I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.
This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.
William Buck's Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it's a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text:
"The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it."
-- Igor Stravinsky
I'm sure it's a hipster affectation of mine: I try to listen to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring every year when the Spring Equinox comes around. It's a hipster affectation because I don't really know much about classical music, and I can't deny that what thrills me most about this music is not the work itself but the knowledge that it caused a riot in Paris on May 29, 1913 when it was first performed. A riot in an theatre -- that's my idea of a rite of Spring.
The music sounds primal today, though it's hard to imagine how it could have caused a riot. In fact, it was not the music as much as the ballet, daringly choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, that caused the sensation. Le Sacre du Printemps was a Russian debut in France, and as such a symbolic meeting between two nations that would one year later go to war together against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.
While I've heard the music often, I've never seen the work performed, and I've only just become aware of a Joffrey Ballet video that presents Stravinsky's music and Nijinsky's ballet in context -- Pictures of Pagan Russia is the subtitle -- so that we can get a better idea of what the whole sensation was about. Here's the first of three parts; you can click through from this one to the next two.
What can we discover by analyzing the worst atrocities of modern history together, looking for patterns and common features? A whole lot, it turns out -- and we're just getting started.
Last weekend we discussed the surprising fact that every society will always consider itself highly moral and principled, even as this society may engage in vile activities. We called this the Ashley Wilkes Principle (named after the noble, brainy Confederate hero of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind). This week I'd like to examine another notion that appears to be surprising and self-evident at the same time.
A recent book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by the historian Alan Taylor drives home a single point: during the War of 1812, when the British Navy invaded and occupied Virginia's Chesapeake coastline, an event occurred that badly shook Virginia's well-entrenched plantation society. Slaves began to realize that they could escape bondage by reaching the British ships that lay ashore. Once they escaped, they would conspire with their British rescuers and help them invade their own plantations and villages to retrieve their families and free more slaves.
This week, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum in Kentucky spent two and a half hours debating the origin of the universe in a well-publicized update of the Scopes Trial of 1920. I could only endure the tedium of the YouTube broadcast for about a half hour, but even though I didn't watch the whole thing I am pleased by the friendly gesture this event represents. Sometimes a willingness to meet in open debate can be more significant than any actual arguments contained within.
Amidst the social media conversations following the debate, I was also impressed by a page of photos of regular people holding up papers expressing questions or ideas supporting the creationist point of view. I don't get the logic behind some of these expressions -- and yet they all appear to be sincere, and a few may even be meaningful. In the photo above, a woman's comparison of the idea of God and the idea of the Big Band strikes a chord. It is true that the idea of the Big Bang as constantly described by physics teachers and Morgan Freeman is as ultimately inexorable as the traditional idea of God.
We need more movies about philosophers. I can only think of very few examples to mention, but David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, a 2011 film about the rivalry between early psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, shows that the format can work. This is an intelligent and straightforward narrative work, based on Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure which was itself based on the book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr.
A Dangerous Method stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley as a severely disturbed young psychoanalytic patient named Sabina Spielrein who would eventually defeat her demons and become Jung's illicit lover, Jung and Freud's intellectual partner, and an innovative psychologist in her own right.
An Atlantic Monthly article by David A. Graham titled "Why Has Republican Belief in Evolution Declined So Much?" made the rounds last week, citing a Pew Research Center study that shows the percentage of self-identifying Republican voters in the United States of America who believe in evolution dropping from 54% to 43% since 2009.
Is this a worrying trend? Many of my fellow liberal progressives on Facebook and Twitter seem to think it is. I think the more dangerous trend is that these friends of mine are snapping at the bait. I've said it before and I'll say it again: as enticing as the Darwin vs. creationism debate may look to eager liberals, we should never swallow it. It's a poison pill.
Darwinism is rock-solid science, but anybody who thinks scientific proof has more power to compel personal belief than traditional religion needs to freshen up on William James, the brilliant philosopher who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Will to Believe. In the latter essay, James listed the necessary conditions for typical belief in any possible truth, and showed that personal inclination tends to play a stronger role than preponderance of evidence in most belief situations. Most importantly, James showed that willful belief is a universal human pattern at all levels of intellect and education, and that the selective mechanisms which construct our beliefs do tend to provide enough of the sturdy fabric of truth and understanding required to inform and guide our lives.
I hope my pick for the most significant book of 2013 will surprise you. It surprises me. For one thing, it's not a book. It wasn't published in 2013. And I've never mentioned it on Litkicks before.
Before I explain, here's a quick wrap-up of my year of reading and blogging. There was a lot of philosophy, history and politics. Early in 2013, I got into Jacques Derrida. This was for me a belated discovery (isn't Derrida supposed to be sophomoric? I'm no sophomore) but a happy one. In July I took a trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the 150th anniversary of that amazing Civil War battle, and then went back home to begin obsessively reading a whole lot of books about the American Civil War. I'm planning to write more about the literary legacy of the Civil War as the battlefield sesquicentennials of Wilderness and Spotsylvania loom. Continuing my weird march through what may seem to my readers to be randomly assorted moments (ahh, but they're not!) in American history, I also read and blogged extensively about disgraced Vice-President Spiro Agnew this year.
I wrote a lot about music and film in 2013. The death of Lou Reed, one of my all time favorite singer-songwriters, inspired in me a vast blast of sudden blogging, which was exhausting. As I mentioned in a comment to one of the above posts, I sure hope Bob Dylan has a good doctor, because I don't want to blog that much again anytime soon. I also continued my series of articles about musical memoirs, because it pleases me to do so, and I hope it pleases some of you too. The next installment in the "Great Lost Rock Memoir" series drops in January.
Thanks to Nelson Mandela, I have a new favorite word. I'm serious about this; I like this word a lot.
I've known about "Ubuntu" for years, but I always thought it was a distribution of the Linux open source operating system. I've installed and used Ubuntu Linux often. But I've just now learned that the Ubuntu distro was created as a spinoff of Debian Linux in 2004 by a South African entrepreneur named Mark Shuttleworth who knew of "ubuntu" as a familiar term in the Ngugi Bantu and Swahili family of languages. The term denotes a communitarian social philosophy that is certainly relevant to the communitarian technology philosophy of open source. Amazingly, the Ubuntu Linux organization even persuaded Nelson Mandela to speak about the meaning of the word in a promotional video for the free and sharable operating system.
I ran into the word while reading about Nelson Mandela, but apparently the word is more commonly associated with Mandela's fellow activist Bishop Desmond Tutu, who has described it thus:
One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
A surprising news bulletin made the rounds this week: "Incredible Discovery Reveals Birthplace of Buddha". They did what? The story appears to be credible, though many Westerners like me who feel the significance aren't quite sure how to react. Shouldn't a discovery this momentous be bigger news? Shouldn't it at least be accompanied by some kind of astral event or bright comet? (Oh, right.)
It's strange to think of Buddha's traces in the material world, though Prince Siddhartha Guatama of Kapilavastu was certainly a historical figure, and was a celebrated personality in his community even before he became the Enlightened One. His teachings are similar in many ways to those of Jesus of Nazareth, but their life trajectories were opposite. Jesus was born in poverty and anonymity, and died an early violent death after being hailed as the King of the Jews. Buddha was born a royal, but nobody thought of him as a Prince or King any more by the time he died peacefully at the age of 80.