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Connecting (to 1. Cor. 13)

[I’ve had in mind for a long time to write a general-access, I mean non-academic, introduction to the Bible. I worked for a long time on this rather long piece, which I meant as the first chapter. However, even if I do the book, I don’t think I’ll use this part anymore; so here it is. Yes, another post on the scripture with which I am obviously obsessed.]

Let’s talk about the 1970s for a moment. Let’s talk about All in the Family. 

As everybody who grew up then knows, this was one of the most successful TV sitcoms of all time. Its central character, Archie Bunker, was a fiftysomething longshoreman from Queens, NY. Macho, racist, and sexist, Archie clashed constantly with his liberal son-in-law, Mike—or “Meathead,” as Archie called him. Rounding out the famlily were Archie’s nubile daughter Gloria (“Little Girl”), and confused wife Edith (“Dingbat”). It doesn’t sound like much. But All in the Family ran for 9 seasons, guest-starred everybody from Dan Rather to Sammy Davis Jr., and made its regular cast members household names.

One episode of the show has always stuck in my mind. (It’s season 7, episode 21, if you’re wondering.) It features Archie, Gloria and Mike—Carrol O’Connor, Sally Struthers, and the incomparable Rob Reiner—catching the subway from the Bronx back to Queens. The train breaks down (a glimpse of 70s New York) and they are stuck for a while, underground, in the stationary car. 

Hilarity ensues. 

Actually, what ensues is a brilliant little morality play, punctuated by Archie’s one-liners, but focussed on a random middle-aged couple who are embroiled in a domestic dispute. The wife is tired, bitter, bitchy; the husband drunk, exasperated, and violent. Their argument escalates, the whole car watching. Archie cracking jokes.

Eventually the husband says to the wife: “Remember all the days I used to say that someday, someday I’m gonna kill ya? Well, today is the day!” And he starts enthusiastically strangling her. Everybody steps in—including Gloria. The drunken husband shoves her away. Mike reacts—decking the man. The rest of the episode is an extended denouement.

Mike is devastated by what he has done. In the past he has marched against the Vietnam War, idolized King and Gandhi, abhorred violence. Yet in a moment of crisis—like the drunk husband himself—he resorted to it. 

And that’s not the worst part. 

“When my fist hit the man’s face,” he exclaims to Gloria: “I didn’t hate it.” Reiner brings his character to a moment of tragic recognition. He’s supposed to be the new American man, the anti-Archie. But deep inside, maybe he’s no different than his father-in-law. Archie’s odd nickname for him starts to make sense: maybe he really is just a big Meat Head, with swinging fists to match, if he lets them go. Woodstock, looking in the mirror, sees On the Waterfront.

Archie retorts: “Of course you didn’t hate it! It’s supposed to feel good!” The older man, veteran of all that black-and-white machismo, is elated. (“All ya done was belt him.”) Finally, this pudgy, wimpy, oversized boy, who has somehow managed to get himself married to the golden-haired Gloria, has acted like a man. 

Archie is so eager to make the moment good that he takes up the role, improbable for him, of counsellor. “Listen,” he says to Mike. “I can take you all the way back to the Bible. Back to the book of—Ecclesiastissus. Mark, uh, four two dot seven or somethin.” The studio audience (there was always a studio audience, for the taping of 70s sitcoms) chuckles at Archie’s ridiculous attempt to find his way back to a Biblical citation. The comedy is heightened by O’Connor’s deft rendition of a New York Irish lilt—a speech pattern straight out of the 1930s. “Fait, hope, and charidy,” he intones to Mike: “and of these, the greatest, is violence?”

The audience erupts in laughter. And that’s what I find fascinating.

Archie has misquoted scripture: specifically, the famous conclusion of First Corinthians, chapter 13, in the King James (or Authorized) Version. The scripture is the first epistle (or letter), written by St. Paul to the disputatious Christians of the ancient Greek city of Corinth. Trying to help them resolve their conflicts, Paul reaches for a contrast between this world and the next. “Then shall I know,” he explains, “even as also I am known.” But for now, in this world, knowing is just not what we do. 

Instead, we have to find our way “through a glass, darkly.” We have to fall back on basic moral intuitions like faith, hope—and above all, charity. That word, in this scripture, doesn’t mean giving stuff away. Instead, “charity” translates the Latin word caritas; which translates, in turn, Paul’s Greek: agape. Those words mean “love.” And that is the English word you will find in some other versions of this passage.

If we make that substitution (what scholars call an emendation) we hear the scripture Archie is citing in its most beautiful, moving form:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. …

And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Or, in the famous King James version that Archie Bunker is trying, and failing, so spectacularly, to remember: “The greatest of these is charity.”

Archie misquotes scripture. The audience laughs—uproariously. You see? That means they get it. They hear the mistake. And that means, in turn, that they know how that scripture is supposed to go

The writers of this extremely successful show, surely some of the best-paid in that industry at that time, are betting on the line “and the greatest of these is violence.” And they’re not writing for seminarians, or even church-goers. They’re writing for a random cross-section of Los Angelenos and tourists at a taping of a popular sitcom in 1977. 

Today, nobody would expect this kind of random North American audience to recognize a misquotation of First Corinthians. Or any other scripture, for that matter.

But All in the Family reminds us that mainstream English-language culture of the post-war generation still lived in a deep and working familiarity with the Bible. This was the era of Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. Today those shows still get revived; but they couldn’t possibly get written. My own family didn’t go to church, yet I picked up Bible stories from school, from Christmas carols—from TV. The stuff was everywhere. But now, I think, almost nowhere.

So what? Maybe nothing. But if anything, maybe something like this: When I was in college, I met another character who misquotes 1.Cor.13. She was created by John Milton (later to become the author of Paradise Lost), in his dramatic work Comus (1634). Lost and alone in a dark wood, Milton’s “Lady” is threatened by forces spiritual, physical, and sexual. To comfort herself, she calls on 

“Pure-eyed Faith, white-handed Hope

(Thou hov’ring Angel girt with golden wings),

And thou unblemished form of Chastity—”

What? Faith, hope, and chastity? A rank garbling of the scripture. And there’s no question that Milton’s audience is supposed to hear it.

When I first read those lines, 25 years ago, I immediately thought of All in the Family—that episode, Archie’s misquote, that I had watched from the living room couch, all those years before. I knew where I was with this line from Milton—and it was many places at once. 

Seventeenth-century England, but also twentieth-century Hollywood. First-century Corinth, but also 1970s Vancouver. A thread of meaning connected them all, familiarizing the strange text before me—and making the familiar strange. Nothing could have been more ordinary, to my memory, than sitting in the living room watching All in the Family. But it turned out that what I was doing, when I was doing that, was something really strange: preparing myself to read John Milton. Even, eventually, becoming an English professor. Who tries to write a book about the Bible.

This kind of thing, this complex and time-delayed thread of engagement, is what we call belonging to a tradition. That word raises some people’s hackles, but it just means the stories and practices that get handed down, from person to person, generation to generation. There are multiple, even innumerable, traditions; just as there are multiple, even innumerable, cultures and languages of humanity. 

I’m old enough to belong, at least somewhat, to the tradition of the Bible in the English-speaking world. As a result, I’m able to make connections between its far-flung manifestations—and you can’t get much farther apart than Archie Bunker and Milton’s Lady. This kind of thing, basically, makes life more interesting.

Suppose you drag a teenager through one of the great art museums of the world. She or he looks at those endless paintings of saints and Madonnas and fat ugly babies and thinks: W-T-F. To be able to say more, to bridge the gap with the art, it’s necessary to learn the stories and concepts that the paintings are about. If we can do that, we may find that they open up and start to talk to us. It’s more fun that way. 

But if those were the only stakes—cultural literacy—they wouldn’t be very high. Learning about the Bible just to understand art based on the Bible? That’s going round in circles. 

If there is to be a non-religious argument for familiarity with this text, then it has to be grounded on the actual content of the work. And I’d like to suggest three arguments of that kind. 

First: The Bible is pretty crazy. Its stories are wild, painful, powerful. Its poetry is searing, gorgeous, and somtimes hallucinogenic; its philosophy frank, ruthless, and frequently profound. The Bible is long, and sometimes repetitive, and sometimes boring. But overall, it is without doubt one of the two or three greatest books in the history of the world.

A second argument is that you’re already quite familiar with it. If you have ever turned the other cheek; or asked about the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of a law; or told anybody that the writing is on the wall, you have talked Bible. 

This isn’t just “cultural literacy” again. It’s more like an argument for personal literacy. Morally, legally, narratively, symbolically, we’re still using Biblical equipment, all the time. The original instruction manual, so to speak, should help us understand it better.

The third argument is the hardest to put. And yet it’s the simplest. The Bible has a lot to teach us. And this whether or not we give the slightest credence to its core message of theism and salvation. 

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a perfect example. For twelve chapters he goes back and forth, tearing his hair out, struggling to give clear directives for moral complexity. 

But then, in chapter 13, he pretty much throws those efforts away—in an all-too-familiar exclamation of frustration and desire. “Fuck it,” he says: “Love.” His way of putting it is just a lot more eloquent. 

We will find a lot of moments like that in the Bible: moments of moral recognition that elevate base things we already know.

Why had I always remembered that episode of All in the Family—where Mike slugs the wife-beater, and Archie misquotes St. Paul? 

Not because I was especially interested in or moved by the scripture. No: I remembered that episode because domestic violence marred my own family. Aged 8 or 9, I was fascinated by the awful secret, the behind-closed-doors trauma, being put on show in the stalled subway car. And so, I would bet, were millions of children, watching this wholesome show, in prime time.

That sounds like a compliment to the writers and producers of the show. And so it is. But let’s notice how they use the scripture. Mike’s reaction to the drunk husband feels good, but solves nothing. Archie, in a brilliant role-reversal, is the one who shows us—as St. Paul also puts it—a more excellent way. 

Now, Archie screws it up. He misquotes Paul, even travesties him. But the mistake still works! The laughter that the audience shares, based on their shared understanding of Biblical tradition, defuses the tension. 

Our moral lives, as St. Paul himself recognizes in agony, are a pageant of warring imperatives. We don’t need to be Christian, or Jewish, or anything else to get that. The Bible puts our conflicts on display. But it also reminds us of the resources we will always need, if we are to resolve them.

And the greatest of these is love.

My Home and Native Land

Here are two ideas I have instinctively understood throughout my life:

(1) Every single person has an absolute, total, transcendent right to be free.

(2) Some people deny (1).

Here are two consequences of my two ideas:

i. Canada has been a massive, extraordinary, even unique force for (1).

ii. It is under attack by (2).

Here is my conclusion:

FUCK THAT!

Happy Canada Day! To all the glorious, diverse, diligent, patient, brilliant, people from all over the world who have chosen this country, generation after generation, and confirmed and reconfirmed its unique promise and justice!

See you next year.

Memoir: Intro.

In the summers of the 1970s, my parents rented a cabin on Gabriola Island. Woody and dark, the cabin perched at the water’s edge. A small bright lawn, then a rocky shelf of beach. My older brother and I loved the gleaming cove, where we splashed and swam when the tide was high; searched for starfish and bullheads and urchins when it went way, way out. As a family, we made daily trips to the island’s twin beaches, and regularly poked through its Malaspina Galleries: A sandstone headland, carved into a long half-pipe by the waves, and crowned with a grove of twisting Arbutus trees. 

I have always loved these trees. They are hardwood, but evergreen. Intricate, arching boughs. Their russet bark is paper-thin, smooth, warm. It curls off, revealing chartreuse wood, peach, pistachio. Arbutus leaves are waxy, almond-shaped, and sea-green. But underfoot, they’re always crackling—brown as roasted chestnuts, as dry as palm fronds. Deep in the island forests, Arbutus grow tall: massive trunks, 50 feet high, reaching for the sun between hemlock and maple and cedar. But right on the beach, they lean into the wind: copper origami, among shore pine, and garry oak. When you drive north from Vancouver, heading for the ferry, you start to see the trees I love along the side of the highway. But if you drive a little farther, you don’t see them anymore. My favourite trees grow only in dry, rocky soil, within a few miles of the ocean. They are called Madrones south of the U.S. border, Arbutus only north of it. The Gulf Islands and facing coasts are their entire Canadian range.

Gabriola was one of the few places where my family could have been called happy. At home, on the west side of Vancouver, we lived in a cycle of tension and violence. My mother, unstable, would bitch and bait and rage. My father, solipsistic, would retreat and resist and ignore – until indulging himself in a magnificent apocalypse. Some of my earliest memories are of crying with my brother at the top of the stairs, while crashes and screams came up from the kitchen. I used to think about the long knives, rattling in their wooden drawer. I was terrified he was going to yank one out and stab her. But he never did; and after each of these storms, we usually entered a period of relative calm. Until the pressure rose again.

 In later years, it used to puzzle me how little actual physical damage I could remember seeing on my mother. For that matter, I could hardly remember ever seeing my father strike her – just hearing those crashes and screams. On the other hand, there was that time I saw Dad sweep the dishes from the dinner table, and put Mom in a headlock. And that other time, when he dragged her out of our apartment—during one of our sabbatical years in Europe—roughly enough that my brother went upstairs to stammer in German to the unknown neighbors. And that other time, when she had a fat lip (which she said had been caused by a wasp). And a broken nose, that other time  (somehowrother). And that other time, a broken wrist (car accident). 

So, in later years still, I realized that I had seen more than I saw.

Anyway, on Gabriola, it was as though those demons were stilled. I don’t remember my parents’ ever fighting there. I do remember them, occasionally, giggling, touching, or even flirting—very unusual, and somehow unfitting, like a toothbrush stuck in an ear. The good feeling was all the stranger, since my mother was an obsessive cleaner, and the cabin was basically a shack: outhouse, grimy kitchen, water drawn from a well. Yet she took it in stride. Maybe these vacations coincided with my parents’ seasons of truce. Or maybe they just made the best of it. Or maybe that’s just what my mind has chosen to remember.

Thirty years later, I visited Gabriola again. I assumed the old rental would be long gone—but I came upon it, while out for a run, on the very first morning. Nothing much had changed – apart from a few progressive details, like the disappearance of the outhouse. 

Here was the concrete ramp, where we launched the cabin’s rowboat. My father hated killing the fish we caught; so it died very slowly. 

There was the erratic boulder, balanced solemnly on its end. Only the very highest tides came even close to covering it. “Spring tides”: a magical phrase.

Here was the bench, along the mossy side of the house, where my parents told my brother and me that we would be getting another sibling. Aged 10, I was shocked, primarily by their advanced age – my Dad being then 40, my Mom a few years younger. 

The place was, if anything, more beautiful than I had remembered it. A shore breeze shook the lush trees along the water’s edge.

I thought: it was a blessing on us. And I experienced that thought, itself, as a blessing.

Then I ran back to start my vacation with my own wife and children.

The Man in Black

(Alternative title: Third and Final Very Long Musing on the Bible, Shakespeare, St. Paul, and Love.) 

In my last two posts, I’ve been chasing the irony of Shakespeare’s sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” etc. In particular, I’ve been trying to make sense of the paradoxical statement that comes and goes, bewilderingly, at the end of that poem’s second line: “love is not love.” 

This has led me, first, to Plato’s Symposium, in the fourth century BC; and then to St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 (1. Cor. 13), in the first century AD. Thereafter, I’ve discussed the paradox that Paul himself embodies. The leader of the new faith, Christianity, was in the first place the defender of the old: Judaism. At the same time, Saul is supposed to have been “really” Paul all along, his true or inner being merely getting revealed in the famous moment of his conversion. Ultimately, Saul is Paul; and yet Paul is not Saul. This doubled person, this redoubled paradox, gives us 1. Cor. 13: one of the greatest love-poems in all literature. 

And that, too, is paradoxical. For Paul, generally speaking, is no love-poet. 

He famously advises that “it is better to marry than to burn” (1. Cor. 7: 9)—by which he seems to mean “in desire,” but seemingly also “in Hell,” for the sin of fornication. Paul himself is proudly celibate, and lays much of the theological foundation for the later Catholic demonization of sexuality. In the book of Acts, while he zips around the eastern Mediterranean organizing the early church, Paul has many followers and co-workers; but none we would really call a friend. He has no children of his own (obviously), but we never meet any Pauline parents or siblings, either. (We will come back to this.) The representation of this powerful man in art, which reaches back to very early times, makes him consistently vinegary: tall and gaunt, trim dark beard, widow’s peak. St. Peter, with whom our man is frequently depicted, is hale and hearty. He looks like he could give you a nice bear hug. But St. Paul? A curt handshake, and an icy stare. His apostolic symbol is a drawn sword. 

In the stories of Acts, Paul is dedicated, indefatigable—and ruthless. At Acts 21, for example, he causes an uproar in Jerusalem by preaching Christianity in the Jewish Temple. Seized by an enraged crowd, Paul is saved from lynching by the city’s Roman garrison—only to rile the mob up even more, with a gleefully incendiary oration (in 22). Brought before the Temple authorities, the apostle perceives that they are divided between Sadduccees and Pharisees—competing sects of Jewish fundamentalists at this time. Having himself been raised a Pharisee, he cries out shrewdly: “Of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question!” (Acts 23: 6) As the scripture patiently explains (23: 8), this was one of the main doctrinal points dividing the two sects. And so there arises “a great cry,” and “a great dissension” (23: 9-10), as the opponents of the new faith fall upon each other. Paul is litigator, tactician, logistician, gaslighter. But lover? 

To be sure, when he calls upon “faith, hope and love”—and says that “of these, the greatest is love” (1. Cor. 13: 13)—Paul is talking about heavenly or spiritual or “higher” love: agapē in Greek, caritas in Latin (as indicated by the translation “charity” in the King James Version). But presumably, higher love is still love. Not not-love. 

All of which is to say that when Paul tells the Corinthians that all they need is love, somebody might well object: What the heck do you know about it?

Now, as I was saying last time, Paul is the only person by that name in the entirety of the Bible (if we discount the “Sergius Paulus” who appears in Acts 13, seemingly just to introduce the name itself). This matters, because the scriptures re-use names very carefully. It is not by accident, to cite the most obvious example, that Jesus (or Yeshua), who is supposed to lead humanity into the Promised Land of eternal life, bears the same name as the Old Testament figure who led the Israelites into their promised land of Canaan: Joshua. Neither is it by accident that Jesus’s earthly Dad, Joseph, is advised in a dream to find refuge for his family in Egypt; just as his Old Testament namesake, he of the technicolour dreamcoat, found refuge there for his. Name-games of this kind are one aspect of an extremely rich system of analogies, binding together the two great parts of the Bible, that scholars call typology. Old Testament originals find New Testament reiterations that are supposed to constitute their explanation and fulfillment. The almost comical reycycling of names in Acts, which I discussed last time, is like a New Testament mini-golf version of this procedure.

Against all of that typological background, “Paul” stands alone. But not “Saul.” There is another very important person by that name, in the Old Testament; and he, like the one in the New, is a champion of the Jewish (or Hebrew) people. Old Testament Saul, like his New Testament avatar, undergoes an ecstatic conversion—into himself. The two Sauls, we are carefully told, are even from the same part of the overall Hebrew family: both are members of the tribe of Benjamin, descendants of the youngest son of Jacob/Israel (see Phillipians 3.5). The mirroring of Saul and Saul is no mystical effect, but a brilliantly and carefully literary—typological—one. In other words, the author of Acts (by tradition St. Luke) knows exactly what he is doing. I want to suggest now that if we turn the New Testament image of Paul back toward its Old Testament countenance, we gain an interpretative advantage on 1. Cor. 13.

We meet the Old Testament Saul in the First Book of Samuel. This describes the end of an historical period during which the Hebrew people were led by a series of warrior-prophets, called Judges. The eponymous Samuel, in a sense, is the last of these—but purely as a spiritual, rather than military, leader. Which leads into our story: because the Hebrew tribes are clamoring for a King. A proper, powerful, right royal commander-in-chief, to lead them into battle against the non-Hebrew peoples that surround and beset them. God, for a long time, declines their request. (He seems to think that He is the only King they need.) Until sending them Saul.

He looks the part. As we are repeatedly told, Saul is physically imposing, standing head and shoulders above everybody else. In other ways, though, Saul is an unikely candidate for the purple. His tribe, the Benjaminites, is the smallest of the 12 tribes that make up the Hebrews. Among the Benjaminites, Saul’s is no great family. And Saul himself is just a young nobody. We first see him on a long and frustrating search for his father’s “asses” (donkeys), which have gone on a self-guided tour of the Holy Land. “And he passed through mount Ephraim, and passed through the land of Shalisha, but they found them not: then they passed through the land of Shalim, and there they were not: and he passed through the land of the Benjamites, but they found them not.” Eventually, in a kind of folkloric desperation, Saul and his companions decide to ask the prophet, or “seer”—Samuel, the great Judge of Israel himself—about the wayfaring quadrupeds. 

Coming to the town where Samuel is lodging, Saul asks directions to his house. The very person he asks turns out to be the seer himself. Who tells him that the donkeys have been found. And takes Saul and his fellow-seekers home. And gives them a big dinner. And beds for the night. And sees them on their way in the morning. “And as they were going down to the end of the city, Samuel said to Saul … stand thou still a while, that I may shew thee the word of God” (1.Sam. 9:27):

Then Samuel took a vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not because the LORD hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance?

When thou art departed from me to day, then thou shalt find two men by Rachel’s sepulchre in the border of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say unto thee, The asses which thou wentest to seek are found: and, lo, thy father hath left the care of the asses, and sorroweth for you, saying, What shall I do for my son?

Then shalt thou go on forward from thence, and thou shalt come to the plain of Tabor, and there shall meet thee three men going up to God to Bethel, one carrying three kids, and another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a bottle of wine:

And they will salute thee, and give thee two loaves of bread; which thou shalt receive of their hands.

After that thou shalt come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines: and it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they shall prophesy:

And the Spirit of the LORD will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man.

… And it was so, that when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart: and all those signs came to pass that day. (1 Sam 10: 1-9.)

It is spine-tingling. Flat on his back, out of his mind on YHWH, the kid becomes the king. Saul, Saul. Just as his later namesake, Paul.

Turns out Saul’s pretty good at being his new Him. Especially the fighting-our-enemies part. In between sessions of smiting, Saul acquires a wife, “Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz” (1. Sam. 14:50). They have three sons: “Jonathan, and Ishui, and Melchishua.” And two daughters, “the name of the firstborn Merab, and the name of the younger Michal” (1. Sam. 14:49). 

Unfortunately, Saul displeases God. (He fails, after a specific conquest, to annihilate every single living thing down to the children and livestock. It is one of those indigestible moments of the Old Testament.) And so God directs Samuel to find a new, replacement King, among the sons of a man called Jesse:

And it came to pass, when they were come, that [Samuel] looked on Eliab, and said, Surely the LORD’S anointed is before him.

But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth …

Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, Neither hath the LORD chosen this.

Then Jesse made Shammah to pass by. And he said, Neither hath the LORD chosen this.

Again, Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. And Samuel said unto Jesse, The LORD hath not chosen these.

And Samuel said unto Jesse, Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep. And Samuel said unto Jesse, Send and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither.

And he sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to. And the LORD said, Arise, anoint him: for this is he. (1 Sam. 16: 6-12)

David. 

Little by little, Saul loses his kingdom to the upstart. And not his kingdom only. Jonathan, Saul’s eldest son, loves David “as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18: 4). So does Michal, Saul’s younger daughter. David himself, at first, is like an adoptive son to the King: living in the royal household, accompanying Saul into battle, playing music (in a famous and beautiful story) that brings the old man peace. When David first challenges the Philistine giant Goliath, Saul dresses the boy in his own armour: “an helmet of brass upon his head,” and “a coat of mail” on his back. But young David “cannot go [walk]” with them; so he goes without them (1 Sam. 17: 38-39). It is a perfect little episode of quasi-paternal doting. 

But then—through anger, envy, paranoia, drink—Saul alienates his symbolic heir. David wages a guerilla campaign against his erstwhile King, his second father. He marries Michal, even though Saul tries to take her away from him. Eventually, both Saul and Jonathan die at the hands of the Philistines. David goes on to become the great King of Israel that Saul—it seems—was never truly meant to be.

And David has many wives and children. And they fight amongst themselves. And the King favours some of them, rejects others. Fasts for a week, praying on the ground, while one of his babies lies ill. Gets up and washes and eats when the kid dies; because, as he brusquely tells his servants, he can’t do anything more for him now. With the gorgeous Bath-sheba—whom David stole from his loyal and virtuous general Uriah, causing him to be killed, for exactly this purpose—David has another son right away: Solomon. And he becomes King. And has many wives and children. And they fight amongst themselves. And it goes on like that.

What runs through this long story, from its origins to its aftermath? From Saul’s Dad pining for his son, in the First Book of Samuel; to Solomon worrying over his, in the First Book of the Kings?

It seems to me the answer is obvious. These are stories of love. Not so much eros, although there is certainly some of that. Nor, exactly, agapē—although God himself certainly showers his love down very capriciously, redirecting it from Saul (who scarcely deserves this treatment) to David (who scarcely deserves this treatment). And that’s a clue, I think. God behaves in this part of the Bible like a father who plays favourites. Saul is like the older son who can’t do anything right; David, the younger one who can’t do anything wrong. Learning from Him, the fathers in this part of the Bible play favourites, too. With everything that results from that sad yet organic tendency. The love that dominates the Saul-David-Solomon stories, shapes them and makes them, isn’t primarily erotic, or heavenly, but something else. Unlike eros and agapē, Greek doesn’t give us a tidy term for this other kind of love (there are philia and storge, but neither of them really captures it). But we know what we are talking about: it’s love filial, and parental. The love of family.

For most of us, obviously, this is the first love we ever know; recalled in adulthood, if we can do that, like drops from a precious vial. As for those tragic people who never get to drink—well, they will struggle to love, anybody or in any way, throughout their lives. If erotic love makes us, as infants, family love re-makes us, as children. And if we don’t get re-made in that way, we can never be made right. 

Saul, in the Old Testament, mirrors Paul in the New. Saul’s story is full of love, and lovers; Paul’s, not so much. And yet he is the Saul who sings a hymn to love. Paul may be unfamiliar with the erotic kind; he may not be able to explain the heavenly. But Paul knows family love, if he knows any love at all. This is what the story of Saul, Paul’s Old Testament Other, reminds us.

And yet: where is Paul’s family?

Look how carefully, in the books of Samuel and Kings, the members of Saul’s and David’s and Solomon’s families are introduced and named: Ahinoam, Jonathan, Ishui, Melchishua, Merab, Michal, Eliab, Abinadab, Jesse, Bath-Sheba—and many, many more. The contrast with Acts—with Saul-Paul’s family background—is stark. We are told that he’s from Tarsus. That he’s a Roman citizen by birth. A tent-maker by trade. But that’s about all we are told. No siblings, parents, or even surrogates are so much as mentioned in his story.

With one exception. 

In Acts 22, as I have mentioned, Paul makes a speech to his own would-be lynch mob. He is being led into detention by the Roman soldiers who have just saved him from being torn apart. Requesting and receiving permission to address his tormentors, Paul pauses “on the stairs” of the citadel and beckons to them (Acts 21: 40). It is a moment of astonishing drama. “And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying,”

Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence which I make now unto you. …

I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.

And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.

As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.

And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me.

And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.

And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.

And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there,

Came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight.

And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. …

And [the listening crowd] gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live. (Acts 22: 1-22).

Paul’s “defense” is the best offense. Not an apology for, but a reiteration of, the very faith he has been preaching; and centred on the story of his own conversion. This we have read before, in Acts 9. Here, let us note, Paul tropes his Damascus experience very much as a choice of loved ones. He turns his face toward the Christian Ananias, who speaks for “our fathers,” and welcomes Saul-Paul as “brother.” He turns his back on the Jewish “elders” and “brethren,” on whose behalf he has formerly breathed such fire. And among them—the only figure of Saul’s entire family of origin, broadly construed, to be named in Acts—is the man who brought him up: Gamaliel.

The name, as Johnny Cash notes in his rollicking gospel rendition of this story (“The Man in White”), means “the beauty of the Lord.” And that certainly is very beautiful. But more important, I think, is the kind of person who bears this name—or rather, whose name Paul bears, so casually and yet so purposefully, into his speech on the steps of the castle. Gamaliel was Saul’s master and teacher, his father in the faith. We are reminded here that Saul was not just any Jew, but a Pharisee: a passionate fundamentalist, “taught according to the perfect manner of the law.” In contemporary Jewish terms, we can perhaps think of him as ultra-orthodox. Indeed, Saul of Tarsus, as we have seen, was a virtuoso, a superstar student of Pharisiacal fundamentalism, leading the charge to stamp out the Nazarene heresy. In that sense, he had already made the free choice to re-affirm the family into which he had been born. How he must have made old Gamaliel’s heart swell with pride and joy! Until he made it burst, with pain and despair. When he came out, so to speak, as himself.

Paul is a rebel. A runaway. A traitor. He makes a mockery of the family, and the love, that made him what he is; erasing them almost totally, retaining and displaying only the token of his old teacher’s name, like a sign of his destruction. Paul claims to be doing this, of course, on behalf of a higher and newer love; which, moreover, he claims to be the true expression of the lower, older kind. Saul becomes Paul, Judaism Christianity. Love, love. But the meaning at the end differs radically from the beginning. 

How, then are we to understand 1. Cor. 13?

It seems to me the text still stands out. Sticks out, even, and more than it did before, as a result of the analysis we have attempted. Paul’s transition from Judaism to Christianity, from his old self to his new, is experienced and understood by him as a movement out of love: the only love he will ever know, the love of his family, whom he has erased, save for that single name of Gamaliel, carried in his pocket like a tired souvenir. A remembrancer. And indeed, in 1. Cor. 13, Paul remembers. As all runaways do, from time to time. If only to reconfirm, over and over again, the glory of their flight. From the other side, having reached Damascus, Saul-Paul looks back. And asks: 

Can’t I be both there and here?

Aren’t you patient enough?

Kind enough? Forbearing enough? 

Long-suffering enough?

Isn’t love just love?

The answer, I guess, is “no.” And this I think is what Shakespeare is teaching us, in sonnet 116. Love is not-love. Because love is always of the not. Whether it alters “when it alteration finds.” “Bends with the remover”—that flash bastard—“to remove.” Comes in reach of Time’s bending sickle. And that doesn’t only cut down rosy lips and cheeks. At the very core of our experience of love–and I think we learn this from Paul, and from Shakespeare, and from Plato– is an absence, a lack, that cannot not be there. As we reach to give the hug. Bend to kiss on the head. Ponder the words that will make our beloved, we hope, love us back. Paul, precisely because he is outside love, knows love, now. It is what he has lost, in between Gamaliel and Ananias.

But the gap is what he gains: Freedom.

Simon and Saul

Some years ago I started teaching a course on the King James Bible. Not as a serious exercise in Biblical scholarship, which I don’t do, but simply as an opportunity for students to gain greater familiarity with the major narratives and characters and theological patterns of the Christian story. Obviously, if you’re going to study literature written in English (or any other European language) prior to, say, the late twentieth century, you’re going to be confronted with Biblical allusions, references, tropes, etc. If you don’t know them, you can’t understand them—simple as that. I chose the King James Version (KJV), published in 1611, mostly because I am that kind of person, and to fit the course rubric (excitingly, “seventeenth-century non-dramatic literature”). However, this ended up making more intellectual sense than I had expected, because KJV effectively is the Bible, as far as most English literature is concerned. Also because (as I have learned) the Bible is only ever available in its various “versions”—products of translation, transmision, and interpretation. A maximally fascinating aspect of this maximally fascinating text.

I’m not sure if I’ll teach my Bible course again (after, I think, eight iterations). I worked hard at it, was proud of it, and believe I did some good with it. However, the problem I came up against, sometimes mildly, sometimes severely, was the very one the course was designed to resolve—but couldn’t. There is simply no longer any basic or coherent relationship between the cultures of 21st-century Canada and the traditions of Christianity. The majority of my students, having no Bible or Church (or temple) background at all, simply found the course too challenging. And challenging it was, even with ruthless and painful selection, to get from Genesis to Revelation in 13 weeks! Meanwhile, a significant minority of my students took my course because they were indeed devoutly Christian (which I am not), and therefore expected my teaching would be, um, easier than they found it. My impression is that the first group typically spent the term listening to me while thinking: “I have no idea what you are talking about.” The second: “You have no idea what you are talking about.” In the end, I couldn’t square this circle.

Nonetheless, I am going to keep thinking and talking about the Bible. And one figure in it I want to talk about right now (following on from my previous post on Shakespeare and Platonism) is St. Paul.

He is the protagonist of the brilliant Book of Acts, which follows the four Gospels in the New Testament. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) describe Jesus’s life and death in first-century Judea under Roman rule. Acts describes what happened next: the founding of the Church. This begins, of course, not with Paul but with Peter—which is actually a nickname, “rock,” from Greek petrus. (We’ll come back to this.) In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, Peter and the rest of the disciples are basically waiting for the world to end. That doesn’t happen; since it doesn’t, they set about organizing themselves into a community based on their heretical belief (and from an orthodox  Jewish point of view, it is really about as bad as it could be) that the charismatic preacher from Nazareth, whom some of them knew and followed, others have only heard and learned about, was no mere prophet, but actually and literally the son of God. 

Paul first appears in the story at Acts chapter 7. Or rather, Saul does—that is his original, given name. Somewhat like Peter, whose real name is the solidly Hebrew “Simon,” the equally (even exceedingly) Hebrew “Saul” is to receive a Greco-Roman renaming that expresses a religious transformation. But when we first meet him, Saul is a Pharisee: a member of a conservative sect of Jewish traditionalists—fundamentalists, we might say—dedicated to preserving the pure worship of the Temple. For that matter, Saul is a Pharisee’s Pharisee: he is leading the counter-attack against the nascent Christian heresy, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Then, in a moment so stunning it has become proverbial, Saul receives a vision of Christ while on the road to Damascus. After overcoming some initial and, perhaps, understandable hesitation from his new brethren, Saul becomes the indefatigable leader of the faith. (Peter accepts second fiddle, which always strikes me as pretty gracious.) And, eventually, Saul starts to be called Paul.

Now, Simon’s renaming as Peter is dramatic and explicit. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, Jesus is asking the disciples who they think He is. Most of them dodge the question, referring to what other people think: some people say you’re John the Baptist; others that you’re a re-appearance of this or that Old Testament prophet. But Simon answers directly: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

And Jesus answers:

Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. (Matt. 16:16-18).

Or, in the Latin version of that last line, which shaped Europe for a thousand years, and is inscribed to this day in golden lettering around the ceremonial canopy, or baldacchino, that stands before the altar of St. Peter’s own cathedral, in the Vatican: “Tu es petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam.” The Latin lets us hear the pun (petrus, petram) that is involved in the renaming. (It would be nice if we could get a Bible translation that spoke of “St. Rocky.”) And the episode carefully includes the Hebrew name that is getting rewritten, in its full, patronymic form: “Simon Bar-Jona.” Simon son of Jonah. Simon son of the name of the late Old Testament prophet who spent three days in the belly of a whale.

Saul’s renaming is different. Probably, historically, it also has a different basis. By the first century AD, the ancient Jewish world had become very complex—politically, demographically, and geographically. Although still very much centred on the Holy Land, and on Jerusalem, there were Jewish communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and Saul is from one of these: in Tarsus, a Greek-speaking city in what is now southern Turkey. To make matters even more complicated, Tarsus was one of the places in their empire to which the Romans, for one reason or another, had granted the privilege of citizenship. (Paul gets a lot of traction from this at various moments in the book of Acts.) So Saul, in the first place, is not just a Jewish fundamentalist Pharisee; he’s a Hellenized Roman Jewish fundamentalist Pharisee. Anyway, the point is that he probably would have had two names all along: a “Jewish” name for his family and community, and a “Roman” name for the larger society. Simon gets called Peter, and is therefore Simon Peter. But Saul, from the beginning, was probably Saul Paul.

None of which is explained in Acts at all. There isn’t even a “renaming” episode, like Peter’s, for Paul. In Acts 9, on that road to Damascus, Saul gets smacked off his horse by God. Blind for three days, he is led into the city, and into its small Christian community. But still he is called, throughout these episodes, “Saul.” Not until Acts 13, after many dense narrative episodes involving himself and Peter and others, does the name “Paul” appear. And then with only the parenthetical, one-line explanation that Saul “also is called Paul” (Acts 13:9). And that’s it. He’s called “Paul” from then on. And not Saul Paul. Just Paul.

Actually, just before this point in Acts 13, there is an amazing, tiny detail; which I almost dare to suggest may not have attracted much attention. Saul (as he still is being called) and his associate Barnabas have travelled from Salamis to Paphos. There they meet a Jewish sorcerer and “false prophet,” who is under the protection of the local Roman deputy (although the latter is “a prudent man”). The false prophet is called—and this is crazy enough—“Barjesus”: “son of Jesus.” And the deputy? “Sergius Paulus” (Acts 13:7). 

You see? Paul’s new name first first appears in this story as somebody else’s; a somebody of almost no significance, from whom and of whom we never hear again; and who seems to enter the narrative precisely and only to give the name. And “oh yeah,” says the scripture a few verses later. “That’s Saul’s name, too. Yeah. Paul.”

What are we to make of this? I guess it can go two ways—and they are in opposition, or at least tension. 

On the one hand, we could infer that the book of Acts is telling us: “Look, the names don’t matter very much. What matters is who these people are, really or essentially.” And of course, to some extent, that must be correct. 

But precisely for it to be so—for us to look past the names—we need to know that we are doing that. And that brings us to the second way of reading this aspect of Acts; this nudge or hint that we get, when Barjesus, for example, shows up with Sergius Paulus. It is that the book is telling us: “Look: it may not be obvious why, but—trust me on this—when you’re reading this text, you gotta pay attention to the names.”

If we do that, we will notice some fascinating, tantalizing touches in the book of Acts. Names are carefully chosen, and meaningfully re-used. There are two characters called Ananias: one wicked, one devout. There is a disciple with the distinctly unJewish handle of Alexander: the name of the king who founded the empire that the Romans overtook. (He shows up in Ephesus, where the disciples are in danger of being murdered by a crowd of enraged pagans.) Peter, at one point, heals a man called Aeneas: The name of the legendary founder of Rome, hero of Virgil’s Aeneid (itself contemporary with the Gospels). Peter’s Hebrew name, meanwhile, is all over the place. In a Greek form, Simeon, it is the name of a prophet in the church at Antioch, and a priest at Jerusalem. It is the name of another sorcerer and false prophet, Simon Magus, who tries to buy the gift of faith-healing from the apostles (thereby inventing the sin of “simony”). In Acts 10, a devout Roman centurion named Cornelius receives an angelic visitation:

And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.

And now send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter:

He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do. (Acts 10:4-6).

“Ok,” one can almost imagine Cornelius responding—“But you couldn’t have had Simon Peter stay with somebody called, like, Teddy, or Bob? Do you even know how often the mail gets lost around here?” Lest we think it an accident, the command to the centurion gets repeated twice more in the chapter, each time with the almost comical confusion of Simons.

But—if we discount that trivial, passing “Sergius Paulus”—there is only one Paul in Acts. Only one, for that matter, in the entire New Testament. And only one Saul. And they are one.

The entire, twisting, almost farcical business of nomenclature in Acts, I am arguing, is there to highlight, or backlight, this uniqueness. 

To some extent, it is easy to understand why. After Jesus himself, nobody is more important to Christianity than Paul. Not just because of his organizational role in the first century (described in Acts) or because of his theological writings (which come next in the New Testament). No, the unique importance of Paul comes back to this business of the name. Simon’s renaming, as we have seen, is a big moment. Saul’s is more like an afterthought—because his big moment has already happened. That is in Acts 9, when the blinding light of God descends. There, and then, Saul is changed. Or rather: he is converted. The leading soldier of the old faith becomes the leading soldier of the new. The chief opponent of the church becomes its chief proponent. The Jew—to put it as simply as possible—becomes Christian. And this is crucial: For theologically, the very paradoxical and yet surprisingly intelligible idea here is supposed to be that when that stunning thing happens to Saul, nothing much happens to Paul. He becomes himself, when he hits the dust of the Damascus road. And that is why his name is precisely not changed—not there, not then. That is why Saul was (probably) always also called Paul.

Christianity, you see, is not supposed to be an addition to or alteration of Judaism. It is supposed to be Judaism, in the latter’s true and revealed form. (I ain’t selling it, just describing it.) Jewishness, becoming Christianness, undergoes a conversion; but it is a conversion understood precisely as transformation into the same. What is left is what was really there, or meant to be there, all along. This is what Saul undergoes—what he performs—in Acts. If Peter embodies the church, Paul embodies the faith.

And that, as I said, is kind of the easy part.

The hard part is this: Although there is only one Saul in the New Testament, there is another, a prior, in the Old. And that Saul, too, is a very important figure; and that Saul, too, undergoes a conversion. I think it is beyond question that the Bible wants us (so to speak) to superimpose these two figures, creating a larger symbolic structure. And this is very tricky. For Saul is Paul; and yet Saul is not Saul—the New Testament not the Old. Ultimately, I think, this superparadoxical structure bears on what St. Paul has to say about love (1. Cor. 13). In a later post, I’ll try to explain how.

Is

Somehow or other, in the course of my life, I’ve become an English professor. I’m never quite sure how to feel about this. When I look at my kids, when I look at the state of the world–when I look at the whole question of knowledge–it seems like there are far more important jobs I could be doing. Yet I’m always brought back to the study of literature, by texts that make it seem more important than anything else. 

Here’s one:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove;
Oh no! It is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark
Whose worth’s unknown, athough his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me proved
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare’s sonnet number 116 (out of 154, which, let’s face it, is a lotta sonnets). I call it a coffee mug poem. That means you can buy it on coffee mugs. Also on posters, tea towels, Valentine’s cards, etc. It’s last year’s wedding song, if this year is 1610.

Evidently, sonnet 116 is a hymn to eternal love, and to love as eternal. Love doesn’t change, this poem says. No matter what. It’s like a transcendent landmark, or a star beaming out over the storm. Love doesn’t come down to the beauty of youth—rosy lips, and cheeks, and all that stuff. It isn’t even subject to time. There can’t be any “impediments” (obstacles) to this incredible force, insofar as it makes a “marriage of true minds.”

Wait—what? 

Do minds get married?

I mean, we shouldn’t get married without them. But we don’t get married with them. Bodies, not minds, are what take us to the altar. Or wherever else we hope to find love.

Erotic love, anyway. But even if we consider that other love—what Leonard Cohen calls “that brother love”—the point holds. Our buddies, our siblings, our parents—our children—we don’t just want them in our thoughts. We want them in our arms. Wanting them there is loving them; and loving them is wanting them there. Foolish? Maybe. Since we can only have them in time, and only for a time. But that, it seems, is love. 

Sure, says sonnet 116. But—if we think about it—what is that “wanting”? 

It’s a force. Beyond us, and before us. It sweeps through us; transforms us. We belong to it, not the other way around. 

Because we are physical beings, the love that moves us is physical. But the Love that does the moving is something else altogether. Don’t we feel this—don’t we know this—every time we love?

This is also why love can take so many different expressions. (I’m still ventriloquizing the poem.) It’s like a seal, or stamp, pressed into multiple inks. Love even takes different kinds of expression—two main kinds, as we’ve already noticed. One kind, erotic; the other, not. Indeed these two kinds of love are so different—so utterly antithetical—that if we see the one from the position of the other we may have to say, with Shakespeare, that that “love is not love.”

What?–wait.

That enigmatic, tantalizing, entirely illogical phrase. Hanging off the end of Shakespare’s second line, like a car dangling over a cliff. Sonnet 116 rushes on to its complex qualifications: it isn’t love if it changes, if it’s fleshly, superficial, etc. But for a moment, Shakespeare has advanced a definition in the form of a contradiction. Love is not love. 

The insight, the paradox, he’s wrestling with is an ancient one. In the Western tradition, it’s primarily associated with Platonic philosophy. Its classic statement, certainly known to Shakespeare, is Plato’s dialogue the Symposium (ca. 385 B.C.).

Like all Plato’s major works, the Symposium presents an imaginary conversation between real historical figures: prominent members of ancient Athenian society, from the generation just before Plato’s own. The star of the show, as usual, is Socrates—put to death in 399 for, allegedly, corrupting the youth of the city. Plato’s whole philosophical career, in text after text, dialogue after dialogue, shows Socrates, instead, teaching them: about language (the Phaedrus), cognition (the Meno), justice (the Republic), and so on. 

In the Symposium, the topic of the lesson is love.

Now, the ancient Greeks took bodies very seriously. All those rosy lips and cheeks (and stuff). When they saw a beautiful young man—and it is always men, in Plato—they didn’t tend to assume, as we might, that his physical gifts were just one item in a range of potential attributes. That is to say, the Greeks didn’t tend to think that a good-looking person might also, or even as a kind of compensation, be dumb, or cheap, or mean. Rather, they tended to assume that he would also be sweet and generous and brilliant. The Greeks saw physical form as reflecting the whole self. A beautiful body, to them, was a window on a beautiful soul. 

Plato’s Socrates is a carefully-constructed travesty of this assumption. Physically, he is ugly: shambling, misshapen, old. But he has such a radiant mind, and expresses such beautiful ideas, that he is thronged with admirers from the top echelon of the Athenian dating scene.

In the Symposium—the title means “drinking-party,” which is the scenario—Socrates has attracted a bona fide stalker in the person of Alcibiades. This person was a notorious celebrity of classical Athens. He was a super-handsome, super-macho, super-sexy military commander. An up-match beyond the wildest dreams of smelly old Socrates. But Alcibiades, arriving late at the party, and already quite drunk, has a surprising complaint. The shabby philosopher has rejected his advances. 

The superhunk tells a long tale of trying to close with Socrates sexually. He has sat, dewy-eyed, at his teacher’s feet, but no advantage taken. He has wrestled with his crush at the gymnasium—naked, and oiled, is how the Greeks did this—but no dice. Finally, the frustrated lover invites Socrates to dinner, plies him with wine, and talks until it is too late to send his guest home. They lie down to sleep—and the handsome host pours his heart out. In so many words: take me, I’m yours.

“Alcibiades,” Socrates answers him, “truly you must see in me some rare beauty of a kind infinitely higher than any which I see in you.” “Whereupon,” Alcibiades relates, 

I fancied that he was smitten, and that the words which I had uttered like arrows had wounded him, and so without waiting to hear more I got up, and throwing my coat about him crept under his threadbare cloak, as the time of year was winter, and there I lay during the whole night having this wonderful monster in my arms. … And yet, notwithstanding all, he was so superior to my solicitations, so contemptuous and derisive and disdainful of my beauty [that] nothing more happened, but in the morning when I awoke—let all the gods and goddesses be my witnesses!—I arose as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.

 All night, the he-man cuddles the man-monster. But all night, cuddling is as far as it goes. 

What has happened here (or, I guess, what has not) has nothing to do with Socrates’s sexual preferences. Rather, it has to do with his sexual philosophy. This he claims to have learned (intriguingly) from a wise old woman, named Diotima. 

The argument is very famous. According to Diotima, it’s natural to love what is beautiful. Natural, and good; you shouldn’t try fight it. But if you really think about what you’re loving, in a beautiful person, you will realize that it is actually and more accurately beauty, as a phenomenon, in that person. 

If that is so, the love can’t stop at the beloved—even though it has to start there. Love for a beautiful person has to be treated as the first step in a journey toward an encounter with love as it is; love in the abstract, love itself. 

“He who would proceed aright in this matter,” Socrates (quoting Diotima) tells his companions, “should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms”:

And soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is one and the same! … In the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form. 

In the end, the student of love, in the school of Diotima, will come to perceive

a nature of wondrous beauty … absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things. …  And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty.

This argument, this vision, is known as the Platonic “ladder of love.” It is certainly one of the most influential ideas in the history of the world. It means that loving another person is good—but that converting or (in Freud’s version) sublimating that love, redirecting it “upwards,” is better, much better. And this not as a matter of discipline or denial, but precisely as an attempt to honour and follow the impulse of love itself. From earthly, sexual, “lower” love—what the Greeks called eros— we are supposed to turn to “higher,” spiritual, celestial love: agapē. Love itself teaches us that it is not love. Agapē not eros.

The Platonic idea, 500 years after Socrates, fit seamlessly with the rise of Christianity. God is love, says St. John—but not in the way that Alcibiades would have meant, eros. Rather, the Christian deity, evidently another student of Diotima, is agapē. Or, in Latin: caritas.

The most beautiful Christian statement of this vision comes from St. Paul, in the thirteenth chapter of his first epistle to the faithful in the ancient Greek city of Corinth (for short, 1st Corinthians, 13). 

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” Paul writes, “and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. …

And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

The famous King James Version of this passage has the word “charity” in place of “love.” That’s because it’s very directly translating the Latin caritas; which translates the Greek agapē; which is love, as heavenly, and eternal. And that’s what love really is—how it really is—says Paul. His Christian restatement of the Platonic idea, even more than Shakespeare’s, is stunning, searing, thrilling.

And false. 

Love always fails. 

Doesn’t it?

Even if it is patient; even if it is kind; devoted to the truth, generous, all-enduring, greater than hope, greater even than faith—an astonishing position for a man of God, like Paul, to take!–love dies. Because we do. And this point is completely unaffected by the Christian belief, to which Paul is trying to persuade us, in eternal life. Proved by it, actually! For we precisely have to lose our loves in this life, if we are to regain them in the next.

Shakespeare knows this, you see. Sonnet 116 sounds great, in a Céline Dion, I-know-that-my-heart-will-go-oooon kind of way. But under just a little pressure, that treacly assertion starts to ooze. Love “alters not when it alteration finds.” It doesn’t change when it changes? What can this possibly mean? Love doesn’t “bend with the remover to remove”? What’s a “remover”? Nobody knows. As has often been noted, Shakespeare’s opening language about “impediments” is lifted straight from the Elizabethan marriage service. It’s from the part of the ceremony where the priest asks the congregation if they approve of the union. And what might they say, if they didn’t? Maybe something like “Oh no!”—which is what sonnet 116, at the beginning of its fifth line, exclaims.

In his concluding couplet, with a poker face, Shakespeare shows how absurdly high his poem has sets its stakes. If the neoPlatonic argument of sonnet 116 is wrong—“if this be error, and upon me proved”—then “I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” In other words, nobody has ever loved anybody—not really, they’ve all been doing it wrong—and, for good measure, the poet never wrote anything, including the poem we have just been reading. Now it is pretty clear, as we have just been noticing, that the argument of sonnet 116 is wrong. The agapē it describes, eternal and cosmic and abstract, is not love, as we experience it. And that means that Shakespeare has constructed a no-win situation. If we accept sonnet 116, then we have to accept that love (as we really experience it) is not love (in its true Platonic being). On the other hand, if we deny sonnet 116, then the poem cancels itself out—Shakespeare “never writ” it. And that means that the very statement we are wrestling with—“love is not love” never gets made.

And that means, remarkably, that we lose the opportunity for talking about the topic we thought we were talking about. “Love is not love”–the Platonic formula–is what invited us into this classroom.

Can we take it any farther? I’m not sure.

But I’m pretty sure that asking this kind of question is being an English professor.

Ex paradiso

Last summer, we met Raffi. Or at least, my wife and kids did. The great children’s entertainer of the 80s, 90s and 00s was sitting under a blue umbrella in the Saturday market at Ganges, Salt Spring Island. This, for readers from away, is the largest and busiest of the rural Gulf Islands that lie just offshore from Vancouver.

Now, Ganges used to be a pretty conservative, Anglican kind of place, its chief attraction an old-fashioned candy store. (I mean, it seemed to have been fashioned for old people.) Today, at least in summer, it is the capital of a northern Bali: sleek yachts, packed patios, unbroken tans. The Saturday market is a Utopian extravaganza where exquisite crafts and sumptuous food get hocked for cosmic prices by stunning, ageless hippies. As a result, I missed Raffi. Whoring after ceramics (and that’s another story), I walked right past his booth several times without noticing. But C and our four children—ages 16, 14 (twins) and 9—had the presence of mind to perceive that the quiet, 70ish, olive-skinned man resembling Raffi, surrounded by posters about Raffi, and promoting the most recent Raffi album (“Dog on the Floor”), was, in fact, Raffi. So they marched right up and told him which of his songs had always been our favourite, when the kids were small.

C and I had last visited Salt Spring when our oldest was four months old. We stayed in a Ganges hotel and delightedly strollered our little boy around. There’s a picture of him jolly-jumpering in our hotel room. Another, in a local restaurant, where he’s planting a kiss on my cheek — the first I ever got from him! Baby technique is slobbery, but man, you don’t mind.

Since then, our family has grown, per southern B.C. tradition, through the rythm of a summer visit to the Islands.

The year after that first trip, our peaceable little boy suddenly entered the Terrible Twos while we were staying in a cabin on Mayne. He screamed if we stayed in, screamed if we went out, and double screamed if we wouldn’t let him run off cliffs. On that same trip, we learned that my wife was pregnant again—although we wouldn’t learn just how pregnant until her 20-week ultrasound.

Two years later, our much bigger and somewhat calmer boy, accompanied by two curly-haired toddlers, rode a blow-up whale on the lawn outside the old Surf Lodge on Gabriola. Galiano (close, but not the same) became our go-to island in 2007. C and the girls discovered a secluded beach that has been “ours” ever since (ok, you can see it from the ferry, but you have to know where to look). In 2008, our soon-to-be-youngest defeated an IUD rated at 99% effectiveness after my wife, for reasons best known to herself, went oyster-hunting, with her feet, in chest-deep and very cold water, to the point of hypothermia, and then took a hot bath. Etc. That was on Pender. 

In 2010, we camped with four other families, long-time friends of ours, on Galiano. Between us, we had enough kids that I have to do the math every time to believe it. They took over the campground. The evening we arrived, after putting up our tent, I made my way down to the beach to rinse off the sweat. I remember laughing, with sheer relaxation, at the ochre sun on the origami shapes of the massive, elegant Arbutus trees. We and our friends were all fortyish, solvent, healthy. Cocktails on the beach as the sun went down. Later that evening, we dined together—we families—shuttling hot dogs and casseroles via children and parents amongst our fires and stoves and picnic tables.

What happened? 

Well; what happens. 

Marriages fail. Politics intervene. Addictions, hidden for years, suddenly and disastrously burst out. And kids—they’re not so slobbery anymore. That camping trip can never be repeated.

But back to Raffi.

Our favourite song of his was never “C-A-N-A-D-A” or “Shake a Toe” or even “Baby Beluga.” Those were all good, and we were always grateful for the bright engagement his music provided. But the song we waited for, when the Raffi CDs went on, was: “The Changing Garden of Mr. Bell.” 

“Now you’re talking,” he said, when my wife told him that.

Raffi didn’t write this song. It’s by a pair of American kid’s entertainers, Janice Hubbard and Michael Silversher. Raffi’s version appears on his 1994 album Bananaphone (“it’s a phone with appeal”), released when he was at the height of his fame. “The Changing Garden of Mr. Bell” comes just after “Slow Day,” and just before “Naturally.” But Mr. Bell is something else.

Here’s Raffi singing it.

And here are the words. 

Mr. Bell’s from a foreign place; His family all were farmers.
He arrived from across the sea, and came to be next door!
And he works his land with a knowing hand;
Though it’s very small, he makes it grow so well,
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

These are astors and edelweiss, and rows and rows of roses.
Those are hives in the dogwood trees for bees to come and go!
It’s a wondrous sight, in the morning light,
And the earth is full —every color every smell,
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

For some reason, American writers notwithstanding, I’ve always thought of this as a very Toronto song. In my mind, Mr. Bell and the child-narrator are neighbours in one of that city’s endless, gritty, faceless suburbs. Nondescript houses, crummy yards. But the old man, through his effort and wisdom, has turned his modest space into a walled garden; which, etymologically, is the meaning of “paradise.”

And that’s all before we get to the bridge.

I once saw a photograph, upon his mantle shelf
Of a beautiful lady, a child in her arms–and a young Mr. Bell himself.
I wondered out loud about them, and he answered in the strangest way —
He just said look: see how the garden grows!
It’s always changing every day.

Mr. “Bell”? Actually, it’s Belzug, or Bel-amin, or “Bel, may be hard for you to pronounce.” The “foreign place”? Could be Poland, Germany, Russia, Ukraine. But it could just as easily be Colombia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Vietnam, or any of the crimson and piquant and  tantalizing locations from which people have urgently sought refuge for generations in little Canadian back yards. These, for them, have been the promised land. The old man’s arms, working in his garden, spell out Holocaust.

The last verse goes like this:

Mr. Bell has his morning tea, and I will bring his paper.
See the sun through the curtain lace dapple his face and hands!
Every day is new; There is much to do.
Life’s a mystery, full of secrets that might tell —
In the changing garden of Mr. Bell.

A song like this has to tiptoe dangerously between the touching and the trite. The last couple of lines, it seems to me, lose their balance a bit. But not this one:

“Every day is new; there is much to do.” 

If it works for Mr. Bell.

Up against the wall, [trigger warning]

It occurs to me: Universities used to be places where dominant societal narratives — civic, economic, cultural, political — were told to wait at the door. The university was supposed to be a space of alternative, and even resistance, to the words used and values espoused by politicians, businesspeople, the media, and other dominant sources of regulation and authority.
 
Somehow or other, that has turned around. The university today has become a place where dominant narratives are most pitilessly enforced. We don’t offer alternative, or resistance; but intensification, and insistence. Administrators, professors, and student leaders outdo each other in their eager shouting of accepted views, and silencing of others. Perhaps not on all files, but certainly on many. The ideological continuity of our society today — from student unions to board rooms to news rooms to cabinet tables — is absolutely astonishing.
 
I think we should get back, as the song says, to how we used to be. 

Oh, that, right

You may have wondered: what are literary professors expert in? What do they, properly, know about?

For a partial answer, here’s a re-up of a post from several years ago. It is a listing of paper and session topics from the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (the major meeting of the field), when it was held here in Vancouver several years ago.

At the Vancouver MLA, you could attend sessions on:

Matter
Negotiating
Space
Africa
Bertolt Brecht
Japanese modernity
Economics
Composting
The idea of “West Asia”
Time
Old Norse Folklore
The Armenian genocide
TS Eliot
Feminist activism
Israeli-South African relations
Dada
Milton
Second-language instruction
Immigration
The Cold War
Sports
Bars
The First World War
Borders
Singapore
Animals
Being black in Germany
Barcelona
Neoplatonism
Saint Theresa
Suspicion
The English Civil War
Calgary
Neoliberalism [natch]
Tommaso Campanella
Mental Health
How to get a good government job
Dance
The Middle Class
Recent European geopolitics
Data visualization
Life in occupied Palestine
The libidinal economy of data [sic]
Cognitive science, re: memory
Subjectivity
Sound
Ice
Rock
Oil
Bodies
Imperialism
Neurolinguistics
Masculinity
Elmore Leonard
Tea
Geography
Childhood
Doing business in Italy
Whales
Forgiveness
Amiri Baraka
Psychoanalysis
Privacy
History
Faulkner
Food
Union democracy
Being Jewish
Ireland
Aging
Disability
Gay animals
The National Security Education Program (NSEP)
Laughter
NAFTA
Scientific experiments
Being a Muslim woman
Francoism
Boycotts
Postwar Japan
Pipelines
Things
1714 in Catalonia
South Asians in Africa
The 1970s
Light
Israel
Cervantes
Pragmatism
The Sun, the moon, and the stars.

Vogue

There’s science, and that’s great. Then there’s Science Bores (SBs), and they’re not. You know, people like Dawkins, Tyson, Pinker.

One of the irritating things about SBs is their pose of epistemological modesty. Science doesn’t dogmatically claim to be True, they’ll say. It just claims to be — and here there are many formulations, but one that I read recently is: “True on the basis of the available evidence.” (Presumably, there really ought to be an “apparently” at the beginning of that phrase, but let that pass.) This is the kind of thing that makes SBs pat their tummies with satisfaction.

Let’s abbreviate “True on the basis of the available evidence” as “TrueEv.”

What is the meaning of “true” in TrueEv?

It can’t be TrueEv, or we have an infinite regress.

But non-TrueEv True is what SBs deny  (via TrueEv).

So this kind of tummy-patting, which is supposed to signify an epistemological modesty, is in fact quite empty.

It’s just a pose.