Sunday, December 21, 2008

Kosofsky on Jewish Customs in the context of the Old Testament

From the radio program Speaking of Faith:

When Scott-Martin Kosofsky rediscovered The Book of Customs in the late 20th century, he did so not as a rabbi or a scholar, nor as a passionately devout adherent of any strand of Judaism. For him, the different branches of Judaism seemed still to have more in common than apart, so he set out to recreate a Book of Customs, in English, for modern people. He delved into the structure of Jewish practice, the ancient stories behind its teachings, the rituals and symbols that had seemed dead to him for most of his life. He added historical detail and notes on contemporary application. Jewish life is really all about moments, he realized anew — moments that are set aside to honor God. To his own surprise he found himself not only chronicling this sensibility, but participating in its power.

A fascinating conversation with Kosofsky that draws on his experience of the Old Testament and history can be found here. In Judaism, "What you believe follows only after what you do," says Kosofsky. "So Judaism is very much about doing God's commandments and doing the right thing rather than believing a specific credo."

The Real Audio file is here. Near the end, he ponders whether we, the modern readers of the Old Testament, are dealing "with God or with the memory of God." Kosofsky is the author of The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Another look at Milton on church and state

Theo Hobson, John Milton’s vision:
It is far more accurate to say that Milton was a key founder of the American liberal tradition, than of the British one. This is not just because of his republicanism: even more important to him than republicanism was his aversion to religious establishment. During the interregnum (1649-60) he worried that England's revolution was uncertain until Oliver Cromwell had clearly separated church and state, and instituted an explicitly secular liberal state (which Cromwell never quite did). This was the ideological obsession of Milton's life.

So if Milton were to revisit us today he would not rejoice at the progress of liberty since his death. He would be depressed to see that the country of his birth retains a monarchy, and even more so an established church. 
via wood s lot

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Michal in Purgatorio X

A friend recalls the passage in Purg X where Michal looks down upon David:

Li precedeva al benedetto vaso,
trescando alzato, l'umile salmista,
e piu' e meno che re era in quel caso.

Di contra, effigïata ad una vista
d'un gran palazzo, Micòl ammirava
sì come donna dispettosa e trista.

The idea that David is "more and less than king" in his robust dance seems to be precisely what marks him as special both within the Old Testament and within the way the New Testament marks itself as the fulfillment of the Old.

Milton at 400

Via NPR (thanks Shaw):

Dec. 9 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton, and fans around the world are celebrating with literary events, exhibits and readings of his epic poem Paradise Lost.

Milton, who visited Galileo in 1638, was also the first writer to ever use the word "space," in the sense of "outer space," to consider the infinite scope of the universe. As he wrote in Book 8 of Paradise Lost:

... this earth a spot, a grain, 
An atom, with the firmament compared 
And all her numbered stars that seem to roll 
Space incomprehensible (for such 
Their distance argues and their swift return 
A rare first American edition of Paradise Lost is included in the Morgan Library exhibit. It was published in 1777, one year into the American Revolution. Kiely says that Milton opposed the monarchy in England — and that the founding fathers read him.
"His theories of republicanism, of the people's right to overthrow a magistrate, or a king, or any ruler if they were not carrying out the will of the people, was directly influential on the Constitution of this country," says Kiely.

Addendum: a bit more on the idea that Milton's God rejects kings:

The Tyranny of Heaven
Milton's Rejection of God as King

Michael Bryson
(U. Delaware Press, 2004)

The Tyranny of Heaven argues for a new way of reading the figure of Milton's God, contending that Milton rejects kings on earth and in heaven. Though Milton portrays God as a king in Paradise Lost, he does this neither to endorse kingship nor to recommend a monarchical model of deity. Instead, he recommends the Son, who in Paradise Regained rejects external rule as the model of politics and theology for Milton's "fit audience though few." The portrait of God in Paradise Lost serves as a scathing critique of the English people and its slow but steady backsliding into the political habits of a nation long used to living under the yoke of kingship, a nation that maintained throughout its brief period of liberty the image of God as a heavenly king, and finally welcomed with open arms the return of a human king.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A note on Michal

Samuel is a book largely about succession -- how one kind of order succeeds, and in so doing, succeeds another. Eli the priest is followed by Samuel the Prophet. Saul's failed kingship is succeeded by David.

These figures would be large in any tapestry representing the stories of Samuel. Others would be smaller, set in the distance - the rather large cast of such characters in varying degrees of presence and importance giving the whole work a rich dimensional sense of space and time.

Take Michal - we see and hear of her only a handful of times, but what a richly suggestive figure she is:
  • She becomes the bride of David - after he wins her by slaughtering 200 Philistines.
  • She "loved David" and helps him escape through a window from Saul's hired killers.
  • She is taken away from David and given to Paltiel by a paranoid Saul.
  • She is taken from her husband, and is returned to David - her husband follows, weeping.
  • She looks down through a window, "despises David in her heart," then castigates him for vulgarity.
  • She dies childless.
Despite an apparent prohibition in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 on re-establishing a marriage with a previous spouse who has subsequently remarried, David demands the return of Michal after he is crowned in Judah following Saul's death. It is important to note by explanation that David had not divorced Michal at this point in time but rather Saul had made the act to break the marriage[1]. Therefore they were not technically divorced and David had not issued a writ of divorcement according to the biblical law.

Thus she's been a pawn, a symbol of alliance and allegiance, a means of uniting the houses of Saul and David, and dividing them. A complicated and conflicted connector in the succession. We hear her voice once -- at the moment David arrives to bless his house, after the harmonies of his dancing before the ark. Whatever Michal feels, she seems to project the self-image of aristocracy. In her eyes, David has been vulgar - as such, he's beneath the station he's arrived at. His peasant roots are showing. (We've seen Saul's roots -- nothing to put on airs about. Yet the airs are there.) 

With this, the succession of David's house reaches a dead end in Michal. Solomon will be born to Bathsheba.

Friday, December 12, 2008

David's disrupted dance

These and other extraordinary images of the Hajj and Eid al-Adha - the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that has just ended - can be found here.

While the entire purport and historical reality of the event is far different from the ecstatic dance of the Israelites following the Ark with David in 2 Samuel 6, these scenes might suggest something of the energy and religious intensity with which the recently united people are said to have escorted their Lord and king to the new center of their nation, Jerusalem.

It is interesting that this high moment of the Old Testament, where the tribes and monarchy and their relation to the Lord are all "centered" in (precarious) harmony, is a moment of passage, rather than stasis. The Jews do not go to a fixed place to worship in this scene, rather, they are captured in motion, transporting the ark, encountering a major disruption, then reassembling and dancing their way into the capital.

The high energy of the historical moment, combining solemn awe with at least the hint of vulgarity, ends in the confrontation of David and Michal, who looks down upon him from her window and feels complete revulsion. Instead of coming to rest in a moment of peace after the dynamism of the preceding scene, something like a crack runs through the middle of the moment. Instead of closure, there's a divide between the wildness of David's dance one one hand, and the icy hatred in the heart of Saul's daughter on the other. Something feels irretrievably broken. It's as if the curse upon Michal was sprung from her encounter with the most blessed act in the history of Israel. 

Interesting to ponder how this epitomizes the movement of the Old Testament -- it never rests, there's always the next challenge in the incessant movement of history. Consider how this compares with the geometric balance and equilibrium of Homer's narrative structures, or the sense of closure in Greek tragedy.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The world of Samuel

The transition from loose confederacy to monarchy in Samuel is fraught with complications.

In 1 Samuel, the story is set in motion by the importunate words of Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 11), to the Lord that he grant her a son, whom she promises to dedicate to His service. (Recall the priest, Eli, at first thinks she is drunk, when in fact she’s moved by inspiration).

Her prayer takes place within a context established at the outset through two opening statements, which, taken together as true, predicate a crisis:

1. In gratitude that her prayer is answered, Hannah offers a song that says, in effect, that the Lord is the author of change:

The LORD3068 killeth,4191 and maketh alive:2421 he bringeth down3381 to the grave,7585 and bringeth up.5927

As a result, she says:

The bows7198 of the mighty men1368 are broken,2844 and they that stumbled3782 are girded247with strength.2428

(Which will, parenthetically, evoke the symmetrically balanced poem of David at the beginning of 2 Samuel, lamenting the fate of Saul and Jonathan:

How349 are the mighty1368 fallen,5307 and the weapons3627 of war4421 perished!6 )

2. A second key statement is that access to the Lord, intelligence of his will, is intermittent, not always secure, in this time:

“ …the word of the Lord was rare in those days, vision was not spread about.” (1 Sam. 3:1)

From Eli to Samuel to Saul to David to the House of David, the transition from loose confederacy to a "stable" dynasty lurches along. It's a hostile, murderous world full of unpredictable surprises and wrong turns. What comes about has much to do with the characters' intelligence of the ways of men, and of the Lord, in the many senses of the word.

A bit of knitting

It might be useful to bring together at this point a few of the many rich threads we've been following over the past year or so. The David story in Samuel is clearly about change -- from local tribal rule to the establishment of a nation under a king, for one.

We've talked about some parallels and differences between the Biblical narrative and Homer: Saul-David and Achilles-Odysseus.

In Plutarch we read the lives of Cato, Caesar and Alexander – all three narratives concerned central characters caught up in resisting, or bringing about, large scale changes to the state, society, and government. These stories involved relationships to power, human and divine.

· Cato – the quasi-prophet citizen who saw the inevitability of what flowed from Caesar. Critic of accumulated power. Shepherd of the common people.

· Caesar – agent who effected, but did not live to administer, the transition from Republic to Imperium. Gambler ("Toss the dice high"), strategist, huge risk taker, always calculating.

· Alexander – king who conquered and seduced kings, queens, all the powers of the known earth into the fragile harmony of the cosmos.

And in Plato we've looked at the vision of the philosopher king, whom we might at some point contrast with David, the warrior-poet king. (Something to think about: Plato intends to banish the poets, while David is Israel's chief poet.)

But the overarching story told in Samuel traces the transition from a loose confederation of tribes instructed and governed by priests, judges and perhaps prophets to the establishment of a house – a royal dynasty. What are some of the salient ways in which the basic "plot" of the Bible tale differs from those of Plutarch? The relation of human civil order to God in the Bible vs. that order vis a vis the gods of the Greeks and Romans? 

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Opening 2 Samuel

There appear to be some major differences between 1 and 2 Samuel. For one, the triangle Saul - David - God is no longer generating story tension. David rises to what appears to be a seamless bond with the Lord - at least until he spies Bathsheba.

But 2 Samuel also begins with a man, a seeming wanderer:

2  It came even to pass1961 on the third7992 day,3117that, behold,2009 a man376 came935 out of4480 the camp4264 from4480 5973 Saul7586 with his clothes899rent,7167 and earth127 upon5921 his head:7218 and so it was,1961 when he came935 to413 David,1732 that he fell5307 to the earth,776 and did obeisance.7812 

He's about to spin a tale -- the tale will not be believed; in fact, speaking the death of Saul will occasion the death of this stranger. David is facing something more threatening than Goliath: a world of complex motives and lies that will demand from him -- and from us readers -- a hermeneutic of suspicion.

A lesson from Hadrian

NPR's Guy Raz offers a classical parallel to Obama's historical moment:

When he takes office in January, President-elect Barack Obama will inherit the gloomiest economy since the Great Depression, prompting comparisons to another president who came into office during tough economic times: Franklin D. Roosevelt. But there's another leader Obama could draw inspiration from — a 2nd century Roman emperor.. . .

Hadrian did what few of his predecessors would even consider: He went on a road trip and visited nearly every corner of the empire. He knew that for Rome to bolster its influence, it had to show at least some respect for the nations so affected by its power. Hadrian also increased foreign aid and started a program of nation-building throughout the empire.

By and large, it worked. -More-

Monday, December 01, 2008

Outlines of 1 and 2 Samuel

As we go along it might be useful to have reference to outlines of  1 and 2 Samuel, to help see something of their structure. Here are links to a very simple outline for each book, along with a slightly more detailed one:

1 Samuel (Polyglot Online)

2 Samuel (Polyglot Online)


Sunday, November 30, 2008

More on Sha'arayim

Shaw points us to another story about the city of David and Goliath:

The remains of an ancient gate have pinpointed the location of the biblical city Sha'arayim, say archaeologists working in Israel.

In the Bible young David, a future king, is described as battling Goliath in the Elah Valley near Sha'arayim.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Body and soul on the border

Mussy alerts us to this in the Times:

Found: An Ancient Monument to the Soul

In a mountainous kingdom in what is now southeastern Turkey, there lived in the eighth century B.C. a royal official, Kuttamuwa, who oversaw the completion of an inscribed stone monument, or stele, to be erected upon his death. The words instructed mourners to commemorate his life and afterlife with feasts “for my soul that is in this stele.”

University of Chicago archaeologists who made the discovery last summer in ruins of a walled city near the Syrian border said the stele provided the first written evidence that the people in this region held to the religious concept of the soul apart from the body. By contrast, Semitic contemporaries, including the Israelites, believed that the body and soul were inseparable, which for them made cremation unthinkable, as noted in the Bible. ...

The discovery and its implications were described last week in interviews with archaeologists and a linguist at the University of Chicago, who excavated and translated the inscription.

“Normally, in the Semitic cultures, the soul of a person, their vital essence, adheres to the bones of the deceased,” said David Schloen, an archaeologist at the university’s Oriental Institute and director of the excavations. “But here we have a culture that believed the soul is not in the corpse but has been transferred to the mortuary stone.”

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Not the Da Vinci Code

Interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal:

Did Michelangelo Have a Hidden Agenda?

Mr. Doliner believes that Michelangelo, whose unconventional education at the court of Lorenzo de Medici included the study of Judaic and Kabbalistic texts, meant the 1,100-square-meter ceiling of the chapel as a mystical message of universal love -- a bridge of understanding between the two faiths.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Friday, November 07, 2008

Some Wikipedia links for Samuel

There are of course many excellent sources to help with our questions relating to the text of Samuel. Here are some possibly helpful links to Wikipedia vis a vis elements of our last discussion:

The most famous historic site in Hebron sits on the Cave of the Patriarchs. Although the site is holy to Judaism,Christianity and Islam also accept it as a sacred site, due to scriptural references to Abraham. According toGenesis, he purchased the cave and the field surrounding it from Ephron the Hittite to bury his wife Sarah, subsequently Abraham IsaacRebeccaJacob and Leah were also buried in the cave (the remaining Matriarch,Rachel, is buried outside Bethlehem). For this reason, Hebron is also referred to as 'the City of the Patriarchs' in Judaism, and regarded as one of its Four Holy Cities. (Excerpt)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Olive Pits from the time of David?

Mussy sends along this story touching on David's time from the Times:

KHIRBET QEIYAFA, Israel — Overlooking the verdant Valley of Elah, where the Bible says David toppled Goliath, archaeologists are unearthing a 3,000-year-old fortified city that could reshape views of the period when David ruled over the Israelites. Five lines on pottery uncovered here appear to be the oldest Hebrew text ever found and are likely to have a major impact on knowledge about the history of literacy and alphabet development.

The five-acre site, with its fortifications, dwellings and multi-chambered entry gate, will also be a weapon in the contentious and often politicized debate over whether David and his capital, Jerusalem, were an important kingdom or a minor tribe, an issue that divides not only scholars but those seeking to support or delegitimize Zionism. 

...for the state of Israel, which considers itself to be a reclamation of the state begun by David, evidence of the biblical account has huge symbolic value. 

...But the archaeological record of that kingdom is exceedingly sparse — in fact almost nonexistent — and a number of scholars today argue that the kingdom was largely a myth created some centuries later. A great power, they note, would have left traces of cities and activity, and been mentioned by those around it. Yet in this area nothing like that has turned up — at least until now. more...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Invitation to a lecture

Eunice emailed word of what sounds like a very interesting talk:

The Joys of Jewish Folklore


Dr Eleanor Wachs

Folklore is the ethnographic concept of the tales, legends, or superstitions that exist in a particular ethnic population, a part of the oral history of a particular culture.

Dybbuks, golems, bubbemiesers and mystics are part of our Jewish traditional culture. Dr Eleanor Wachs weaves a tapestry of these myths in her illustrated presentation The Joys Of Jewish Folklore.

Sunday, November 16

1:30 -- 3:30 p.m.

Temple Emanu-El

151 S McIntosh Rd

Sarasota, Fl 34232

Open to Community--No Charge

To reserve Contact Eunice Cohen,

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Map illustrating David's flight from Saul

The scene of the cave in 1 Samuel 24

As we noted when reading Genesis and Exodus, elaborate descriptions of landscape and topography are conspicuously absent from much Old Testament narrative. So in 1 Samuel 24, the scene of Saul and David in and then outside of the cave, it might pay to consider why this scene occurs in a cave. What is suggested by the curious tale of the king being exposed, as Alter notes, in a double sense, to David, the future king?

Twice in this book, David has the opportunity to kill a very vulnerable Saul from a position of nearly total invulnerability, a quasi invisibility. Does this parallel with the Greek tale of Gyges seem relevant?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Herodotus and History

A podcast about Herodotus and a new translation of it.
Two and a half thousand years ago, a man named Herodotus wandered the ancient world, trying to make sense of the great war between the Greeks and Persians that had shaped his times.

He gathered wild tales of fabulous creatures and arrogant kings and queens. He also heard of the very real clash of the armies of Xerxes and the Greeks, of the Spartans of “300″ fame, of two great cultures colliding in battle.

In the process, he did something that had never quite been done before. He wrote history.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Freudian Slip of the Commandment?

This 1631 "Wicked Bible"- known as such for the famous error displayed below is one of several historic editions of the Good Book which are on offer here - others include a rare manuscript of Wyclif's translation, the Tyndale Bible, and the first Bible printed in America.

1631 "Wicked" Bible

This King James Version Bible is an unspeakably rare collector’s item. The printers were fined 300 pounds sterling for their terrible typographical error in printing the Ten Commandments, omitting the all-important word “not” and rendering the verse as, “Thou shalt commit adultery”! The lot of 1,000 copies were ordered destroyed, but only a handful escaped destruction, making them the rarest of rare. This is the only one for sale in the world.

Offered at $89,500

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Mirabile dictu

Latin is back, according to the NYT:

The resurgence of a language once rejected as outdated and irrelevant is reflected across the country as Latin is embraced by a new generation of students like Xavier who seek to increase SAT scores or stand out from their friends, or simply harbor a fascination for the ancient language after reading Harry Potter’s Latin-based chanting spells.

The number of students in the United States taking the National Latin Exam has risen steadily to more than 134,000 students in each of the past two years, from 124,000 in 2003 and 101,000 in 1998, with large increases in remote parts of the country like New Mexico, Alaska and Vermont.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The documents behind the Old Testament

Lola has kindly lent me her copy of Who Wrote the Bible?
by Richard E. Friedman. It's a well-told tale of the puzzle of how the early parts of the Bible were pieced together, with helpful context on when, where, why, and by whom. By no means a dry academic tome!

I'm hoping to finish it by Wednesday - you can take a peek by clicking on the image:

Who Wrote the Bible?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Latter-Day Athenian

Here's the article on Machiavelli noted by Mussy:

The Florentine

The man who taught rulers how to rule.

by Claudia Roth Pierpont

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Tales in contention: dialogic narration in David

Robert Alter (The David Story) offers an interesting gloss on the contradictory narratives of chapters 16 and 17 of 1 Samuel. In 16, he says, Saul is introduced to David who is young, and musical, and David becomes part of his household, helping keep bad spirits at bay. In 17, David slays Goliath, and Saul asks "Whose son is the lad?"

Here's Alter:
What we need to ask, however, is why the redactor set these two stories in immediate sequence, despite the contradictions that must have been as evident to him as to us. A reasonable conclusion is that for the ancient audience, and for the redactor, these contradictions would have been inconsequential in comparison with the advantage gained in providing a double perspective on David...

In the Bible ... the variants of a single story are sometimes placed in a kind of implicit dialogue* with one another (compare the two accounts of creation at the beginning of Genesis). Here, in the first, vertically oriented story, with its explicit instructions from God to man, David is emphatically elected by God, is assiociated with the spirit and with song, and gains entree in the court of Saul by using song to master the spirit. In the second story, with its horizontal deployment in space, David makes his way into Saul's presence through martial prowess, exhibiting shrewdness, calculation, and rhetorical skill. (fn. 55 p. 110-11)
One might note that neither story is very "historical" in tone - there's the sacred plan of God spelled out in the first, and the folktale nature of David the giant slayer in the second: the stories don't clash merely on the level of "fact" or "events," but also on the level of genre, the kind of story being told. This multiplication of source is of course typical of the book we call the Bible --the "book of books." Also noteworthy is how many paired, doubled tales are told. Think of the deaths of Saul (there are two), the stories of David having Saul in his power (in the cave and in the camp).

As Alter notes, both in the creation stories of Genesis and in the introduction of David, it is the second, horizontal tale that leads to the "history" that follows:
Interestingly it is this folk-tale version of David's debut rather than the theological one that will lead directly into the historical (or at least, historylike) narrative of David's rise and David's reign.
*Alter here seems to be drawing on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin who developed the idea that literary works, indeed language itself, may be inherently "dialogical," a rich and difficult concept that seems closely linked to the unfolding of speech in time. A couple of pointers:

  • His theory of dialogism is focused on the idea that culture, or even existence itself, is inherently responsive, involving individuals acting at a particular point in time and space, in reaction to what has gone and before and in expectation of what is to follow. 
  • The dialogic work carries on a continual dialogue with other works of literature and other authors. It does not merely answer, correct, silence, or extend a previous work, but informs and is continually informed by the previous work. Dialogic literature is in communication with multiple works. This is not merely a matter of influence, for the dialogue extends in both directions, and the previous work of literature is as altered by the dialogue as the present one is. In this sense, Bakhtin's "dialogic" is analogous to T. S. Eliot's ideas in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," where he holds that "the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past." [1]

Friday, August 29, 2008


David Hebrew: דָּוִד, Standard Dawid Tiberian Dāwîḏ, Arabic: داوود or داود, Dāwūd, "beloved"), was the second king of the united Kingdom of Israel according to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. He is depicted as a righteous king—although not without fault—as well as an acclaimed warrior, musician and poet (he is traditionally credited with the authorship of many of the Psalms). The biblical chronology places his life c.1037 - 967 BC, his reign over Judah c.1007 - 1000 BC, and over Judah and Israel c.1000 - 967 BC.[1] An alternative transliteration of the Hebrew name David is Daveed as found in the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the King James Bible in the Hebrew Lexicon.

More here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Fall readings and schedule

Just a reminder that the texts for our reading this fall will include Samuel I and II and the beginning of Kings from the Old Testament.

An excellent edition of the entire epic tale is Robert Alter's The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel.

The text of the Eliot recommended by Paul is the The Waste Land, Norton Critical Edition.

First meeting will be Wed., Sept. 3, 1 - 3 p.m. at the Fruitville.

All meetings WEDNESDAYS 1:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M.

September 3

September 10

September 24

October 1

October 8

October 22

November 5

November 26

December 3

December 10

December 31

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dead Sea Scroll on Stone

JERUSALEM — A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

Much of the text, a vision of the apocalypse transmitted by the angel Gabriel, draws on the Old Testament, especially the prophets Daniel, Zechariah and Haggai. New York Times.

A different sort of Genesis story

This has nothing directly to do with either the David story, or the roots of Modernism, but as a remarkable effort to represent the current state of our knowledge of human migration, it's "context" nonetheless.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Paradiso I: A new translation

This translation of Paradiso I is from an unpublished work in progress by Peter D'Epiro, author of Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World, What are the Seven Wonders of the World?and most recently The Book of Firsts: 150 World Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the InternetMany thanks to the author for permission to post it here.

The glory of the One who moves all things
Penetrates through the universe, and shines
In one part more and in another less.
Within the heaven that most receives His light
Was I, and saw such things as who descends
From there has neither wit nor power to tell—
Because, in drawing near to its desire,
Our understanding enters such a depth
That it must leave the memory behind.
Nevertheless, as much of the holy realm                 10
As I could treasure up within my mind
Shall now be made the subject of my song.

O good Apollo, for this final task
Make of me such a vessel of your power
As you require for your beloved laurel.
Up to this point, one summit of Parnassus
Has served me well, but now I need them both,
Entering on the arena that remains.
Come into my breast and, there within me, breathe,
As once, on that occasion when you drew                20
Marsyas from the scabbard of his limbs.
O power divine, but grant me of yourself
So much that I may figure forth the shadow
Of the blest realm imprinted in my mind,
And you shall see me come to your chosen tree
And crown myself beneath it with those leaves
Of which my theme and you will make me worthy.
So seldom, father, are they gathered now
For triumphing of Caesar or of poet—
The fault and bitter shame of human wills—            30
That certainly the Peneian bough begets
New joy within the joyous Delphic god
Whenever it makes any long for it.
A tiny spark gives rise to mighty flames.
Perhaps by my example sweeter voices
Will offer prayer, and Cyrrha may respond.

Through different points the lantern of the world
Rises on mortals, but through that which joins
Four circles with three crosses, it sets forth
Upon a better course and in conjunction                     40
With better stars, tempering the wax of the world
And stamping it more after its own fashion.
Its entrance by a portal near that point
Had made it morning there and evening here—
That hemisphere all bright, the other dark—
When I saw Beatrice turned to her left
And looking at the sun—no eagle ever
Fixed so intent a gaze upon its orb.
And as a second ray will issue from
The first and, by reflection, reascend,                         50
Just like a pilgrim yearning for his home,
So by her action, which my eyes infused
Into my mind, was my own action guided:
Against our wont I gazed upon the sun.
So much is granted to our powers there
That here is not, by virtue of the place,
Made as the proper home of humankind.
I could not bear it long, yet not so briefly
As not to see it sparkling all around,
Like iron that comes molten from the fire--                60
And suddenly it seemed that day to day
Was added, as if He who has the power
Had decked the heavens with a second sun.

Wholly intent upon the eternal wheels
Were Beatrice’s eyes: on her I fixed
My own, when I had lowered them from there.
Gazing on her, I was transformed within,
Like Glaucus when he tasted of the herb
That made him a companion of the sea gods.
Transcendence of humanity cannot                       70
Be told in words; thus let the example stand
For those to whom His grace reserves the experience.

If I was only then that part of me
Which You created last—O Love that rule
The heavens—You know, who raised me with your light.

And when the wheeling that You, being desired,
Render eternal had drawn me to itself
By the harmony You temper and distribute,
So vast a portion of the sky appeared
Enkindled by the flaming sun that never                         80
Did rain or river make so broad a lake.
The newness of the sound and the great light
Aroused in me such keenness of desire
To know their cause as I had never felt.
And she, who saw me as I saw myself,
To set my agitated mind at ease,
Opened her lips before I framed my question,
Saying to me: “You make yourself obtuse
With false surmise, so that you cannot see
What you would see if you had cast it off.                       90
You are not now on earth, as you believe;
For lightning, fleeing from its proper site,
Moves not so fast as you return to yours.”

If I was freed from one perplexity
By the brief words she uttered with a smile,
I yet was more entangled in a new one,
And so I said: “I was content to rest
From one great wonder—now I wonder how
I rise above these lighter substances.”

And she, when she had heaved a sigh of pity      100
And bent her eyes upon me with the look
A mother casts on her delirious child,
Began to say: “All things that are, have order
Among themselves: this order is the form
That makes the universe resemble God.

The higher creatures here behold the trace
Of the Eternal Excellence, which is
The end for which that system was created.
Within this order that I now explain,
All natures are inclined by different lots--                    110
Some to their principle nearer, some less near.
And so it is they move to different ports
On the great sea of being, and each one
Receives the instinct that will bear it on.
This instinct bears the fire toward the moon;
This is the motive force in mortal hearts;
This holds the earth together and makes it one.
And not only do the arrows of this bow
Shoot creatures void of all intelligence,
But those endowed with intellect and love.                   120
The Providence ordaining all these things
Makes ever quiet with Its light the heaven
In which the sphere with the greatest speed revolves.
And to that place, as to a site decreed,
The virtue of that bow-string bears us on,
Which, shooting, always aims at joyful targets.

But truly, as a shape will often not
Accord with the intention of the art
When material is deaf in its response,
The creature too will sometimes leave this course,       130
Because it has the power, thus impelled,
To swerve aside and aim its journey elsewhere.
And just as sometimes fire from a cloud
Falls downward, even so the primal impulse,
Diverted by false pleasure, turns toward earth.
If I can judge correctly in these matters,
You should not wonder at your rising more
Than at a stream that falls from a mountain top.
The wondrous thing would be if, free from hindrance,
You would have settled down below, just as                 140
A fire that is still would be a marvel.”

And then she turned her gaze toward heaven again.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Given the heavily Apocalyptic burden of the late cantos of the Purgatorio, it is worth noting this amazing set of blockbook illustrations of the Apocalypse from the 15th century. Via AKMA.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Homage from Longfellow

A sonnet on the Purgatorio:

With snow-white veil and garments as of flame,

She stands before thee, who so long ago

Filled thy young heart with passion and the woe

From which thy song and all its splendors came;

And while with stern rebuke she speaks thy name,

The ice about thy heart melts as the snow

On mountain heights, and in swift overflow

Comes gushing from thy lips in sobs of shame.

Thou makest full confession; and a gleam,

As of the dawn on some dark forest cast,

Seems on thy lifted forehead to increase;

Lethe and Eunoë -- the remembered dream

And the forgotten sorrow -- bring at last

That perfect pardon which is perfect peace.

One of six sonnets about The Comedy composed by H.W. Longfellow -- he was translating the entire poem at the time.

Numerical Concinnity

Shaw shares a link to this interesting look at number in the Comedy:

Monday, January 07, 2008

About reading

A writer and a teacher of literature who happens to be a friend offered some thoughts about reading -- how it might be taught through the event of reading in the classroom:
Am I interested, excited, moved by what I have read, enough to think it is important for my students to understand it?

Really? Sincerely?

Can I locate the source of my excitement, of what is important, of what has meaning in what I and these students just read?

Can I explain it to my students so that they understand something of what it means, of why it is important, why it moves me?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, do not teach.

If the answer to all of these is yes, here is how you teach your students to read:

You select for discussion a passage or a text that you care about, that you see as important, and you talk about it truthfully, candidly, thoughtfully, and you show them how you got what you got out of it. If they follow you, they will get more out of it than you gave them, because they will learn from and make use of your example of how to read. Oh, and by the way that means you have to know your way around the text.

You ask open-ended questions, none of that "Socratic Dialogue" bullshit.

You encourage students to try to form their own questions about what they read -- to define their own problems n their own words. You don't tell them this necessarily, but defining the problem you are having with a text can solve about 80 percent of it. And then you answer their questions.

You don't judge their words. You respond to them with thoughtfulnes, care, and respect, establishing a lucid relationship between their question and the text. Because when they tell you they don't understand, that is the frontier of the humanitiies.

If you make this conversation interesting and rich, if you give a sense that the material has untapped riches and **that they have as much of a right to get at in their way as anybody else**, they will learn to read.

Give them permission to skim over the hard parts if they must, and urge them to make note of anything interesting -- page number, phrase, written out passage, comment on it, just so they can find it if they need to talk about it or write about it. In discussion, keep referring the conversation back to the text: as in "Well, let's see again what XXX actually says." Because it's good to remember that the actual text is different from your idea of it at any given moment.

Honestly I do not think it is necessary to do more. If you don't believe you can teach the material on the merits of its inherent interest you just should find something you can care about or get out of teaching.

Everything else just gets people tangled up in all the apparatus and then they feel even more cut off from the author and his/her material. All you are doing is giving it to them as a gift, not even as a gift, as something they already own.

Reading is experience, it is an activity like thinking; it isn't a method. There is no system for getting it, just reading one thing after another.