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)

Boycott and boycott

Two boycotts are presently targeting Israel. One takes aim at companies and organizations having their operations, or some of them, in the settlements and implantations that have been developing on the West Bank since the seventies. The second boycott, started by the BDS movement (= Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), made news recently because of the American Studies Association’s announcement of its support of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Supporters of the anti-Palestinian policies of Israel’s present government are trying hard to confuse the public regarding the first one, the limited boycott of companies operating in the settlements on the West Bank, because it has a sound legal and ethical basis. It can really hurt and accelerate peace negotiations. They use boycott number 2, the BDS one, which they know is problematic for most people in the US, as if it were the basis for boycott number 1, the limited one. See for instance yesterday’s NYT article on countering boycotts by Landler, or today’s opinion piece by the foreign editor of Die Welt.

A few words about boycott one, which targets companies and products in the settlements. I support this boycott because these settlements are illegal and “an obstacle to peace” (footnote: this was the diplomatic language used by US Secretary of States until it was dropped by Reagan’s administration. Obama’s went tentatively back to it, at the beginning of his administration). The implantations prevent a negotiation and resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict on the basis of UN Resolution 242 and the Oslo Accords of 1993–95. A solution to the conflict on that basis, with land swaps, is possible. But the settlements’ continuous expansion since the Oslo Accords and especially now, in the face of efforts by the Obama administration to put the peace process back on rails, makes an economic and cultural boycott of these settlements necessary. We’ll see how a recently weakened AIPAC frames the discussion in the days to come. Kerry is to address it on Monday, if the situation in Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia, not to mention Syria, does not need his attention.

The second or BDS boycott is legally and ethically confusing to most people. The three main elements of its platform are: 1) equal rights of citizenship for current inhabitants; 2) the end to the occupation; 3) the rights of unlawfully displaced persons to return to their lands and gain restitution for their losses. Because numbers 2 and 3 could apply to the state of Israel as a home and refuge for many Jews since 1948, I don’t see how it can be supported.

Boycott number one needs to expand if Israel’s government continues to refuse to engage in the peace process.


This is a summary of a paper I gave yesterday on the origins of the apocalyptic mind and literature (Enoch, Daniel, right up to Revelation). It was a standard historical paper, with ethical and political considerations regarding the modern situation not buried too deeply down.

The paper starts by saying that apocalyptic literature—a three-century-something long development initiated in the third century B.C.E.—is the continuation of the sixth-to-fifth century monotheistic reframing of the Yahweh divinity. This reframing and broadening of Yahweh is in great part an explanation of, and resistance to, a succession of three empires. Belief in a single, only divinity was at the same time a listening beyond the fury and chaos of history. This listening to and obeying an inscrutable divine will had been revealed to an interstitial Moses, the story went, not to a king. Listening (in the sense of paying attention as well as a more problematic obeying) remained or became the driving metaphor, rather than seeing and its related political forms. The Mosaic story and law took their present shape together with the new temple in the late sixth-fifth centuries B.C.E.

Apocalyptic takes its cue from the central role played in Judahite society by this new temple and torah. For its own purposes, Achaemenid rule had allowed or encouraged limited, local, non-royal, control for peoples still reeling from the collapse of their monarchy and loss of political center. In this new situation, an original, divinely inspired, constitution had been created—as well as a historical narrative of origins, an explanation of failures, and reasons for hope. And together with the reframing of a catastrophic political history as being the expression of long-revealed divine will, the eventual rebuilding of the divinity’s house proceeded. Both Torah and temple became the sources of renewed strength for a small, beaten, partly dispersed, endangered people.

The lay and soon-dominant priestly elites in Judah, however, were in a paradoxical situation. The authority of both of these groups, in regard to Achaemenid and later Ptolemaic kings, depended on their ability to ensure order and tribute. But from the Judahites’ point of view, it depended on their contiguity or nearness to temple and torah. It was precisely their religious authority (including their eventual creation and placing of the torah at the center), their attached rights to religious tithing, and consequently their local integration and intimate knowledge of economic resources and social situations that enabled them to play an effective role as disguised tax-farmers for the Persian kings. Leaders or protectors of the people and facilitators of a tributary empire at the same time.

This uneasy equilibrium lasted for some time. Two centuries something later, however, two combined pressures came about that could not be managed anymore. One was a particularly oppressive external imperial assault that, in its combination of Hellenistic and eventual Roman competing claims, made overt as well as implicit linguistic, economic, and cultural-religious demands that the people and many among the elites found impossible to meet. The second was a more complicated, local development, marked by the end of the authoritative and uneasy role of the Judahite leadership that was summarized above, of lay elites and priesthood. Part of it was the hardening of the temple as institution, and the torah as canon. The latter was not hermetically closed until long after, but prophetic voices and eschatological thinking were discouraged. The elites’ splits and abandonment of their responsibilities have left traces in some of the later layers of the Hebrew Bible.

This is the situation that apocalyptic responded to and tried to transcend. So, the core of apocalyptic was not otherworldly or devoid of ethical concerns, on the contrary. In the re-mythicized forms it adopted, evil was politically and socially rooted and the writers projected the unseemly and incomprehensible victory of unrighteousness as part of a divine plan revealed to visionaries: the ineluctable and inescapable triumph of an “enthroned glory.” Yet, this enthroned glory was still an absent male patriarch, the absent father of daily life as well as the absent and formidable head of state, the Ancient of Days, a glory before which one could only prostrate oneself.

I concluded the paper with a discussion of Jesus. Was he an apocalyptic thinker (dreamer?) or an anti-Roman peasant revolutionary? I tried to show there is no either/or. Jesus folded the apocalyptic worldview unto the here and now. That is, the grandiose cosmic waiting and near-coming featured in apocalyptic, he took to be the waiting and expectation of the paralytic, the hungry, the woman with a blood flow, disciples, hearers, or those waiting (in the parables) for the master, the landowner, the king, the groom. This announcement that the waiting was over (is permanently over?), however, went directly against the notion of a structured absence we see at the center of the Temple and Torah as well as in much of the apocalyptic literature. Directly against the Roman and Judaean managerial politics surrounding this convenient absence. Jesus continued something long at work in his society since the transformation of the Maccabean revolution into another kingdom yet. He radicalized the logic of those large movements (especially the Pharisees but also the Essenes) and claimed a life in which real bodies and souls could live here and now the promises and hopes of a decentered or dislocated temple and torah.

I did not play a coda that could have gone as follows. The story of this collapse of a cosmic wait onto the mundane here-and-now led to a refocussing of history, on a much larger scale than before, around the vanishing point of a returning Christic figure. It lasted aeons, right up to our seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and it lives in large groups still around us). Then it transmogrified into the steely and brave-new-worldly dream of the advent of reason, and that too, at the hands of national entities, liberal and/or fascistic, became apocalyptic. Exhausted, we look over our shoulders, deconstruct all of that, and find ourselves at the mercy again of managerial politics, with floating chunks of rationality here and there, though thankfully without mediation of any kind: no temple, church, state, vectorized Hegelian history. The ethics and rationalizations of our managers seem very thin and narrow. Greed and sheer stupidity are well matched. So, here and now we are, pilgrims and explorers again and again.

From TS Eliot, Four quartets, end of East Coker:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

The Stuart Hall Project

The Stuart Hall Project: Revolution, politics, culture and the New Left experience: a new film by John Akomfrah. A major success in Britain last Fall, “The Stuart Hall Project” is now being distributed in the USA.

It will be screened at UCSC on Tuesday evening, February 25th. 7:30 PM, Studio C. (Communications 150)

The film, 102 minutes, will be followed by an informal panel and general discussion animated by James Clifford (History of Consciousness), Jennifer Gonzalez (HAVC), and Herman Gray (Sociology).

See also the interview of filmmaker John Akomfrah by Jonathan Derbyshire in the Prospect Magazine.

Stuart Hall Project

Generously funded by the Arts Dean’s Fund for Excellence. Co-sponsored by The Center for Cultural Studies and the Department of Film and Digital Media.

Shakespeare deconstructed

Just got this announcement for what promises to be a fun show at the UCSC Stevenson Event Center, Feb 16, 2014.

More detail for those interested: most of the pieces in the show (a staged reading) were suggested by Tom Lehrer. You’ll see some of the sources and authors listed at the bottom of the poster. The A Team that will present: Mickey McGushin is musical director, he and Irene Herrmann accompany the musical portions, and Susan Morgenstern directs. The actors are stars of Cabrillo musicals (Ceglio, Parker, Michaud, Boardman), with a few ringers from UCSC and Shakespeare Santa Cruz (Willey, Warren, Stanley, Torfeh).


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.


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?

Israel-US tension

Israel’s present government is not interested in compromises.

According to unnamed sources quoted in Israeli newspapers since last week, Israel Defense Minister Ya`alon repeatedly attacked Secretary of State Kerry in conversations with Israelis and Americans. Among other things, he reportedly said that Kerry was “obsessive and messianic” and that he (Ya`alon) hoped that “Kerry would obtain the Nobel Prize and leave us alone.” The US government considered these words to be personal attacks that, if true, needed to be disavowed by Israel’s government. See NYT’s article. The rift comes from differences about the security arrangements in the Jordan valley being discussed as part of the peace process. Last month, Likud cabinet ministers formally urged Israel, via a non-binding resolution, to annex the west side of Jordan River Valley. No give.

So excuses were made. A weaker statement by Israel’s Minister of Defense Ya`alon was completely rejected earlier today by the US administration. Israel’s government was asked to dissociate itself from the comments by its Defense Minister. The strength of the US statement was unusual and a surprise to me. There is good reason to think the White House has not forgotten Netanyahu’s ill-advised meddling in the months leading to the presidential elections of 2012.

Now, after a two-hour meeting with Netanyahu, Haaretz reports, a somewhat stronger apology was issued by the Defense Minister’s office and coordinated with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office: “The Defense Minister didn’t mean to offend the Secretary of State, and he apologizes if the Secretary of State was offended by the words attributed to the Minister.” Passive voice and floating words: the office is apologizing, not quite the man in the office. Netanyahu and NJ’s governor Christie seem to be in a similar situation: encouraging stalling and retribution and working hard at dissociating themselves from the actual results.

The announcement, published in Hebrew and English, also made clear that “Israel and the USA are partners in the effort to move along the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, under the leadership of Secretary of State Kerry. We value the Secretary of State’s many efforts towards that goal.” It does not speak about Kerry’s commitment to Israel’s security, however.

Huñvreoù (Gildas Hamel)