Friday, December 3, 2010

Poem to accompany a poorly-written paper in a Chinese literature class


Sunday, October 31, 2010

To Infinity-- and Beyond! (Ibimus illâc.)

This year's halloween costume is (if I say so myself) a marvel of engineering:


Dixit et ignotas animum dimittit in artes....
---- Postquam manus ultima coeptis
Posita est; geminas opifex libravit in alas
Ipse suum corpus.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Two Poems

During today's Chinese literature class, the classroom was overheated as usual (it's a terribly designed room, with no ventilation and a lot of south-facing windows). I'd had a very long morning, and I found it impossible to concentrate. In the margin of my notes I jotted down the following verses. They're modeled after the Chinese formal verse called 絕句, but the tones are all in the wrong places.




Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Parable about Signs

Quaeritur de Lazaro et Divite:
If miracles and resurrections are a crutch for the faithless, why did Jesus need to be publicly resurrected at all? [...] Why should the people who had rejected Jesus's teachings when they heard them get the encouragement that the rich man was refused? Why should Paul get a personal appearance from Jesus on the road to Damascus, when his colleagues were allowed to go on persecuting the Christians?


The Resurrection of Christ, at least, is not a counterexample to the parable. The Resurrection is not merely a sign that Christ has conquered death, but the very fact of that victory. It's not as if Christ's resurrection validates his message, and encourages us to take him seriously (though this is true to a certain extent); rather, the Paschal drama is itself the reason for the Incarnation, and the Resurrection is an integral part of that.

This is not the case with the resurrection of Lazarus (and with other miracles). One traditional understanding of Christ's miracles, however, sees them not as prodigies performed to compel unbelievers into belief, but as symbols that reveal something about the nature of what we believe in. It's worth noting that almost all Christ's miracles are performed for people who already believe; in fact he refuses to perform any miracle when a sign is demanded of him.

In point of fact, I don't really think that too many people are convinced by miracles. The miracle of the sun at Fatima was witnessed and testified to by all manner of atheists, but they generally managed to find some explanation for it that didn't require the intervention of the Mother of God. For all we know, there were a hundred Sauls of Tarsus who were struck temporarily blind on the road to Damascus, and only one who resisted the temptation to write it off as heatstroke or attribute it to those sketchy-looking kebabs they'd eaten along the way.

This is what Christ means when he says that signs will not convince those for whom the law and the prophets are not enough. And on that note, I will tell a parable (it's been presented as history, but I'm not sure whether I believe the source):

Émile Zola, in an anticlericalist mood, decided to make a trip to Lourdes, to record, in his characteristically realist style, what was to be observed there, and to assemble it into a critique of French Catholicism.
Lourdes provided him with plenty of ammunition for that, and he reveled in the place. There were the innumerable shops and booths selling kitschy religious images and dubious relics; the hucksterism of the preachers; the multitudes of sufferers preferring, in their ignorance, magical water to modern medicine; and the waters themselves: frigid, brackish, and contaminated with the pus and blood of a million pilgrims.
There was more than enough in the grottoes of Lourdes to satisfy Zola's taste for grotesquery. And in the interest of narrative drama he sought out the most pitiable case he could find. There was a woman afflicted with lupus; her face -- on the few occasions she raised her veil -- was a nightmare of running sores and swollen flesh, and she had come to Lourdes out of desperate hope that the Virgin might cure what her doctors could not.
Zola pointed at her the triumphant finger of doubt: "I will believe," he pronounced to the pious doctors in attendance, "when this woman is made beautiful."
And of course it came to pass that when the poor woman took to the waters, her disease began to show signs of improvement, and she grew healthier with each day. The pious doctors could find no medical explanation for this cure, and they brought the woman to Zola, pointing the triumphant finger of faith: "M. Zola," they said, "you who would test God: behold! she is cured."
And they showed her to him: her sores had ceased to run, new skin had begun to grow over her lesions, and the swelling in her face had subsided enough that one might see her smile.
But Émile Zola averted his eyes, and said only: "She is still too ugly."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mountains beyond Mountains

Because my musical tastes are (in their way) completely predictable, it was inevitable that I should sooner or later download this song from the new album by Arcade Fire:

It's not a bad song. And I've got to hand it to Arcade Fire; they really know how to push my buttons. I couldn't say what any of their songs really mean, or whether they really mean anything, but I've got a persistent suspicion that they represent cultural and even theological criticism of the sort I'm inclined to hear most happily. And I can't say that about just any band.

Another example: the same album includes a song called "Rococo" (already enough to win over anyone who's spent a few minutes in the vicinity of Karsten Harries or Margaret Blume) which is -- wait for it -- an attack on hipsters.

But I only brought them up because a line from the song embedded above -- "mountains beyond mountains" -- seemed to remind me of something, when I first heard it. And once I'd allowed a little time for the mists of memory to clear, there it was. A restaurant I ate at several years ago in Hangzhou, called the 山外山菜馆,the "Mountains Beyond Mountains Restaurant."

I recall that when I ate there, someone mentioned that the name of the restaurant was taken from a line of a classical poem. And after a brief search through the world's largest repository of Chinese texts, I found it. It's from a poem "Written at an inn at Lin'an" by Lin Sheng, a minor poet of the Song Dynasty (Lin'an is an ancient name for the city of Hangzhou).
West Lake, outside Hangzhou


Which may be loosely translated as:

Beyond mountains, mountains; beyond towers, towers.
At West Lake the dancing can go on for hours.
The guests are made drunk by the warm summer wind--
     And it's here that you'll find the imperial powers.

(I've taken liberties with the last line; literally, it means "They're treating Hangzhou just as if it were Bianzhou." Bianzhou means Kaifeng, the ancient capital of the Song; Hangzhou was a sort of Paris of China, a city famous for the perfection of its culture and the decadence of its morals, and in Lin Sheng's time the imperial court had for a long time demonstrated a preference for the pleasures of Hangzhou over their official duties.)

Though it may not be immediately apparent to one reading this poem outside of its proper historical milieu, it was intended as a withering critique of the decadence of the Song court.

Which bears comment, because the song by Arcade Fire is intended, as far as I can tell, as a critique of our own decadence: "dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains."

Is there any connection here? Beyond a coincidence of language, almost certainly not. But there's no doubt that the phrase has now, for me, acquired a special significance, and that when I next drive down the turnpike near Port Elizabeth, and pass the great hulks of the refineries, glorious with safety lamps, and am as suffused with the scent of gasoline as the revelers of Hangzhou were with that of the summer breeze, and remark to myself how strange it is that something so destructive, that represents the so-dubious spirit of the automobile, should be so beautiful, I will very likely think: "mountains beyond mountains."

Such are the pleasures of overeclectic overeducation. But this meaning of the line allows me to enjoy that song far more than (I suspect) its authors intended; which, to add another needless allusion, is further evidence of the merits of the literary criticism of Tlön.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A translation from the Mencius (《孟子 · 盡心下》)

I’m bored tonight, so why not translate something?

Wan Zhang asked, “When Confucius was in Chen, he said, ‘Why should I not return! The scholars of my hometown are ambitious and simplistic, for they cannot forget their old ways.’ When Confucius was in Chen, why did he think of the ambitious scholars of Lu?”

Mencius said, “Confucius ‘could not find and be with those who had attained the Middle Way, so it was necessary to seek out the ambitious and the narrow-minded. The ambitious rush out to seize it; while there is that which the narrow-minded will not do.’ Did Confucius not want to find those who had attained the Middle Way? He could not be certain of finding them, and so he thought of their inferiors.”

“May I ask what sort of man is called ambitious?”

Mencius answered, “Men like Qin Zhang, Zeng Xi, and Du Pi were those whom Confucius called ambitious.”

“Why did he call them ambitious?”

Mencius answered, “Their aim was to be grandiloquent; they said, ‘The men of old! The men of old!’ But if one considers their behavior, it did not match their words.

“And when Confucius could not find even the ambitious, he wished to find and be with scholars who would have nothing to do with the impure. These are the narrow-minded, and they are again inferior. Confucius said, ‘When they pass my door but do not enter my house, I do not regret it. They are only the village worthies. The village worthies are the thieves of virtue.’”

Wan Zhang asked, “Why did he call them village worthies?”

Mencius said, “[They are those who say] ‘Why all this grandiloquence? Their words do not accord with their actions; their actions do not accord with their words, and they say, “The men of old! The men of old!” Why is their behavior so cold and distant? We live in this age, let us act according to this age. It is enough to be a good person.’ Eunuch-like, they flatter their age. These are the village worthies.”

Wan Zhang said, “The whole village calls them honest men, and wherever they go, they act worthily. Why is it that Confucius saw them as thieves of virtue?”

Mencius replied, “If you would condemn them, there is nothing you could point out; if you would criticize them, you could find nothing to criticize. They go along with the prevailing customs; they are suited to a polluted age. Their habits seem to be loyal and honest; their behavior seems to be upright and pure. The masses all delight in them; and they themselves think they are correct. But one cannot enter with them into the way of Yao and Shun. Therefore are they called the thieves of virtue.

“Confucius said, ‘I hate that which appears to be, but is not. I hate the tares, for they may be confused for wheat. I hate smooth talk, for it may be confused for righteousness. I hate eloquence, for it may be confused for honesty. I hate the tones of Zheng, for they may be confused for music. I hate purple, for it may be confused for red. I hate the village worthies, for they may be confused for virtuous men. The Superior Man seeks only to restore the standard. When the standard is correct, then the common people will be inspired [to virtue]. When the common people are inspired, then public evil and private vice will be no more. ’”

Friday, October 30, 2009

"Mark but this Flea..."

Hey, it's University policy!

An email was just sent out by Yale's Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education Center letting us know that the university is looking out for us on Halloween:
"It is our wish to ... strengthen the resolve of those who are dedicated to finding just the right words that would lead to glorious, consensual sex."
But if they really wanted to strengthen our resolve, they would show us how a real man goes about it: