Monday, May 31, 2010

"The Many Fine Augustan Chroniclers..."

As the regular readers of this blog know, I am often exasperated by what I see as the logical shortcomings in the arguments of religious people against atheists and agnostics, their tendency to ignore scientific and/or historical and archaeological evidence which does not harmonize with their preconceived notions, or to make things up and then present them as valid arguments.

Lately, in a part of the Internet where many people come and discuss religious topics, I have encountered many atheists who are doing exactly the same things. Or maybe it's only a few who seem like many because of the great frequency and mindless monotony of their comments. One of these atheists is the author of the quote which is the title of this blog post: in the writings of "the many fine Augustan chroniclers" who were contemporary with Jesus, according to a comment recently posted by this particular atheist, there is no mention of Him or His miracles.

There are a few problems with that statement, as I see it. The word "chronicler" is used more often to describe medieval historians, then ancient ones. But that's a bit nit-picking on my part: strictly speaking, any history which describes events in a strict chronological order may be termed a chronicle, and many ancient historians fit this bill. Also, if Jesus was born around 4 BC, which seems to be the current consensus among those who believe He existed, then he would have been around 18 years old when Augustus died. Most of the events for which He is famous are alleged to have occurred in the reign of Tiberius -- but let's let that go, too. The main problem, as I see it, in speaking about "the many fine Augustan chroniclers" contemporary with Jesus is the word "many."

Who are these many people? Livy died around AD 18, earlier than all of the most widely-noted alleged events of Jesus' adult life, and anyway his ab urbe condita is said have to ended with events of the year 9 BC. (Only about a quarter of it survives, books 1-10 and 21-45 of a total of 142, plus a few fragments.) The next prominent Roman historian, Tacitus, was born in the 60's AD, after Jesus alleged death. Velleius Paterculus lived until AD 31, but his history only goes until the death of Augustus.

It's frustrating, this comment about "the many fine Augustan chroniclers" and the supposedly suspicious absence of any mention of Jesus in their writings, this and many similar comments. Frustrating, because it seems to indicate that the people who present such pseudo-arguments, although like me they have rejected some religious nonsense and do not believe in things like miracles, are, just like the religious people they are debating against, more interested in defending preconceived notions than in making sense. The plain truth is that there is NOT a wealth of contemporary descriptions of the time of Jesus so great that His absence in them would be suspicious.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Michelangelo's Men

Apparently a recent reader's comment I made at the Huffington Post was deemed by the moderation to be unfit to appear on their website, so I'll post it here. I was commenting on a post about recent research on Michelangelo which suggests that a portrayal of God in the Sistine Chapel represents His face in the shape of a human brain. The theological implications are significant to some. I commented with something like this:

What is surprising and mysterious to me about Michelangelo is how he made all the wee-wee's so tiny. I'm picturing conversations like this:

MICHELANGELO: But your Holiness, God made men this way! How can it be evil to celebrate His Creation?

LEO X: You're such a pain in the ass, Mikey! Okay, if you're not going to cover them up, at least make them smaller. MUCH smaller.

MICHELANGELO: Alright, you're the boss. What a waste, though!

LEO: By the way, all the women in your art look really strange. They look like men with boobs stuck on them. You've always got all of these male models lounging around nude, why don't you have some women come around now and then, and take off their clothes, so that you --

MICHELANGELO: No! I don't want to! I don't want to!

LEO: Okay, okay, Jeez, it was only a suggestion...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Beautiful Misunderstanding

Today I got a four-volume edition of "the philosophical-theological works," "die philosophische-theologische Werke" of Nicholas of Cusa, off of the shelf and began browsing around in it for the first time in a while, a bilingual edition, the original Latin on the left and a German translation on the facing page. It's a Sonderausgabe, a special edition. German publishers seem to offer great deals very often through these Sonderausgaben, high-quality editions offered at a small fraction of the usual prices. In this case the four fat volumes of my Sonderausgabe of Nicholas of Cusa contain eleven works which the same publisher originally published in eleven separate volumes, which together cost several times as much as the Sonderausgabe. It's a set-up similar to one sometimes offered in compilation volumes by the Quality Paperback Book Club in the US: the texts are copied directly from the individual works, so that the page numbers start over from from scratch with each new work within the volume, and the type is recognizably different in each work as well.

Maybe US publishers offer such bargains as often as the Germans. I wouldn't know: it's been a while since I did a lot of shopping for new books in English. In the 1980's my primary reading interest shifted from English to German, and since then it has shifted again from German to Latin.

I have complained often about bilingual editions such as my Sonderausgabe of Nicholas, saying that for one thing half of the paper and shelf space is wasted by translating everything, and that for another, instead of encouraging people to learn the untranslated language, it will actually hinder them from doing so: the temptation to read the translation and simply skip the original will be too great. (I didn't get this edition for the German translation, but simply because it was by far the least expensive way I knew of to get my hands on a large amount of Nicholas' writings in the original Latin.) I have never taken any classes in Latin and only met a few people who are fluent in the language. One of these people sharply disagreed with me about the bilingual editions and said that they were a great help to her students in learning Latin or Greek. Maybe she's right. I think of our disagreement often. I thought of her today as I decided to dust off the Latin-German edition of Nikolaus von Kusens philosophische-theologische Werken. In any case, I felt I could use some help with my Latin today. Comparing the German translation with the original encourages me that I am making progress, getting closer to fluent in Latin.

It's a subjective question, in my opinion, at what point one is a fluent in a language. Even the most fluent native speaker still has room for improvement.

It was Peter Sloterdijk, a contemporary German philosopher, who first led me to Nicholas of Cusa, a fifteenth-century Catholic cardinal and philosopher. In the second volume, Globen (Globes), of his three-volume work on spheres, Sloterdijk refers often to Nicholas.

I like Sloterdijk quite a lot. I wonder whether I understand him better or less well than the many German intellectuals who dislike him so intensely, a few of whom have tried quite hard to explain to me personally just why I am wrong to value his work so highly. It seems to me that he irritates other Germans in part by cheerfully disregarding, and occasionally even mocking, certain preconceived notions in German culture which are so ingrained in most German intellectual heads that it is much harder for them to perceive them and their arbitrary, senselessly limiting nature, than it is for an outsider such as myself.

On the other hand, perhaps those Germans have perfectly valid reasons for disliking Sloterdijk so much, reasons which are lost in translation by an outsider such as myself, even though I read Sloterdijk's books untranslated. I often notice how nuances of English are lost or changed in people for whom English is their second language, or their third or fourth or... and of course I have to wonder how much I and other native speakers of English routinely miss in other languages.

A non-native speaker of English might just occasionally get some things right in English that I miss, just as I might be right about Sloterdijk when so many German intellectuals are wrong.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I see all sorts of things in Sloterdijk, by way of imperfect fluency in German, which simply aren't there, the way that so many English-speaking people see meanings of melancholy and grim internal strife in the word "angst" which simply aren't there in the German original. In German "Angst" means "fear." That's all. All the other associations to the word which are common in English-speaking lands, English-speaking people made up all by themselves. I don't know how "angst" in English has come to mean something for which the Germans have a perfectly good word -- "Weltschmerz" -- and English didn't, but there ya go. A new word was born in English by means of misunderstanding a German word. This sort of thing seems to happen all the time when languages intermingle

Björk once described her reaction to English-language pop music as "a beautiful misunderstanding." I heard her say this, on a talk show, years before I began to relax about things like the English meaning of "angst," and Germans saying things in English which English-speaking people would never say, but which rhyme. (Germans love to rhyme almost as much as they love David Hasselhoff.) I remembered what she said, but I think that it took me years before I started to understand the implications. Language lives and grows, it will not be bound by rules, and this is particularly true when different languages interact. And it is beautiful.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Let's All Try Not to Get Blowed Up Real Good

Recently I started reading in the Religion section of the Huffington Post, and participating in the debates in the readers' comments area of the same. Just today I read this post entitled "Nuclear Theolgy," By H.E. Dr. Mustafa Cerić, The Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA; and Dr. William F. Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace. Their essay champions UN enforcement of the Nuclear Test Ban treaty, alrightythen, and bases this position in a very traditionalistic reading of the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic tradition, hey wait a minute!

As I have already mentioned in the comments section at HuffPo: the essay by the three eminent Doctors refers over and over to God's authority, supposedly offended by nuclear arms, environmental disaster, human poverty and the like; an appeal to God is hardly necessary to get people to oppose nuclear proliferation, this opposition having already been pretty much guaranteed years ago by scientists led by Carl Sagan; nuclear weapons, pollution, global warming and religion are all man-made, and while controlling the first three are essential to maintaining human life, and keeping the last alive is essential to maintaining the way of life of the authors and their colleagues, for the survival and well-being of the rest of us it's not a high priority, to put it mildly.

A little while later I was thinking about the movie Armageddon,and specifically about the montages of various scenes of humanity in that movie, which in their production style, with lots of very high-definition slow-motion shots of pastoral scenes, and their voice-overs, often the voice of a fictional US President, remind me very much of the sort of commercials one sees on Sunday on American network television, commercials where you don't know until the end, when a company logo finally appears onscreen, and the voice-over sonorously intones the company's name and a completely vague feel-good slogan like "protecting tomorrow" or "experts providing solutions," what exactly is being advertised.

Except that even then you don't know what the company does. The commercial didn't give you a clue, it just lulled you into a warm, fuzzy mood, and then perhaps later you learn from another source that, YAAAGHAH!! the company makes nerve gas or is a hedge fund. It might not be completely farfetched to suppose that those Sunday commercials, the ones that look like they cost a lot to make, with closeups of children's freckled faces followed by shots of idyllic meadows followed by shots of well-dressed business people nodding sagely in slow-motion in boardrooms with rain-spattered glass walls overlooking cityscapes at sunset, Ah say Ah say it might not be so farfetched to conclude that those commercials are above all camouflage. Put the commercials in front of millions of viewers of political-discussion shows and golf, get those viewers to associate the company's name with vague pleasant sleepy thoughts and not with quasi-legal hostile takeovers and huge defense contracts.

And then, perhaps strangely, I began to connect the HuffPo essay about nuclear proliferation being an affront to God with the expensive say-nothing commercials. Both are the products of movers and shakers. It's not so odd to think that a director of AIG or TRW or ADM might rub elbows outside the UN with a PhD or DD or three representing God's authority, while inside the NPT was discussed.

Perhaps the Doctors' essays are meant to do the same as the slick commercials -- and slick movies like Armageddon too, sure -- to distract. In this essay which champions non-proliferation -- who does not favor non-proliferation? You know who does not: people who make fatass bucks from proliferation, is who -- Ah say in this entire essay I did not notice one mention of the idea of the elimination of nukes.

It's very hard to know what is really going on in this world. It's hard to know who's sincere, who might be sincere but still be supported by the shadiest, least sincere and most scary sorts of people, because their happy horseshit and dogged superstition keep us busy.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

It Needs to Be Said --

-- and though I've racked my brains, I can think of no delicate way to say it: Erin Brockovich has huge breasts, and Julia Roberts doesn't. I wouldn't see any need to mention it except that in the movie in which Roberts portrays Brockovich,Roberts imitates Brockovich in certain very deliberate ways which draw particular attention to the fact that she's imitating a woman who's shaped differently.

I love Julia Roberts' work. I saw Pretty Womanquite a few times before it began to dawn on me that it's quite a mediocre movie: it was the first time I'd seen Roberts, and that's how dazzled I was. I think she's a talented, versatile actress, and, without a doubt, stunningly beautiful. I have no problem with Roberts' having won the Best Actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich. I do however have one specific problem with the way she played the role, and it has to do with the boobies:

The real-life Erin Brockovich is a brassy, sassy, sexy woman from a blue-collar background who seems very comfortable with her curvy physique, and has often worn clothing which accentuates those curves, and which in particular proudly displays her breathtaking, stupendously ample bosom.

Roberts, when portraying Brockovich, gave a convincing impression of a brassy, sassy, sexy woman from a blue-collar background. So far so good. But she dresses, acts and talks as if she, like Brockovich, had melons. Gazongas. But she does not. She has peaches, at most. And so the same sorts of clothes which on Brockovich celebrate a glorious abundance, on Roberts just look a little odd. They focus the gaze upon that which is not there. They proudly trumpet an absent abundance.

Roberts, as Brockovich, says things which would've made sense if the real Brockovich had said them. For example, Albert Finney, Julia/Erin's lawyer boss in the movie, is discussing with her a potential source of information vital to their big case. Julia/Erin says not to worry, she'll get the information they need, Finney asks how, and Julia/Erin says frankly, "They're called breasts," a line which, like the clothes, would've made sense with the real Erin, but doesn't make sense with Julia.

I can't be the only one who's noticed this.

There's nothing at all wrong with Julia Robert's physique. As I've said, she is ever so lovely. She could charm information from a witness, sure she could. She could charm the stars from the sky, she could charm a roaring river from a desert. But different proportions just naturally call for different presentations. This bra:

looks fine on a Porsche 911. But on a Ford Focus it would just look silly.