listen to the rest.
The First Letter of Peter
But they will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead.
You, Simon Peter, yes? Alas, my attempts at deciphering the heavenly calculus of moral quotients have due to failure ceased, but through my trial and error I've gleaned a thing or two about how humans do (and have). Maybe you'll find it amusing.
Mental categories. In order for any thing to be, for anyone, it must sufficiently meet a list of criteria that designates said thing as such. "Thing" and "criteria" are to be taken broadly: physical objects and abstract concepts sensorially observed or cognitively deduced. Criteria and their in-turn determination are, as aforementioned, mutable, sometimes to the extent that two people will vocalize the same sound and be referring, in one scenario, to entirely different things, and in another, to the same thing but for different reasons. Astonishing, isn't it. "That's a chair," why, because of how it looks? Because of how it's used? Etc.
Morality. In the Bible, this category mostly involves commandments of the form "You shall (not) X." Imperative statements, however, do not constitute the full range of those which can be described as moral, if for no other reason than because I said so (not as false as you might think). Declaratives such as "X is good; Y is bad" are also common. Now, funny things occur if you start questioning any of these. "Thou shalt not kill." Why? "Because God said so." But God has nothing to say about the exact cell at which a "fetus" becomes a "human," or situations where killing Mr. Foo now saves more lives later. And who are the Bible's authors to speak for God? It's not like humans get anything right the first time, no reason why monotheism should be the exception. "Hence Christianity." Or the second.
Relativism. "Alright, people wrote the Bible, just like every other moral code that's ever been written. So morals come from people. And as you say, people can attribute all sorts of things, often contradictory, to the super broad categories 'Good' and 'Bad,' and even then there's an exception to every rule. So why accept anything?" I'll give you one answer that's been making the rounds; see how it suits your palate.
Evolution. "Survival of the fittest. Just as natural selection ferrets out weak genes from the pool, so too it tests moral systems against harsh conditions for adaptability. Historically, flourishing tribes and societies in geographically disparate locations have shared a surprisingly mutual set of moral principles lacked by their less successful coevals. These evolved morals are, ergo, better." Are they? Does the arc of the moral universe bend towards justice?
Judgment (aesthetic determination). Whose justice? That morals aren't arbitrary does not imply that they're absolute or objective. Without a meta-[perspective/framework/ruleset] to further provision a definition of "just" (or "better"), we cannot break through the impasse of valuation. Like earlier, things can get recursive fast, but in this case you possess a stopping function called judgment whose subjective basis is, oddly enough, objectively guaranteed. So: "God" "Evolution" "Gnon" or "Mom," what jives with you? My answer has been and remains Thou Shalt Obey Miller's Law; chew through others' reasoning and you might find something even tastier.
The Second Letter of Peter
First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
Babel fell—but what
Sound did it make? You were there
Describe it to me
Babel fell—but what
The First Letter of John
"Baby don't hurt me" is an aptly Zen reply to perhaps the only koan which has held the heart of modern man in a tighter vise than "What is the purpose of life?" A better question might be: What would it do for you if you knew? If you can't answer that, best skip ahead because I'm about to lay both out flat. But first, a story.
I enrolled at the University of Michigan in September 2010, and it was that particular semester when my college handed each freshman one of these:
Right, so starry-eyed me figured he was in the right place at the right time, that being the sort of question he was prone to asking and how reassuring that his school was asking it right along with him. Music. Tennis. Travel. Cats. Family. One lad wrote NOTHING in all caps, but the liar was clearly having a blast tossing his frisbee around the quad. And me?
I never wore my shirt. Not because I didn't have things worth living for but because I thought filling in the blank meant filling in the blank, and that was a proposition I could not entertain, what with words having power and all that. Besides, the obverse was obviously: "Without your LACROSSE STICK, life would not be worth living," and the perverse obviously me, who—if you couldn't tell—reversed like so every tee his eyes did see, this unto thee I say verily. Halcyon days.
Anyway, the reason I dredge this up is to remind myself of antecedents; every idea has its origins and the one you're here for is:
- The purpose of life is to provide meaning for others.21
Sometimes you bash your head against a math problem and it doesn't yield. You go to sleep; the next morning, voila. Here, same principle. That bullet point? Seven years of labor. Call it an empty platitude, my death is your birth so you judge, just know I am dead serious. "Life has whatever purpose you give it"; "The purpose of life is to live it"; "'Life' can't have a purpose, it's not a person"; most of that time was spent surfacing similar trite eurekas or dismissing the prompt as pseudo-problem, but even if those posing it can't articulate what they mean when prompted further, it is clear that they mean something, a deeply felt something, a something inside which lies a profound ontological knot no clever turn of phrase can cut.
Still, you're the type who needs arguments, so what are you looking forward to? A new season of a TV show? Your spouse coming back from work? The Perseids? A common thread strung by human hands ties sincere replies together, and that is, there is (or was) someone on the other side who makes (or made) possible for you these appetites—perhaps unintentionally, as I'm sure the astronomers who sought to measure the tempo of heaven did not keep us per se in mind, but nevertheless. Me, I'm looking forward to finishing this post. It's long enough to deserve a dedication now, so... It's for you. I mean that. But in return, I ask, though I'm in no position—wouldn't you like to pass the baton in some way.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
- Love is heat.
"Just like that?" Why not. Cluster concepts beg to be approached with a certain poetic naiveté, as they tend to be both highly salient and highly nebulous—but this should not prevent us from honing in on the relatively pivotal facets that inspire a need for the category. In the case of love, I assume it can be given and received, withdrawn, directed at persons, objects, and concepts, and varies across cultures in terms of its formal expression; the four variants into which the Greeks decanted love—the romantic, the friendly, the familial, and, as above, the godly—encapsulate a range of subjective relations and the flavors of affect portioned by each, but what of the love poured into a work of art, or, say, a bowl of soup?22
Food "made with love" connotes love as ingredient or spice although it technically isn't, just as it technically isn't heat (or anything), but while the former metaphors fit snugly in this idiom, I'm arguing the latter fits better overall. Now, who denies that food made with love tastes better? The material factors result from more care in preparation, and the care from an intentional stance taken towards our enjoyment. But we may also prefer our friends' amateur cooking to a perhaps unreasonable degree, even as it would lose in a blind taste test to slapdash versions tossed together by a seasoned line cook; and here our preference hinges on the gratitude we feel in recognizing their efforts to feed us. Regardless, a dish's material superiority or context of consumption is secondary to our judgment of "tastes better," which implies—as I see it—that, relative to some [average/standard/baseline], it garners a stronger positive reaction, is more surprising and memorable, or in a word, moving.
Life is motion, love is heat. What makes life worth living, then, intuitively ought to be found in whatever reflects its essence—that which moves us—and love is the mechanism by which motive potential is imparted23; insofar as it is given, it motivates the giver; received, animates the recipient. Furthermore, when we speak of love, the heat motif abounds: "Warm and caring"; "Hot and steamy"; "The helicopter mom smothered her child in flames of napalm." See? We can also strip its humanistic bearings (intention, purpose) to observe how cold-blooded animals visibly depend on warmth for energy or how, even at the molecular level, cold is stillness (and stillness, death). Like so, love's absence is life's; poll the lonely and the bedridden on their perceived capacity to receive, deserve, or give—and despair.
But not yet, for:
In the midst of winter, I learned at last there was within me an invincible summer.
The potency of agape, to be sure, revolves around the God-concept as a boundless reservoir of warmth, thus one may derive profound comfort by reifying such an axis; properly internalized, it becomes a psychic panacea that immunizes the faithful from the worst of worldly woes: "God loves me, and I love God." You ask, naturally, how to form such bedrock.
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.24
The clues are there in the verse. But for the sake of spelling it out, let's accept there is something it is like to believe a thing, as atheists asked to say "I believe in God" may react with disgust where devout clergymen proceed with sincere conviction, and even were the atheist to comply, for him the phrase would be "words and speech" not "truth and action." From here, we provisionally posit that for any subject, an act is truthful at a given point in time insofar as it resonates with his psychic architecture at that point (replace "is" with "feels" to the same effect; both apply). So for truth, either the act (which can be a verbal statement) must harmonize with the psyche's internal logic OR the psyche must be reconfigured such that its new logic admits the act. You can guess which is harder. We haven't solved the question yet, but we've established a framework and paraphrased it into a more workable form: how to reconfigure. Here as before, the answer lies in action. Downstream of neuroplasticity, we take malleability of belief structure as given. Thus, if we can activate and strengthen the dormant neural pathways corresponding to what the subject associates with religious piety, we may effect a conversion. Sample associations include kneeling, praying, and attending service; by repeatedly performing these actions (which will be hard at first), the subject gradually prepares himself to receive, as it were, God.
More broadly, one can only receive—or recognize, at minimum—love in a given form if one has the receptors for it. In this way, love is like a language; how can you read English if you don't know English? Look at this painting:
My friend (who also paints) calls Rothko canvases Pop-Tarts. I can attest that seeing one in person is like standing in front of a giant Pop-Tart pinned to the wall. Now Pop-Tarts were invented in the Sixties—long after Rothko began his color field period—so there's no chance they influenced his style, but because of CONNIE I can't stop seeing the resemblance and now neither can you. Okay, but what was Rothko going for?
I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows I communicate those basic human emotions... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.
Rothko was not going for Pop-Tarts. But effect notwithstanding, from this we may gather that the process of painting one was not by any means relaxing (in fact rather taxing), and rather—if I may imagine—like childbirth, an act of great sacrifice, and great love. Tales are told of Huang Longshi, a Go master of the Qing Dynasty, that from the way his opponents placed their stones on the board, he could tell how they preferred their tea, what kind of lives they lived. Who can read Rothko's brushstrokes and explain why he is now painting like this, now like that, the dreams he dreamt and the visions he saw, such that their expression could take no other form than this, this teal here? Quote in mind, you and I can try to step in Rothko's shoes, feel what he felt—but now we are affecting the intended effect and not, as it were, allowing the piece its own terms; unless we are there and then crushed as if by roaring tides and washed into obliteration then, I daresay, we are not yet prepared to listen.
John Cage, on his piece The Perilous Night:
I had poured a great deal of emotion into the piece, and obviously I wasn't communicating this at all. Or else, I thought, if I were communicating, then all artists must be speaking a different language, and thus speaking only for themselves.
Does art speak to us? Does love? Though Cage and Rothko both speak of communication, only the one acknowledges being heard, and truly, I can imagine no world more horrific than the solipsistic void in which there is no one to listen, no one who can. It is the artist who teeters on the brink of that world and ours. Who sails its uncharted waters so we can mark our maps with continents anew, who, to show us the way out of the fly bottle, braves the gaping maw of insanity. Perhaps we would do well to pay our respects. But how?
Not with words and speech but truth and action; and though I will not in that perilous night pretend to hear in cacophony echoes of sublimity, of one thing I am convinced, the final act of love must be ours, it is we who must make the effort and navigate the path, so that one far day from now we may see Cage on the horizon and the next be at his side, put our hand across his shoulder, say, "I hear you." Know if ever I were asked to send a message off wherein my ethos is contained it shall be this:
People always demand that art be comprehensible, but they never demand of themselves that they adapt their mind to comprehension.
Open your eyes, reader, behold creation.
The Second Letter of John
Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!
I'd always thought "the Antichrist" was an evil supervillain equal in power to Jesus, but it turns out some dude named John got tired of spending so many words (four ahead) describing 'people who deny Christ' so he attached the negative prefix and that was that. This has not prevented imaginations from running wild with the concept—is it Satan? The Beast? George W. Bush? And it could well be; language is like driftwood, it drifts. I've no dog in this fight. I just want to know, John, did you expect as much when you released the antichrist into the world?
The Third Letter of John
Throughout the history of humanity, there have at the very pinnacles of art existed incomparable masters who pushed their crafts to heights impossible to imagine even today. Michelangelo. Alighieri. Joyce. Musashi. Godard. But there was one who reigned above them all, whose shadow was to their combined effulgence nothing less than a total solar eclipse. The holotype of perfection itself, logical proof of the Platonic Ideal. The master of masters.
To get a true sense of what Paganini was, it will not suffice for us to detail the rhythms of his musicality, rather we must present the case of one frequently, and as we shall see, incorrectly, regarded as his peer in performance to illustrate the immeasurable gulf that separates the stratosphere of genius from the divinity of perfection.
The pianist Franz Liszt, so it has been recorded, was known for drawing vast crowds clamoring to hear the milk and honey that would pour from his fingers, for few could resist the sensuous delirium of his dulcet tunes, sometimes belted, sometimes crooned, always sung. To listen to a concert of Liszt's was to float through a golden palace of trill and tremolo, cadence and cadenza. The effect was... intoxicating. Who does not know that among the varied taxonomies of madness there is but a single entry devoted to an individual, this peculiar individual, this rockstar avant la lettre? Lo! On the strike of a key, what came first, the tone or the fervor? Women young and old would shower the virtuoso with a slew of their undergarments, of bows, ribbons, frocks, frills, all tossed on stage in fanatic frenzy, such was the joy of basking in his presence, a fortississimo of clothes and voices, screams and shouts and shrieks so loud they would drown out any sound produced by the piano, not that they minded, not that Liszt minded, for to him their adoration was itself a score and number more beautiful than any note that battered chunk of wood could ever hope to sing.
Clad in flowing robes of smoky dusk and char, the effect was not so much that he walked as glided across the stage, as if possessed by some erstwhile phantasm, levitating almost imperceptibly above the inert nails and varnished planks which had for many a musician suitably served. It is said that on the day the boy extracted from the stone the sword that bested scores of England's strongest, the sound it made as it scratched its hollow home goodbye was the sound of his coronation, the sound of the times, Middle A. But when Paganini played that selfsame note on his Guarnerius, that sound, ripping through the silent air like the deafening blast of a cannon, was a sound for all time. And make no mistake, the concert hall was silent, for each and every pilgrim who had come to worship at his unholy altar knew it was this moment for which the wizened Qohelet once spake, There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak.
Dear reader, do you suppose they could have spoken then? That the thought had room to even enter? A half-exhaled decibel would have ruined the aura, to say nothing of a cough, or God forbid, a shout, but what a middling clown he would be if he could not snuff such petty trifles. Four coils of wrought intestine; nape bared, black; and then—the guillotine. Down like lightning rained a wrathful blitz of flesh and bone, was this music or was it the tortured screams of the damned, was this a concert hall or was it purgatory, partitura or Kabbalah, caprice, or crucifixion. As if their breaths were siphoned out of their lungs and into the violin, as if they would rather suffocate than endure a blink of disruption, as if the purpose of their existence had been to arrive and embrace the agonies and ecstasies that would define their lives thereafter, as if Apollo and Orpheus themselves had looked on from up above and down below and immolated their lyres in full knowledge they could never again have claim to their craft, such was the effect of Paganini's playing, such is the Sublime, such is Beauty, such is Perfection.
The Letter of Jude
They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.
The Revelation to John
Something is chirping in the arboreal realm, what oh what could it be? Zoom in; and why, it's unicolor Myadestes! But prior to this it was a solitaire, and prior to that it was a thrush, and prior to thrushness a bird, prior to birdness an animal, and prior... Push, my friends, has come to shove and the time has come for me to come clean with my cards laid on the turned tables of highwater hell and lowland Gehenna, this is the last analysis and in it I find myself and only me, fallen like the knowledge apple from that Eden tree, pomegranate juicy round and lined with ruby seeds, what supposed was eye to see between the we of you and me? Please tell me honestly the story diachronically.
Small X; the blip.
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Truly I tell you of my regret in having to insert a footnote so early—and for this I do apologize—however I am struck with a not insignificant sense of responsibility to inform you regarding the accuracy of the statement to which it refers. Although I'd read each book commented on herein by New Year's Eve 2017, seeing as it is now 2018, "this year" reads as such—to disastrous effect; the original publication deadline was last Christmas. Alas. I've left the original sentence intact as a testament to that demon, Procrastination, and reminder to you all not to follow my example in falling prey to its wicked temptations. But, as the expression goes, "BETTER NATE THAN LEVER." ↩
Marker, ventriloquist, has an unseen, unnamed woman narrate his script, which is just a long monologue timed to clip cuts; we don't know who wrote the Bible but we're told to accept it as the word of God. ↩
Caveat: If this (or anything similar) happens to you on your way to me, just come to me. Know that I will not only forgive you (I am infinitely forgiving), not that there's any need to be forgiven because you did nothing wrong, but I'll give you so many kudos for courageously defying that insane idiot god known as the Big Other that you'll feel like hope is something worth having in humanity again. Deal? ↩
Yet even this presumes a shared (A) set of referents for each other word in the sentence, (B) understanding of positivism, (C) acceptance of positivism as sufficient grounds to provide an answer—and many, many other such assumptions (there aren't enough letters in the alphabet to enumerate them all). Language games, like U.S. tax laws, have too many rules for anyone to memorize and change all the time. ↩
Believe it or not, this line of thought leads into a discussion of the relationship between language and ontology, but that's another tale for another time. Besides, those of you who recognize as much already know how it ends: with nothing new under the sun aside from that which you re-cognize as such. ↩
"Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (Matthew 6:26) ↩
Intentionally or incidentally, these verses act as metacommentary on First Maccabees, which reads as exactly the painstakingly detailed, exhaustively researched account mentioned. ↩
Bonus question: Which theologian gets to decide what reading of the Bible is correct? Augustine? Aquinas? Dawkins? Me? ↩
"Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?" (James 4:1) ↩
Let us not presently harp on the inherent mendacity of dichotomy, as the referenced distinction is clear enough to retain pragmatic utility. ↩
I am not presently interested in "the ultimate structure of knowledge" or "the structure of the Being of knowledge" or whether such things exist, rather I assume, firstly, that they do, and secondly, that you and I implicitly or intuitively understand what it means to know a thing to a similar enough degree that we can talk about what it means to know a thing without talking past each other and then having to backtrack to first principles. Given these assumptions, I am interested in how this object that we call knowledge behaves (ditto for behaves). ↩
"Show, don't tell" and "Signaling reveals insecurity" are related intuitions. ↩
Certain ways of parsing this statement may render it false, but these are few and toothless where the evidence for its truth is much greater. (Count these hyperlinks as citations for the paragraph.) ↩
Egregores themselves can be subagents of other egregores, for example a collection of corporations may be called an "industry," and it is not nonsensical to ask e.g. "What are the interests of the Russian oil industry." Shooting from the hip, let's call a national grouping of industries an "economy" and the gestalt of economies "capitalism." ↩
Anthills are not conscious per se but behave as if they were. Beehives are not conscious per se but behave as if they were. Corporations are not conscious per se but behave as if they were. Humans are n-- ↩
The possibility of knowing something absolutely is another question, but any pragmatist will be quick to deny its relevance and insist that progress is being made regardless. ↩
Does a dog have faith? Insofar as it has knowledge, necessarily. In human terms, dogs can "know" how to roll over, play catch, or sniff out trace chemicals in her owner's saliva and warn her she's about to get a migraine, so we can reasonably grant as much. Does a dog have atoms? ↩
You can defuse me by saying, "Don't conflate faith with the stopgap itself. Faith is better defined as explicit (1) recognition of the stopgap's necessity or (2) acceptance that a stopgap is necessary. Thus a dog, incapable of abstract reasoning, can't have faith, even assuming a stopgap is operant. This leaves more wiggle room for doubt—denial of (1) or (2)—as a product of conscious deliberation, thus aligning it more closely with its religious usage." ↩
Meaning has many meanings, which makes it meaningful. In this case, it is the substance by which ego is bound to life. "In what way is it a substance?" Go elsewhere if you want to tour the dictionary, you'll end up where you started anyway (but here's a good launch pad). The terms are mutable; ego we can generalize to any tightly wrought nexus of identity, such as a company, whose meaning analogues could be cash flow and/or user engagement. In relation to personhood, ego is one's overarching self-narrative and its attached sociocultural reifications; the oft-ingrained "being productive" and "contributing to society," for example, frequently tie notions of personal worth to (self-perceived) economic value, and thus, when the latter is low or nil, self-esteem follows suit. A more universal reification is that which binds ego to body (and/or mind), and—skipping a few steps—the tragic irony is that this hard-forged association, fed a lifetime of daily reinforcements, is not, in the last instance, necessary. ↩
Hardline prescriptivists may parry, "That's not love, that's something else," but I implore them to read my notes on Second Samuel. ↩
Hatred and revenge are powerful motivators, emotionally and teleologically—hence more love's inverse than its opposite (apathy). ↩
So glad the Bible agrees with me that Acts of Service are better than Words of Affirmation. ↩