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Thursday, July 24, 2014


Back in the early nineties, when I was living in Western Massachusetts, Gallup or someone did one of those “name recognition” polls that seem to pop up all the time.  As you might expect, in Massachusetts Teddy Kennedy scored off the charts.  By then, he had been a senator for thirty year or so and was Mr. Massachusetts.  His name recognition score was 95%, way higher than that of any other Massachusetts politician.  But I remember saying to myself, “My God, does that mean that when I am walking in Boston, every twentieth person or so I pass on the street has never heard of Teddy Kennedy?  What rock have they been living under?”

Google tells me that roughly 9% of Americans over the age of 12 use illegal drugs.  That means that when I am driving down the highway at 75 mph, passing cars coming in the other direction at 75 mph, so that we are passing each other at 150 miles per hour, roughly one in eleven of those people rushing by me uses illegal mind-altering drugs!  If I think too much about that, I just want to go back home, crawl into bed, and eat take-out.

Statistics are like that.  We look at the numbers and forget that each percentage point represents a lot of real people.  This thought crossed my mind yet again yesterday when I came upon a report of a series of Gallup polls about the religious beliefs of Americans.  You can read the details here.  The question that caught my eye was the one about how you think the Bible should be understood.  As of last May, 28% of respondents said the Bible was the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word.  [This is down 10 percent from forty years ago.]  Now, the population of the United States is estimated to be about 320 million, so if Gallup is to be believed, there are maybe one hundred million people[RW1]  living in this country [not counting little babies who can’t be held responsible quite yet for the nuttiness of their parents] who believe that the Bible should be taken as literally true, word for word.  [We have to assume that all but a tiny handful of these folks mean the Bible in English, by the way.]

What am I to make of this statistical datum?  It would be comforting, but probably wrong, to suppose that this is just a consequence of the social dynamics of poll-taking [a subject about which I have written before, with reference to a classic essay by David Riesman.]  People understand that the answer one gives to a question may not really be a statement of one’s beliefs, but may rather be an occasion for self-identification as a certain sort of American.  Thus, if Gallup were to ask a cross-section of Americans whether Barack Obama has horns, a non-negligible percentage would say yes, but that does not mean they would be genuinely surprised if they were to meet him and find that he does not.  They would understand that the question really being asked was “Do you hate Obama?” and their response to that implied question would indeed be accurate.

But I think there probably really are about one hundred million Americans who think that the Bible [in English] is the Word of God and should be taken literally, word for word.  How can this possibly be?

I brood on things like this a lot when I am not actively engaged in something more useful, and I think I have an answer.  Look, these hundred million men and women are almost certainly averagely intelligent, averagely competent people.  They get through the day, they hold down jobs, they drive, they know how to turn lights on and off, most of them are literate.  And nothing it says in the Bible interferes in any way with this quotidian functionality.

But now let us suppose that Leviticus 5:17 said “Tweets can be no longer than seventeen characters.”  Whoa!  That would call for some serious textual interpretation, because these faithful Fundamentalists know perfectly well that tweets can be 140 characters long, and save for some technologically clued-in Amish, who tend to walk the walk as well as talking the talk, they are not going to cut their tweets short at 17 characters just because the Bible says so.  The same descent into exegetical interpretation would be required if Matthew 6:17 said “Le Bron James is a lousy basketball player.”

But the great thing about the Bible is that it doesn’t say anything at all about the simple facts that simple people know.  Oh, it says Jonah was swallowed by a big fish and lived there for three days until the fish belched him up.  But few if any of those hundred million have actually seen a whale close up, and believing the Jonah story in no way interferes with their daily rounds.

I mean, when I was a boy my father wrote a high school Biology text which, among many other things, said that there are 48 chromosomes in the human cell.  I lived quite comfortably for many years with that piece of misinformation until I found out that early staining techniques had resulted in a miscount – there are actually only 46.

Of course, believing nutty things for religious reasons has real world consequences – it leads these people to support politicians who pass genuinely awful laws designed to impoverish people and blight their lives, so it matters a good deal that one hundred million Americans are Inerrantists.  But holding that belief does not make them dysfunctional in any immediately manifest fashion.

The residential and social self-segregation of American life results in my almost never meeting one of these Fundamentalists.  Even though I live in North Carolina, which is pretty benighted, I don’t get out of Chapel Hill much, and as I have often observed, in Chapel Hill you can go for quite a while without hearing a Southern accent.  So I may be all wrong.  Maybe Gallup could do a poll.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014


The creative act is endlessly complex and mysterious, at least to me.  I think I understand what I do, but not what others do.  A great string quartet does not create music, but interpret it, which is surely different.  But I suspect jazz aficionados, of whom I am not one, would say that great jazz combos do in fact create collectively, and on occasion do so on the fly, as it were.

One aspect of my own creative act that has puzzled me for a long time is my tendency, once I have written an essay or a book, to feel that I am now finished with the subject of the writing and so turn to something quite different.  It is as though, by transforming a problem or a text or a theory into my story – since all my writing is the telling of stories – I have transmuted it into a permanent form that I must then leave alone.

After writing my first book, an explication of the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason, it would have seemed to me de trop then to write a second or a third book on the Critique.  I had wrestled with Kant until I had, I believed, forced him to yield up his argument to me, and that was that.  My second book on Kant dealt with his ethical theory, and in that case I emerged from the struggle unsatisfied.  Hence, many years later, I returned to the task I had been unable to complete and wrote “The Completion of Kant’s Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre, whose title says that I have now finished that story.

This sense that my writing transforms raw material into a finished story is present even with relatively trifling pieces.  For example, almost exactly a year ago, on July 13, 2013, I wrote a short explication de texte of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I am nobody/Who are You?”  This is a poem that speaks very directly to me, and which I chose as the epigraph of my Autobiography.  I had obviously been thinking about the poem, off and on, for many years, but once I had captured it in the little story I wrote, I was done with it, and I could not imagine returning to it to discuss it further.

I wonder whether other writers experience their act of writing in a similar manner.


One of the least appealing characteristics of blogging is its ephemeral nature.  Everything evanesces.  Snarks and selfies go viral and last for the lifetime of a Mayfly, while serious writing might just as well have been communicated by Native American smoke signals.  This was brought home to me by reading Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah, which deals in mesmerizing detail with writing that was painstakingly etched on clay tablets and consequently has endured for as much as five millennia.

In the past few days I have been re-reading several of the multi-part tutorials that I posted on this blog several years ago.  Despite having been written and posted seriatim, they were the crystallization of many years of reading, thinking, and teaching – intended to endure, not, like Mission Impossible assignments, to self-destruct after fifteen seconds.  I will say, without a hint of false modesty, that they stand up quite well upon re-reading.  They are all stored on, and have evidently been looked at by at least some people [the essay most often consulted is The Thought of Karl Marx, which I confess pleases me.]

It would be a violation of the implicit norms of the medium for me to re-post them – rather like an anxious Assistant Professor publishing the same journal article twice in a desperate effort to pad a tenure file.  So I will simply invite my readers to follow the link at the top of the page to and take a look.  Think of yourself as browsing in a second-hand bookstore.

Monday, July 21, 2014


Having nothing better to do, I took a look at the Spam file attached to this blog and discovered some extremely interesting posts and back and forth.   I have not a clue why they got put into a spam file.  Does anyone know how to turn the damn spam filter off?  I would rather have a little bit of spam than lose these interesting comments.


During my morning walk, I noticed that ODEON and VENDOME and TROCADERO and BASTILLE had bullied their way back to the head of the line-up of Batobuses along the Seine, shoving Yves Montand and Jean Gabin to the rear again, so I guess the cultural upheaval has not materialized.


The funniest of the many writings of Karl Marx is The Holy Family, the boisterous attack on the so-called Young Hegelians by Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels.  My favorite passage is Marx’s faux serious discussion of The Absolute Fruit, his hilarious send-up of Hegelian metaphysics, but the book actually begins with a lengthy anatomization of Les Mystères de Paris, Eugène Sue’s interminable romantic novel.  [Back in the day when I was plowing through as much Marx as I could manage, I actually bought a three-volume edition of Sue’s novel, but it sits, chastely untouched, on my shelves in Chapel Hill.]

Susie and I have our own mystère de Paris, and yesterday evening we got a clue as to its solution.  Our little 330 square foot pied-a-terre is on the ground floor of a copropriété, the French version of a condominium association.  The entrance is a pair of grand French doors off an interior 17th century courtyard, but the one window looks out on rue Maître Albert.  Directly across the street is a little shop, and when we fold back the shutters and open the window, we are looking directly into it.  Over the ten years that we have owned the apartment, the shop has undergone transformations.  First it was a real estate office, then a general handyman shop offering plumbing, carpentry, electricity, and twenty-four hour locksmith service if you locked yourself out of your apartment.  Last year, two gay men opened a very upscale boutique called “Hug and You” that featured seven hundred dollar scarves, thousand dollar jeans [made to measure] and to-die-for two thousand dollar purses.  We have struck up a neighborly friendship with the proprietors, who spend hours out on the street gossiping with friends who come by in a seemingly endless stream.  The two of them live in the apartment just above the shop and have a large cat, whom Susie talks to when it pokes its head out of the window.

We have now spent eight weeks in our apartment during the lifetime of Hug and You, and we have not seen a single solitary person actually buy anything in the shop.  Lots of people walking by have paused to look at the mannequins in the window.  A few have even stepped inside to look around.  But no one, to our knowledge, has ever left carrying a Hug and You shopping bag.

So, our own personal mystère de Paris is this:  How on earth do these two nice men make any money?

Last night we got a clue.  We had walked across the street to have dinner at the pizza place just to the left of Hug and You, and since we were early and the restaurant was empty, the patron wandered over to our table to say hello.  [He knows that we live across the street.]  I leaned forward and said to him softly that the shop next door did not seem to have any customers.  He nodded knowingly and said, “Internet.”

Sure enough, when I Googled it, up came an attractive website with graphics and a video featuring the two proprietors.  So maybe they are making out like gangbusters online, and the shop is just for show.  I certainly hope so.  Susie and I are pulling for them to make a go of it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


I have now finished reading The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel, who is described on the dust jacket as “Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages, and cultures at the British Museum.”  It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read.  Now, this means less than might at first appear, since, as I have often observed here, I read slowly and not a great deal.  But I have been at it, reading slowly, for the best part of eighty years, and in that time I have managed at my snail’s pace to plow through a considerable number of books.

It would be tedious and impractical for me to do what I would most like to do, which is simply to quote endless passages from Finkel and leave it to you to form your own opinion.  So in this post, I shall try to explain what has impressed me so powerfully about the book, aside from its sprightly style and Finkel’s delightful personality, which are on display on every page.  I urge you strongly to buy a copy and dig into it yourselves.

The oldest civilization known to us today arose in the fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers [hence Meso-potamia] in what is, at least for the moment, Iraq.  Somewhere between five thousand and five thousand four hundred years ago, in that area, writing was invented – for the very first time, so far as anyone today knows  [although there is some argument to the effect that Egyptian hieroglyphics were invented in the same time period, possibly under the influence of cuneiform writing.]  The physical technique used at that time, more than five millennia ago, was to inscribe series of straight wedges in clay tablets with little sticks.  This system of writing is called “cuneiform,” from the Latin “cuneus” for “wedge.” The tablets, which for the most part were small enough to be held in one’s hand, rather like a PDA or large cellphone, were frequently inscribed with writing on both sides.  Some were fired in an oven to harden, others were simply allowed to dry in the sun to an acceptable hardness.  The invention of writing appears to have been spurred by the practical necessity of recording mercantile transactions and keeping track of supplies or promulgating state regulations, but as time went on, the tablets came to be used for personal letters, for literary works, for school exercises, for recording myths and legends, spells and incantations, and for every other purpose to which writing has been put ever since.


Let me say that again, because it is the single most astonishing fact I learned from Finkel’s book:


For sixty percent of all the time that human beings have been writing, some of them at least were making wedges in clay tablets with styli.  Clay tablets are quite durable, and at last 150,000 of them have been recovered from archeological digs here and there, many of course in damaged or fragmentary condition.

Finkel’s book is about a newly surfaced tablet that records a part of a version of an old and well-established story about a great flood and a boat built at the direction of a god to save a remnant of human and animal life from extinction.  [By the way, in the earliest version of the myth, the gods decide to wipe out human beings because they are too noisy!  Don’t you love it?]

Scholars have long known of a number of such myths, clearly much more ancient than the biblical story of Noah and serving as the sources for the Noah story.  Finkel’s excitement, which he communicates charmingly, derives from the fact that the phrase “the animals entered two by two,” long thought to have been a biblical innovation, appears on this Ark Tablet,” as he calls it, and – even more exciting – from the clear evidence that the ark commanded to be built by a god was an enormous coracle – which is to say, a perfectly circular boat made like a basket from a long, coiled rope sewn together and buttressed with ribs of wood.  These coracles were used by the ancient Mesopotamians and continued to be used right up to the point, not many years ago, when Saddam Hussein, for political reasons, drained the marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates and thereby destroyed what is arguably the oldest continuous material culture known to man.

Like many humanist intellectuals, my picture of civilization and culture is powerfully shaped by the combined Graeco-Roman-Biblical tradition, whose recorded origins do not reach as far back as the beginning of the first millennium B. C.  The effect of Finkel’s book on me has been to provide a major corrective to that mental image.

Take a look at The Ark Before Noah.  I think it may have the same effect on you.