All posts by Gildas Hamel

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.

Si vis pacem…

More US soldiers in Baghdad in an attempt to control the capital, meaning controlling the militias, this is the news. The US army is supposed to do that with the help of scraps of an Iraqi army and police that are themselves tottering towards becoming militias without the name, under a puppet government that can’t show any semblance of force except by turning towards Shi’a militias, with Iran in the background.
In a few months, say next Sept-Nov, right in time for the presidential campaign, Bush and Co can turn around, whatever the result (failure near guaranteed), and say: “at least we tried, and we would have been successful hadn’t we been hampered by the resistance of enemies of the country’s best interests (=anyone not with us).” There might be government tears shed for dead soldiers. Perhaps even for the tens of thousand of wounded. None for the hundreds of thousand of Iraqis. And the price of gas has been falling a bit (52 dollars the barrel of whatever crude this morning): what is its real cost? Where is the free market for this commodity? Do we count war in its pricing?


Tarcísio Feitosa da Silva, director of the Roman Catholic Pastoral Land Commission in Altamira, Brazil, challenges forged land titles, denounces illegal logging, and is a peasant organizer pushing for nature reserves. He is considered a top enemy by loggers, ranchers and land speculators, which means his life is constantly in danger. About his faith, he is quoted as saying (NYT of Sat 12/30/06, page A4):

I never understood that phrase that comes just before communion, the one about ‘behold the mystery of faith.’

He then describes how he was once invited to go hunting by people in an Indian village. They got a deer and brought the meat back to the village:

I was super happy, thinking my group would get the best part. But then one old woman came and cut the haunches, then another old woman and another and another. In the end, after all the ribs were taken too, all that remained for us who had made such a big sacrifice was a little piece of meat.
My first reaction was how could a thing like this happen? I had gone the whole day without eating, walked I don’t know how many kilometers in the jungle and helped to carry that deer back on my shoulders. But then I realized that what is on the table is meant to be shared, and that is the mystery of faith. So I think that was the first true Eucharist that I ever experienced.


Skeins of geese, branches and boughs score the violet sky,
beyond long flat roofs, gray tarred roads, vapor trails.
Distant honkings unhinge the roar of hooded engines
that come round in silver rivers to unending frozen bends.

Orlando Patterson writes about the US government’s misuse of the notion of freedom in today’s NYT‘s editorial, “God’s Gift?” One can agree with him that the war in Iraq was motivated “by the neo-conservatives’ belief that they could stabilize the Middle East by spreading freedom there,” though I tend to look at it suspiciously as a sort of icing on the oily cake. But can one agree with him when he considers it an error to continue to espouse liberal doctrine according to which “freedom is a natural part of the human condition?” Yes, if one understands by that “freedom” nothing more than the hypocritical, unrestricted right for powerful individuals and corporations to profit from nature and human labor, i.e. an enslavement of sorts. But that is not what O. Patterson is saying. The president and his advisers, in his view, failed “to distinguish Western beliefs about freedom from those critical features of it that non-Western peoples were likely to embrace.” He believes that if it is “written in our heart,” it is “neither instinctive nor universally desired, and that most of the world’s peoples have found so little need to express it that their indigenous languages did not even have a word for it before Western contact.” But surely it is not because a group has no word (recognizable by us) for some aspect of reality that it doesn’t exist for that group!? It would be strange to argue, for instance, that because a word narrowly translatable as freedom hardly appears in the Hebrew bible, the notion was not fundamental for ancient Hebrews and Judaeans. Perhaps freedom is not instinctive, though babies’s and children’s behavior would tend to illustrate both sides of this idea (that is, both freedom and attachment are instinctive). But it is not “a distinctive product of Western civilization, crafted through the centuries from its contingent social and political struggles and secular reflections, as well as its religious doctrines and conflicts.” Crafted through struggles, yes, but rather part of the values that produced something we call civilization, in that order, not the other way around, as if “Western civilization” existed sui generis, before time. The good news, as O. Patterson rightly says, is that “freedom has been steadily carrying the day.” The bad news, then, is that new forms of enslavement, some carried out under that very name of freedom, are spreading together with it, as the first page of today’s [i]NYT[/i] makes clear in its story on the terrible working conditions of millions of Chinese workers in Shenzhen.

US foreign policy

The Iraq Study Group and the White House don’t agree on what to do in Iraq and more generally in the Middle East, according to the news. Realpolitik vs fantasy? Both to my mind are fantasies, except that the one couched in careful terms by the bi-partisan commission led by Baker and Hamilton is designed to rescue the US from the terrible mess created by Cheney / Rumsfeld / Bush / neocons and give the US a fighting chance to continue to have an important role in the Middle East for a while longer. But the basic choices are the same, just less overtly missionary: maximise the financial and political position of the US, and therefore its military options, so as to neutralize possible competitors. After all, the members of this sedate Iraq Study Group were certainly in favor of whacking Iran in the eighties and making war to Iraq in 1991 to defend Koweit, to maintain an important “principle” of international law. This “principle” was little more than the continuation of imperial European and now American policies dating back in this case to the nineteen twenties.

What is most disconcerting in all of this is that little or no thought is given to the human catastrophe that is the Iraqis’ daily. One hears about our victims, but little about “theirs.” What is at stake is: control of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, “democratic” access to oil and other wealth through modern means (stock exchanges and property structures), and therefore influence over neighboring countries (all of them!). When will human beings be at the center of our foreign policy? When it is not foreign, that is: when out of the realization of our own weakness and fragility we are able to recognize ourselves in any weak and fragile victim at the side of the road (I’m thinking of the Good Samaritan story of Luke 10.25–37). That takes some deterritorialization, accepting to see ourselves as foreign not only to others but to ourselves.

Bruzunennoù barzhoniezh

Pozioù kentañ Mamm-gozh, gant Youenn Gwernig, aet d’an anaon evit bloaz (29et a v. eost 2006):
E-pad ar goañv e Breizh
Bez es eus tiez toennoù mein-glas
Evit lakaat ar vugale da glevout
Tabouliñ ar glav
Prenestroù sklaer evit tresañ traoù.

(Al Liamm 358, ere 2006, pp. 8–9)

In Brittany in the winter
there are houses with slate roofs
so that children may hear
the rain’s pitter patter,
with clear windows to draw things.

Ha da heul bremañ, troïdigezh varzhoneg hebreek vrudet Dan Pagis kavet en e levr Points of Departure, troïdigezh saozneg gant Stephen Mitchell (Ibid., p. 23), ha va hini e brezhoneg war-lerc’h:

כָּתוּב בְּעִפָּרוֹן בַּקָּרון הֶחָתוּם

כָּאן בַּמִּשְׁלוֹחַ הַזֶּה
אֲנִי חַוָּה
עִם הֶבֶל בְּנִי
אִם תִּרְאוּ אֶת בְּנִי הַגָּדוֹל
קַיִן בֶּן אָדָם
,תַּגִּידוּ לוֹ שֶׁאֲנִי

E saozneg:

Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i

Hag e brezhoneg:

Skrivet gant kreïon er vagon brennet

amañ er transport-se
me eva
gant abel va mab
ma welit va mab henañ
cain mab den
lavarit dezhañ emaon

Kurius disoloiñ pegent krouüs eo kenveriañ ar yezhoù, forzh pegent pell spered unan eus an eil, da vihanan diouzh kentañ sell a raer. ‘Kreïon’ ha ‘bagon’ a glot evel e hebreeg, hag a greiz oll e kemer an tamm kreïon liv drama ar bed. Pa brenen ur c’hreion be ur “borteplume” ti Geldron, n’hellen ket sonjal (eürusamant) e c’hellfent dont da vezañ ostilhoù ontologel. Ha da vont pelloc’h ganti: ‘emaon’ hag ‘amañ’ a liamm krogadenn ar werz hag he dibenn gwelloc’h eget en hebreeg. N’hellen ket treiñ בן אדם gant ‘mab Adam’ pe ‘mab gour’, met treiñ gant “mab den” a zeu neuze da damantiñ e c’hell bezañ, hag ez eo, ‘cain’ “mab den ebet”, filius nullius, evel ma grede d’an nazïed e oant un ouenn nevez.

What is poetry?

From Borges:

La raíz del lenguaje es irracional y de carácter mágico. El danés que articulaba el nombre de Thor or el sajón que articulaba el nombre de Thunor no sabía si esas palabras significaban el dios del trueno o el estrépito que sucede al relámpago. La poesía quiere volver a esa antigua magia. Sin prefijadas leyes, obra de un modo vacilante y osado, como si caminara en la oscuridad. (end of the prologue to El otro, el mismo