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Frank Raymond Leavis 1 — Anon

July 23, 2014
'In his youth', noted The Times' obituarist, 'he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.

‘In his youth’, noted The Times’ obituarist, ‘he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.

Frank Raymond (F R) Leavis (1895-1978) is now recognized as one of the most influential literary critics and teachers of his time and among the major intellectual figures of the 20th century.

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Frank Raymond Leavis was born in Cambridge on 14th July 1895 and attended the Perse School there. He went up to Emmanuel College in 1914, where (resuming studies after the Great War) he read History and English, the latter being then new as a university discipline at Cambridge. He would recall those early years of the English tripos in his 1967 Clark Lectures (published in 1969 as English Literature in our Time and the University), evoking vividly the pioneering spirit of the new venture.

He served in the war in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, carrying a pocket Milton throughout the ordeal. Though he rarely spoke of them, his wartime experiences affected him deeply and remained with him for the rest of his life. He would much later recall carrying buckets of cocoa along the roofs of ambulance trains (without corridors) ‘to men who would have died without it’ and ‘the innumerable boy subalterns who … had climbed out and gone forward, playing their part in the attacking wave, to be mown down with the swathes that fell to the uneliminated machine guns.’

Early  Intellectual Influences
In another autobiographical passage he remembered ‘those early years after the great hiatus’ when he had ‘struggled to achieve the beginnings of articulate thought about literature’. The figures who ‘really counted’ then were George Santayana (though ‘not fundamentally congenial’) and Matthew Arnold, to be followed soon by T.S.Eliot: he bought The Sacred Wood when it came out in 1920. (Eliot’s paradoxical distinction would preoccupy him for much of his life.) Along with these went the influence of Ford Madox Ford’s (or Hueffer’s) English Review to which Leavis had subscribed as a schoolboy in 1912.

It was here that he first came on the writing of D. H. Lawrence (‘the necessary opposite’, as he would later call him, in relation to Eliot). Leavis was impressed by Ford’s recognition that in the ‘irreversible new conditions’ of modern industrial civilisation the concern for ‘the higher cultural values’ must reside with a small minority, while at the same time that concern must concede nothing to ‘the preciousness, fatuity or spirit of Aestheticism’. That view was to be a cornerstone of his own periodical Scrutiny (1932-53). An important aspect of the Scrutiny ‘manifesto’ also, in a Marxising era, would be its freedom from organised ideology: a ‘space’ for disinterested intellectual enquiry founded in the ‘autonomy of the human spirit’.

In Mansfield Forbes, one of the early lecturers for the tripos, Leavis found an inspiring example of critical and teaching method. He also found stimulation in the early work of I.A.Richards (though he would part company with him when Richards developed interests in semiology). In 1924 he took one of the earliest PhDs in the School with a thesis on the periodical literature of the eighteenth century with particular reference to Addison’s Spectator. He retained a lifelong interest in the sociology of literature and a profound concern for cultural continuity. His wife would exemplify similar interests in her classic study (which grew out of her PhD thesis), Fiction and the Reading Public (1932). He collaborated with Denys Thompson on a small primer for schools aimed at encouraging critical awareness: Culture and Environment (1933).

He also admired The Calendar of Modern Letters edited by Edgell Rickword, a quarterly which ran from 1925 to 1927. Leavis was to see its failure to win a sufficient public as an index of cultural decline. Its concern with the maintenance of critical standards was to be an important inspiration behind Scrutiny. The Calendar ran a series of intelligent deflations of what it saw as the exaggerated reputations of such contemporary figures as H.G.Wells, J.M.Barrie, G.K.Chesterton and John Galsworthy (the Galsworthy critique was written by D.H.Lawrence): these articles were later collected by Edgell Rickword under the title Scrutinies.

In 1933 Leavis published a selection from The Calendar, with an appreciative introduction, under the title Towards Standards of Criticism (re-printed in 1976 with both the original and a new introduction – in effect a retrospect – by Leavis). It contains one of his most important and original formulations: a reference point for the many subsequent assaults he made on the problem of value-judgement:

Literary criticism provides the test for life and concreteness; where it degenerates, the instruments of thought degenerate too, and thinking, released from the testing and energizing contact with the full living consciousness, is debilitated, and betrayed to the academic, the abstract and the verbal. It is of little use to discuss values if the sense for value in the concrete – the experience and perception of value – is absent.

Teaching at Cambridge
By 1925 he was doing some part-time teaching at Emmanuel. D.W.Harding, who was later to be a fellow editor of Scrutiny, recalled his qualities as a teacher when, looking back fifty years in a broadcast symposium in 1975, he said:

He was really superb. I remember the feelings with which this other man and I would come away. We would be partly exhilarated and partly a bit subdued and rueful, perhaps. Exhilarated because of the new insights and the fine discriminations he had made, and sobered because he kept such extremely high standards in insight and one just realised how unskilled one was as a reader. At the same time, there was no feeling that he belittled you in any way – if you had difficulties or raised objections, then he met you on those. He could scrap what he was going to say and just meet you on whatever you were interested in.

Another pupil, William Walsh, recalled:

One always had the feeling that one wasn’t simply discussing what was there on the page. This was taking place, of course, but the discussion was deeply rooted and far-reaching, dealing with all that one felt was really important in life … Leavis’s teaching always seemed to engage both these facets: one’s personal life, and the life of the mind – the search for the significance of life itself.

In 1929 he married the vivacious and prodigiously clever Queenie Dorothy Roth, whom he had supervised at Girton. The next few years brought a wonderful harvest of critical work culminating in the annus mirabilis of 1932 when Leavis published New Bearings in English Poetry (with its perceptive discussions of Yeats, Pound and Eliot), Q.D.L. published Fiction and the Reading Public, and the quarterly periodical Scrutiny was founded.

It is sometimes suggested that that Scrutiny in its later years was indifferent to contemporary literature, but it is worth recalling that Leavis in his earlier years was in the vanguard. He incurred the displeasure of the public authorities by lecturing on the banned Ulysses in the mid-1920s. As to the teaching of contemporary work in the 1930s, Muriel Bradbrook recalled Leavis’s interest in the poetry of I.A.Richards’s pupil, the ex-student of mathematics, William Empson. She recalled: ‘It cannot be very often that undergraduates are taught the poetry of a fellow undergraduate, but we were taught about some of Empson’s poems by Leavis.’ He was also writing on Eliot and on Lawrence in the 1920s and early ’30s.

Leavis had enemies in the English Faculty, however; his outstanding abilities and the Scrutiny project did not enable him to obtain a permanent Faculty post (the latter may even have militated against him). In 1936, however, (the year in which Revaluation appeared) he was made a Lecturer (though on a part-time salary), at the age of 41, after having been a Probationary (or Assistant) Lecturer since 1927.

This situation continued until 1947 when, at the age of 52, he achieved a full-time Lectureship. He had seen younger and less able candidates given precedence. All this (and the lack of academic recognition accorded his wife) was to be a source of bitterness to him both at the time and in later years: a bitterness contained by his high intelligence and powers of self-sufficiency. ‘In his youth’, noted The Times’ obituarist, ‘he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.’

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Beauty and Desecration 2  —  Roger Scruton

July 22, 2014

 

Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness. Roger Scruton, a philosopher, is the author of many books, most recently Beauty.

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Here is another example: it is a special occasion, when the family unites for a ceremonial dinner. You set the table with a clean embroidered cloth, arranging plates, glasses, bread in a basket, and some carafes of water and wine. You do this lovingly, delighting in the appearance, striving for an effect of cleanliness, simplicity, symmetry, and warmth. The table has become a symbol of homecoming, of the extended arms of the universal mother, inviting her children in. And all this abundance of meaning and good cheer is somehow contained in the appearance of the table.

This, too, is an experience of beauty, one that we encounter, in some version or other, every day. We are needy creatures, and our greatest need is for home — the place where we are, where we find protection and love. We achieve this home through representations of our own belonging, not alone but in conjunction with others. All our attempts to make our surroundings look right — through decorating, arranging, creating — are attempts to extend a welcome to ourselves and to those whom we love.

This second example suggests that our human need for beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us.

Look at any picture by one of the great landscape painters — Poussin, Guardi, Turner, Corot, Cézanne — and you will see that idea of beauty celebrated and fixed in images. The art of landscape painting, as it arose in the seventeenth century and endured into our time, is devoted to moralizing nature and showing the place of human freedom in the scheme of things. It is not that landscape painters turn a blind eye to suffering, or to the vastness and threateningness of the universe of which we occupy so small a corner.

Far from it. Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

Not surprisingly, the idea of beauty has puzzled philosophers. The experience of beauty is so vivid, so immediate, so personal, that it seems hardly to belong to the natural order as science observes it. Yet beauty shines on us from ordinary things. Is it a feature of the world, or a figment of the imagination? Is it telling us something real and true that requires just this experience to be recognized? Or is it merely a heightened moment of sensation, of no significance beyond the delight of the person who experiences it?

These questions are of great urgency for us, since we live at a time when beauty is in eclipse: a dark shadow of mockery and alienation has crept across the once-shining surface of our world, like the shadow of the Earth across the moon. Where we look for beauty, we too often find darkness and desecration.

The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.

Christians have inherited from Saint Augustine and from Plato the vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order. They understand the sacred as a revelation in the here and now of the eternal sense of our being. But the experience of the sacred is not confined to Christians. It is, according to many philosophers and anthropologists, a human universal. For the most part, transitory purposes organize our lives: the day-to-day concerns of economic reasoning, the small-scale pursuit of power and comfort, the need for leisure and pleasure. Little of this is memorable or moving to us. Every now and then, however, we are jolted out of our complacency and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires.

We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is, in some way, not of this world. This happens in the presence of death, especially the death of someone loved. We look with awe on the human body from which the life has fled. This is no longer a person but the “mortal remains” of a person. And this thought fills us with a sense of the uncanny. We are reluctant to touch the dead body; we see it as, in some way, not properly a part of our world, almost a visitor from some other sphere.

This experience, a paradigm of our encounter with the sacred, demands from us a kind of ceremonial recognition. The dead body is the object of rituals and acts of purification, designed not just to send its former occupant happily into the hereafter — for these practices are engaged in even by those who have no belief in the hereafter — but in order to overcome the eeriness, the supernatural quality, of the dead human form.

The body is being reclaimed for this world by the rituals that acknowledge that it also stands apart from it. The rituals, to put it another way, consecrate the body, and so purify it of its miasma. By the same token, the body can be desecrated — and this is surely one of the primary acts of desecration, one to which people have been given from time immemorial, as when Achilles dragged Hector’s body in triumph around the walls of Troy.

The presence of a transcendental claim startles us out of our day-to-day preoccupations on other occasions, too. In particular, there is the experience of falling in love. This, too, is a human universal, and it is an experience of the strangest kind. The face and body of the beloved are imbued with the intensest life.

But in one crucial respect, they are like the body of someone dead: they seem not to belong in the empirical world. The beloved looks on the lover as Beatrice looked on Dante, from a point outside the flow of temporal things. The beloved object demands that we cherish it, that we approach it with almost ritualistic reverence. And there radiates from those eyes and limbs and words a kind of fullness of spirit that makes everything anew.

Poets have expended thousands of words on this experience, which no words seem entirely to capture. It has fueled the sense of the sacred down the ages, reminding people as diverse as Plato and Calvino, Virgil and Baudelaire, that sexual desire is not the simple appetite that we witness in animals but the raw material of a longing that has no easy or worldly satisfaction, demanding of us nothing less than a change of life.

Many of the uglinesses cultivated in our world today refer back to the two experiences that I have singled out. The body in the throes of death; the body in the throes of sex — these things easily fascinate us. They fascinate us by desecrating the human form, by showing the human body as a mere object among objects, the human spirit as eclipsed and ineffectual, and the human being as overcome by external forces, rather than as a free subject bound by the moral law. And it is on these things that the art of our time seems to concentrate, offering us not only sexual pornography but a pornography of violence that reduces the human being to a lump of suffering flesh made pitiful, helpless, and disgusting.

All of us have a desire to flee from the demands of responsible existence, in which we treat one another as worthy of reverence and respect. All of us are tempted by the idea of flesh and by the desire to remake the human being as pure flesh — an automaton, obedient to mechanical desires. To yield to this temptation, however, we must first remove the chief obstacle to it: the consecrated nature of the human form. We must sully the experiences — such as death and sex — that otherwise call us away from temptations, toward the higher life of sacrifice. This willful desecration is also a denial of love — an attempt to remake the world as though love were no longer a part of it. And that, surely, is the most important characteristic of the postmodern culture: it is a loveless culture, determined to portray the human world as unlovable. The modern stage director who ransacks the works of Mozart is trying to tear the love from the heart of them, so as to confirm his own vision of the world as a place where only pleasure and pain are real.

That suggests a simple remedy, which is to resist temptation. Instead of desecrating the human form, we should learn again to revere it. For there is absolutely nothing to gain from the insults hurled at beauty by those — like Calixto Bieito — who cannot bear to look it in the face. Yes, we can neutralize the high ideals of Mozart by pushing his music into the background so that it becomes the mere accompaniment to an inhuman carnival of sex and death. But what do we learn from this? What do we gain, in terms of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or moral development? Nothing, save anxiety. We should take a lesson from this kind of desecration: in attempting to show us that our human ideals are worthless, it shows itself to be worthless. And when something shows itself to be worthless, it is time to throw it away.

It is therefore plain that the culture of transgression achieves nothing save the loss that it revels in: the loss of beauty as a value and a goal. But why is beauty a value? It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict. Maybe the degeneration of beauty into kitsch comes precisely from the postmodern loss of truthfulness, and with it the loss of moral direction. That is the message of such early modernists as Eliot, Barber, and Stevens, and it is a message that we need to listen to.

To mount a full riposte to the habit of desecration, we need to rediscover the affirmation and the truth to life without which artistic beauty cannot be realized. This is no easy task. If we look at the true apostles of beauty in our time — I think of composers like Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen, of poets like Derek Walcott and Charles Tomlinson, of prose writers like Italo Calvino and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — we are immediately struck by the immense hard work, the studious isolation, and the attention to detail that characterizes their craft. In art, beauty has to be won, but the work becomes harder as the sheer noise of desecration — amplified now by the Internet — drowns out the quiet voices murmuring in the heart of things.

One response is to look for beauty in its other and more everyday forms — the beauty of settled streets and cheerful faces, of natural objects and genial landscapes. It is possible to throw dirt on these things, too, and it is the mark of a second-rate artist to take such a path to our attention — the via negativa of desecration. But it is also possible to return to ordinary things in the spirit of Wallace Stevens and Samuel Barber — to show that we are at home with them and that they magnify and vindicate our life. Such is the overgrown path that the early modernists once cleared for us — the via positiva of beauty. There is no reason yet to think that we must abandon it.

 

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Beauty and Desecration 1  —  Roger Scruton

July 21, 2014
The West's great landscape painters, like the eighteenth-century JMW Turner, capture the intimations of the eternal in the transient.

The West’s great landscape painters, like the eighteenth-century JMW Turner, capture the intimations of the eternal in the transient.

We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness.

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At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them. Philosophers of the Enlightenment saw beauty as a way in which lasting moral and spiritual values acquire sensuous form. And no Romantic painter, musician, or writer would have denied that beauty was the final purpose of his art.

At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality — however achieved and at whatever moral cost — that won the prizes. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch — something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue.

In a seminal essay — “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939 — critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.

The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. 

We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars — for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France — from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.

Of course, there were great artists who tried to rescue beauty from the perceived disruption of modern society — as T. S. Eliot tried to recompose, in Four Quartets, the fragments he had grieved over in The Waste Land. And there were others, particularly in America, who refused to see the sordid and the transgressive as the truth of the modern world. For artists like Hopper, Samuel Barber, and Wallace Stevens, ostentatious transgression was mere sentimentality, a cheap way to stimulate an audience, and a betrayal of the sacred task of art, which is to magnify life as it is and to reveal its beauty — as Stevens reveals the beauty of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” and Barber that of Knoxville: Summer of 1915. 

But somehow those great life-affirmers lost their position at the forefront of modern culture. So far as the critics and the wider culture were concerned, the pursuit of beauty was at the margins of the artistic enterprise. Qualities like disruptiveness and immorality, which previously signified aesthetic failure, became marks of success; while the pursuit of beauty became a retreat from the real task of artistic creation. This process has been so normalized as to become a critical orthodoxy, prompting the philosopher Arthur Danto to argue recently that beauty is both deceptive as a goal and in some way antipathetic to the mission of modern art. Art has acquired another status and another social role.

The great proof of this change is in the productions of opera, which give the denizens of postmodern culture an unparalleled opportunity to take revenge on the art of the past and to hide its beauty behind an obscene and sordid mask. We all assume that this will happen with Wagner, who “asked for it” by believing too strongly in the redemptive role of art. But it now regularly happens to the innocent purveyors of beauty, just as soon as a postmodernist producer gets his hands on one of their works.

An example that particularly struck me was a 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin (see “The Abduction of Opera,” Summer 2007). Die Entführung tells the story of Konstanze — shipwrecked, separated from her fiancé Belmonte, and taken to serve in the harem of the Pasha Selim. After various intrigues, Belmonte rescues her, helped by the clemency of the Pasha — who, respecting Konstanze’s chastity and the couple’s faithful love, declines to take her by force.

This implausible plot permits Mozart to express his Enlightenment conviction that charity is a universal virtue, as real in the Muslim empire of the Turks as in the Christian empire of the enlightened Joseph II. Even if Mozart’s innocent vision is without much historical basis, his belief in the reality of disinterested love is everywhere expressed and endorsed by the music. Die Entführung advances a moral idea, and its melodies share the beauty of that idea and persuasively present it to the listener.

In his production of Die Entführung, the Catalan stage director Calixto Bieito set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, copulating couples littered the stage, and every opportunity for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. At one point, a prostitute is gratuitously tortured, and her nipples bloodily and realistically severed before she is killed. The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the scenes of desecration, murder, and narcissistic sex.

That is an example of something familiar in every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction. Hence the many works of contemporary art that rely on shocks administered to our failing faith in human nature — such as the crucifix pickled in urine by Andres Serrano. 

Hence the scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, and meaningless pain with which contemporary cinema abounds, with directors like Quentin Tarantino having little else in their emotional repertories. Hence the invasion of pop music by rap, whose words and rhythms speak of unremitting violence, and which rejects melody, harmony, and every other device that might make a bridge to the old world of song. And hence the music video, which has become an art form in itself and is often devoted to concentrating into the time span of a pop song some startling new account of moral chaos.

Those phenomena record a habit of desecration in which life is not celebrated by art but targeted by it. Artists can now make their reputations by constructing an original frame in which to display the human face and throw dung at it. What do we make of this, and how do we find our way back to the thing so many people long for, which is the vision of beauty? It may sound a little sentimental to speak of a “vision of beauty.”

But what I mean is not some saccharine, Christmas-card image of human life but rather the elementary ways in which ideals and decencies enter our ordinary world and make themselves known, as love and charity make themselves known in Mozart’s music. There is a great hunger for beauty in our world, a hunger that our popular art fails to recognize and our serious art often defies.

I used the word “desecration” to describe the attitude conveyed by Bieito’s production of Die Entführung and by Serrano’s lame efforts at meaning something. What exactly does this word imply? It is connected, etymologically and semantically, with sacrilege, and therefore with the ideas of sanctity and the sacred. To desecrate is to spoil what might otherwise be set apart in the sphere of sacred things. We can desecrate a church, a graveyard, a tomb; and also a holy image, a holy book, or a holy ceremony. We can desecrate a corpse, a cherished image, even a living human being — insofar as these things contain (as they do) a portent of some original sanctity. The fear of desecration is a vital element in all religions. Indeed, that is what the word religio originally meant: a cult or ceremony designed to protect some sacred place from sacrilege.

In the eighteenth century, when organized religion and ceremonial kingship were losing their authority, when the democratic spirit was questioning inherited institutions, and when the idea was abroad that it was not God but man who made laws for the human world, the idea of the sacred suffered an eclipse. To the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it seemed little more than a superstition to believe that artifacts, buildings, places, and ceremonies could possess a sacred character, when all these things were the products of human design. The idea that the divine reveals itself in our world, and seeks our worship, seemed both implausible in itself and incompatible with science.

At the same time, philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Adam Smith, and Kant recognized that we do not look on the world only with the eyes of science. Another attitude exists — one not of scientific inquiry but of disinterested contemplation — that we direct toward our world in search of its meaning. When we take this attitude, we set our interests aside; we are no longer occupied with the goals and projects that propel us through time; we are no longer engaged in explaining things or enhancing our power. We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty. There may be no way of accounting for that experience as part of our ordinary search for power and knowledge. It may be impossible to assimilate it to the day-to-day uses of our faculties. But it is an experience that self-evidently exists, and it is of the greatest value to those who receive it.

When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.

Maybe such experiences are rarer now than they were in the eighteenth century, when the poets and philosophers lighted upon them as a new avenue to religion. The haste and disorder of modern life, the alienating forms of modern architecture, the noise and spoliation of modern industry — these things have made the pure encounter with beauty a rarer, more fragile, and more unpredictable thing for us. 

Still, we all know what it is to find ourselves suddenly transported, by the things we see, from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. It happens often during childhood, though it is seldom interpreted then. It happens during adolescence, when it lends itself to our erotic longings. And it happens in a subdued way in adult life, secretly shaping our life projects, holding out to us an image of harmony that we pursue through holidays, through home-building, and through our private dreams.

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Book Review of  ‘Philology’ by James Turner — Tom Shippey

July 18, 2014
Comparative philology, tracing the history and development of especially the Indo-European languages, rapidly gained immense prestige, most of all in Germany. No discipline, declared Jacob Grimm, doyen of philologists and fairy-tale collector, "is haughtier, more disputatious, or more merciless to error." It was a hard science in every sense, like math or physics, with a ruthless ethic of finicky detail.

Comparative philology, tracing the history and development of especially the Indo-European languages, rapidly gained immense prestige, most of all in Germany. No discipline, declared Jacob Grimm, doyen of philologists and fairy-tale collector, “is haughtier, more disputatious, or more merciless to error.” It was a hard science in every sense, like math or physics, with a ruthless ethic of finicky detail.

The skeptical approach of modern scholarship, and its insistence on scrutinizing all forms of evidence, reflects the legacy of a nearly forgotten discipline. Mr. Shippey is the editor of The Shadow-Walkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous and The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. You’ll find a chapter dealing with evil and the ring from the Dr. Shippey on payingattentiontothesky. 

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James Turner’s book on “philology” must be the most wide-ranging work of intellectual history for many years. But what is it about? As Mr. Turner declares in his prologue, “philology has fallen on hard times in the English-speaking world.” It may be the foundation of all the humanities, with one significant exception, but “many college-educated Americans no longer recognize the word.”

Its original meaning, “love of words,” is unhelpful. “Tough love” would be a better description: a critical attitude toward words, their roots and their meanings — one that admits no exceptions. It could well be said that a readiness to scrutinize anything, treating even the Bible “like any other book,” is still one of the distinctive marks of Western civilization, seen in every discipline, from literary criticism to theology, history to anthropology.

The first philologists, back in the pre-Christian era, took that attitude with Homer’s epics, which were already deeply venerated and formed the basis of young men’s education. But “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were centuries old by the time of the great librarians of Alexandria Eratosthenes and Zenodotus. The poems’ texts had been passed on first by word of mouth and then by scribes prone to error or deliberate meddling. The early philologists, then, compared different versions of texts, noted repetitions and struck out dubious lines, such as those added to cover up the non-participation of Athens in the Trojan War.

Textual scrutiny became even more vital in the early Christian era. For one thing, a New Testament canon had to be formed. “The Gospel of John” was in. “The Gospel of Nicodemus” remained popular for centuries, for it followed Jesus down to Hell, but its provenance was dubious, so it was out. The Old Testament presented problems, too, notably the issue of translation, from Hebrew to Greek to Latin. Christian aristocrats built up great research libraries, like Cassiodorus, and brooded on etymology, like Isidore of Seville.

It didn’t last. Modern historians do not like the term “Dark Ages,” but as far as philology goes there was then a centuries-long hiatus, beginning with the fall of Rome in 410. Libraries were destroyed, manuscripts lost or scrubbed down and used again for pious purposes. Medieval scholasticism was deeply intellectual, but it was logical rather than philological.

Only in the 15th century did textual study and textual recovery become once again a passion. Critical moments include the foundation in 1498 of the first “trilingual college” (Hebrew, Greek and Latin) at Alcalá near Madrid, where Cervantes’s house still stands; the literal unearthing in 1546 of old Roman inscriptions, with dates, from the Roman Forum; and in 1519 the publication of what would be the most influential “lost text” of the Renaissance, Tacitus’ “Germania,” an ethnography of German tribes that delighted German scholars with its positive image of their ancestors.

Spanish, Italian and German scholars would soon be joined by the great humanist and Bible scholar from the Netherlands, Erasmus, who established the principle of rejecting the facilior lectio: If you have two readings in different manuscripts, reject the easier one. That’s the one put in by some dumb copy editor. A hasty or absent-minded scribe is more likely to substitute a simpler, more familiar phrasing for a more complicated original than vice-versa. Erasmus’s clever rule of thumb remains one of the foundations of textual criticism.

Not for the last time, however, English scholarship hung back, short of libraries and affected by “cultural cringe”—though after the execution of Charles I in 1649, Milton won the ensuing war of words over classical and biblical precedents for regicide against the royalist French philologist Salmasius. In the following century, Richard Bentley, “the greatest scholar that England or perhaps Europe ever bred,” as A.E. Housman called him, returned to philology’s origins with his discovery of the “Homeric digamma.” Certain irregularities in the Homeric poems, he realized, could be explained by assuming that copyists had consistently omitted a w-like letter that was part of ancient Greek but not Classical Greek. “Oinos” (“wine”), for example, was originally “woinos.” Once Bentley put the digamma back in, these lines became metrically regular.

But how did this textual philology affect other disciplines? Mr. Turner shows with great force and erudition how the habit of skeptical scrutiny affected, first, the writing of history. No longer could you claim to study nations and civilizations without first studying texts. The philological revolution swept away, among others, P.F. Suhm, a Danish historian from the 18th century.

Determined to recover the history of Scandinavia from ancient times, Suhm had put together many volumes and a gigantic “spreadsheet” that gathered every bit of data from all the sagas and chronicles available. But he had not studied the texts, only read them. Most of his data was fiction, his harmonization of it so much work wasted. “Garbage in, garbage out,” as we now say.

What you needed was critically certified and preferably contemporary documentary evidence, as exemplified by the sources Edward Gibbon drew on for his “Decline and Fall” (1776-89) and those that the Scottish historian William Robertson used for his “History of America” (1777). The principle was, once again, check everything, spare nothing.

Well-meaning Americans cleaned up George Washington’s spelling and vulgar idioms; philological historians put them back again. Noah Webster’s 1828 “American Dictionary” piously traced etymologies back to the biblical language Aramaic: After Webster’s death a German philologist removed them. J.M. Kemble swallowed Suhm hook, line and sinker in his first 1833 edition of “Beowulf” but repudiated his mistake in a panic only four years later.

What was happening from about 1800 on was the coming of “comparative philology,” best described as the Darwinian event for the humanities as a whole. Like “The Origin of Species,” it was powered by wider horizons and new knowledge. By the late 18th century, conscientious British colonial administrators, who had had Latin and Greek drummed into them at school, found that they needed classical Persian, and even Sanskrit, to do their jobs properly. They could not help noticing the similarities between the Eastern languages and their classical counterparts. But what did these mean, and what was the origin, not of species, but of language differentiation?

Comparative philology, tracing the history and development of especially the Indo-European languages, rapidly gained immense prestige, most of all in Germany. No discipline, declared Jacob Grimm, doyen of philologists and fairy-tale collector, “is haughtier, more disputatious, or more merciless to error.” It was a hard science in every sense, like math or physics, with a ruthless ethic of finicky detail.

The new model spread almost immediately to mythology, most notably in the work of Max Müller, the great student of the sacred books of India, and was extended to anthropology, the philology of the preliterate, by scholars such as J.G. Frazer, author of “The Golden Bough” (1890). Simultaneously, though, the philological insistence on using and scrutinizing all forms of evidence had revolutionized classical studies, which became in Germany the combined discipline called “Altertumswissenschaft,” the science of antiquity.

Of this transformation archaeology was a vital part, including the rediscovery in modern Turkey of the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, in 1855, and the shattering later discoveries in Egypt, Crete and Troy. Art history, too. Kenneth Clark later stated explicitly that to identify a painting as by Bellini or Botticelli needed the skills of a Bentley or a Housman. But the most iconoclastic effect of philology may well have been on Bible study, with the coming, once again from Germany, of the “höhere Kritik” or “higher criticism”: looking at words, yes, but also authorship, literary forms and, as Mr. Turner says, “meanings in light of deep history.”

David Strauss’s “Life of Jesus, Critically Examined” (1835-36), written in German, put the cat among the pigeons (it was later translated by George Eliot). It declared that the Gospels must be seen as mythic expressions of faith, not reliable historical narratives. Once again, British scholarship hung back or responded with spluttering outrage. When a rather timid attempt at the new approach appeared in English in 1860, in the form of the overview anthology “Essays and Reviews,” a German reviewer noted that it did not inaugurate a new era in scholarship, as the authors seemed to think; it showed that Oxford “had not yet learned what scholarship was.”

The result, however, as Mr. Turner shows with indisputable range and force, is the structure of arts faculties in modern universities. All but one of our modern disciplines have philology in their ancestry — all except philosophy, which, he declares, “arrives at universally valid generalizations” rather than scrutinizing individual cases.

One may quibble with him here about how much philological influence persists. In the English-speaking world, the last century has seen a determined war of extermination fought against comparative philologists by their deadly enemies, the literary critics. J.R.R. Tolkien in particular, who said of himself “I am a pure philologist,” fought all his career to promote and then to save a remnant of philology within the Oxford syllabus. The critics won within academia, only to find their aces trumped by Tolkien’s success in the wider world. Tolkien nevertheless used his 1959 Oxford “Valedictory Lecture” to lambaste the colleagues he called “misologists.”

Philology played little part in the 20th-century rise of New Criticism, now very old, with its emphasis on context-free close reading, and even less in the craze for literary theory, which has wandered off in the direction of philosophical speculation. Mr. Turner, perhaps wisely, says nothing about the present “bonfire of the humanities,” as seen in declining enrollments. But turning a collective back on Grimm is like ditching Darwin—though their significance does not mean either they, or anyone else, should be immune to scrutiny. “Tough love” applies to everybody.

Including Mr. Turner. J.M. Kemble’s 1836 pamphlet, written in German to show the author was a proper “Philolog,” is not a study of the West Saxon dialect, as Mr. Turner says, but of the genealogy of the West Saxon dynasty: “der Westsachsen” is plural, not singular; and the dialect is called “Westsächsisch,” not “Westsachsen.” Picky, picky, picky. That’s the way philologists work. Bless their cold and stony hearts.

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Dan Jacobson Obituary — John Sutherland

July 17, 2014
Dan Jacobson at the Edinburgh International Book festival in 2005

Dan Jacobson at the Edinburgh International Book festival in 2005

Dan Jacobson, novelist and critic, born 7 March 1929; died 12 June 2014. South African-born writer, novelist and critic who became a professor at University College London. Reblogged from the Guardian. 

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Dan Jacobson, who has died aged 85, should rank as one the leading novelists of his time. That he was never regarded as such was the result of a combination of factors. He was unusually hard to “place” as an author: he was born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, but the greater part of his life was spent in Britain. His fiction evolved faster than those who most admired him could always keep up with. 

He shed authorial skins like a snake, each time allowing a new Jacobson to emerge – but one which sometimes disappointed those fondly attached to the old Jacobson. And in his later years he moved, powerfully, into non-fictional literary territories: autobiography, travel writing and even theology. His relationship with his inherited Judaism was intense, but complicated. “How to make sense of it all?” he mused.

He was born in Johannesburg, one of four children of a Latvian father, Hyman, and a Lithuanian mother, Liebe (nee Melamed), both of whom had fled their homelands. Jacobson was brought up in Kimberley. It was a dull town – diamonds went down with everything else in the slump – but one of the places on the globe where Jews were safe to enjoy a dull life.

His late-life memoir, Heshel’s Kingdom (1998), was inspired by a visit to Lithuania. Heshel Melamed, a stern rabbinical paterfamilias, was his maternal grandfather. On the old man’s death, in 1920, Dan’s mother fled to South Africa. She was escaping her father as much as the Pale of Settlement, the term given to a region of Russia where Jews were allowed to settle. Had Heshel lived longer, Dan Jacobson would never have happened. The Nazi extermination of Jews in Lithuania (aided enthusiastically by local Lithuanians) was virtually total.

Dan’s father ran Kimberley’s butter factory. The Jacobson home was well off, liberal in politics and non-coercive in matters of religion. Dan went to a faux-English grammar school, Kimberley Boys’ high school, where, like the rest, he bellowed out his daily wish that God save his king. Meanwhile, outside, squads of barefoot black men mowed the cricket grounds and whitewashed the boundary markers. It struck him, even as a boy, as somehow crazy.

After getting a top degree in English at the University of Witwatersrand in 1949, and suffering a few awkward months at a kibbutz in Israel, Jacobson spent a year in London. He worked for in a Jewish boys’ school, lived in lodgings, and was very lonely. A “demi-alien”, he began, in his solitude, to write a novel. The Wonder Worker (1973) allegorizes this London loneliness. It was, nonetheless, a happy time. He loved the way the English so expertly “imitated” being English. It was on this trip, aged 21, that he committed to the place. But he would not settle there yet.

He was dismissed from his teaching post for thoughtlessly informing his boys that the universe was (contra Genesis) millions of years old. He returned to South Africa and did a number of desk jobs. More importantly, he was already publishing short fiction in American magazines including Commentary and the New Yorker.

In 1954 he married a teacher, Margaret Pye, from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and moved with her to London. He was already highly regarded as a coming author in the US, and in 1956-57 spent a year as writer in residence at Stanford. The 1950s was a period when South Africa – and its Afrikaner resistance to the Winds of Change – was front-page news across the world. In exile, Jacobson built up a substantial corpus of fiction dealing with his native country. It climaxed with The Beginners (1966). His longest work (Jacobson was never one to squander words), it was his equivalent to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, telling the story of a dynasty of Lithuanian Jews “beginning” over again in South Africa.

The Beginners was a valediction. After a longish interval he produced the biblical fantasia The Rape of Tamar (1970). It was, he later surmised, the novel of his most qualified to have won the newly established Booker. A laudatory review was lost in one of the regular printers’ strikes of the time: it might, he felt, have swung things his way.

He shifted away from South African subjects, only returning to the territory as a cold-eyed tourist in his travel writing. Kafka, not Mann, was now the star he followed. The Confessions of Josef Baisz (1977), a fable set in an imaginary country, is the most successfully experimental novel in this second phase of his career.

Cash prizes, Arts Council bursaries, royalties and journalism kept Jacobson going through the 60s. But the life of a writer, with a growing family, was a tightrope walk. When Karl Miller was appointed to the Northcliffe chair at University College London in the mid-70s, he brought Jacobson into his entourage, as a lecturer. It was a happy change of direction. There was an inner pedagogue in Jacobson, only too glad to be released. As an academic, he was stern — particularly on bad writing and jargon, for which he had Orwellian distaste. Colleagues beguiled by his smiling bonhomie into asking him to look at their work in progress would recoil at the brutality of the Jacobson blue pencil.

A follower of FR Leavis by intellectual affiliation, he had little time for “theory”. However experimental his fiction, his literary criticism was traditional and pragmatic. A selection, Adult Pleasures, was published in 1988. He believed – passionately – that scholarship mattered in the real world. His last PhD student was the lawyer Anthony Julius and it was (as Julius acknowledges), largely through Jacobson’s tireless campaigning that Julius’s TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (1995), one of the most controversial critical books of the 90s, saw print.

At UCL, Jacobson was for some years a colleague of AS Byatt. As she recalls, the two of them would discuss whether the academic life was good for their fiction. She eventually decided not, and left. He stayed, becoming professor in 1986 and retiring as professor emeritus in 1994. His later fiction was carefully wrought and continued the lines of narrative exploration he had opened in the 70s.

University College London, the godless place in Gower Street, which had been set up, in large part, as a home for the spiritually uncomfortable, fitted Jacobson like a glove. Its open-mindedness encouraged monographs such as The Story of the Stories: The Chosen People and Its God (1982) – the Bible was, Jacobson always thought, the best novel ever written. (We heartily concur.)

In his travel writing, and memoirs, he settled his personal account with the country in which he was born (whose accent his speech never lost) and with Nazi-occupied Europe. “They would have killed us, if they could have got to South Africa,” he mused, contemplating the exterminations in Vilnius and Heshel’s fortuitous death.

There was always a rueful melancholy, stiffened by irony and leavened by humor about him. He chose, on being appointed professor, to give his inaugural lecture on Thomas Hardy’s poetry – and, as always, contrived to extract a laugh or two from this gloomiest of authors. One of the images that recurs in his writing is the pit, or abyss – sometimes it materializes into the vast black holes left by the Kimberley diamond excavations of his childhood.

At other more metaphorical moments, it takes shape as Conrad’s heart of darkness. “The pit of the future,” he once wrote, “is quite as deep as the pit of the past. Through it, too, all things fall endlessly.” And yet, paradoxically he was revered by his colleagues for his cheerfulness. He was the best raconteur and joke-teller in the department and good company to the very end.

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The  Choice 3 — Dan Jocobsen

July 16, 2014
The Aleppo Codex reached Israel nearly fifty years ago (in 1958). Over the years, many efforts have been made to locate the missing parts of the codex. From time to time rumors circulate about the discovery of parts of the manuscript or about their location. However, these rumors have proven false. Nevertheless, two parts of the Aleppo Codex have been discovered over the years: a whole page and a fragment of a page.

The Aleppo Codex reached Israel nearly fifty years ago (in 1958). Over the years, many efforts have been made to locate the missing parts of the codex. From time to time rumors circulate about the discovery of parts of the manuscript or about their location. However, these rumors have proven false. Nevertheless, two parts of the Aleppo Codex have been discovered over the years: a whole page and a fragment of a page.

We continue with a final post from a chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (1982), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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An anthropologist may declare, as Edmund Leach does in Genesis as Myth and Other Essays, that the reason for the  choice  is  essentially  that  this  line  is  the  “purest”  in blood, since Sarah, Isaac’s mother, is Abraham’s half-sister, which  the  mother  of  Ishmael  is not;  but  from  our  point of view that merely puts the question back a stage further. We still have  to ask: Why this line?

The “purity” of  the line from Abraham  and his family matters,  after all, only because he has already been chosen. As for Jacob and Esau, who are not merely born of the same mother but are twins, the  one  is  preferred  above  the  other  when  they  are  still in the womb: “the elder shall serve the younger.” (A reversal of  the  primogenitive  order  is found  in many  biblical narratives;  the case of  David, which is mentioned  below, is one of the most striking of these.)

It cannot be said that the patriarchs are chosen for their special virtues; if anything, the case is exactly the other way around: whatever virtues are ascribed to them appear to spring from the fact that they have been specially favored or elected — and that they know it. 

Now, one might argue — as Thomas Mann does in Joseph and His Brothers, a series of ironic, avowedly fictional variations upon the legends of Genesis — that in this respect Yahweh’s actions are very much like those of life itself , which also “chooses” with apparent capriciousness those people whom it blesses (and curses) with gifts of any kind, and, which invariably lets them know that they have been so chosen. (In 1 Samuel 16, to take an example from much later in the story, David is described as a handsome youth, with particularly beautiful eyes; but the “Spirit of the Lord”  comes “mightily upon him” only after Samuel has anointed him as the king-to-be: in other words, once he knows that he has been chosen.)

Alternatively, it could simply be said that the biblical story, like any myth about the genesis of any people, has to begin somewhere, and with someone: why· not with Abraham, in Ur of the Chaldees? Both these arguments are persuasive enough, and they are not incompatible with one another. 

But  they  are incompatible  with the claims that the Scriptures themselves make on Yahweh’s behalf: above all, with the design that is insistently imputed to him, from the beginning to the end of the biblical text. He is the active or (if you like) supremely responsible participant in the story of the patriarchs and of the people descended from them; he is the sole and exclusive source of moral order acknowledged in the book. Yet no explanation is given of his most crucial decision; no moral or any other justification is proffered of the most fateful of the choices he makes. At the same time, the book itself makes it clear that to enter into the realm of choices is to enter irrevocably into the realm of  morality.

“The Lord sees not as man sees.” In some of the biographical narratives, there is a hint that the favored of God might be those who are scorned or overlooked by others. “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). Even David falls into this category; no one thinks to send for him, the youngest son of Jesse, when Samuel comes to the house in search of Saul’s successor to the throne. A preference by Yahweh for the downtrodden is more than hinted at in the account of the liberation  of  the  entire people  from  their  bondage in Egypt; while in the codes of law and conduct that are promulgated in Yahweh’s name in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy,  the  weakest  members  of  society-the  poor,the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner or stranger­ — are spoken of with great moral generosity, even with tenderness, as being under his special guardianship. (“Love the sojourner, therefore, for  you  were  sojourners  in  the  land of Egypt.” Another form of reciprocity, that must be called.)

Eventually, in  a development already alluded to in discussing the fall of Jerusalem, the prophets who faced the catastrophes of national defeat and exile, and all the hardships of their own calling, were more and more to insist programmatically that God’s final election must fall upon the humiliated and the outcast. Yet in developing  out of  their  owntragic situation this systematization or moralization of the way in which Yahweh makes his choices, the prophets, inevitably enough invoked as precedent his (belated) recollection of  his promises  to the patriarchs during an earlier period  of  exile and servitude. And that brings us back, as they intended  it to, to the mystery  of  his initial  choice.

It is not surprising that later rabbinical commentators were also to attempt to rationalize the initial choice of Abraham and  (some of )  his descendants by inventing  a series of  what might  be  called  justificatory  legends about  it. It was said, for instance, that Yahweh  had offered the yoke of  his  Law  to  all  the  nations  of  the  earth  in turn;  only Israel had been willing to accept  it. It was also said that even  as a boy Abraham  had  distinguished  himself  by his contempt for idolatry, and by breaking the idols of his father. There is no warrant in the text itself  for these stories; in fact,  what  they  betray  is a  certain  unease  about  there being no warrant  for them. 

A  rather   more  sophisticated,   theological   justification for  the  apparent   arbitrariness — or   “scandal” — of   Yahweh’s  · choice of the people of Israel has been urged with particular insistence by some Christian interpreters: Paul, the ex-Jew, being the very first among them (Romans 9:10-11).  As I understand it, the argument goes that if we were to be given a reason for the choice, then the quality of grace it shows would inevitably be diminished or devalued; indeed, to seek for a reason is to attempt to do away with the very notion of God exercising his completely unconstrained will in the matter, which is the only true meaning the word “choice” should have. 

This is ingenious, and in some ways it actually seems to me closer to what we find in the text than are the rabbinical stories just cited; at least it confronts the fact that we are dealing with an act of unexplained and dangerous favoritism — and one that was at a profound level recognized as such by the biblical writers themselves.

 

The freedom which Yahweh enjoys is in any case constrained in one most important respect: the one thing he is  not free to  do  is  to refrain  from  choosing.  At  a  time when there are only four people on the entire earn — Adam, Eve, and their two sons — Yahweh is already engaged in the practice.

And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” The conse­quences of this, supposedly God’s very first act of favoritism, are at once shown to be disastrous for both brothers. First it produces envy, then murder, then a man forever on the run. But does Yahweh learn from this experience? Not at all! 

Once he has begun in this way, he apparently cannot stop. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,” he says, with more grimness than grace in Exodus 33:19-20, “and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (The passage is quoted in the Pauline Letter mentioned above.) Everything that follows can be understood as an illustration or elaboration of this ambiguous utterance.

Whole peoples are chosen and rejected; the land is chosen and later, in a  sense, rejected; so are particular groups and tribes within Israel itself; so are particular places within the land. The record of these events obviously reflects in each case some greater or lesser vicissitude in the history of the nation or in the history of the cult; but it also reveals just how “natural” to the  Israelites’ conceptions of God was the act of choosing and rejecting, in so many different contexts. 

This activity is strongly associated, especially in Leviticus, with that ritualistic preoccupation  with “holiness” and  “separation” with  “cleanness”  and  “uncleanness,”  in  terms of  which everything,  from the fish in the sea to the days of the calendar, was ultimately to be categorized. That preoccupation, I need hardly add, still looms large in rabbinic Judaism. “I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast  and the unclean”  (Leviticus 20:24-25).

 What makes this God such an inveterate or compulsive chooser? What is it about the act of  choosing that reveals his very nature?  The answer I am going to suggest shows clearly that in the creation of  our fantasies,  and hence in the  development  of  our  moral  lives,  “weaknesses”  and “strengths” are as inextricably bound  up with one another as are “good” impulses and “bad.” Yahweh comes into being as a choosing  God because,  unlike  the gods· of  Egypt  or Assyria, say, or even those of Canaan, he is not autochthonous; that is, he is a God of a people whose primal historical memory appears to be one of enslavement and homelessness, of searching for a territory, of being without that which all other peoples apparently had. Like the people , he is a wanderer, a God looking for a land — therefore he has to “choose” the land from outside it, just as he had to originally to choose or form the people itself.

For  ask  now  of  the  days that  are past,  which  were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of . . . . Or has any god ever at­ tempted to go and take a nation for himself  from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and  by  war,  by  a  mighty  hand  and  an outstretched arm,  and  by  great  terrors,  according  to  all  that  the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
DEUTERONOMY 4:32, 34

In other words, if it had not been said of Yahweh that he had created heaven and earth, if he had not been given “extraterritorial” status from the very outset, he would not have been able to dispose of a land that was not “his ” and deal so effectively with the Egyptians, or choose as his own a nation which was still to become a nation.

Thus you shall say to  the  house  of  Jacob,  and  tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, be my own kingdom of priests and a holy   nation.
EXODUS 19:3-6

And if this was true for the Israelites when they began to keep the record of his deeds, during their time of national independence, it had to be no less true for the prophets when they contemplated the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of his Temple, and the renewed enslavement of his people.

Out of the people’s weakness had come his power, including his power to choose; the wider the scope of that power was seen to be, the greater was he glory of those upon whom his choice had fallen — and also the more exposed and vulnerable they felt their position to be. Yahweh had been free to choose Israel, or not, as he wished. Israel, it seemed had no choice but to be chosen.

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The  Choice 2 — Dan Jocobsen

July 15, 2014
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo  a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram 'Know  of  a surety  that  your  descendants  will be sojourners  in land that is not  theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation  which  they serve, and afterward  they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.’ Genesis  15:12-15

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram ‘Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.’ Genesis 15:12-15

We continue with a second post from a chapter from Dan Jacobsen’s The Story of Stories where he explores the Scriptures to find how the Jews and the Jewish state became the chosen people. Although Mr. Jacobsen is not a believing Jew, his approach is quite readable (I think) for Christian or Jewish “cultic” believers (as he labels those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid). Roger Scruton quoted him at one point and I took that as a recommendation.

As a Jew, Dan Jacobson has long been aware of the notion of a ‘people chosen by God’. In The Story of the Stories, he uses his Jewishness as a premise to discuss the contradictions of being thought of as ‘special’ – its opportunities and its deadly temptations. The result is a deeply profound and serious meditation that sheds an entirely new light on Biblical scholarship and orthodox theology. On first publication (2001), The Story of the Stories was hailed as a seminal work.

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Where the biblical writers differ from the rest of us (as Spinoza himself  puts it in another context) is in their “unusually  vivid  imaginations.”  They revealed  their imaginative power,  I would  argue,  quite as much  in  the running account they give us of the relations between God and his chosen people as in the individual visions and tales which the larger narrative  contains.

Like every highly  developed work of the imagination, the biblical “story of the stories” has the effect of showing us just  how inextricably inter­twined,  in  the  depths  of  the psyche,  are  the  connections’ between our benevolent  and malevolent impulses, between childishness  and  maturity,  between  envy  and  generosity. As dramatists or storytellers  (though not as philosophers), the biblical  writers  knew  more about  themselves  and  the rest of us than Spinoza gave them credit for; they certainly knew more than he did about the perils as well as the advantages of the special relationship they claimed to have with their God.

Thus, while exulting over Yahweh’s choice, and rejoicing in the discomfiture of their enemies, who had been passed over and rejected, the composers of the biblical story could never lose sight of the terrifying possibility that  it might be their turn next to join the ranks of the rejected.  That was the danger to which they had exposed themselves imaginatively in evoking a God who exercised  choices of  such a fateful kind; that was the price they had  to pay for the favor he had bestowed upon them. 

The constant presence of the possibility of such a rejection is one of the wonders of the entire tale. Sooner or later  it is bound  to  happen, the story implicitly tells us, to those who seek preferment or special terms from the world all men are compelled to live in. Which is not to say, the story also tells  us,  that they will ever desist from seeking such preferment, and trying their hardest to get away with it unscathed. The explicit moral is that the people of Israel fall into God’s disfavor only when they disobey him; the tacit  moral  is that the very notion  of  having  been  chosen  by  such  a God  will produce the retribution appropriate  to it. It  is, I suspect, because the former moral is urged upon us with such exhaustive vehemence that the latter has been virtually overlooked.

Anyway, if one returns to the opening question, and rephrases it to  ask why, in the estimation of the Israelites themselves, Yahweh had chosen them to be his special possession: among the nations, one sees that it calls for answers of two different kinds. Firstly, it can be answered in terms of the religious  and  historical  purposes  God is supposed to have had in mind in making such a choice. Secondly, one can try to explain why  this  particular  people  rather than some other was chosen to fulfill those special purposes. 

Now, while the Scriptures have a great  deal to say about the first kind of explanation — that is, about Yahweh’s intentions for his chosen — they tell us practically nothing, explicitly at least, about his reasons for making this choice “from all other people that are upon the face of the earth” (Exodus 33: 15). This is not because the writers took Yahweh’s choice wholly for granted, or assumed that the reasons for it would be self-evident. Far from it. Indeed, the sense of being forever on trial, which is one of the consequences of the apparent arbitrariness of the claim to have been specially chosen, is a constant in Israelite and Jewish history.

The  formal  explanations  as  to  why  the  choice  fell  on the Israelites rather than on some other people always refer back to previous commitments by Yahweh — which are themselves then left entirely unexplained. In Exodus we are told that God intends to redeem the people from slavery in Egypt because he has “remembered” the covenant he made with the patriarchs;  in Deuteronomy  this is forcefully repeated several times.

In Deuteronomy also the Israelites are explicitly told that it was not because of their “righteousness” or “uprightness” that they were chosen by Yahweh, or because they were more powerful or many in number, in Exodus God actually makes the suggestion to Moses (a suggestion that is recalled in Numbers 14 and Deuteronomy 9) that he should simply abandon or destroy the Israelites in the desert. Then he and Moses might begin all over again with another, less contumacious people, who would be more obedient to the Law and hence truly deserving of the promised land.

The intention of all these rebukes and warnings is obviously to make the people of Israel feel thoroughly humble about the favor that Yahweh haas done them. The effect however, is to make his choice seem more random and hence more unfathomable and more alarming than ever. 

This impression can only be strengthened when we turn to the promises in Genesis which are so insistently referred to as the ultimate source of all Yahweh’s commitments to the children of Israel.

[For  reasons  already  given, the argument  is not  really affected  by  the fact that some or even all of these promises may have been retrospectively written into earlier legends which were originally told without them are explicitly told that it was not because of their "righteous­ ness"  or  "uprightness"  that  they  were  chosen  by  Yahweh, or because they were powerful or many in number; in Exo­dus God actually makes the suggestion to Moses (a sugges­ tion which is elaborately recalled in Numbers 14 and Deu­ teronomy 9) that he should simply abandon or destroy tlie Israelites  in  the  desert.  Then  he  and  Moses  might  begin all over again with another, less contumacious people, who would be more obedient to the Law and hence truly deserving of the promised land.

The intention of all these rebukes and warnings is obviously to make the people of Israel feel thoroughly humble about  the favor  that  Yahweh  has  done them. The  eff ect, however, is to make his choice seem more random and hence into earlier legends which  were originally without  them. To say of  something which appears in an otherwise  "early" text that it is a relatively late interpolation does not disqualify it from being treated, in my terms, as an integral  part  of the story. Exactly the opposite is true.  Such  "backing and  filling,"  of  which there is clearly a great deal, shows how keenly the writers and editors of the text felt the need to harmonize the tales they already had, from whatever sources they came, with any additional material they wished  to  incorporate  into  the story. In other words, they tried, at least intermittently, to view the text  as a whole, and wanted it to be viewed as a whole.

A particularly  obvious,  and in my opinion particularly  moving, example of the use made by the writers of the opportunities given to them for a retrospective enlargement and self-endorsement of the legends of the patriarchs is to be found in Genesis  15:12-15, which  "looks forward" vividly  to what is already known in terms of the myth, to have taken place:

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and lo  a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram 'Know  of  a surety  that  your  descendants  will be sojourners  in land that is not  theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation  which  they serve, and afterward  they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.]

Why does God declare to Abraham that he should go from his country and his kindred  and his father’s house to the land that would be shown to him where he would become “a great nation”? We are not told. Why, among Abraham’s sons, does God choose Isaac to be the one with whom he will establish an “everlasting covenant,” while proffering to Ishmael the consolation of fathering another, uncovenanted nation? We are not told. 

Why is Jacob preferred above his brother Esau; or to put the story in another way, why is Jacob allowed to cheat Esau out of his father’s blessing, so that the divine prophecy made to Rebecca (“two people born of you shall be divided the one shall be stronger than the other”) might be fulfilled in Jacob’s favor? Again, we are not told. Abraham and one particular line descending from him are chosen: that is all. 

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