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Towers of Babbling

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Cheryl worries that the Dalrymple is really on another topic, but I don’t.  I’ve got to admit I don’t think of myself as having topics here.  I’m just sort of going with whatever is in my head.

That said–Robert points out that the canon of the Old Testament has “changed,” but the fact is that Luther and company didn’t go through the OT and decide some things didn’t belong, and they really didn’t decide that some things that hadn’t been there should be there now.  Instead, they chose to use the then current Jewish canon of the OT, while the Catholics went on using the Septaguint.  You can certainly argue that Jewish scholars changed the OT either once or twice–once by adding what was in the Septaguint and once by taking it back out–but that only gets you as far as saying that the canon has fixed books which must be protected from new ones, or not. 

And I’m almost surely misspelling Septaguint.

Anyway, let’s try this, actually, this in two parts:

First, a canon is a set of books meant to help one save one’s soul. 

I’m an atheist, I know, and I don’t believe in souls, but it’s hard for me to think of another term for what I’m getting at.  The essential human-ness of the human being, maybe. 

And I do understand that, applied to secular literature, what we’re talking about here is some kind of metaphor.  But then, I’m convinced that even religiously, we’re talking about some kind of metaphor. 

The humanities deal in what is uniquely and irretrievably human.  Being human is a more complicated thing than being a cat.  Even the people who claim that that is not true proceed to act as if it was–it is only human beings Peter Singer expects to voluntarily go without food to feed hungry members of their species living a couple of continents away.  He does not, and would not, make such a demand of a cat.

One of the ways in which human beings are unlike anything else in known existence is in our felt need to get somewhere, to do something, to be something–we’re not sure what, but other than we are.  For many human beings, and maybe for most of them, something seems to be lacking, in the world around them, and in themselves.  We reflexively devise ideals that we will inevitably fail to live up to.  Like Paul and like Augustine, we spend a lot of our time bemoaning our inability to put those ideals into practice.  The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, Paul said, and all I have to do to know that’s true is think of chocolate cake.

In another part of the NT another Christian saint said, “[i]n the beginning, was the Word.”  I know that’s a reference to ideas in Greek philosophy, but I think it’s also true as mundane fact–our frustration with ourselves is grounded somehow in our ability to use language. 

A canon is a set of books meant to help us save our souls because we expect that help to come from words, from things that we and other people have said, from things that we and other people have written.

The danger, in religious canons and secular ones, is that people with tin ears for narrative (and Bible is narrative just as much as The Iliad is) will barge in and try to “fix” what’s there in order to better direct human beings in the ways he wants them to go.

But that’s not a viable enterprise most of the time, because canons being what they are, people resist having them manipulated.  The other way to “fix” a canon to make it say things you think will be better for people is to reinterpret it until it “says” what you want it to.  That’s why Bishop Spong and Tim LaHaye have such different “interpretations” of Genesis–and of Acts.

But here’s the thing.  We can subvert a canon without doing anything so deliberate as changing the books it contains or changing interpretations to fit our modern sensibilities and prejudices.  We can subver the canon just by talking about it endlessly.  When thousands of PhDs are required to “produce” “scholarship” on a regular basis in order to get hired and get tenured, there are suddenly hundreds of variant readings of Lear and dozens of variant readings of Faulker.  Read through them all, and the whole enterprise begins to seem like gibberish.

And that’s because a lot of it is.  I don’t disagree with Robert that good interpretations help understanding–they do.  But given this many interpretations, all of them  under the gun, so to speak, and I’ll guarantee you that the vast majority of them will not be good.  What they will be is increasingly difficult to understand, because if you don’t have substance, you can always cover your ass with “professional language.”  The heyday of deconstruction has come and gone, but it wasn’t popular because it was political and it wasn’t popular because it fit somebody’s agenda.  It was popular because it was literally incomprehensible–it was incomprehensible because very often there was nothing there to comprehend.  But nobody would say that out loud, and nobody would admit that phrases like “the transgressive hermeneutic” really didn’t mean anything but “an interpretation that is willfully wrong.”

But here’s the thing–if a canon is a set of books (works, whatever) meant to help us save out souls, then the contents of that canon say a lot more about us than they seem to on the surface.  If his book appears on the canon and yours does not, then it doesn’t just mean  you like one thing and he likes another, or even that he has good taste and you do not.  It means that he is blessed and you are damned.

I have absolutely no idea if I’m making any sense here.

I think that, for a lot of academics in humanities departments these days, the issue is self-regard–I think an awful lot of those academics are protecting themselves from what they know is a demand to be better than they are.  If we’re “just another animal,” then what we do is not important.  If we cheat on our spouses, eat ourselves into flabby unfitness, pinch a bit (not too much!) from the petty cash–well, it’s “only human” to be that way, and there’s no point in trying to be something else.  

This attitude is especially strong for those who have neither a philosophical nor religious commitment, who don’t worry about heaven or hell and don’t see any purpose to life except how much they enjoy it.  If pleasure is the only standard, then most systems of ideals, secular as well as religious, are worse than ridiculous.  They’re active impediments to getting the only “meaning” out of life that anybody can get. 

The academic deconstruction of the canon, like the academic trrivialization of it that came before and has now returned, is basically to this end:  all those “dead white males” expected you to be something, to give up your seat in the lifeboat on behalf of women and children, to deny yourself all kinds of neat and fun sexual experiences and be true to your spouse, to give up your “career goals” and your financial security in order to care for your sick and disabled child,  to practice self respect and self restraint, to “put yourself last.”  The Great Conversation is about just this:  about what we have to at least try to live up to if we are to deserve to be called human; about just how guilty and unworthy we should feel if we don’t make the most full-throttle of attempts at meeting the requirements.

The second thing a canon always is is a record of man’s relationship with God.  In religious canons, God is meant literally.  In secular canons, God is a metaphor for the single inescapable fact about every single human life:  that we each and every one of us has exactly one chance to live this life, and when it is over it is over.

Even people who believe in an afterlife or reincarnation have to acknowledge this–whatever other lives they may have, as incarnations or glorified bodies in the time of a New Heaven and New Earth, this particular life is one they only get a single shot at.

I think that practically all of morality, and civilization comes down to how human beings respond to that particular fact. 

Which may have something to do with why I tend to have more “respect” for literature, philoosophy, art, music and history than for the hard sciences as human endeavors.

Written by janeh

December 2nd, 2008 at 11:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Towers of Babbling'

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  1. I must be getting old – the more I read in the newspapers or see on TV, the more I remember Ecclesiates and “There is nothing new under the sun.”

    Perhaps instead of the Canon as great literary works, we could think in terms of illustrating that people and problems remain very similar through time.

    I’m thinking in terms of

    Ecclesiates for “nothing new”
    Ruth for migrants

    The Illiad and Euripede’s The Trojan Women for war, rape and cruelty (just compare to Chad or the rape of Nanking)

    The Canterbury Tales, Decammeron, Romeo and Juliet for behaviour of ordinary people

    Perhaps Mark Twain and Life on the Mississippi for learning a trade

    Something from Kipling about engineers

    Something from George Bernard Shaw

    Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain about WW1

    I’m open for suggestions about the Depression and WW2.


    2 Dec 08 at 4:48 pm

  2. “The humanities deal in what is uniquely and irretrievably human. Being human is a more complicated thing than being a cat. Even the people who claim that that is not true proceed to act as if it was–it is only human beings Peter Singer expects to voluntarily go without food to feed hungry members of their species living a couple of continents away. He does not, and would not, make such a demand of a cat.”

    Herr Singer would not make such a demand of himself either.


    2 Dec 08 at 5:38 pm

  3. So – if I’m following all this, there’s something especially difficult and unique about being human, and it’s not something we do instinctively. We need guidance, whether we create it for ourselves or have it revealed to us by God. These guides are many and various, and the one our particular culture (or, I suppose the culture that spawned the British, US, Canadian and Australian sub-cultures, which traces its cultural roots right back to the ancient Greeks) uses doesn’t seem to be working as well as it once did. At least, this is the case according to some of us and some commentators we have read; others would probably argue that we are getting closer to our ideals of liberty and the rights of the individual.

    So what then? Can a culture be shoved back on course, so to speak, and if so, how? Can an individual (or particular individuals) have sufficient influence? Would it take a concerted effort to change legislation and enforcement (as Dalrymple seems to say in places) – and if so, how do we get from our current political situation to one in which a government is willing to move in such a direction? How could we get celebrities who actually did something more dangerous or unusual than flashing photographers?

    I don’t have any answers.


    2 Dec 08 at 10:16 pm

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