Monday, October 11, 2010

C'è troppa confusione qui...

«C'è troppa confusione qui,» disse Guglielmo. «Non in commotione, non in commotione Dominus.»

["There is too much confusion here," William said. "Not in confusion, the Lord is not in confusion."

--Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

"Egredere et sta in monte coram Domino et ecce Dominus transit et spiritus grandis et fortis subvertens montes et conterens petras ante Dominum non in spiritu Dominus et post spiritum commotio non in commotione Dominus."

[Go out and stand upon the mount before the Lord, and behold, God passes. A great and mighty wind overthrows the mountain and shatters the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord is not in the wind. After the wind there is an earthquake, but the Lord is not in the earthquake.]

-- 1 Kings 19:11, Latin Vulgate Bible


"All the vegetation in the settled world is stirring
I'm blurring into sun-burnt and heartbroken worrying
about how the day took such a long time to die
when it was reeking of women I once had on my side
but now that I've found another smell to believe in
I'm buzzing like hell just to hope I can breathe it
and resurrect the simplistic calm in some eyes
that are trying to find you
or bury your night mind and it will take time...

...and you can lay with your head on my body
the worlds of the night and disease try to rob me
all the vegetation in the settled world is stirring
but stillness and calmness are all that I'm hearing
and it will take

But time is for hearts that don't know what they're eating
and nerves that don't spend every night-chance retreating."

--Frontier Ruckus, "Nerves of the Nightmind"

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Perché i patti erano quelli

«...Sí, insomma, prima di maritarsi uno bisogna che ci pensi sopra quattro volte, e prendersi una ragazza come quella, brava, poco da dire, ma furba come una strega, bene, non so se mi spiego. Ma neanche a metterci una pietra sopra e a non pensarci piú non sono buono. Ogni tanto vado dal mio direttore e mi faccio mandare in trasferta in quel paese, con la scusa delle revisioni. Una volta è piombata qui a Torino, in ferie, con addosso i blugins tutti stinti sui ginocchi, in compagnia di un ragazzo di quelli con la barba fino negli occhi, e me l'ha presentato senza fare una piega: e neanche io l'ho fatta, una piega; sentivo come una specie di bruciacuore, qui alla bocca dello stomaco, ma no le ho detto niente perché i patti erano quelli.»

[...Well, in short, before a man marries, he needs to think it over a lot, and taking a girl like that, a fine girl, no doubt about it, but clever as a witch, well, I don't know if I am making myself clear. But I can't put an end to it and I'm no good at not thinking about it anymore. Every now and then I go to my boss and get myself sent to that town, with the excuse of checking up on things. Once she showed up here in Turin, on vacation, wearing an old faded pair of blue jeans, cut off at the knees, in the company of a boy, one of those with a beard that comes up to his eyes, and she introduced him to me without even batting an eye and I didn't bat an eye either; I felt a kind of heartburn, here, at the top of my stomach, but I didn't say anything, because that was the bargain.]

--Primo Levi, The Monkey's Wrench

An old friend, with whom I have a complicated history, made an unexpected visit this weekend. I was surprised at how affected I was by her and how easily we fell into old ways. I suppose there are some people in one's life who simply cannot be resisted, no matter how much trouble that may have caused in the past and will likely bring to the future.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

First Day of Fall

(Image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573)

כתב סתיו בדיו מטריו וברביביו
ובעט ברקיו המאירים וכף עביו
מכתב עלי גן מתכלת וארגמן
לא נתכנו כהם לחושב במחשביו
לכן בעת חמדה אדמה פני שחק
רקמה עלי בדי ערוגות ככוכביו

[Autumn, by the ink of its showers and rain,
by the quill of its lightning and the hand of its clouds,
wrote a letter upon a garden, in purple and blue,
the like of which is not conceived in thought.
And for this, the earth, coveting the sky,
embroidered stars upon the cloth of its garden-beds.]

--Shlomo ibn Gabirol

As the span of a year feels like it passes always more quickly, it seems worthwhile to pause and note the beginning of a new season. This poem has made an appearance before for different purposes in another iteration of this site. Reuse itself, however, strikes me as an apt metaphor for the cyclical changing of the seasons. Or, at least, that is the excuse upon which I am relying. Surprising as it might be, I don't know another medieval Hebrew poem about autumn off the top of my head.

Also, let's disregard the fact that סתיו--which is the modern Hebrew word for autumn--most likely refers to winter or the rainy season in the medieval, Andalusian context of the poem.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Paper Memory: A Selective Reading Journal, Sept. 6-Sept. 12

«Mi sono detto: Yambo, hai una memoria di carta. Non di neuroni, di pagine.»

[I said to myself: Yambo, you have a memory made of paper. Not of neurons, but of pages.]

--Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

"For by the latter part of the sixteenth century, a conception and theory of religious toleration had definitely come into being. Generally speaking, moreover, and in spite of the previously mentioned examples of pragmatic toleration in antiquity and the Middle Ages, the appearance and development of the idea of toleration largely preceded its realization. This development required a long and arduous intellectual effort down through the seventeenth century and was the work of a number of thinkers. Without an underlaying theoretical rationale that was both philosophical and religious--one that reflected a complex mixture of scriptural, theological, ecclesiastical, epistemological, ethical, political, and pragmatic arguments--and without the gradual acceptance by political and intellectual elites and others of principles and values enabling them to subordinate and set aside religious differences and strive for concord through mutual understanding, religious toleration and the freedom it implied could not have been attained as one of the predominant and most cherished attributes of modern and contemporary Western societies."

--Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West

"The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions of tyranny by the majority, only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities, willing to break this tyranny and to work for the emergence of a free and sovereign majority--minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression."

--Herbert Marcuse, Postscript to "Repressive Tolerance," in A Critique of Pure Tolerance

"Initially, we may be less convinced by the "truth-claims" of tradition than we are powerfully attracted to the richness of its language, both in word and in symbolic gesture. Through the profound echo chamber of the countless generations of its faithful, it offers us a way to express both the longings and the fulness that we know within. The language of sacred tradition, shrouded in mystery and awe, comes to seem like the appropriate vehicle through which to express those same feelings with regard to life itself. True, the words are antiquated, grandiose, and clearly far from anything we would choose to say if we were making up a language of our own. But precisely because the language of tradition so reaches into antiquity and is enriched by the lives of all those generations that have lived within it, it has a depth that words of our own simply cannot reach."

--Arthur Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name

"To build a community that would survive, Amsterdam's 'Portuguese' elite wrestled with a number of problems, from the glaring challenges of heresy to the more delicate issue of relations with Dutch Reformed clergy. No problem, however, was more critical in the making of this community than that of balancing the two clusters of ideas about collective self, one associated with Jewish religion and peoplehood, the other with 'the Nation.' The problem was not clearly defined even by the communal leaders who dealt with it, but nonetheless it dominated the dynamics of community building. Other issues, important as they might have been, tended to be corollary to this one: ambivalence about Ashkenazi Jews; the policies adopted toward New Christians who lived 'outside Judaism'; the enforcement of halakhic norms within the community; and so on. In dealing with the entire array of issues that arose around this core problem, communal leaders revealed two somewhat conflicting (though not contradictory) aims: first, building a community belonging fully to the rabbinic-Jewish world, and second, preserving a distinct identity based on quasi-ethnic foundations alien to rabbinic Judaism."

--Miriam Bodian, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam

Monday, September 7, 2009

First Day of School

"At age five or six, a Jewish boy living in medieval Germany or France might begin his formal schooling by participating in a special ritual initiation ceremony. Early on the morning of the spring festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), someone wraps him in a coat or talit (prayer shawl) and carries him from his house to the teacher. The boy is seated on the teacher's lap, and the teacher shows him a tablet on which the Hebrew alphabet has been written. The teacher reads the letters first forwards, then backwards, and finally in symmetrically paired combinations, and he encourages the boy to repeat each sequence aloud. The teacher smears honey over the letters on the tablet and tells the child to lick it off.

Cakes on which biblical verses have been written are brought in. They must be baked by virgins from flour, honey, oil, and milk. Next come shelled hard-boiled eggs on which more verses have been inscribed. The teacher reads the words written on the cakes and eggs, and the boy imitates what he hears and then eats them both.

The teacher next asks the child to recite an incantation adjuring POTAH, the prince of forgetfulness (sar ha-shikhehah), to go far away and not block the boy's heart (lev; i.e. mind). The teacher instructs the boy to sway back and forth when studying and to sing his lessons out loud.

As a reward, the child gets to eat fruit, nuts, and other delicacies. At the conclusion of the rite, the teacher leads the boy down to the riverbank and tells him that his future study of Torah, like the rushing water in the river, will never end. Doing all of these acts, we are told, will "expand the (child's) heart."

--Ivan G. Marcus, Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe

Tomorrow, unmarked by public ritual and foodstuffs, is my first day of school. It has been over two years since I have been enrolled in a class and I am a little nervous about my return to graduate school. I have planned for this for months and I have recently ramped up my preparation by buying books, starting assignments, and meeting with professors. Still I feel unready.

Graduate school this time around has a finality and seriousness to it that was lacking in my first experience of it. That is a very good and promising thing, but also a deeply troubling one. What if I am just not cut-out to be in academics? What if I am not successful in my studies? Or worse, what if I hate being back in school? What do I do then?

It is probably best not to think too far along these lines before I even start; better to just eat an egg and hope that the Prince of Forgetfulness keeps his distance.

Please, Please, Please

«La prima volta che la vide fu una sera in cui gli apparve in vesti scure, velata come una Luna pudica che si nascondesse dietro al raso delle nubi. Le bruit, quest'unica forma che nella società parigina tenesse luogo di verità, gli disse di lei cose contrastanti, che soffriva una crudele vedovanza, ma non di un marito, bensì di un amante, e faceva pompa di quella perdita per ribadire la sua sovranità sul bene perduto. Qualcuno gli aveva sussurrato che essa celasse il volto perché era una bellissima Egiziana, venuta di Morea.

Quale che fosse la verità, al solo muovere della sua veste, al volgere lieve dei suoi passi, al mistero del suo volto nascosto, il cuore di Roberto fu suo...

...Ma d'un tratto, e quello sera stessa del primo incontro, il velo le era caduto per un istante dalla fronte e aveva potuto intravedere sotto quella falce di luna il luminoso abisso dei suoi occhi. Due cuori amanti che si guardano dicono più cose che non direbbero in un giorno tutte le lingue di questo universo--si era lusingato Roberto, sicuro che lei lo avessa guardato, e che guardandolo lo avesse visto.»

[The first time he saw her was one evening in which she appeared to him dressed in dark clothing, veiled like a modest moon hiding itself behind the satin of clouds. Le bruit, that unique mode which in Parisian society took the place of truth, told him contradictory things about her, that she suffered a cruel widowhood, but not of a husband, but of a lover, and that she glorified that loss to reaffirm her sovereignty over it. Some whispered to him that she concealed her face because she was a beautiful Egyptian, come from Morea.

Whatever was the truth, at the mere movement of her dress, at the slight turn of her steps, at the mystery of her hidden face, Roberto's heart was hers...

...But suddenly, and on that same evening of their first encounter, the veil fell for an instant from her brow and he was able to glimpse under that sickle moon the luminous abyss of her eyes. Two loving hearts looking at each other say more things than all the tongues of this universe could say in a day--Roberto flattered himself, sure that she had looked at him, and, in looking, had seen him.]

--Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before


"Good times for a change.
See, the luck I've had
Can make a good man turn bad.

So, please, please, please
Let me, let me, let me,
Let me get what I want this time.

Haven't had a dream in a long time..."

--The Smiths, "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want"

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Paper Memory: A Selective Reading Journal, July 26-August 1

«Mi sono detto: Yambo, hai una memoria di carta. Non di neuroni, di pagine.»

[I said to myself: Yambo, you have a memory made of paper. Not of neurons, but of pages.]

--Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

"We need to be less relentlessly bleak about the fate of Augustinian tolerance in the later Middle Ages. It is in this period of what we are told is its twilight that we find the greatest evidence for a widely distributed clerical ritual which in good Augustinian fashion used the Jews to reenact the triumphant place of Christianity in sacred history, while at the same time circumscribing for and assigning to the Jews a place in Christian society. But just as rumors of the Augustinian ideal's death have been exaggerated, so too with accounts of its life. We should pause for breath in our panegyrics when we realize that one of the most ancient, most popular, and clearest articulations of the Augustinian paradigm in the Middle Ages turns out to be predicated on an act of violence. It is this double register of rituals like the Holy Week stoning of Jews that gives them their greatest value in explaining both convivencia and cataclysm. The violence contained within them made possible both stasis and explosive historical change."

--David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages

"The act of transmission--and, by extension, authorship--is the self-perceived duty of the kabbalistic master; he is bound by the imperative to serve faithfully as a link in the chain of tradition. Having been entrusted with sacred reception from authoritative kabbalists (אמת אנשי) and further viewing that reception as the compassionate gift of God, Isaac considers it to be his responsibility to aid others in their comprehension of esoteric matters. As a process of education, the pupil matures into a teacher, viewing the role as a vocation (or a calling) bestowed on him by divine destiny."

--Eitan Fishbane, As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist

"Campbell was also known for orchestrating two ambitious exhibitions of tapestries, the first that the museum had presented in decades. 'Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence,' which opened in 2002, gathered forty-five works that had been woven, at great expense, for the rulers of Europe, and which depicted mythological, historical, or Biblical scenes, often specifically chosen to aggrandize their owners. The visual effect in the Met's darkened galleries of the ornate tapestries, many of which hadn't travelled for more than two hundreds years, was overwhelming."

--Rebecca Mead, "Renaissance Man: The Met's New Director," The New Yorker (July 27, 2009)

"Tears streamed from his eyes as he turned his head and stood looking at them. He saw doors left open and gates unlocked, empty pegs without fur tunics or cloaks, perches without falcons or moulted hawks. The Cid sighed, for he was weighed down with heavy cares. Then he said, with dignity and restraint: 'I give Thee thanks, O God, our Father in Heaven. My wicked enemies have contrived this plot against me.'"

--"Song of the Cid," trans. by Rita Hamilton, in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, ed. by Olivia Remie Constable