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Véra Nabokov, preemptive strikes, and the Talmud

Friday, May 20th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — i personally am better acquainted with “innocent until proven guilty”, but.. ]
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Contemplating this:

in light of the Talmud:

Obviously if Véra Nabokov intended to protect her husband, she intended to shoot his would-be assassin right before the assassination attempt, not right after it.

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If Someone Comes to Kill You, Rise Up and Kill Him First:

Several days before the horror of September 11, 2001, Israel’s Foreign Minister Shimon Peres spoke to Conservative rabbis in an international conference call. Responding to a concern expressed about Israel’s policy of preemptive targeted killings of suspected terrorist leaders and the inevitable collateral damage, Mr. Peres defended the practice, citing an oft-quoted rabbinic legal dictum, “Im ba l’hargekha, hashkem l’hargo,” “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him (first).” The uproar last July by Israel-bashers and, more credibly, by the Israeli Jewish public after the Israeli army bombed a Gaza apartment building, inadvertently killing fourteen civilians, including nine children, along with arch-terrorist Salah Shehada, again focused attention on the issue of collateral damage in the implementation of “Im ba l’hargekha.”

File under preemptive strikes, targeted killings, drones, Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, etc.

The reversal of Maugham’s Samarra

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — how British and American literature, a Talmudic tale and a Sufi teaching story conspire — twice — to illuminate current events in Iraq and Syria ]
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Let’s start with Somerset Maugham‘s telling of the Appointment in Samarra, which John O’Hara borrowed as the epigraph of his novel by that name:

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

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Here’s the version of the same story found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 53a:

R. Yohanan stated: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted. There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes, of Solomon (I Kings 4:3). One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was distressed. He asked him: Why are you distressed? He responded: They have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here. [Solomon] gave them over to the demons and sent them to the district of Luz. When they reached the district of Luz they died. On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was smiling He said to him: Why are you smiling? He responded: To the place where they expected them from me, there did you send them!’ Solomon immediately began to say: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted.

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In February 2014 in the US Jewish magazine Forward, writer JJ Goldberg made fine use of this tale, applying it to a then-contemporary news event in his piece, Lesson of the Talmud in an Iraq School Suicide Bombing:

School massacres have become so commonplace that they scarcely shock us anymore. And yet, occasionally mayhem invades the sanctity of the classroom in a way that can still puncture our complacency. At these moments we’re reminded how fragile is this thing we call civilization. Such was the case February 10 in a rural schoolroom outside Samarra in north-central Iraq, where a terrorism instructor teaching a class in suicide bombing accidentally detonated a live explosive belt. Twenty-one students died along with their teacher. It happened in a training camp run by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Sunni terrorist group that was recently expelled from Al Qaeda for, of all things, its excessively brutal extremism in the Syrian civil war. [ .. ]

The location of the suicide school in Samarra has layers of poetic resonance, probably unintended by ISIS. Though predominantly Sunni, the city is revered by Shi’ites as the place where the last caliphs are buried and the Mahdi disappeared. Its name resonates in medieval Islamic lore with mysteries of suicide and predestined death, echoed in modern Anglo-American literature and linked to Talmudic legend.

After discussing the Talmudic and Maugham versions, Goldberg concludes:

Thus, the lesson of Samarra. In Arabic lore, we’re drawn helpless to our predestined deaths. In the Talmud, it’s kings who dispatch us with the best intentions to what they assume will be a cakewalk, but it’s we — or, per the Talmud, the king’s black soldiers — who do the dying.

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The Afghan Sufi writer Idries Shah tells the story in his brilliant little book Tales of the Dervishes, under the title When Death Came to Baghdad:

The disciple of a Sufi of Baghdad was sitting in the corner of an inn one day when he heard two figures talking. From what they said he realized that one of them was the Angel of Death.

“I have several calls to make in this city during the next three weeks,” the Angel was saying to his companion.

Terrified, the disciple concealed himself until the two had left. Then applying his intelligence to the problem of how to cheat a possible call from death, he decided that if he kept away from Baghdad he should not be touched. From this reasoning it was but a short step to hiring the fastest horse available and spurring it night and day towards the distant town of Samarkand.

Meanwhile Death met the Sufi teacher and they talked about various people. “And where is your disciple so-and-so?” asked Death.

“He should be somewhere in this city, spending his time in contemplation, perhaps in a caravanserai,” said the teacher.

“Surprising,” said the Angel; “because he is on my list. Yes, here it is: I have to collect him in four weeks’ time at Samarkand, of all places.”

Shah attributes his telling thus:

This treatment of the Story of Death is taken from Hikayat-iNaqshia (Tales formed according to a design’).

The author of this story, which is a very favourite folklore story in the Middle East, was the great Sufi Fudail ibn Ayad, a former highwayman, who died in the early part of the ninth century.

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All of which brings me to this Kurdish news story published yesterday, ISIS captive begs Peshmerga to kill him for 4 o’clock appointment

DUHOK, Kurdistan Region — An Islamic State (ISIS) militant caught in fighting near Mosul last week begged his Peshmerga captors to shoot him dead on the spot so he could reach paradise the same day, a frontline Kurdish soldier said.

“The militant’s own suicide vest had failed to explode but he had sustained injuries from his friends’ vest explosions,” Peshmerga Captain Salim Surchi of the Spilk base told Rudaw. “He kept saying, ‘kill me, you infidels kill me.’” Cpt. Surchi said the militant was captured by the Peshmerga during last week’s fighting in the Christian town of Tel Skof, 28km north of Mosul. The militant was eager to be killed on the spot because it was a holy Islamic day known as Isra an Mi’raj, the day that marks Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven as mentioned in the Koran. [ .. ]

Cpt. Surchi lost three of his close friends that day and had others wounded, he said, but he still rushed to help a wounded ISIS militant to save his life. “I was filming the dead ISIS with my cell phone when I saw one of them moving his leg and I placed my hands on his chest trying to help him breathe,” the Peshmerga commander said of the moment following the fighting. “He breathed heavily a few times, he was conscious and he could even speak,” he added. Cpt. Surchi said that despite the militant’s pleas to be shot dead, he went ahead and treated his leg wound.

“When I was treating him I asked, ‘where’re you from?’ and he said, ‘I’m from Samarra and came here for jihad.’ The militant then said, ‘We were 50 suicide bombers altogether and we wanted to be in paradise by 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” Cpt. Surchi recounted. [ .. ]

“The wounded one kept asking us to kill him till the end of the day.”

Which in turn brings us full circle. In Maugham’s telling, our traveller makes his way to Samarra to avoid death, who finds him there. In yesterday’s version, the jihadist leaves Samarra to meet his death, who refuses, on the night of all nights, to oblige him.

Brevity in Paradox

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — or as John Cage once said, I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry ]
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suzuki_enso-2-sm

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JV Cunningham has a poem which runs in its entirety:

Life flows to death as rivers to the sea
And life is fresh and death is salt to me.

Brilliant and brief. Samuel Beckett goes him one better, writing:

My birth was my death. Or put it another way. My birth was the death of me. Words are scarce.

It’s the scarcity that interests me here. Earlier, in Godot, he had written:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

That’s too wordy. “My birth was the death of me” packs a colloquial punch, while “My birth was my death” is more succinct and correspondingly powerful.

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Birth > death.

They are opposites, obviously, and almost tautologically so — and yet there is a less-than-obvious “double meaning” to them — when brought into close conjunction they can be said to fold the universe from many back into one.

This business of the conjunction of opposites is one which Carl Jung made the centerpiece of much of his later work, writing for instance:

Whoever identifies with an intellectual standpoint will occasionally find his feeling confronting him like an enemy in the guise of the anima; conversely, an intellectual animus will make violent attacks on the feeling standpoint. Therefore, anyone who wants to achieve the difficult feat of realizing something not only intellectually, but also according to its feeling-value, must for better or worse come to grips with the anima/animus problem in order to open the way for a higher union, a coniunctio oppositorum. This is an indispensable prerequisite for wholeness.

Consider the current US election campaign in this light…

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Shakespeare’s “insult, exult, and all at once” in As you Like It, and Dylan Thomas’ “Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray” in Do not go gentle are 0other instances of brevity in paradox.

Beckett, Jung, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas — heady company.

A couple more beads for Hesse’s Game

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — Art & Philospphy, Latin, Greek & Arabic, Porphyry & Proclus ]
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I discovered Elaine Van Dalen‘s twitterstream today, and was enchanted. Trawling backwards a little from her tweet about the Sultan al-Kamil, I ran across this one:

which fairly begged to be DoubleTweeted with this hastily assembled tweet of my own, quoting from Hermann Melville‘s Mardi:

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Both are instances of the game Hermann Hesse described himself playing while raking and burning leaves, in his poem Hours in the Garden:

Within me, my thoughts begin to play
A game, an exercise I have practiced for many years.
It is called the Glass Bead Game, a charming invention
Whose framework is music, whose basis is meditation.

[ … ]

I hear music and see men of the past and the future.
Wise men and poets and scholars and artists, all of one mind,
Building the hundred-gated cathedral of the spirit…

That’s Hesse’s private manner of playing the Glass Bead Game: the game as played in the novel is more abstract, shorn of persons, a virtual music of ideas indeed.

I’ve quoted this over and over, I know, but for those who are new to the Game, here’s Hesse’s definitive description from the novel:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

Theology for artists and musicians, Buddhist & Christian

Monday, April 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — with side-trips to China, ancient and modern ]
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The-Bach-Window-Saint-Tho-007
Bach window in the Thomaskirsche, Leipzig, where Bach was Cantor

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The Dalai Lama has a fascinating article out about reincarnating lamas (“tulkus”) which has direct relevance to discussions of what happens when he died — whether he decides to reincarnate as a new Dalai Lama, whether the Chinese decide to do it for him, etc.

I learned a lot — but the piece that really caught my eye was this:

The Emanation Body is three-fold: a) the Supreme Emanation Body like Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, who manifested the twelve deeds of a Buddha such as being born in the place he chose and so forth; b) the Artistic Emanation Body which serves others by appearing as craftsmen, artists and so on; and c) the Incarnate Emanation Body, according to which Buddhas appear in various forms such as human beings, deities, rivers, bridges, medicinal plants, and trees to help sentient beings.

I love the ontology that gives us “human beings, deities, rivers, bridges, medicinal plants, and trees” and which reminds me of Borges‘ scheme, allegedly derived from a Chinese encyclopedia, The Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge, for the classification of animals:

In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

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But really, that’s a bonus.

It’s the inclusion of “craftsmen, artists and so on” as being potentially Artistic Emanation Bodies of Buddha that gets me. I see it as a viable counterbalance to the current emphasis in the west — and in the westifying east — on STEM topics, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as the ultimate desirables in education.

And for what it’s worth, the idea is not without comparative equivalents. July 28 is the commemoration, in the Episcopalian Calendar of Saints, of “Johann Sebastian Bach, 1750, George Frederick Handel, 1759, and Henry Purcell, 1695, Composers” — while the Lutherans on the same day commemorate “Johann Sebastian Bach, 1750; Heinrich Schütz, 1672; George Frederick Handel, 1759; musicians”.

From a set of Episcopalian lectionary readings:

Almighty God, beautiful in majesty and majestic in holiness: Thou gavest to thy musicians Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel, and Henry Purcell grace to show forth thy glory in their music. May we also be moved to sound out thy praises as a foretaste of thy eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Arthur Waley, in his slim volume on Li Po, puts a somewhat ironic spin on the idea, telling us:

It was commonly believed that immortals who had misbehaved in Heaven were as punishment banished to live on earth for a fixed time, there they figured as wayward and extraordinary human beings. They were what was called ‘Ministers Abroad of the Thirty-Six Emperors of Heaven.’

Falling, drunk, into the Yellow River while attempting to kiss the moon would appear to qualify one for this honorific.

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Not to worry, btw. According to an announcement issued yesterday:

The Tibetan spiritual leader told a group of abbots not to worry as he is in good health and still has recurring dreams indicating that he will live for at least 113 years.


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