All posts by Gildas Hamel

Memories of Jerusalem intra muros

Forty years ago, an early Monday morning, I left the Collège des Frères near New Gate, at the Western tip of Jerusalem (the old city intra muros), passed by Abu Atta’s café and walked fast through the narrow lanes, then Damascus Gate, to reach the Ecole Biblique and its famed library on Nablus Road. I was twenty, ignorant of politics, Islam, Judaism, or Christianity in the East. Knew little about teaching either: during the two years I was doing “coopération” in Jerusalem (a sort of French Peace Corps that could be substituted for military service), I began to learn how to teach French to high school students. And I loved to study at the Ecole.

I don’t remember what I was studying at the time: probably the paleolithic period, neolithic agriculture in the Zagros, and such topics. Around 10am, Père Benoît who was the director of the Ecole came to the library to talk to me and my cooperation friend. War had started in Egypt, he said, the Egyptian aviation apparently had been crushed on the ground, and hostilities were beginning on the Jordanian-Israeli border.
[to be continued]

Sowing wisdom

Comme le cultivateur intelligent, tel qui a la science des choses justes, belles, et bonnes, ne va pas sérieusement aller écrire ces choses avec de l’eau, noircissant de son semoir-calame des discours incapables de se défendre, incapables même d’enseigner la vérité: οὐκ ἄρα σπουδῇ αὐτὰ ἐν ὕδατι γράψει, μέλανι σπείρων διὰ καλάμου μετὰ λόγων ἀδυνάτων μὲν αὑτοῖς λόγῳ βοηθεῖν, ἀδυνάτων δὲ ὶκανῶς τἀληθῆς διδάξαι. Non, ce qui est probable c’est que comme par jeu il ensemencera ces jardins de lettres et écrira lorsqu’il le jugera nécessaire afin d’engranger des souvenirs s’il atteint un jour l’oublieuse vieillesse, pour lui ainsi que ceux qui suivent le même chemin: ἀλλὰ τοὺς μὲν ἐν γράμμασι κήπους, ὡς ἔοικε, παιδιᾶς χάριν σπερεῖ τε καὶ γράψει, ὃταν [δὲ] γράφῃ, ἑαυτῷ τε ὑπομνήματα θησαυριζόμενος είς τὸ λήθης γῆρας ἐὰν ἳκηται, καὶ παντὶ τῷ ταὐτὸν ἴχνος μετιόντι.} (Phèdre, page 148 du texte de la collection des Belles Lettres en format de poche, établi par C. Moreschini, dont je n’ai pas trop suivi la traduction.)

Il s’agit ici des jardins d’Adonis dont Socrate parle plus haut dans Phèdre et qui sont un raccourci agréable mais non pratique de la véritable agriculture. Cette méfiance envers tout ce qui est rapide et enthousiasmant et la préférence pour les ensemencements en terre profonde, par la parole qui tombe au creux du cœur (l’organe de la mémoire en hébreu), se retrouvent dans la parabole du semeur de Marc 4.

Comme me le rappelle un ami: Tchouang-Zi (Taoïsme savant) écrivait: “Seul le chemin lentement parcouru est réellement parcouru!” Et Rabelais , dans son Quint Livre évoquait déjà “les parolles gelées”! avant le disque! On trouve le thème chez Montaigne.

Bike to work

Biking to work was a bit different this morning. You start from under a cover of fog, reach the first slopes with the sun, and again meet with fog as you get to campus. On the bike path, a bunny nonchalantly hops out of the way: little does it know that a Frenchman would love to turn him into ragoût de lapin? At the top, juice, bagel, strawberries and animated volunteers. I clutch at my half-eaten bagel until I reach Cowell where I sink into the Hebrew text of Ezekiel 27-28, an oracle against Tyre that is followed by a sarcastic, whipping dirge, perfectly propaedeutic for memo and email writing.

Ethics briefing for all UC employees

On April 12, 2007, I was surprised to discover UC registered me to complete an “online Ethics Briefing” offered by Workplace Answers. “Workplace Answers” is a private corporation that seems to have UC and UTexas as main clients among universities. The automated email said:

This interactive briefing contains many challenging and interesting workplace situations and is designed to raise awareness in the University community about the Statement of Ethical Values and Standards of Ethical Conduct, which were adopted by the Board of Regents in May 2005. Please complete the briefing by June 15, 2007.

I proceeded to read the Statement of Ethical Values and the Standards of Ethical Conduct at this site.

Of course, I understand how important it is for the University at its highest levels to pledge to adhere to standards of ethical conduct and make it known to the wide public that they do so.

It is interesting to learn that the Statement and Standards were adopted in May 2005 but apparently released in November 2005, at a turbulent time for UC officials, if I trust a letter by Faye Crosby to the Academic Senate, dated Nov 09, 2005, in which she writes:

Just as our campus greeted the formal investiture of our new chancellor, the Office of the President (OP) of the University announced a major change in the leadership at OP. Less than a week after announcing the resignation of our former chancellor, M.R.C.
Greenwood, OP released the Statement of Ethical Values and Standards of Ethical Conduct. We in the Santa Cruz Division are not unique in affirming the importance of honesty, integrity, etc.

The manner in which this ethics course is being requested from all employees brings up questions to which I have found no answers so far. For instance, a question about the presumption I need an ethics-refresh course right at this moment and not before, say in the nineties. Or a question about the efficiency and wisdom of doing something so important through an automated online course, risking greater disaffection and cynicism on the part of many UC employees. And a further question about the presumption there is no substitute for the course: I was hoping a reading of Plato’s Republic, one of the Gospels, or a passage (gulp!) from Spinoza or Kant might fit the bill. More broadly, I question the notion of obligation that this course (called a “briefing”) entails, when I would think the notion of choice is fundamental to ethics. For instance, notions of love and forgiveness are usually at odds with the idea of obligation (pace the recent noise-makers on the genetic component of love).

And I have practical questions, to which I couldn’t find answers on the FAQ page: why does a public university use a private company (“Workplace Answers”) for the dissemination of the standards mentioned above, and where could one find information on the bidding process in contracting out for this service, as well as on the cost? Since that company keeps my name (not my “grade” I hope), according to the FAQ, what happens if the company is bought in a few months by some other company: is the info on UC employees erased? Do the top officers at the university, including the regents, take this course (I suppose the answer is yes). The values of “integrity,” “accountability,” and “respect” listed on the page above would seem a little more practical if “transparency” would be added to the lot.

From Walt Whitman

This quote:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…

Jesus’ old bones found

or so claims a movie maker bent on making a little pre-Easter splash, à la Da Vinci Code, after learning or remembering about finds from the eighties in Talpiot, southern district of Jerusalem. The tomb would have been that of Jesus’ family. Hilarious that a resurrected man would have his bones spin to high heaven and then be laid out carefully in an ossuary. No matter what the gospels say, of course. There is talk of DNA analysis (mitochondrial however?): imagine, if Jesus’ post-resurrection DNA can be identified, that would be divine DNA!! Oh wait, but isn’t that what Spinoza already said in the 17th c., namely that there is but one substance and no separation spirit/matter?

Israel and Palestine

Daniel Pipes is speaking tonight at UCSC and I can’t go and listen to him. When it comes to speakers on Israel and Palestine, I have given up on both the right and left, whatever meanings these directional words may still carry. A long while ago, I decided I would only listen to people who speak about the situation as if *all* people of the area are their closest neighbors, or as if they had family on all sides.

Representations of torture

At UC Berkeley today, I go through the library where there is an exhibit of Botero’s large paintings on the horrors of Abu Ghraib: the use of big, ferocious dogs, tying up prisoners in stretched out positions for long periods, sexual abuse of male prisoners (including anal rape with a stick: a fact at Abu Ghraib?), various unimaginative, humiliating acts (pissing on them). No beauty blooming out of evil here that I can see: but the rounded, large human figures and the colors, I think, don’t jolt my imagination sufficiently and help it come close to the horror that the Abu Ghraib prisoners, or any mistreated and tortured person anywhere may have felt. How can one represent this? Some of the images remind me of the crucified figure of Christianity, which is already a question. What is the use of this image? I am also thinking of the slavery abolitionists discussed this morning on the radio (NPR I believe, which I’ve been despairing of for a few years now: what does the P do there? NR would fit better): it is the image-less and symbol-less Quakers of Britain who did more for the abolition of slavery than other icon-worshipping, text-waving Christians, according to the author of a recent book on the abolitionist movement.

COMMENTS received earlier:

I wonder, will we ever know the American Torture? The representational art cannot move you, and the actual images have lost their impact as well, when censored by the government or sandwiched between advertising. And of course the public won’t give you any answers…”You want a more visceral Abu Ghraib? You’re empathizing with the terrorists!” (Neil, 02/19/2007)

I suppose the Botero painting is a parody- travesty of the Picasso Guernica and an attempt to create the same kind of magical encantation that will disclose a central act–in this casde torture not bombing– and perhaps undo our disgrace. I would love to see it–the large painting. It seems wrong to discuss what I can only imagine. But Botero is of course full of cartoons and pop culture and political/cultural commentrary. I have a close friend, and a poet in Colombia where Botero is I think a pop icon. I have some small statuettes that my friend sent me of plump bishops and other classic Botero images. I am glad to see that this catastrophe is in his hands. It seems fitting. (Tim, 02/21/2007)

St Valentine

Romae, via Flaminia, natalis sancti Valentini, presbyteri et martyris, qui, post multa sanitatum et doctrinae insignia, fustibus caesus et decollatus est, sub Claudio Caesare.

Interamnae sancti Valentini, episcopi et martyris, qui, post diutinam caedem mancipatus custodiae, et, cum superari non posset, tandem, mediae noctis silentio eiectus de carcere, decollatus est, iussu praefecti urbis Placidi. (Martyrologium Ecclesiae)

February the 13th, tomorrow, corresponds to the Ides of February. The 14th of February, corresponds to the first day towards the Kalends of March in the Julian calendar. Plum trees are in bloom, almond trees have already blossomed. Spring is in the air for coastal Californians and for ancient Romans who lived at around 30–40 degrees of latitude (Santa Cruz: 39º N; Rome: 41º N).

In ancient Rome, the goddess Juno, who was revered as the queen of the pantheon in the late Republic, was honored on February 14th. Juno was also taken to be the goddess of women and marriage. Juno Lucina was the goddess of childbirth.

The following day, on February 15th, Romans celebrated the Lupercalia, a festival animated by a sort of brotherhood (a sodalitas) of young men called luperci, i.e. the “wolf-guys,” (from lupus= wolf). Sacrifices were made in the Lupercal, the cave in Rome reputed to have sheltered the she-wolf who brought up Romulus and Remus. For the rest of the ritual, I quote from The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3d ed., 1996, article “Lupercalia” p. 892):

the blood was smeared with a knife on the foreheads of two youths (who were obliged to laugh), and wiped with wool dipped in milk; then the Luperci, naked except for girdles from the skin of sacrificial goats, ran (probably) round the Palatine [….] striking bystanders, especially women, with goat-skin thongs (a favourite scene in the iconography of roman months [….].

Perhaps this striking, or marking, of women was not left to chance but was the product of deliberation under the guise of mayhem, and was expected to lead to marriages.

What does Valentine have to do with the Lupercalia? Under Claudius II, around the year A.D. 270, Valentine was a priest in Rome. He was eventually arrested (for marrying young people?) before the Prefect of Rome, Placidus, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off (see Latin above). He suffered martyrdom on the 14th day of February, about the year 270. If the date of his death is correct, it might be the date alone that attracted to the name of Valentinus stories about his marrying young people in Rome…. The pull of the Lupercalia festival would have been strong enough to make Christianized Romans draw new meanings from the ancient Roman feast and attach them to Valentinus who died on that same day. Or did it happen the other way around, that is, Valentine was associated with marriage, and the date of his death was conveniently attached to that of the Lupercalia festival?

Eventually, the Christian church went further and tried to completely transform this early Spring festival . Gelasius, bishop of Rome at the end of the 5th c., is thought to have “banned Christian participation [in the Lupercalia] and transformed it into the feast of the Purification of the Virgin.” (see Oxford Classical Dictionary, quoted above). Again, a very ancient aspect of the Lupercalia has here been adapted, namely the lustrations (purifications) of this fertility ritual. The Saint Valentine cult appears therefore to have come into full bloom in the 5th c. as an early Christian counter-reform, an adaptation of an ancient fertility and pre-marital ritual.

I look at the modernized version of the St Valentine as a further stage of development. Love, its randomizing possibilities, and the sacred aspects of social contracts and fertility, are submitting to great pressures coming from agressive forms of relentless commercialization. Yet, the wild, “wolf-like” behavior of the Lupercalia somehow survives….


In the papers this morning I learned that a pickpocket spoke yesterday in Washington about making health insurance accounts tax deductible, as payments on home mortgages are. I’m not sure he used that comparison yesterday but he did last week: a stultissima comparison! A health insurance contract is not a home. Since when have I been able to sell my health insurance contract with Kaiser, say, to someone else, I mean as an individual? Naturally, banks can treat insurance contracts as property to be exchanged on the market. I can’t. Our national pickpocket and friends, all supposedly against big government, have no qualms using government to pick people’s pockets or make war for corporate and personal ends.