Card perfect view
From the bridge
Of the tumbling creek
between loaves of snow
But walk in those woods
Under the branches
heavy with snow
where the low grey stripped
limbs of hemlock
curl up toward
the overhanging branches
still needled and green
under their winter burden
Lichen dangles down
like grey green yarn
twisted and ready to skein
Filaments of frosted web
Hang like threads
Alder cones cluster
on low bushes
orange red ash berries
pucker in the cold
The lake stretches
white with solid ice
to the other side
but open black water ripples
by the rush grown shore.
The language of Matthew’s gospel – the Greek of the nativity of Jesus – is political. We readers today can do our best to imagine who the original intended readers were. I believe much is clearly lost on us. And yet we can see a few things that give us the sense that the birth historiography is rhetorical and strategic.
1. Here’s a little background. Then 2. we’ll get more to a few adult political phrases in what’s now referred to as the Christmas story told to little children along with stories like The Christmas Carol.
Didn’t a writer in Jerusalem, recording the alleged events, have a choice about which language to use? The writers of the gospels of Luke (in a variant text) and of John, recording the death events of Jesus, say clearly that his crime written on the Roman cross was published in Hellene, Roman, and Hebrew (or Greek, Latin, and Aramaic: γράμμασιν Ἑλληνικοῖς καὶ Ῥωμαϊκοῖς καὶ Ἑβραϊκοῖς Οὗτός ἐστιν // καὶ ἦν γεγραμμένον Ἑβραϊστί, Ῥωμαϊστί, Ἑλληνιστί). John’s account, in Greek, peppers the death episode with Hebrew-Aramaic names accompanied by Greek glosses to the Greek reader and pops in the Latin word Caesar with the Greek transliteration / Καίσαρα / for the Greek reader. And right before the languages on the cross are specified, the Greek of John’s infers that the peoples of the region and of the City may have known how to read all of them; Willis Barnstone translates this Greek into English as “Many Jews read the placard because the place where Yeshua was crucified was near the city”: τοῦτον οὖν τὸν τίτλον πολλοὶ ἀνέγνωσαν τῶν Ἰουδαίων, ὅτι ἐγγὺς ἦν ὁ τόπος τῆς πόλεως ὅπου ἐσταυρώθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς. I bring up Barnstone for a couple of reasons.
He’s Jewish and multilingual and multicultural. And Barnstone has long wanted to restore the Jewishness of phrases in the New Testament Jesus. In his first translation of the gospels and the book of Revelation called The New Covenant, Barnstone noted in a footnote the following: “Jesus (from Greek Iesous [Ἰησοῦς]) can be Yeshua, or Joshua, as it is in translations from the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses, which restores Joshua to Yehoshua. Joshua is simply an older English way of transliterating Yeshua.” In an earlier book, Barnstone gives a bit of an explanation of Jesus from his viewpoint in the mix of languages and cultures:
Yeshuaben Yosef (Joshua Josephson in American) seems to have been a Pharisee opposed to Roman occupation who was crucified by the Romans as a Jewish seditionist, or some say (less persuasively) and Essene or Zealot. Recently, contemporary theologians speak of him as a Galilean peasant or an itinerant Cynic philosopher. Whoever Jesus was, he favored traditional Jewish biblical beliefs over the Hellenic thought and practices that by the first century had also been adopted by the Hasmonean hierarchy as well as by a large segment of the Jewish populace. Greek names were common. Hellenic culture was almost as dominant in Jerusalem as in Alexandria where a Jew such as the neoplantonist Philo Judaeus (?20 B.C.E. — 50 C.E.?) was Greek in training, language, and philosophy. Jesus’s followers, the sect of the Christian Jews, eventually adopted the essential neoplatonist ideas of eternity and the immorality of the soul. Later, the traditional Jews of Jerusalem were also platonized by Greek philosophy and by the increasingly platonized Christians, and the Jews accepted Greek and Christian ideas of the transmigration of the soul from earth to a heavenly or hellish incarnation. Such transcendental concepts had little or no basis in Torah (the Hebrew Bible) or in Greek scriptures (the New Covenant). But Jews and Christians went along with the dominant ontology of the Greeks and changed, as peoples and scriptures of all religions do, toward the spirit of the age.
While anyone might argue with the particulars of Barnstone’s overview of the historical Jesus, the context of the writing of the gospels and of Matthew’s Greek is pretty well established in this short paragraph. There are shifts of both language and culture to account for.
In Jerusalem, and in Rome, around the time of Jesus, and just before him around the time of Julius Caesar, Roman Latin did not dominate. Greek did. The specter of Alexander the Great loomed large. Still, the Greeks and Jews and Egyptians in Alexandria, who used Greek during that time, were not all together in how they used Greek. Barnstone’s little paragraph above just hints at neoplatonism being a shift. He could have said that there was a great rift. Scholar and historian Eric Havelock suggests that Plato (and then Aristotle and then Alexander) had strong political motivations for instituting a Greek language that worked against that of Homer and the poets. This was, if we will, a sort of Political Correctness for the Greek empire; and the Roman empire could not shake it either.
There was (and were), according to legend, Jewish translation(s) of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, in Alexandria, under the Ptolemies. And according to the scholarship of historian Sylvie Honigman there was much less of an Alexandrian paradigm and much more of a Homeric paradigm for both the historiography of the LXX and the actual literary critical theory and translation practices of the Septuagint. Another scholar, Naomi Seidman, points to the Talmud accounts of the LXX, which call it a “trickster text.” Another, Albert Pietersma, suggests in his reading and translating of the Septuagint’s Greek that the Jewish translator(s) knew the Hellene language well, at least well enough to provide literary sparks and interpretive spins.
Of course, we could argue with Barnstone and any of the others about how they read the Greek of the New Testament and of the Septuagint. What I’m interested in is the linguistic evidence of a resistance to Empire.
2. Matthew’s Political Baby Jesus
Here are a few adult political clauses and phrases in the historiography of Matthew on the birth of Jesus.
Is the backdrop of Egypt and of Empire highlighted?
- Ἐξ Αἰγύπτου ἐκάλεσα τὸν υἱόν μου. This means roughly “Out of the birthplace of Egypt, I have called my son.” It is an excerpt of a translation of the Hebrew and maybe a clip of a paraphrase of the Greek translation of Hosea 11:1 – Ἐξ Αἰγύπτου μετεκάλεσα τὰ τέκνα αὐτοῦ. That roughly means “Out of the birthplace of Egypt, I have recalled his children.” Matthew’s gospel is explaining the history of why the historical Jesus as an infant was in Egypt. It is not explaining what Hosea the Prophet might have meant by calling Israel a child, whether that meant the historical person Jacob as a boy or the nation of Israel. Egypt was the place of empire. Egypt had been the place of more than one empire. Greek readers of Matthew may have been familiar with the Bible’s Hebrew Hosea or with the LXX’s Greek Hosea. Much had come Out of Egypt to recall.
- Ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ. This is the quotation of what the “Magi” say. Greek scholar and New Testament translator Ann Nyland has notes (in her Source New Testament and also in her Study New Testament for Lesbians, Gays, Bi, and Transgender) around the gospel of Matthew that get at who the “Magoi” were. One note gives context: “By Jesus’ time, the Persian Empire had long been gone, conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s successors had taken over the various parts of the Old Persian Empire…. [T]he Magoi may have been the Official Spiritual Advisors to the Seleucid state [a torn division from Alexander's Empire].” Nyland also makes a big deal out of the verb in the second sentence I’ve quoted here to begin my paragraph:
Much has been made of this “Kingly” language too. It appears right here in the birth episode in Matthew’s gospel. Of course it reappears at the end, in the death episode and in the post-resurrection evangelistic episode. It’s the reason for King Herod’s infanticide of baby boys who didn’t make it out to Egypt. It’s the reason for Praefectus Pontius Pilatus’s public trial of the adult Jesus and what appears on the cross in the three languages in the crucifixion.
One way to read the horrors of the second chapter of the Greek gospel of Matthew is a statement of resistance. Jews in Alexandria may have resisted the Ptolomaic Kings’s command for an Imperial Greek version of their Holy Scriptures; out of Egypt instead may have come a trickster text. Jews in Jerusalem and in Alexandria reading this gospel may have seen these worshipers of “the King of the Jews” from the East as those from a rogue split in the Old Greek Empire of Alexander the Great.
Are the names of Jesus subversive?
- Ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ· ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Μεθ’ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός. This may be one of the most hotly discussed set of sentences in this Greek gospel. It riffs off of the Greek “translation” of Isaiah 7, which ostensibly changes the Hebrew word for “young girl” to the Greek word that some insist must mean “girl who’s not yet had sex with a man.” For this reason, it’s been wrongly called a “mistranslation.” Well, anyone who knows her Greek understands that the phrase “parthenos” here is much more loaded than that. It’s hardly some proof text that Miriam (aka Mary) was a “virgin” (since the context already fairly establishes that). Did perhaps the translators in Alexandria, Egypt intend to send a subversive message to the King? Had they been aware of how Hesiod had written: “There is a maiden. Justice, [παρθένος ἐστὶ Δίκη] born of Zeus, celebrated and revered by the gods who dwell on Olympus, and…. Bear this in mind, Kings… and put crooked judgments quite out of your minds.” (We may wonder why this language of pregnancy. Why all the literary spin and the interpretive changes by the Greek for the Prophet Isaiah?) Now, the Greek reader of Matthew’s gospel can clearly see that the baby boy born was NOT actually named “Immanuel, which is translated God With Us.” Or is there something else going on?
- καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν … καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν. “And ye shall [said the Messenger to Josef] call his name Jesus” … “And he called him Joshua.” Here there’s no calling this boy Immanuel (which is a transliteration, which gets interpreted, translated as God With Us). Rather, there’s this other name, Yeshua. It’s Moses’s nickname for Hosea ben Nun born in Egypt. In Hebrew it can mean something like, “G-d will save.” Here Matthew’s readers get the sounds, the transliteration. They get it in Greek like it’s an inside joke. And the whole of the sixth book, after the Five Books of Moses, is named, in Greek, this very name. And there’s another Jesus/Joshua/Yeshua too:
- The other one is the Jesus mentioned by the Prophet Zechariah (See 3:8 and 6:11-12). In the Hebrew, the name gets interpreted somehow as meaning something like Branch. In the Hellene translation of the Hebrew there’s the strange use of the ambiguous Greek phrase Ἀνατολήν [ / anatolen /], which plays nicely against the verb ἀνατελεῖ in Greek Zechariah 6:12 and against the verb ἀναστήσω (later for resurrection) in Greek Jeremiah 23:5. So what’s that mean? What does the Hebraic Hellene here mean? The Targum of Jonathan (and not only this text) calls the name here Messiah. And Matthew has already used the Greek word for Messiah for Jesus by now. And we’ve already discussed the Magoi worshiping this baby as the King of the Jews under this star, in the East, or in the Rising place of the Sun, τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ.
The Greek / Hebrew names here for the baby Jesus are rather political in contrast to the Empire of Alexander and the Empire of the Caesar. God With Us, G-d Saves Us Out of Egypt, Messiah Out of the East Where the Sun Rises. There’s much here that’s literary, much rhetorical, much translational, much perhaps resistant to the sort of obvious straightforward history writing that platonic/aristotelian/alexandrian Greek writing would lead readers to. I’m not suggesting that the message of Matthew isn’t clear. Rather, what’s clear to us in English translation today and in the telling of the story as a Christmas one for children may not be all there is.
I began to think that Olivétan had surely not come up with the name “Eternel” on his own. He had a library of 70 books with him as a resource. Certainly a great number for that time. In fact, when he died, he left his books to Calvin who sold them all except for the Biblia Rabbinica of Daniel Bomberg. This Hebrew Bible with Targums and commentary would have cited Maimonides. So we know that Olivétan had some exposure to Maimonides.
Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed cites Targum Onkelos saying, “Eternal, Eternal, All-powerful, All-merciful, All-gracious,” with reference to Exodus 34:6. However, Olivétan does not actually use “L’Eternel” in Ex. 34:6. He does use the term in Ex. 3 but it is later French translators who used it consistently throughout the Hebrew Bible. Without a copy of the Biblia Rabbinica of Bomberg, or a list of his other books, we don’t know exactly what Olivétan had exposure to and what he had read about the use of “Eternel” for God, but probably something.
In an aside, Olivétan seems to have been a least partially responsible for the use of accents in the French language.
As Nina Catach does not exactly place Olivétan with respect to the orthographic revolution of his time, I would like to present a summary. Olivétan proposed his definition of the correct spelling in a little school manual in 1533, of which the printing is produced by Pierre de Vingle: “L’Instruction des enfans contenant la maniere de prononcer et escrire en francoys … ” He showed his concern to promote the usage of diacritics, accents aigu, grave, and circonflexe, tréma, trait d’union, apostrophe. If these signs do not appear [and they don't usually] in the publications which he confided to Pierre de Vingle, en particular in the Bible, the fault falls to the printer. Vingle only had old materials, limited to the Gothic Batarde. In this script, not an accent, not an apostrophe, not a hyphen: the break that we mark with a comma is indicated by an oblique stroke. Dans L’Instruction of 1533, the reader is warned “You will also have to excuse the printer who has not observed the manner of writing and punctuating, by the lack of characters which he does not have at the moment.”
Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerrero together wrote a series of essays on various deities and monsters in literature. These were compiled and published in book form under titles such as Manual de zoología fantástica and El libro de los seres imaginarios. Two different English translations were produced respectively by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and by Andrew Hurley.
Borges and Guerrero likely collaborated with di Giovanni on the one English translation of the original Spanish. But “original Spanish” is open to dispute. Hurley explains this:
It it clear that for much of the material in the original Spanish [book] — sometimes entire “entries” — Borges was translating directly from a source, acknowledged in some cases, unacknowledged in many others, or was using a Spanish translation of a “classic.” Quite often, he seems to have been translating (or rewriting) into Spanish from an English translation from, for example, the Greek…. The nature of Borges’ erudition, creativity, and sense of fun is such that it has been simply impossible to ferret out all the originals, where originals in fact ever existed (some of his “quotations” are almost certainly apocrypha, put-ons)…. [My own translator notes] may make the book [in English language] seem stodgier, more academic, less fun that it was clearly always meant to be. I hope that readers of this volume [translated by me], dipping into it here and there as Borges hoped they would, will not lose (or be stripped of) their sense of playfulness by feeling that they have to go look up the page numbers for Pliny [for example] — think of it as just another of Borges’ ways of blurring lines between the serious and the playful.
I have dipped into just one entry for this particular blogpost. Below is the essay entitled “Lilith” in the Spanish and in the two respective English translations.
For more on Lilith, blog readers may want to consider this BLT Blogpost written by Ann Nyland.
In addition, here is the entry in the online work, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, written by Rebecca Lesses.
2013 marks the hundredth anniversary of the notorious Paris premiere of the Nijinsky ballet and Stravinsky score of Le Sacre Du Printemps conducted by Pierre Monteux.
The May 29th premiere reportedly generated quite a negative response, according to contemporary accounts, such as this recounting in the New York Times (note, however, that when the lights were turned up, status-conscious Parisians stopped booing):
Aren’t you glad you didn’t see that stinker! (Although Bel Air Classiques has just reissued in DVD-book format its recording of the Mariinsky/Valery Gergiev reconstruction of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring choreography)
In honor of the 100th anniversary, there are a bevy of very nice box rereleases of the recording. Decca has released a box set of 35 recordings of the Rite of Spring (along with three recordings of the piano duet version and one recording of the Violin Concerto in D)
- The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1946) Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Eduard van Beinum
- The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1950) L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1954) RIAS Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Ferenc Fricsay
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1954) Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1956) Orchestre des Cento Soli, Rudolf Albert
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1956) Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, Pierre Monteux
- The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1957) L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1959) Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1963) Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1963) London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1969) Los Angeles Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1972) Boston Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1973) London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink
- The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1974) London Philharmonic Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf
- The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1974) Wiener Philharmoniker, Lorin Maazel
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1974) Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1975) London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1976) Concertgebouw Orchestra, Colin Davis
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1977) Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
- The Rite of Spring (1913 version; recorded in 1978) National Youth Orchestra, Simon Rattle
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1979) Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1981) Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati
- The Rite of Spring (1913 version; recorded in 1982) Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein
- The Rite of Spring (1921 version; recorded in 1984) Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, Charles Dutoit
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1985) The Cleveland Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1991) The Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1991) Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Georg Solti
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1992) The MET Orchestra, James Levine
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1994) Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester, Berlin, Vladimir Ashkenazy
- The Rite of Spring (recorded in 1995) Orchestre de Paris, Semyon Bychkov
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1995) Berliner Philharmoniker, Bernard Haitink
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 1999) Kirov Orchestra, St Petersburg, Valery Gergiev
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 2006) Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 2007) Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Myung-Whun Chung
- The Rite of Spring (1947 version; recorded in 2010) Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel
- The Rite of Spring (1913 version for two pianos; recorded in 1968) Bracha Eden & Alexander Tamir (piano)
- The Rite of Spring (1913 version for two pianos; recorded in 1983) Güher & Süher Pekinel (piano)
- The Rite of Spring (1913 version for two pianos; recorded in 1990) Vladimir Ashkenazy & Andrei Gavrilov (piano)
- Violin Concerto in D (Bonus CD. recorded in 1935) Samuel Dushkin (violin), Lamoureux Concert Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky
Russell Platt wrote a thoughtful review of the box set in the New Yorker.
Not to be outdone, Sony has issued its own box set which is notable for some very early recordings:
- The Rite of Spring (recorded 1929/1930) Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski
- The Rite of Spring (recorded 1940) New York Philharmonic, Igor Stravinsky
- The Rite of Spring (recorded 1951) Boston Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux
- The Rite of Spring (recorded 1955) Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy
- The Rite of Spring (recorded 1960) Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky
- The Rite of Spring (recorded 1968) Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa
- The Rite of Spring (recorded 1969) Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez
- The Rite of Spring (recorded 1972) London Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein
- The Rite of Spring (recorded 1989) Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen
- The Rite of Spring (recorded 1996) San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson-Thomas
as well as a single disk of Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 recording with the New York Philharmonic.
This bevy of recordings provides a remarkable opportunity to see just how much influence a conductor can have on a recording, as one compares the differences between styles. This remarkable recorded history is a wonderful tribute to the genius of Igor Stravinsky.
Bilingual poets are just fascinating. They live in a world of ambiguities, two worlds. Jorge Luis Borges is one such individual. This week I’m a bit compelled to call him and his language(s) “optimistic.” At the very least, I think I want to make a case that Borges was not pessimistic about language. Yes, he quoted G. K. Chesterton, a lot, and was indebted to him frequently, for the Englishman’s use of and expressions about language.
What I’m pushing back against is a caricature of the view of language that Borges expresses and practices. This week on the Language Log, Mark Liberman quotes George Carlin on language followed by another quotation, “[a] less optimistic spin from G.K. Chesterton” followed by another quotation from “Jorge Luis Borges [who] used this quotation from Chesterton, in Spanish translation.” One commenter, then, asserts further: “It’s obvious that, as Chesterton and Borges said, language is a flawed and often inadequate tool for communicating the ineffability of life.” Well, I’d say from my own readings of Borges (and of his of Chesterton), that the translating poet sees language as much more powerful and positive than the blogger’s and commenter’s assertions would have him see it. Let’s take a second look at this.
If anything ought to be obvious it’s how carefully, and very very very precisely, Borges renders the English of Chesterton into his own Spanish, in this particular case:
He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest [...] Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.
El hombre sabe que hay en el alma tintes más desconcertantes, más innumerables y más anónimos que los colores de una selva otoñal… cree, sin embargo, que esos tintes, en todas sus fusiones y conversiones, son representables con precisión por un mecanismo arbitrario de gruñidos y de chillidos. Cree que del interior de un bolsista salen realmente ruidos que significan todos los misterios de la memoria y todas las agonias del anhelo.
Liberman does link to sources for the quotation, both in English and then in Spanish. When quoting the English from his linked source, nonetheless, he fails to capture what Alberto Manguel says about Chesterton’s quotation, and it is after all Manguel who is quoting Chesterton in his introduction to On Lying in Bed and Other Essays by G.K. Chesterton. Immediately following the quotation, Manguel asserts:
Paradoxically, in words like these, written against the power of words, Chesterton raises the reader’s trust in that same questioned power.
Both Liberman (saying Chesterton is making a “less optimistic spin” about language) and also the commenter (saying “as Chesterton … said, language is a flawed and often inadequate tool for communicating the ineffability of life”) fail to see Chesterton’s paradox.
Borges gets Chesterton and all of the nuance as well.
First, as I’ve said, he uses Spanish to say very very precisely, what Chesterton in the quotation has said. It’s not a translation with a “spin”; it’s not Spanish that is either flawed or inadequate for communicating the Englishman’s English. Liberman links to the Borges translation in his essay, “El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins.” I’ve also found Borges quoting Chesterton, in translation, in his essay, “De las alegorías a las novelas.” And to introduce and to make conclusions about this quotation, Borges begins: “Chesterton para vindicar lo alegorico.” He is noticing how Chesterton is vindicating allegorical language. Is there pessimism relative to what the comedian Carlin is saying? Is there some expression about flaws in language or its inadequacies for communication? Only if one fails to understand Chesterton’s language, or Borges’s.
Second, just to pick up on allegory and metaphor and so forth, I’d like to turn to how Chesterton (and Borges translating him) uses forest here, and elsewhere, tree.
For Chesterton, the image of “forest” here is a ground for radical variation. Language, in the believer in language that he’s talking about, is to “more” varied, the more being the adjective on the various variations “in the soul” of the language believer, which, are, supposed by this language believer to be “accurately represented” by his language, his words, his utterances, his “grunts and squeals.” The “forest” then is clearly inadequate, from the get go, as a complete analogy to the “soul.” And yet, this is exactly precisely the sort of powerful, optimistic, adequate point of what Chesterton’s astute readers, like Manguel and Borges, are beginning to get. As we all know, the “forest” need not be confused with the “trees.” :) In this particular paragraph, the metaphor is intended to be for the readers (and perhaps this imagined language believer) as something rather invariant (though full of variations upon variations). I’m not trying to run this explanation into the ground, to overexplain. But some the point of a metaphor is how inexhaustible it is, semantically speaking. In other words, to say something like, “A soul is a forest” is to introduce not just one possibility but several. The fun of this little paragraph is that it introduces an argument, as if there can be logic to expose the flaws in the metaphor: “A soul is NOT forest.” :)
This little paragraph somehow reminded me of a conversation that Willis Barnstone, also a multilingual poet, had with Borges (reported in several of Barnstone’s works). It was in English. It goes like this:
BORGES: When you write down the images, those images may not mean anything to you. It’s what you get in the case of Poe and of Lovecraft. The images are awful but the feeling isn’t awful.
BARNSTONE: And I suppose a good writer is one who comes up with the right images to correspond to the feeling.
BORGES: To a feeling, yes. Or who may give you the nightmare feeling with common objects or things. I remember how I found a proof of that in Chesterton. He says that we might think that at the end of the world there is a tree whose very shape is evil. Now that’s a fine word, and I think that stands for that kind of feeling, no? Now, that tree could hardly be described. While, if you think of a tree, for example, made of skulls, of ghosts, that would be quite silly. But what we said, a tree whose very shape is evil. That show he really had a nightmare about that tree. No? If not, how would he know about that tree?
BARNSTONE: I’ve always been puzzled why my tongue moves, why words come out of my mouth or from in my head. These words are like seconds of a clock happening, sounding almost by themselves.
In this conversation, there’s a similar sort of topic. Is language adequate, if representational? What about when I utter things with my mouth? What about when a poet writes?
And then there’s a quotation of Chesterton, by Borges.
Instead of a forest, there’s the mention of a tree. If you know Chesterton, then you know he uses the tree as an image quite a bit. But Borges is keying in on one little particular instance. The concern is whether Chesterton describes it right. There’s the mention of shape. There’s the metaphor of evil. It’s an apocalyptic, end of the world moment.
So, when and where does Chesterton say this? It’s the opener of Chapter VI of Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare -
Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world. Again and again Syme strove to pull together his common sense in their presence. Sometimes he saw for an instant that these notions were subjective, that he was only looking at ordinary men, one of whom was old, another nervous, another short-sighted. The sense of an unnatural symbolism always settled back on him again. Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought. He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something—say a tree—that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself—a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.
Notice the language here. “Fancy” and “as in” and “fable” and “that if” and the subjunctive “he would find something” and the supposition “say a tree” and the equivocations “was more or less” and the qualification / modification “possessed by a spirit.”
What we don’t find here in Chesterton’s English is anything about a shape of a tree. Rather, the whole description has morphed, by the time we read the word shape, to “a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked.” And so we find Borges doing more with Chesterton’s language. The “tree” is the “tower.” And “evil” really is “wicked.” And yet Borges is able to move his tongue with a system of grunts and squeals, with un mecanismo … de gruñidos y de chillidos. The imprecision, the arbitrariness, the wonder at whether there’s precise representation, is all beside the point. Or perhaps is the point. Language is image. Powerful imagery. Adequate. Optimistic. More or less. Forests. Trees. And so is the language of Borges on the language of Chesterton.
Just a few brief citations from Franz Rosenzweig regarding Mendelssohn’s choice of Der Ewige (The Eternal), first from here, page 175 1923,
Rosenzweig congratulates Mendelssohn for capturing or attempting to capture, in one phrase God’s providence, eternity, and necessary existence. Yet identifying God with eternal being can be something of an evasion. Buber translates God’s proper name as ‘He-is-there’ (Images of Good and Evil, p. 67) and Rosenzweig translates … ICH BIN DA. … The Emphasis which Rosenzweig wishes to bring out here is not on the everlasting being of God but on his eternal presentness,
and from here, page 263, 1929,
[T]his interpretation of the divine name as “The Eternal” or, alternately, as “the eternal essence” was “austere, sublime,” and “genuinely ‘numinous.'” But its origins were Hellenistic, not Jewish. … According to Rosenzweig, this fundamentally “Hellenistic” interpretation missed Judaism’s richly personalist and this-worldly understanding of God.
(Click on the tag “Eternal” in the top right corner for the other posts in this series.)
This will be a bit sketchy, a plane to catch this afternoon. But the problem with LORD is that it is anthropomorphic, and extension of a word for a certain type of human, a male boss, with sometimes unlimited rights. Almost all names for God are anthropomorphic except when He is called our rock and our shield, etc. Even putting the word in all caps doesn’t really make the word LORD non-anthropomorphic.
But another problem is that both “Lord” and “God” are semantically gendered words in English and are not semantically gendered words in Hebrew. That is, they have grammatical gender in Hebrew, they are referred to as “he.” But this is a function of the grammar of the language. A mother eagle can be a “he” or a table is a “he.” That’s just how it goes.
But in English “Lord” is semantically gendered because it is the opposite partner to “lady,” and “God” is semantically gendered because it has the opposite partner of “goddess.” Note the lower cap. They are not equal.
However, in Hebrew Elohim for God has no semantic gender. It is not male and cannot designate a human or indicate that God is male. It has no female contrasting equivalent. It is a plural word to begin with but takes a singular verb or pronoun. However, it has no semantic masculine content.
Yahweh, translated LORD, in the King James Bible, is the same. It has no feminine contrasting partner and no masculine content. Yahweh is the one who exists forever. Yahweh is also a personal being who relates to humans. Yahweh is not masculine or feminine, but Hebrew has only masculine and feminine grammatical categories, so grammatically it is masculine. This does not mean that Yahweh is masculine any more than a table is masculine. We are wrong to attribute to Yahweh Elohim attributes which we value in males over attributes which we value in females. Actually, humans are skewed in this. Overall, we value courage, honesty, loyalty, and a love of fun – for both men and women. We need to pull this one together and eliminate the great chasm dug between men and women.
Yahweh Elohim Shaddai, another name for God, can command armies and provide women with fertility. Yahweh exists forever as Itself. How shall we refer to Yahweh? As The Eternal? Next post will deal with Franz Rosenzweig’s opinion on this topic just preceding the Holocaust. Who is this Yahweh God?
LORD God in English marches to a masculine tune, but Yahweh Elohim does not. It doesn’t sound feminine, it sounds non-human but relating to humans.
Note: I snuck Shaddai in there and some want to call this the “Breasted God.” I find this icky, I don’t want a phallic God or a breasted God. Just silly. “The One who is sufficient” that is the possible meaning of this name.
Clicjk on the tag “Eternal” at the top to read all posts in this series.
Historically, Jewish and Christian translations of the Bible into English have tended to use ‘Lord,’ with some exceptions (notably, Moffatt’s ‘The Eternal’).
But we know that Grace Aguilar, a very well known Jewish writer in her day (died 1847), used “The Eternal,” Benisch, 1852 used “The Eternal” in his translation, and Leeser, 1853, used “The Everlasting One.”
Exo 3:15 And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The Everlasting One, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.
Buber and Rosenzweig used Ich Bin Da, “I am present” in German. But David E. Stein found that “The Eternal” was the most popular choice for a translation of Yahweh for the Gender Sensitive Jewish translation. However, for a variety of reasons it was not used. Stein writes,
The most favored rendering was as “the Eternal” — which is popular well beyond the bounds of the Reform movement, where it has appeared in Bible translations and liturgy for at least fifteen years. Most informants involved in ritual settings gravitated toward the idea that the Name is related to the Hebrew verbal root for existence — a connection made by the Torah itself at the Burning Bush (Exod 3). This understanding commended renderings such as the Eternal, the Eternal One, The One Who Will Be There, the One, Being, Eternal Being, Becoming, Source of Being. Of these, “the Eternal” was most often named.
Some who suggested such renderings did so because they understood that for many contemporary Jews, God as a persona either makes no sense or is anathema. A few respondents mentioned der Ewige (a German coinage in 1783 by the Jewish philosopher and translator Moses Mendelssohn) or L’éternel (used in the most widely accepted French translation among Christians, by Louis Segond, 1874). Familiarity with those precedents seemed to make it more likely to find “the Eternal” unexceptional. However, a few respondents objected that such a term over interprets how the Torah presents its Deity; and another considers it “far too impersonal.”
Others focused less on the Name’s meaning than on its sound, finding it remarkable that the Name consists only of vowel-letters, such that its original pronunciation must have been unusually breathy. For Arthur Waskow, a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement, this warrants rendering the Name as “the Breath of Life.”
The editors opted for Yahweh written out in the Hebrew letters – a non-interpretive choice. There is a lot of philosophizing and theologizing to be done on this topic, so more to follow.
If you click on the tag “Eternal” at the top right of this post you should get all 7 posts in this series.
I have found “The Eternal” used in Jewish English Bible translations but it seems to have disappeared again. In the early 1800’s, the very successful Jewish author of fiction and non-fiction, Grace Aguilar, used the expression, The Eternal, in her writings. I found this in Let Her Speak for Herself. But Aguilar died in 1847, before a Jewish English Bible was published. She was, however, known and read by Benisch and encouraged him to produce a translation of the Hebrew Bible. He did this, and published it in 1852, several years after her death in 1847. We Know that both Aguilar and Benisch called God, The Eternal. We also know that this was lost in the JPS 1917 translation. We don’t know who brought “The Eternal” into English, but Aguilar spoke French and translated a book from French and Benisch spoke German. It may be useless to try to narrow this down further.
I am happy to see that not only the Darbyites, but women too, have their own wine. Last night I enjoyed a meal cooked by a woman, wine distilled by women, over five generations, Les Chateau Doms wines, and reading sermons by women – Let Her Speak For Herself , by Heather Weir and Marion Ann Taylor – all in the congenial company of men and women. If you are committed to being aware, you can find women involved in anything and everything. Why do I need convincing? Brought up in a world where men do this and women do that. Anyway, it was a very good wine for those who like Merlot, very smooth and soft.
Marg Mowczko quotes the NIV and adds a little interpolation in brackets, when she says the following:
Numbers 11:12 indicates that God wanted Moses to lead in a maternal way.
Moses complains and says: “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse [i.e. a breast feeding woman] carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors?”
I mention this here: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/masculine-and-feminine-leadership/
Reading her comment now, I can hardly stop imagining Moses himself writing this. It is in the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch, or “The Five Books of Moses“).
And don’t we also imagine him writing down, in the Hebrew language, the story of his own name. It’s right there in what we refer to as the second chapter of שמות, Sh’mot, “Names,” or from the Greek translation of it, in the second chapter of ἔξοδος, Exodos, “the birthed-way out.”
His name is an Egyptian woman’s Egyptian language for something like “delivered.” She’s one of his surrogate mothers, who delivers him out of the waters of the Nile and who calls on his sister to find a wet nurse for him. And we know the story. The three women conspire to deliver this little baby from death, his surrogate mother, his sister, and his wet-nurse, his very own birth mother.
We must imagine, then, that Moses is a translator. He’s clearly bilingual. He’s clearly literate in Hebrew too. So he’s able to write down for his readers, even for you and for me, we might suppose, what his surrogate mother called him. We think of his name usually as the most Hebrew of Hebrew names, but he somehow gets in a play on his Egyptian name and the Hebrew verb meaning “pulled out,” “rescued,” or even perhaps “delivered as a baby is delivered.” And so his name is motherly from the get go. And it goes into Greek then and now into English as a transliteration that sounds something like Moshe(h) or Moses or Μωυσῆς.
The passage Exodus 2:6-10, with the bit of Egyptian language translated presumably, provides some of the Hebrew language, and then the Greek language for Numbers 11:12. Perhaps you can look at your Hebrew Bible and then at your Septuagint translation for all of that.
I imagine Moses himself having fun writing all of this. I imagine, then, the Septuagint translator in Egypt having fun with the Greek. I, then, imagine NETS translator Peter W. Flint having fun making the Hellene rendered Hebrew of Moses into English:
Was it I who carried in the womb all this people, or was it I who gave birth to them, that you are saying to me, ‘Take them to your bosom, as a nurse might take up the sucking child,’ into the land, which you swore to their fathers?
Thus says the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
Jeremiah 10:2-4 (ESV)
HT James F. McGrath, who gets us looking at “what is problematic about prooftexting – whether carried out by the Bible’s authors or by modern apologists.”
The points made are worth exploring.
I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren or the Darbyites, as outsiders might call us, to identify us with John Nelson Darby. In French this group was called the Darbystes. I was researching the Darbystes and the first hits were the name of a Belgium beer. I did not at first think that there was any connection. But apparently there is! Our family and our religious group, in North America, were complete teetotallers. We did not touch alcohol or allow a bottle of any alcoholic drink in our house – ever.
This beer seems to have had fig juice in it, so you could say you were drinking fig juice – with 5.8 % alcohol – so it was better than whatever else these people were used to. The ad says, “Recipe of our grandmothers who, considering the low alcohol content, would have attributed this drink to the Darbystes (disciples of pastor Darby) still existing in the Borinage. [an area of Belgium.]
This links to Challies post about Arthur Guinness. I had never really associated beer with Christianity before.
Here’s from a couple of pages of Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made: A Womanist Theology by Diana L. Hayes:
With the violent rebellion of Nat Turner, a black slave minister, and the growing Northern agitation against slavery, much of the slaves’ freedom to worship was abruptly ended. In a matter of weeks, harsh and oppressive Black Codes were passed in the Southern states that forbade the teaching of reading and writing and stripped black ministers of their right to preach and gather a church. These restrictions severely crippled religious freedom and activity for blacks in the South until after the Civil War. Once-thriving churches were closed, often violently, and religion in the South became white-dominated and white-oriented. The observance of black religious services took place out of sight of the masters, at night, in the fields or not at all.
What type of religious beliefs were the outgrowth of this mixture of freedom and oppression? They were beliefs expressed in terms of the paradox and mystery of God’s dealings with humankind. There was an intertwining of emotion with perception that led to a unique theology of hope. It was not a religion of complacency or compensation. Nor was it a religion that looked only to “pie in the sky when I die.” Rather, it was a faith rooted in an encounter with injustice from which sprang a theology of God’s mysterious exercise of sovereignty over human history expressed in judgment or forgiveness, but most of all, in love.
Blacks took the stories of the fall of Adam and Eve, of Moses, of Mary, and of the cross and interpreted them in the light of their own encounters with despair and hope.
Moses became the deliverer of an enslaved people as well as the bearer of the Ten Commandments. Jonah’s trembling denunciation of the sin of the Ninevites affirmed their suspicion that the rich and powerful were not necessarily God’s chosen. Biblical accounts of the conduct of believing Jews during the Babylonian exile — of Daniel, of the three who would not bow down, and of Esther the Queen — seemed to Christian Blacks, as to generations of Jews, to be allegories of promise to the oppressed. The baby Jesus, needing tenderness and care, revealed a God whose love made him somehow vulnerable and dependent, and weakness of human faith joined him forever with the meek who would inherit the earth. [quoted from "Slavery and Theology: The Emergence of Black Christian Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century America" by Timothy L. Smith in Church History]
Over at Gaudete Theology, I’ve done a fairly close read of the questionnaire that is part of the Preparatory Document for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that Pope Francis has called for October 2014. This is the questionnaire that caused
a flurry of media and blog coverage about whether this was the first time such a thing had ever been done, whether it amounted to a survey on church doctrine, which bishops’ conferences and individual bishops were posting the survey online for easy lay participation, which were not, which were posting something kind of like the survey but simplified (and possibly slanted), and which lay groups were doing the same.
I discuss these issues, and go through the questionnaire in some detail, providing commentary and interpretation of the questions and the overall effort.
Although the blog post is oriented towards, and contains some advice for, Catholics who are encouraged to respond to the questionnaire, it may be of interest to anyone who would like to follow what the Catholic church is doing in this area.
The blog post is titled
because that is what Catholics are being asked to do by means of this document. If you’re interested, please click through to read and discuss it there.