Category Archives: General

blossoms

The cherry blossoms at the library move to the breeze under immobile, somber sequoias. Eternal profusion of an erupting sea over the peeling, dark silver, lichen-covered bark. Miraculous light that disarms the white and pink palette of the mind. Once again, a wondrous canopy has dared spring up, offer its abode, and quiz eye and heart.

Jesus tragic figure?

Two quotes from John Gray’s March 13 review in the New Stateman of new books by Peter Watson—The age of nothing— and Terry Eagleton—Culture and the death of god:

If Yeshua (the Jewish prophet later known as Jesus) had died on the cross and stayed dead, that would have been a tragedy. In the Christian story, however, he was resurrected and came back into the world. Possibly this is why Dante’s great poem wasn’t called The Divine Tragedy. In the sense in which it was understood by the ancients, tragedy implies necessity and unalterable finality. According to Christianity, on the other hand, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed by divine grace and even death can be annulled.

Complete misreading of Christianity, to think of the resurrection as a trick, a deus ex machina of the kind featured at the end of some classical plays. One doesn’t need to believe in the resurrection and the messianic interpretation to see that Gray here is assuming a very old posture that was of course rejected by the gospels themselves. But to think Jesus’ death is not seen as a tragedy in Christianity: No need to know what tragos and victimization mean to consider that what is splashed everywhere from churches to house walls, not to mention paintings and scuptures, for centuries now, and perhaps coming to an end (but I wouldn’t bet on it) is the belief that Jesus is forever both on the cross and resurrected. The real problem Greeks had with the passion—many would have agreed with John Gray—cannot be evacuated so easily. As for redemption of everything by divine grace: Christianity struggled mightily with this notion. Surely there are things that are unforgiveable? And yet, no matter the terrible failures of Christianity (-ies), the invisible and sotto voce call for boundless forgiveness, that is what keeps sounding. As for Gray calling Jesus Yeshua, that is fake historicization, part of his unthinking attempt to evacuate the problem. By problem I mean a tragic vision of life that incomprehensibly hearkens to forgiveness and a transformation of life mechanics into another, barely imaginable life, here and now. And here is another quote showing Gray’s willful misunderstanding:

The anti-tragic character of Christianity poses something of a problem for Eagleton. As he understands it, the Christian message calls for the radical dissolution of established forms of life – a revolutionary demand, but also a tragic one, as the kingdom of God and that of man will always be at odds. The trouble is that the historical Jesus seems not to have believed anything like this. His disdain for order in society rested on his conviction that the world was about to come to an end, not metaphorically, as Augustine would later suggest, but literally. In contrast, revolutionaries must act in the basic belief that history will continue, and when they manage to seize power they display an intense interest in maintaining order. Those who make revolutions have little interest in being figures in a tragic spectacle. Perhaps Eagleton should read a little more Lenin.

… And John Gray the gospels. What this author calls Jesus’ disdain for order in society was a refusal of the disorder and anarchy parading as order.

dates of birth

The need to know the dates of birth of my parents made me discover the digitized archives of the Côtes d’Armor, a département in Brittany—one of 96 in France. I could not find my parents’ dates in these digitized archives because they cover the years from 1467 (the date of the earliest registry of births in the collection, in Latin at the time) to 1902, sometimes 1906. My parents were born in 1906 and 1913 and the record of their births probably has not been digitized. It is still in the mairies‘ registries of their villages of origin.

Why don’t I know their dates? The main reason is that when we were growing up in the fifties in traditional Catholic villages in Brittany (and I suppose this is true of the rest of the traditional Catholic world at the time) we didn’t celebrate birthdays, or at least not our parents’. Saints’ days were celebrated or kept in mind and advertized by collective celebrations (pardons), the imagined days of a glorious entrance or birth into heaven after the travails of life. Like that of Saint Gildas, a sixth-century Welsh saint whose traces are celebrated from northern to southern Brittany, such as at this island below, called l’île Saint Gildas in French. The photograph taken from heaven comes from the Henrard collection and was bought by the Archives départementales where I found it. Photo taken in the late fifties (dates given: 1948–72)?

Enezenn Sant Gweltaz (St Gildas)

Economy of salvation

The newspaper was an interesting splash of contradictions this morning. On one side of the opinion page, ideas about the reduction of inequality and the pursuit of social justice here in the US by Krugman (let’s do it now, Mr President) and Brooks (let’s take our time: it takes a generation to raise social mobility). On the other, Timothy Egan who applauds Gates’ proclamation that the end of massive poverty is in sight. Almost, 2035. According to Gates, an increase in private philanthropy and governments’ foreign aid (low at the moment) remain essential to the goal of bringing it about. Life expectancy is on the rise, epidemic diseases are being pushed back or eradicated, and birth rates are about to stabilize, not explode, as poverty recedes. The Davos chalet crowd can be satisfied and not worry too much about the cry from Oxfam that inequality is massively increasing and threatening the security of everyone. See its report. Quotes from the second page:

• Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
• The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
• The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
• The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
• In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

Not that Oxfam is a radical organization. It accepts the modern view that the pursuit of personal desires is providential—Adam Smith’s invisible hand—and creates better conditions for everyone all around. Quote from the second paragraph on the first page:

Some economic inequality is essential to drive growth and progress, rewarding those with talent, hard earned skills, and the ambition to innovate and take entrepreneurial risks. However, the extreme levels of wealth concentration occurring today threaten to exclude hundreds of millions of people from realizing the benefits of their talents and hard work.

The first word of this paragraph speaks volumes. How much is “Some economic inequality?” The replacement of a deprecated theology of divine providence (= the Church’s economy of salvation) by a supposedly rational belief in the claimed automatisms of a transcendental economic rationality looks less and less like progress.

US-Iran

The US public doesn’t want a war with Iran and supports the diplomatic avenues finally opened by our administration. See Susan Lazare’s article on Juan Coles’s Informed comment. Key passages:

According to the latest count, 59 senators—16 of them Democrats—have thrown their public support behind the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 (S. 1881), which would advance further sanctions on Iran and impose near-impossible conditions on a final agreement — in what critics, including the Obama administration, say amounts to a call for war.

Many organizations are calling for diplomacy and pressuring those 59 senators to consider realities:

Sixty-two organizations …. released an open letter (pdf) to U.S. senators declaring, “By foreclosing diplomatic prospects, new sanctions would set us on a path to war… We strongly urge you to withhold co-sponsorship of S. 1881 and delay consideration of new Iran sanctions while negotiations are ongoing.”

Realities: the 2003 war against Iraq had disastrous consequences, and the war-type sanctions meant to bully Iran into submission and curtail its potential power in the region haven’t achieved the goal. More of the same would make it unlikely for Iran to exercise their power and help with Syria, Kurdistan (in common with Turkey), proper constitution in Iraq, security in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It means sharing resources in the Persian Gulf area. It means more important actors being engaged in this redistribution of resources, especially Russia, China and India. The plurality of actors could be good for peace and help the US negotiate the difficult and necessary down-tuning of its military power. Diplomatic progress towards a multi-polar world would mean greater security for everyone, including Israel.

I saw Ramallah

Poet Mourid Barghouti’s beautiful and moving book, I saw Ramallah (Cairo/New York, 2001), is written in short, verse-length sentences. Is the brevity due to the influence of the author’s poetry style, that even in prose he thinks and phrases like a poet? Or to the nature of the subject, which prohibits fancy romantic adjectives, all deceptive, and intricate grammatical footwork, also mendacious and artificial? And yet everything he says alludes discreetly to infinitely complex matters that the simplicity of the diction allows the reader to guess or imagine as feelings.

It starts with the shocking contrast between the physicality of the land and what it has become in the heart. A loss and displacement, a humiliation, a constant distance from oneself. My first movement is to think of it as a most insightful commentary on the situation of the Babylonian exiles as sung in Psalm 137, including the rage at the end (both in Psalm 137 and in a few passages of Barghouti’s book). The Hebrew psalm floats in my head, and soon I can’t decide which way the references go: from Barghouti’s testimony to that older story of another dislocation in Babylon, or from the anguished psalm towards his situation and that of other Palestinians. It would be perverse to make the modern situation an illustration of the ancient text. Better say that Psalm 137 is apt commentary on the situation of Palestinian exiles and hope its last verse is fantasy.

He makes eloquent reflections on space and time, describing his birthplace, Dar Ra‘d, for instance, as not a place but a time. Page 13, an arresting passage on names and their impossible task:

And now I pass from my exile to their …. homeland? My homeland? The West Bank and Gaza? The Occupied Territories? The Areas? Judea and Samaria? The Autonomous Government? Israel? Palestine? Is there any other country in the world that so perplexes you with its names?

Nuptiality in France

According to a report on its demographics just published by l’Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE), France in 2012 counted 160,200 mutual support contracts (my translation of pactes civils de solidarité or PACS) and 246,000 marriages. For 2013, 231,000 marriages (estimation), but no number yet for PACS. Same-sex marriage is legal since May 2013. The number of same-sex marriages in 2013 was estimated to be 7,000 (three out of five being men), whereas 2012 saw about the same approximate number of same-sex PACS: 7,000. The INSEE estimates that about 1% of couples are of the same sex, and that six out of ten are male couples.

The Pacte civil de solidarité (PACS) clearly appeals to many French people. It was started in 1999, in part to give same-sex couples the same protections and advantages as marriage did to heterosexuals. Its greater flexibility makes it equally attractive to heterosexual partners, for all kinds of practical and less material reasons. It bypasses the old, complicated, perhaps worrisome, and sometimes religious dimensions of marriage. In terms of social protection, labor law, taxation, succession rights, and donation, marriage and PACS present the same rights. Same reciprocal obligations also: mutual aid in old age, illness, etc., and solidarity regarding expenses and debts incurred in common life.

Differences: simplicity of initiation and cessation of contract for PACS’ed couples (the acronym PACS became a verb and an adjective: pacsé); filiation is not automatic in a PACS; no joined adoption either; pension (no reversion pension from a partner to the other in a PACS); and inheritance. Inheritance from each other is automatic for marriage partners, while PACSed couples need to write a will.

The number of PACS took off especially in 2005-6, probably because of ameliorations brought to the law and application decrees. Dissolutions of PACS, sometimes to switch to a standard marriage: about 12-13% of number of PACS contracted each year, whereas divorces number about 50% of annual marriages. Since the PACS are relatively new, however, it is difficult to say how these numbers (PACS dissolution and divorces) will evolve. PACS vows appear as solid or frail as marriage promises.

Evolution of marriage numbers, in red, and PACS numbers, in green, since 2000:
Marriage and PAC since 2000

Finally, the decreasing number of standard marriages is a long trend. It was a bit higher in 2012 (246,000), but the downward tendency is clear since 1970. Here is the nuptiality rate per 1000 inhabitants:

1970 7.8
1980 6.2
1990 5.1
2000 5
2004 4.5
2005 4.4
2008 4.1

If 2012 PACS numbers were added to 2012 marriages, the total number of unions would have been: 160,200 + 246,000 = 406,200. This total, divided by total French population (66,000,000), gives .006 or 6/1000, which was the rate in 1980.

archaeology

Archaeology is bound to map making and all too often to the political self-serving interpretation passing for scientific history. It rarely escapes the ideology and material interests that accompany and fashion them. It is certainly not cleaning and revealing a mossy, gummed up reality that would be already there, waiting for a properly directed and timely discovery. This self-authorizing discovery is framed as a new, scientific “witnessing” or “viewing” —whether this viewing, scoping, or graphing is that of post-Enlightenment Christians, or the presumptuous, supposed detachment of modern western scholarship. It is making (up) this “reality” while posing as an impartial witness to it. See Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial eyes: travel writing and transculturation (London: Routledge, second edition, 2008). And Abu El-Haj, N. Facts on the ground: archaeological practice and territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001)

Catholic priests, France

I checked the site of the French Bishops’ Conference, looked at ordination numbers, and tabulated them (table below). The number of diocesan priests ordained each year has dropped from about 1,000 in the early fifties to about 90-100 since the nineties. Another thirty or so priests are ordained in various orders (Dominicans, etc.) and are not counted in the table. My statistics are not complete but give an idea of the trend. Another number: about eight priests per year die for each one ordained. The average age for the 14,000 or so French diocesan priests is 75. I estimate there will be about 30 priests per French diocese in fifteen years (or one priest per 20 to 25 000 people). I look at this as evidence of a much larger and radical phenomenon: modern states and religions (even in the US) are losing their position as mediators.

Table Ordinations France

Ground squirrels

In the tall grass, as I bike up to campus, a ground squirrel and a pigeon busy themselves, side by side. I imagine a parody of modern science: establish a study of the bike-path-crossing patterns followed by ground squirrels. Get one hundred students to mark how many squirrels crossed their path, and in what direction. Do this over one hundred days, whether students are on their way up or down, and at different hours. In a second phase, introduce electronic devices to do the counting. Theory: squirrels become aware of their environment and learn from it, or don’t learn and get psychologically bruised. Goal of the study: examine whether squirrels develop consciousness of incoming wheeled objects. Application: develop safety electronic alarms to warn squirrels of impending traffic. Follow-up study aiming at answering this question: do squirrels learn to disregard electronic signals and warnings? do mama squirrels warn their babies about the possibility that one moving wheeled vehicle may hide another one? Establish a protocol for signal-emitting mama squirrels, etc…. Ah, I made it to the library.