Mesocosm

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Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Trolling Higher Education

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There’s an article in the Atlantic Monthly called “What an Audacious Hoax Reveals About Academia” which is making a stir, and I want to take a moment to respond to it. Three scholars wrote a series of fake jargony papers and submitted them to various gender theory publications to prove how intellectually bankrupt they are, and to illustrate that the underlying disciplines are likewise baseless and stupid.

Yascha Mounk, the author of the Atlantic Monthly piece, is strongly in support of their project and compares it to an earlier stunt by Alan Sokal, who got a piece accepted in the journal Social Text which included statements such as:

Feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ‘objectivity.’ It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.

Mounk does not cite a similar project by three MIT students, who used an AI to generate gobbledegook papers for submission to a for-profit conference on “Informatics.” Presumably what he approves of here is not the criticism of academic resources with lax standards, but the attack on gender theory, which is a frequent whipping boy for self-styled rationalists who deride the putative relativism of the humanities, while generally lacking even a rudimentary acquaintance of what they’re dismissing.

There is a word for what our scholars did: trolling. Like all trolls, their project was successful largely because they exploited a key feature of public discourse: the presumption of good faith.

Have you ever seen Ali G or Borat, and asked yourself how people could be so stupid as to go along with the crazy premises he puts forth? The answer is they’re not (always or merely) stupid, they are operating under the substantial pressure exerted by the presumption of good faith, and the attempt to act accordingly deforms their interactions. This is a function of how communication works.

People are not taken in by trolls simply because they’re stupid or because the systems they represent are uncritical. Civil discourse presupposes that all parties are representing themselves honestly. That is why trolling has a systematic advantage in humiliating the opponent. It is a dishonest and misleading form of critique, and it highlights nothing so much as the arrogance and contempt of its practitioners.

We cannot create a society in which we all must ask ourselves at all times if the other party in a transaction or debate is simply trying to make us look stupid. That would be a hateful degradation of the entire enterprise of higher learning, and an incredible waste of time.

But there are more important reasons to reject this project.

I have a friend who is a professor of medieval French literature, who wrote a meticulously-documented dissertation on gender and sexual identity construction in the Romance of the Rose, and he at times used the specialized terminology of his discipline, which, like many forms of technical discourse, can appear to the non-specialist as nonsense.

Why did he do that work, and why did he employ those conceptual tools? Because in the last few decades we are seeing, literally for the first time in human history, an opportunity to methodically and analytically reflect on the social construction of gender identity, and the way these identities are often constructed through a collective process of ideology formation. These processes are not value-neutral, but reflect the implicit or explicit presumption of the superiority and dominance of male heterosexuals. What we call gender deconstruction is nothing more than a specialized analysis of the process by which this identity formation occurs, with a goal to freeing individuals from having their identities determined for them, in advance, as lesser, from without.

I would note that this is largely what Sokal’s putatively “gibberish” quote above says, and say that I would actually more or less agree with it. Whether or not you believe that the construction of reality by the individual merely reaches the level of social values or touches our fundamental sense of what reality is in itself, well, you can disagree, but it is not a stupid claim, and it has had important support not just in philosophy but in the sciences

The development of gender theory as a discipline is exactly contemporaneous with an unprecedented movement toward political acceptance of non-normative gender and sexual identities, and this is not a coincidence. I will not assert a causal relationship, but I will say with certainty that they are part of a common historical moment.

So what I want to emphasize is this – we’re talking about communities that have literally had no voice ever in the European tradition, and they don’t need this shit. They need space to think through some of these problems and develop their own language and conceptual vocabulary without self-styled guardians of the Western Enlightenment, which has been so goddamned enlightened for most of its history with respect to, say, gays and lesbians, holding them up for ridicule. 

Update Oct 16: This month, Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary became the first EU country to bar universities from issuing degrees in a specific subject: gender studies.

Written by Mesocosm

October 8, 2018 at 1:48 am

Posted in Musings

The United States is Haunted by a Terrible Demon

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When I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center, one of the senior priests told us about a festival that was held annually in the small alpine town she grew up in in Switzerland. A certain holy relic was sequestered away in the village church, except on this festival of renewal, when it was brought out and placed on a kind of carriage, and paraded through the town in a procession. The trick was, you were not to look at it.

I think I gasped aloud when I heard that story. The ritual force of such an episode, and the life-long impact it would have on children who grew up with it, was immediately obvious. I thought of many interesting counterparts, such as the Shingon Buddhist altar I saw in Narita with a towering Buddha statue set back in an enormous stepped platform that receded into an unlit corner of the room, so that you could just make out the outlines of the statue from anywhere in the room, but  you could not quite see it. Its presence dominated the room, but it was held in a liminal state of semi-awareness. It made quite an impression.

Or I think about the mythology of similar prohibitions on seeing or doing that, for example, finds expression in my favorite fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm, Marienkind (my translation is here).

This episode is a motif in the religious traditions and mythologies of the world because it makes an impact, such that its uncanny power is remembered decades later, on into adulthood, as the beginning of some deep stirring of the psyche, as in my teacher’s story.

I couldn’t help but think of this motif of the half-perceived sign and its potential to activate the unconscious when a friend of mine told me that her five-year-old daughter is required to participate in active shooter drills in New York. Her kindergarten class has to practice hiding and remaining quiet when someone knocks on the door.

If you don’t think this isn’t going to traumatize a generation of children, then you know nothing of psychodynamics.

There are a lot of reasons I recently moved to Germany, and there are a lot of things that Germany gets wrong, in my opinion, in managing its affairs. But one thing that it gets right, along with the rest of the developed world, with the exception of the United States, is gun control.

There are areas where I simply have to disagree with my fellow citizens. On climate change, for example, I vehemently disagree with people who deny the unambiguous consensus of the scientific community, and the other 179 nations that have joined the Paris Accords, but at least I can comprehend the other point of view, much as I disagree with it.

But I can not comprehend, or forgive, the bizarre fetishization of guns that runs amok in the United States, and that fuels a fundamentalist interpretation of the second amendment – an interpretation whose bizarre logic leads again and again to monstrous policy recommendations and a bizarre attitude of paranoia and fear.

There is a lot of talk in the United States these days about arming teachers as a first line of defense against school shooters. There are plenty of reasons to oppose such an empirically-unmotivated and obviously self-destructive posture, but one that doesn’t receive as much attention as I would like is the question of whether the people of the United States have the right to ask teachers, in addition to all that they already give and sacrifice for their careers, to put their own lives at risk acting as security officers, who must be prepared to wield lethal force against their own students.

Again, this is all quite beyond my comprehension. There is a bizarre, shadowy demon haunting the United States, and I fear it is not going away without some kind of huge catastrophe, or mass exorcism.

Written by Mesocosm

March 17, 2018 at 2:07 am

Posted in Musings, Politics

Goodbye San Francisco, Hello Berlin

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A great heat wave descended; it was a beautiful day, the sun turned red at three. I started up the mountain and got to the top at four. All those lovely California cottonwoods and eucalypti brooded on all sides. Near the peak there were no more trees, just rocks and grass. Cattle were grazing on the top of the coast. There was the Pacific, a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a great wall of white advancing from the legendary potato patch where Frisco fogs are born. Another hour and it would come streaming through the Golden Gate to shroud the romantic city in white, and a young man would hold his girl by the hand and climb slowly up a long white sidewalk with a bottle of Tokay in his pocket. That was Frisco; and beautiful women standing in white doorways, waiting for their men; and Coit Tower, and the Embarcadero, and Market Street, and the eleven teeming hills. – Jack Kerouac

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Ah San Francisco, Queen of California, long have you inspired the romantic with your fogs and shadows and your golden light. Next month I’ll be leaving you after calling the Bay Area home for eighteen years.

In that time I’ve watched my adopted home fade like a richly-colored photograph left in the sun, gradually desaturating to a monochromatic sepia. One by one your artists fled and your bookstores and studios closed, while pour-over coffee shops and startup incubators crowd out … well, everything else. So many of the renegade physics PhDs and T.A.Z. anarchists, the immigrant avant-garde dancers and sclerotic acolytes of cacophony, the noise musicians and the street punks left, while the techno-utopian left-libertarian programmers have crowded in.

I moved to San Francisco in the April of 2000, a refugee from a year-long foray at the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies program in Charlottesville, where Jeffrey Hopkins was in the process of winding down his career. It didn’t take me long to learn that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the new head of the department. Nor did I love life in Virginia – despite its natural beauty, it was hard to feel at home in a state that celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day.

So I jumped at the chance to take a room in the last affordable house in Potrero Hill. I packed my books and sent them cheaprate post and moved with a few bags of clothes by train on a five-day journey that traversed the gigantic continent; a fitting externalization of the equally-momentous internal journey I was taking into a new world. A few days after I arrived I spotted a bumper sticker near the Panhandle that read “Honk if You Love Borges”. A few days after that I made a joke about Werner Heisenberg at a party and everybody laughed. I knew I was home.

Two years later I was practicing daily, and then living in, the San Francisco Zen Center, studying in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind fame. A few years after that I was working as a staff writer/researcher for the drug information website Erowid. Then came life working for Facebook, then I joined Oculus.

I saw the midnight sky above Big Sur when to be young was very heaven. I once (momentarily) stymied Jeffrey Hopkins with a question about Madhyamaka at a conference in Boulder Creek (“If emptiness exists only conventionally, what conventional consciousness certifies its existence?”). I was in a book group with Mark Zuckerberg and recommended he read William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (he did). I debated the ethics of gray-market psychedelics with Sasha Shulgin in Costa Rica. I ran into Blixa Bargeld on the street not once but twice.

In February, Mrs. O’Cosm and I will pull up the roots of my eighteen years and crash land in Prenzlauer Berg, and then begin the reportedly arduous process of finding a permanent apartment. I foresee a year of logistics and bureaucracy, of intensive language study and disorientation, and professional sabbatical. I look forward to sharing some of the highlights with you.

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January 11, 2018 at 11:15 am

Posted in Musings

RIP Leonard Cohen

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“And when we fell together
Our flesh was like a veil
That I had to draw aside to see
The serpent eat its tail.”

Thank you for sharing so many beautiful and unforgettable words.

The Soul of the Village, Marc Chagall

The Soul of the Village, Marc Chagall

Written by Mesocosm

November 11, 2016 at 8:31 am

Posted in Musings

52:10 What Binds Americans Together

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For the most part, I want Mesocosm to be a rambling survey of life-intensifying ideas and works of art. I generally keep it apolitical, because by and large I don’t believe political discourse is helpful.

But at this particular time in history, saying nothing about politics would be a kind of untruth. So for this week’s post, I’d like to look at February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together, a special little essay that deeply influenced my thinking. It was jointly published by Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2003. I’d like to briefly say a little bit about what it meant to me at the time, and in the light of current events.

White Flag, Jasper Johns

White Flag, Jasper Johns

Sometimes I think about the days and years after 9/11. All of us who lived through those times remember the grief, confusion, and the insanity of it – the long years that passed by slowly, when the evening news reported “Threat Level Amber” in a constant scroll across the bottom of the screen in an oblique reminder that the world isn’t safe. Talking heads reporting “high levels of chatter” around the holidays, and other glyphs and half-understood signs of danger.

I remember thinking that many Americans would literally rather go to war with a Muslim country than read a book on Islam. Who knew a Sunni from a Shiite? And I remember my Zen teacher despondently saying that what she found unbearable was that no one seemed to make any sense at all – you kept listening, and you never heard voices of reason. Storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and the country was heading to war.

Now, more than ten years later, ideas are taken seriously in American political discourse that would have previously been regarded as madness even by the fringes of the political spectrum. And there’s a chance that in a few days time, we’ll see the election of a man preposterously unfit by any rational standard to the office of president – a man insults comedians and beauty pageant contestants in late-night Tweets, a man who openly called on Russian hackers to intercede in our election on his behalf, a man who celebrates torture, a man who will be standing trial for fraud and racketeering in a few weeks’ time, though he calls his opponent “crooked.”

The Trump phenomenon is increasingly being analyzed for its novel relationship to truth and reason, as he seems to exemplify a political ideology that is fundamentally characterized by a wholesale rejection of conventional standards of reason and evidence (see, for example, here and here). Of the countless examples within easy reach, perhaps the most illustrative case is when Trump insisted that President Obama and Hillary Clinton literally founded the Islamic State. When asked by a sympathetic radio host if he meant that Obama effectively was responsible for the creation of the Islamic State, he respond no, I meant what I said – he is the founder. From CNN’s coverage:

Trump was asked by host Hugh Hewitt about the comments Trump made Wednesday night in Florida, and Hewitt said he understood Trump to mean “that he (Obama) created the vacuum, he lost the peace.”

Trump objected.

“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” Trump said. “I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”

At this point one is literally left wondering if he doesn’t understand what the word “founder” means, or if the basic machinery of rational thought has broken down in his mind. What could he possibly mean by such a statement? Is it possible that in some or any sense he actually believes this claim is true?

This type of rhetoric, which proceeds as if the facts of the matter are irrelevant on a basic level, is central to his campaign, with its endless stream of falsehoods and contradictions. It is a new mode of mainstream political discourse which not only lacks but rejects critical self-awareness.

In a recent interview in Die Zeit, Judith Butler offered this observation about the culture of Trump and his supporters:

Butler: Well, it is all rather unfathomable. I think there is an economic component to the support for Trump. For some of his supporters government has gotten in the way of their capacity to make a good living and to succeed financially, so they are against regulations, against government. And that can include paying taxes and workplace regulations meant to secure the health and safety of workers. They applaud the fact that Trump has not apparently paid federal taxes and they think: “Yeah, I want to be that person”.

ZEIT ONLINE: There is a lot of rage?

Butler: I think they have an enormous rage. Not just against women, not only against racial minorities or against migrants – they are thrilled that that their rage is being liberated by his public and uncensored speech. We on the left, we are apparently the superego. What Trump has managed to do, rhetorically, is to identify not just the left, but liberalism – basic American liberalism and the left – as just a bunch of censors. We are the instruments of repression and he is the vehicle for emancipation. It is a nightmare.

A friend of mine sardonically observed “Remembered the good-old days when the Left was the id and the Right was the super-ego?” All I can say is, our version of the id is a lot more fun.

In the dark days around 2003 when I was listening for a voice of reason, one of the first signs of light I found was the essay February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together. Two great European intellectuals representing philosophical positions that are, in many senses, diametrically opposed, came together to make a joint statement that articulated a shared political vision for Europe and a common set of ideals that could be used to chart the way forward.

You may find that short essay worth reading – in essence, it constitutes a reaffirmation of a European social order founded on reason and a concept of basic, universal human rights, in which disagreements are mediated by laws and procedures rather than force.

It was a surprising gesture, with Habermas being the preeminent living representative of the Kantian rationalist view of society, while Derrida represents a career-long manifold critique of the European Enlightenment and its naive construction of the rational subject. I can only conject that when push came to shove, as it did, Derrida found that he was committed to reason and fundamental rights. And though I hadn’t engaged vigorously in political philosophy before that time, I realized that I was, too.

I believe that the United States is, at its best, a society of laws, whose policies are shaped by democratic principles. Democracy depends on judgments that are fired in the collective furnace of rational discourse mediated by shared norms and values. One can and should subject every term of this formulation to critique, but my honest belief is that this is truly the best hope for the country and for the world, and the aberrations and errors made by this country in its checkered past occur, by and large, insofar as we deviate from that model.

Tuesday is the most important election I’ve seen in my lifetime – perhaps more important to me personally and to the world than the Brexit referendum which derailed my in-motion plans to move to London. Tuesday’s election is no less than a referendum on the vision of America as a society in which collective action is coordinated by rational discourse, and which affirms certain fundamental rights owed to every individual on the planet, whatever their country, genealogy, or religion.

We have a choice on Tuesday between a candidate who fundamentally rejects the role of critical reason and the universality of human rights, and one who does not. That is, in fact, no choice at all. If you live in the United States, please vote.

Written by Mesocosm

November 5, 2016 at 7:16 am

Posted in Musings, Politics

Hugh Eakin on the Destruction of Antiquities in Syria

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Although the gratuitous destruction of antiquities by IS has garnered almost all public attention, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and a lot of the destruction that’s being largely ignored would be far easier to prevent. According to Hugh Eakin’s compelling article Ancient Syrian Sites; A Different Story of Destruction in the New York Review of Books:

As long ago as December 2014, well before ISIS captured Palmyra, the United Nations released a report showing that nearly three hundred historic sites in Syria had been damaged since the beginning of the war, most of them by groups other than ISIS. Of these, twenty-four had been “totally destroyed” by different militias or by the Assad regime itself, including twenty-two in Aleppo alone. As of this year, all of the six sites in Syria that were supposedly protected by UNESCO World Heritage status have been damaged, including, along with Palmyra, the Krak des Chevaliers, Syria’s most important crusader castle, the remains of the Hellenistic city of Dura-Europos, on the Euphrates, and the Roman city of Bosra. A number of the destroyed monuments, like the Temple of Bel frieze at Palmyra or the majestic, eleventh-century minaret in Aleppo, toppled amid fierce fighting in early 2013, were unique works with no known parallels.

For many Syrians, the international response has been baffling. While speaking constantly of ISIS, whose destructive acts they can do little about, Western leaders and cultural officials have mostly overlooked the grave damage that is occurring in many other parts of Syria—often in areas where preventive steps can be taken.

This reminds me of little-noticed destruction of key sites in Iraq, such as when the US army used the ruins of Babylon as a military base in the invasion of Iraq, or when unexcavated ground at the same site was unceremoniously dug up and used for an oil pipeline.

Eakin also highlights the importance of supporting vital local efforts to preserve artifacts in war zones, and calls for these efforts to be directly supported. For example:

During the civil war in Beirut (1975–1990), when the National Museum of Beirut was on the front lines of the conflict, it was the museum’s own curator, Emir Maurice Chehab, who saved much of the collection, including Phoenician sarcophagi and monumental statuary, by encasing them in concrete in the basement. In Afghanistan, the Bamiyan Buddhas were lost, despite huge international outcry; but the National Museum’s Bactrian Hoard—more than 20,000 extraordinary gold, silver, and ivory objects from a Bronze Age burial site—was quietly saved, thanks to the courage and ingenuity of a group of Afghan curators who kept them hidden for years in a vault under the Central Bank in Kabul. And in Timbuktu, when jihadists overran the city in 2012, intent on wiping out the city’s extraordinary medieval Islamic heritage, it was local librarians who spirited away to safety thousands of rare manuscripts—by truck and canoe.

The whole article is quite thought-provoking – I highly recommend it.

Written by Mesocosm

September 16, 2016 at 6:45 am

Posted in Musings, Politics

The Veils of Islam

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Last week, I attended a talk by Ingrid Mattson, a distinguished scholar of Islamic Studies, and I heard a story that made quite an impression on me. She had been counseling a young man recently, and felt concerned that he was over-sharing on social media – the kinds of stories or pictures from parties that a person in college might not think twice about posting. She suggested that eventually he’d be looking for a job, and he might regret some of the things that were out there on the Internet. As an experiment, she suggested that he try Googling himself, and see what he found.

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Quranic Inscription, 13th Century, Iran

Now, this fellow has a common Arabic name, and she did not anticipate that the first several entire pages of search results would be news stories about violent extremists who shared part or all of his name. This, he realized, is what a prospective employer would see if they ran a quick check.

The light of his individual identity would be reflected by the distorted mirror of the media and refracted through the prism of our times, and he would be marked by association with acts of violence.

The French Algerian theorist Mohammed Arkoun speaks of how societies construct ideas of Islam in terms of imaginaires, or “imaginaries.” These imaginaires are shared systems of ideas and belief shaped by ideology, media, the exchange of social capital, and the intervention of the unconscious.

In Arkoun’s view, discourse about Islam is largely governed by two complementary imaginaires, one coming from Muslim countries, and another constituted in Europe and the US. The common Muslim imaginaire is a reductive description of Islamic society and history that is premised on the belief that its current historical forms of expression are based logically and inevitably on a well-ordered and ahistorical set of principles derived unambiguously from the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic law. That is, what we observe in current Muslim states is believed to follow a precise and unchanging template based on classical sources, and this is how it has always been. 

There are few beliefs as widespread or as dangerous as the belief that ideas do not have a history. This imaginaire that Arkoun describes is recent, and it forms the basis of so many of the tired cliches about Islam –  that it is fundamentally anti-rational; that Islamic states are eo ipso theocratic; that Islamic states perceive all other types of social organization as adversaries to be one day conquered; et cetera. It is proposed and defended by autocratic governments which use it to bolster their own legitimacy. Critical voices are marginalized or suppressed within these governments and their institutions of learning, and consequently the standard tools of social criticism that would generally look to the role of ideology or the irrational in shaping self-concepts of history are silenced. 

For a variety of bad reasons, this distorted self-construction is reflected back by scholars in Europe and the United States, who should know better. In Arkoun’s view, they accede to this narrative either out of a naive wish to let the putatively indigenous self-construction and valuation of Islamic identity speak for itself and on its own terms, or out of a cynical desire to capitalize on simplified reductions of history for their own aims, e.g., to characterize Islam in the language of alterity. All too often these scholars ignore the degree to which critical or alternative voices within the Islamic world itself are silenced, and European and American scholars accept social constructions at face value that would never be tolerated from a European source without careful criticism.

So, to pull one of countless examples, in his recent book World Order, Henry Kissinger soberly recapitulates the cliche that the first several centuries of Muslim expansion were guided by a fundamental ideological distinction between the House of Islam, or conquered Muslim lands, and the House of War, or everywhere else, and treats this as though it were an unproblematic given of historiography. And of course, Kissinger does not pause to ask where this interpretation of early Muslim history came from, or what interests it may serve.

Ironically, by acting in this way, Kissinger precisely echoes the reductive and distorted version of history advocated by Sayyid Qutb, the strident anti-American polemicist whose belligerent interpretation of jihad has been taken up by terrorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki of Al Qaeda in Yemen. As the French proverb has it, les extrêmes se touchent.

Reality is far more complicated than dramatic simplifications will allow. To speak to Kissinger’s positoin, countless forms of cross-cultural exchange and interaction took place during the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid Caliphates, involving commerce, knowledge transfer, migration, missionary activity, travel, and dialog. The world is a complex place, and from its earliest days, Islam has been a plurality.

Yet, when you look to today’s newspaper headlines, and draw from so much of our social discourse, you would hardly know that there was any diversity in Muslim views or beliefs at all. We live in an age in which a Republican presidential candidate can openly praise the arbitrary degradation and murder of Muslims in South Carolina, for no other reason than that they are Muslims, and then win the primary in the same week.

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Mosaic, Khirbat al-Mafjar, c. 740

How is it that we form ideas about who we are as individuals? Who are the people we encounter, and what do we really know about them? What do we know about groups – about Christians or Jews, Buddhists or Muslims? What are the mirrors into which we all peer to make out a sense of identity, and to give shape to the complexities of our world, so we can understand and act? How do we see the truth?

The Quran gives us 99 names for Allah, and one of them is “the Truth.” In the Surah Luqman, we read:

Hast thou not considered that God makes the night pass into the day and makes the day pass into the night, and that He made the sun and the moon subservient, each running for a term appointed, and that God is Aware of whatsoever you do? That is because God, He is the Truth, and whatsoever they call upon other than Him is false, and God is the Exalted, the Great. (31:29-30)

I love this beautiful conjunction of the movement of light and dark arrayed in orderly progression, bound to the notion of Truth.

This particular Name is of special interest to the Sufis, who stride so brilliantly through the history of Islam, leaping effortlessly over so many fences. For the Sufi masters, the Truth is indeed bound to a play of light and dark, as we read in the Niche of Lights by Al-Ghazali, or the works of Ibn al-’Arabi, who speaks of the veils of the Real, by which God is revealed within the world, but which simultaneously conceal His essence.

Thus Truth and the Real in the ultimate sense, according to this tradition, are a play of light and darkness; shapes that give sense and meaning, also cloud and hide. And this is where we live, in the play of light and shadow. So how do we find our way?

This is what I take as my starting point: because of the current state of technology and social change, all of humanity must increasingly share this one world together, and learning to recognize one another as brothers and sisters is the spiritual task of our age. My own orientation to religion, history, and culture is comparative, and it is increasingly clear to me that within my own society – that of Europe and the United States – we must have a better understanding of Islam. For this world to survive, we cannot simply take up the concepts that are ready-to-hand within our social discourse, because they are awash with profound distortions.

Anyone who would encounter Islam and come to terms with it, as we must, should wander some of its many ways, for great riches lie within its corridors and chambers. It has long been and remains a powerful spiritual force that sustains and guides the lives of more than a billion people, each with their own individual lives and destinies, and I increasingly believe that it is the duty of non-Muslims to meet it, as a Thou in Martin Buber’s sense, and to encounter its people, before the maddening and distorted din of echoed rumor deafens our ears, and the bright glare of the endlessly-refracted light blinds our eyes, and we can see and hear no more.

 


 

Update: Just days after writing that the old story of the stark distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim communities during the period of expansion is a gross over-simplification, I came across this fascinating article describing the excavation of the earliest-known Muslim graves in Europe. These graves belonged to three Berbers who were probably part of the Umayyad expansion, and the evidence indicates that they lived peacefully in Nimes with Christians, as they were buried alongside Christians with no sign of partition. In the words of the authors, “[t]hese results clearly highlight the complexity of the relationship between communities during this period, far from the cliché depiction still found in some history books.”

Written by Mesocosm

February 22, 2016 at 7:22 am

Reading List: December 2015

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Hey there, readers – thought I’d drop you a line and let you know what I’ve been up to. I’ve been pretty busy with work the last year or two, so I’ve not been writing as much as I used to, though I try to keep things going from time to time. But I’ve been having a very lively year reading and researching in my own precious personal time. I’m currently finishing up Heinrich Heine’s book of poems entitled Deutschland; Ein Wintermärchen, or Germany; A Winter’s Tale. If you know a bit about Germany in the 19th century it’s spellbinding stuff. Heine wrote it not long after the failed 1848 uprising in which liberal nationalists in German-speaking Europe attempted to do away with the Ancien Régime, as Napolean called the crusty old order of hereditary rule, and replace it with a federal representative government. Wagner fans will note that the young composer, like most right-thinking intellectuals of his day, also fervently supported this goal and was himself demonstrating in the streets, until the uprising was harshly suppressed and many of its supporters were imprisoned or fled into exile.

In his Winter’s Tale, Heine reflects on the state of things in a contemplative set of poems describing a journey through the Rhineland on the border of France. He falls into a series of reveries, heavy with a dreamlike quality, and the events of the recent past are animated by images from the distant past, or from songs, or passing fancies. In one powerful sequence, he dreams that he is with the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, who, according to German legend, lies sleeping under his Magic Mountain, waiting for Germany’s hour of need, prepared to rise again.

It’s easy to get the impression of Heine as a sentimental lyricist and writer of pretty verse, but he’s widely regarded as one of the chief figures of early German modernism because of his powerful and unflinching engagement with serious issues of contemporary import. It’s interesting to contrast him to another poet who, in my mind at least, stands for the advent of modernity in German literature: Friedrich Hölderlin. In a way Heine and Hölderlin are dialectical opposites – Heine, in form, is extremely conservative, using light cadence and simple rhyme schemes to clearly and eloquently convey his striking, complex and often-ironic ideas. That is, his style is conservative but his content is strikingly modern. Hölderlin, in contrast, is extremely conservative in subject, dwelling on the sublime and Ancient Greece with all the ardent nostalgia of the high Romantics, while his style is extremely modern, problematizing the status of the subject and the voice of poetry with his obscure and complex forms, setting down layers of ambiguous imagery in the service of ideas that are, ultimately, somewhat simple.

Prayer Niche (detail), 7th century Persian Pergamon Museum

Prayer Niche (detail), 7th century Persian
Pergamon Museum

I’ve found Heine hard to reach – anthologies often carry his light and whimsical verse, and it’s hard to get a sense of his importance from those delightful but relatively inconsequential poems. Going through this volume has made it perfectly clear why he’s widely regarded as the most important German poet of the 19th century.

In the last several months I’ve also been going somewhat into Islamic philosophy, focusing particularly on the Neoplatonists, especially Ibn Sina. As a kind of corollary I’ve been looking at modern voices in Islam – particularly voices of modernization in German Islam, such as Navid Kermani and Karajan Amritpur. I’ve been having a field day with Kermani’s magnificent Zwischen Koran und Kafka, or Between Koran and Kafka, which is one of the most useful works on Islam I’ve ever read. Kermani reads Islamic history in the light of aesthetics, particularly in dialog with his European literary and philosophical training, and consequently has a capacity to articulate a central aspect of the Muslim worldview in terms that I find extremely easy to understand.

I also deeply appreciate Kermanis insistence that Islam be understood as fundamentally an aesthetic phenomenon. He eloquently pulls from a panapoly of traditional sources describing people who are so moved by the beautiful of Qu’ranic recitation that they swoon, or even die. (!) That led me to a deeper interest in Islamic art, and I wish I’d given it more attention earlier on in my studies – nothing tells you about the way a religious tradition actually supports human life like its art.

Cult Figure, Fifth Century CE, Neues Museum

Cult Figure, Fifth Century CE, Neues Museum

The third area I’ve been researching heavily in the last several months is German and Norse mythology. Here my cornerstone has been reading through the Austrian scholar Rudolf Simek’s magnificent book Religion und Mythologie der Germanen, which I picked up this summer in a bookstore in Zürich. The thing I love about this book is that Simek really puts the whole picture together, linking the literary evidence with the archaeological data, and asking a lot of hard questions of what we know and what we don’t know of the whole thing. In most of the English-language sources I’ve found on the Norse and German myths, the evidence is almost completely literary, and that can paint an extremely misleading view of the whole thing. All of our literary sources are quite late, after the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity, and they are unreliable sources for what the pre-Christian beliefs and practices actually were.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately, I’ll probably write more about all of these topics soon. Please share what you’ve been thinking about lately in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

Written by Mesocosm

December 20, 2015 at 5:10 pm

Posted in Literature, Musings

How to Tell a Story

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“A rabbi, whose grandfather had been a disciple of the Baal Shem, was asked to tell a story. ‘A story,’ he said, ‘must be told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself.’ And he told: ‘My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance and show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. That’s the way to tell a story!”

From Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim.

Written by Mesocosm

April 26, 2015 at 6:00 am

Posted in Musings

Au Hasard Apuleius

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For some reason, it never occurred to me until this morning that Robert Bresson’s film “Au Hasard Balthazar” is essentially a Christianized retelling of Lucius Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass;” only where Apuleius passes through suffering to a towering epiphany of world-redeeming insight, Bresson’s dour world is unredeemable, unto the gates of death.

Written by Mesocosm

April 5, 2015 at 9:33 am

Posted in Musings