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Three books in one day — splendid!!

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — Imagination, Joan of Arc, and Coronation ]
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Oh, the other day was a great day, bringing me three terrific books:

  • Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi: Alone with the Alone
  • Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: the Image of Female Heroism
  • Matthias Range, Music and Ceremonial at British Coronations: From James I to Elizabeth II
  • The Corbin is simply the most dedicated book on spirituality I would take with me if I could, and which I’d dearly love to crack. Marina Warner was a stellar presence in the cofe I frequented in Little Clarendon Street in Oxford, and hijacked me once to help paint her new digs. And the Range? It’s a book I’ve long wished to read and finally, here it is.

    Quite a trio!

    For Jim Gant, On the Resurrection, 04

    Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — in thre “expansive” phase of this exploration ]
    .

    In her mysteriously beautiful detective procedural set in a Québécois monastery, The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel, Louise Penny arrives, about midway through her tale, at this sentence:

    When Frère Mathieu brings out his bomb, the abbot brings out his pipe. One weapon is figurative, and the other isn’t.

    I’m riveted.

    **

    Because the phrase “One .. is figurative, and the other isn’t” is like a koan for me — a nut that if I could crack it would also explain such deep mysteries as:

  • “This is my body .. this is my blood” — one interpretation of “body & blood” is figurative, while the other isn’t? and:
  • “he died ..and on the third day he rose again” — one death is figurative, and the other isn’t?
  • Resurrection as myth, resurrection as history?

    **

    You might think I’m being fanciful, but just yesterday the Comey notes became accessible, and we find this exchange between the FBI Director and the President:

    The President then wrapped up our conversation by returning to the issue of finding leakers. I said something about the value of putting a head on a pike as a message. He replied by saying it may involve putting reporters in jail. “They spend a few days in jail, make a new friend, and they are ready to talk.” I laughed as I walked to the door Reince Priebus had opened.

    I trust Comey‘s “head on a pike” is figurative, and it sounds like the other — Trump‘s “putting reporters in jail” — isn’t.

    The thing about language is that it’s polyvalent, polysemous –and that inherent ambiguity is seldom more significant than when making or interpreting threats, scriptures, or poems.

    **

    So I could take this post in the direction of a discussion of the ruthless politics of Washingtom, the Kremlin, Pyongyang, Baghdad, and or Beijing..

    Or into the exegesis of the Eucharist, Resurrection, Adamic Creation stories. In matters Biblical, the question “one reading fictitious, while the other, literal, isn’t?” more or less covers the major theological division of our times..

    On this, see the Catholic Catechism (115-117) for a more Dantesque elucidation:

  • The senses of Scripture

  • According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.
  • The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”
  • The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.
  • The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.
  • The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.
  • The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.
  • Two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual — one is figurative, like Frère Mathieu’s bomb in Ms Penny’s novel, while the other, like the abbot’s lead pipe, isn’t?

    The Jesus of History, the Christ of Faith?

    Or all this might take another turn, with a morph into poetry..

    **

    Or history. Here’s another phrase that’s “riveting” for, I think, the same reason as that phrase “One weapon is figurative, and the other isn’t”:

    Pamphlets were both a cause and a tool of violence.

    A “cause .. of violence” — it t (a pamphlet) incites it. And “a tool of violence” — it’s (at least figuratively) a bludgeon in itself. Hm. I hope that makes sense.

    In any case, I’ve got my eye out for other examples that neatly juxtapose word and deed, as though words aren’t deeds — “speech acts” as the philosophers say. What I’m getting at, eventually, is the nature of sacrament — “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” — which is deeply tied up with simile, metaphor, and metamorphosis — “this is my body .. this is my blood”.

    And that quote about pamphlets? Its from a fascinating New Yorker piece, How We Solved Fake News the First Time by Stephen March, which compares fake news on the internet today with fake news in the time of the pamphleteers, and contains this remarkably “ancient and modern” observation:

    There is nothing more congruent to the nourishment of division in a State or Commonwealth, then diversity of Rumours mixt with Falsity and Scandalisme; nothing more prejudicial to a Kingdome, then to have the divisions thereof known to an enemy.

    So, -ismes were already infesting the language like kudzu grass — mixed simile? — back in 1642. And an enemy? Think Putin, ne?

    On which playful note, drawn from seven years before the martyrdom of King Charles I at the hands of the Puritans, I’ll leave you.

    For now.

    Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) et sequentes

    Sunday, April 15th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — luther et seq., where the sequentes are james comey and rod rosenstein ]
    .

    Martin Luther, he who nailed his theses to the door, said it first: Here I stand.

    **

    Kudos to Julia Ainsley for spotting the twin occurrences of the Martin Luther quote on the pages and lips of James Comey and Rod Rosenstein respectively:

    Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein tells confidants he is prepared to be fired:

    Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has struck a stoic and righteous tone in private conversations he has had this week about the fate of his job as President Donald Trump has launched public criticism against him and considered firing him, according to three sources who have spoken to Rosenstein.

    In those conversations, he has repeated the phrase, “Here I stand,” a reference to Martin Luther’s famous quote, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Coincidentally, former FBI Director James Comey, whom Rosenstein fired, repeated the same phrase to President George W. Bush in a conversation that has been widely reported and that Comey describes in his forthcoming book.

    To which I can only reply “A mighty fortress is our God”.

    **

    If Martin Luther is able to take so firm a stand for his beliefs, it is only because his God is so mighty a fortress protecting him, as he vociferously declared in this hymn — for which he composed both the words and the melody:

    **

    That’s a bit blunt to be sure, but the pious Lutheran JS Bach has much of the true spirit of the thing in this chorale rendering of Luther’s hymn:

    REVIEW: Commander of the Faithful by John Kiser

    Friday, March 30th, 2018

    [Mark Safranski / “zen‘]

    Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader by John Kiser  

    A while back, I received a copy of Commander of the Faithful from friend of ZP, Major Jim Gant who had been impressed with the book and urged me to read it. My antilibrary pile of books is substantial and it took a while to work my way towards it. I knew a little about Algerian colonial history from reading about the French Third Republic, the Foreign Legion and counterinsurgency literature but the name of Abd el-Kader was obscure to me.  The author, John W. Kiser, had also written a book on the martyred Monks of Tibhirine, a topic that had previously caught the eye of Charles Cameron and made a significant impression. Therefore, I settled in to read a biography of a long forgotten desert Arab chieftain.

    What a marvelous book!

    Kiser’s fast-moving tale is of a man who attempted to forge from unwieldy tribes and two unwilling empires, a new nation grounded in an enlightened Islam that transcended tribal customs ad corrupt legacies of Ottoman misrule while resisting encroachments of French imperial power. A Sufi marabout who was the son of a marabout, el Kader was the scholar who picked up the sword and whose call to jihad eschewed cruelty and held that piety and modernity were compatible aspirations for the feuding tribes of the Mahgreb. There are a number of themes or conflicts in Commander of the Faithful that will interest ZP readers;

    el-Kader’s political effort to build a durable, modernizing, Islamic state and Mahgreb nation from feuding desert tribes and clans

    Abd el-Kader struggled to unify disparate Arab tribes and subtribes through piety, generosity and coercion while integrating Turco-Arabs and Algerian Jews who had a place under the old Ottoman regime into his new order. Jews like the diplomat Judas Ben Duran and Christian French former military officers and priests became  el-Kader’s trusted advisers and intermediaries alongside Arab chieftains and Sufi marabouts.

    el-Kader the insurgent strategist and battlefield tactician

    As a military leader, Abd el-Kader demonstrated both a natural talent for cavalry tactics as well as the organizational skill to build a small, but well-disciplined regular infantry with modern rifles on the European model. It is noteworthy, that while Abd el-Kader suffered the occasional reverse (the worst at the hands of a wily Arab warlord loyal to the French) the French generals fighting him all came to grudgingly respect his bravery, honor and skill. Never defeated, Abd el-Kader made peace with the French and surrendered voluntarily; all of his former enemies, Generals Lamoriciere, Damaus, Bugeaud and Changarnier interceded on al-Kader’s behalf to prod the French government to keep its promises to the Amir, who had become a celebrity POW in a series of French chateaus.

    el-Kader the Islamic modernizer and moral figure

    The 19th century was a time of intellectual ferment in the Islamic world from Morocco to British India with the prime question being the repeated failures of Islamic authorities in the face of European imperialism of the modern West. El-Kader found different answers than did the Deobandis of India, the Wahhabis of Arabia, the later Mahdists of the Sudan, the followers of al-Afghani or the Young Turks who began turning toward secularism. Educated in the Sufi tradition, el-Kader’s vision of Islam, while devout and at times strict, encompassed a benevolent tolerance and respect for “the People of the Book” and general humanitarianism far in advance of the times that is absent in modern jihadism.

    It was Abd el-Kader, in retirement in Damascus, who rallied his men to protect thousands of Christians from being massacred in a bloody pogrom (the 1860 Riots) organized by the Ottoman governor, Ahmed Pasha, using as his instrument two local Druze warlords who were angry about their conflict with the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon and Sunni Arabs and Kurds enraged about the Ottoman reforms that had ended the dhimmi status of the Maronite Christians. It was the Emir who faced down and chastised a howling mob as bad Muslims and evildoers and by his actions thousands of lives were spared. Already honored for his chivalrous treatment of prisoners and his banning of customary decapitation as barbarous, the 1860 Riots cemented Abd El-Kader’s reputation for humanitarianism and made him an international figure known from the cornfields of Iowa to the canals of St. Petersburg.

    Kiser, who it must be said keeps the story moving throughout, is at pains to emphasize the exemplary moral character of Abd el-Kader. As Emir, he “walked the walk” and understood the connection between his personal asceticism, probity and generosity to his enemies and the poor and his political authority as Emir. When some Arab tribes betrayed Abd El-Kader in a battle against the French, consequently they were deeply shamed and ended up begging the Emir to be allowed to return to his service. On the occasions when harsh punishments had to be dealt out, Abd el-Kader meted them not as examples of his cruelty to be feared but as examples of justice to deter unacceptable crimes that he would swiftly punish.  This is operating at what the late strategist John Boyd called “the moral level of war”, allowing Abd el-Kader to attract the uncommitted, win over observers, rally his people and demoralize his opponents. Even in defeat, realizing the hopelessness of his position against the might of an industrializing great imperial power that was France. el-Kader retained the initiative, ending the war while he was still undefeated and on honorable terms.

    In Commander of the Faithful, Kiser paints el-Kader in a romantic light, one that fits the mid 19th century when concepts of honor and chivalry still retained their currency on the battlefield and society, among the Europeans as much as the Emir’s doughty desert tribesmen (if there is any group that comes off poorly, it is the Turks, the dying Ottoman regime’s pashas and beys providing a corrupt and decadent contrast to el-Kader’s nascent Islamic state). The nobility of Abd el-Kader shines from Kiser’s text, both humble and heroic in a manner that rarely sees a 21st century analogue. It is both refreshing and at times, moving to read of men who could strive for the highest ethical standards while engaged in the hardest and most dangerous enterprise.

    Strongly recommended.

     

    Shorts 04: Books, and a personal pic

    Sunday, March 4th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — a quick treasury of treasures, what else? ]
    .

    Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion

    Abbasid Baghdad did produce its own semi- legendary criminals. Many tales were told of the ingenious exploits of the ninth-century master-thief, al-Uqab (‘the Eagle’), among them the story of a bet he had with a certain doctor that within a set period of time alUqab could steal something from the doctor’s house. Although the house was closely guarded, alUqab drugged the guards. Then, posing as an apparition of Jesus and making use of hypnotism, he succeeded in stealing off with the dcotor himself.

    Robert Irwin was an Oxford contemporary & fellow-traveller.

    **

    Kim Wagner, The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857

    In 1963, a human skull was discovered in a pub in south-east England. The handwritten note found inside revealed it to be that of Alum Bheg, an Indian soldier in British service who had been blown from a cannon for his role in the 1857 Uprising, his head brought back as a grisly war-trophy by an Irish officer present at his execution. The skull is a troublesome relic of both anti-colonial violence and the brutality and spectacle of British retribution.

    Ooh, grue! Cf. the food of that served in the Arkansas penal system.

    ^^

    Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an introduction

    We know next to nothing about the author of the poem which has come to be called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was probably written around 1400. In the early 17th century the manuscript was recorded as belonging to a Yorkshireman, Henry Saville of Bank. It was later acquired by Sir Robert Cotton, whose collection also included the Lindisfarne Gospels and the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf . The poem then lay dormant for over 200 years, not coming to light until Queen Victoria was on the throne, thus leapfrogging the attentions of some of our greatest writers and critics. The manuscript, a small, unprepossessing thing, would fit comfortably into an average-size hand, were anyone actually allowed to touch it. Now referred to as Cotton Nero A X, it is considered not only a most brilliant example of Middle English poetry but also as one of the jewels in the crown of English Literature; it now sits in the British Library under conditions of high security and controlled humidity.

    Hat-tip: Hanne Elisabeth Storm Ofteland

    **

    Rennie Davis, The New Humanity: A Movement to Change the World (Volume 1 of 3)

    This first book returns to ‘Our Roots’ with a behind-the-scenes look straight from the eye of the social-change hurricane that swept North America during the turbulent times of the 1960s. Rennie Davis was the coordinator of the largest coalition of anti-war and civil rights organizations during that era. Now in vivid detail, he explains how the Sixties movement ignited and expanded, growing in strength and staying power. A compelling, riveting story, it was written to inspire today’s generation to stand on the shoulders of those who came before and arise again to change the world. Like a snowball tumbling down the mountain to become an avalanche that takes out the concrete wall of fear and divide, today’s movement will not be ignored or stopped.

    This book is today’s must-read gift to yourself and your friends to uplift humanity and change the world.

    Rennie is an old friend, story for another day. Hat-tip: Rennie Davis.

    **

    This just in:

    Bernard Faure, The Fluid Pantheon: Gods of Medieval Japan, Volume 1

    Written by one of the leading scholars of Japanese religion, The Fluid Pantheon is the first installment of a multivolume project that promises to be a milestone in our understanding of the mythico-ritual system of esoteric Buddhism—specifically the nature and roles of deities in the religious world of medieval Japan and beyond. Bernard Faure introduces readers to medieval Japanese religiosity and shows the centrality of the gods in religious discourse and ritual; in doing so he moves away from the usual textual, historical, and sociological approaches that constitute the “method” of current religious studies. The approach considers the gods (including buddhas and demons) as meaningful and powerful interlocutors and not merely as cyphers for social groups or projections of the human mind. Throughout he engages insights drawn from structuralism, post-structuralism, and Actor-network theory to retrieve the “implicit pantheon” (as opposed to the “explicit orthodox pantheon”) of esoteric Japanese Buddhism (Mikky?).

    Hat-tip: just in from friend Gilles Poitras.

    **

    Enough of books — heres a personal photo — friend Neil Ayer with a Rothka at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

    Au ‘voir!


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