Good Friday blues or the things we didn’t know


We killed him on a Friday, when the birds had just begun to sing again. They will never forgive us. The trees won’t forgive us either. The leaves withered like a silly chicken embryo in a failed egg. The heavens were silent, but there was a murmur across the great plains. The prophet was right, after all. His words echoed from afar into the wilderness of the Valley of Ashes. They were as distressing as they were inescapable:

“But he had to die: he saw with eyes that saw everything; he saw man’s depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness. His pity knew no shame: he crawled into my dirtiest nooks. His most curious, overobtrusive, overpitying one had to die. He always saw me: on such a witness I wanted to have revenge or not live myself.  The god who saw everything, even man—this god had to die! Man cannot bear it that such a witness live.”

The eyes of Dr Eckleberg saw everything beneath the rusty frames. The stare was unbearable. Sartre was wrong. Staring into one another’s being doesn’t lead to a second life, but to a deeper death. Besides, we didn’t know that we didn’t stare, but that He stared at us. Like Dr Eckleberg’s eyes He stared at us, seeing down the abyss of despair that we are. A pile of corpses on the forest floor. Each staring into one another, but never beyond.

Death is contagious, silently killing everything in its path. We didn’t know that either:

“Altogether elsewhere, vast

Herds of reindeer move across

Miles and miles of golden moss

Silently and very fast”

God didn’t just die, we killed him. We killed him first thing in the morning, before anyone could see it. We didn’t kill Him in the night, so that we could have no excuse  for getting the wrong guy. We killed him, but that wasn’t enough. We hanged him, but we hung with him, that we didn’t know. We didn’t expect that. We didn’t expect to die with him. Killing Him, we killed ourselves, but we didn’t notice. The dagger went through, but we went about our business. They pointed it out, but we didn’t care. The dagger is still there, it has a golden hilt. Soon it will be dark again. The birds refuse to budge. The light is fading, but we don’t care, for we have torches. The same torches we used last night. They are still with us. We, on the other hand, are not.

We hoped to find ourselves, but we didn’t. We thought we would possess ourselves, at last, at will. We hoped that joy would follow the deed, but there was only mourning. So we mourned. But only for a little while. If only we’d known.

[review] Roger Scruton’s ‘On Human Nature’: What makes us who we are

Roger Scruton’s latest book ‘On Human Nature’ is a delightful book. It is pithy, incisive, and written in a clear, flowing style. Although the title makes one think of ancient philosophical treatises (such as Aristotle’s or Cicero’s), it resists objectifications of what makes us human. The starting as well as the end point are not so much ‘what makes us human’ (a topic on which books are being produced now more than ever before), but what our experience of our own humanity is.

Indeed, the personal pronoun, with its three persons, is the protagonist of this book. Scruton starts with the “I” of personal experience and ends with the “us” of morality, faith and social intercourse. Thus, this book is the antithesis of any objective, scientific account of human nature.
Moving through four short chapters (the book itself is only 140 pages long), Scruton takes the reader on a tour de force of the world of intersubjectivity as it opens to the reflective self. On at least one reading, this is a journey of discovery. Human individuals are not subjects, but selves, irreducible to the idiom of science. The embodied person is not merely a cocktail of biological ingredients, but a centre of “I”-thoughts which can only thrive in the encounter with the “Other”. Human relations reveal themselves in dialogue, understood not so much as discursive communication but as recognition of our shared likeness.

The dialogue between two first-person perspectives creates obligations that are essentially neither contractual nor functionalist. The parable of the Good Samaritan, Scruton argues, is not so much about openness and religious tolerance, but about the demands that fellow human beings make on us. The Samaritan helps the traveller not by virtue of any religious commandment, but because of the sacred obligation toward his neighbour. (pp. 106-7). The deep structure of our moral life depends on a kind of mirroring of our self in others. It is not a response to the environment, as evolutionary biology would have it, but to the imperatives of our human predicament: that I am aware of myself only insofar as I am aware of you.

The first chapter (“Human kind”) is both a direct attack on materialist and biologist reductionism and a compelling introduction to the peculiarity of personhood. Readers familiar with Scruton’s other works, particularly The Soul of the World and The Face of God will recognize many oft-visited themes. The author argues that the deep grammar of our first-person perspective on the world creates a vocabulary that only art and philosophy can render an account of. As rational agents, we do not simply think, but think about things. When we laugh, we laugh at something. This aboutness is, for Scruton, the key to the mystery of self-consciousness.

In Chapter 2 (“Human Relation”), the focus is on how our first-person point of view shapes our understanding of other people. Scruton is here as faithful to the work of the Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber as ever. Human relationships emerge from the encounter between two first-person perspectives, the “I” and the “You”: “hence the word you does not, as a rule, describe the other person; it summons him or her into your presence, and this summons is paid for by a reciprocal response” (p. 69). All human experience is relational and no isolated selves exist apart from relationship to another. Pleasure and sexual desire are two examples which illustrate that relationships between individuals cannot be reduced to either a social function or an evolutionary imperative, but that they obey a higher logic. I enjoy your presence in the body only when I acknowledge you as an end, never as a means only.

Even more telling is the case of the moral codes and configurations that humans have developed over time. In Chapters 3 (“The Moral Life”) and 4 (“Sacred obligations”), Scruton looks at our deepest moral cravings. The author’s attack on materialist reductionism rages on. Morality does not emerge out of our response to the natural environment. It is rather because our encounter with others creates duties and deserts that hold us accountable to one another. Scruton rejects the view that our acts are morally right only if their consequences are right. Instead, he says, we derive our sense of right and wrong from a recognition of the other person’s freedom which reminds us, as it were, of our own. The sovereignty of the human person is the underlying principle of all morality.

Scruton is at his finest when he discusses sexual morality and the notions of defilement and contamination. Persons are embodied selves, not floating heads with hanging bodies, as Descartes thought. This fundamental truth explains why rape is experienced as desecration, and not merely as denial of consent: “forced against her will to experience her sex as a bodily function rather than as a gift of herself, she feels assaulted and polluted in her very being. And how the victim perceived the act is internally connected to what the act is” (p. 119). I do not have a body, I am my body.

Virtue, purity, piety (understood as “posture of submission and obedience toward authorities that you have never chosen” (p. 125)) are all categories of the sacred, which Scruton discusses in some detail in the last chapter. This is a polemical and I might say apologetical book, but it is not in the service of a specifically Christian understanding of humanity. Yet, there is nothing in it that wouldn’t provide substance for a discussion of our God-made nature.

Take forgiveness, for instance, which Scruton explains that “cannot be offered arbitrarily and to all comers – so offered it becomes a kind of indifference, a refusal to recognize the distinction between right and wrong. Forgiveness is only sincerely offered by a person who is aware of having been wronged, to another who is aware of having committed a wrong.” (p. 85). God’s forgiveness in Christ has been fully and freely given, but it nevertheless requires the sinner’s repentance in order to be enjoyed personally: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).

Roger Scruton has written a clear-eyed book on what makes us who we are. We may be thrown into the world, as Heidegger used to say, but we are thrown together, and we share the same experience of the downthrow. Materialists won’t enjoy the book for sure, but if you think, like Scruton, that the person emerges from the biological “in something like the way that the face emerges from the coloured patches on a canvas”, then you will appreciate it.

On Human Nature by Roger Scruton is published by Princeton University Press (2017).

This review first appeared at Theos on 30 March 2017. 

‘Damnatio memoriae’ or the ghost in the historical record?

Nobody likes King John of England. Apart from a handful of English protestants and  some London scholars, everybody thinks he was, to quote one illustrious historian, ‘shit’. And yet, would this quasi-unanimous assessment justify that John should be excised from history? Nobody thinks that nowadays, when even detritus has value, if you’re in Pompei. But back in the fourteenth century, things may have been a bit different.

As far as I know, King John never generated enough anger as to raise the question of whether he should be banned from the historical record. He was part of a dark chapter of English history, but no  more than that. Yet, a fourteenth century commentator of Dante’s Commedia may offer a different perspective. Benvenuto da Imola, one of the best earlier commentators of the Commedia notes that King Henry III of England was King Richard’s son when we know of course that Henry was John’s son.

Vedete il re. Hic Sordellus nominat alium spiritum illustrem Henricum regem Angliae. Iste fuit filius Richardi valentissimi, qui mirabilia fecit strenue contra Saladinum; qui Henricus fuit vir bonus, et bonae fidei possessor, sed habuit heredem meliorem se per contrarium Petri et Caroli, scilicet Adoardum virum valentissimum. Dicit ergo: il re de la semplice vita, fuit simplex et purus, sed non strenuus, sicut pater et filius, scilicet, Arrigo d’Inghilterra seder là solo; ponit ipsum solum, quia solus fuit simplex in numero regum Angliae, qui fuerunt communiter astuti valde; vel quia solitarius non gaudebat conversatione hominum, vel quia anglicus: Anglia enim angulus terrae est reposita in Oceano occidentali. Unde Virgilius: Et penitus toto divisos orbe britannos. Questi, scilicet, rex Henricus, ha ne’ rami suoi, scilicet, Anglia, Scotia et aliis insulis, miglior uscita, idest, meliorem filium, scilicet Adoardum, qui tunc vivebat.

Benvenuto da Imola (1375-80), Purgatorio 7.130-132

So what are we to make of this? It seems to me that either Benvenuto’s source was faulty (and I am not aware of any textual tradition whereby Henry’s uncle becomes his daddy), or John was the victim of a conspiracy to cut him off from history.

Reviewing the review – “Benjamin Bergen, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves”

I’ve just read this review of Benjamin Bergen’s recent book “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves” in the New York Review of Books. An exciting read, but with some qualification.

The review is enough to convince me to buy the book. It is also a reminder that we cannot escape ideology, however positivistically we frame our language. Take this example from the latter part of the review.

I applaud his [Bergen’s] sentiment [to liberate dirty words from censorship]. But he should not have tried to make this controversy [about racial slurs] parallel to quarrels over obscenity. Calling someone a fuck face is not nice, but it is meant to insult only one person. By contrast, a white person calling a black person nigger, the word the slave owners used, is insulting 13 percent of the population of the United States and reinvoking, in a perversely casual tone—as if everything were okay now—the worst crime our country ever committed, one whose consequences we are still living with, every day. (By the end of his discussion of slurs, Bergen seems to agree. I think his editor may have asked him to tone it down.)

Liberation? I don’t think so. It is merely a reshuffling of taboos, a realignment with mainstream ideology. “Oh my fucking God” is value-neutral, the reviewer might say, but racial profanity is not. I disagree. Calling a black person nigger is certainly an insult to that person, but it is no more insulting to 13 percent of the US population than religious profanity is to people of faith. Our culture of offensibility is still at work amid heroic attempts to move away from it. It is what it is, but at least we shouldn’t delude ourselves about it, and about ourselves.

The NYRB article may be read here.

A website to rule them all (?): “Manuscripts Online: Written Culture 1000-1500”

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Wouldn’t it be great if there was a website where you could search all texts and textual objects produced in the medieval period for a given geographical area? Where you don’t need to know anything about the location of your targeted text? Where quality wouldn’t be sacrificed to comprehensiveness? To curb your reverie, that website hasn’t been created yet, but there are some that come close. Some more than others. One of them hosts the digital humanities project “Manuscripts Online: Written Culture 1000-1500”. This is a collaborative project between the universities of Sheffield, Leicester, Birmingham, York, Glasgow and Queen’s University Belfast – an ambitious endeavour at not only providing access to and easy, free search of the textual world of the Middle Ages in Britain (at least between 1000 and 1500), but also to stimulate interest and collaboration by allowing users to annotate the material with their thoughts and comments. The website is able to search through 21 online resources at once, texts, manuscripts, maps, images, etc, and to produce results that would otherwise require a lot of browsing and searching on multiple websites and databases.

According to the website, the current covered resources are:

The Auchinleck Manuscript
British History Online
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
British Literary Manuscripts Online, Medieval and Renaissance
Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York, 1300-1858
Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership
Europa Inventa
Geographies of Orthodoxy: Mapping Pseudo-Bonaventuran Lives of Christ, 1350-1550
Imagining History: Perspectives on late medieval vernacular historiography
Late Medieval English Scribes
Linguistic Geographies: The Gough Map of Great Britain
Manuscripts of the West Midlands
Middle English Dictionary
The Middle English Grammar Corpus (MEG-C)
Middle English Texts Series
The Norman Blake Editions of the Canterbury Tales
Parker on the Web
Production and Use of English Manuscripts: 1060-1220
The Taxatio
The Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse
The National Archives

An disappointing omission from this list is The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources which has become an essential toolof any scholar working on Latin texts from medieval Britain. Another is the online body of chancery and government documents as well as legal material (too large to list) without which the study of medieval Britain book written culture becomes impossible.

The Institute of Historical Research in London has published a useful review of this project, assessing its usability and usefulness, strengths and weaknesses. Having played with it a little myself, I can confirm the reviewer’s conclusions: the website is nice, but there are limitations that take away from that élan which develops at first sight.

Click here to be taken to the website

‘Pictures at an exhibition’: The book culture of the medieval Holy Land

Rarely can one see so many manuscripts grouped together outside an archive or a library reading room. Little did I know what I was going to witness at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art ‘Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven’ exhibition last week. Nearly a dozen rooms covering the material and cultural history of Jerusalem between the years 1000 and 1400 (roughly, of course) tell the story of a cultural cauldron capable of assimilating and transforming nearly all the cultures of Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and even sometimes the Far East. While the exhibition focuses on the medieval city of Jerusalem, more than two-thirds of the exhibits were manuscripts.

I am furious now that time was so limited and I couldn’t spend more than 2 hours among artifacts which would naturally claim at least 5, if not more. And that is because, since I was visiting New York for the first time, priority was given to the MET, and a follow-up was not possible. I thought 2 hours just before closure time would be enough to go through medieval Jerusalem. Silly me. Fortunately, however, just before they almost literally dragged me out of the showrooms, I managed to take some pictures of the dozens of manuscripts on display. However, as every silver lining has its corresponding, fiercer lead lining, I couldn’t even stop to write down what I was looking at. So most of these photos are doomed to untitled-ness (unless you guys help me title them). The gallery starts with gold coins, which is a fitting metaphor for the tons of manuscripts which follow, with their weight and value measured in gold. Enjoy.




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Martin Luther at the Morgan Library: words, images, books.

It may be said that Martin Luther was the ultimate book lover. Not only did he consider the Bible (as books-within-a-book transmitted to his time) as the ultimate source of pretty much everything, but he also understood the importance of books – especially printed -, pamphlets, words and everything else that a book may contain and generate around it. Perhaps no other figure in history managed to put the book at the centre of life, be it devotional, musical, cultural, etc. The best history of Luther’s reformation is told through the books that marked the evolution of his thought and personality and gave his legacy a firm foundation as well as the widest possible scope.

The Luther exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York (closing 22 January, so hurry) also understands the importance of books in the Luther galaxy and puts the man in orbit around the very works he produced or caused to be produced. The effect is a mind-boggling, tangible approach to one of the most important figures of European history. Better than any history book, this collection of printed books, pamphlets, paintings, drawings, etc, paints the most vivid picture of what was one of the birth pangs of our modernity.

Below are some photos I managed to take while I visited the exhibit last week. (captions to follow).




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Luther’s autograph notes for the trial at the Diet of Worms (17-18 April 1521)