Jesus and Recycling

Marc Chagall’s Ruth Gleaning.  

Jesus thought a great deal about garbage. He had been raised in a tradition that made a fundamental distinction between purity and impurity, kosher and treif, the sacred and the profane. These seem like very strict and absolute binary divisions but Hebrew scripture also contained an ambiguity. The sacred texts abound in narratives that contradict the absolute division between the clean and the dirty by celebrating people who were closest to the grimy ground, the rejected and the dejected. Prototypically, there were slaves of Egypt who became the chosen people (slaves being those who do the dirty work of society); there is also Ruth gathering gleanings (i.e. picking up food not worth the farmer’s time); and also the many unkempt prophets who were closer to God than all the Rabbis. Consider Jonah: a man of God swallowed by a whale and then extruded, the prophet as vomit or excrement, yet fulfilling his divine mission even in his humiliation. (The story of Jonah is one that seems to have been particularly dear to Jesus). 

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Derrida on the Campaign Trail

A headline from today’s Washington Post:

 The Other Clinton Is an Absent Presence

That headline was about 40 years in the making. Derrida developed his ideas about absence/presence in the mid-1960s. It takes about 5-10 years for a major work of continental philosophy to get translated into English. Another 10 years for North American professors and graduate students to assimilate new ideas; another 10 years for the ideas to percolate through the undergraduate classrooms; another 10 years for students of English and philosophy to get jobs at newspapers and start writing articles and headlines. Voilà: from concept to cliché in four decades.

The death of the author can be seen in this headline. It was probably coined by one person but it wasn’t written by that person. The true author of the headline is an entire change in language and mentalité, a change that had many fathers and many mothers. We’re never alone when we write, but always using words others have given us. Every writer contains a multitude; the greatest writers are the ones who have the most voices speaking through them.

Charles Murray and “Liberal Fascism”

Sans Everything is a blog that supports animal rights. So it seems amiss for me to keep beating the same poor broken-down horse, whether it’s dead or alive. Still, there is one last comment to make about Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. The book has been enthusiastically endorsed by Charles Murray, a blurb that’s included on the book’s website. “Liberal Fascism is nothing less than a portrait of 20th-century political history as seen through a new prism. It will affect the way I think about that history-and about the trajectory of today’s politics-forever after,” Murray says.

What credibility does Murray have as a critic of fascism? As I noted in two earlier postings, Murray is most famous as the co-author, along with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve, a book tainted by its reliance on extreme racialists. The writers Muray drew on for his book are not the made-up “liberal fascists” of Goldberg’s imagination (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Hilary Clinton). Rather, Murray built his case by relying on men who had genuine connections with dictatorial, racialist regimes. One of them was Nathaniel Weyl, a strong supporter of the apartheid-era South Africa.

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Canada’s special relationship

What are friends for, if not to politely ignore the fact that you’ve become an alcoholic and started beating your children? In such a spirit, Canada proved itself once again a faithful and utterly harmless pal of the United States yesterday when our government fell all over itself to retract a “torture awareness” manual given to its diplomats which listed the United States and Israel as states where prisoners are at risk of torture. Declared foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier, “It contains a list that wrongly includes some of our closest allies. I have directed that the manual be reviewed and rewritten.” Even Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, after admitting that torture might indeed be “a live question” in American politics, finally threw his support behind the United States: “The idea that you would equate the government of the United States with the government of Iran with respect to the treatment of prisoners is a little hard to fathom,” he told the Canadian Press.

The reason why our government wrote such a manual in the first place? Because in 2002 the United States arrested and shipped an innocent Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, off to Syria to be tortured for ten months. According to CTV, it was felt during the inquiry into Arar’s case that Canadian diplomats should be taught to notice signs that prisoners had been tortured, as well to be made aware of countries in which such signs were more likely to appear. Quite rightly, the United States was placed on this list. But now we are expected to accept the Canadian government’s declaration that the United States — despite all of the evidence, all of the memos, despite even the Bush administration’s own clear intention that it be allowed to waterboard and otherwise abuse prisoners — is not such a country.

If friendship means the willingness to allow a powerful neighbouring country to take your people, torture them, hand them back to you grudgingly without apology (or simply detain them indefinitely), and then expect you to pretend that such things do not happen, well then, we are fast friends indeed. Of course, in international politics, we call such a situation “Finlandization”. In prison they’ve got another term for this kind of friendship, and it’s not a polite one.

Updike’s Hamlet Trilogy

A scene from Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

John Updike doesn’t like to do anything once or even twice. His preferred modus operandi is to work in clusters of three, four or five. Four books about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom plus a sequel about his kids (the novella “Rabbit Remembered”). Three books about Henry Bech plus an omnibus volume. Three novels which rewrite Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version and S.). The Witches of Eastwick, with its supernatural theme, also nods toward Hawthorne. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Updike said he’s attracted to the number four, it’s comfortably square like the sides of a table or the legs of a chair. (I’m quoting from memory).

Just before the end of the last century, Updike developed a mild obsession with Hamlet which manifested itself in three very different books. The inspiration for this Hamlet-mania was Kenneth Branagh’s adaption of the play, which Updike enjoyed. The slightest connection to Shakespeare’s play was Updike 1999 essay collection More Matter. The title is from Gertrude’s curt injunction to Polonius, “less art, more matter.” A rather self-deprecating title, a typical trait in an Updike essay collection (other titles: Assorted Prose, Picked-Up Pieces, Odd Jobs) where he tends to downgrade his work as a critic in comparison to his primary achievements as a fiction writer and poet. The title seems to cast Updike the essayist as a Polonius-type figure, a garrulous old man forced to rein in his arty flights of rhetoric in the service of mundane media-induced matter.

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Talking Comics

Gary Panter’s mind-numbingly beautiful cover of Raw #3.

Over at the Inkstuds radio program, I spend an nearly an hour yakking about comics with Tom Spurgeon (of The Comics Reporter website) and Dan Nadel (publisher and impresario at PictureBox Inc , editor of the excellent book Art Out of Time). 

 Major topics covered: 

Which comics look better on the museum wall and which work better on the printed page; fine art versus mechanical reproduction; Gary Panter versus Ernie Bushmiller. 

The achievement of Gary Groth and The Comics Journal. 

Criticism and timing: why Edmund Wilson was lucky to be a literary critic in the wake of The Waste Land and Ulysses, Pauline Kael equally fortunate to be a movie reviewer during the salad days of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. 

What Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez learned from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. 

Comics as a phoenix art form: constantly dying, constantly being reborn. (I muffed this though and didn’t use the great word “palingenetic” on the public airwaves). 

Living with a fictional character for decades, until they accumulate the weight of reality; Maggie Chascarrillo compared to Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. 

Tom Spurgeon made the case for Joe Sacco’s Palestine, argued for an un-ironic appreciation of Fletcher Hanks and compared superhero comics to musicals. Dan Nadel enthused over Jesse Marsh and Omega the Unknown.  

For the truly masochistic there is also an earlier Inkstuds program  where I talk about George Herriman and Krazy Kat.

Conservative Scholarship, then and now

The dunce cap. 

I’ve been upbraided for dealing with Johan Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism in an elliptical fashion, by talking about National Review‘s history of philo-fascism, rather than directly. But Goldberg’s book is being widely reviewed and commented on. It would be redundant for me to simply echo what smart writers like Dave Neiwert, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein have already written. (And in time real historians of fascism will also be tackling the book). My philosophy as a blogger is to always try to make points that aren’t being articulated elsewhere.

Having said that, here is one fresh point that no one, as far as I know, has made about Goldberg. The book is about the relationship between fascism and American politics. Goldberg, on the evidence of the book, can’t read German, Italian or Spanish. These are the main languages you need to possess if you want to read the primary sources and major scholarly literature on fascism. The endnotes in Goldberg’s book are monolithically English.

Imagine writing a book on Shakespeare without knowing a word of English, or a book on the American Constitution while being unable to read Madison and Hamilton without the aid of translators.

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