Josh W. performs Antony and Cleopatra (Act I, Scene 2)

This is what happens when I’m allowed to read Shakespeare:

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Suldrun’s Garden

suldrun's garden
Having entered into the end-of-semester crunch period, updates will be erratic.

But even during my busier weeks, I try to find a way to sneak in some degree of unrelated reading. So I’ve taken on Suldrun’s Garden as bedtime reading. It’s the first in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy, which, as the name suggests, is set in the mythic land of Lyonnese.

Arthurian legend ala Vance is pretty cool, although it took a few chapters for me to feel committed to the idea. It comes prepackaged with enough phantasmagoria and classic adventure stuff for him to work his usual magic on.

Anyway, the protagonist of the book is Princess Suldrun, the unloved daughter of Casmir, King of Lyonesse. Having wanted a male heir, Casmir only sees Suldrun as valuable insofar as she can be married off to someone for the sake of an alliance. Suldrun meanwhile is an introvert, and something of a free spirit who prefers to spend her time alone in a garden.

So it isn’t the most original story, but what makes it work is, of course, Vance’s prose and Austenian dialogue which is always leagues above 90% of the SF/Fantasy genre, but also how he situates it within the complex geopolitics of his Arthurian world.  Suldrun’s own situation is a cog in a larger machine of Machiavellian scheming. It’s a bit similar to what Frank Herbert did with Paul’s whole “chosen one” story arc in Dune.

Another thing of note: I was surprised to find a Vance novel with a female protagonist. Women in Vance’s novels typically don’t stray too far from being damsels in distress. But while Suldrun is indeed a distressed damsel, I appreciate how she comes across as more of a fully realized character than as a walking trope.

I suppose I could complain that the only Christian in the novel is a lecherous priest, but cruelty and perversion are such ubiquitous features of Vance’s worlds that it doesn’t feel like he’s singling out Christians as a particularly odious bunch.

 

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Mahler’s 9th

I was listening to Gustav Mahler’s 9th symphony while plowing through some of my class readings (he’s an odd choice for background music, I know, but it seemed to keep me more focused than I would have been).

Mahler’s 9th is, as its Allmusic article states,  full of “music of profound violence and irony”. The first movement seems to be trying to rip itself apart, the second cycles through banal dance music, the third contains intentionally painful counterpoint. But it also contains many moments of exceptional beauty, like the first movement’s hazy, sunset-like ending.

I remember being emotionally overwhelmed the first time I listened to it; it was one of those intense aesthetic experiences that require some time for recovery before you can go back to your normal life.

But that was also the time when I was living in my own “Gollum’s cave”, where I had allowed myself to become profoundly isolated, with music and literature being the only things animating me to a small extent. So Mahler’s bleakness perhaps struck a chord with me at that time that it no longer does now (I am also sure that part of the appeal had to do with the teenage tendency to wallow in emotions).

Still, I had to halt my reading partway through the fourth movement, which still managed to give me goosebumps. It’s a long, slow, elegiac movement that builds to a thunderous, almost triumphant statement of one of the themes, before slowly fragmenting away into nothing. While other major composers have experimented with a similar effect (Haydn and Tchaikovsky come to mind), Mahler’s is the most unsettling that I can think of, giving a sense of passing into the realm of death which Rilke also captured in his tenth Duino Elegy:

He climbs on alone, into the mountains of primeval grief.
And no step rings back from that soundless fate.

I thank God that I was saved from the living death my life could have become.

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Brief thoughts on Big Hero 6

Big_Hero_6_(film)_poster

Last night I found myself with a free evening, and so decided to check out Disney’s new movie, Big Hero 6. In short, I thought it was swell. I don’t have time for a review, but here are a few observations:

- More than any other movie I’ve seen recently, this one really drove home where we seem to be at right now, pop culturally speaking. Disney now owns Marvel, and this is the first Disney movie to make use of Marvel characters. Domains which seemed worlds apart as a child are now intermarrying and having babies. It’s kind of uncanny to watch it happen (for the second time. Perhaps I should be less weirded out by now).

- On a similar note, although this is an adaptation of a rather obscure Marvel superhero comic, it’s much more similar in style and content to shonen anime/manga, which is also reflected in the odd, America/Japan mashup setting. Actually, the setting struck me as a sort of utopian, image negative of the Blade Runner and Neuromancer cyberpunk worlds.

- MM2sprite-MetalManWhen Bemax has his armor on, he looks very similar to Metal Man from Megaman II. I don’t know enough about the movie/comic to know if this is intentional or not.

- For a piece of geeky fluff, this was surprisingly willing to stick its nose in some interesting moral territory. Namely: how the rightful pursuit of justice can be perverted into a desire for vengeance. How do you keep your intentions pure when you are the aggrieved party? It’s not deep or anything, but I appreciate the willingness to raise the question; particularly because we often find ourselves in the middle of what Prof. Mondo described a few months back as a culture of vengeance.

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Thoughts on ‘Gay and Catholic’ – parte deux

(Part One)

The narrative goes something like this: a long long time ago in a galaxy located at the exact same co-ordinates as our own, it was possible for friends to be friends and married couples to be married. Then, as things gradually approached modern times, something happened. Or rather a bunch of things happened which are too complex to be summarized by a man who is feeling a little hounded for time and sleep deprived.

Anyway, we wind up with a situation where (a highly individualistic conception of) romantic love becomes the lens by which other loves are seen and measured – friendship is no longer seen as a different kind of love, but a lesser kind of love. “Just friends.” This, combined with the modern tendency to divide people into gay/straight/bisexual/bowie, increasingly rigid gender stuff, and the crudely Freudian notion that all our interactions with other people are ‘really’ about our unconscious desire to kill/have sex with them, has led to an anthropology that goes something like this:

Straight people are the sort who are only capable of being “just friends” with people of the same sex, but who achieve the glorious plateau of erotic love with the opposite sex. Gay people are the inverse of this. And what this means is that anything relating to emotional intimacy and affection between people of the same sex increasingly falls under the heading of ‘gay’. The tenderness of the relationship between, say, Frodo and Sam, which would have been recognized by earlier generations as qualities of a really good friendship, are now seen as kinda gay. And this sort of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: because these qualities are seen now as qualities that gay couples have, it is increasingly the case that only gay relationships manifest them. It should indeed give us pause that, in places like India, which have (in my humble opinion) rather inhumane laws regarding homosexuality, no one bats an eye at the sight of two men holding hands. Whereas here in North America, hand holding means, well, you know.

It's not like friendship is magic or anything

It’s not like friendship is magic or anything

The second part of Eve Tushnet’s book, “Gay and Catholic”, has in large part the aim of offering a remedy to this modern situation by attempting to articulate older ideals of friendship and giving advice as to how to apply that to one’s own life. So she looks at stuff like  St. Aelred’s treatise, “Spiritual Friendship,” and medieval ‘vowed friendships’ (which, contra revisionist historians, were not medieval gay marriage):

Kinship is a form of love that persists after the death of one of the parties. It is a love with obligations as well as joys. With these criteria we can see clearly how medieval sworn friendship differed from the relationship we now describe as being “just friends” with someone. The specific obligations incurred through vows of friendship varied, but they would often include features like caring for the friend’s children after death (perhaps an especially important clause given that many of the sworn friends we know were married knits) and having Masses said for the friend’s soul. As Bray put it, “they left each other their families.”

Bray also found another form of same-sex kinship formed through promise making. Becoming godparent to a friend’s child was one way friends could merge their families’ interests and publicly signify their allegiance. As with sworn friendship, kinship created by Baptism drew freely from both blood and marriage kinship for its metaphors and explanations.

The point isn’t to take these pre-modern models and make them into a sort of erzatz, sexless marriage for same-sex attracted people. But rather, to underline how friendship should not be reduced to a mere enjoyment of each others’ company. True friendship, as Aristotle put it, involves seeing the good in another individual and helping to cultivate it. We help each other on the road to salvation.

Tushnet rightly underlines that for Christians, there’s  this guy called Jesus and that having a personal relationship with him is kinda important. Friendship and romance will be unable to satisfy your deepest longings – and they’ll start to get a little bit creepy if you try to make them – only Christ can. The foundation for getting things to work right has to be in prayer and sacraments.

Indeed this is the most important safeguard against the perversion of friendship and marriage – any relationship can be turned into something vicious. The realization of this possibility should not be seen as a reason for seeking out isolation. Taking that approach has its own problems; absent normal human contact, there is always a host of loathsome vices waiting to fill the gap.

The takehome point here is that friendship should be incorporated into your spirituality in some fashion. And this a point of agreement with other folks as well. Courage, which is the official Catholic apostolate dealing with homosexuality, lists the formation of chaste same-sex friendships as one of its goals. And, of course, the people at Spiritual Friendship, a ragtag collection of bloggers including Tushnet herself, are all over this friendshippy stuff.

(Incidentally, there is a degree of criticism between people associated with one or the other group. Courage people tend to not be too crazy about some of the things said by SF people and vice-versa. I often find myself sympathizing with people in both camps. I’m not sure if this is because the differences between the two are actually smaller than they seem, or because I have yet to really come to a settled opinion about all the nitty-gritty questions. Anyway, some of the blog sniping has at times struck me as broadcasting a not too appealing image):

(Vulgar language warning)

 

As you may have noticed, Spiritual Friendship takes its name from St. Aelred’s treatise, which Tushnet discusses. I’ve never read it, so I don’t feel competent to discuss her reading of it. However, when she talks about St. Aelred’s advice for carefully choosing one’s friends, I felt a twinge of recogniztion in Tushnet’s admitted lack of this sort of rigor:

I admit that I don’t think I’ve ever practiced St. Aelred-style testing of potential friends. I more or less wake up inside my friendships, only noticing them once they’ve already been forged too tightly to easily slither out of them. My friendships tend to be based on shared experiences rather than shared belief, and the experiences themselves are not exactly morally edifying. “We got drunk and argued about philosophy a lot” isn’t a basis for friendship that St. Aelred would approve or even necessarily understand, and yet it’s served me well so far.

Most of my friendships have similarly been forged through the vagaries of experience.

Tushnet’s own advice is to consider the relationships we already find ourselves in – friends, family and the like, and to see how our singleness makes us able to be of greater benefit to the loved ones in our lives. How can we be more self-giving, and radically available? I admit that this can be a difficult question for me to ask myself, because I value my autonomy and time quite a bit. It can be easy to see the needs of others as impositions.

To be concluded (I hope)…

 

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Food for thought

Alan Jacobs recently posted a little thought experiment: take a hypothetical Christian institution that has moved from a traditional Christian sexual ethic to a more liberal one. Assume that God hasn’t actually changed his mind about this stuff:

So as we try to evaluate this imaginary Christian organization, we can see what has happened in one of three ways:

1) At one point, the organization held views about sexuality that were largely determined by its social environment, but it has now reconsidered those views in light of the Gospel and has come to a more authentically Christian understanding of the matter.

2) At one point, the organization held authentically Christian views about sexuality, but has succumbed to public pressure and fear of being scorned or condemned and now holds views that are determined by its social environment.

3) The organization has always held the views about sexuality that were socially dominant, bending its understanding of Scripture to suit the times; it just changed when (or soon after) the main stream of society changed.

Note that there is no way to read this story as one of consistent faithfulness to a Gospel message that works against the grain of a dominant culture.

He goes on to ask Christians who have made this sort of shift to consider how they would prevent themselves from lapsing again into the sort of unfaithfulness that they have evidently pulled themselves out of.

While this particular example is about sex, the thought experiment could be expanded to include any sort of hot-button doctrine. If you’re going to say that there are either significant problems with the traditional sources of Christian doctrine (i.e. scripture and apostolic tradition) or significant problems with our hermeneutic methods, it seems reasonable to ask what your epistemological model would be for demarcating authentic Christian teaching from falsehood.

I don’t mean to pose this in a mean-spirited fashion. I’m genuinely curious about how more liberal Christians navigate this thicket.

(h/t Rod Dreher)

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An update of sorts

Yes, I will get around to talking more about Eve Tushnet’s book. But both school and now NaNoWriMo have been eating up my time, and I need to re-read some chapters for my followup post.

About NaNo: I’ve (so far) remained on schedule, but there’s no way I’m gonna post this in the rough. Maybe some future draft of my magical girl/vampire/academic satire novel will find its way on here. Well, ok, I’ll share the opening sentence with you guys:

It is standard procedure for a preface to be written some time after the book it precedes has been completed, offering some insight into the book itself, the circumstances and purpose of its composition, etc.

Got that?

In reading over an old novella I wrote about a decade ago, it occurred to me just how much self-plagarism I’ve engaged in during all my various troubled attempts at fiction. Common tropes include:

- A weird town in Ontario which is the site of supernatural/surrealistic occurences

- The protagonist is a burnout or loser who is in a situation way over his head and often has a pathetic crush on a girl. In particular, I liked the somewhat tsundere relationship between the agnostic narrator and a radical traditionalist Catholic girl in my last NaNo novel.

- The protagonist is basically Stephen Dedalus.

- The gothic and grotesque will get cranked up high as soon as possible, with the tone vacillating between horror and black comedy (or attempts thereof).

- Shadowy organizations manipulating events. Many characters unwittingly become pawns of larger forces.

- Gambit pileup.

- Apocalypticism. We often seem to be hurtling towards some sort of catastrophe, even if we never actually arrive.

- A kudzu plot which often spirals out of control (one of the reasons for why I have been hitherto unsuccessful at short stories)

- Pomo tinkering with literary form and narration

I’ve yet to tame a lot of this into something coherent and worth reading. Re-reading that old novella was a bit illuminating, as it highlighted my deep tendencies to treat fiction writing as a series of lab experiments as opposed to crafting characters that who are likeable and actually develop. My previous NaNo seemed to mark an advance in that direction, but was thwarted by the plot: the central murder mystery made no sense.

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The Night of the Hunter

And that's just the opening scene

It gets weirder

To the extent that it can be considered a horror film, The Night of the Hunter is my favorite. It’s a good choice for Hallowe’en anyhow.

The only film directed by Charles Laughton, Hunter is one of the most bizarre movies to come out of Hollywood in the 1950s (or ever, for that matter). It sounds on paper like it shouldn’t work: a haphazard mixture of noir, gothic horror, Rockwell-esque Americana, comedy and religious meditation, etc. The tonal shifts throughout are jarring. And everything is given a strange, fairy-tail sheen to it.

But it all fuses together to make one of the most gripping movies I’ve ever seen. Set in depression era West Virginia, the plot gets kickstarted when Ben Harper kills two men and steals 10,000 dollars. Before he is apprehended, he hides the money, with only his children (John and Pearl) aware of location. While on death row he bunks with Harry Powell, a sociopathic preacher with “LOVE” and “HATE” tatooed on his knuckles. Powell finds out about the money. When he gets out, he tracks down the Harpers and insinuates himself into their lives, hoping to get his hands on it. Most of the adults are quickly rendered useless, leaving the children to fend for themselves in their attempt to escape Powell’s wrath.

A good amount of what makes the movie work is Robert Mitchum’s performance as Harry Powell. It’s an incredibly unnerving portrayal of a man whose slimy, manipulative exterior barely contains a downright feral insanity and rage. He’s like some amoral monster wearing human skin. There’s a moment where he lets out a scream of anger and frustration, and it’s one of the craziest vocalizations ever committed to film:

John and Pearl themselves are not particularly cutesy – they look and act like normal kids caught in a horrifying situation. But everything else feels dreamlike and expressionistic. And a lot of the imagery is haunting, to say the least. For instance, there’s an eerily lyrical scene where a corpse is sitting in a car at the bottom of a river, her long hair flowing like seaweed.

The foil to Robert Mitchum is silent film actress Lillian Gish, who plays Rachel Cooper, a shotgun-toting, Church-going old woman who looks after unwanted children. Gish gives her a certain unsentimental toughness and sense of deep faith which prevents her from dissolving into a generic “grandma”. The two of them make my favorite scene in the movie: Powell, camped outside Cooper’s house, begins singing his calling-card hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. Cooper suddenly starts singing along, or rather, countering his voice with hers. Added on the end is a grace note where she catches a glimpse of an owl killing a rabbit. In another movie, and with other actors, all this would just be weird or sentimental, but here it becomes deeply affecting:

And it drives home what I take to be the main theme of the movie: that there is radical evil and suffering in the world, but also the possibility of love in the midst of it all. Religion, and the moral authority that comes with it, can be perverted into something monstrous (watch especially how Powell is able to whip up a good portion of the town into religious hysteria); but true faith and hope is neither about gullibility or power, but rather, again, leads to love. And Mark 10:13-16, anyone?

And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.

I could point out the other little details that I love about it: like how we are given a glimpse into the family life of the man who hangs Ben Harper, an extended river-voyage, the ice cream shop owners: a shrewish woman and her milquetoast husband (who wind up leading a lynch-mob), etc. But it’s difficult to describe the organic way that all of it comes together.

 

Seriously

Seriously

So what I’m saying is – just watch it. If you’re still looking for something to go with the season, this is the one.

 

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Thoughts on “Gay and Catholic” – Part One

There’s a moment in Eve Tushnet’s new book, Gay and Catholic where she refers to herself as a “public homosexual”. That gave me pause to reflect about the irony of my own situation: while I am far from public in the level that Miss Tushnet is, it’s true that I’ve gabbed on far more about that aspect of my life as a celibate Catholic than as a sexually active pagan. A frequent way people reach this blog is by googling terms like “gay celibacy”. I can only imagine the look of horror that would have crossed my 16-year-old self’s face if he had been aware of what his most popular writings would be, ten years down the line. But that kid never really wanted to live what the world at large considered to be a normal life, so in a sense he got his wish. He has yet to become a professional novelist, though.

I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while. Eve Tushnet has long been one of my favourite bloggers. In particular, she was the first blogger I stumbled across who was tackling the idea of being a celibate gay. While I had read a fair amount of stuff articulating Catholic teaching on homosexuality, and while I could with some bitterness intellectually take it, I hadn’t encountered any good examples of what living that out looked like; I had no evidence I could point to to suggest that the life I was embarking on wouldn’t just end with me being a lonely, repressed, deeply unhappy man. Tushnet, who had been wrestling with this stuff for a decade or so, was the first voice articulating a more positive vision of how one could actually live a good life in the no-man’s-land I seemed to be moving into. That was helpful, to say the least.

The book presents a more developed form of a lot of the themes touched upon in her blog. It isn’t a work of apologetics – she starts with the assumption that the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality is the correct one. Rather, the aim is to give advice to gay people who are not called to the usual vocations of marriage, priesthood or religious life on how they can live out lives which are just as meaningful and love-filled as those are. As such, single Christians more generally may find the book worth reading. (and also, I hope, non-Christians, or non-traditional Christians, who are interested in eavesdropping on the conversation).

It falls into three sections. The first is autobiographical, the second on vocational advice, and the third being a large appendix with resources, FAQs and the like.

Her own story was unusually relatable in at least a few points: we were both outsiders to the Catholic Faith, out and proud gays who came from a secular Jewish background. Our undergraduate philosophical and poetic adventures got a little too crazy, and we found ourselves to our surprise on the other side of the Tiber. We went native.

Through all these arguments and spiritual shifts, I had reached the point where I believed that if there were a god, it was probably the Catholic one. I darkly suspected that the world might be the work of that bloody-minded God. I began to pray, kneeling beside my dorm-room bed, feeling like an idiot. It is instructively humiliating to pray, and for that reason, I think praying on one’s knees or in some other posture of submission is almost always preferable. I continued to struggle with the arguments during the daytime, and then at night I would pray.

Is there any convert whose prayer life didn’t start off embarrassingly awkward like this? And I agree that there is a sort of pedagogical value to the awkwardness – especially for stoic types like myself who don’t like to ask for help.

Her narrative continues past the baptismal font to give a rather honest and poignant depiction on what, she says, has been her most difficult spiritual struggle: alcoholism. On occasion I’ve encountered people who have said things to me along the lines of, “it’s great and kind of admirable that you have this strict moral code you live by, but I could never do that; I’ve got so many issues and vices etc.” But – Christianity isn’t a moral code, and I honestly don’t know any Christians (least of all myself) who exist on some holier-than-thou plane where human failure no longer touches them. The situation is a lot more like this:

When I was trying, unsuccessfully, to quit drinking, I had one night in a hotel room when I was praying pretty intensely and making real progress, albeit haltingly. I managed to call up images of some of the most humiliating things I’d done – not the worst things, not the unkindness and selfishness, which we somehow usually manage to repent without really loathing, but the most shameful things – and invite God into those moments. I imagined him there, as in fact he was there, seeing it all and not turning away from me. I “invited” him, the way you have to invite a vampire in – you have to invite God into your heart and your memory in the same way if you want forgiveness. It was ridiculously painful and to this day, I can’t do it most of the time, but it was also one of the closest encounters I’ve ever had with the truth about the shocking completeness of God’s mercy.

And then I got back from my business trip and bought a comfortingly large bottle of Smirnoff, you know? Mercy and penitence don’t always “work”; they are sufficient in themselves and have no other “point” or purpose. Still, denying yourself mercy will pretty much always make your life worse. Mary Karr got it right when she said, “That schoolmarm part of me – that hypercritical finger-wagging part of myself that I thought was gonna keep me sober – that is actually what helped me stay drunk. What keeps you sober is love and connection to something bigger than yourself.”

 

There are also more amusing quotes, like this:

Still, I realize I may not be the very best poster child to make the case for gay mental health. All I can say is that I know a lot of queer people who are so healthy and normal, you could just puke. They are veritable pillars of bourgeois stability. Not how I’ve ever wanted to live, but not exactly the movie Cruising either.

This reminds me of an ironic trend which I’ve noticed in my life: when it came to really crazy, dangerous, unhealthy stuff, it was for the most part my straight friends who were into it. Most of the gay people I’ve known have tried to eke out a respectable living. I can see why this is the case; I didn’t start to befriend other gays until university, so I was drawing on a pool of people who at least had some academic/career ambitions and expectations, and whose lives hadn’t already gone off the rails in surrealistic, Hunter S. Thompson fashion. The same cannot be said of some high school era friends (and, in retrospect it is actually weird just how much first-hand exposure I got to drug culture as a teenager without ever actually being a part of it).

And:

I’m not great with children – I’m ideologically in favor of them, but they can be kind of hard to talk to.

To be continued…

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Linguistic love affairs

torah300yrs

Like many kids who grew up in Ontario, I was required to study French until my first year of high school. I spent most of those classes bored, and dropped them as soon as they became optional. And as of today I have retained virtually nothing from them.

When it came time to choose classes for my freshman year, I enrolled myself in German for reasons that I do not recall. I found myself with a somewhat eccentric instructor who would include quiz questions like, “write a dialogue between you and your ideal date”. Within a couple of months I started to lag behind in class and dropped it.

So while my love of English had been firmly established by this point, my aptitude for taking on a foreign tongue did not seem very precocious.

But when my senior year came around, I decided I would use up my last free elective on either Latin or Greek. I had become more disciplined over my undergraduate years, and besides was only a part-time student at this point, and hence would not have to worry about the work being too much. Since this was also the time that I was enrolling in RCIA, I decided that Latin would be the more useful of the two.

This time, things fell into place. I was able to find a passion for studying grammar that had hitherto been absent. My guess for why I started to succeed here is that, unlike French or German, there was a vocational element to Latin: I was learning the lingua franca of the religion I had chosen. Some of my convert’s fervor was perhaps tapped into.

Due to an unexpected program conflict, my second semester of Latin got replaced at the last minute by a metalogic class (which was even more intimidating than it sounded, but the only other alternative option was literary theory, and at the time I was feeling far less conciliatory towards that realm of thought than I do now). But I still kept up the Latin on my own, developing a vocabulary that was decent-ish for liturgy and the Vulgate Bible.

My few months of studying Latin were in retrospect a turning point for me. Getting used to one kind of alien grammar seemed to make my mind more plastic in that regard. The possibilities of language were intuitively open to me in a way that they previously had not. It is a cliche to speak of education as “broadening horizons” and “opening minds” but in this case the expressions really are apt. I believe Wittgenstein has a sentence in his Tractatus to the effect that a person’s world is as big as a person’s language. It didn’t take too long for me to start Greek.

Which leads me to the dilemma I wrote about in May. By that point it was clear that I was either going to take my academic career in the direction of Old Testament studies or systematic theology. The choice needed to be made as soon as possible, as it would effect what direction I would develop my language skills: the former would place heavy emphasis on Hebrew and Greek, the latter on Latin and the modern scholarly languages.

The Bible won out, and I believe I made the right choice. I have been studying Hebrew these past two months, and have fallen in love with it – moreso than Greek or Latin. Decoding the script has led to a fascination with it. And, as has been observed, my Hebrew handwriting is actually turning out far more legible than my writing with the Latin or Greek alphabet typically is (my abc’s have always been atrocious, and it didn’t take long for αβγ to morph into similarly loose scribbles); the movements required for drawing the characters seem to allow for less of my bad habits to creep in.

Of course, Hebrew characters have been more present in my life, in Passover Haggadahs and the like. Their Semitic calligraphy had the effect for my childhood mind of cloaking my family’s lineage in a sort of romantic foreignness that stretched beyond Europe into the Ancient Near-East.

The sound of the language is very gutteral and sometimes harsh-sounding to western ears. But, I have to admit, the melodiousness of the romance languages which people find to be a big draw is something of a turnoff for me. It sounds good in the context of opera and bel canto, but for some reason otherwise falls flat for me. Perhaps it has to do with how France, Spain and Italy have generally not exerted much cultural fascination from me. I like the sound of languages which are a little more rough, like German or the Slavic languages and hence also Hebrew.

There are also the usual pleasures of discovering the etymology behind well-known names (like finding out that Behemoth is just the plural form of behema – animal) and other linguistic resonances (the Hebrew word for sea, yam, also being the name of a Cannanite sea goddess).

I do regret that I only discovered these loves in my twenties; it is easy to look back and see missed opportunities in both high school and my undergraduate years. But better late than never.

 

 

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