Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race

I can’t remember exactly when or where I first heard about Reni Eddo-Lodge’s, Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, but I do remember thinking, “I need to read this soon.” As a white male feminist, I am always trying to listen more and talk less, both about race and about women’s issues. I don’t mean that I’m silent about issues (far from it). I talk about equality, social justice, etc. all the time, and rather loudly, to the chagrin of many of my social media followers, I’m sure; but I prefer to listen to the voices of women when there is a conversation about women’s issues, to the voices of black men and women when there is a conversation about race, to the voices of native Americans when there is a conversation about indigenous peoples’ rights, etc. So, I have been inspired by the #MeToo movement, by the rampant misogyny exposed by our most recent presidential election, and by the racism and white nationalism that is becoming ever more public and present in our society, to make conscious efforts to listen harder and to read more, so that I can be informed about others’ experiences and what I can do to be an ally (the same consideration I hope folks give to LGBTQIAA+ issues).

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a title from an intelligent and accomplished black feminist woman who said she has stopped talking to white people about race. Who needs to hear the message more than white people? How could she do this? Why is she giving up? All of these rather selfish and short-sighted questions arose immediately upon seeing the title, so I purchased the book in hopes to find answers. What I got, however, was not just the writer’s rationale for turning her attention elsewhere, but a host of thoughts on issues about intersectionality, race, gender, class, and British history. In addition, there was excellent insight as to what I can do as an ally, personally, but also how I can encourage positive ally behavior in others. I don’t know if these last benefits were even intended by Eddo-Lodge, but I hope to take the lessons and run with them anyway.

The book itself stems from a 2014 essay that the author first published on her blog. So many people begged her not to stop talking. Others completely agreed, understood, and supported her. And still others tried to turn the conversation and make it about themselves (no surprise to anyone with a history of feminist thought or activism, right?) I think the most important feature to come from the expansion of the post into a more formal, critical work, is the exposure of Britain’s deeply-rooted institutional history with racism. In many ways, Eddo-Lodge’s analysis of British history reminded me of what our own history of race has looked like in the United States, especially our issues with structural racism and the misunderstandings about it. The real damaging power of racism is not what happens on the individual level, but within all the systems that our citizenry, society, government, politics, and economy rely on to function.

In every area, white people (and white men, especially) have had an advantage. But the conversation keeps stalling at the point where individuals feel targeted. When we mention “white privilege” or “male privilege,” to someone who benefits from these, for example, they often take it as a personal attack and feel offended that we are blaming them for something they have no control over; on the contrary, where the conversation needs to go, Eddo-Lodge says, is beyond the personal and to the structural: we are not talking about your racism or your gender, but about the systems in which we all exist and where some people have a distinct advantage because of race and gender (and class). So, how do we help advance the conversation and encourage people to move beyond their first reactions based on their own personal and identifiable experiences (I was poor, too – I worked three jobs – I paid for my own college – nobody gave me the promotion, I worked 10 years for it –  my family came from nothing – etc. etc.), and toward the bigger issues?

I’m not sure Eddo-Lodge answers the question. I’m not sure there is any single answer to this question. But perhaps writing books like this one, reading books like this one, and encouraging others, who would not normally pick up books like this one to do so, is as good a start as we can possibly make. Have the hard conversations. Welcome people into the difficult and sensitive conversations.

Michael Oatman once wrote, “it’s odd to educate oneself away from one’s past.” History, written by the winners, is a powerful tool, and it hasn’t often told the whole story. Maybe the best thing that allies can do is to begin helping others, and themselves, to fill in the gaps and widen the lens. I hope people like Reni Eddo-Lodge keep talking, and writing, because their voices are crucial to this goal, and to the eventual possibility for a more just society.

Notable Quotes

“When I talk about white people, I don’t mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled, or that they’ve never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it” (87).

“White support looks like financial or administrative assistance to the groups doing vital work. Or intervening when you are needed in bystander situations. Support looks like white advocacy for anti-racist causes in all-white spaces. White people, you need to talk to other white people about race” (215-16).

“Combing through the literature on clashes between black people and the police, I noticed another clash – one of perspective. While some people called what happened . . . a riot, others called it an uprising . . . I think there’s truth in both perspectives, and that the extremity of a riot only ever reflects the extreme living conditions of said rioters. Language is important” (53).

“When swathes of the population vote for politicians and political efforts that explicitly use racism as a campaigning tool, we tell ourselves that huge sections of the electorate simply cannot be racist, as that would render them heartless monsters. But this isn’t about good and bad people. The covert nature of structural racism is difficult to hold to account. It slips out of your hands easily, like a water-snake toy” (64).

“I choose to use the word structural rather than institutional [racism] because I think it is built into spaces much broader than our more traditional institutions” (64).

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Joyce’s Ulysses: Episodes 1-6 #FebBloom

Melissa over at Avid Reader’s Musings is hosting a read-along of James Joyce’s Ulysses this month, and I promised to post my reading guides/reactions for anyone who might want another perspective on this difficult read. This post covers Episodes 1-6. If you are reading along or want to join, remember to use #FebBloom for social media.

The Episodes

Book One

Telemachus_and_Mentor1Telemachus: This is the first chapter in part one of Ulysses, part one being concerned with the morning activities (approximately 8am-11am) of Stephen Dedalus. Dedalus was first introduced in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which, unfortunately, I did not have time to read prior to beginning this book. I think it’s a good idea, for anyone considering this book, to read Portrait first. In any event, Stephen Dedalus seems to be an artistic sort, bright and creative, but also a bit lost – confused, maybe. And a pushover. The link between Dedalus and Telemachus seems weak at this point. In The Odyssey, Telemachus is a young hero, come of age, who leaves home to find his father, Odysseus. Here, Stephen Dedalus is essentially being forced out of his home by a “usurper,” Mulligan. The main point of the chapter seems to be the contrast between Mulligan and Dedalus. Mulligan is a scientist-cynic and an extroverted type, whereas Dedalus is a dreamy idealist who keeps to himself. Stephen seems to be an atheist, yet he can’t tolerate the overt nature of Mulligan’s blasphemous lifestyle. Also, Mulligan seems to be concerned only with “what happens next” – he can’t get his mind to think any farther than the next drink (which he assumes Stephen will be paying for). Dedalus, meanwhile, is mired in the past, thinking constantly about his dead mother and how he might have wronged her by not praying at her bedside.

There might be something, too, about the fact that Stephen can’t see very well. I understand that his near-blindness played an important role in Portrait of the Artist, so I can only assume it will do so here as well. Some of the motifs being established in this first chapter might include father-son themes, the idea of a lost/raped Ireland (a wasteland of sorts), and symbols of “keys” and milkwomen, all of which could be religious symbols of sorts. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is also evoked quite overtly, and that play is perhaps one of the most famous for “false fathers,” meaning Dedalus would be Hamlet.

I don’t know much about Irish history, but certainly this chapter, and the next one, are highly concerned with usurpation and false fathers, and I believe England could be seen as both, by non-Anglicized Irishmen and women. The symbol of the key, then, may be related to Ireland’s future – will it continue to be subjected to English rule, or can it take its place again as its own nation? Who or what holds the key to Ireland’s destiny?

220px-Nestor_03Nestor: In this chapter, we are introduced to Mr. Deasy, Stephen Dedalus’s boss (head of the school where Dedalus teaches). In mythology, Nestor was a Greek soldier and friend of Odysseus. He was a chronicler of history and the first man whom Telemachus met on his journey to find his father. In both The Odyssey and Ulysses, this man has a “talent” for verbosity, a writer/rhetorician who speaks without saying much – Joyce takes Homer’s teasing of Nestor a step further, though, and makes Deasy an anti-Semite, a misogynist, and a bit of a buffoon, who often gets details of history, politics, and religion quite wrong. Deasy is one of the Irishmen who is obsessed with England and with being English himself. There seems to be a critique on capitalism and money in this episode, too. Talk of money, saving, etc. permeate the chapter, and the episode even ends with the word “coins.”

Of course, there is also the issue of Pyrrhus, who in Greek mythology was the victim of a usurper, similar to Stephen Dedalus’s self-described situation (though I think he’s more of a self-made victim than anything). Dedalus teaching his class about Pyrrhus, though, seems to mimic the situation in Ireland – those true to Irish history are somehow fighting for a lost cause, as England has clearly won. This, and Deasy’s tales, bring two main ideas to the forefront of the episode: money (greed) and military conquest (England over Ireland – Rome over Greece). Last, and probably always, is the recurring lamentation over the loss of his mother, whom he is reminded of again in his interaction with one of his duller pupils.

Proteus-AlciatoProteus: This was my favorite episode of the first part, though it was also the most difficult. It was dreamy, as suits, I think, Stephen’s character. It was also the most artistic, though, and some odd parallels between body waste / urination / phlegm and the creative process begin to be drawn (and are later picked up again in part two, with Leopold Bloom). That the episode is titled Proteus might be appropriate, as Proteus is the Greek god of the Seas (the setting finds Stephen wandering the beach of Sandymount Strand).

One of the trickiest bits, and perhaps where I got lost the first time, was in the imagining of Stephen’s visit to the Gouldings. I think, when I first read this section years ago, I thought Stephen actually went to the Gouldings, but it was clearer this time around that the entire trip was just imagined, taking place in his mind.

This episode, and particularly the beginning of it, might be the best, first example of Joyce’s “stream of consciousness” style that is so often lauded and reviled by readers. It’s what most people who cannot read his more difficult material complain about. Here, Dedalus is pondering the question “what is real?” Or, perhaps more accurately, what is real versus what is only “appearance.” These are complex philosophical thoughts, and they are only further complicated for the reader by the narrative style – we are inside Stephen’s head, trying to keep up with him as his thoughts bounce up, down, and all around. But, really, it’s kind of fun! I found myself thinking, “hey, that’s how I think!”

There are a few allusions to Aristotle in this chapter, too. In De Anima, Aristotle ruminated on knowing and being, as Stephen is doing here, and he wrote that humans are aware of their bodies through an idea he called diaphane (transparency), then through their colors. Also, we see in this episode the words maestro di color che sanno which mean “master of those who know,” and this is what Dante called Aristotle. In the first paragraph, Stephen plays with these ideas by first questioning whether what we see is real (nebeneiander – objects as they are perceived in space/proximity), then whether what we hear is real (nacheinander – objects as they are perceived in time/chronology).

There seems to be something going on with the way Stephen perceives himself, and this struggle he has to let go of the path and possibly redefine himself. There’s something to be said for Stephen as a Christ figure, here, with similar parentage and with his need to perhaps be crucified and reborn (arisen) in order to go through the change he needs in order to move on. Interestingly, he is a skeptic and rather hopeless and, like we will see in Leopold Bloom, he is a bit lost – isolated and wandering. Another parallel between the two will be something already mentioned – the act of creativity occurring in relation to bodily functions. At the end of this episode, Stephen begins to write and soon after we witness him urinating.

Finally, is there something to be said about the opening letter of each part? As I move into Book II, which opens with Calpyso, we see the opening words are “Mr. Leopold Bloom.” The letter M could represent Mr., but probably stands in for Molly. Similarly, the first part of the book begins with “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan.” This S, then, is used to describe Mulligan, but it also stands for “Stephen,” whom this first section is about. It could be nothing, but I doubt that… these first letters simultaneously describe one person, but also direct readers toward the subject of the section. Delightful!

Book 2

calypso-odysseus-1Calypso: Here we are, back at 8am again. This time, instead of being with Stephen Dedalus, we are with Leopold Bloom. A couple of things which I noticed immediately were the motifs of food and milk (or milk delivery). This means there is some parallel to be drawn, I think, between Bloom and Dedalus, which is strengthened by the fact that both men leave on their “odysseys” at 8:45am and that the start of this chapter picks up where the end of Dedalus’s last chapter left off, tying the motif of urination/deification to creativity.

What’s more, one might notice that the same cloud that is described in Telemachus and which affected Stephen’s emotions is also described in this episode, and its momentary blocking of the sun depresses Bloom somewhat, too. In both cases, the cloud signifies death – for Stephen, it is the memory of his mother’s death (of course) and for Bloom, the death of something perhaps more spiritual – his Jewish heritage, lost to Irish Catholicism.

Importantly, I think, we see again the symbol of the key, and the loss of it. Stephen willingly parted with his key, making way for the usurper, but Bloom has forgotten his key in his bedroom so goes out without it. Each, then, is perhaps willing himself into isolation and solitude? One difference, however, is that Dedalus seems to be a man of the mind, always thinking about physicality, what is real and what is not, whereas Bloom seems highly concerned with the tactile, and with the sense of taste.

Also, the overarching theme seems to be the subordination of Bloom to his wife, Molly, just as Odysseus was subjugated by the goddess Calypso. Interestingly, Bloom doesn’t seem to struggle against the bond, though – at least, there’s no sign, yet, that he minds being bossed around by his wife, making her breakfast and such. Perhaps they have a bit of a masochistic relationship? If not, then I do wonder what else it might mean when Bloom wonders why mice do not squeal when eaten by cats and then decides that perhaps it is because they like it!

There’s something going on with Molly and Milly (their daughter) and the idea of menstruation, but I haven’t quite figured that out, yet. Perhaps its one of the “hidden” or mysterious elements which this chapter seems littered with – Bloom’s card, hidden beneath his hat, for instance, and Molly’s letter, stuck beneath her pillow. There’s also the kidney Bloom buys at the butcher shop, which he hides in his pocket. On the surface, it’s clear that there is at least one affair, but probably more, being hidden – but the saturation of these hidden items leads me to think there might be more at stake.

7940264_origThe Lotus-Eaters: As its name suggests, this chapter has a drugged, confused atmosphere to it – something almost dreamlike. It is not dreamlike in the romantic sense, but in the sense that Leopold is wandering around, meandering, really, with a sort of vague sense of awareness or purpose, as if conducting himself on a walk in a dream. This is demonstrated well by the fact that his walk takes him in a complete circle, without any indication that this was the intention. I think this is one of the more clear relationships between Ulysses and The Odyssey, as the story of the Lotus-Eaters and Odysseus’s men is perhaps one of the most well-known episodes in that epic. In addition, it also reinforces the political/social ideas Joyce must have had about the Irish at the time – feeling they were drugged captives, of sorts, to their English patriarch. Did Joyce feel the Irish were willing subjects, or that they were, like Odysseus’s men (and like Leopold), simply trapped in some kind of dream, unable to create a reality for themselves?

There’s an odd but funny little joke in this episode, when Bloom realizes that two of his buttons are undone, and is glad that they were not lower (over his crotch). This leads Bloom to start contemplating the bath houses and, rather than dream about clandestine sexual encounters with beautiful women, as most men (?) would, we readers bear witness to this wonderful erotic desire he has to simply masturbate – but then, he finds he is limp and can’t perform. How bizarre! Certainly there’s something to be said, here, about Leopold’s manliness (or lack thereof). He’s ordered around by his wife and cannot even self-gratify (in a daydream, no less). Also not to be missed, probably, are the recurring descriptions of bed posts jingling – foreshadowing something, maybe?

cerberus_by_neonkitty9-d344xnzHades: So far, Hades has been my least favorite episode. I did enjoy the “descent” towards Hades, which included the “heroes” being ferried (in a coach) across the four rivers of Hades (here the Dodder, the Liffey, the Grand Canal, and the Royal Canal). Also, the many other parallels to Greek mythology, such as the mention of Rudolph Bloom’s dog, Athos, which must be an allusion to Odysseus’s dog Argos. Athos, though, is even more interesting in that its root is probably theos, meaning god, which reinforces the whole Joycean quip that “God is just dog backwards.” This is probably not the first allusion made to that particular joke, but it’s definitely the most overt. Carrying on that theme is the dog-like Father Coffey, who must be Ulysses’s answer to Cerberus, the giant, three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hades. There’s even a joke in the episode about dog biscuits!

I think this episode is the most clear, so far, in describing Bloom as an outsider. He is often misunderstood, misheard, or simply ignored by those around him, and he makes some serious fauxs pas when the group is discussing death and he says that it seems dying in one’s sleep, peacefully, would be the best way to go. Of course, for Roman Catholics, this would be horrifying, as sudden deaths do not allow time for one to repent, which is necessary for admittance to heaven. And, when discussing suicide, Bloom thinks to himself about how suicides used to be treated and gives probably one of my favorite lines of the book, so far: “They used to drive a stake of wood through his heart in the grave, as if it wasn’t broken already.” Bloom’s humanism starts to come through, here, and I found it truly touching, especially as the other men are discussing death in such a clinical, “by the rules” sort of way.

Some recurring themes from previous episodes that are revisited in this one include the idea of the “navelcord,” which here describes the coffin band but also recalls Stephen’s wish to telephone (via the umbilical cord) back to Eden. There is also the father-son theme again, which is one of the religious themes already presented, and the contemplation of shape and appearance (here, Bloom is thinking about his wife, Molly, but in Proteus, it was Stephen thinking about the shape of various objects). The parallel between this episode and Proteus is in fact quite strong. One new element I noticed, though, is the motif of the nails – Bloom considering his own nails, Bloom considering the nails and hair of corpses, Bloom wondering if the corpse’s body (Dignam, whose funeral they are at) would bleed if it were cut by a nail, etc. Is Bloom, then, a Christ-figure? Is he, too, being crucified, in a way, through isolation, in order to be reborn as something else later in the story? What else do Bloom and Dedalus have in common?


So, there are my thoughts on the first 6 episodes. Did I miss anything that you found interesting/important/funny, etc?


The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180. Marcus Aurelius was known as one of the “Five Good Emperors” and was, indeed, the last of those. Having followed such Emperors as Caligula and Nero, Marcus Aurelius, a stoic general, fair but fierce, was well-respected in his time and remained so afterward, although his son Commodus thought he was weak (mistaking patience, poise, and temperament for weakness). My edition is the Penguin Classics Clothbound, which has both a brilliant introduction and exceptional end notes. 

The Meditations are essentially a collection of diary entries. Marcus Aurelius takes a philosophical and introspective approach to assessing his own personal and political life, including his relationships with family, friends, and teachers. He treats his daily and his whole life as a constant work-in-progress. One of the more unique aspects of this text is that they were never meant for public consumption, so one might argue that they have a rare honesty  and vulnerability in comparison with other classical texts.

When I first read the Meditations, I took them one at a time. This was a slow process, as each entry tends to be just a few lines in length, and there are hundreds of them. This time, I read them rather quickly, as a refresher/re-introduction to Stoic philosophy, which I am practicing much more practically and conscientiously this year (I am reading a variety of stoic writings but also engaging in a year-long daily stoic reading and writing exercise). Reading Marcus Aurelius was a helpful start because, like many of us (and probably more than most), as an Emperor and general, he was an extremely busy man. He felt the weight of the world on his shoulders and had to spend a lot of time on others’ needs. As a stoic, he often reminded himself to distinguish between what is necessary and what is frivolous, what he could control and what he could not; and he maintained perspective by writing daily, whenever he could find the time (usually in the morning or the evening).

In that spirit, I have been doing the same: reminding myself to control what I can, and to let go what I cannot. It has also been important to find time to write every day. Most of Marcus Aurelius’s writings seem to be reflections, which means he probably wrote them at night before bed; I have been trying to write briefly in the morning, pondering a particular stoic teaching and beginning my day with it in mind, and then writing briefly at night, reflecting on where I was successful or where I could do better. The exercises have been helpful in my personal and professional life so far, and thinking about them in context with one of the original and most prominent stoic philosophers has been an interesting experiment.

The Meditations are separated into twelve books, each with its own theme (sometimes tightly woven, sometimes a bit looser). They range from reflections on politics and his role as Emperor, to lessons learned from the important people in his life, to thoughts on religion and spirituality, atheism and the afterlife. Whether taking a single entry at a time, or one book at a time, or any combination thereof, the Meditations reveal the perpetual process of a thoughtful man determined to live a good life, to treat others better (though that was a daily struggle), and to find peace in the chaos.

Some of my particular favorite entries:

“It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.” (7.71)

“Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced that your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.” (6.13)

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” (5.24)

“Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.” (6.39)

Exodus 33-Leviticus 13 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Five: Exodus 33-Leviticus 13

I’m going to be honest and say that I probably won’t have much to write as we work our way through the Book of Leviticus (the Third Book of Moses). The same will probably be true of Deuteronomy, too (although, if I remember correctly, some interesting things happen in the next book, Numbers, so let’s hang on for a few days!) Leviticus is essentially the rules, laws, and instructions of the priests, written by post-Exilic priests for future generations of priests. The book is incredibly detailed, often repetitive, and downright boring, for the most part. We get a few brief and fleeting glimpses at “story,” where Moses interjects some order from god to be given to Aaron and his sons (two of whom, to their serious detriment, are not paying close enough attention); otherwise, the majority of time is spent on what colors certain draping should be, how an altar should be built, what candelabra should be made of, and where to place them, how priests should distinguish themselves from other men, what clothes they should wear, etc. It’s really a snooze fest.

Giving: One of the more interesting bits left in the Book of Exodus comes near the end, in Chapter 36. The narrator has described how the Israeli people have given whatever they can of themselves, their fortunes and, most importantly, their talents, in order to help create the first physical church (tabernacle). Each man is called to do what he can, and no more. Indeed, in Exodus 36:6-7, we learn that, when enough has been given so that the tasks can be completed and there is surplus for the future, god has Moses tell the people to stop giving. In other words, “enough is enough.” I respond to both lessons, here. In the first place, be charitable with your time and talents in efforts meant to benefit the greater good, one’s neighbors and community, etc. In the second place, know when enough has been given and be content (and honest) enough to say so. Do not continue to ask too much of others when there is no longer a serious need.

Rules, Rules, Rules: Each book of Leviticus so far focuses on a set of rules. Leviticus 1 outlines rules for sacrifices; Leviticus 2 outlines rules for offerings of meat, bread, and fruit; Leviticus 3 gives rules for offerings of peace (as well as a permanent ban on eating fat or blood); Leviticus 4 contains the rules for “sin offerings”; Leviticus 5 outlines the rules for “trespass offerings” and Leviticus 6 does the same for atonement for lying and thievery. Leviticus 7 tells priests how to accept offerings of Thanksgiving and essentially describes the way that priests are to be fed and maintained, which is to say, by the congregation. Significantly, a lot of the rules outlined in all of these chapters seem to do with the actual cooking of foods so as to avoid illness or disease, although that is never explicitly stated. It seems some common-sense rules for hygiene are here steeped in the language of mythology, perhaps to get people to embrace clean eating habits without question. There are also plenty of rules for which animals are “clean” and which are “unclean,” but in this case the language is referring not to literal cleanliness, but what is pure or not, worthy or not, of god’s favor. It’s likely that these rules were designed to distinguish the Jewish people from neighboring tribes and to give them customs of their own, to create a permanent sociocultural identity.

Leviticus 8-10 deal specifically with priestly practices and orders, giving Aaron and his sons as examples of what to do and what not to do. Leviticus 11 lists all the animals that can be eaten (are “clean) and those that cannot (“unclean”) and, again, the rules seem rather arbitrary. Perhaps nearby tribes liked to eat cows, so the new Israeli priests decided they would do the opposite. Leviticus 12 outlines what women should do after giving birth, and Leviticus 13 explains how priests should treat people who come to them with different diseases.

OTHER INTERESTING BITS:

The Women: After giving birth, women are to be treated as “unclean” for a rather lengthy bit of time. If the child is a boy, the mother is unclean and secluded for 33 days. If the child is a girl, the mother is unclean and secluded for 66 days. In either case, after she’s done her time in seclusion, she then needs to sacrifice an offering to god in order to rejoin society. Who says gender prejudices haven’t been deeply, culturally ingrained for millennia?  

Bad Priests: Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu decide they are going to honor god in their own way, rather than following the lists and lists of rules they’ve just been given by god via their Uncle Moses. They approach his tabernacle fire with a censer of incense, which is not a sanctioned practice. Their punishment? Execution. Turns out, priests better be sure to know the rules, and follow them!

Funny Food: There are so many rules about animals (for sacrifice and for eating), it seems almost impossible to keep it all straight. This is probably why so many people today, who follow the bible religiously, basically eat whatever they want. Who can keep track? The rules probably were rather arbitrary, as I mentioned above, but here are some stand-outs: Some things that are okay to eat include locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers! Yum! (Lev 11:22). You’ll want to avoid eating tortoise, lizard, and snail, though. Sorry! (Lev 11:29)

Aristotle’s Poetics

What can I say about Aristotle’s Poetics that has not already been said, and by those much more capable? Certainly, despite being just a collection of drafts and journal entries, this is one of the most significant, relevant, and pervasive pieces of literary criticism in the western tradition. It continues to influence readers and scholars alike. While some have said the work is difficult to read and understand, I thought the Malcolm Heath translation (Penguin Classics 1996) was excellent, and the Introduction even better.

Heath takes Aristotle’s Poetics chapter-by-chapter, explaining what each of the core concepts is in any given part of the text, then elaborating with details, explanations, and contemporary context, which makes the original text much more readable. It was particularly helpful to read the introduction because the translation itself dropped some of the original language, without reference. For example, mimesis, hamartia, and katharsis, three incredibly important terms in literary criticism (including the study of rhetoric, drama, and narrative), are addressed by descriptions of their functions, only, and the translated terms (imitation, error, and purification) are what is given in the text itself. This is one of the few flaws I found in the translation because, presumably, anyone reading this text is doing so for edification on the topics of literary study and should hopefully be aware of the Greek terms that we continue to use in conversation of these topics, even 2,000-plus years later.  

That slight blip aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Aristotle’s Poetics. The majority of his musings are about dramatic tragedy, particularly in comparison to dramatic comedy, which he finds a lesser art form. That said, much of what he describes also applies to the study of narrative fiction and storytelling more generally. His methods of analysis, too, are fascinating in that they illustrate how one might go about “doing” the work of literary criticism, not to mention that his insights provide excellent food for thought regarding the dramas he analyzes himself (such as works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer). Of the utmost interest is the idea that readers (more appropriately: audiences) derive pleasure from what are often painful emotions related to tragedies: fear, anger, loss, disappointment, etc. This, of course, leads to Aristotle’s explanation of catharsis and supports his argument that the cathartic experience of reading emotional works or witnessing an emotional play (of a specific type, at a specific sophistication, and for a certain privileged kind of audience) is the reason why storytelling is so powerful and effective.

One of the most unique and compelling aspects of Aristotle’s analysis, for me, has to do with the study of character, and what makes a “good” character. Aristotle claims that the character needs to be moral, but not perfect. He should be believable in his purposes and his struggles, but should also be “better” than we are, so that we can look to him as one to admire and so that we react rightly when said character falls. I think of the kinds of books I most often respond to, and they do indeed tend to have characters that are flawed but noble, that often fail but do great good (either actually or didactically/philosophically). In treating my thoughts on characterization in book reviews, I will try to consider Aristotle’s perspectives a bit more closely.

Aristotle also explains the function of plot and describes which are better or worse, depending on their constructions and outcomes. He describes “ordered structure” for example, and the idea that even in chaos, there must be some kind of realistic expectation for the events that are occurring. In other words, a character/reader/audience might be surprised by something that happens, but whatever it is that happens must be probable to the situation at hand. This is somehow both an obvious observation but also a profound one: how many plots have run afoul because the author seemed to throw in some plot device or tangent that made no sense and that could have been removed without influencing the story whatsoever? Everything must have a purpose. Whereas I found the exploration on character interesting from my perspective as a reader, I find this analysis of effective plots invaluable when thinking about my work as a writer.

The last element I found most fascinating, though I am skipping plenty that is interesting for the sake of brevity and because I simply did not conduct an academic reading on this text, is the idea of language. Aristotle criticizes some of his contemporaries who balked at the fact that some poets were using colloquial language. He writes that “the most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity” and adds that “the clearest diction is that based on current words” (36). He argues that the best language is that which is “some kind of mixture” of diction that is both clear and out of the ordinary, traditional and inventive. In many ways, I think this argument presages what Shakespeare would do in retelling familiar stories but couching it in the language of the people, even going so far as to invent much of the language he needed because it simply didn’t exist yet (or didn’t fit into his rhyme scheme). It is heartening to think that Aristotle, one of the foremost minds in all of western philosophy and an authority on language, was not an old fuddy-duddy.  

Aristotle’s Poetics is book 2 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

#2018BibleRBR Daily Reading Plan: February

Here is my daily reading schedule for February. As mentioned in the original post, this month the reading plan is Leviticus 1 through Deuteronomy 4. As always, feel free to read ahead, fall behind, or jump around.

I’ll be back again every Sunday with my thoughts on that week’s reading. On February 28th, I’ll post a wrap-up for the month plus the reading plan for March.

The Reading Plan for February: 

  • Feb 1: Lev 1-4
  • Feb 2: Lev 5-7
  • Feb 3: Lev 8-10
  • Feb 4: Lev 11-13
  • Feb 5: Lev 14-15
  • Feb 6: Lev 16-18
  • Feb 7: Lev 19-21
  • Feb 8: Lev 22-23
  • Feb 9: Lev 24-25
  • Feb 10: Lev 26-27
  • Feb 11: Num 1-2
  • Feb 12: Num 3-4
  • Feb 13: Num 5-6
  • Feb 14: Num 7
  • Feb 15: Num 8-10
  • Feb 16: Num 11-13
  • Feb 17: Num 14-15
  • Feb 18: Num 16-17
  • Feb 19: Num 18-20
  • Feb 20: Num 21-22
  • Feb 21: Num 23-25
  • Feb 22: Num 26-27
  • Feb 23: Num 28-30
  • Feb 24: Num 31-32
  • Feb 25: Num 33-34
  • Feb 26: Num 35-36
  • Feb 27: Deut 1-2
  • Feb 28: Deut 3-4

I look forward to sharing my thoughts on the stories and literary elements of the Bible, as I see them, and I am especially eager to hear what you all find in your own explorations. As a reminder, this is a secular reading of the bible as literature, so any/all respectful thoughts and opinions are welcome. In my opinion, the more perspectives we have, the better! 

To share on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, etc, please use: #2018BibleRBR

Exodus 13-Exodus 32 #2018BibleRBR

Reading the Bible as Literature

Week Four: Exodus 13 – Exodus 32

As we wrap-up our first month of reading the Christian bible as literature, we come to the end of the second book, Exodus. We do have a few chapters left, but those will be included in the first week’s discussion for February. This part of Exodus deals with the infamous “parting of the Red Sea,” as well as the whiny (yes, they are!) ex-slaves and God’s perpetual care for his traveling Israelites. Hey, at least the almighty fulfills his promise (until he kills half of them for worshiping a golden calf, anyway!) The latter part of the chapter gives us a preview for some of the upcoming books. Lots of rules, including the supreme 10 Commandments but also those for founding and designing a church, clothing for priests, and even how to ask god’s opinion on important matters.

God’s Grace(?): God had promised to lead the Israelites out of Egypt someday, and the day arrives. After “hardening” the pharaoh’s heart so that he could continue to punish the Egyptians and prove his own power, God finally allows pharaoh to consent to the Israelis’ exodus. Moses guides them out and, for forty years, they’re on the move. During all this time, God leads them by cloud during the day and by fire at night. When the Israelites are thirsty, they whine about to Moses, and Moses calls on god, and god comes up with a plan. When the Israelites are hungry, they whine about it to Moses, and Moses calls on god, and god comes up with a plan (hence the “manna from heaven” story). The pattern is repeated over and over, and at a certain point you wonder how long god can remain patient with them. Of course, it’s important to remember that these were slaves who had relied completely on a certain system. They were told exactly what to do every day and, in return for doing it, they were housed and fed. They never needed to worry about finding or making their own food, so perhaps it is understandable that many of them might wonder if they never should have left at all. When Moses goes up the mountain and sits there with god for forty days, writing down the commandments and other laws, the people grow restless. The Israelites convince Aaron to create an idol, a golden calf, that they can worship. Aaron thinks he is helping keep the peace while Moses is preoccupied, but since one of god’s supreme laws is, essentially, “forget about them other gods, already,” this doesn’t go over well. God has Moses ask who is a true follower (to which the tribe Levi steps forward), and then Moses has the Levites  go forth and murder their brothers, neighbors, and friends. 3,000 people are slaughtered for worshipping that golden calf. So, for 40 years, god guides them through the desert, and then he encourages a mass murder over a little golden bull. Yikes! 

God of War: Exodus 15:3 tells us that “The Lord is a man of war.” This couldn’t be more obvious than in the early part of Exodus, when god continues to force pharaoh to deny him. It’s almost like a game, with god playing both sides in order to up the ante. He does it again in this latter part of the book, when he “hardens pharaoh’s heart” (again!) so that pharaoh will raise up an army to go after the Israelites. Ostensibly, this is because he regrets letting his slaves go; and sure, building an empire on the backs of slaves only to find that, one day, all of that labor is gone, would be a problem. Yet, as the story goes, pharaoh is never responsible for these vindictive actions. God himself causes pharaoh to come after the Israelites so that he (god) can prove once and for all that he is the supreme power, the almighty, and either convince the Egyptians of this or wipe them out (as he does in the story of the Red Sea). Man of war, indeed.

Laws: Exodus lays the foundation for some interesting laws. One of the most relevant, contemporarily speaking, might be the treatment of “strangers.” In Exodus 22:16-28, god relays to Moses the laws regarding sex, witches (Eek!), bestiality, religious worship, treatment of the poor, and antipathy for lenders/usurers. Most importantly, in my opinion, is the fact that god commands all Israelites to treat strangers well, because the Israelites were strangers in Egypt, once, and yet god cared for them. The law is repeated again in Exodus 23:9, as if to emphasize this matter above the others that are listed only once (lying, the Sabbath, etc.) In our current political climate, I find this attitude about how we should treat strangers in our midst quite refreshing. Do not abuse them, do not condemn them.

OTHER INTERESTING BITS:

Joshua: The book of Exodus is our introduction to an important character, Joshua. He is the first military leader for the Israelites and ultimately succeeds Moses as leader. This highlights the pre-eminence of the tribe of Ephraim, of which Joshua is descended. It’s also interesting to note that Joshua (Jehoshua) is twice translated as Jesus in the KJV (as in Acts 7:45).

Red Sea: There has been some debate about where the Red Sea really is, but perhaps the most compelling argument is that it is actually the “Reed Sea.” The original term, yam suph, translates from the Hebrew as The Sea of Reeds, and probably refers to an area near the Gulf of Suez (a much smaller body of water, similar to the Red Sea, but only 30-miles wide rather than 150).

Cherubim: Where do depictions of cherubs as chubby, childlike angels come from? The bible actually has no description for these creatures, save that their wings are described multiple times. The idea that they would be cute little cupids is probably ridiculous, considering how important their role as guardians seems to be. For example, it is the cherubim who protect the Garden of Eden, the Ark of the Covenant, and later, Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:23-24). So, I bet they were pretty darn fierce.

Roll the Dice: In the lengthy (and boring) list of rules for priests and churches laid out in this part of Exodus, two words appear without explanation: Urim (“lights”) and Thummim (“perfections”). Unlike some of the other items, which are clearly described as types of furniture, clothes, incense, or whatever, these are simply mentioned. It seems they might be tools of divination. The two items, perhaps a type of stone, are used to interpret god’s opinion on important topics. Sort of like rolling dice, or shaking a Magic 8 ball, the Urim and Thummim act as “yes” or “no” answers in questions only god can answer. Saul uses this approach in 1 Samuel 14:41 and 28:6, for example, when trying to reach his important decisions. The NSV translation of 14:41 is the clearest description.